Tales From An Afternoon Of Predictable Unpredictability

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2017.

My eyes were firmly focussed on Andre Marriner, the referee, as the Crystal Palace supporters continued their euphoric and boisterous backdrop of noise, and as the last few seconds of the five minutes of added time ticked past. In those five minutes, rather than allowing a late reprise for Chelsea, it was the home team who enjoyed most of the possession. A few Chelsea fans around me had left minutes earlier. I waited for the final shrill toot of the whistle. Such was the noise from the Palace fans, I heard no whistle, but just the simultaneous movement of hand to mouth from Marriner, the celebratory thrust of Palace players’ arms into the air and the roar from the crowd at a raucous Selhurst Park.

There was deflation. Another three points dropped, Chelsea. Three losses out of just eight league games. Two consecutive losses. Losing to Manchester City was tough, of course, but we all knew that we had encountered a very fine team two weeks previous. But Crystal Palace were different; without a win in seven games and not even a single goal to their name. There was bewilderment within me, and all around me too. There was no point in trying to move away from my viewing position way down at the front of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand. The aisle ways were full of exiting away fans. Besides, I wanted to see how many of the team, the squad, would come over to the away fans to acknowledge our patronage and support. A few moments passed. I saw a few murky grey Chelsea shirts head down to the players’ exit on the far side, tucked between the towering curved roof of the Holmesdale Road stand and the slight slope of the ancient main stand. Those players were gone, out of my consciousness for a few moments. I spotted four Chelsea players continue their handshakes with a few of the opposing victors in our half of the pitch, and waited to see who would decide to walk over to our corner. Surely the captain Gary Cahill. Surely Cesar Azpilicueta.

I picked up my camera from beneath my seat. An over-zealous steward had warned me not to take any more photographs after he saw me take a close-up of a haring Davide Zappacosta in the first few minutes of the second-half. By then, though, I had taken more than enough for my match day quota, shielded from prying eyes by Ed and Parky, my two blockers. There is an increasing war of nerves between myself and stewards at away games these days. With the game over, and the stewards drifting away, uninterested, I brought the camera up to my eyes, and waited for the remaining Chelsea players to walk over.

Marcos Alonso, Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta.

There were pained expressions from all four of them.

They clapped us. We clapped them. There were no boos. There had been no boos as the game had reached its conclusion. For some reason – I suspect they are plain and obvious – our away support tends not to lower ourselves to collective boos. Of course there had been a rising tide of moans and groans, accompanied by every Anglo-Saxon curse known to mankind, throughout the game from frustrated supporters, but there was nothing orchestrated on a larger scale. My view has always been the same. I go to watch Chelsea to support the team. I try to be as positive as possible. Of course my frustrations get the better of me at times, but I always do my damnedest to find positives where I can, and to encourage those who need it most. In all of my time as a Chelsea supporter – Crystal Palace was game number 1,155 – I can only remember booing a player once; Frank Leboeuf in 2000, down below me as he came over to receive a throw-in the Matthew Harding wraparound, when it was thought that he was one of the main perpetrators in needling out Gianlica Vialli as manager. I was not the only one who booed him on that occasion. Leboeuf, previously a crowd favourite, looked visibly shocked that so many were booing him. I immediately felt terrible. What a fucking twat I was. I vowed never to do so again.

By all means berate players, if deserved, in private chats in pubs, clubs, bars and cars, but never at a game. Always be positive. Always provide backing. That surely has to be one of the Chelsea fundamentals.

At Chelsea games, we are supporters, not critics.

Right?

I took a few photos of the four players, standing, immobile, their faces still distraught.

I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered what words from Antonio Conte would be awaiting them on their return to the waiting changing room.

It had, from the very first few minutes, been a below-par Chelsea performance. The home team, managed by the old man Roy Hodgson – it was only ten weeks ago we bumped into him in Beijing at the Chelsea hotel – and coached by former favourite Ray Lewington, were first out of the traps, with Zaha and Townsend full of skill. An early goal, a Cabaye shot deflected in off the hapless Azpilicueta, surprised none of us. Whereas we all expected to win the game easily, I would hazard a bet that 95% of us knew that Palace would score their first goal of the league season against us. There was just something in our collective psyche that warned of this. That it only took eleven minutes was even more predictable. In my mind, before the game, my thoughts were –

“Concede an early goal, but win 3-1.”

How the Palace fans celebrated that league opener.

We slowly – slowly – got back in to the game as the first-half developed. A header by Tiemoue Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner was wildly celebrated and set off the September Song. However, a second goal from Palace, by the impressive Zaha, right before the break brought further gloom.

There were changes soon into the second-half with the very disappointing Michy Batshuayi going off to be replaced by the zip of Pedro. Charly Musonda then replaced the equally frustrating Willian. It was all change. Our attack had been invaded by mini-men. Eden Hazard was asked to lead the line, but at times the game totally evaded him. I kept thinking that if Hazard is truly to be regarded as one of the attacking greats of the modern game, then this is just the sort of match that he needs to grab by the horns and cause mayhem. He did nothing of note. Sure, Fabregas hit the bar, and Musonda volleyed over, but our play was erratic all day. We missed Kante, holding things in midfield. Oh how we missed Morata. Long diagonals to Zappacosta worked well, and he seemed pacey and engaged, but an equaliser never ever looked like coming. Our passing was off. We were second best in a few areas. In those closing moments, with the game stretched, Palace had further chances. Our support, mirroring the malaise of the players, was average at best. There is usually a good sing-song at Selhurst. On this day, it was all rather flat and lethargic. The lazy sexist comments aimed at Sian Massey, running the line, were just painful. Must do better.

The players walked a couple of paces towards us. There was still applause from the Arthur Wait stand. Marcos had tried his best, but had found little space out wide in order to play penetrating balls in. There had been the usual effort on this mild, but bleak, Saturday afternoon in South London for our Spanish left-back. Gary Cahill had a mixed game. There had been brave blocks and strong headers, but he often looked all at sea when the ball was played on the deck. As captain, he bore the defeat heavily on his shoulders. Thibaut walked closer, taking off his bright orange jersey, and eventually gave it to a fan in the crowd. He has never had all of the Chelsea support with him during his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, but our tall  Belgian often stays behind to thank us for our support. Does it mean anything? I think so. Alongside him was Cesar Azpilicueta, our Dave, his face showing the pain of defeat. It was an expression that was matched by myself. Everyone loves Dave. He had a typical 7/10 performance and was unlucky with his deflected own-goal. I wanted him to make a block on Zaha during his run into the box for the second goal, but for once his limpet-like man marking did not get him close enough to the Palace striker. Whereas others in the Chelsea support would be quick to castigate Azpilicueta, I was happy to give him some slack. He rarely lets us down.

Joining the four was Tiemoue Bakayoko, who took off his shirt and rolled it up before launching it into the away support. It landed in the grasping hands of a fan a few yards away. Without Kante alongside him, Bakayoko was asked to cover simply too much ground. Alongside him, Fabregas had a mixed game too, a few fine passes, a few crunching tackles, but the game then by-passed him at times.

The five players turned and retreated back across the pitch.

Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Let’s all admit it. We all presumed that we only had to show up at Selhurst Park to get three points. Going in to the game, on the drive up to London and through the terraced streets of South London – why is Selhurst Park such a bastard place to get to and from? – we were adamant that we would be victorious. With six games coming up in just eighteen games in October, here was a game that, even with a slightly weaker team, we should have surely won. There were no complaints from the four of us about the team selection prior to kick-off. But the manager must feel pain that his preparatory work amounted to nothing.

And it was complacency at its best, and worst, from many.

After the game, all the experts had their say – I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, some of the post-game hyperbole was embarrassing – but there are a few truths which can’t be ignored.

Our lack of options up front, especially, must be a worry. I spoke to Ed during the game about the halcyon days of 1997/98 when our first team squad boasted Mark Hughes, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Ginafranco Zola battling for places in attack. How times change, eh? Conversely, we have an over-abundance of central defenders, with Christensen, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger vying for three places. Christensen has not put a foot wrong so far. Let’s see if the manager takes the plunge.

We have to trust the manager. He has proved to be a fine tactician in his short Chelsea career thus far. It’s time for a reaction from our beloved players. And what is better than a potentially classic Champions League game against Roma on Wednesday to look forward to. As we drove home on Saturday night, we quickly warmed to the excitement of another European night under the lights at Stamford Bridge.

We are lucky people. I can almost hear the anthem. See you there.

 

Tales From Eight Pubs And Two Clubs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 30 September 2017.

On Wednesday evening, I was a football fan with split loyalties. While many of my friends were over in Madrid for the Champions League encounter, I was at a football game a lot closer to home. I had decided earlier in the week to avoid watching Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea, either on a streaming site at home or in a local pub, and instead to embrace the non-league scene and attend my local team Frome Town’s game at home to Hereford. The visitors were arguably Frome’s biggest ever opponents in a regular league game and I know that I had been relishing the game for some time. Hereford had been flooding grounds for a while with away support in their hundreds, and I would have felt bad about missing Frome’s biggest home gate for ages. The Hereford club, a phoenix from the ashes of the now defunct Hereford United – who Chelsea played in the Second Division season of 1976/77 – had an average gate of some 2,500, a fine figure at the seventh tier of English football. For one night only, I would eschew Chelsea in favour of my local team. I would watch the Chelsea highlights on ITV after. After a little soul-searching, I was OK with my decision. It dawned on me that, in years to come, there will surely be a time when my trips to watch Chelsea might dwindle away – lack of finances, lack of mobility, the passing of time – and I will be found watching my local club more often than Chelsea. My first Frome Town game, after all, was in 1970, some four years before my first-ever Chelsea match. They say that everything goes in a full circle.

And then Wednesday evening arrived, and I felt as though I was letting Chelsea down. I had a change of plan. I decided that I would watch the Champions League game in the Frome Town clubhouse, hopefully see a fair proportion of the first-half and then saunter out, ideally with us winning, to catch some of the Hereford game.

I arrived just before kick-off and noted a bigger-than-average crowd. I paid my £10 and headed inside. However, the Chelsea game wasn’t being televised in the clubhouse and so my plan was blown asunder. I took my seat alongside three mates in the main stand and, unable to watch the CFC game on a streaming site on my phone, watched on as Frome conceded three first-half goals. A friend told me that Chelsea were losing 1-0.

“Oh great. This whole night is going well.”

The second-half at Frome was a mundane affair and I got the impression that both teams were saving themselves for FA Cup games, financially beneficial these days, and were happy for the status quo. The news came through that Alvaro Morata had equalised; a quick “yes” was uttered. I knew that thousands would be celebrating in Atletico’s spanking new stadium. At the final whistle, with a 0-3 loss but a healthy 531 in attendance, I quickly walked back to my car as the rain fell. Then, two simultaneous text messages from Alan, in Madrid, and Glenn, elsewhere in Frome, confirmed a last minute winner at the Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m not usually a jealous type, but for a moment, I was – I admit – pretty jealous of the away army in Spain, no doubt falling over themselves in joyous oblivion.

What an away win for Chelsea. It was undoubtedly one of the best away performances in Europe for a while. And I missed it. Bollocks.

Not to worry, there was another game on the immediate horizon – Manchester City at home – and, bolstered by that fine win in Madrid, it was all that I could think of as the weekend approached.

I collected the lads – Jake in Warminster, PD and Glenn in Frome and Parky in Parkyville – and the Chuckle Bus was full to the rafters. Like on a few other occasions, I had planned a pre-match pub-crawl in London for the chaps.

At bang on 11am, I parked-up right outside the first one, The Black Lion, just off the A4 and not too far from the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick. We were the first ones in. Parky and I had called in to the same pub on one other occasion, after the monumental Napoli game in 2012. It did not seem five minutes ago. Outside, there were brilliant blue skies. The first pint did not touch the sides. Next up, “The Dove” right on the river, with lovely views of Hammersmith Bridge. There were rowers on the Thames. The boys were enjoying this. In the third pub, “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by my friends Diana and Ian from Chicago, who last appeared in these dispatches when I went out with them for one night of boozy fun in Chicago on the 2015 tour of the US. It is always a pleasure to see them. There was talk of football and music, everyone’s twin loves. We popped, quite literally, next door and into “The Rutland.” Another lovely pub, though by now, with myself on designated driving duties, I was off the lager. We said temporary “cheerios” to the two Chicagoans and hot-footed it back to the car, via a final scoop in “The Old Ship.” It had been a fine pub-crawl – we had been blessed with excellent weather for the most part – and it mirrored the one that Parky and myself completed before Arsenal away in 2015. What a joy it is to be able to dip into these historic, charming and quaint pubs in the nation’s capital.

 

 

We met up with Diana and Ian in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and then split up again. Glenn and Jake stayed on for some food, while the rest of us piled in to the Chicagochuckle Bus as we stopped off at “The Goose.” I had managed to get hold of some match tickets for Diana and Ian, and – at last –  it was a relief to see the tickets handed over and paid for. I then darted back up to “The Clarence” to pick up a ticket for Jake.

Phew. All sorted.

Eight pubs.

Now for the football.

On the walk to the ground, I heard that Frome Town had lost 1-2 to Heybridge Swifts in the FA Cup. I whispered a melancholic “oh well” to myself and thoughts returned to my first love.

We were in early, and I had hoped that there would be a nice buzz of anticipation in the stadium, just like we used to have before the big games of old, when the terraces used to fill up early, when songs were sung by The Shed, when the thrill of the match used to capture our imagination. Alas, it was all pretty mundane really. I watched as the three-thousand City fans slowly filled their section, but there was no real electricity in the air. This was, after all, the biggest game of the weekend by some margin, and one of the biggest games in world football. I expected more.

We had heard that the team was tweaked slightly, what with David Luiz suspended. Victor Moses was benched, and Dave was pushed out to the flank to allow for Antonio Rudiger to play. Just as in Madrid, Antonio Conte went with a 3-5-2.

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Azpilicueta – Kante – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

Sergio Aguero was out, but there was quality throughout the City ranks.

My thoughts on the game? I’d take a draw but a win would be bloody magnificent. Anything but a defeat.

The banners were paraded – “The Shed” to the south and “Pride of London” to the north – and the game started.

Just like Fiat and their innovative use of new colours a decade or so ago, Nike are certainly dabbling in all areas of an artist’s palate with their kit colours in 2017. The Manchester City away colours were fruity alright. The colour being worn reminded me of damson jam or blackcurrant Chewits. I wonder what outer reach of the spectrum will be chosen by Nike’s designers in years to come for us. Best not dwell on that, eh?

The first few minutes was all about singing that new song for Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante.

Well, it was the last day of September after all.

An early header from danger man Morata suggested that we would continue from where we left off on Wednesday, but we watched as City started to move the ball around us with ease. I was aware that I was leaning forward, on the edge of my seat, quite different than normal. I expected a tough game. A lot was expected of Bakayoko in the central position, and Kante seemed a little out of position to his right. I had spoken to Glenn on the drive to London about how football these days often resembles a chess match and how some managers might lose a game by being “half a position out” – playing someone just five yards away from his ideal position – and, sadly, it looked like this was the case with Kante, who tried his best to support the front two, but was then out of position once City broke.

There were howls as a clearance from Thibaut struck Gabriel Jesus; from our position, it was surely going in. We exhaled sharply. Phew. Soon after, reticence from Rudiger almost caused another City chance. The natives were getting restless. With each passing minute, City improved. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva looked especially tricky.

And yet, rather than roar the team on, the home crowd struggled to get in the game. Perhaps we were half a position out, too.

In quick succession, our attack was called back for a few offside calls. At the far end, where I am of course unable to be certain at all, I always look for the reaction of the supporters in the East and West Stands behind the flagging linesmen. In all occasions, there was no uproar, no forest of pointing arms, no shouts of exasperation. In each occasion, I can only assume the linesman and referee were correct. But it didn’t help our cause. There was a mixture of frustration with the players and officials. The home crowd were not as one.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Azpilicueta struck low inside the box and forced a low, late, save from Ederson, the City ‘keeper.

Throughout the first period, we were second-best in all areas. We were slow in closing space, and our passes were not crisp. But the new additions in defence, Christensen and Rudiger, continued to impress. The young Dane, especially, looks a natural, both positionally and technically. Gary Cahill, never the easiest on the eye, was a mixture of nervy clearances and solid tackling. But he drew a few moans from the supporters around me. Even now, the jury is out on him.

I spotted Morata hold his leg and stop. I wondered if he was injured.

Thibaut saved from Silva.

With ten minutes to go before the break, Morata – my fears justified – slowly walked off, to a massive round of applause.

Surely, it was Michy Batshuayi’s chance. Well, amazingly, apparently not. Instead, Conte chose Willian. How odd. Was the idea for the diminutive Willian and Hazard to buzz around the tall City defenders and wreak havoc? I was not convinced.

Willian, at times unplayable in previous times, drew the ire of the crowd with an implausibly poor free-kick. The boo boys were starting to gather.

Glenn commented “it’s not very often we get out-played at home, lads.”

Just before the half-time whistle, more City pressure and a corner from the impish de Bruyne. His cross found the head of Fernandinho, but his effort was beaten out by Thibaut. It was a cracking save, and one which kept us in the game at the break.

Chelsea hardly got out of our half in the first period of the second-half. We were well and truly penned in, with City flashing the ball neatly around us. We were being outplayed on our own turf and – yes – it felt odd.

As the rain started to fall, the City fans were hardly making a racket, but they certainly could be heard.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

Eden – at last – ran at pace at City and was fouled. His shot from the resulting free-kick was easily saved.

City continued to move the ball into our box. I remember a sublime gutsy block from Alonso. Soon after, typically incisive play found that man de Bruyne who smacked a rising shot past the valiant dive of Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

City were well worth their lead.

And save for a very few sporadic outbursts, the home crowd stayed as docile as before.

Antonio replaced Hazard with Pedro and Bakayoko with Batshuayi. In all honesty, things did not improve one iota. City still pushed, and should have scored a deserved second goal, when a shot from outside the box from Jesus was miraculously headed off the line by Rudiger. We tried, but the City defence was well in control. Christensen showed a different side of his game with a fine pass towards Batshuayi, but the ball was intercepted.

One last chance – hell, there were only three or four the entire game – fell to the head of Andreas Christensen, but his towering lunge resulted in the ball going well over the bar.

The rain fell on the walk back to the car. We were honest in our quick post-match analysis.

“We could have lost 3-0 or 4-0, boys.”

“City look the business.”

It was a long old trip back to Frome. My two clubs had both lost, but the Chelsea one hurt most, and by a mile. I almost dreaded looking to see what nonsense had been posted throughout the day by the social media darlings, and there was the expected melt-down by some.

Some cocksocket in Chicago was adamant that “Willian is the worst footballer on the planet” and I shot him down in flames.

We were clearly not at our best against City. But there are surely some positives at the moment. I like the way that we can set up in a 3-4-3 as of last season, a slightly narrower 3-4-2-1 and now a 3-5-2. And Conte will fine-tune these formations too. He will be hurting after this, and he will rebound. I love the form of Christensen, and Bakayoko could well trump anything that Matic has done for us. We always have a chance with N’Golo on the pitch. Eden Hazard, on his day, is unbeatable. And before anyone of us, or anyone outside our club, thinks that Manchester City have the title sewn up, let us all remember what was happening twelve months ago.

After seven games in 2016, City were top with nineteen points out of twenty-one. Chelsea were on thirteen points.

After seven games in 2017, City are on top with eighteen points out of twenty-one. Chelsea are on thirteen points.

See you all at Palace.

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Tales From Penkhull And Sideway

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : Saturday 23 September 2017.

Game five of September’s Magnificent Seven was at a familiar ground for me. Ever since our first-ever match at Stoke City’s new stadium in the FA Cup on an astonishingly cold Sunday in February 2003, I have witnessed every Chelsea game at the stadium on the hill. The match this season would be my tenth consecutive Stoke City vs. Chelsea league game. We have generally fared well, winning five, drawing two and losing two. But “Stoke Away” is always regarded as a tough game; the home side under Tony Pulis and now Mark Hughes have never made it easy for us.

Our third away game of the league season, our second successive one in the Midlands, and the Chuckle Bus was on the road once more.

Roadworks on the M5 forced us onto the M42 and then on the M6, over Spaghetti Junction and past Villa Park, and it meant that we only turned off the motorway and onto the A500 into my former college town at around midday. After replenishing my tank at a “Sainsbury’s” filling station in the Stoke town centre, I was pleased to garner a fabled response from the middle-aged woman at the till.

“Forty pounds, please duck.”

Ah, the Stoke-on-Trent duck. This was truly music to my ears. It was one of the charming idiosyncrasies of the local dialect and I developed a strong liking for it in the three years I lived in the city. It had no barrier. It was everywhere. Teenagers would call shop assistants “duck”, grown men would call young women “duck”, women would call us students “duck”, grown men would call each other “duck.”

I had to reply in kind.

“Ta, duck.”

I was back in Stoke.

I drove up to Penkhull which, like the football stadium, sits on a high ridge of land overlooking the sprawl of The Potteries. Not for the first time, we visited The Greyhound pub, which sits opposite the church spire of St. Thomas. Drinks were ordered and the Chuckle Brothers were at ease, save for the occasional glowering look from a local Stoke fan, who evidently wasn’t too enamoured with us plotting up in his pub. The pub is just right; cosy, a friendly landlord, good beers, and the building dates back to 1704, and so has just the right amount of character.

It was right that I was in The Greyhound in Penkhull on this particular day.

During the week, an old college friend Huw passed on some sad news that a mutual friend, Chris, had passed away the previous Saturday at just fifty-three. During my first year at Stoke – season 1984/85 – I shared digs with Chris and Huw and we became good friends. I was a fresher and they were in their third and final year of their chemistry degrees. They took me under their wing. After that first year, Chris went up to Glasgow to study a master’s degree at Strathclyde University. It wasn’t long before we were to meet up again. In February 1986, I read in a midweek paper that Chelsea were to play a friendly at Ibrox against Rangers – following-on from the Chelsea/Rangers lovefest at Anfield in November 1985 – and I quickly contacted Chris to see if he could put me up for the following weekend. Without the internet, and with me in The Midlands, it was lucky that I had read about the game, which took place on a Friday night. It so easily could have passed me by. As luck would have it, British Rail were in the middle of a special fares promotion for holders of a Young Person’s Railcard, and any destination in the UK could be reached for just £8.

Perfect.

I have vivid memories of exclaiming to a couple of fellow-football lads on my course that I was heading up to Glasgow with Chelsea at the weekend and, I’ll be honest, it felt like the most decadent thing I had ever done.

I was young, and free, and I had a return to Glasgow Central. What a buzz.

It was my first Chelsea weekend away of my life and I was certainly excited then as I am these days when I bugger off to Beijing, or Rome, or Baku.

I met up with Chris at his university and we soon went on an increasingly wobbly pub crawl around Glasgow. In 1986, Scotland was the only place in the UK with all-day opening. It was to be my downfall. We visited a number of pubs in the city centre and near Chris’ digs in Shettleston. We visited a bar on Shettleston High Street owned by Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish. After gathering his next-door neighbour Jim – a Rangers fan – we hopped on to a train into the centre at about 6pm, chatting to some ‘Gers fans from Edinburgh. The alcohol was taking over. I knew that I was reaching saturation level. Chris was not a huge football fan like me – he was from Grimsby, and loosely followed them – but he loved a beer. He was clearly leading me astray on this cold night in Glasgow. We popped into a dark pub right outside Queen Street train station – “Dow’s” – and got chatting to some Rangers fans from Gloucester of all places. They were able to squeeze us into a transit van and we hurtled off towards Ibrox. Outside, by the tube station, we entered the packed “Stadium” bar, which was wall-to-wall Rangers. The beer intake was continuing. Oh my goodness.

Chris, Jim and I watched the Rangers vs. Chelsea game on that night in 1986 – it was on St. Valentine’s Day, how romantic – from high up in the home Copeland Road stand. Over in the Broomloan Stand were around three or four hundred Chelsea fans – including my mate Alan, who, I was to later learn, had been in The Stadium bar too – and it was a surreal feeling to be watching my team in such famous, and yet alien, surroundings. Chelsea lost 3-2 that night, and – of course – my memories are rather blurred from all of the alcohol coursing through my veins. I remember us playing in that pristine white Le Coq Sportif kit. I remember a floodlight failure for a good ten minutes. I remember Pat Nevin, the Catholic, getting a bit of a rough ride from the nearby fans, which I was far from happy about.

I also remember singing “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the pope” which got a – cough, cough – mixed reaction too. With about ten minutes to go, maybe to beat the crowds, maybe fearing for my safety, Jim decided it was best to head home.

We left, and disappeared into the Glasgow night, the smell of fried food blocking my nostrils, only to continue drinking back at Jim’s flat. Elsewhere in that fabled city, Pat Nevin met Clare Grogan, on Valentine’s Night, the lucky bastard.

It had been a bloody fantastic day and night in Glasgow – one of the very best – and I had Chris to thank for all of it.

In 1987, I again stayed with Chris over a weekend which saw me attend the Rangers vs. Hamilton Academical game, but we were a lot soberer on that occasion, and I was to meet his future wife Eleanor on a night out after the game.

Chris was a good mate. He loved his music, he loved a beer. He was, I soon realised, the first friend of my age group to pass away. It was, naturally, all rather shocking. He will be, always, cocooned in my mind as a young lad, with his whole life ahead of him.

Over pints in The Greyhound, where we had celebrated Huw’s twenty-first birthday in 1985, with Chris on good form, I raised a glass to his memory.

“RIP Chris.”

We stayed in The Greyhound until just before 2pm and the Duckle Brothers were suitably refreshed. There was a little chat with a couple of the local Stokies, who were concerned that their defence was hit with injuries, and they wished us well.

Opposing football fans in rational conversation shock.

The drive from Penkhull over to the bet365 Stadium at Sideway only took around ten minutes. After parking up, I veered off to take some – more – photographs of the beguiling statue of the dribbling Sir Stanley Matthews which sits on a plinth outside the home Boothen End. I mused that although Sir Stan was known as the “King of the Dribble” in The Potteries, they clearly haven’t seen Parky after a gallon of cider.

My camera was not allowed in to the stadium – “bollocks” – so I had to drop it off in a little room beneath the away end.

We had seats low down, row five, just to the right of the goal. The exposed corner to our right is now filled-in, bringing the capacity up to just over 30,000. Annoyingly, the new TV screen in the opposite corner has blocked out the spire of the church steeple in Penkhull. I always used to look for it, for old times’ sake.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, club captain Gary Cahill lost out. And the manager was clearly saving Eden Hazard further for the toughest of games, away to Atletico Madrid and at home to Manchester City.

“Delilah” rang out and the teams trotted out onto the pitch. For once, the weather was fine.

Stoke had an early attack, but we broke fast, with Bakayoko moving quickly out of defence. The ball was played out to Dave, who played a perfect early cross over the Stoke defence, and right in to the path of Alvaro Morata in the inside-left channel. The Spanish striker drew the ‘keeper and slotted home past Jack Butland.

After just over a minute, we were already 1-0 up.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, duck.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

A chant soon rung out of the away end.

“Alvaro – wha-oh.

Alvaro – wha-oh-oh-oh.

He comes from sunny Spain.

He’s better than Harry Kane.”

Phew.

The game was bubbling along, but did not ignite further. To be honest the home side enjoyed much of the ball, and the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri was at the centre of all of Stoke’s attacking moves. But throughout the first-half, even though our defence was tested, I never felt troubled. A few shots were aimed at Thibaut, but bodies were sacrificed as we blocked and blocked again. As with the Tottenham away game, we always looked at ease. I was so impressed with the back three of Rudiger, Christensen and Azpilicueta. After a few below-par performances, Victor Moses was back to his best. Willian looked busy, twisting and turning, and brought others into the game.

There was a song for N’Golo.

“N’Golo – oh.

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believing.”

It reminded me of that wonderful night at The Hawthorns.

After half-an hour, we watched as a Darren Fletcher chest-pass went astray – he’s no JT, who has reigned as King of the Chest-Pass for years – and played in Pedro, who had been rather quiet until then. A quick touch, a look at the goal, and he despatched a fantastic shot past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 2

GET IN.

It seemed like we had only enjoyed two shots and here we were, two goals to the good.

There was virtually no noise emanating from the home end now.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

The two teams each had a couple of half-chances as the first-half came to its conclusion, with Diouf managing a bicycle kick which flashed wide.

There was a feisty start to the second-half, and Marcos Alonso drew the ire of the home fans along the side who were, probably not without reason, annoyed at a challenge which resulted in a yellow card. It was the noisiest that they were to get the entire game. A second foul by Alonso riled them further, and Antonio Conte saw the potential for self-harm, and replaced him with Gary Cahill. Stoke continued to try to claw their way back into the game, but with the play down the far end, I found it difficult to watch the movement of players. Peter Crouch, the former Chelsea season-ticket holder, came on and immediately created a chance for Diouf, who went as close as anyone. Thankfully, the rest of Stoke’s efforts tended to be blazed over and into the Boothen End.

Stoke were definitely back in the game, and I kept saying to Gary that I was glad that we were winning 2-0 and not 1-0.

The Stokies in the stand behind eventually boomed, with their very unique chant :

“GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE.”

The manager replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas. Four minutes later, Eden Hazard replaced Willian, whose form had dipped as the second-half continued. The two additions breathed new life into our team. A couple of chances were exchanged. A cross from Dave just evaded the far post lunge from Moses. Then, on seventy-seven minutes, Glen Johnson gave away the ball, and Alvaro Morata pounced. He pushed the ball forward, and accelerated away, with the entire half in front of him. He raced on, steadied himself as Butland approached, then clipped a low shot into the waiting goal.

We boomed.

Morata raced behind the goal, in front of the away contingent, and our arms and fists were pumping.

We live for moments like this. It was a stunning goal. Whisper it, but it immediately reminded me of his compatriot Fernando Torres in his pomp at Anfield, running free and scoring with ease. It will always be a major disappointment that we did not see Torres repeat such scoring at Chelsea. Eden Hazard, so good to have him on the pitch, was full of tricks and a shot was cleared off the line. With eight minutes remaining, a beautifully creative and cheeky chip from Fabregas was chested back – JT style – by Dave towards Morata, who nudged the ball past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 4 and Jonathan Walters wasn’t even bloody playing.

A hat-trick for our new silky striker. I think there will be more, don’t you?

In the last few minutes, Morata could easily have made it 5-0, but that would have been beyond cruel. Stoke, despite our goals, had enjoyed much of the ball. Then, shamefully, a horrid Crouch tackle on Cesc blew away any sympathetic feelings I had for the home team. On another day, Crouch would have seen red.

We bounced out of the away end, and all was well with the world.

“You know what, ahead of our trip to Madrid, that could not have been any better preparation. I know it’s a different type of football, but Europe is all about soaking up pressure, and then hitting the opposition hard on the break.”

There is no Madrid trip for me, but I wish safe travels to all those going to the Atletico game on Wednesday. It should be a belter.

Give my regards to Fernando, Felipe, Tiago – and Diego.

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Tales From Tricks Among The Trees

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 20 September 2017.

 

Our midweek League Cup match against Nottingham Forest would be our fourth of seven games in the month of September. It would certainly be a chance for manager Antonio Conte to rest some regulars and try some youngsters. But once the draw was made, though, I certainly toyed with the notion of missing this game against Forest.

I did not attend a League Cup home game against Bolton Wanderers in 2014 and that was probably the only first team home game since around 1995 that I simply – to put it bluntly – decided to avoid it. For all of my other games that I have missed – they number around fifteen – there were always extenuating circumstances; holidays, work, my mother’s ill-health.

But without too much thought nor deliberation, I paid my £25 for the ticket. The Forest game did not really excite me, though. It hardly had me giddy with excitement.

When I explained this to Glenn over the previous weekend, he asked me –

“Why are you going then?”

I was stumped.

It was a tough question. Why was I going?

Is “because I can” too flippant a response? I don’t know. My lack of clarity didn’t really bother me…maybe, one day, it will all make sense though?

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest.

Just like games against teams such as Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, it is a rare fixture indeed these days. Once proud members of the top division, the former European Champions have experienced troubled times over the past two decades, even dipping into the old Third Division at one stage. Our last meeting was in the FA Cup in 2007, when we won 3-0 at the Bridge. Their last season in the top flight was 1998/99. It certainly seems a long time ago.

In the pubs before the game, we again wondered if the apparent full house would materialise. Yes, we had heard that the game had sold out, but I knew for sure that there were a fair few spares floating around. Nottingham Forest had taken a hefty allocation – fair play to them – but it meant that Parky had been shifted from his seat in The Shed Lower. The 4,250 away fans, as has happened on other League Cup nights at Stamford Bridge the past three seasons, were to be placed in the entire lower tier and also the Western half of the upper rather than the usual Eastern side.

Good news – outside Stamford Bridge at about 7.15pm, the roads were as crowded as usual. There was the usual hubbub of pre-match activity. There were a few miserable looking touts seeking to offload some spares. I can spot their miserable faces a mile away. And although I was hoping for a good gate, I paradoxically wanted them to be unable to sell their tickets.

I was inside early. The place was almost empty.

Thank heavens, as the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled and it filled me with a great deal of pride. There were only 24,000 at the Tottenham vs. Barnsley game the previous evening, but here was a robust attendance of around 38,000 to 40,000. Well done us.

The manager certainly mixed things up. There were fresh faces everywhere and an all-Belgian attack to boot. Eden Hazard was to have his heralded first start of the season.

Caballero.

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill.

Zappacosta – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Kenedy.

Musonda – Batshuayi – Hazard

After his indiscretion in China, it certainly seems that Kenedy has been given an olive branch to extend his stay at Chelsea. There is no doubt that he is one lucky boy; he is surely on thin ice though.

Just before the teams were announced, Neil Barnet spoke about Forest’s famous and iconic manager Brian Clough. The game, poignantly, was taking place on the thirteenth anniversary of his sad passing in 2004. There was a black and white image on the TV screen and there was warm applause from both sets of fans. What a character Brian Clough was. I have spent hours watching clips of him on “You Tube” over the years. It is ironic that after achieving legendary status as a goal scorer with Middlesbrough and Sunderland and then as a manager with Derby County and Nottingham Forest, the only film devoted to him details his brief and inglorious spell as Leeds United manager in 1974.

On came the teams.

Forest’s shirts seemed to have a very rosy hue – lighter, pinker than I remember them – and there were early ‘eighties pinstripes too.

Alan and myself soon spotted a Walker playing up front for Forest.

“Wonder if that is Des Walker’s son. Looks like him?”

“You know what, I think it is.”

It was – a Google search confirmed it.

We also spotted a Clough. Zach Clough.

“Surely not?”

It wasn’t – again Google to the rescue.

We wondered if somewhere in the midst of Forest’s youth teams were players called Josh Shilton, Benny Burns, Bradley Birtles, and Wayne Wigley.

The Forest captain was ex-Chelsea defender Michael Mancienne.

File under “I expected great things from him part 529.”

The Forest fans were making a fair bit of noise as the game began and it didn’t take long for the nonsense to start. They bellowed “WWYWYWS?” at us and we soon replied with a “You’re not famous anymore.” I remember back in 2007, a few old school Chelsea got the famous “We hate Nottingham Forest” chant going, but I think that one has now passed away, and discarded into the great rubbish bin of obsolete ‘seventies football classics. It was one of the first, generic, football chants that I can ever remember singing, at school in around 1972.

“We hate Nottingham Forest.

We hate Liverpool too (with an optional “they’re shit”).

We hate Man United.

But Chelsea we love you.”

After just twelve minutes of good Chelsea pressure, with a couple of efforts on goal, a fine move involving Charly Musonda, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger developed down our right. Rudiger looped in a hard and deep cross and Kenedy met it on the volley, but cushioned it past the Forest ‘keeper Henderson rather looking to break the netting. It was a fine goal.

Alan, conjuring up a Shane Meadows “This Is England” tone : “They’ll have to come at us naaah.”

Chris, thinking about Tommy Lawton’s win bonus against Moscow Dynamo : “Come on mah little diamonds.”

There were further words from Alan –

“Ah, I always remember where I was when Kenedy shot and scored.”

Not long after, we worked the ball to Eden Hazard who picked out Batshuayi inside the box. The ball was deflected towards Michy who deftly struck home. At that moment, it seemed like the game was already won. The Chelsea crowd in the Matthew Harding immediately relaxed and invited both side stands to “give us a song” and, then, The Shed. A Zappacosta goal was ruled as being offside.

Every time Forest got past the halfway line, there was a noticeable roar. This always happens when lowly teams come to Chelsea. You almost feel like saying “bless them” but there was a time when Chelsea fans, very much aware of our status as underdogs, would also purr at a rare attack against stronger teams. And I miss those times.

Forest were awarded a free-kick about twenty-five yards out and Kieran Dowell crashed a rasping curler onto Caballero’s bar. The rebound was ballooned over. It was a rare Forest attack.

Kenedy shot over. Bakayoko forced a low save. Five minutes before the break, Fabregas picked out the lively Musonda who took one touch and walloped a shot past the luckless Henderson.

Chelsea 3 Forest 0 : surely no Bradford 2015 comeback now.

I watched as Musonda set off on an ecstatic run, away from the usual celebratory zone of the corner flag, and towards the halfway line, his arms spread, his smile wide. What a lovely few moments for the lad.

 

 

 

A stupendous long ball from Fabregas set up the raiding Musonda again, but his effort dropped just wide.

The second-half began and it really was all Chelsea again. Hazard, twisting in the same style and in the same position as his shot at Cech on Sunday, was denied by the post. Rudiger, impressive again, raked a long shot over. Seven minutes into the half, Fabregas lofted a ball towards Hazard – it looked offside to me – and we watched as Eden advanced on goal. A shot would certainly follow. He was forced wide but had the presence of mind to stop and set up Batshayi, whose low shot gave us a deserved 4-0 lead.

You had to feel sorry for Forest. I felt for Mancienne, being humiliated by his former employer. Down in front of us, we often pulverised their defence, with not only Musonda and Kenedy doubling up, and playing one-twos, but with Eden Hazard also involved. There were over-the-top back heels, indulgent one-twos, chips, mazy dribbles, everything. Musonda looked particularly impressive; lively and assured, comfortable on the ball, yearning to set up a dribble and hurt Forest again. Top marks.

On came Ethan Ampadu – a new signing from Exeter City – and his big hair reminded me of Mike Brolly c. 1973. He looked confident too, although his long-passing did not reach Fabregas levels of efficiency.

To their credit, Forest had a couple of chances.

Their fans were involved again, singing their take on “Mull Of Kintyre.”

“City Ground.

Oh mist rolling in from the Trent.

My desire is always to be here.

Oh City Ground.”

The Matthew Harding demanded another song from them –

“Forest, give us a song. Forest, Forest give us a song.”

More substitutions : Jake Clarke-Salter replaced the faultless Andreas Christensen, Dujon Sterling – a debut – for Frank Zappacosta.

There were a couple of Forest long shots but we were not wholly bothered. Kenedy capped a fine performance down the left with a whipped shot from an angle which smacked the bar, with the ball dropping onto Batshuayi and over the goal.

“He never misses from there.”

Chelsea 5 Forest 0.

The celebrations were rather muted. A hat-trick for Michy but the easiest goal he will ever score.

Spoiling the purity of a clean sheet, Forest scored in what would prove to be the very last kick of the day, with Darikwa slotting home.

Their fans celebrated painfully excitedly.

Bloody hell.

“Were we ever like that?”

We all agreed that it had been a fun night. We had witnessed some great attacking football and the whole game felt a little different, like something from a parallel universe. As we reached the car, we soon learned that we had drawn Everton at home in the next round. Happy with that. No complaints.

On we go.

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Tales From Game 5/38

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 17 September 2017.

In the build-up to this game, it felt like the majority of my thoughts about Arsenal could be filed under a “familiarity breeds contempt” headline. Not only would this be my fourth Arsenal game in nine matches – Wembley, Beijing, Wembley, Stamford Bridge – but there is just something about them. In reality, there has always, been contempt for them, it’s just that the regular sight of them every other game since May has just sharpened things a little. But there is also, thankfully – and just like their North London rivals, I forget their name right now – something about Arsenal these days which always, without fail, manages to raise a laugh.

From Wenger’s one thousandth Arsenal game resulting in a 6-0 win for us, to the sight of thousands of empty seats at Arsenal home games, to the beyond-parody morons on Arsenal Fan TV, to the annual capitulation after Christmas, to the obsession with fourth place, to the train-spotter tendencies of their fan base to Wenger’s steely resolve not to buy players in areas of the team that blatantly need strengthening, there is always something laughable happening in N5.

I’ve written in excess of twenty Chelsea vs. Arsenal match reports over the past ten seasons, and just when you think that there is nothing left to ridicule, they come up with a stonker. Seeing thousands upon thousands of Cologne fans doing as they pleased in all areas of the Emirates on Thursday was comedy gold.

“After you Hans.”

“Thanks Claude.”

On the drive to London, the four Chuckle Brothers were pretty confident of a home win. Our last few matches have produced warming performances, whereas Arsenal have shown only mid-table form. Wenger’s band of undesirables did not seem to pose too much of a threat. We thought about the team. We presumed that Eden Hazard would start. We guessed that Antonio Conte would chose the London derby experience of Victor Moses over the bullish ex-Torino right back Zappacosta. I expected Fabregas to start. And although there was an argument to leave Antonio Rudiger in the team, I was convinced that the manager would start with Gary Cahill. He is, after all, the club captain.

After the terrorist attack on the District Line at Parsons Green – just a few hundred yards south of Stamford Bridge – on Friday, the last thing that I wanted to see on the North End Road was police tape and police cars, and a street bereft of pedestrians. Although the threat of another attack had not really been on my mind as the game had approached, some doubts started to roll in. However, we soon learned that there had recently been a fatal road accident on that familiar stretch of road. Even though we were headed, again, to The Atlas, our old haunt of The Goose was forced to close.

The usual suspects were on the raised terrace at The Atlas, knocking back lagers, and finding ways to laugh at Arsenal.

The support among my friends for a place in the team for Gary Cahill was thin.

Over Stamford Bridge, a helicopter was spotted and it brought back memories of high-profile games in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties when hooliganism was the main threat on a match day. Whenever other London clubs visited Stamford Bridge, a whirring police helicopter hovering over the stadium was a vivid memory. As I walked down to the stadium, the terrorist threat briefly entered my mind once again. Outside the Fulham Town Hall, two police vans were blocking the road, as they have done for every game this season and for some games last season.

It would be the first game, that I can remember, to be played under a critical terrorist warning.

There were the usual bag searches outside the stadium, and I was inside with probably the best part of half-an-hour to spare. Rather than worry and concern, here were smiles and excitement ahead of the game.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

You bet.

The team news was announced. No Eden Hazard, despite cameos at Leicester and on Tuesday. Upfront, Willian would play. Fabregas over Bakayoko. Moses over Zappacosta. And – tellingly – Cahill over Rudiger.

Arsenal? The usual assortment of physically dyslexic defenders, bearded metrosexuals and foreign bit-part players that I am only vaguely familiar with.

Thankfully, the excellent Sanchez was only on the bench.

Over in the distance, the away section was filling up, fronted by – surprisingly – a Football Lads Alliance flag. Dotted in and around the away end were little clusters of Arsenal fans wearing replica shirts. It is quite a rare sight at Chelsea, especially with London teams. It was almost as if the replikids were herded together by some bizarre force field. Four together in the second row. Three together there. Three together there. I was just surprised that not many red and white bar scarves were on show.

“Proper Arsenal.”

Ha.

The stadium soon filled.

The last time we lost at home to this lot was in the autumn of 2011 in the days of Villas-Boas; a Van Persie hat-trick and a 5-3 loss. We didn’t expect anything like that in 2017.

The game began and, not long into it, the home supporters howled at the away fans.

“Where were you on Thursday night?”

As an aside, what a wonderful sight it was on Thursday. Thousands of passionate, noisy and raucous away fans enjoying themselves, without much bother nor hooliganism nor violence. They were intimidating – every away fan loves the “wow” factor – but well-behaved. It’s surely a blueprint for the way football supporters should be allowed to support their team.

Chelsea began sprightly enough and for the first ten to twelve minutes, we completely dominated. We advanced on Petr Cech’s goal and caused concern in the Arsenal defence. A couple of efforts from close-in were hacked away. Everything was well with the world.

I spotted a suited John Terry in one of the boxes in the middle tiers of the West Stand. Try as I might, I couldn’t see Roman in his box.

As Alvaro Morata chased a ball over on the far side, an image of Peter Osgood – tall, slim and with dark hair – wearing a similar kit, the royal blue, the number nine, the white stripe on the shorts, came to mind.

Lo and behold, not more than thirty seconds later, Glenn leaned over and whispered to me –

“Morata looks a bit like Osgood, doesn’t he, in that kit?”

We laughed.

Then, from nowhere, Arsenal broke through our defence at will and, in a couple of minutes, threatened Thibaut’s goal on two occasions, both with breaks down our left by Bellerin. Welbeck rose to glance a header wide of the far post. Lacazette struck at Courtois.

Arsenal, pushing forward now, had a fine spell and Klasinac fired low at Courtois. The away fans, never the loudest at Chelsea, were making all the noise now.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

We responded :

“WTOTILWAEC.”

On twenty minutes, Fabregas played in Pedro in a central position. He was clean through on goal. Sometimes Pedro looks like he wants to move in every direction when he receives the ball, and as he set off towards Cech, I wasn’t convinced that he would keep cool. He took an extra touch and Cech was able to beat the ball away.

It was to be our best – possibly only – chance of the first-half. Arsenal definitely grew stronger. Throughout the team there seemed to be hesitancy in possession, no more so than in the back three, where our natural movement of the ball was lacking. Gary Cahill looked nervous and awkward. The crowd sensed we were fading. Even the tireless Kante found it difficult to get a foothold in midfield. There were too many silly back-flicks from Willian, who was getting muscled off the ball. Morata, full of movement at first, ploughed a lone furrow upfront.

Another chance for Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey advancing into our third and swiping a shot which cannoned back off the far post. With Thibaut scrambling, Lacazette thankfully shanked it over from only six or seven yards out.

At the break, we could easily have been 2-0 or 3-1 down.

With the Arsenal fans making – surprisingly – a fair bit of noise in the first-half, I was reminded of a couple of tales which were joyfully passed on to me by my mate JR in Detroit. Now, we all know that Arsenal are not known for their volume and variety of songs. This trait has reached the US too. A few years back, the local Chelsea and Arsenal supporters’ groups in the Detroit metropolitan area used to share the same pub. The Arsenal set of fans were predictably known for their reluctance to join in with songs and banter across the bar. On one occasion, in maybe around 2012, JR printed off some Arsenal song sheets – with bona fide and legitimate Arsenal songs such as “She wore a yellow ribbon” and “1-0 to The Arsenal” – and handed them out, stony-faced, to the Gooners.

They failed to get the joke. Nor were humiliated into a witty response. What a surprise.

JR also told the story of the difference between the two sets of fans on a morning when the two teams played at separate times. Chelsea – the Motor City Blues – were full of song in the first TV game, but as JR stayed on to watch the televised Arsenal game, he noted with glee that the Arsenal fans all showed up with their laptops, hardly spoke to each other during the game, and spent the duration tapping away on their laptops, presumably sharing some hideous FIFA chit-chat with similarly-minded geeks.

What an image.

However, I have a horrible feeling that lurking out there among our global fan base are thousands of Chelsea fans who exhibit similar habits on match days.

God, I hope I am wrong.

Antonio changed things a little for the second-half. Off went Pedro and on came Tiemoue Bakayoko. Fabregas was pushed forward to play behind Morata and alongside Willian. Petr Cech received a fine round of applause from the Matthew Harding. As Alvaro Morata drifted over to our side of the pitch, I spoke to Alan and Glenn :

“That boy needs to grow some sideburns.”

David Luiz was booked for an overhead attempt on goal. Sigh. However, we were at least creating chances, and Willian released a shot which Cech easily saved. Morata, chasing long balls, was treated poorly by the referee Oliver, and received a booking for what looked like a shoulder charge.

Bakayoko had a fine second-half, and he reminded me of Michal Essien in his prime; winning the ball, pushing away from tackles and striding forward.

Now, a worry. Alexis Sanchez replaced Lacazette.

Then, relief, Antonio brought on Eden Hazard for the lack-lustre Willian. Over in the south-west corner, a pristine new flag was flying proudly; in the black, yellow and red of his national flag, the “Garden Of Eden” looked fantastic. I wondered if its debut would signal an Eden match winner. I am so lucky to witness most of Eden’s attacking moves right in front of me in the north-west corner. He soon had us salivating.

Throughout the game, and in the second-half especially, David Luiz was excellent, reading the play so well, putting his foot in, winning headers, bringing others in to the game. Stirring stuff.

On seventy-five minutes, a free-kick from Zhaka was headed in by Mustasfi, but the goal was disallowed for offside. How poor to be flagged offside at a corner. In a pub in Detroit, laptop lids covered in Star Wars stickers were slammed shut.

We laughed as a Gooner raced on to the pitch to celebrate, and was carted off by the stewards.

A weak shot from Fabregas did not threaten. Eden went on a mesmerizing run and after pushing the ball into a central position, shot straight at Cech.

That was the chance.

On the far side, a 50/50 ball in front of the managers, and Luiz swiped at Kolasinac.

“Oh, that’s a bad tackle” I said to Alan.

Off he went.

Fuck.

Thankfully, we held on for the point.

What a strange feeling as we left Stamford Bridge. It felt like a loss, and I suppose that is only natural. We finished first last season, they finished fifth. The players were far from their best and the atmosphere was flat. Oh for a noisy London derby. Can we play Tottenham next week?

Altogether now :

“Sigh.”

We avoided the Manchester United vs. Everton game on the radio.

“Everton always lose there. They’d might as well give United the points by direct debit, and save everyone the bother.”

The two Manchester teams are at the top of the division. However, after five games, we sit in third place with the whole season ahead of us.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

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Tales From Six Of The Best

Chelsea vs. Qarabag : 12 September 2017.

European football was back. Parky, PD and myself were parked up earlier than usual for a midweek game. We dipped in to “The Goose” for old times’ sake at about 5.30pm and chatted to a few old friends but it seemed pretty quiet. I had heard that the game against Qarabag from Azerbaijan had sold out, but I was genuinely worried that a sizeable number of supporters had bought tickets for loyalty points only, with the intention of moving tickets on, and there would be gaps throughout the stadium. We also popped into The Malt House for a couple more pints and, over the next hour, my spirits were raised. The pub grew busy. I hoped that there would be a near capacity crowd. When the group phase of the Champions League churns out our three opponents every autumn, I always wonder if our gates will hold up. There is usually a game against a “minnow” team, and – thankfully – our home support has responded well. Ever since the nadir in the autumn of 2007 when only 24,973 turned up for our home game with Rosenborg – Mourinho’s last game of his first spell – we have only once failed to fulfil expectations. Our 2011 group phase game with Bayer Leverkusen only drew 33,820, but all other home gates have reached the 37,000 to 41,000 mark.

On the short walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted one Qarabag supporter, with an Azerbaijan flag draped over his shoulders. I knew that there would not be many present.

Inside, with a good quarter of an hour to go before kick-off, there were gaps everywhere. I wasn’t hopeful that we would end up with a decent gate. Thankfully, and to my surprise to be honest, the place filled-up quickly. Over in the far corner, around four hundred away fans were spotted in the lower tier of the away section. Baku is 2,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge. I guess it was a fair turnout.

Thoughts turned from our support to the team.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte had tinkered with the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi -Willian

The teams took to the pitch and, after a hiatus of one season, the Champions League anthem rang out around Stamford Bridge. It was a shame, in my mind, that our first game this autumn was not against more prestigious opponents – how I remembered the sense of occasion that accompanied our first-ever game in the Champions League in 1999 against the mighty Milan – but at least a home game against Qarabag would hopefully give us a fine chance for an easy win, with plenty of goals, in a potentially tight group.

In The Malt House, we had honestly admitted that we expected an easy win – 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 – against a team that we knew nothing of.

At kick-off, I scanned the crowd and was very happy. There was hardly a spare seat in the house, save for a block of around four-hundred above the away fans in The Shed. I spotted a new banner on The Shed Balcony wall – “Cahill, He’s Won It All” – and also an outing for one for the manager – “The King Of London.”

Rain started to fall.

As the game began, Alan and myself chatted about the aftermath of the Morata chant at Leicester City. Typically, the programme featured our Spanish striker on the cover. I certainly did not expect the chant to be repeated against Qarabag. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It was a bright opening from both teams. After only five minutes, Willian passed to Pedro, and although he was on the edge of the D, with the path to goal seemingly blocked by many players, his first-time strike zipped past everybody and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd responded with a reassuring roar. Pedro raced towards the Chelsea bench with a joyous hop, skip and a jump. Get in you beauty.

Chelsea dominated play, with some solid performances throughout the team. All eyes were on Michy Batshuayi after his disappointing show against Burnley. We hoped that he would seize his opportunity. A shot from Michy went close. There were rare attacks from Qarabag and I was impressed with the form of Andreas Christensen.

The song for Willian boomed out, as maybe an extra dig at Tottenham, on account of the anti-Spurs chant on Saturday getting such wide condemnation. Soon after, the ever-popular “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” rang out too.

On the half-hour mark, Davide Zappacosta received the ball from Thibaut Courtois. As he set off on a gut-busting run up the right wing, I had a nightmare. Rather than watch the new signing rampage past various Qarabag players, my thoughts were focussed on sending a text message to a friend in Chicago, who had helped put together the new Cahill flag. I looked up just as the ball was slammed with his right foot and flew past the away ‘keeper.

Boom. Two-nil.

I jumped up, but felt embarrassed that I had basically missed most of it. However, I had already sussed out that it seemed to be a fluke, rather than a genuine shot on goal. This did not stop Zappacosta, who enthusiastically celebrated down in Parkyville.

From then on, every time the Italian full back was in possession of the ball, sections of the crowd urged him to shoot. We continued to dominate. We did not let Qarabag settle. Our control of the game was very impressive. Thibaut had only had one save to make the entire half.

At the break, I summed things up with Alan.

“2-0 now, I reckon it’ll be 5-0 at full time.”

There was a read of the match programme at the break. I was reminded of our phenomenal home record in UEFA competitions.

Played 110

Won 77

Drew 25

Lost 8

That is just stunning.

There was also a complete list of our opponents in all UEFA games and one team dominated.

Barcelona 15 games

Liverpool 10 games

PSG 8 games

Porto 8 games

Schalke 6 games

Valencia 6 games

Atletico Madrid 5 games

Milan 5 games

I have witnessed nine of those fifteen Barcelona games, and what a set of memories are evoked. Some of my very best days supporting Chelsea – and one or two of the worst – took place against FCB. The Chelsea /Barcelona timeline goes back to the ‘sixties of course, and long may the story continue. Conversely, just three games against Real Madrid seem scant reward. We await our first-ever match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Maybe this season.

With European football so common these days, it seems crazy that I had to wait a full twenty years – 1974 to 1994 – for my first taste of European football at Chelsea. In truth, my European story began slightly earlier than 1994. My first-ever UEFA game was in Turin in 1987; Juventus vs. Panathinaikos. The memory of the thrill of a noisy and atmospheric evening in a misty Turin is strong to this day. My European debut almost took place a few months earlier. In September 1987, when I was travelling around Europe on the trains with two college mates, we found ourselves in Stuttgart. It was a Wednesday and I spotted in the weekly sports paper that Borussia Dortmund were playing Celtic. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to head up to Dortmund and watch the game. We arrived at the city’s train station with only three quarters of an hour to spare. After quickly depositing our ruc-sacs in the left luggage room, we tried our best at getting directions,  blurting out “fussball stadion” and we even mimed kicking and heading a ball to assist us as we tried to make headway with the bemused locals. At last, we hopped on to the U-bahn train. We were running so late that we didn’t spot any other fans. Outside, I approached a middle-aged woman, and asked her about the stadium.

“Wo is der stadion? Borussia.”

She then said the immortal words –

“The game was yesterday.”

Oh bollocks. What a bastard.

I had, it seems, neglected to spot that the sports paper had detailed the Wednesday fixtures thus :

Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di)

Di meaning Dienstag meaning Tuesday.

Ugh.

Oh well. In the circumstances, it seems just right that fate was to hand me a Juventus tie for my first-ever UEFA game. Let me explain. Over this summer, after re-watching “The Damned United”, it dawned on me that the very first European game that I ever saw – live – on TV was the Juventus vs. Derby County game from Stadio Communale in Turin in 1973. It was on a Wednesday afternoon, and I have a sustained memory of watching it on our black and white TV with my father after he returned from work. There are solid recollections of the names Pietro Anastasi and Franco Causio for sure. And there is a very strong chance, in fact, that I saw Juventus live on TV before I saw a live match involving Chelsea. The first live Chelsea match would have been, undoubtedly, the away game at Manchester City in 1984 some eleven years later. But, anyway, as for my interest in Juventus, this was where it all began for me.

Ten minutes into the second-half, a free-kick released Cesc Fabregas, who clipped a lovely ball into the box with the outside of his foot and the cross was adeptly headed in by Cesar Azpilicueta, whose little dart into space was timed to perfection. He ran off to the far corner and celebrated with Alvaro Morata, who was warming up in front of the East Lower. I don’t think there is a more popular player at Chelsea than Dave. His joy in scoring was matched by us.

At last, Stamford Bridge responded en masse with a stadium-wide song. It had taken almost an hour, but the place was booming.

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

My 5-0 was looking good.

Eden Hazard soon replaced Pedro, and then Bakayoko replaced Kante.

Hazard set up Willian and his firm shot slammed against the crossbar. At the other end, Qarabag had a couple of wild shots over the bar.

Alan and myself were scratching our heads when we were awarded a corner – we thought that a Qarabag player did not get a touch – but Hazard played a short corner, received the ball back, and then sent over a low cross into the box. Qarabag failed to clear and the ball fell nicely for Bakayoko to slam home off a defender.

His celebrations were right in front of us – and just beautiful.

Antonio Rudiger replaced Azpilicueta and we kept attacking. We did not let up. We kept going, attacking at will. Although he had endured a quiet game, Batshuayi received the ball from Bakayoko some twenty-five yards out, quickly set his sights, and struck a fine low shot deep into the corner of the Qarabag goal.

OK, there’s the 5-0. Excellent.

We still kept pressing. Fantastic work from Zappacosta on the right forced an error from the shell-shocked left-back and his low cross was bundled in by a mixture of Michy Batshuayi and Qarabag defender Maksim Medvedev.

Chelsea 6 Qarabag 0.

There was still time for a fantastic dribble down below us from Eden Hazard, and I had to chuckle at the look of annoyance on his face – masked with a smile – as an errant touch gave the ball away cheaply. Having him back in the side is such a lift.

In the closing minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd gathered together again for one last communal chant.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

The whistle blew and “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

Qarabag were poor all night long. We gave them a proper caning.

In the other game in our group, Roma drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, and I was very happy with that.

After only one match in the autumn of 2017, advantage Chelsea.

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Tales From Sunshine On A Rainy Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 9 September 2017.

With the international break behind us – I watched a total of around ten whole minutes from England’s two matches – we were thankfully back to proper football; football that means something, football that raises our spirits, football that brings us all together. An away game at Leicester City was in fact just what the doctor had ordered. From my home in the South-West of England, my route would take me right into the heart of England, mainly following the course of the old Roman road The Fosse Way, and through some achingly beautiful countryside. A perfect road trip lay ahead. It would, in fact, be our first domestic game outside London since the league championship clincher at West Brom last May. And it was an ideal game to get back into the swing of things; difficult but not insurmountable. However, the month of September would be a testing time for sure, with seven games lined-up, and it seemed that the football season was beginning to heat up.

Our visits to the King Power Stadium over the past few seasons have tended to be defining moments in each campaign. In 2014/15, a dominant performance and a 3-0 win set us up for the league clincher four days later. In 2015/16, a dismal evening of “betrayal” and a 1-2 defeat resulted in the sacking of Jose Mourinho the following day. In 2016/17, Antonio Conte declined the services of Diego Costa and with vultures gathering overhead, a potentially huge banana-skin was avoided as another 3-0 victory pushed us away from the pack and towards an eventual second title in three seasons.

Of course, that Leicester City were the surprise champions in that middle season, and that N’Golo Kante and now Danny Drinkwater, had since swapped the royal blue of Leicester for the royal blue of Chelsea added a certain extra piquancy to the game.

The Chuckle Brothers were buzzing for it.

Our journey had taken us from Somerset to Wiltshire to Gloucestershire to Warwickshire and to Leicestershire. We had set off with sunny skies overhead, but with warnings of scattered showers throughout the day. We stopped for a pint at a pub at Charlecote, just off the Fosse Way, and soon into our hour-long drive in to Leicester, the heavens opened. What a downpour. The surface water made driving difficult. Thankfully, the storm soon passed and although huge billowing clouds were gathering on the horizon, the remaining miles were covered with no further rain. As we parked up at our usual place on Shakespeare Street – William, not Craig –  the sun was out and warming the air. Coats were worn, but rather reluctantly.

We were soon inside the away end.

“Time for a quick beer, Parky?”

We had chatted about the possible starting eleven on the journey, and the team that Antonio Conte chose contained few surprises.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Fabregas

The Chelsea crowd, three-thousand strong in the corner, seemed full of voice as the minutes ticked down to kick-off.

An extended toot of the fox hunter’s horn sounded and the teams appeared. There was disdainful chatter about Everton’s “dirty grey” shirts a fortnight ago, but our “white” away colours hardly look pristine. The shirts and shorts were decidedly off-white. Only the socks looked crisp. It just looked odd.

Leicester City, in all blue these days, were on the back foot in the first few moments of the game. A forceful run from Bakayoko set up the prowling Morata, who steadied himself before curling a shot at Schmeichel. We looked impressive, and there was some good early pressure. A superb ball from Fabregas, playing a little deeper than his usual position – maybe it was a different formation that I had thought – released Morata but the ball did not drop favourably, allowing a smothering save from the Leicester City ‘keeper.

A new song – for me anyway, though I suspect others have been aware of its presence – swirled around the away section.

“Marcos. Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me.”

I approved, and joined in.

Another new song then appeared from the ether.

“He came from Real Madrid. He hates the fuckin’ yids.”

My heart sank. It sank further as I looked around and spotted, sadly, hundreds joining in.

Suffice to say, I did not.

I whispered to Alan :

“Well, that will get a load of people nicked.”

That word is just not welcome at Chelsea games. Its presence shocked me to be honest. Over the past few seasons the Chelsea crowd has almost policed itself and kept that word to a minimal level. I remember back to around 2006 or 2007 when “The Bouncy” first appeared en masse at Chelsea. Originally a Rangers song, its first edition at Chelsea included the “Y” word. Over a couple of seasons, this was replaced and the set up was changed to “we’re gonna bounce in a minute.” It was an intelligent way of changing the focus. There is another famous Chelsea song that begins “We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea” but I always stop myself from singing the next line after “Barcelona, Real Madrid…”

I know some sing it. I choose not to. I just don’t fancy getting CCTV’d singing that word.

People can bleat as much as they like about Tottenham singing it. That is simply their choice, their concern, their problem. There is a strong argument about that club now using it in a positive light as a defence mechanism after decades of negativity from outside. There are easy parallels within the black community and the equally divisive “N” word. And I do feel slightly queasy about non-Jewish Spurs fans singing it. But my thoughts are that Chelsea fans should not even be thinking about using the “Y” word, especially with our sadly dubious record with racism over the decades, let alone be singing it.

As I looked around at our support joining in, giggling, I wondered if the camera might be turned on them. Beside the use of the “Y” word, it is a pretty dull song anyway. And it doesn’t really scan. There are too many syllables for a start; always a bugbear of mine. Chelsea fans from the US especially – bless’em – seem to have immense difficulty with this. They seem to love shoe-horning too many syllables into any standard song.

Alan quickly came up with an alternative.

“He came from Real Madrid. I’m glad he fucking did.”

I laughed.

I offered an alternative.

“We bought him from Madrid. For sixty million quid.”

It scanned. The right number of syllables. It rhymed. No offensive racial slur.

It’ll never catch on.

The game continued with Chelsea dominating possession. Kante – who was warmly applauded by the home fans before the game when his name was announced – patrolled the middle of the pitch, with Bakayoko providing a fine foil alongside. We pinged the ball around nicely. Morata looked at ease, with a lovely first touch. He brought others into the game well and it was a pleasure to see. Alonso offered great width down the left. Indeed, as the game progressed it honestly seemed that we had an extra man on the pitch, which is always a good sign. Rudiger again impressed, as if he has been playing for Chelsea for years, not weeks.

A Luiz free-kick produced an easy save for Schmeichel. Our attacks continued. The Leicester defence was being continually stretched.

Leicester are always a threat on the break though. The once impressive Mahrez – I am surprised that he is still playing for them – played in Jamie Vardy. His rapid shot thankfully screamed past the far post. If memory serves, he scored from a similar position in 2014. Another chance fell to the home side but thankfully Thibaut Courtois parried the shot from Islam Slimani.

With half-time beckoning, an intense rain shower forced some to don jackets, though some headed inside for cover. Under my hood, I watched as a fantastic cross from Cesar Azpilcueta picked out Alvaro Morata. The cross was right on the money. Morata leaped and seemed to hang in the air. He headed it past Schmeichel.

GET IN.

It was a suitable reward for those who had stayed in the stands.

Thankfully, the rain subsided as the second-half began. After five minutes, a Chelsea move developed but my attention was on Morata, twisting and turning and trying to get away from his hefty marker Maguire. Out of nowhere, a shot flew past Morata and Maguire and miraculously crept in at the far post, past a late dive from the ‘keeper. I had not seen who had struck it, so imagine my surprise when I looked over to see players running towards that man Kante, who – typically – was not celebrating at all. Kudos to him for that.

With Chelsea winning 2-0, the pressure seemed to be off, and our third win on the bounce was on the cards.

On the hour, my attention was again diverted. Over on the far side, new signing Danny Drinkwater was warming up on the touchline, and as far as I could see he was getting a pretty good reception from his former fans. I had predicted, perhaps, a slightly more acerbic reception. A roar then went up from the home stands, and I saw the referee pointing to the spot. Vardy slammed it past Thibaut.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 2.

The game changed.

We had to hold on to our lead for around half-an-hour.

Pedro, one of our quietest players, was replaced by Willian.

Antonio Conte then replaced Moses with debutante Davide Zappacosta.

I whispered to Alan : “It’s always good to have a Frank in the team.”

The changes disrupted our play a little, and Leicester enjoyed more of the ball. For a while, we were on the receiving end of a little pressure and the mood grew tense in the away end, or at least in my row. We did not help ourselves. A lot of our play seemed sloppy and our choices of pass seemed to be off-kilter.

A big cheer greeted the sight of Eden Hazard replacing Cesc Fabregas. He immediately lifted us. Just to see him caress the ball, and look up, assessing options, was enough to warm us. He began on the left but then appeared down in front of us on the right. For a while, it was all of the play was nicely in front of us. Zappacosta was involved, but looked a little nervous. He seemed to take forever to settle himself for a shot but the ball was drilled wide.

Leicester had rung the changes at the start of the half with King and Gray coming on and Craig Shakespeare then introduced the former City striker Iheanacho with fifteen to go. They kept pushing for a goal. I was convinced that we would let in an equaliser. But we were still pushing ourselves. I had a brief thought that a Mourinho team of around 2005 would be just moving the ball around the back four for minutes on end. There was an appeal for handball by Maguire from a Morata header. Willian curled one just past the post. There was another save from the same player as the game reached its conclusion.

There was an element of relief at the final whistle. Phew.

It had been a workmanlike performance, peeking in the first-half, but it was one which confirmed the aberration of the first forty-five minutes of the season. This is a fine team, and we will surely enjoy a fine season. The players – all of them, well done – came over to thank us for our support. I predictably focused on the manager. There was the usual applause for us, but with a straight face, quite solemn. He knew we had eked out a good win, but there was still room for improvement.

A good day at the office? Oh yes.

But the month of September has only just begun and we have a heavy schedule.

On Tuesday evening, Champions League football thankfully returns to SW6.

I will see some of you there.

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