Tales From The SW6 Derby

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 3 February 2023.

There was an air of anticipation bordering on excitement – but only just, I am fifty-seven after all – as we made our way up to London for the SW6 derby at Stamford Bridge. Who on Earth could have possibly forecasted such a big transfer spend-up during the winter transfer window? Certainly not me. The events of the previous few weeks had left many, including myself, in a whirl. We had already seen a few debuts in January but there would soon be more ahead. Players – the majority of whom were new names to me – were joining Chelsea Football Club at a rate of knots not seen since the transfer flurry in 2003 when we plundered the market for Glen Johnson, Adrian Mutu, Damian Duff, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Geremi, Wayne Bridge and Claude Makelele.

I had heard of all of them.

The signings of 2003, twenty-years on, were a different ball game.

Did it all make sense? Again, who knows? It may take a while, and the test of time, to evaluate if the massive financial outlay on players will have been a success.

Into the future we go.

But first, let’s take a look back at two games that are on the schedule for revisiting from forty years ago.

Saturday 22 January 1983 : Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 Chelsea 1 – 19,533

After the surprising 6-0 win against Cambridge United at Stamford Bridge, a week later we were on our travels. We were up against promotion hopefuls Wolves at Molyneux. This game drew a very healthy 19,533, although not as many as the recent 22,567 for the visit of Leeds United to the Black Country. These were decent gates for the time; excellent, in fact, for the Second Division and actually pretty decent when compared to First Division attendances that season. On the same day that we visited Wolves, just 9,946 saw Coventry City play Swansea City and 9,718 saw Notts County entertain Arsenal in the top flight.

Wolves’ famous old stadium was in a state of flux in those days. A massive ground redevelopment had stalled and it meant that, due to the eventual planned movement of the pitch, the one completed stand stood around fifty yards away from the nearest touchline. The huge South Bank still stood, as did the cranked main stand and the covered enclosure at the north side, and it looked altogether ridiculous. Molyneux was eventually completed in around 1993. In 2023, the once distant stand is the only structure remaining, and in fact the north enclosure has been replaced not once but twice.

I am sure that I wasn’t expecting the goal rush of the previous weekend to continue and Chelsea didn’t let me down, losing 1-2 with Colin Pates the lone scorer. That evening, I moped around Frome with some school friends, from an eighteenth birthday party to a variety of local hostelries. I suspect that the trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club was not high on my list of conversation topics.

On the same day, Derby County drew 3-3 at the Baseball Ground against Leeds United in front of 17,005. The main story of that game, though, involved the hooligan element of the travelling support who detached many of the seats in the away stand, the Osmaston Stand, and launched them at anyone within range. Why do I mention this? On the following Saturday, Chelsea were to play at the Baseball Ground in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

The song lyrics “anything you can do, I can do better” were surely ringing in the ears of Chelsea’s support on the way home from Molyneux that evening.

Saturday 29 January 1983 : Derby County 2 Chelsea 1 – 23,383

I had high hopes for this cup tie. I was absolutely sure that we would ease past Derby County, who were not enjoying a great season themselves, and we would then then be handed a plumb home draw in the next round. For some days, I was convinced we’d get Manchester United, the team supported by Rachel, the girl that had briefly appeared in my life before Christmas and who was still the object of my unrequited affections. From forty years on, this seems all rather pathetic and I suppose it was. But at the time communication between the two of us was minimal at best – I was an expert of furtive glances and occasional smiles, which I am pleased to report were always reciprocated when we passed each other – but a Chelsea vs. Manchester United cup tie would have definitely, I was sure, got us talking.

The lure of the FA Cup managed to entice large numbers to the Baseball Ground on this Saturday forty years ago and this was typical of the era. Derby’s league average for the whole season would eventually be 13,601 – there were only 8,075 present for our visit in the September – yet this tie drew almost 10,000 more. These were big numbers. Of the 23,383 present – I was not there – it is highly likely that Chelsea would have taken over 6,000.

The Baseball Ground, cramped twixt terraced streets, factories and industrial units, was a classic football stadium, famous for its ridiculously muddy pitches and tight stands. There were double-deck structures at each end, and the stands did not run parallel to the pitch.

Sadly, Kevin Wilson gave the home team a 1-0 lead in the first-half, but Mike Fillery equalised with twelve minutes to go. Alas, Wilson – who would sign for Chelsea in 1987 – grabbed a very late winner. And, yes dear reader, a sub-section of the Chelsea support dutifully copied their Leeds counterparts the previous week by lobbing seats everywhere, even on top of fellow Chelsea supporters on the terrace below if I am not mistaken.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There is no doubt, no doubt at all, that in 1982/83 Chelsea Football Club was more famous, or infamous, for its hooligan support than its football. This was an altogether strange thing for me to have to handle, especially being so distant from the club geographically, and so distant from the heartbeat of the club, and fellow fans. It was a lonely existence to be honest. There was, of course, in the warped logic of a school playground or sixth-form common room, some sort of badge-of-honour kudos in Chelsea’s reputation, but at the same time I longed for us to get back into the top flight again.

1982/83 was turning into a desperate campaign, a nightmare in fact.

Oh, and guess what? I was to learn on the following Monday that Derby would play Manchester United at home in the fifth round.

Fackinell.

Let’s hop forward forty-years. I was up at the stadium just before 5pm. There was a little time to kill, so I took a few photos underneath the old Shed Wall, which can be one of Stamford Bridge’s most photogenic areas. I found myself by the repositioned photo of Gianluca Vialli, and touched his left boot for luck and in memory of the great man.

I had already seen on various social media platforms that Chelsea would be celebrating the Chinese New Year for the game against Fuham and I had to wonder why. The players would be – wait for it – wearing special pre-game training tops honouring the year of the rabbit, and as I walked around outside a couple of stands, red Chinese lanterns were regularly positioned. It was all very odd and rather pathetic.

Why were we honouring the Chinese New Year? Is it now a big thing among sports clubs the world over? I must have missed that memo. Let’s just thank our stars that American Independence Day is in the summer. What about South Korea? What about Venezuela? What about Rwanda? Will they get their moments too? I know we are a global brand – ugh – now, blah, blah, blah, but it left me cold. I wondered if we will soon be honouring other important dates in the calendar. What about the onset of Lent for starters and, specifically, Pancake Day?

Yes, Pancake Day. I had an idea. Chelsea should market supporters’ shirts for our next home game against Southampton with the words “I’m with this tosser” on the front. Someone contact the marketing department pronto.

As I left the West Stand forecourt, a Chelsea steward was going into a frenzy, yelling out “bag search on the table, bag search on the table” as if his life depended on it. I looked back one last time and saw a mass of hi-viz tabard-wearing stewards standing in a regulated formation – maybe a 7/5/3 with pushed-on wing-backs – and I wondered if our team against Fulham might be sporting a similarly over-loaded formation to get everyone a game.

I walked down the Fulham Road towards the CFCUK stall. Mark Worrall had put aside a book for me – “Come Along And Sing this Song” – which is an old-style football annual type book detailing 1983/84 (which I covered during the 2008/2009 season here) and looks a fine tome. I took a photo of the “Broadway Bar and Grill” – formerly the “King’s Head” and then “The Slug and Lettuce” – which, despite being a very handy pub at Chelsea, I have only ever entered a few times. There was a buzz that you don’t often get on match days. The signings had certainly energised the Chelsea support.

Pre-match was spent in “Simmon’s” with Parky, Andy and Sophie from Nuneaton, but also some friends from California; Tim and Hooman, who I had met on a number of occasions before. A surprise guest was BJ from Dallas who I last bumped into over in Michigan in 2016. It was a joy to see him again. He was with Emily, originally from Missouri but now living in Dallas too. We had a decent natter. It was her first visit to Stamford Bridge. She received the usual “if we lose, you’re not coming back” welcome from me. There was talk of the upcoming trip to Dortmund – not long to go now – but I also mentioned the home tie. I had recoiled in horror when I recently read that West Upper tickets for that game are on sale for £240.

Yes, that’s correct, £240.

What was that about the normal working man being priced out of football? At this rate, even the well-off are being priced out.

“A family day out at the football? That’ll be a thousand pounds please, thanks, enjoy your pizza.”

We checked the team on Sophie’s ‘phone.

“Ziyech playing? What? The fucker was meant to be in Paris, sipping champagne and smoking Gitanes tonight.”

I immediately wondered why Enzo Fernandez was not playing. But I then spotted, with some relief, that his name was given as simply “Enzo.”

He was to take Jorginho’s number five shirt.

It was great to see Reece James back.

“Hopefully not too soon though, eh?”

Andy was excited about the game. And although I was too – something I thought I’d not be saying a few weeks back, maybe after Forest –  I couldn’t help but say that, knowing Chelsea, it would be a 0-0 draw, “another false dawn.”

Andy gave me a very old-fashioned look before we then dived headlong into a chat into our shared Chelsea past and memories of Bolton 2005, Munich 2012 and Porto 2021.

I was in early. I had a quick chat with Oxford Frank – “not sure about the morals of all this, but I guess it’s not our money…well, it will be our money when our season tickets undoubtedly go up next season” – and a young lad behind me from Ukraine, draped in a yellow and blue flag, bless him.

The troops arrived. The ground slowly filled.

There was a montage of Dave on the front cover of the programme having recently totted-up his five-hundredth game for our beloved club. I checked the spelling of a couple of our new acquisitions then quickly forgot them. Noni Madueke was going to be a struggle for sure.  It annoys me that attendances are nowhere to be seen in this season’s match programme. They don’t always appear in newspapers. It is a pet peeve that seems to have developed since the COVID seasons. I don’t get it. It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea used to add away team’s numbers to all games too. Is it me being cynical in thinking that by not publicising attendances, the myth of all games being sell-outs continues unabated?

A little more history about the SW6 Derby.

This would be the forty-fifth Chelsea vs. Fulham game at Stamford Bridge in all competitions – League, FA Cup, League Cup, Anglo-Scottish Cup – since our first encounter in 1911. In the previous forty-four, Chelsea had suffered just two defeats. No wonder Fulham hate us so much. Of course, we are so ambivalent to them. So much so that they hate it.

Despite our close proximity, a little under two miles between the two stadia, there simply hasn’t been any notable tit-for-tat rivalry on the pitch. Our lack of matches against Fulham in our formative decades is the main reason. Of those previous forty-four games, only twenty-two took place from 1905 to 2001. If anything, the rivalry has only ratcheted up in recent years, with the other sixteen games having taken place since 2001.

Is this, then, a new rivalry, having been dormant for over a century?

Possibly.

It wasn’t so long ago that the quiet neighbours were a main stay in the Premier League. Fulham enjoyed thirteen straight seasons in the top flight from 2001/2002 to 2013/14. There was a time, with them floundering in the basement, that I wondered if Chelsea would ever enjoy a local league derby ever again. I can remember the joy of March 2002 – it seems odd to admit this now – when I saw a derby against Fulham for the first time in eighteen years…a decent game, a narrow 3-2 win, a good atmosphere.

The team? OK, here we go.

Kepa

James – Silva – Badiashile – Cucarella

Gallagher – Enzo

Ziyech – Mount – Mudryk

Havertz

It almost felt like a new beginning.

Back in December, during that shite break, the names Benoit Badiashile, Enzo Fernandez – I did not watch any of the World Cup remember – and Mychailo Mudryk existed in another world.

Certainly not in London SW6.

Pre-game, two crowd-surfing tributes to Reece James dominated the two ends. It was a nicely-timed “welcome back” to our much-admired right back. There was also an odd, awkward, moment when the PA asked us to remember Jorginho, now passing sideways at Arsenal. I have never known that before. I don’t remember the PA asking us to remember Gordon Durie after he fucked off in 1991.

How odd.

Anyway, Jorginho. He had his moments. I never warmed to him particularly and his style was difficult to get excited about, but he put in some decent performances over the five years. We’ll miss the hop, skip and jump at penalties, eh?

“The Number 5 is dead, long live the Number 5.”

The game began. It was a mild night and I took my jacket off and placed it on a spare seat. Another full house, or near it. The pitch, parts of it, looked ropey, with it looking close to cutting up.

Immediately, I became flummoxed at the sight of us attacking the Matthew Harding and it took me a while to adapt.

I whispered to Clive “some team that, now…”

My eyes were soon settling on Mydryk and Enzo.

I now have two Argentinian friends in Buenos Aires – hello Victor, hello Vanesa – and we had been chatting about our new World Cup winner during the immediate pre-match. I like it that Enzo once played under Hernan Crespo at Defensa y Justicia, one of the city’s legion of professional clubs, and he reminded me a little, facially, of Juan Roman Riquelme. I have developed a little love affair with Argentina of late, and we have had a trickle of Argentine players since the madness of 2003. Apart from Veron, Crespo and now Enzo, Wily Caballero and Gonzalo Higuain have recently played for us. I also recollect the fleeting presence of Franco di Santo who I once saw score a goal for us in Dallas, the home of Emily and BJ.

The number five seemed to be playing quite deep, but I hoped he had a licence to roam.

Vamos Enzo!

After the first ten minutes, I had to admit that Fulham had probably started the livelier of the two teams despite a little activity down our flanks. Mydryk looked lively at the start but he certainly had no wide open spaces to exploit, like at Anfield, and he soon started to fade.

I soon spotted Emily and BJ down in Parkyville.

On nineteen minutes, our first real chance, and a super lob over the back line from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, but his prod was stopped by Bernd Leno. The offside flag was raised anyway.

To Clive : “it’s actually nice to have an away team attacking us, rather than a side defending deep all the bloody time.”

Indeed, the away team were tight, putting us under pressure and attacking with intent. On twenty-four minutes, the unmarked Andreas Pereira spun and shot low at Kepa in the Shed End goal, but our ‘keeper responded so well to parry.

On the half-hour, at last we had some chances of our own, two in quick succession. Mudryk set up Havertz with a fine pass, but another offside. And then Mount set up Havertz came close again, but his first-time blast was wasteful, drawing groans as it flew high off his boot. On thirty-five minutes, there was a crunching tackle from Enzo in the centre-circle, and this was followed by a perfectly-weighted pass out to Hakim Ziyech, but his right-footed shot was blasted high and wide. That little cameo from the Argentine warmed me.

The atmosphere had been pretty rotten until now, with few songs and chants. Fulham had sounded like West Ham what with their demands for us to stick our blue flag up our collective arses. At last the home crowd responded with a loud-ish “Chelsea, Chelsea” a la “Amazing Grace.”

There was a quick break from the visitors and with bodies in the box, they really ought to have scored; a long cross towards Willian was headed back but Kepa gathered.

In the final minute of the half, Benoit Badiashile – enjoying a good performance – brilliantly intercepted a pass and set up an attack. At last a perfectly-flighted ball from the foot of Ziyech found Havertz, but his studied touch saw the ball sadly strike the post. There was nobody close to touch in the rebound.

Clive : “Mount stood and watched. Lampard would have been racing in.”

It hadn’t been a great performance. There seemed to be a positive reaction to our showing at Anfield, but this one was drawing groans as the match developed. I don’t always do it, but I sent out half-time ratings in a WhatsApp group.

Kepa 7

James 5 – Silva 6 – Badiashile 7 – Cucarella 4

Gallagher 6 – Enzo 7

Ziyech 4 – Mount 5 – Mudryk 4

Havertz 5

At the start of the second-half, another debut ensued as Graham Potter sent on Noni Madueke to replace Mudryk on the left wing. His initial involvement was thrilling, with a great show of speed and a willingness to race away and dribble in any direction, like a footballing Forrest Gump.

To Clive : “maybe this will be it for the next few games, every second-half we get to see a new rapid winger thrilling us all.”

There was a cross from a relatively quiet James but Leno was able to claim the ball before Maduenke could pounce.

On the hour, Willian rolled back the years with a super direct run into our box down below us, but his effort was blazed over.

Clive : “man of the match so far.”

There was a horrible tackle on Peireira on Cucarella, but no red card after a VAR review.

Two more substitutions followed.

Dave for Reece.

Raheem Sterling for Ziyech.

Madueke was now able to run amok on the right wing.

To Clive : “to be honest, I think we are worse this half.”

There was a stupid foul that lead to a booking for Gallagher, then another fleet-footed run by Willian but a thankfully weak shot straight at Kepa. Those half-time ratings were dropping to fours and fives with only Enzo and Badiashile maintaining a decent level, although Sterling started decently.

On sixty-nine minutes, an optimistic lob from the half-way line from Aleksandar Mitrovic resulted in Kepa back-peddling but we were grateful that he stopped the ball high on the line.

We improved a little, with Enzo going close with a fine curling drive that flew past a post.

On seventy-five minutes, David Fofana substituted the very disappointing Mount, who was now sporting a haircut that must have been based on a certain Butt-Head from around 1994. I wondered if Dennis Bergkamp was available for a routine alongside him…

”Arsenal. You said Arsenal.”

To Clive : “how has Havertz stayed on?”

A shot from Gallagher – that I caught on film – flew past the post.

More groans.

Willian was widely applauded when he was substituted on seventy-five minutes, a fine servant over recent years for us.

On seventy-eight minutes, Fofana broke in well from the right and, after some decent footwork as he rounded Leno, was perhaps unlucky to see his shot blocked on the line.

Fackinell.

My biggest moan of the night? On at least one occasion in the first-half and two in the second-half, Chelsea players, I remember Mount and Gallagher, failed to get their corners past the first man. How is that possible? Nothing infuriates me more.

To the bloke behind me : “all that sky to hit…for fuck sake.”

Late on, we were cheered to see Ben Chilwell make a cameo appearance for the under-fire Cucarella.

It stayed 0-0. In the bar before, I was only semi-serious, but I suppose I knew deep down. I have been going to Chelsea too long now.

There was rowdiness from the Fulham fans on the walk down the Fulham Road as we walked past the CFCUK stall, on towards the “Broadway Bar and Grill”, and one mouthy lad must have barked this out five times :

“All that fuckin’ money and you still couldn’t beat us.”

Things were heated between a few individuals and several police were seen rushing to quell a few flashpoints. A few obvious tourists looked on in horror.

I must admit that I was getting annoyed with them, these Fulham fans, probably for the first time ever.

After well over a century, perhaps that rivalry is beginning to heat up a little.

A little mob of Fulham fans trotted off down the Fulham Road – I suspect the majority of their fans live more locally than us – and it seemed strange to thank that, perhaps, a few would be able to get home within a few minutes. I wondered if many lived on the Clem Atlee.

I made a quick exit and was soon heading west down the M4. I would get home at around 1.15am, my weekend over before it would begin. There would be no Frome Town game for me to relish on the Saturday; they had played on this Friday night too, a home game with Bishop Cleeve from near Cheltenham. At least Frome won 2-0.

A disappointing performance from Chelsea? Yes.

But I like the look of Enzo, who I hope can develop into the goal-scoring play-maker that we have missed for what seems like an ice-age. I think he showed enough promise in his first game for us for me to pin some hopes on him. He looked neat in possession, with no Jorginho-style dawdling, and his range of passing can hopefully set our runners free. The pre-match optimism seemed to have deserted everyone in the stadium by the end of the game, so whereas a nice win would have set us all up for a tough, but winnable, game at West Ham next Saturday, we now go gingerly into the future.

Cue clichés about “trusting the process”, the “long haul” et-bloody-cetera. Is Potter the man to lead us? Ah, that’s the $64,000 question. Or the $640,000,000 question these days.

See you in East London next Saturday.

Tales From The Wrong Seat

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2023.

I think that I am going to enjoy writing this one.

Going into our match at Anfield, there was much gallows humour about this being a mid-table clash, a battle for ninth position, and that some fancied our chances because “they are bloody worse than we are”. It must surely be a while since Liverpool and Chelsea have occupied such lowly positions ahead of a league encounter.

There was a nice little bit of symmetry ahead of the game; our first match this season was at Goodison against Everton and the match at Anfield would be our twentieth. Therefore, both halves of the current campaign would commence on Merseyside.

I was up early. The alarm sounded at 4.30am and after de-frosting the car and picking up a couple of tinned coffees for the journey at a local garage, I collected PD and then Glenn at 6am, and Lord Parky bang on 6.30am as planned.

We were full of talk about the club for the first half-an-hour, with Glenn bemoaning many in the media, both social and unsocial, for calling our new buying policy “scattergun” and with me being foolish enough to admit the fact that I fancied a win later in the day.

We stopped at Strensham on the M5 for a quick breakfast between 7.40am and 8am, and I then made a bee-line for Merseyside. As I slowed down to a halt to wait for a green light to turn onto Queens Drive, we spotted “The Rocket” pub to our left; the very pub where hundreds of Scousers had been stranded ahead of the Champions League Final in Paris last May, the victims of a prank by playful Evertonians.

At this moment, amidst a little side-chat about the merits of managers Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter, and how fans have moaned about both, I summed things up as succinctly as I have ever done.

“Well, we’ve been going through a rebuild since Conte left. And since then, we have won the Europa League, the Champions League and are current World Champions. That’s not a bad rebuilding stage, is it?”

I was half-tempted to drive past the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock to check on its considerable progress since I visited the site in August, but we just wanted to get parked up and into Anfield. The five months that have elapsed since game one in August seemed like five minutes. I was parked up outside the away turnstiles at Goodison Park just after 10.30am; the price had increased from £10 in 2021 to £15 in 2023. Outside, the winter weather was biting hard. We headed off up the gentle slope to the top of Stanley Park with parts still touched by frost. The extension to the Anfield Road end, where we would be stationed, dominated my focus.

It was eleven o’clock. Just right. While I waited outside for a while to hand over a spare ticket, the others marched inside. Two Liverpool team buses appeared from my right and were then swallowed up by the huge shutter doors beneath the gigantic new stand. Mobile phones were held aloft by the hundreds of Liverpool fans. This must be a regular occurrence, part of the Anfield routine. But there was no real buzz about the place. Times must be hard at both ends of Stanley Park these days. Since my last visit, a mural of Ian Rush had been painted on the end wall of some terraced houses. There were voices and accents from everywhere.

The weather was tough. I have never seen so many North Face jackets and bobble-less hats.

I chatted to many fellow Chelsea fans.

“They are shite. They’re worse than us.”

“Yeah, I fancy us today, God knows why.”

Kim arrived and I handed her a ticket. At the security checks, I had the usual little panic that my camera would be shown the red card but the seemingly short-sighted security guard just frisked me without spotting the camera bag draped over my shoulder.

In.

I checked my ticket but soon spotted that I had mistakenly ended up with the ticket intended for Kim in row 20. Not to worry, Kim would be with Parky, John, Al and Gal down in row 7. Not a problem. There were only fifteen minutes to go so there was no time to waste. As I edged through the tight concourse, I was aware of a new song being enthusiastically chanted by the younger element.

…”said to me.”

I entered the familiar away end and my spot was in line with the touchline in front of the main stand, not as far jammed into the corner as I had feared. This was my twenty-sixth visit to Anfield, level-pegging with visits to Old Trafford; only five Chelsea wins at each venue, though. That pre-match hope for a win suddenly seemed unlikely.

There was rail-standing in the away quadrant now. Of all places, standing at Anfield. I never thought I would see it.

I once stood on the old Kop, though, and this was way different.

Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand took part in pitch-side interviews. Joey was serenaded. And so was Gerrard. As he walked past us – he must have dreaded that – he momentarily cupped his hands over his ears.

The usual pre-match ritual at Anfield.

Flags on poles, banners, huge crowd-surfing mosaics, the teams, mascots, the PA announcer with ridiculously low voice, The Kop waiting for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and scarves held aloft.

I remembered my first visit in April 1985 when a big pot of Crown Paint used to take pride of place on the centre spot.

Noticeably, I spotted the highest concentration of scarves in the lower corners of the main stand and the Centenary Stand – née Kemlyn Road – where those Rangers fans congregated in November 1985.

Our team?

I tried, again, to work it all out.

Kepa in goal.

A back four of Cucarella, Badiashile, Silva and Chalobah.

Lewis Hall was tucked into midfield, somewhere, maybe just alongside Jorginho.

A three of Mount on the left, Gallagher in the middle, Ziyech wide right.

Kai Havertz up top.

Liverpool’s team involved players such as Gakpo and Bajcetic, and these two were completely unfamiliar to me. They reminded me of the final hopeless selection of letters in a game of “Scrabble”

Here we were. At the football again. Waiting to see Chelsea again. Everyone together, the lucky ones, the lucky three-thousand. This meant that I was thankfully able to avoid the unappetising avalanche of buzzwords that the TV folk habitually, and without any self-awareness, foist on our poor ears.

“The press”, “transition”, “between the lines”, “little pockets”, “overload”, “high press”, “low block”, it goes on and on, like a relentless deluge of shite. On a recent “MOTD2” I am sure I heard Danny Murphy mention “overload” three times in ten seconds without the merest hint of irony.

Fuck adventures in TV Land.

We were at the football.

“Into them Chelsea.”

As the game kicked-off, no surprises us attacking The Kop, four spaces to my left were unfilled. Not long into the match, four young lads sidled in. Up in front of The Kop, my eyes straining in the mist, a corner came over from Conor Gallagher and in the resulting melee we gasped as the ball was thwacked against the left-hand post. A leg prodded the rebound home, the net gently rippling.

“GET IN.”

Now then dear reader, there have certainly been tough moments in my recent history when I have questioned my devotion to the cause, especially in the post-COVID era, and I have publicly shared my concerns about me losing the passion for football and maybe even Chelsea. So I am so pleased to report that at 12.33pm on Saturday 21 January in the Anfield Road Stand, there was no ambivalence nor doubt. I, like the thousands around me, was going fucking doolally.

My celebration of choice on this occasion was a Stuart Pearson fist pump, but a double one for good measure.

I turned to the lads to my left…”great timing.”

Alas, we then suffered that horrible delay that these days suggests that VAR was about to rear its ugly ahead once again.

When the goal was disallowed, Mr. Deep Voice on the PA mumbled something incomprehensible. There was no follow-up explanation on the screens. Unlike those in TV Land, I was left to ponder the mystery of why the goal was disallowed.

Modern football.

Unlike in our last visit in August 2021, there would be no Anfield goal for Kai Havertz this time.

Both teams started brightly enough, and Liverpool started to attack. I could hardly believe that James Fucking Milner was starting for them. Gakpo fired over. On a quarter of an hour, things were even.

We then hit a decent spell. There were a couple of lovely long bombs from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, one slightly over hit, another better, but a slip from Mount when free. Havertz then played in Hall, but his shot from an angle was wild. There was a lovely cushioned lay-off from Havertz, a lot more physical in this game, for Gallagher. This was good stuff, or at least, better than we had been used to.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Let’s sing that all season.

The home crowd was so quiet, easily the quietest that I had ever witnessed at Anfield. We were yet to hear the infamous “History” chant.

Two crosses from a reassuringly decent Ziyech caused a few concerns in the Liverpool box.

The new song was aired again and I spent a ridiculous amount of my time trying to work out the lyrics.

I liked the look of Benoit Badashile again, and even Marc Cucarella was impressing. The youngster Lewis Hall was having a tough game though. Silva was as imperious as ever. Gallagher was fantastic, charging balls down, running to close space, maybe not winning the ball, but forcing a mistake for others to gather the ball.

Liverpool did cut through us on a couple of occasions but their final passes, and shots, were poor.

Just before the half-time whistle, at last an audible chant from The Kop.

…”where we watched King Kenny play.”

Mo Salah took a touch when in previous years he might well have volleyed without much thought, and the ball curled high and wide.

Advantage Chelsea at the break? I think so.

At half-time, I noted empty seats in the afore-mentioned lower corners of the side stands, proof that these were hospitality areas in addition to the top tier of the Centenary and the middle tier of the main stand. Does this matter? It just shows how clubs are going after the extra-revenue these days. They’re going after day trippers, the tourists, the moneyed classes, the same old story.

Less and less seats for the average Joe. More and more for the average Johann, Jan, Jonty and Julian.

And although – I know from experience – many of English football’s overseas fans are wildly passionate about their teams, I shudder at the thought of a bigger and bigger percentage of ticket sales being aimed at the corporate sector. It used to be a game for the working classes. I can’t imagine what Bill Shankly would think of it all.

No wonder Anfield was quiet.

By the way, it made me chuckle that among the electronic messages that advertised hospitality packages on the perimeter of the pitch there was the stunning revelation that match day tickets were included. Thanks for clarifying that, Liverpool Football Club.

There were prolonged chants in honour of John Terry and it soon became known that our former captain was in the away section with us. I am guessing but I think he was maybe ten or fifteen yards away from me though I never saw him. I remember him at Burnley too.

I remembered a famous photo of Shanks in The Kop after he had left the club, unable to let go.

We began the second-half poorly, so poorly. The first two minutes seemed to take an eternity. There was an outrageous effort from Ibrahima Konate that was walloped from the half-way line towards Kepa at The Kop. Thankfully, it dropped just wide. There were a few more Liverpool attempts. This was desperate.

It was also still bloody freezing. It was bloody freezing in January 1983 too. There, that’s the 1982/83 reference taken care of.

On fifty-five minutes, Graham Potter replaced the struggling Lewis Hall with the Ukranian Mykhailo Mudryk, the undoubted subject of the new song, and from my vantage point I was able to capture him entering the field, his first touch, his first few dribbles and spins in the wide expanses of our left. In the end, my “wrong seat” had turned out to be a God send.

On the hour, Ziyech came in from his right wing position and drifted past player after player…each time the away end pleaded with him to shoot…and in the end his effort was typically high and wide.

Soon, Mudryk had us all purring, playing a “give-and-go” with Gallagher and spinning into the box, but we groaned as his effort only troubled the side netting. Soon after, Milner cruelly chopped him down. But Mudryk looked the business, he excited us all.

A rare Liverpool chance, but Kepa was able to thwart Gakpo’s goal-bound prod with a fine save.

We went on the attack again, and at times our play was a joy to behold. On seventy-one minutes, the best move of the match – full of quick passing – resulted in a Ziyech cross hitting the far post area but with nobody able to connect. A shot from Ziyech was blocked.

With ten minutes to go, more changes.

Dave for Trevoh.

Sadly, our defender had picked up a knock, such is life in the Chelsea trenches these days.

Carney for Mase.

Mount had been quiet for much of the game.

Pierre-Emerick for Kai.

I liked the effort from Havertz in this game. He was more involved than before. More up for the fight.

The away crowd were in fine form now. We had spotted a new desire in the team and we roared the team on with every sinew. Just the way it should be.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much we love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Fantastic stuff.

Dave, off the pace at times these days, was excellent in his cameo at the end of the game.

I was convinced that we would strike at the death but our chances sadly petered out. But this was a fine day out from us. It felt, whisper it, that a corner had been turned.

I wished that I had sussed out the new song though.

We walked back to the car amid a lovely exuberance. This was a special feeling.

I pulled out of the car park at 3pm and circumnavigated Goodison Park’s four stands and it honestly felt as though I might never be returning. Those blue stands have given me plenty of memories over the years. Out onto the Bullens Road, past the Dixie Dean statue, past the Winslow Hotel, thoughts of my father in the Second World War, past the player’s entrance – I remembered a recent ‘photo of Pele walking across the street in 1966 – past the Holy Trinity statue, past the Gwladys Street turnstiles and away.

It took me a whole hour to get past The Rocket and onto the M62.

Everton were to lose 2-0 at West Ham of all places.

”Frank’s gone, isn’t he?”

The four of us stopped off at “The Vine” – yet again – at West Bromwich at around 5.30pm where we each enjoyed glorious curries.

Lamb Rogan Josh, Chicken Balti, Lamb Madras, Chicken Jalfrezi.

There was a quick review from myself of our starting; “Conor Gallagher an eight, everyone else sevens apart from Mount a six and Hall a five.”

There was more chat about the match. We all admitted that we might have been getting a little carried away about our performance – ”after all, it was only Liverpool” – and we were sure that “MOTD” would dismiss it as a poor game, but for those of us of a Chelsea disposition, we definitely spotted a new belief, a more rounded performance, and better quality. We mused that the last five games against Liverpool had all consisted of draws. Well, more or less.

There was patchy fog all of the way back, but horrific clawing fog around Frome.

I eventually reached home at 9.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Tales From Two Wins

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 15 January 2023.

Leaving West London after the away game at Fulham on Thursday, I turned to PD and sighed as I said “at least we haven’t got to schlep all of the way up north for our next game, with it being an easy-to-reach home game against Palace.”

He agreed but then spoiled the mood a little as he mentioned a trip to Liverpool the week after.

We were undoubtedly going through a very tough spell. Not only had we been defeated in three consecutive games, there had also been the sad and traumatic passing of Gianluca Vialli the day after the first defeat. This was a short and difficult period in the history of Chelsea Football Club; eight days full of losses and loss. It was a horrible time.

As we headed towards Stamford Bridge we tried to be as positive as possible about the future, but I think we all knew that the day would be difficult. There would be undoubted sadness as the club paid its respects to our much-loved former Italian player and manager. This would be, I was sure, as emotional as previous similar days at Stamford Bridge when we remembered Matthew Harding in 1996, Peter Osgood in 2006 and Ray Wilkins in 2018.

The day began with a delay. Parky’s village was almost cut off from civilisation due to flooding on two roads but I was thankfully able to head off on a lengthy diversion to reach him. The rain was incessant in that first hour but thankfully the day brightened up and dried out.

We often talk about “must win games” but this one really was. Under-pressure Graham Potter’s charges really needed to triumph against Patrick Vieira’s team.

Was I confident? Only maybe.

Despite the delay at the start of the day, I was still able to drop PD and Parky on Fulham High Street just before 10am. I headed off to take a few photographs of the floral tributes and the mementoes left at the base of the large picture of Gianluca Vialli that had been moved from its usual position on the Shed Wall. This position is at the far left, position number one, and I have always like that. Many players have played more games and scored more goals for us, but very few have ever been as loved as Luca Vialli.

As I stopped by, my camera clicked a few times, but I then needed to stop all that and just be alone with my thoughts in silence. I adsmired the wreaths, the bouquets, the flowers. There were many Chelsea scarves and a few Italian flags. A woman approached and solemnly positioned a scarf on the floor. I noted a touching reference to the white vest that Dennis Wise aired after the 1997 FA Cup Semi-Final win against Wimbledon at Highbury imploring Luca to “cheer up” and this made me smile.

My eyes were moist in the biting winter air.

I met up with the usual suspects down at “The Eight Bells” at around 11am. There were the usual “Only Home Fans” signs back on the windows for this game.

Business as usual.

Unable and unwilling to share an alcoholic drink with PD, Parky, Rich and Matt, I took a leaf out of Andy and Kim’s book and got my kicks via a full English breakfast.

We left bang on 1pm, keen to witness all of the pre-match commemorations.

There were black and white photos of Luca on the way in. The match programme featured a lovely image of the man. Inside, many words were written about Luca.

I was in with half an hour to go before the 2pm kick-off and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” was played again. I spotted all of the Chelsea players – split into the starting eleven and the substitutes – wearing black tops with “Vialli 9” printed on the back, with the font used being the same as on the 1996/97 shirts, a nice touch indeed.

My mind wandered.

During the last few years of my mother’s life, as she battled dementia with a cheery smile, I got into the very enjoyable habit of attempting to stimulate her mind by using a Chelsea-based word association game :

I would say a first name, my mother would add a surname.

“Ron”…”Harris.”

“Peter”…”Osgood.”

“Pat”…”Nevin.”

“Frank”…”Lampard.”

“Gianluca”…””Vialli.”

“Gianfranco”…”Zolo” (always Zolo, God that made me chuckle.)

I had a wistful smile to myself. Mum never got Luca’s name wrong.

We had been advised to be in for 1.40pm when some former team mates would honour Gianluca Vialli. Well, that time passed with no on-field ceremony and I wondered if it had all happened earlier.

Some chap appeared on the pitch with a microphone and he spoke briefly about Gianluca Vialli, and then asked us to – ugh – “make some noise!!!” (with exclamation marks no doubt!!!) and the Matthew Harding quickly responded.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

But then, what a mood killer, the PA blasted this into oblivion with “Park Life” by Blur. This was then followed by “Liquidator” and I grumbled away to myself. On a day of remembrance, it would have been lovely to have some silence ahead of the appearance of the teams with the supporters themselves being left to their own way of getting an atmosphere going.

Modern football, eh?

The teams appeared. We were shown a short video of Gianluca Vialli, with a nice voiceover.

“From the day you stepped through the door you set the standard at this club and captured our hearts.”

Goals and games were recounted, two goals against Liverpool in the Cup, one at Old Trafford, four goals at Barnsley, two goals at Tromso. The trophies came.

“Dreams came true under your management and you achieved your dream of becoming a Chelsea legend.”

Those incredible European nights were remembered.

“But above all Luca, you were a wonderful man. Charming, respectful, determined. You had a heart of gold that touched so many. Now our hearts are broken, but how lucky we were to have known you. Luca, we love you and we miss you.”

My eyes were moist again.

I wondered if Luca ever spotted my “Vinci Per Noi” banner that I took to many games from the summer of 1996 as our club became besotted with Italian footballers.

The Chelsea and Crystal Palace players made their way to the centre circle, solemnly followed by some former Chelsea players, of whom only Mark Hughes and David Lee did I immediately recognise.

Two large banners appeared at both ends of the stadium. The Chelsea players were each wearing “Vialli 9” training tops. A minute of applause was heartfelt, loud and respectful.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

It was suddenly time to think about football. I had missed the team announcements so as the game started I pieced it all together.

“Kepa in goal, looks like a three of the new boy Badiashile, Silva and Cholobah, Hall way out left, Ziyech way out right, a midfield pairing of the immobile Jorginho and the very mobile Gallagher, Mount and Carney supporting Havertz…no wait, Ziyech is too far forward, must be a back four then. No, they are too wide. Let’s see how it plays out.”

There were clear blue skies overhead.

Alas no Alan nor Clive with us today so PD and I stretched out.

The game began.

8 minutes – a subdued atmosphere. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the inherent sadness before the game, the nervousness about our recent play or the fact it was an early kick-off.

9 minutes – there was a rather half-hearted “Vialli” chant that really only got going in earnest thirty seconds into the all-important ninth minute. It dawned on me that Luca last played for us almost twenty-five years ago and I wondered if this was the reason. Are those that loved him in his prime now priced out of attending Stamford Bridge? Or was it indifference? I didn’t want to contemplate all of this.

12  minutes – some decent stuff from Lewis Hall in an advanced role on the left, with a keen readiness to power past his defender.

14 minutes – we enjoyed a decent little spell with Hakim Ziyech showing a willingness to get involved and shimmy down the right wing.

17 minutes – complete silence. The moment lasted for quite a few seconds. It shocked me. No shouts from the crowd. Nothing.

18 minutes – no goal threats at all thus far with Chelsea enjoying more of the ball, but then Palace went close at the far post.

19 minutes – a fine shot from Michael Olise was superbly saved by Kepa and then a “star jump” from Kepa foiled Tyrick Mitchell.

22 minutes – at last an audible “Carefree” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

24 minutes – a bout of head tennis in the Palace penalty area was followed by a strong swipe at goal by Thiago Silva but not only did his shot go wide, an offside flag was raised too.

27 minutes – a well-worked foray down our right brought purrs from the crowd but Mason Mount shot weakly at Vicente Guaita.

30 minutes – we had dominated the game but the visitors had easily had the best few chances.

31 minutes – so quiet.

32 minutes – a great deep cross from Ziyech, but Kai Havertz’ slow looper dropped just over the bar.

39 minutes – another good advance from Conor Gallagher, the ball ending up with a shot from Hall that flew just wide.

45 minutes – Kepa was called into action to tip a strong header from Jeffrey Schlupp over the bar, and we then broke and had a couple of late chances on the Palace goal that sadly misfired.

Thankfully there were no boos at half-time and there was even a little applause. I turned to PD and mused on the game thus far…

“We’re playing well, the mood among the fans around us seems to be reasonable, but is that because our expectations are really at not a very high level? You have to say, all our players today, they’re doing alright but are any of them more than a…”

I paused briefly, wanting to say 6, I thought briefly of saying 7, but I went with my gut reaction and said…

“6” just as PD said “6” too.

At the break, new signing Mykhailo Mudryk appeared on the pitch, draped in a Ukraine flag.

“All these runners, we just need a playmaker to hit them” I moaned for the ninety-fifth time since Christmas.

The second-half began.

53 minutes – there was a fine shimmy under pressure and cushioned lay-off from Badiashile that reminded me so much of Frank Leboeuf in his prime. The debutant was impressing me.

55 minutes – a fine punch away by that man Kepa from Wilfred Zaha. That was four great saves at least.

56 minutes – a shot down below us from Havertz but it did not worry the Palace ‘keeper.

58 minutes – the loudest “Vialli! Vialli!” chant of the entire day. Phew.

63 minutes – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Carney Chukwuemeka.

65 minutes – a corner down below me, some passes twixt Gallagher and Ziyech, a strong cross towards the penalty spot and my camera clicked as several Chelsea players jumped. The ball flew goal wards and the net rippled. There followed a run of relief to the corner flag and by the time Havertz had been swamped by team mates, the MHL was bellowing “Vialli! Vialli!” The header was a downward dab that Luca would have been proud.

66 minutes – Alan and I exchanged “THTCAUN” and “COMLD” via Whatsapp.

69 minutes – Dennis Wise, San Siro, you know the song.

70 minutes – a fine forward pass – honest, I saw it – from Jorginho set up Aubameyang but he was foiled by Guaita’s advance.

74 minutes – Hall set up Aubameyang but a shot was blocked.

75 minutes – the left-back went down with yet another injury to hit us. He was replaced by Kalidou Koulibaly.

80 minutes – a good free-kick was worked with the resulting cross being just too heavy for Havertz to connect.

81 minutes – a fucking superb block by Silva, what a man.

85 minutes – a superb diving save from Kepa thwarted Chieck Doucoure’s effort from way out.

89 minutes – Dave for Kai Havertz and Mateo Kovacic for Jorginho.

90 minutes – Palace continued to pile on the pressure with seemingly endless crosses coming in from their right. This was a nervous time, no doubt.

95 minutes – “Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

96 minutes – a fine block from Trevoh Chaobah.

At the final whistle, I pointed with fore-fingers to the sky.

Phew.

A win for us.

A win for Luca.

A win for Chelsea.

We were OK; in fact, more than that, this was a better performance than in the recent run of games, but there is such a long way to go during this campaign. The match against Palace was our nineteenth league game of the season; only the half-way stage.

But a win is a win is a win.

And talking of wins…

Forty years ago to the day – Saturday 15 January 1983 – in addition to lamenting the recent news about the break-up of Stiff Little Fingers on the previous Thursday and after withdrawing my applications to several universities on the Friday, I was elated that Chelsea had defeated Cambridge United 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. The goal scorers were Mike Fillery with two, Joey Jones, John Bumstead, Alan Mayes and an own goal. The gate however was a disappointing 7,808.

In 1983, all was doom and gloom at Chelsea and SLF were no more.

I need not have worried. Last year, Chelsea were crowned World Champions and I saw SLF play a gig in my home town of Frome.

Next, Anfield.

I’ll see you up there.

Tales From Home And Away

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2023.

When I was driving home from Manchester City on Sunday evening, mid-way through the packet of Fruit Pastilles maybe, I realised that I had acquired a sore throat. In these days of COVID and an apparently vigorous new ‘flu strain, I was obviously fearing the worst. As I drove on, I thankfully didn’t experience any other ‘flu or COVID symptoms, and in fact the sore throat thankfully lessened as time passed. It soon dawned on me that it was all due to the singing that I had done during the game at the Etihad Stadium. In a way, it made me happy, it comforted me. It confirmed that my appearance at the game had not been merely passive. It meant that I had been actively involved in cheering the boys on.

It often used to be like this.

Sore throats after football.

Often at work after games the previous day, I would be ridiculed for my first few utterances. But it was part of football back then.

Turn up. Have a beer. Pay your money at the turnstiles. Cheer the team on. And on. And on. And on.

I suspected that many Chelsea supporters were experiencing sore throats after Manchester. What a show of force and resilience that indeed was.

Top fucking marks.

Next up was a game at Craven Cottage, down in deepest SW6, against our nearest rivals Fulham. This was a game from September that was postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and would now take place on a Thursday evening in January.

My alarm woke me at 4.45am. I was to work a “flexi” shift from 6am to 2pm, then drive up to London with Paul and Glenn, PD and Parky, P Diddy and Lord Parky, my match day companions for much of the last five years and beyond.  

During my shift at work I told a few football fans (sic) that I feared the result and that we’d lose. I may have said that I fancied Willian to score, just to rub it in. Fulham were faring well this season. This would not be an easy game. The previous evening, I had delved into the record books as I prepared some thoughts about what I should include in this edition of the blog. I knew that our recent record against Fulham – London’s oldest club – was excellent in recent times, but our dominance over them stretched back decades.

Since a 0-2 loss at Stamford Bridge in October 1979, we had played Fulham forty times across all competitions and lost just once. We had won our last seven games against Fulham. I saw all this domination and it made me gulp. Not only did I feel that a Fulham win was long-overdue I had a sixth sense of it happening later in the day. I explained these figures to a couple in the office and said “and I reckon tonight they will beat us for the second time” but their expressions suggested that I was being overly-dramatic.

I thought to myself…”mmm, they don’t know Chelsea like I do.”

I had pre-booked a JustSpace spot outside a flat in Putney, just south of the bridge. I made good time, the roads were relatively clear. I dropped PD and Parky outside “The Eight Bells” at around 4.45pm. My parking spot was from 5pm. I reached it at 5.05pm. I work in logistics.

Normally at Fulham – from memory, every time except once since 2004 – we drink at “The Duke’s Head” in Putney, but we would return to our local “The Eight Bells” on this occasion because it was just easy to meet others there to hand over tickets. We are pretty familiar with this particular spot now, the area both sides of the river, and as I donned my baseball cap – New York Yankees – and zipped up my rain jacket – Victorinox – it felt nice and secure as I walked north towards Fulham.

St. Mary’s Church was floodlit as I passed. The apartments at Putney Wharf were illuminated blue – pretty sure David Luiz used to reside here – and Putney Bridge itself was floodlit too. Craven Cottage was hiding behind a slight bend in the river.

I would soon be in the warmth of “The Eight Bells”, our home away from home at Chelsea, er Fulham – the borough, not the football club, confusing isn’t it? – the past four years. I always presumed that the pubs in this neck of the woods were Fulham pubs on their match days, but the landlady recently confirmed that the three nearest boozers nearest Putney Bridge – the tube station, not the bridge, confusing isn’t it? – were designated as “away” pubs. Thus, “The Eight Bells”, “The Temperance” and “The King’s Arms” were all Chelsea pubs on this night.

I reached the pub just at 5.20pm. It seemed odd, I must admit, to see an “Only Away Fans” sign on a window. It was crowded, lots of the younger element, virtually no colours, all Chelsea. PD and Parky were sat close to our usual table with a few other friends. As I squeezed out at 6.30pm to hand over tickets, a young chap entered and exclaimed “small, innit?” and I replied “and getting smaller.” There was no space anywhere.

The mood in the pub was mainly boisterous with a few songs being aired. For once, I wanted to reach Craven Cottage in plenty of time. It is usually a struggle to reach kick-off time due to the comforts of “The Duke’s Head” and a slightly optimistic guess of how long it takes to walk through Bishop’s Park. On this particular evening, it was just a few hundred yards less than a mile. As we walked through the park, the bright floodlights came into view to the north and I could not resist stopping to take a few atmospheric photographs of the gnarled silhouetted trees and the gnarled masses walking purposefully to the match.

The area outside the away turnstiles is by far the best part of Craven Cottage and, along with the narrow street adjacent to the main stand at Goodison, is my favourite away day location for photographs and ambiance. The red brick, the signage, the historic cottage itself, the hawkers, the Haynes statue, the floodlights. It’s magical but, I guess, in only a way that a football fancier would really appreciate.

This spot is the definition of the phrase “Fulhamish.”

I was in at around 7.20pm. I spoke with a few friends and some – the fools – thought that we would win. My mouth went dry and I found it hard to answer their obvious optimism.

This was my first visit since March 2019, a 2-1 win. Since then, Fulham have been relegated, promoted to a COVID-hit season, relegated and promoted again. They are the ultimate “yo yo” team, or if their much-derided middle class support might say, a “yah yah” team (Peter York, 1981, thanks for that.)

At last the new Riverside Stand is functional for match days, if not fully. I have been keeping tabs on its slow progress for years. On this night, the lower section and the outer flanks of the upper tier were able to be used.

My mate Nick, born in Battersea, called over to say that he saw his first-ever game here, back in the ‘fifties, when many Chelsea supporters used to pop over to Craven Cottage when we were away. Joe Cole and Gary Cahill, with huge BT Sport mics, walked past and were serenaded.

It was announced that our new loan signing Joao Felix was starting.

Kepa

Chalobah  – Silva – Koulibaly

Dave – Kovacic – Zakaria – Hall

Mount – Havertz – Felix

Chelsea in those crappy Tottenham navy socks. Why?

Willian was starting for the home team.

PD and Parky made it in just before the game began, PD having trouble getting in on a ticket that initially appeared to be null and void. There were six of us squeezed into five spaces; PD, Parky, John, Gal and Al, with me somewhere in the middle. It was our version of a high press.

Fair play to Fulham. As with Manchester City, they honoured the memory of Gianluca Vialli before the game – there was a minute of applause – and I thank them for that. Previously dry, the evening’s only rain thankfully came and went very soon into the game.

It felt odd to be attacking the Putney End in the first period.

We started so well, with Joao Felix involved in most of our attacking thoughts. He had started the game so positively and his touch and urgency shone like a beacon in those first moments of the game. I counted three efforts on goal in the opening fifteen minutes alone. He also drew fouls from two separate Fulham players who were both booked. This was some debut. Shots from him, and others, flew at the Fulham goal.

Halfway through the first-half, this was an open game, and the Chelsea crowd were buoyant.

As with Cucarella at Goodison Park, though, I was a little picky with a song for the Portuguese signing being aired so soon in his Chelsea career. Others wait years.

“He came from Portugal. He hates the Arsenal.”

This was a remake of the Tiago chant from 2004; I suppose it is better than nothing. There is no doubt that Felix was the spark in our team and it was so good to see a player with a constant willingness to go forward. It was a jolt to our system. Other players – I am talking about you Mount, Ziyech, Havertz, Pulisic – must have looked on and thought “oh yeah I remember now.”

We had enjoyed most of the attacks on goal. Fulham had been neat but mainly on the defensive, with only an occasional attack worthy of the name.

Out of nowhere, a shot from Bobby Decordova-Reid smashed against our bar. Soon after, on twenty-four minutes, Willian wriggled inside the box and I spoke to John next to me.

“You know he’s going to bend one in, there you go.”

Sadly, I had a premonition about a Willian goal before the match but found myself calling the goal in real time too. It is a habit that I need to get out of. Maybe I should stay stony silent all game.

Willian wheeled away but did not celebrate. Top man.

Soon after, my phone lit up with images of myself being featured on BT’s coverage of the game.

I looked depressed, eh?

We kept attacking with shots from Felix, again, and Hall causing concern for Bernd Leno in the Fulham goal.

There was a piece of sublime skill from Thiago Silva towards the end of the first-half, a cushioned caress of the ball and a prod to safety, that only I seemed to spot. In the ‘eighties, it would have drawn applause, I am sure, from everyone in our end.

Late on in the half, a shot from Dave was deflected over after good combination play involving the new man Felix and a seemingly revitalised Havertz, and then Havertz set up Felix – yet again – but his shot was blocked from my view by a bloke in front of me. I had not got a clue how it avoided the goal.

So, the first-half, Chelsea with decent attacking, five efforts or so from Felix, but we looked naïve at the back. Grumbles at the break? Oh yes.

In that chat about Chelsea’s fortunes at work during the day, a work colleague had mentioned that someone on “Talk Sport” had mentioned that Chelsea were third out of three in the “West London League” and I mentioned that we were bottom of the same league in 1982/83 too.

Right, 1982/83, let’s go.

On Wednesday 12 January – forty years ago exactly – Chelsea played Huddersfield Town in an FA Cup third round replay at Stamford Bridge, just a mile and a half away from the current location of Chelsea Football Club’s first team. We won 2-0 with two late goals from John Bumstead, who didn’t get many, and Mike Fillery, who got more, in a match watched by a decent enough gate of 14.417. My diary that evening was surprisingly gung-ho, predicting that we would go to Derby County in the next round and win. I must have been light-headed and delirious.

Two minutes into the second-half at Craven Cottage in 2023, I captured the lone figure of Mason Mount taking aim with a free-kick against the backdrop of the inhabitants of the Hammersmith End. I watched the ball sweep goal wards. There was a mighty kerfuffle in the six-yard box as there appeared to be a save, a shot, a save, but then a goal given. I had no idea if the ball had crossed the line directly from Mount or via another player.

We were level.

I looked over to spot Alan’s face, a picture of determination and involvement. Loved that.

The Chelsea choir were suddenly in a playful mood.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

Sadly, Denis Zakaria fell to the floor in front of the dugouts and looked in considerable pain. He would play no more and was replaced by the less-than-appetising sight of Jorge Luiz Frello Filho, who currently has more names than fans at Chelsea right now. Zakaria – yet another injury, we must be experiencing our worst-ever run – looked utterly dejected as he limped around the pitch.

Worse was to come. Barely a minute or so after, Kalidou Koulibaly struck a firm ball at Felix’ upper body – “fuck was that?” – and the Portuguese player lost control. In attempting to rob Kenny Tete, he scythed him down, and a red looked likely.

Yes, a straight red.

A debut to remember for Joao Felix.

Collective brains whirled back forty years.

Chris : “Al, didn’t Joey Jones get sent off in his first game in 1982?”

Al : “Yes mate, Carlisle away.”

A little later.

Rob : “I bet Joey Jones didn’t have six shots on goal before he got sent off at Carlisle.”

Now we were up against it alright. A man down, I really wondered where our attacks would originate. But we kept going. There was a chance for Havertz breaking on the left but his shot was somehow blocked by Leno.

On seventy-three minutes, the former Manchester United winger Anders Pereira sent over a teasing cross that had Kepa beaten all ends up.

More commentary from me : “Kepa’s nowhere.”

Our ‘keeper came but misjudged the flight of the ball completely, leaving Carlos Vinicius to head into an empty net.

The vitriol aimed at Kepa was intense.

Immediately after, the away end sent out the equivalent of a “thumbs down” to the current ownership.

A Roman thumb, if you will.

“Roman Abramovich. Roman Abramovich.”

At the break, I had moaned to a friend who was standing behind me that I honestly wondered if the new owners have a clue about football. There are certain aspects about this new lot that shouts desperation. And maybe naivety too. Hopefully the season will improve and I will be completely wrong.

Then, a chant that has been heard sporadically over the years.

“We want our Chelsea back.”

I wondered which Chelsea this was.

The 1905 to 1954 Chelsea that won fuck all?

The 1971 to 1996 Chelsea that won fuck all?

Or maybe just the last twenty years of Chelsea that have won rather a lot?

Regardless, the mood in the Putney End was a feral one now, with shouts and chants raining down from behind. But amidst all of this, “Three Little Birds” made a very surprising appearance.

“Don’t worry about a thing ‘cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

On seventy-nine minutes, Graham Potter changed things.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Chalobah.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Marc Cucarella for Hall.

Then, just after.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

We conjured up a couple of late chances for Havertz, but I think it is safe to say it was no surprise that we could not find the net.

For Fulham, our former player Nathaniel Chalobah came on in the last few seconds, thus missing his brother by around twenty minutes.

The final whistle blew.

Fulham 2 Chelsea 1.

I had sadly been right all along.

There were boos at the end, not from many, but from enough to make themselves heard.

“You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

I was inwardly grimacing.

I’m still not a fan of booing after all these years.

At the end, I was keen to race back to my car. Both PD and Parky had struggled with walking the mile to the game and I did not want them to have to walk a mile and a half back to the car. I tried to leave quickly. I wasn’t able to pay too much attention to the interaction between players and our supporters. I was aware that a stern faced Mason Mount had the balls to come over to face the ire of some of our support. I believe, from comments that I would later hear, only Silva and Dave joined him. Many of my fellow supporters were yelling abuse, indiscriminately, though just as may were clapping the players off.

To boo or not to boo?

To clap or not to clap?

Answers on a postcard.

I raced back to Putney, walking close to the icy chill coming off the river. Walking over Putney Bridge, I overheard a middle-aged chap say to his friend :

“I guess I have seen some players down here over the years, but I think Willian is the best I have seen.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I thought back to Fulham’s last win against us, in March 2006, and walking over the exact same bridge, surrounded by jubilant Fulham fans – more so than in 2023 – and the memories were strong. Jose Mourinho oddly took off both Shawn Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on just twenty-six minutes. Luis Boa Morte – who I had spotted on the touchline during the evening’s game, now a coach at Fulham – gave the home team their first win against us in twenty-seven years. Thankfully, the loss didn’t stop us winning the league in 2005/6.

Our eventual fate in 2022/23 is not certain.

My parking slot was to end at 10.30pm. I reached my car at 10.25pm. I work in logistics.

My car was pointed north once more, and I headed over Putney Bridge for the second time of the day. What a strange old evening it had been. An evening at home, but away, in this little part of SW6. Within ten minutes, I was able to park up on Finlay Road as it cut across Fulham Palace Road. PD and Parky soon found me. I edged up towards the A4 and we were away.

It had been an eventful evening for sure. What with the sending-off for Felix, the injury to Zakaria, the Kepa miss-hap, and the ultimate defeat, contrasting chants in the away end, it had been a typically chaotic Chelsea night of pain. There were half-serious concerns about relegation – “no, we have too much quality” – and I openly question those who yearn for a year in the second tier (mainly to flush out certain demographics in our support it seems) because as many clubs have seen over the years, promotion is never guaranteed.

Well, promotion is never guaranteed unless your name is Fulham – but not necessarily for all clubs that play in Fulham, confusing isn’t it? – of course. Those buggers seem to get promoted at every opportunity.

I eventually reached home at 1.30am, but I am never the best for dropping off to sleep straight away. It was while I was at home in the small hours that I learned that our scorer was given as Kalidou Koulibaly. I would eventually drop off to sleep at 3am.

4.45am to 3am.

It had been a fucking long day.

On Sunday, we head back to SW6 for a home game with Crystal Palace with the “Eight Bells” as a home pub once again.

See you there.

Tales From A Huge Loss

Manchester City vs.Chelsea : 8 January 2023.

I have feared that I might have to write this particular match report for a while. Ever since we heard that Gianluca Vialli had left his post with the Italian Football Federation, and was then re-admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital before Christmas, many of us suspected the worst. Alas, on the Friday morning after our home game with Manchester City, the saddest of news broke.

Gianluca Vialli had died.

I was told the news by a work colleague in our office. I put my hands to my face and sat silent for a few moments.

This was just horrible, horrible news.

I had mentioned Luca only a few days previously in my match report for the Nottingham Forest game; that memory from almost twenty-four years ago, a crowded car-park, a photograph, an autograph, the perfect gent.

In fact, I was rather sparing with my comments about Gianluca Vialli in that report. I sensed that he didn’t have long to live. Pancreatic cancer is an obstinate foe. I erred away from saying too much about the former Chelsea player and manager. I’ll be blunt; I didn’t want to tempt fate.

That I mentioned Gianluca Vialli, though, in my last match report written while he was alive seems right.

And it also seems right that the great man took his last breath in a hospital on Fulham Road, just a few hundred yards from Stamford Bridge.

Luca, how we will miss you.

Being a big fan of Italian football in the ‘eighties, I was aware of the curly-haired striker playing for Sampdoria of Genoa, and watched with interest as he took part in the European Championships of 1988 and the World Cup of 1990. The blues of Sampdoria, with Vialli the leading scorer, won their first and only title in 1991. My first actual sighting of the man took place when I travelled to Turin in May 1992 to see Juventus and Sampdoria eke out a 0-0 draw at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Sampdoria were only a few weeks away from a European Cup Final with Barcelona at Wembley and so put in a rather conservative performance.

Not long after the loss to Barcelona, Vialli moved to Juventus for a world record £12.5M. With Juve being my favourite European team, and with Italian football being shown that season on Channel Four for the first time, I was able to keep tabs on both the progress of him and the team. In 1995, Juve won their first Italian Championship since 1986. In late 1995, I saw Vialli play for Juventus at Ibrox against Rangers in a Champions League group phase game; the visitors won 4-0, with Vialli the captain, and a certain Antonio Conte playing too. I watched in the Broomloan Stand, in a home section, but very close to the travelling away support. The Italians were on fire that night.

At the end of that season, I watched the European Cup Final in a bar in Manhattan as Juventus beat Ajax on penalties in Rome. Just over a week later, I was over on the West Coast – I remember the location, Gaviota State Park – when a ‘phone call home resulted in me learning that Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea.

It truly felt that the stars were aligning.

Gianluca Vialli was to play for Chelsea. Just writing those words twenty-six years or so later still gives me goose bumps.

Of course, that 1996/97 season has gone down in Chelsea folklore for both happy and sad reasons. In addition to Vialli, the summer of 1996 brought new signings Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf to augment the previous summer’s purchases of Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. Our Chelsea team was certainly looking like it could seriously challenge for honours. But first, tragedy, and the death of director Matthew Harding. We all wondered if this would redirect the club’s focus, but not long after, Ruud Gullit signed another top-ranked Italian Gianfranco Zola, and the rest is history.

Ironically, we were stumbling a little before Zola signed. Looking back, I think it is fair to say that Hughes and Vialli were a little too similar in many aspects of their game, and it was the addition of Zola, a play-maker in addition to being a goal scorer, that allowed the team to reach its full potential. Manager Gullit certainly jiggled line-ups around to accommodate all three strikers, and on one memorable occasion, we were able to witness Chelsea alchemy of the very highest order.

Losing 0-2 at half-time at home to Liverpool in the Third Round of the FA Cup in January 1997, Gullit brought on Mark Hughes in place of Scott Minto and the triumvirate of Vialli, Zola and Hughes caused havoc in a scintillating second forty-five minutes. A swivel and turn from Sparky on fifty minutes, a delicious Zola free-kick eight minutes later, then two from Vialli on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes. Stamford Bridge was buzzing and we didn’t want the game to end. It is many Chelsea supporters’ favourite ever game. It often gets mentioned here and I do not apologise for it.

Of course we went on to win the FA Cup Final in the May of that year, our first trophy since 1971, and the appearance of Gianluca Vialli as a very late substitute for Zola resulted in the whole end yelling the great man’s name.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Things never stay the same, though, at Chelsea and before we knew it, Ken Bates had dismissed Ruud Gullit after just a year and a half in charge, and chose Vialli to take on the role of player-manager. I’ll be honest, I was a little concerned, but I need not have been. In a glorious period supporting my team, Vialli won the 1998 League Cup, the 1998 ECWC, the 1998 UEFA Super Cup, the 2000 FA Cup and the 2000 Community Shield.

There has been greater success since, but I absolutely loved the vibe around the club from 1996 to 2000 – “the Vialli years” –  and it is probably my favourite period supporting the club, although as a one-off season 1983/84 will never be beaten.

We came so close in 1998/99, only trailing eventual champions Manchester United by four points, but finishing third. If only we had won and not drawn our two games against United, we would have been champions, and the barbs aimed at us in 2005 would have been less prolific.

There was a lovely mix of characters at Chelsea in that era. We played some superb football at times. Ruud called it “sexy”, but I think under Vialli it became a little “cheeky” with a mix of expansive football, quick breaks, rapid-fire passing, with quality everywhere. What do I mean by “cheeky”? Think back to October 1999, Chelsea beating Manchester United 5-0, with Wisey winding up Nicky Butt. That’s what I mean.

There was style and swagger, those two Chelsea cornerstones.

As a player, I loved Vialli’s power, technique, movement, work ethic and goal scoring prowess.

As a manager, I loved his cheerfulness, his honesty, his diligence, the way he called the players his “chaps.”

I loved his big Italian tie, his sweatband, his grey pullover, his penchant for wearing a watch over his cuffs.

I’ll admit it.

He was a man’s man.

We all loved him.

Again, Chelsea being Chelsea, nothing stays the same and amidst rumours of player power, Ken Bates sacked Vialli as manager in September 2000.

I had seen the great man’s first game as a Chelsea player at Southampton in 1996 and I had seen his last game as manager at Newcastle in 2000.

Thank you Luca. We had a blast.

Vialli – I believe – continued to live in London after his departure and also had season tickets at Stamford Bridge for some, if not all, of the subsequent years. In doing a little research for this edition, I was able to plunder some photographs from a midweek game at Stamford Bridge against West Bromwich Albion on 12 February 2018. At halftime, Neil Barnett paraded three stars from the late ‘nineties and it was a glorious occasion.

My eyes were set on Gianluca Vialli. I am pretty sure it was the first time that I had seen him since he left us in 2000.

My match report from that night is called “Tales From The Class Of ‘98” and features these words.

“They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary season of our ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team those players.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.”

As I looked at other photos from that evening, I gulped when I saw a photo of my friend Glenn and little old me in the hotel before the game with Ray Wilkins, who would pass away less than two months later. That night took on a new resonance for me.

Going in to the FA Cup tie at Manchester City, the focus in my mind shifted. Rather than get obsessed, and down-hearted, about a potentially tough game I realised that the whole day was now about being one of the lucky ones to be able to share our collective love for a much-respected footballer and, above all, man.

And the tributes poured in on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Not one soul said anything negative about Gianluca Vialli. He was truly loved, so loved.

Sunday arrived and I collected PD and LP and a long day lay ahead. I set off from home at just before 9am. By 12.30pm, we were ordering three roast beef Sunday lunches at “The Windmill” pub at the Tabley interchange off the M6. Two hours were spent thinking a little about the game later that afternoon but also about our recent sad loss.

My 1982/83 retrospective features, fittingly, an FA Cup game. On Saturday 8 January 1983 – forty years ago to the day – we played Huddersfield Town from the Third Division at Leeds Road. We eked out a 1-1 draw with much-maligned striker Alan Mayes equalising in the second-half. The gate was a very decent 17,064, which came just after a season-leading gate of 18,438 for a home derby with Bradford City. In those days, FA Cup Third Round gates would often be the largest of the season for many clubs, barring local derbies such as this one. I miss those days when “the Cup” was truly special.

It took the best part of an hour to reach the stadium. The expected rain hadn’t really amounted to much, but on the slow drive past City’s old stomping ground and other familiar sights, the bright winter sun reflected strikingly on the steel of new buildings and the red brick of old. In the distance, dark moody clouds loomed ominously. The quality of light was spectacular.

I dropped off PD and LP outside the away end at around 3.30pm and soon parked up. I made my way over the long footbridge that links the smaller City stadium to the main one. I had previously made a mistake in saying that I had seen only Arsenal at seven stadia. Manchester City tie that record; Stamford Bridge, Maine Road, Wembley, The Etihad, Villa Park, Yankee Stadium, Estadio Dragao. If you count the old Wembley and the new Wembley separately, they take the lead with eight.

Another bloody trophy for them.

As soon as I reached the concourse at Level Three – the top tier – there were shouts for “Vialli.”

I have to say that our support for this game blew my socks off. I originally thought that with the game taking place at 4.30pm on a Sunday, and on the back of us taking over 5,000 to the stadium for a League Cup tie in November, there would be no way that we would sell our allocation of 7,500 tickets.

But sell them we did.

Absolutely fantastic.

I was stood alongside LP in the middle of the top tier, alongside Rob, in front of Pete, close to the Two Ronnies, while PD was in the middle tier. I was just glad to be watching from a different part of the South Stand and to not have hundreds of locals jabbering away at us all game long.

The place filled up. My ticket cost just £25, a good deal.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Chalobah – Humphreys – Koulibaly – Hall

Gallagher – Jorginho – Kovacic

Ziyech – Havertz – Mount

And some new names on the bench too.

City? A mixture of youth and experience, no Haaland.

So, a debut from Graham Potter for young Bashir Humphreys.

Shall I do the inevitable line about the manager asking if he was “free” for the game on Sunday?

Nah.

Kick-off approached, the players took to the field, I soon noted the players assembling on the centre circle.

“Ah, fair play City.”

There was an announcement from a voice saying that “Manchester City was sad to hear…” but I then lost the rest of the message as the Chelsea end applauded and sang.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

There were images of Luca on the two corner screens; black and white images, that cheeky smile.

Bless him.

It is a mark of how I assumed that we would perform in this match that I thought that, all things considered, we had a pretty decent start to the game. Both teams began brightly. But on each of our rare forays into the City half (is it me, or does the City pitch look huge?) we quickly ran out of steam, with no target man to hit.

On nine minutes – as requested – the 7,500 strong away army chanted again.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Not too long after, a mightily impressive “OMWTM” rang out and I liked the fact that a few old school types sat down at around the “eight” mark. It always was better when we all got up on ten.

The City fans must have looked on in awe.

They then had the audacity to sing “YSIFS” and I groaned.

I wondered if the fixture was reversed and there was a 4.30pm kick-off in London, how many City would come down? Not 7,500 I am sure. In the FA Cup of 2015/16, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London on Sunday 21 February. Get my point?

On the pitch, City gained the upper hand.

After twenty-three minutes played, Rob and I were worried about a City free-kick about twenty-five yards out.

Me : “I don’t like this.”

Rob : “Especially Mahrez.”

Me : “There you go. Great goal.”

Sigh.

I will be honest, I didn’t see the handball from Kai Havertz that led to a VAR decision going City’s way not long after. Julian Alvarez struck from the resultant penalty.

In the back of mind : “at least we won’t suffer the ignominy of losing four consecutive FA Cup Finals this year.”

Sigh.

Chelsea were now chasing shadows.

On thirty-eight minutes, I saw a move cut its way through our defence.

“Oh that’s too easy.”

Phil Foden pushed the ball in from close range.

Game over.

Sadly, many Chelsea fans upped and left. This was my worst nightmare; our away end full of empty seats on national television. At the break, my friend Su from Los Angeles, made her way down to watch the rest of the game with Rob, LP and me.

“It’s character building this. By the time I see you again, you will be twice the woman you are now.”

It could have been more. We were awful and in so many different ways. I felt so sorry for the debutant Humphreys, who must have wished that he was needed in haberdashery or to look after Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy.

At the break, changes.

Denis Zakaria for Kovacic, surprisingly poor.

David Datro Fofana for Ziyech, truly awful.

But there were other appearances too, and my heart began to swell. Virtually all of the Chelsea supporters that had left after the third goal thankfully returned. Unbelievable stuff. Well done each and every one of you.

Proper Chelsea.

Good God, on fifty-five minutes Mason Mount shot at goal, deflecting wide, and I even caught the bugger on film.

On sixty-three minutes, more changes.

Omari Hutchinson for the ever dreadful Ziyech.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Mount.

Hutchinson showed a lot more confidence than on his meek appearance on Thursday. The new Fofana looked decent too.

On seventy-three minutes, another change.

Azpilicueta for Jorginho, the slow-moving and irksome irritant.

I found it hard to focus on anything really. The game seemed an irrelevance. The four of us kept our spirits up with gallows humour. Around us, there were loud songs for Thomas Tuchel and Roman Abramovich.

With five minutes to go, a foul by Kalidou Koulibaly gave City their second penalty of the game.

Manchester City 4 Chelsea 0.

Sigh.

With that, an exodus started but we stayed to the final whistle.

It was, in the end, all rather predictable. However, the mood in the away end was defiant throughout. The shouts in memory of Vialli were loud, and sung with passion, while there was anger and frustration at the current regime.

We left.

A chap with his daughter remained upbeat and suggested a surreal ending to this season and a very strange one in 2023/24.

“We win the Champions League but get relegated this season.”

“Ha” I replied…

”Real Madrid and Bristol City one week, Juventus and Rotherham United the next. Love it.”

On the walk back at our car I overheard a woman – a local City fan – talking to her husband and daughter.

“City fans singing about Chelsea’s support being effing shit…well, it wasn’t was it?”

“Thanks” I said.

She smiled.

I made good time as I wriggled out of the city.

How long did it take me?

“A pasty, two small Double Deckers and half a packet of Fruit Pastilles.”

The rain stayed away as I drove south and I made good time. We didn’t dwell too much on the defeat. But it certainly felt as if we were now supporting a different team and club, almost unrecognisable in fact. And that is not good.

As the reaction to another defeat hit social media, I was reminded that this was our first exit in the Third Round of the FA Cup since that shocking 3-5 defeat by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in January 1998; our first game since 1970 as FA Cup holders. We were 0-5 down at one stage. But I still loved that 1996 to 2000 team. Oh for some of that spirit in 2023.

I reached home at 11.15pm. It had been a long, emotional, and sad day.

Next up, a local derby at Craven Cottage. See you there.

Tales From City At Home

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 January 2023.

After the miserable performance at the City Ground, we were now due to play two games in four days against the current English Champions Manchester City. This would only be my second home game against these opponents since September 2017. In 2018/19, I missed the home match with City due to illness, and in the subsequent two campaigns, COVID forced both games to be played behind closed doors. Last season, I was able to watch as we narrowly lost 0-1 to City at Stamford Bridge.

We were in London early, arriving at our usual parking space on Mulgrave Road at 4.15pm. I had lots of time to kill before the 8pm kick-off. In that long period before the game, every Chelsea supporter that I spoke to was very subdued and wary. Everyone without exception said that they would be satisfied with a draw.

I filled the time until kick-off in a number of ways.

First up, a wander down to the stadium and a coffee in the hotel bar area, with a few chats with several familiar faces. I had spotted a queue of cars to get into the car park at Fulham Broadway; a very rare sight. On a day when trains to London were hit with strikes, many more than usual would be driving in like us. I then spent a few minutes outside, clicking away with my camera to try to capture a few different match day sights at the main gates.  But I needed sustenance, so meandered down the Fulham Road, stopping off for a quick chat with Steve at the programme stall. Further down, I peered into the offices of an estate agent’s as I walked on. This is where “The George” used to be; our local from around 1985 to 1987, but this sadly ceased being a pub ages ago. My mind flew back in time. It’s where Glenn and I used to meet the Somerset Supporters Club; Neil, Baz, Rob, Swan, Terry and company. It’s another pub that is now consigned to the history books. Those clean white walls of the estate agents know nothing of the laughs we had in that back bar.

There was a surprise meet up with Marco way down the Fulham Road as he made his way up to the CFCUK stall. I eventually stumbled across a previously unvisited Sicilian café where I plotted up for half-an-hour. “Simmons” is now unfancied for midweek games, so I made my way to “The Mitre” for the first time in many a year where we hoped to meet the usual suspects. I bumped into Neil Barnett as I turned a corner to walk up the North End Road and we chatted for a while about the current malaise. He too feared the worst against City. Why wouldn’t he?

In “The Mitre”, I spotted Parky, but none of the other usual lads who we used to meet in “Simmons”. We’d later learn they had been drinking in “The Cock”. Not to worry, Leigh and Darren were in “The Mitre” with some of the lads we had been drinking with in Salzburg. No positive vibes from any of them either.

I was in early, way early, at about 7.15pm. It was a surprisingly mild night. My Barbour jacket was too warm but I could hardly jettison it. PD was in early too.

With half an hour to go, Depeche Mode were on the pre-match play-list.

“Just Can’t Get Enough.”

Could I get enough of Chelsea? Probably not. I could probably get enough of City over the next few days though.

There was a quick chat with Oxford Frank behind me. More negative vibes.

Sigh.

Amid all of this, time for a further dose of misery; 1982/83 is calling.

On Monday 3 January 1983, a bank holiday, Chelsea travelled to Filbert Street to play Leicester City in a Second Division match. We lost 3-0, and it would have come as no surprise to me. I was undoubtedly preparing myself for a tough 1983, and this was not all Chelsea-based. I was really struggling with my “A Levels” and the exams in June loomed heavily on my mind. There were a few interviews at various polytechnics to endure as spring approached and I just thought that this would be an absolute exercise in futility. I knew damn well, even in January, that my grades would not be good enough. A helping hand from Chelsea Football Club to get me through this depressing period was needed. Alas, my beloved team were performing as well as me. Two goals from Gary Lineker and one from Alan Smith, in front of a decent-enough gate of 13,745, gave Chelsea our second away defeat in three days.

Oh the joys.

What with the train strike, I half-expected a fair few unfilled seats, especially in the away section, but this was another near capacity crowd at Chelsea.

Graham Potter chose these players against City.

Kepa

Dave – Koulibaly – Silva – Cucarella

Kovacic – Zakaria

Ziyech – Sterling – Pulisic

Havertz  

Jorginho wasn’t playing. That would have pleased Neil Barnett. Kovacic was. That wouldn’t.

City, and it does not always happen, were wearing their sky blue home kits. It’s a decent look this year. Blue, white, blue, with that maroon trim from old. However, both the names and numbers were almost unreadable. Nathan Ake’s arse has doubled in size since the last time I saw him; it is now the size of Audenshaw and Droylesden.

We remembered Edson Arantes do Nascimento before the game.

RIP.

The match began.

There were mutterings about Raheem Sterling putting one over his former team mates, but this fantastical notion was obliterated in the first five minutes when he went down after a challenge by John Stones. He was replaced by the gloved crusader Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

We prepared to be underwhelmed.

With each passing minute, I thought three things.

  1. We are playing alright here.
  2. We haven’t conceded a goal.
  3. Has Erling Haaland touched the ball yet?

Indeed, we were playing alright. There were a number of decent passing moves on both flanks, but with no finishing touch. One pleasing move down our right on a quarter of an hour resulted in a decent low ball in to the danger zone from Dave but all of our attacking players had been busy in the right-hand side of the pitch setting the move up, and there was no predator waiting to finish the move off.

There was a reasonable amount of noise from the home areas but nothing to get the pulses racing nor the stands shaking. Such is life in modern football, eh?

“Has Haaland touched the ball yet, Clive?”

Halfway through the first-half, not only no goals but we were just about edging it.

However, another enforced change.

Carney Chukwuemeka for the perennially crocked Christian Pulisic.

The young substitute immediately impressed, and there was a nice edge to our midfield with Kovacic and Zakaria both influencing our play. I certainly didn’t miss the “touch, look, swivel, look, pass” from Jorginho one little bit.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

A shot from Carney was blocked, and a shot from Ziyech. Ederson, dressed in head to toe in tattoos and purple, tights and all, managed to get down low to save the latter.

There were times when Ziyech, an outcast on the right, was under-used and it frustrated me.

“It’s gotta go quicker, Chels.”

Haaland was quiet, and as the game reached the final ten minutes of a decent half, the surprising sight of Kalidou Koulibaly out-muscling the Norwegian when the poacher was in on goal was magnificent. The Matthew Harding cheered this and I’d hope the defender grew from the affection. His Chelsea career has been tough thus far.

Thiago Silva was putting in another fine performance.

The under-fire left back Marc Cucarella was struggling at times, though, and some of his positioning as he marked his player was truly awful. On a few occasions, he was so unbalanced that he was easily side-stepped. But generally speaking, both Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne were subdued.

At last, Cucarella made a fine tackle just outside our box.

“Well done, Crystal Tipps” bellowed Rousey.

The first-half finished with a flurry, despite Chelsea being a little reticent to fully commit.

“We just don’t flood the box, Al.”

An effort from Haaland flew over. Phew.

On forty-three minutes, a fine move resulted in Carney crashing a low drive against a post, with The Illustrated Man well beaten. From here, a rapid break towards us in the Matthew Harding with our combined buttocks clenching with each yard gained. Thankfully, Kepa was equal to a rasper from De Bruyne. It was the best minute of football during the entire half.

I thought our performance was measured and controlled, not leaving us exposed and open to getting ripped apart again, despite the wishes of the away end.

I was more than content at the break.

“Not roaring though is it Clive?”

The atmosphere, to be truthful, was shite.

When the second-half began it was all City in the forty-sixth minute, the forty-seventh minute, the forty-eighth minute, etcetera.

Haaland went close soon into the half. Ake crashed a header against the Shed End bar, with a team mate behind him for extra support should he miss-time his header. Then a fine save from Kepa when De Bruyne shot at goal.

After Carney did well to retrieve a loose ball from a Chelsea corner, the ball sat up nicely for Silva but his zipped shot narrowly missed the far post down below us all.

I stood up, swore, and held my head in my hands instinctively, while turning to my left and looking back at my fellow supporters in the MHU. It is something I do without thinking on many occasions. It’s my body’s way of telling the world “damn, that was so close, eh?”

It dismayed me no end to see virtually every single spectator still sat.

It’s gone. Our support has gone. Where’s the fucking emotion? Where’s the fucking involvement?

Forays by us into the City defence were rarer now though, and on the hour, a double substitution was ominous. On came Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez.

“Fackinell, Clive.”

Within five minutes, catastrophe.

My commentary to myself, and Clive if he was listening, was this :

“he’ll move it again…I hate these balls in…there you go.”

It was easy as 1,2,3, A, B, C, do-re-mi.

Fackinell.

Grealish, in space, a low ball, Mahrez at the back stick.

Others will have had a better view, with the portioning of blame no doubt, but it was just too far away for me to comment.

At that moment, the conceding of that one goal, I just knew we would be up against it. Even an equaliser seemed implausible.

The previously quiet City contingent roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart again.”

  1. We ain’t Cockneys. Keep that song for when you play United, eh?
  2. That’s based on a United song about Ryan Giggs. You’re better than that.

Graham didn’t potter about. His reaction was swift.

Conor Gallagher for Ziyech.

Lewis Hall for Crystal Tipps.

And a Chelsea debut for Omari Hutchinson, on for the substitute Abameyang.

Omari is the latest in a line of Chelsea Hutchinsons.

Ian.

Colin.

Sam.

I hope he is a better footballer than Colin.

The introduction of the substitutes energised the support and for one exact moment it sounded, at bloody last, like a football match.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

In truth, the debutant Hutchinson looked nervous and played easy ball after easy ball. Gallagher was so full of energy that he almost exploded. Hall fitted in supremely well on the left.

On seventy-two minutes, a rapid cross from De Bruyne from the right flashed across the box, missing everyone, but also the lunge from Haaland with the whole goal gaping in front of him. I had witnessed a miracle.

There was a looping header from Havertz just after, but this was easily saved by Lilac Larry in the City goal. An effort from Kovacic fizzed over. Very late on,Hall blasted over from a bursting run down in front of us.

It wasn’t to be.

It ended 0-1, as did the City games that I saw live in 2017/18 and 2021/22.

On the drive home, I saw that Peter Rhoades-Brown had been back at Chelsea for the night’s game. These days, he is heavily involved in some community and corporate work for his home town team Oxford United for whom he played after leaving us. I mention this because he played in the 1982/83 featured game at Leicester.

We were philosophical. We had played much better than most had expected. City, to be blunt, had been relatively poor, the worst I had seen from them at Chelsea for a while. We all know we are a team in transition, a club in transition too. There is no doubt that the knives are out for Graham Potter within some sections of the support. That’s not a surprise.

I eventually reached home at 1.30am.

On Sunday, the same two teams meet in deepest Manchester.

7,500 Chelsea are going.

See you there.

Tales From The Bridgford Stand

Nottingham Forest vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2023.

I have detailed our season from forty years ago during the current campaign’s match reports and although many performances in 1982/83 were poor, very poor, I am sure that I would have concluded each of the four games that I physically attended in that season from long ago with a spirited round of clapping to show my support of the team, my team.

After the final whistle blew at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground on the first day of 2023, I gathered my belongings – camera, baseball cap – and began shuffling out along the row to the aisle, not wanting to lose any time before exiting the stadium and beginning the long drive home. I just didn’t feel that I could justify even the most basic show of support for the team. I couldn’t even be bothered to see how many players, if any, had walked over to our allotted corner of the Bridgford Stand to thank the fans.

And it brings me no joy to report this either. No joy at all. But it’s a sure sign that I don’t have much of a bond with this current set of players, unlike in days gone by.

My mantra has always been “players play, managers manage and supporters support” and although I still stand by these basic principles, there are occasions in my Chelsea-supporting life when the last part of this “Holy Trinity” of Chelsea fundamentalism becomes oh-so difficult.

Sigh.

Let’s not kid ourselves. That second-half performance at relegation-haunted Forest was dire.

So let’s leave 2023 for the moment and go back in time.

I have a few stories to tell.

The next match from forty years ago to re-tell is the West London derby at Stamford Bridge against Fulham that took place on 28 December 1982. Going in to the game, Chelsea were two thirds of the way down the Second Division in fourteenth place, with a chance of promotion looking very unlikely. Our local neighbours, however, were riding high. They had been promoted from the Third Division in 1981/82 and were a surprise package the following season, and were currently in third place behind QPR and Wolves.

In the mini “West London League” of the 1982/83 Division Two season, dear reader, Chelsea were third of three.

But that didn’t stop the huge sense of anticipation that I felt as I set off with my parents as we made our way up to London for this game. I can remember we stopped off at Hungerford on the A4 for me to buy a newspaper and I was elated with the size of the gates that had attended games the previous day. Now it was Chelsea’s turn.

Back in October, there had been a fine crowd for the visit of Leeds United, but I knew only too well that a sizeable proportion of that crowd had been lured to Stamford Bridge for the thrill and buzz of a potential set-to with the Yorkshire club’s support. For the Fulham game, the allure would be of a purely footballing nature, and I wasn’t sure if that would increase numbers or reduce them.

To be truthful, I can’t remember a great deal about the game. I was in The Shed, my preferred position towards the tea bar but just under the roof, just above the walkway. My parents watched the game from virtually the back row of the towering East Stand having bought tickets on the day. Fulham were in all red, and were backed by a pretty decent following on the large north terrace.

The Chelsea team?

Steve Francis, Joey Jones, Chris Hutchings, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, Clive Walker, John Bumstead, David Speedie, Alan Mayes (Mike Fillery), Peter Rhoades-Brown.

My diary notes that it was all one-way traffic in the second-half and we really should have sewn it up. Just like the Leeds game in October, it ended 0-0. But the real star of the show was the attendance figure of 29,797, and this bowled me over.

I have a distinct memory of waiting outside between The Shed and the East Stand for my parents to appear and being mesmerised by the thousands upon thousands of people streaming out of the ground. I waited for ages for my Mum and Dad to finally show up.

29,797.

I can hardly believe it forty years later.

1982 was an odd year for Stamford Bridge attendances. Despite us averaging just 13,133 in 1981/82 and 12,728 in 1982/83 during the Second Division league campaigns, the old ground served up a volley of super gates during that year.

In early 1982, we drew 41,412 for the game against Liverpool in the fifth round of the FA Cup, quickly followed by 42,557 for Tottenham’s visit in the Quarter Finals. Then, in the latter part of the year, Stamford Bridge witnessed 25,358 for the visit of Leeds United in October to be trumped by the huge gate of 29,797 against Fulham.

Many Chelsea supporters of my generation often quote the huge gate at Christmas in 1976 for the home game with Fulham as a quick and easy response to the “WWYWYWS?” barbs of opposing fans. With Chelsea riding high in the Second Division, and with George Best and Bobby Moore playing for Fulham, a massive crowd of 55,003 flocked to Stamford Bridge on 27 December 1976.

It’s some figure, eh?

Yet I think the 29,797 figure in 1982/83 is even more remarkable.

In 1976/77, our average home attendance in the league was a healthy 30,552.

55,003 equated to 1.8 times the average.

Yet in 1982/83, we floundered all season long and our average gate was a lowly 12,728.

Here, the 29,797 gate equated to 2.3 times the average.

Put it this way, if the Fulham gate of 1976 had matched the 1982 coefficient, it would have been a ridiculous 71,524.

Regardless, these were huge numbers, in both years, for Second Division football.

On New Year’s Day 1983, Chelsea travelled to Gay Meadow, the quaint home of Shrewsbury Town and lost 2-0 in front of 7,545.

Oh my bloody God.

1983 was going to be a tough year.

But I still look back upon those times with a lot of fondness. I suspect that the Chelsea players were on four of five times my father’s weekly wage as a shopkeeper, and I certainly felt – undoubtedly – that they were my team. A few of the players were only a few years older than me. There was a bond, no doubt. And I love it that three of the players who lined up against Fulham forty years ago – Pates, Bumstead and Chivers – are still part of the match day scene at Stamford Bridge as hosts for the corporate hospitality crowd.

In forty years’ time I can’t imagine the same being said of any of the current squad, some of whom earn in a week what I earn in several years.

It’s a different ball game, eh?

Fast forward forty years and we find ourselves on New Year’s Day 2023.

My car was full as I made my way north; alongside me in the front was Paul, while in the back seat were Donna, her son Colby and Parky. I had set off from my Somerset village at 9.30am. By 2pm, I found myself edging towards the Trent Bridge county cricket ground, with the floodlights of the City Ground beyond. As I turned right along Radcliffe Road, I spotted the large “Trent Bridge Inn” and my mind raced back to 1987.

On my first-ever visit to Nottingham Forest, in late February, I had travelled by train from Stoke with my football-mad mate Bob, a Leeds United supporter from Bramley in West Yorkshire. And, quite unlike me, I had totally forgotten that we had dived into this pub before the game.

My diary tells of the day.

We had caught the 11.07am from Stoke to Nottingham, changing at Derby, and the fare was only £2.30. Celery was all the rage at Chelsea in those days, and Bob took a photo of myself brandishing a clump of the afore-mentioned “apium graveolens” on Trent Bridge with the City Ground in the background.

We bought £5.50 tickets in the away section of the main Executive Stand and then sunk a few pints in the pub. After a pie at a local chippy, we got in at 2.45pm. I can well remember large piles of celery outside the turnstiles after some supporters were searched and the offending vegetable taken off them. The local police were quite bemused that so many of our away support were bringing the stuff to the game. I must have hidden my stash in my voluminous jacket because I remember throwing the stuff around at key moments once inside. We had around 1,500 in the seats and maybe the same number on the open terrace to my left. I wasn’t impressed with their rather poxy home end, the simple Trent End terrace with its basic roof. My good mate Alan was a few seats in front of me.

It wasn’t a great game, but I made a note that Micky Hazard played well in midfield. A goal from Pat Nevin on sixty-five minutes gave us the points but we had to rely on a fine penalty save from Tony Godden, late on, from Gary Birtles to secure the win. The gate was 18,317.

I caught up with Al on the walk back to the station, but we had to wait a while for the 6pm train to Derby. At Derby, I devoured another pie – and chips – and then Bob and I stopped for a few more pints outside the station before catching the 8.09pm home. On returning to Stoke, we narrowly missed a ruck at our students’ union involving some Blackpool fans, whose team had played at nearby Port Vale that afternoon. Such was life in ‘eighties Britain.

Pies, pints, cheap rail travel, pay-on-the-day football, celery and ad hoc violence lurking like a dark shadow.

Oh the glamour of it all. But I would not have missed it for the world.

I was parked up at my JustPark space on Radcliffe Road at 2.15pm. We walked towards the “Larwood & Voce” pub but this was home fans only. Next up was the “Trent Bridge Inn” but this was home fans only too unlike in 1987. Eventually, we headed over the bridge towards Notts County’s Meadow Lane stadium where their bar was open for away fans. But I didn’t fancy the queues so excused myself and set off on a little mooch around the City Ground. Both of the football stadia and the cricket ground are all with easy reach of each other. It’s a real sporting sub-section of the city.

This would be my first visit to the City Ground since February 1999 and only my third visit ever. I must admit that it felt so odd to be walking around the same area almost twenty-four years after the last time. On that day, with Chelsea very much in the hunt for the league title, I had travelled up to the game with my then girlfriend Judy. On that occasion, we had managed to get served in the “Larwood & Voce” and I remember it being full of Chelsea.

Forest were fighting a losing battle against relegation and Chelsea easily won 3-1 with two goals from Bjarne Goldbaek and one from Mikael Forssell. Pierre van Hooijdonk scored for them. We had seats in the lower tier of the Bridgford End towards the small stand along the side, close to the corner flag. The gate was 26,351.

What I remember most from this game took place in the busy car park after the match had long finished. I had decided to wait for the Chelsea players to board their coach back to London to hopefully take a few photos, and I have to say there were fans everywhere. It wasn’t exactly “Beatlemania” but not far off.

Now then, I have to say that Judy absolutely adored our manager Gianluca Vialli and she was keen to meet him. I snapped away in the melee and took photos of a few players including Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf and Vialli. All of a sudden, I had lost Judy. I then spotted her, next to Vialli, looking all doe-eyed. After a few moments, she walked towards me with a huge grin on her face.

Luca had autographed the back of her hand. She was ecstatic, bless her.

So, as I walked down a little road towards the slight main stand, the colour red everywhere, and across that same car park, my mid cartwheeled back to early 1999, another time but the same place.

There are plans afoot to replace the stand on this side with an impressive new structure. Once built, the stadium will hold 35,000. I could not help but notice Forest’s two stars everywhere. They won the European Cup in 1979 and 1980 in a period when English teams completely dominated football’s main prize.

1977 : Liverpool.

1978 : Liverpool.

1979 : Nottingham Forest.

1980 : Nottingham Forest.

1981 : Liverpool.

1982 : Aston Villa.

With both Chelsea and Forest able to sport two stars apiece, was I hopeful for a high octane four-star game of football?

No, sadly not.

I wolfed down a hot dog with onions, then a quick spin around to the away turnstiles. This time, Chelsea were allocated the side towards the Executive Stand which is now named the Brian Clough Stand. I was standing around twenty-five yards away from where I watched in 1987. I chatted to Jonesy, who did not miss a single match in 1982/83, and still has the mental scars to this day.

I sidled up alongside Gal and John – Al was unable to make it this time – and Parky soon joined us too.

My third ever game at Nottingham Forest and the first game of 2023 was moments away.

Our team was announced.

Kepa

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Pulisic – Havertz – Sterling

Faithless’ “Insomnia” was played before the game began. Additionally, there was a minute of applause for Pele, the World’s greatest ever player.

Rest In Peace.

I was soon distracted by a rather wordy banner on the balcony at the two-tiered Trent End.

“The Garibaldi that we wear with pride was made in 1865.”

I had to enquire to what that referred but I presumed it was the type of shirt. In fact, it was the colour of the shirt. What was it with the people of Nottingham and Italy? Forest choosing the colour of an Italian general and County giving Juventus their black and white stripes.

Chelsea attacked our end in the first-half. That’s not usually the case at away games. It felt odd. We began with much of the ball, with the home team hardly having a sniff. In the first part of the game, many of our moves inevitably involved moving the ball to the two central defenders, Silva and Koulibaly, who dropped aerial bombs into the Forest box.

Silva, I can understand. Koulibaly, not so.

Regardless, there were a couple of half-chances, nothing more.

The home fans were soon singing a dirge that I remembered from 1999 if not 1987.

“City Ground.

Oh mist rolling in from the Trent.

My desire is always to be here.

Oh City Ground.”

This song was from 1977/78 when Forest won the league under Cloughie. The badge from that era still features on their shirt to this day. I am not going to describe it as a design classic, but it’s not far off. It always seemed to be ahead of its time when it debuted as long ago as 1973. It still looks decent to this day, though I still squirm at the lower case “e” being used. It is almost perfection.

On then minutes, right against the run of play, Morgan Gibbs-White sent a ball through for Brennan Johnson but Kepa was able to save his low effort and the follow-up too.

It was a warning against complacency.

A couple more half-chances for us, but nothing concrete.

On sixteen minutes, Mason Mount pushed the ball to Christian Pulisic who chose his moment to pick Kai Havertz at the near post. The ball looped off the shin of a defender up onto the bar but Raheem Sterling was on hand to wallop the ball in from close range.

Get in.

Sulphurous blue smoke rolled in from the Bridgford End.

The rest of the first-half did not produce a great deal of note. Silva, as ever, exuded class throughout and was on hand on a few occasions to snub attacks with consummate ease. Forest defended deep and tried to raid on the occasional counter attack. There were rare shots at goal from Dave and Pulisic.

Our support was only roused occasionally.

It was hardly a classic.

The second-half began and how.

Forest were on the front foot right from the off and Kepa made two decent saves in the first two minutes, the first from Taiwo Awonyi, and again from Johnson, who really should have passed to the free man inside.

On ten minutes, Gibbs-White – a footballer, but also a brand of ‘seventies toothpaste – crashed a shot against Kepa’s bar, with the ball bouncing back up off the line. No goal.

To our dismay, we were letting them run at us at will.

The first substitution and Mateo Kovacic for Zakaria.

Just after, on sixty-three minutes, a corner from down by us, and a scramble at the near post. A header, the ball bounced in the air again, but the Chelsea defenders miss-timed their leaps. The ball was prodded home by Serge Aurier.

Fackinell.

The place erupted.

“Come On You Reds” has never sounded louder.

The Forest fans around us, excitable at the best of times, were now besides themselves.

The substitutions continued with three at once.

Hakim Ziyech for Sterling.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Mount.

Conor Gallagher for Jorginho, who was apparently still on the pitch in the seventy-third minute. Who knew?

But this was dire stuff, both on the pitch and off it, with our support reduced to a murmur amidst moans of discontent.

Carney Chukwuemaka for Pulisic.

There was one, remarkably late, half-chance, a deep cross from Ziyech – who was criminally under-used during his brief cameo – just evading a Chelsea touch, any Chelsea touch, at the far post.

At the final whistle, groans. But I am sure I detected a few boos too. This was such a dire second-half performance and it almost defies description. Thankfully, our exit out of Nottingham was painless, and I reached home bang on midnight.

We now play the high-flying Manchester City twice in four days.

Oh, and in the West London League of 2022/23, echoes of forty years ago, Chelsea lie third behind Fulham and Brentford. On we go.

1987 : “Pies, pints, cheap rail travel, pay-on-the-day football, celery and ad hoc violence lurking like a dark shadow.”

Tales From The North By Northwest Corner

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 27 December 2022.

After a break of forty-five days, Chelsea were back in action. To be honest, compared to the extended hiatus due to COVID in 2020 and 2021, this had been a breeze. In fact, we had all agreed that after the Newcastle defeat, the third league loss in a row, we were clearly at a low ebb and so the enforced break came at just the right time. I know that I needed the rest too. The match at St. James’ Park was my twelfth in forty-one days.

Fackinell.

I didn’t watch a single second of the Qatar World Cup. Instead, the plan always was for me to get my football fix from watching my local team in November and December. However, due to Frome Town’s schedule getting hit with a few postponements, I only saw three games; a 4-1 home win against Slimbridge, a 0-1 defeat at Bashley and a 2-3 loss at Melksham Town. I did, however, attend a game up in Scotland in early December; a Queens Park match against Hamilton Academical that was played at their traditional Hampden Park home for the first time in a few seasons.

For the home game with Bournemouth we planned to be up in London at around midday. I had woken with not too much enthusiasm, and I must admit I felt a little guilty. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen the team for a month or more, a home match against Bournemouth was hardly going to set the pulses racing. Such games are never a visceral assault on the senses, nor are any Boxing Day – which this effectively was – encounters these days, more’s the pity.

None of the passengers in my car were expecting too much from the game. We guessed it wasn’t set to be a feast of football. We just wanted a win, any win.

Three points was king.

But oh the guilt. I was only too aware that my enthusiasm was lacking and a dark cloud of guilt followed me up the A303 and the M3 into London. While PD and Parky began drinking at our usual hostelry, Glenn and I had decided to have a pre-game wander around Stamford Bridge and the local area. We found ourselves in the Copthorne Hotel way before the match day crowds would appear. The bar area was quiet. I spotted a favourite photograph on a wall, far from the madding crowd, and it is one that always brings a smile to my face.

I love this.

There is so much to take in.

The four players are John Boyle, Terry Venables, Ron Harris and Eddie McCreadie. The photo is from around 1965, and I always think that the photographer is about to get pelted with those recently formed snowballs. There are a couple of other players in the frame too. The pitch has evidently been cleared of snow and you just wonder what sort of a mammoth task that must have been. I have an image of the regular ground staff being augmented by a legion of apprentices, armed with brushes, rakes, spades and shovels, clearing the pitch in preparation of the upcoming game. I am sure that I can spy the traps of the greyhound racing beyond the players. The crush barriers on The Shed terrace are clearly those patented by Archibald Leitch, the Glaswegian architect responsible for so many of the old stadia in Britain, who not only designed stands and terracings, but crush barriers too. Those originals were eventually replaced in the mid-seventies by an altogether different design. I can see what might well be braziers, equally placed on the mid-terrace walkway, presumably lit with coal or wood to clear those walkways of snow and ice. And look at the Harlem Globetrotter shorts, which I remember, from colour photos in various publications, being red and red stripes. I can’t even imagine how Chelsea ended up with those.

Snow, striped shorts, snowballs and The Shed.

It’s a classic, eh?

Despite the brief appearance of some snow and some decidedly cold temperatures during the week before Christmas, this particular day was much milder, but with rain forecast to hit London later.

Glenn and I circumnavigated the stadium and I took a few photographs of the pre-match scene. We chatted a little about the club wanting to purchase the land currently owned by the Oswald Stoll Foundation, and we await further details of how all of that extra land might aid a stadium upgrade. If nothing else, it will surely assist in the thorny topic of entrance and egress.

There’s new signage atop the central column of the West Stand facade. God knows why.

We walked up the deserted King’s Road – admittedly the game was still four hours away – but bloody hell it was quiet. We stayed to the east of Stamford Bridge – Chelsea, not Fulham – and there was just no sign that there was a top-ranking game of football taking place half a mile away. Heading north to the Fulham Road, we stumbled across a previously unvisited pub, “The Sporting Page”, and we dipped in alongside four other drinkers. In my quest to visit every hostelry within two miles of Stamford Bridge, I had ticked another one off the list.

On our wander around the deserted streets of SW10, Glenn had admitted that he had been far from enthused about the game against Bournemouth and this made me feel a little better about myself…that I wasn’t in the boat alone.

We briefly touched on my retrospective of the 1982/83 season.

And so.

13 November 1982 : Barnsley 1 Chelsea 1 – 13,286.

My diary entry for this day starts with a brief synopsis of events at Oakwell.

“We were one-nil up at half-time so a bit fed-up we only drew 1-1. That’s our sixth draw this season. Gary Locke was sent off – pillock.”

Our goal was scored by Mike Fillery, who was probably our best player at the time and possibly the most adored. Born in Mitcham, he had come through the ranks and debuted during the end of the dreadful relegation season of 1978/79. He soon became a crowd favourite in the Second Division seasons that followed, where his stylish passing and scoring ability shone in many games. He was left-footed, and could piece together some lovely passes. He had a languid style, but was never one for a 50/50 tackle, and I can see him gliding around the pitch to this day.

20 November 1982 : Chelsea 1 Shrewsbury Town 2 – 8,690.

A week after, another Saturday, and my diary began with a depressing moan.

“How the hell can Chelsea lose at home to a snotty little team like Shrewsbury? That means that we have only won four games out of fifteen. And we are away to Rotherham next week. Oh dear. Please God don’t let Rotherham score six against us again. All I can say is that Chelsea must be shit.”

The seventeen-year-old me was clearly unimpressed. Indeed, this was a very poor result.  It was goal-less at half-time, and Colin Lee scored for us but the visitors nabbed two. Just as worrying as the result was the crowd figure. Although attendances had dipped to below 10,000 in the closing stages of the previous season – the nadir being 6,009 for the London derby with Orient – this was the first sub 10,000 gate of 1982/83. I remember being pretty depressed about the state of the club after this game and my previously positive spin on our squad seemed to be based on fantasy and not fact. I had been off school with mumps for a week too, so life was pretty depressing in late November 1982.

27 November 1982 : Rotherham United 1 Chelsea 0 – 8,793.

In the previous season, we had lost both games against Rotherham United by the horrific aggregate score of 1-10. We had lost 0-6 at Millmoor in October and then 1-4 at Stamford Bridge in March. The 0-6 loss is often cited as our most embarrassing defeat. I can understand that. In the circumstances, a narrow 0-1 loss in 1982/83 could almost be seen as a moral victory. Yes, dear reader, things really were that bad forty years ago. The game also marked the Chelsea debut of Mark Falco, on-loan from the hated Tottenham, and this was regarded as pretty much a low point in the credibility of the club. A loanee from Tottenham? Good fucking grief. My diary summed it up.

“A bit depressed about Chelsea. No promotion again.”

4 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Burnley 1 – 8,184.

Out of nowhere, an upturn in my fortunes. Not only was a girl in the Lower Sixth, Rachel, showing interest in me – the fool – Chelsea managed to eke out a slender 2-1 victory against Burnley at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Micky Droy and David Speedie, both in the first-half, gave us three points and my diary even conceded that I was happy with the 8,184 gate as I had expected one of around 6,000. The game marked the home debut of Falco, and I can only imagine the horror. This time it was the turn for Colin Lee to get sent-off. But, the three points were all that mattered.

11 December 1982 : Middlesbrough 3 Chelsea 1 – 8,836.

My diary entries throughout the week detailed my futile attempts to summon up enough courage to ask Rachel out. A couple of words, exchanges, took place, but I am afraid my shyness had got the better of me. On the Saturday, Chelsea travelled up to a probably cold and hostile Ayresome Park where John Neal’s team lost 3-1 against his former club. Mike Fillery scored our solitary goal via a penalty. In the home team was former Chelsea youngster Paul Ward and in the ‘Boro team, future Chelsea midfielder Darren Wood. Amid my fluttering heartbeats, my diary ended with a blunt message.

“Chelsea sont merde.”

18 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Bolton Wanderers 1 – 6,903.

On the Monday after the Middlesbrough game, at a Sixth-Form Disco, my shyness disappeared and all was good with the world. Rachel and I danced the night away. I always remember that as I tentatively approached her on the dance-floor for the first time, the bastard DJ started playing “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, and there is no need for a punchline. Throughout the week, we chatted a little and exchanged Christmas cards.

On the day of the Bolton game, the last Saturday before Christmas, I was called in to assist at my father’s menswear shop in Frome. It was the first time that I had worked a shift in his shop. After a nervous start, I almost enjoyed it. I never really saw myself as a salesman. My father always had a little wireless tucked away on his desk in the small office and it would have been via this medium that I would have heard that Chelsea had scrambled a narrow 2-1 win against Bolton. The goals came from Colin Pates and an own goal. Bloody hell, a love interest and a Chelsea win. What on Earth was happening?

27 December 1982 : Queens Park Rangers 1 Chelsea 2 – 23,744.

On the Monday after the Bolton win, I had planned to meet Rachel in a pub in Frome with some friends, but she never showed up. Bollocks. My World caved in. I plucked up enough courage to ‘phone her the next evening but she was non-committal about future plans.

“Back to Chelsea, mate” I no doubt thought to myself. Rachel, in fact, favoured the hated Manchester United and there is no need for a punchline here either.

Christmas 1982 was a pretty dull one. However, I was pleased to be heading up to Stamford Bridge on 28 December for the Fulham game at Stamford Bridge. It would act as an emotional safety harness after my recent romantic rebuttal. However, the day before it we visited QPR for another West London derby. At Christmas 1981, we had won 2-0 on their plastic pitch, and – miracles at Yuletide – in 1982 we won again. The goals came from Clive Walker and David Speedie as QPR were beaten 2-1.

I always remember that the attendances on this particular day were monumental, and I was so pleased that football could still attract such numbers at a time when gates, not just ours, were plummeting.

These were the First Division games, and the attendance at St. Andrews really shocked me; it was almost three times their average.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham – 51,497 /average 24,153.

Birmingham City vs. Aston Villa – 43,864 / average 15,593.

Brighton vs. Southampton – 21,794 / average 14,673.

Ipswich Town vs. Norwich City – 29,596 / average 19,679.

Liverpool vs. Manchester City – 44,664 / average 34,836.

Luton Town vs. Watford – 21,145 / average 13,429

Manchester United vs. Sunderland – 47,783 / average 41,574.

Nottingham Forest vs. Coventry City – 24,487 / average 17,567.

Stoke City vs. Everton – 25,427 / average 16,631.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Notts. County – 17,756 / average 15,258.

West Ham United vs. Swansea – 23,843 / average 22,774.

In retrospect, they don’t look too large do they? But in 1982/83, the average gate in Division One was just 20,158. My diary noted that I hoped for 20,000 for the Chelsea vs. Fulham game on Tuesday 28 December 1982.

From a Christmas past, to a Christmas present.

We headed west to Stamford Bridge and the pubs of Fulham. We were soon back in familiar territory.

Down in deepest SW6, at “The Eight Bells”, we joined forces with PD and Parky, alongside Salisbury Steve. This pub was pretty quiet too. But it was good to be back. It is the epitome of the word “cosy”; wooden-panelled walls were festooned with old prints of old river traffic and old London scenes, tables, settles and chairs were squeezed miraculously in, a chalkboard described the food on offer, pint glasses and wine glasses were stacked above the bar, a Christmas tree twinkled in the corner. I half expected Bob Cratchit to hobble in and ask for a pint of porter.

Outside, the rain was falling. It was time to make a move.

We were inside Stamford Bridge with well over half-an-hour to go. The team was announced and it looked like a standard 4/3/3.

Kepa

James – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Sterling – Havertz – Pulisic

Before the game, we observed a minute of applause for George Cohen, a member of the England 1966 World Cup winning team who recently passed away.

RIP.

A quick scan around. A few empty seats. Around two thousand away fans. The night had fallen. The rain continued.

However, my pre-match vibe hadn’t really improved.

“We’re World Champions, but we’re half a team.”

A few agreed.

My match day companions in the North by Northwest corner of Stamford Bridge arrived.

John, Gary, Alan, PD, Clive, JD, Kev and Anna, Paul.

For the first time in ages, Glenn was down in The Shed. Since the rebuild in 1997, we all agreed that he had only seen a game down there once before; in the upper tier alongside Alan and myself for the Vicenza game on a rainy night in 1998. On this occasion, he was a few yards away from Parky.

Despite my negativity, we began brightly, less laboured than in recent games, and a thrusting run from deep from Christian Pulisic showed our intent. There was an early Bournemouth free-kick from Phillip Billings that Kepa easily saved. A strong low cross fizzed in from our right but there was nobody in the box to connect. Soon after, a header from kai Havertz did not worry Mark Travers in the Bournemouth goal. A fine ball in from Kalidou Kouilbaly set up Pulisic but as his shot was released, there appeared to be a shirt pull. Alas, no penalty was given. But this was a good positive start from us.

Soon after, on sixteen minutes, while Alan and I were abusing Clive for watching Arsenal on TV, a nice move developed. Mount to Raheem Sterling and a low skidder of a cross that had just enough legs and drift on it to reach Kai Havertz, who delicately prodded it home.

Phew.

The stadium, however, was hardly bubbling over with noise.  But things would improve ten minutes later when a move again developed down our right. A neat series of passes moved the ball on and Havertz kept the move alive. The ball was pushed back by Havertz to Mount and his sweetly-placed shot nestled inside the right-hand post.

Excellent stuff.

There were a few late chances for us as the first-half was played out, with Denis Zakaria looking a fine player in midfield and Thiago Silva as impressive as ever in defence. Travers saved well at the near post after a strong shot towards goal from Sterling. Another penalty shout for a foul on Havertz was waved away.

As the referee blew for the half-time whistle, I was full of praise.

“Nice one Chels. Well done.”

Alas, the second-half did not run along similar lines. After just eight minutes into the second period, a player went down on the far touchline. A quick scan of other players confirmed my darkest fears.

“It’s Reece.”

He walked off and we wondered how serious this latest setback would be. He was replaced by Dave.

A lovely move ended with a Zakaria shot being deflected over and we enjoyed a little pressure. On fifty-eight minutes Havertz forced his way into the box with a strong dribble but screwed his shot wide.

An effort from Mount, a wild shot from Pulisic, a header from Zakaria and that was about it.

We really faded in the last quarter, inviting them on, and barely able to maintain possession when needed. Too often our passes were mishit, too often we gave them too much space.

Some changes.

Conor Gallagher for Zakaria.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Pulisic.

Trevoh Chalobah for Sterling.

A fine save, down low, from Kepa at his near post kept Bournemouth at bay, but they definitely finished the stronger. In their Denis the Menace colours, I half expected them to claim a goal to set up a nervous finale. Kepa certainly earned his colours late on. Thankfully, their menacing came to nothing.

Chelsea 2 Bournemouth 0.

We climbed to eighth.

I battled some awful weather along the M4 on the drive home, but thoughts were already on our next match.

“It’s great that we have a game at Forest next. It’s not a new ground, but it seems like it. A new experience. Our first visit in decades. Just what we need to keep our spirits up. And our interest.”

See you there.

xxx

Tales From Number 686

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 12 November 2022.

There was a moment, not too long ago, when I was looking ahead – but not looking forward – to the enforced break during play in November and December, and I commented to some friends that it was possible for us to be tucked in nicely behind the top two or three teams by the time we played at Newcastle United and for us to then solidify our position in the top four on our return to action after Christmas.

It’s quite likely that this was my opinion after the game in Austria. But look what has happened since. A shocking performance and a heavy defeat at Brighton, a narrow win over Dinamo Zagreb at home, another terrible showing at home to Arsenal, and a loss at Manchester City.

The fixture at St. James’ Park was always going to be a tough one, but it now became even more difficult. We were playing against a team that was now enjoying a real surge in performances and self-confidence, while we were limping along, beset with injury problems, floundering under a new coach, square pegs in round holes, desperate to get to the winter break and with “damage limitation” as a new buzz-word around town.

As the game approached, I would have gambled everything on a dour 0-0 draw, just to avoid the inevitable backlash. The last thing we needed was three consecutive league defeats to take us into almost seven weeks of introspection, self-doubt, worry and possibly decay.

A big game? Oh yes.

It was also a landmark game for me. This would be Chelsea game number 1,372. Now there’s nothing special about that number in itself, but it would mark a special moment in my recent “Chelsea history.”

The first game that I wrote up a detailed account of my match-day meanderings in a regular blog format was the Champions League Final on 21 May 2008. This was game number 687. For those who are half-decent at mathematics, hopefully a few numbers will drop into place. The game at St. James’ Park would exactly split the number of total matches that I have seen into two; 686 games without a blog, 686 games with a blog.

And, as luck would have it, a nice bit of symmetry too; my first game was against Newcastle, the last game would be against them. The added dimension of this moment is that it would come right on the start of the enforced winter break this season.

So, some numbers.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974.

Game 686 : Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers, 11 May 2008.

Game 687 : Chelsea vs. Manchester United, 21 May 2008.

Game 1,372 : Newcastle United vs. Chelsea, 12 November 2022.

Let’s get going with match report 686.

I booked flights from Bristol to Newcastle ages ago. I gave myself a little wriggle-room, Friday night to Sunday night. It was a steal; just £60 return. The announcement of a 5.30pm kick-off on the Saturday evening ticked just about every conceivable box available, plus possibly some others that we were not even conscious of.

Three days and two nights in The Loony Toon?

Let’s gan, like.

I worked a 7am to 3pm shift on the Friday and picked up Lord Parky at 3.30pm. Not long into the drive down to Dodge to collect P-Diddy, Lordy realised that he was missing his credit card. I turned my car around and headed back.

We both found it odd that when we called back at his house, his partner Jill looked a little shocked to see us; a full-on marching band with majorettes were parading past, the small close had been decorated with flags and bunting, and there was a street party in full flow.

Jill looked embarrassed.

Parky soon found his credit card.

“Awkward this, Parky. Awkward.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have words with Jill when I get back from Newcastle.”

I collected PD at 4.15pm, and we then got caught up in some slow moving over traffic over The Mendips but pulled into the Long Stay at Bristol Airport at about 5.15pm.

Check in was easy. A coffee to kill some time.

“You can be sure there will be someone we know on the flight.”

Lo and behold, as we walked towards our departure gate, we spotted the two Andys and Zippy from Trowbridge with Steve from Weston in the bar. I reminded Steve that the first time I had met him was on a return flight from Newcastle in 2015 and we then both caught an onward flight over to Porto a few hours later.

A downer was the £24 we had to pay for our hand baggage.

“EasyJet never charged that for Turin. Bollocks.”

My reputation as a logistical expert was in tatters.

The flight to Newcastle left a little late at 7.30pm but we touched down at Newcastle at 8.10pm, on time. We took a sherbet dab to our apartment in Benwell. Initially, PD was all for a couple of quiet pints in a local pub, but I had already completed some reconnaissance and there was nothing near. Some friends were already plotted up at a pub that we knew so, with a little gentle persuasion from Parky and little old me – I am serious – PD agreed that we would hit the town, er toon.

An hour after touching down on Tyneside, we were in a cab into the city.

What followed was one of the great Chelsea nights. We started in “Rosie’s” under the shadow of St. James’ Park, just two hundred yards away, with friends Gillian, Kev, Rich from Edinburgh and Matt from Perth in Australia, I had met his father Ian in Perth for the Chelsea game in 2018. We were then joined by Al and Daryl who had travelled up by train in the morning and also Steve from Salisbury who had taken a very early flight from Heathrow. Paul, Rob, Dave and Glenn, Jason and Cass joined us, then Andy from Trowbridge and Steve from Weston.

“That’s my fault for tagging where we were on Facebook.”

Paul told me that he had lived on Tyneside for a few years thirty years ago, and had visited family in Hexham on this trip. He admitted that it was the passion and euphoria of being in Newcastle when Keegan was manager that actually re-ignited his love for football and Chelsea in particular. I knew exactly what he meant. Keegan was regarded as a veritable Messiah when he played for them between 1982 and 1984, as detailed this season, and he absolutely re-energised the area when he became manager in 1992. I have told the story here how I accompanied my good friend Pete to three Newcastle away games in 1992/93; local games at Bristol City and Swindon plus a game at Brentford when I was in London for the weekend.

We tumbled down into the Bigg Market and enjoyed a pint or two in a surprisingly quiet “Wunder Bar.” We strode further down the gentle slope and into “Pop World” where I had promised to meet up with Donna and Rachel, newly arrived from Heathrow. Dave – “Rees the Fleece” – was there with a few more faces. More drinks, some sing-alongs, some friendly locals handed us shots and some Jaeger Bombs were inevitably downed. PD and I recreated “One Night In Turin” with some “Baileys” and a fine time was had by all. One of us managed to avoid the clutches of a mad local woman, no names, no pack drill. Not that there’s anything wrong with liaisons with local girls in The Bigg Market, cough, cough.

There was even a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant towards the end that the locals ignored without incident. I wondered if this was the modern day equivalent of taking an end in the ‘seventies.

We caught a cab back to our digs at just after 2am.

I think.

It’s a bit shady.

Remarkably, there was no hangover on the Saturday morning. We all had a lie in but we were soon moving again. At about 11am, a later start than usual, we assembled together for a breakfast at the ‘Spoons on the quayside. The usual suspects, from the night before, soon joined us. A couple of pints soon rejuvenated me. We trotted along by the river and its bridges to meet up with Alan and Daryl, plus Nick and Robbie, at Akenside Traders which is always a hubbub of activity at any time of the day. The place was awash with Chelsea – too many to mention – and the beers continued. I wasn’t paying any attention to the Manchester City vs. Brentford game on TV, but just happened to watch as Brentford scored a ridiculously easy and ridiculously late goal to give them a superb 2-1 win.

From there, we strolled up to “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” and the merry-making continued. I bumped into Adam and some of his Eastern Blues.

Next, a cab up to St. James’ Park, and the Geordie driver was good value for money. He chatted about the Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan years; first as both players in 1983/84, then as player and manager in the “second coming” of the ‘nineties. Beardsley was a quality player. I have written before how I loved his trick, the “leg dangle” mid-dribble to put players off. I have never seen any other player do this.

“Have a good time, lads. But diven’t enjoy it too much, like.”

We caught the lift up to the upper level, and we went our separate ways. I had again swapped my ticket with PD so he could watch with Al, Gal, John and Parky. As ever, there were loads of Rangers in the concourse, but I wished that they didn’t sing their songs. At a Chelsea game? Sing our songs. Ta.

I made my way in. Night, of course had fallen by now. Outside the illuminated steel of the stadium, all was dark. The trip, thus far, had been near perfect, but now – alas – it was time for football to spoil it all.

But first, some history.

My “forty years ago” feature focuses on another away game against a team in black and white stripes and black shorts. On Tuesday 9 November 1982, Chelsea travelled to Meadow Lane for a League Cup tie against Notts County, the oldest professional team in the world who were formed in 1862. Unfortunately, Notts – their supporters call the team “Notts” and recoil at the city’s other team being called “Notts Forest” – beat us 2-0 with both goals being scored in the first-half. The gate was 8,852. At the time, Notts were in the First Division after being promoted at the end of the 1980/81 season.

Their one honour was the FA Cup in 1894. Oh, another claim to fame is that a Notts County supporter provided black and white shirts for Juventus way back in 1903. I must say that I love the fact that Juve chose to christen their new stadium in September 2011 with a friendly against Notts County. Amazingly, Notts drew 1-1. Sadly, the team now play in the National League at level five in the football pyramid.  From Turin to Dorking. What a fall from grace.

The usual routine of games at St. James Park took over.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.

“Blaydon Races” and I found it difficult to join in beneath my breath, it takes me back to my parents teaching me the words ahead of that first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

“Hey Jude” was a new addition, but we again hijacked it.

The locals had their own version anyway.

“La, la, la – la, la, la, la – la, la, la, la – Geordies.”

There were flags and banners in the Gallowgate. Amid the noise, it really felt like a whole city had been energised.

But first, a solemn moment. A poppy amid a sea of white mosaics, similar to us last week, appeared in the seats in the stand to my left, and the teams stood silent as “The Last Post” played.

Complete silence. Well done to everyone again.

Our team?

Mendy

Koulibaly – Chalobah – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Kovacic – Hall

Gallagher – Mount

Broja

I had said all along that I doubted that Lewis Hall would maintain his place despite a decent show at Manchester City md-week.

Eddie Howe vs. Graham Potter.

That rarest of match-ups, two young English coaches, both coming from those hot beds of football, Bournemouth and Brighton. Please excuse my cynicism.

The match kicked-off.

The game took a while to get going and there was a verbal war in the stands to take the place of hostilities on the pitch. I was surprised with how quiet it all was in the vast home areas. A lot of my fellow Chelsea fans agreed :

“No noise from the Saudi Boys.”

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

“We’ve won it all, you’ve won fuck all, we’ve won it all.”

Sadly, we had to re-jig our square pegs after just seven minutes when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was injured, to be replaced by Thiago Silva with Dave shifting out wide.

Miguel Almiron, the in-form player, volleyed over after a cross from our right, but chances were very few and far between. As we struggled to get into the game, I had a look around. Next to me were three empty seats. A few empty ones behind me too. This was all the more galling since Gillian and Kev had been unable to secure tickets. All of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. This was a very mild night. One chap to my right was just wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. Maybe he was that rare breed; a Geordie Chelsea fan. I remember I met one once.

A cross from the enterprising Hall found Armando Broja but his turn and shot ended with a simple save for Nick Pope. I bet the Rangers lot hated that.

Newcastle had much of the ball in that first-half but a mixture of poor final balls, dodgy finishing and desperate blocks from us denied them.

This was a poor game. Chelsea chances were at an absolute premium. I would like to say that we eventually grew into the game but we didn’t. At all.

Shite.

At half-time, Christian Pulisic replaced Dave. Did my eyes deceive me? No, Gallagher went to right wing-back. If we all hang around long enough, we’ll all get to play there.

Newcastle continued on the offensive with brave blocks from our defenders, plus a fine save from Mendy from close-in on Chris Wood. A snapshot from Sean Longstaff flew over our bar.

On the hour, a noisy “Carefree” from us. The home crowd were still pretty quiet, the noise levels only increasing when a move developed, the buzz increasing with their players’ penetration of our half. I remember the days when fans used to sing regardless of the action on the pitch.

Then, quite out of nowhere…

“Stand Up If You Love The Toon” and the loudness knocked my socks off.

That was more like it, Newcastle.

On sixty-five minutes, again out of the blue, a strong run from Pulisic ended up with the ball being pushed into the path of Gallagher who took aim and forced a fine flying save from Pope. It was our best chance of the game by a country mile.

With a quarter of the game to go, Almiron ran in from the right-hand touch line and appeared to me to be lining up a shot. The ball, though, fell nicely for Joe Willock, who swept it high past the dive of Mendy and into the goal.

Bollocks.

The home areas exploded.

“E-I-E-I-E-I-O – Up The Premier League we Go.”

We stood, silent, we had no answer.

“One-nil to the Saudi boys.”

Fackinell.

A triple substitution soon followed.

Marc Cucarella for Hall, a decent showing but no more.

Kai Havertz for Mason Mount, I hardly noticed him.

Hakim Ziyech for Armando Broja, another disappointment.

It was a lost cause. In the dying embers of a shocking performance, Mendy was sent into the attacking third to support a corner to no avail. It all got heated and nasty at the end, when a Geordie substitute was booked for interfering when we tried to take a throw-in. Both sets of players had to be separated at the final whistle.

This malicious mood continued after the game when we were exiting the stands, and were met with some posturing home fans underneath the Leazes End. The moment would probably have passed but we then heard the distinctive sound of police horses getting between the two sets of fans, a sight rarely seen these days, and a sound from a darker era.

The immediate post mortem was brutal.

“Fucking shit.”

Three league defeats in a row,

We walked into town amid some baying Geordies, who were quite adamant that they would become champions. I wasn’t so sure, but their euphoria was tangible. “Wunder Bar” was unfeasibly busy now, so we kept walking and walking into the craziness of a Newcastle night. I spotted three local girls, dolled up to the nines, short skirts of course, stop by a street corner and the loudest of the three took a video-selfie.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys. For we are mental. For we are mad. We are the loyalest (sp?) football supporters. The world has eva had.”

I had to admre it.

Parky, PD and I returned to the quietness of “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” – more local ladies, lovely – and we darted into the historic “Crown Posada” and who should be in there but Alan and Daryl.

“Of all the pubs in Newcastle, you had to walk into this one.”

We supped a few more. We were all fed up with our performance but equally philosophical too.

Daryl and I spoke about our huge disinterest in the Qatar World Cup, but both spoke about the seminal book “All Played Out” by Pete Davies that detailed England and the 1990 Finals in Italy. The “all played out” of the title refers to the state of the English game going into those finals; antiquated stadia, the lingering stench of hooliganism and racism, out-dated playing and training methods, disinterest in football by the public at large, football as a niche sport loved only by nutters and – the silent majority to be fair – normal supporters, and a game without much of a future.

The tears from Paul Gascoigne changed all that and the game has not been the same since.

“Now it’s us who are all played out with World Cups, mate.”

We kept drinking.

A late-night kebab and chips and then a cab back to Benwell at about 1am. The night was finished.

On the Sunday, we licked our wounds early on. We caught a bus into the city and then a metro out to Whitley Bay, a first time visit for us all, where we enjoyed some sun, a walk along the seafront and some fish and chips in a friendly restaurant. Then, the train back to the airport and a wait until the 8.10pm flight home. No surcharge on the bags this time, phew. I eventually got in at about 11pm.

It had, of course, been a superb time on Tyneside but…

…fackinell, the football.

Some other stuff.

The game at St. James’ Park, pushed my visits to Newcastle United into the top ten of most visited away venues.

  1. Manchester United 26
  2. Liverpool 25
  3. Arsenal 24.
  4. Tottenham 23
  5. Everton 22.
  6. Manchester City 19
  7. Aston Villa 18
  8. Southampton 18
  9. West Ham 15
  10. Newcastle United and Stoke City 14

And in case anyone is wondering, the “won, drawn, loss” breakdown from those 1,372 games is as follows.

Games 1 to 686.

Won 386

Drew 169

Lost 132

Games 687 to 1,372.

Won 410

Drew 128

Lost 147

And, lastly, with 3,390 words for this one, it brings my total “wordage” to 1,734,583.

However, I’m exhausted. I never thought I’d say it, but I think I need this enforced break. And, to be honest, if the viewing figures of the last three match reports are anything to go by, so do you lot.

Have a great Christmas and see you at Stamford Bridge on 27 December for the Bournemouth game.

Tales From High Noon

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 November 2022.

After we traipsed back to the car on Wednesday after the win against Dinamo Zagreb, soaked with the rain, we were well aware of the tough task ahead of Graham Potter’s side before the break in proceedings. We were to play three tough, tough, tough games.

Arsenal at home in the League, Manchester City away in the League Cup and Newcastle United away in the League.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

To be blunt, the Manchester City game didn’t bother me too much. I had, in reality, already conceded defeat. I just didn’t want us to be embarrassed. As for the two league games, I soon decided that I would be happy with two 0-0 draws. It was all about getting our feet over the line before the season closed down for a break of forty-five long days. If the 2022-23 campaign looked like an assault on Mount Everest, getting to the second weekend of November would be akin to arriving at a pretty significant base camp.

The home game with Arsenal was to kick-off at midday. This was a ridiculous time for a match. It harked back to times in the early to mid-‘eighties when worries about potential hooliganism forced the football authorities to foist such kick-off times on us all. On opening day 1984, for example, our most famous game against Arsenal in that era kicked-off at 11.30am.

But midday in 2022? Oh boy.

My alarm sounded at 4.45am. On a Sunday. A day of rest? Forget it.

My passengers were soon collected; PD and Glenn at 5.45am, Ron at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. As a matter of principle, I never like being late for any pick-ups. And nor does Ron in particular.

“I was only ever late for tackles.”

We were met with yet more horrific weather as we headed towards London. There was so much standing water on the roads that I wondered that if the torrents continued until kick-off, the game might be postponed. Such was our combined fear of getting turned over by Arsenal, a postponement wasn’t looked on as unfavourably as it might have been at another time.

I dropped the others off and then parked the car. The rain had subsided a little, but as I made my way down a deserted North End Road, stopping en route for a rare McBreakfast, my rain jacket was clinging to me, the rain reluctant to stop.

I joined the lads in “The Eight Bells” at just after 10am. We were in there for an hour. There was no talk of the game being called off. Alex – from last Saturday and Wednesday – joined us and was pleased to meet my fellow Chelsea mates at last. He called them “the Three Musketeers” and me “D’Artagnan.” I will not share what I called him. The usual laughs in the pub, the usual characters. It did feel bloody odd, though, to wish a few friends and regulars “Happy Christmas” as we squeezed out of the boozer.

Bollocks to Qatar 2022. It has ruined our season and it has ruined many lives.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. It just seemed all along like a bloody ridiculous time for a game of football, London derby or not.

Forty years ago – to the exact day, Saturday 6 November 1982 – Chelsea had another home derby. We played Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge in front of a relatively decent 15,169, but the game ended up as a dull 0-0 draw. I won’t detail the Chelsea team on this occasion but, for reference and as a comparison, let me list the Crystal Palace players; Paul Barron, Gavin Nebbeling, Jerry Murphy, Steve Lovell, Jim Cannon, Paul Hinshelwood, David Giles, Henry Hughton, Ian Edwards, Kevin Mabbutt and Vince Hilaire. I recognise all of these names forty years on, with the exception of David Giles, and if pressed I could probably write short pen pictures of them all. Of especial note is Kevin Mabbutt, a former Bristol City striker, whose brother Gary had gone from Bristol Rovers to Tottenham in 1982 and would soon be playing for England. Their father Ray used to play for Frome Town. I mention all of this because I know damn well that I would be hard-pressed to name many of the current Arsenal team that would be playing us on the same date in 2022. I don’t feel any pleasure in saying this. I guess it is a sign of my changing relationship with football and modern football in particular. Outside of Chelsea, I just don’t see much football these days. Oh well.

Glenn was using my ticket for this game as I had picked up a spare. For a change, I would be sat in Gate 17 at the Matthew Harding. It’s an odd section. It’s actually along the side of the pitch, an adjunct to the East Stand, and was built a few years after the Matthew Harding, and joined the two stands together. To be honest, it’s a great area to see the game. My seat was in the second row, just splendid. I soon spotted Mark Worrell a few rows behind me alongside Young Dave and Pav from Bath, heroes of Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013. I saw that club historian Rick Glanvill was a few seats away. I also spotted Johnny Twelve and his son in an even better viewing position in one of the middle tiers of the West Stand.

By the side of the pitch, former players Emmanuel Petit and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Oh dear, memories of that 2002 FA Cup Final against you-know-who.

As this would be our nearest home game to Remembrance Day, the Stamford Bridge stadium was set up to honour the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The large letters “Chelsea Remembers” usually occupy the corner of the pitch where I was now located but I was lucky in that this display was now in the opposite corner of the northern end of the stadium. It meant that I was still able to capture it all on camera. Above the Shed End, a banner stated “We Will Remember Them” and the crowd waited for the understated pageantry at kick-off. Two Chelsea pensioners placed wreaths, the players lined up on the centre-circle and “The Last Post” was played by a lone bugler. In The Shed, a sea of white mosaics appeared with a large red poppy in the middle. It didn’t feel right to photograph this, I let the moment pass, and kept my head bowed in silence.

The minute of silence was that. It was unerringly quiet. Well done to all.

Our team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Chalobah – Cucarella

Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek

Sterling – Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

Their team? Who cares.

So, this was it then. A duel at high noon. A shoot-out between London’s two most decorated clubs.

Arsenal : 31 major trophies.

Chelsea : 28 major trophies.

This was my thirty-seventh game against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Additionally, I have seen us play Arsenal at six further venues, the most of any club; Highbury, The Emirates, Wembley, Cardiff, Beijing and Baku.

The game began.

From this new vantage point, Stamford Bridge looked different, though obviously familiar. I didn’t like feeling cramped in with spectators to my front, back, left and right. In my usual seat, I have just bodies to my right and in front; to my left steps, a walkway behind. And I took an immediate dislike to the angry man to my left. He quickly annoyed me, telling a chap who was obviously having difficulty to find his correct seat to “fuck off” and soon labelling one of our players with a term that I thought had died a death in the ‘eighties.

On the pitch, Arsenal had begun much the brighter of the two teams and very soon the anger of one man spread to the anger of others. Attacking at will down below me, the chances started to pile up but the Arsenal finishing was errant and did not really trouble Edouard Mendy. An effort from Gabriel Martinelli – I recognised him – flew just over the bar.

We invited Arsenal on, but there was a horrific piece of goalkeeping from Mendy when he almost made a complete hash of passing the ball out of defence. I was reminded of a moment that took place the previous afternoon during the Frome Town vs. Tavistock game that I had watched with a few friends. We were already 2-0 down but we gifted the visiting team from Devon with a third when our ‘keeper made a mess of clearing and an attacker scored his third of his eventual four goals in a shocking 4-0 rout. It was, undoubtedly, the worst Frome Town performance that I had seen for years.

I kept looking at the clock, willing the time to pass quickly. There is no doubt that we had shown a reluctance to piece too many moves together but we were playing a little better than I had feared.

In the midst of strong Arsenal pressure, we enjoyed a rare break. Raheem Sterling ran at pace down our right before switching it to Kai Havertz on our left.

“Go on Havertz, be strong.”

The pace of the move slowed and Havertz methodically advanced. He spotted the run of Mason Mount but a shot was blocked.

Gabriel Jesus – I sadly recognised him too – headed a cross from Martinelli just wide of Mendy’s goal.

Chances were at a premium.

I wanted our support to roar the players on, but it saddens me to say that I could just hear the three thousand Arsenal fans and not us.

That very distinctive “Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal.”

The left-footed Odegaard reminded me of Mike Fillery, just the way he caressed the ball forward.

A poor finish from Havertz from a nice move down our right.

“That was a bloody back pass” I moaned.

At the break, there was relief that we were still in the game, despite Arsenal having more of the ball. But, I had to admit it to myself, neither ‘keeper was pressed into a save.

Arsenal still enjoyed more of the possession as the second-half began. Gabriel Jesus forced a near post save from Mendy. From the corner that followed, a slow cross towards to the near post. It seemed to be headed on from the view that I had, and the ball continued on unaided through a forest of players in the six-yard box.

I screamed.

“No!”

Then when the ball was pushed over the line :

“Fuck off!”

Sixty-three minutes had passed.

Then that horrible song.

“One nil to The Arsenal.”

A double substitution from Potter.

Conor Gallagher for the woeful Havertz.

Armando Broja for the equally poor Aubameyang.

I heard the jeering, booing, laughter of three-thousand Arsenal fans.

There seemed to be an immediate increase in our intensity, but for all of the energy of the two newcomers, it was all so disjointed. The Arsenal players were suffocating our midfield and the two in front of the back four – Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek – offered little.

The rain came again, damn it; not another soaking on a wet walk back to the car?

More Arsenal chances, our fight disappeared.

Two more changes.

Christian Pulisic for the almost invisible Mount.

Mateo Kovacic for the disappointing Loftus-Cheek.

Chances in the second-half? I can only think of one, a quick break from Sterling but his cross disappeared into the ether.

The angry man to my left early, and a fair few others left early too. It was a deeply disappointing game for us, and one that left us all wondering about our immediate future. Of our players, only Mendy – several decent saves – and Dave – a steady game in difficult circumstances – were exempt of any negative comments. The rest? Poor. Very poor.

Yes, we got drenched on the way back to the car, but maybe not quite so bad as on Wednesday. Everything was doom and gloom in the first few miles of our return journey.

And I don’t really know how to finish this one. In modern football, everyone reacts to the latest result as if that alone will define our season, our future. That can’t be right can it? I don’t know about Graham Potter. I can’t help feeling that he may not be an upgrade on Thomas Tuchel. But this ain’t his team, maybe not for a while.

The old banalities about time can be trotted out.

We’ll see. We’ll see.

In a moment of whimsy, after I had been back at home for an hour or so, I realised that the quintessentially English phrase “pottering” might well have summed up, cynically, our performance against Arsenal.

“to potter” : verb.

From the Oxford Dictionary : “to do things or move without hurrying, especially when you are doing something that you enjoy and that is not important.”

“Occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.”

“I’m quite happy to potter about by myself here.”

Similar :

Do nothing much.

Amuse oneself.

Tinker about.

Do odd jobs.

Mess about.

Piddle about.

Piddle around.

Puddle about.

Puddle around.

Muck about.

Muck around.

Fanny around.

Footle about.

Footle around.

Lollygag.

Move or go in a casual, unhurried way.

So much for a shoot-out at high noon on this wet and weary day at Stamford Bridge. If it was a shoot-out, somebody must have given us a supply of blanks.

However.

Let’s give the new man a bit of time to sort things out. Rome wasn’t built in a day and other clichés. We were bloody excellent at the San Siro a few weeks ago. We are missing two key players. Maybe three.

On we bloody go.

No midweek trip to Manchester City for me so the next one will be another tough game up on Tyneside.

See you there.