Tales From The Depths Of Winter

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 15 January 2022.

I was up at 5.15am and by 7am I had collected both PD and Parky. Outside, the weather was cold and we were on our way to Manchester City. We always seem to get City away in the depths of winter, eh? In contrast, just think of all those end of season matches at Old Trafford over the years. Yet we always seem to have to endure an often chilly trip to the Etihad, or the City of Manchester Stadium or Eastlands as it was originally called.

I enjoy the vast majority of our current away trips in the Premier League. West Ham is an exception; such a crap view, plus – so far – the games have tended to be early kick-offs, thus eliminating the chance of a pub-crawl or suchlike. But the other exception is Manchester City. There is nothing of note surrounding the ground – not for away fans anyway – and although the stadium is decent enough, it’s all a bit anaemic. It also has no real history. Once I set foot inside, I am not overwhelmed with memories of games from the depths of time that visits to Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton provide.

Or maybe I am turned off by Manchester City’s new stadium because of our poor record in recent seasons. I had been present at our previous thirteen league visits to the stadium – last season excepted – and although our record is 4-1-8, in the last ten visits it is even worse; 2-1-7.

All three of us were hoping for a draw. We were realists. I am sure that in our support base of millions, not many were expecting us to win.

I was parked up at around 10.45am.

It had been freezing when we stopped for breakfast at Strensham Services on the M5 and although the weather had warmed slightly, it was still “hands in pockets” on the fifteen-minute walk to the stadium.

The stadium is at least recognisable; it’s shape is unique, what with its towering roof supports and San Siro-style helix exit ramps.

For the second visit in a row, I was up in the towering top tier. We were officially in row C, but with the first two rows blocked out, we were effectively in the front row. With a good half-an-hour to go before the game began, it was clear that more than a few fans had purchased some inflatable silver cups in the shape of the European Cup. I suspected a few songs about that night in Porto as the day developed.

The time soon passed.

Before I had time to think, the teams were on the pitch on the far side and “Blue Moon” was booming. Suddenly, more and more inflatable silver cups appeared throughout the three tiers of our support. It annoys me – I can’t explain why – that City sometimes adopt an all sky blue kit in preference to their standard one with white shorts. I may be picky, but that’s the mark of a lesser club in my opinion.

The game was now in sharp focus. In my mind, too, were the two recent extremes.

2017/18 : Conte giving up possession, defending deep and narrowly losing 0-1.

2018/19 : Sarri going for it but getting beaten 0-6.

There was just time to acquaint myself with the team that Thomas Tuchel had selected :

Arrizabalaga

Sarr – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kovacic – Kante – Azpilicueta

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

We all hoped for a performance akin to what we had witnessed in Porto, but I certainly wasn’t getting my hopes up.

The four of us in the front row of the upper tier joined the formation.

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Every man was needed.

It was 12.30pm.

The game began and, no surprises, City enjoyed most of the ball. Soon into the game, it became readily apparent that when we were out of possession the shape collapsed as below :

Arrizabalaga

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

A bank of five and a bank of four, squeezing space as best they could. Ironically, despite City’s opening domination, we had the game’s first real chance on ten minutes. A run from Lukaku up field, with us willing him on – if we were jockeys, we would have undoubtedly had the whip out – but just as he looked set to shoot, he bizarrely passed to the offside Ziyech.

Fackinell.

The game soon settled into one monotonous pattern. City were in control, we were sitting deep, but tried to build the occasional break. However, despite Kante’s usual prowess in intercepting passes and setting attacks in motion, we were hindered by Lukaku’s remoteness and the poor support play of Ziyech and Pulisic. Playing out from the back, using those little triangles that Tuchel must dream about at night, we fell prey to the manic way that the home team closed down space.

There were mixed views in the away section. Some were urging the team on, some were getting frustrated with certain players. I wasn’t too upset with our shape, but I just wished that we were more aggressive.

There is no doubt that at moments of high pressure, with City’s front three running at us and closing down space and then winning the ball and running again, it almost looked like this :

Arrizabalaga

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

Off the pitch, there were battles in song. This was our chance to shine.

“Champions of Europe, we know what we are.”

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“So here’s to you Vincent Kompany. Have you won the European Cup? No. No.”

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions league.”

City’s responses were concerned with the English title.

How parochial.

Kepa was involved on a few occasions. There was a simple save from a John Stones header and then a catch at the near post from a Kevin De Bruyne shot from an angle.

With the half-time break approaching, we lost possession and Jack Grealish was through, one-on-one. He appeared to draw the ‘keeper, and I was fully prepared to see the net ripple. Thankfully, Kepa was up to the challenge and made the save of the match thus far, his spread-eagled legs blocking the goal bound effort. A shot from De Bruyne was wild and flew over the bar.

Christian Pulisic was not playing well. There was one moment when he held on to the ball for far too long, thus missing the chance to play the ball out to a free Dave on the wing and in acres of space but then also missing the chance to play a simpler ball inside. Later, I just found myself getting irritated with the way he played a square ball behind Alonso rather than in front of him; the momentum of that move was lost and City recovered.

Alan chirped :

“Captain America? More like Captain Mainwaring.”

However, we reached the base camp of half-time with the score 0-0.

All along, I would have settled for a draw. Is that too negative? I call it being pragmatic. Despite us getting the upper hand in May, City are arguably the best team in the world right now. In the build-up, I kept calling them an established team. Each player knows his role. They swarm like fireflies at the opposition. But we were half-way there. Half-way to paradise.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking the three thousand in three tiers in the South Stand.

In the first minute, a heavy first touch from Lukaku was pounced upon by City and the end result was a raking cross from the left that begged out for a City striker to prod home. I heaved a sigh of relief. Soon after, in the next move almost, we broke and Lukaku’s curling shot was well saved by Ederson. The rebound was lofted high into tier four by Ziyech.

Just after, a wild shot from Alonso reached tier five.

Fackinell.

On the hour, a De Bruyne free-kick from distance drew a very fine save from Kepa.

And then just after, a perceived poor decision by the referee stirred the home support into making a racket for the first time in ages. Chelsea joined in too. It was bubbling along nicely now. What a lovely din.

On more than one occasion, both sets found themselves singing exactly the same tune – “Hey Jude” – but with different lyrics.

Next it was our turn to feel aggrieved; a rotten challenge on Ziyech on the far touch line went unpunished.

Fackinell ref.

Raheem Sterling, tormenting Alonso all game yet without too much end product, dragged a shot wide.

Overhead, the sun broke through. There was a blue and white mottled sky over a sky blue stadium. But my God, my feet were cold.

On sixty-nine minutes, a double-switch.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Ziyech.

Sadly, a minute later, a fine City move cut through our bank of four and the ball found the advancing De Bruyne. He dribbled, moved the ball out of his feet, and curled a breath-taking shot past Kepa.

“Great goal.”

The stadium erupted. What noise.

Ugh.

We attacked soon after, but an effort from Werner was well saved by Ederson.

Another change.

Mason Mount for Alonso.

I had given up on our formation now.

Stupid me, as the game reached its final few minutes, I still had this silly notion that – out of nowhere – we would somehow conjure up a late, very late, equaliser.

I must have read too many “Roy Of The Rovers” as a kid.

The equaliser never came of course, and in the end, I took the 0-1 loss on the chin.

“City, tearing Cockneys apart again” rang out once more.

And the City fans were full of taunts from behind the metal wall that separated the two sets of fans as we descended the many flights of stairs to reach the concourse outside. The line of police was tested at the bottom.

“Handbags” really.

We walked solemnly back to my car; a very familiar walk of late, hands in pockets again, heads down, well beaten.

Thankfully I made good time on the drive home, and we were able to call into “The Vine” at West Bromwich once again, our third visit in a month. Friends Michelle and Dane had the same idea; they walked in five minutes after us. I am tempted to write “if only the Chelsea team had shown such togetherness” but that would be slightly churlish. We were beaten by a very fine team. Was Tuchel wise to go for a cautious approach? I am not sure. To be honest, it almost came off. It wasn’t as if City had twenty shots on goal.

Of course, the doom mongers were out in full force after the game had finished in Manchester. A million fans, a million opinions, a million different formations, a million different moans.

But, that’s to be expected, right?

As one son of Manchester once wrote “everybody’s clever nowadays.”

As I have said before, everyone is entitled to air their views. But some of the over-reactions were quite laughable. I took it all with a pinch of salt. To be honest, this game won’t be long remembered. It won’t define our season. It won’t make or break us. Tuchel is no mug. He’ll learn from this.  

Next up, a Tuesday night trip to Sussex by the sea.

Let’s go to Brighton.

Tales From Chelsea Smiles In North London

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2022.

It had just turned three o’clock in the afternoon and I pulled up in my car alongside PD’s motor in the pub car park opposite where I work. I clambered out.

“I’ve got to work on lads. You’ll have to drive up and I’ll go solo. Can you give me my ticket?”

Work had been going swimmingly well, but I had just been hit with two problems – in The Netherlands and Ireland – that needed my immediate attention. I sped back to the office and tried to get my head around what needed to be done. Of course, typical, a few other problems arose too. But, thankfully, at around 3.45pm I was able to eventually head off to London.

The race had begun.

I had been awake since 5.45am and, ironically, at around 2pm, when I started to feel a little tired I thought to myself :

“Not to worry, I’ll get a little shut-eye on the drive to London in PD’s car.”

So much for that, eh?

I sped off east towards Salisbury Plain but soon stopped for refreshments and an all-important coffee at a petrol station in Tilshead. A woman at the till who was buying lottery tickets – slowly – wound me up – quickly.

Thinking to myself, again :

“Come on, this is Tottenham away.”

Luckily, the traffic was light, the weather was fine, the roads were dry. I made good time but there was always that risk of getting caught in a London rush-hour in reverse. It’s always a lottery. I reached the M3 at about 5pm and was able to speed on. Thankfully the tiredness that I had feared never enveloped me. I tried to compute my projected arrival time in London and my chances of reaching the all-important main line station at Liverpool Street.

It seemed like ages since I had driven alone to London for a game.

As I passed Twickenham, PD called me and asked for advice on how to get to Liverpool Street. The two Chuckle Brothers were on the loose in London and it brought a wry smile to my face.

“Change at Holborn I think.”

At exactly 6pm, I was parked outside Barons Court tube station, a few car lengths down from PD’s car. There was a slick change of trains at Holborn and I was soon on the short journey to Liverpool Street. I arrived there at 6.35pm.

“Hour and ten minutes to go. Should be OK, but it all depends on the frequency of trains to White Hart Lane.”

As I came out of the underground tunnels and walkways and was almost up at ground level, there was a sound that brought another smile to my now masked face.

“We love Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions league.”

This meant that Chelsea were in the vicinity and – presumably – there was a train to take me to the game in good time.

I quickly glanced at the train timetable.

“Platform 1 : Cheshunt – 1845, stopping at White Hart Lane.”

I had exited the underground station right next to platform one.

Perfect.

I walked all of the way to the front of the train since the rear carriages were full, but also full of Chelsea too. This was going well. The train stopped at around ten stations and the time flew. At Seven Sisters, there was an extended stop of five minutes or more. There was an announcement.

“For those going to the football, please get off here. People on the platform need to get on to use the service.”

I didn’t see one single person alight.

Fuck that.

Eventually, at just gone 7.15pm, we reached White Hart Lane station and everyone shuffled along the platform like penguins. Downstairs, the two sets of fans were forced left and right unlike at any of the previous two games that I had attended at Tottenham’s spanking new stadium.

“Chelsea left please, Chelsea left.”

Once split, the singing began. But beers were thrown at us by the Tottenham fans descending some stairs. The police waded in on a few Chelsea fans who retaliated. I walked on. Outside the station, much-modernised these days, was a row of potted plants, with up lighting, all very modern. Around fifteen Chelsea fans in a strict line, their bladders unable to cope, were watering the plants as if it was part of a military operation.

In the London night there was noise, anticipation, a palpable sense of danger.

Opposite there was a shop that caught my eye.

“Tottenham Hot Spuds.”

That made me chuckle.

“Hate to think what is on sale at Arsenal.”

Down on the High Road, there was more noise, but with scurrying crowds, a few engaged in fisticuffs, a swarm of police and I saw that the road was blocked off. The police had no desire for the two tribes to mix. Things were definitely feisty. As I took a few photos with my camera phone, a police horse reared up close to me and I had to adjust my footing to avoid getting struck.

I raced on towards the away turnstiles, the clock ticking. Outside were more police, and more noise. The bright illuminated cladding of the stadium contrasted with the shadows of the Chelsea supporters clambering to get in to the game in time for the start.

Up the steps, a COVID check, a check of my ticket and then a bag check.

“Camera?”

“Yes.”

“Need to check.”

He called over his supervisor. I was one step ahead. I lifted up the camera with the small wide-angle lens attached. I didn’t open up the bag to show the larger zoom lens.

“Nah, that’s alright. In you go.”

Time for a last minute visit to the gents. “Hellos” to a few mates. I bumped into the bloke who I was stood next to at the Chesterfield game. It was his first visit to the new stadium.

“Brilliant, innit?”

I agreed.

I eventually located block 113, then row 10, then Parky.

“Made it.”

It was 7.42pm.

Fackinell.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

We were right behind the goal and only a few yards from the Tottenham fans.

Oh lovely.

Unfortunately, a few stewards were close by too. I knew it would be a case of cat and mouse with my camera all night long.

The stadium took my breath away again. On the previous two visits I was tucked away in the corner. This time, the view was even more spectacular. Way above the metallic cockerel at the top of the huge South Stand, way up in the clear night sky was the crescent of the moon, as clear as you like. It was certainly a dramatic setting.

The game kicked off and it took me a while to put players to positions. Back to a 4-4-2?

Kepa

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Mount – Kovacic – Jorginho – Hudson-Odoi

Werner – Lukaku

Things were pretty even at the start. I tried my best to take it all in. I tried to catch up with Parky. They had arrived at Barons Court at 5.15pm. PD had taken two and a quarter hours just like me. All was good. I was just so relieved to have made it. Another fifteen minutes of work would have killed my timings and connections. I spotted tons of familiar faces dotted around.

As the game developed, we looked at ease and confident. But the home team were not without threat. A shot from Kane at a free-kick was blocked. A forest of “wanking hands” greeted his miss-fire. There was an effort from Moura that went well-wide.

I sang a song from the ‘eighties to myself :

“How wide do you want the goals?”

Timo Werner was full of running in the first part of the game and his lob over the Tottenham ‘keeper from the angle of the penalty box dropped just over the bar. Next up, his striking partner Romelu Lukaku was released with an early ball and he did well to fight off a challenge, bring the ball down and shoot. Sadly, the ‘keeper was able to save. It was a bright start, this.

On eighteen minutes, we won a corner. I hadn’t used my camera too much thus far. But on this occasion, I asked Parky to lean forward to block the view of the nearest steward. Mount swung the ball in. A leap from Rudiger. I snapped. The ball – in slow-motion – dropped into the goal.

Scenes.

Get in you beauty.

There were the wildest of celebrations in the away segment which encompassed two tiers for this match. We had around 5,500 fans and every single one was going doo-lally.

“There’s that third goal.”

The one we couldn’t quite score last week.

“Safe now surely.”

A few minutes later, a steward spotted my camera and I was asked to pack it up. I wasn’t too worried. I knew I’d be able to use it again if I chose the right moment. At least I had nabbed the goal.

The home team threatened with a flurry of misdirected efforts and shots that were blocked. I never really felt that we were in danger.

Of course, the away choir was on fire.

“Tottenham get battered everywhere they go.”

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

I watched as a fine sliding tackle by Antonio Rudiger robbed Hojbjerg outside the box. The Tottenham player then seemed to dive once the ball had gone, but this dive was inside the box. I had a great view. I was adamant that everything was fine. To my horror, the referee pointed at the spot. Well, that seemed ridiculous. Somebody in the crowd reckoned that VAR wasn’t being used for this game. I wasn’t sure.

After a while, it flashed up on the TV screen that VAR was being used.

We waited. And waited. And waited.

No penalty.

Whoop.

As the Chelsea players lined-up in a wall for the resulting free-kick, we spotted Dave squatting behind the wall and peeking through his team mates’ legs. At the last minute he fell to the floor. It was such a bizarre thing to see and I wished that my camera had been able to capture it.

I turned to the couple behind me.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dave.”

Anyway, the free-kick was headed over by a covering defender. The Chelsea support roared. We had quelled a little bubble of resurgence.

Apart from some noise at the very start when, naturally, the home support might have thought that a comeback was possible, the noise from the home stands was pretty minimal. Only on the half-hour did the place shake when a loud “Come on you Spurs” rattled around.

It dawned on me recently that only Tottenham fans call their team Spurs. Chelsea fans tend to say Tottenham.

Interesting fact #547.

The first-half ended. Time for a chat with a few folks. I spoke with the Bristol lot. Since the last game I have taken the plunge and booked up Abu Dhabi. I am going with PD. I am sure there will be a plethora of WCC worries along the way but I had to gamble and go. Let’s hope that the COVID thing doesn’t ruin all that. I chatted to Tim, Kev and Bryan briefly about it the trip. By pure luck, we are all in the same hotel.

At the break, I remembered the comments from a visibly crestfallen Antonio Conte after his new team lost 0-2 at Chelsea last week. He spoke solemnly of how far Tottenham are from Chelsea right now. I still like the bloke, even with his miss-guided decision to join forces with the numpties from N17. I would imagine that his straight-talking must have irritated the Tottenham support, but – lusciously – must have struck a chord too.

They have slid since a few years back. They were a decent team under Pochettino.

No more.

Fuck’em.

I loved the way that we dominated possession in the opening moments of the second-half, killing the game further. We never ever looked in trouble.

A Lukaku header from a corner flew just over.

Just before the hour mark, the away fans were at it.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Now, my immediate reaction was this :

“I know we are 3-0 up on aggregate, but that is a bit premature.”

A ball was immediately pumped forward and Kepa appeared to time his run to perfection to rob Moura with a sliding tackle. To our sadness, the referee pointed at the spot once more. It was as if the footballing Gods had unanimously agreed with me about singing that song. The Tottenham fans roared again. However, much to our joy, VAR was called into play.

The same decision. No penalty.

Now it was time for that chant.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Oh my aching sides.

On the hour, a magnificent save from Kepa from the head of Emerson Royal kept us ahead on the night. The ‘keeper was enjoying a very fine game. It was the save of the night thus far.

But the home team had built a little momentum and we needed to be at our best.

Kepa appeared to go walkabouts as a ball was played into Kane well inside the box. With only a covering Rudiger to beat, he blasted the ball low into the far corner.

The home fans properly roared this time.

It was a horrible feeling, despite our 3-1 lead.

But wait.

Oh my God.

Ha.

VAR again.

And again it went our way.

Chelsea smiles in North London.

I posted on Facebook :

“This is just three easy.”

I always thought that the funniest Chelsea win over Tottenham happened in 2000 when George Weah hopped off a plane at Heathrow and came on as a substitute to score the winning goal in a slender 1-0 win.

But this just might edge it.

Three disallowed goals.

Spur3y.

Tuchel strengthened things with a flurry of substitutions.

Thiago Silva for Christensen.

Marcos Alonso for Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

And then N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Tottenham fans, all forty-thousand of them :

“Of for fuck sake, Kante. I’m going home.”

And then Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

The shape had changed to three at the back. Thiago Silva was warmly applauded and his song was sung with gusto. Likewise, N’Golo Kante.

“He’s indestructible. Always believing.”

These were great moments as the home support dwindled away. Everyone was so happy. Smiles everywhere. There were gaps appearing all over the stadium too.

“You’ve had your day out, now fuck off home.”

I love that we seem to be the only club to sing that. Is that correct?

I was able to take a few photographs as the game wore on. The stewards, like Tottenham, had given up by now. The fresh legs had re-energised us. We seemed to have more of the ball once again. We finished the game strongly and never ever looked in danger.

Towards the end of the game, a recognisable chant from a few years back quickly spread in the away end. It pleased me.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

I loved that we were at last able to honour Antonio Conte. I loved him to bits. One supposes that if, miracle of miracles, Tottenham had turned it around on the night – no 2002 here – we would obviously have resisted. But there it was. A nod to our former manager who won the league in 2017 and the cup in 2018. It’s just a shame that he now manages that lot.

And I suspect that he thinks exactly the same.

The game over, we waited for crowds to move on. The plan had been to escort all 5,500 Chelsea to Tottenham Hale, a good half-an-hour walk. We were having none of it. We met up with PD and waited. In the shadows, we edged past police near the away end and slowly walked back to an almost deserted White Hart Lane station. It absolutely worked in our favour that so many home fans had left early.

As we reached the platform, a train arrived. We were on our way home.

By 11.30pm, we were in our separate cars, at Barons Court.

At Chiswick roundabout, I turned left towards the M3 and PD drove straight on towards the M4.

Job done.

On Saturday, it’s back to one car for Man City away.

All aboard.

Tales From West View

Chelsea vs. Chesterfield : 8 January 2022.

Not long into the game, the six thousand supporters packed into The Shed, in both tiers, roared out as one :

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

It was just a shame that this loud and passionate outburst came from Chesterfield supporters.

For this was CFC vs. CFC and for the first time in decades. It was certainly the first time that I had seen us play Chesterfield, the Spireites, named after the town’s crooked spire, and it is not bloody surprising. We played them in the league in our first two seasons and then in the FA Cups of 1911/12 and 1949/50.

This was our first game against them, then, in seventy-two years.

This was the third round of the FA Cup too of course. What little romance that is left in modern football is found in these early rounds of the world’s oldest competition. It was also our fourth and final home game in just eleven days.

And I have a strong feeling that it was our first-ever home game against a non-league team in the FA Cup. I remember an away game at Scarborough in 2004; themselves had only just left the league, just like Chesterfield in fact.

One day, maybe, we will get to play a proper non-league team.

Weymouth. Spennymoor. Dulwich Hamlet. Frome Town.

Maybe.

I was looking forward to this one. It represented a little respite from the two huge games against Tottenham in the League Cup. That particular competition has faded of late, but it is surprising how important it has suddenly become since we were drawn against Tottenham in this season’s semi-final. I felt exactly the same three seasons ago. Whisper it, but part of me was just happy, so happy, that we had beaten Tottenham in that semi-final and, thus, the appearance in the final almost seemed like a bonus.

We’re weird creatures, eh?

A part of me was looking forward to seeing a game from the newly-created West View which is effectively the West Upper but now rebranded for a new clientele and a new pricing range set to kick in next season. In reality, having seen the prices being quoted for 2022/23, I knew that this would almost certainly be my last ever visit to the West Upper.

I was also looking forward to see a bubbling mass of six-thousand away fans amassed in The Shed. I was hoping they would bring some songs and an atmosphere, though I knew very well that the home areas would struggle to keep up with them.

The FA Cup though, eh? We have enjoyed such a wonderful record in this old competition of late that is has been rather difficult to comprehend the last two finals. It has to be said, though, that the Leicester loss in the rain in 2021 seemed an awful lot more depressing than the loss to Arsenal in the heat of August in 2020 which took place at the height of lockdown misery and alienation. I was over that loss within an hour. The Leicester defeat annoyed me for a week or so.

I love the way that I usually catch an early FA Cup game in August or September and then the competition rumbles along towards the back of my consciousness until the time for the third round draw before Christmas; it’s always there, but I don’t pay it too much attention, a bit like Millwall.

My two early games this season, as always, involved my local team Frome Town. There was a home game against local rivals Paulton Rovers in late August. A nice crowd of 398 saw the Robins win 3-1. In September, an even better crowd of 586 saw Frome defeat Conference South outfit Oxford City 2-1. This represented Frome’s first win in the FA Cup against a team from two divisions higher in the pyramid for around four decades. This second game was simply a magnificent encounter, full of quality football and tension, and I loved it to bits. Sadly, Frome went out to Bath City in the next round in an away fixture at Twerton Park – gate 1,473 – by the score of 0-5. I didn’t attend that one as I was at Chelsea versus Southampton.

The FA Cup 2021/22 – number one-hundred-and-fifty, I remember the centenary final in 1972 between Arsenal and Leeds United, the first one I ever watched – was now back in my life again.

As I left my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning I suddenly thought to myself “why the fuck am I leaving my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning?”

The game was to kick-off at 5.30pm.

We are nothing if not keen.

I collected PD and his son Scott, who I last saw on that fun-filled trip to Hull in the FA Cup at the start of 2020, and then made my way over to pick up Lord Parky. Chopper was making his own way up for this one; my next date chauffeuring Chelsea royalty will be for the Tottenham league game in a couple of weeks.

It was a horrible journey up to London. There was rain, rain and more rain. But at least the roads were relatively clear of traffic. I dropped the three passengers off outside “The Eight Bells” at ten to midday.

Three hours for a door to door service; happy with that.

It would be well over two-and-a-half hours before I would see the lads again.

Traffic lights on the North End Road meant that it took me a frustrating thirty minutes to reach my usual parking spot just off Lillie Road. We knew that the District Line was closed from Earl’s Court to Putney Bridge and so my plan was to simply walk to “The Eight Bells” rather than walk to Fulham Broadway and then get a bus to the pub. The rain was still falling and I so I waited for half-an-hour in my car before I heard the rain drops suddenly stall. At one o’clock, I made my way south.

Facing me were two of the largest housing blocks of the Clem Atlee Court, which looms over “The Goose” and “The Rylston” pubs and the numerous shops and cafes on the North End Road and Lillie Road. As I walked past one of its entrances, I wondered how many thousands of Chelsea supporters had grown up in this estate since it was built in the ‘sixties. It currently houses a massive twelve thousand people. It is, without a doubt, a last remaining bastion of working-class life in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has undergone immense gentrification since the ‘eighties. Perhaps the more pertinent term would be “yuppification”; no area of England was yuppified more than Fulham in the Thatcher era. It remains as one of the ten poorest estates in Britain.

But I love the way that I often spot Chelsea flags flying from some of the many balconies when I use the little cut through behind “The Goose” on my usual walk to Stamford Bridge. I have never felt threatened on this walk, though, even if it’s hardly a very salubrious part of the capital. It surely remains a bedrock of Chelsea support, though I am also sure that the vast majority of the twelve thousand are completely priced out of modern day football.

I always remember that I spent the entirety of 1983/84 on the dole but I was still able to attend eleven Chelsea games (thinking about it, this actually incorrect; I grabbed a job two days before the last game).

But I am sure that unemployment benefits are not enough these days to allow people to go to football at Chelsea, despite the club’s reduced prices for domestic cup games. And I suspect that those in lower paid jobs who live on the Clem Atlee are unable to attend many of our games either.

I walked past “The Rylston” just as the rain started again. I increased my pace. If nothing else, the one-and-a-half mile walk through deepest Fulham would give me a nice workout. My walking – so regular a year ago – has virtually stopped of late. I need to get back into that. The roads were understandably quiet, devoid of people. In fact, there were more abandoned Christmas trees on the wet pavements than pedestrians.

I was making good time, though a little wet. I stopped at “The Brown Cow” on the Fulham Road and positioned myself, and my jacket, beneath the heater in the ceiling. I ordered a “diet Coke” and dried out. A little time to myself. A little moment of calm before the day would develop. I moved on further down the Fulham Road and – despite the rain – I have to say I was enjoying my little walk.

The upmarket shops on this stretch of road were a million miles away from the stalls on the North End Road.

Same postcode, different lives.

I then dived in to “The Golden Lion” on Fulham High Street. It was quiet save for a few local lads watching the Millwall vs. Palace game on two large TV screens. Another “diet Coke” and another drying-out. I love the intimacy of London pubs. You might have noticed. And none are more intimate than “The Eight Bells”, the last port of call. I walked in at around two-thirty.

PD, Parky and Scott were sat in the far corner. Alongside them was Steve from Salisbury who sits near Parky in The Shed. Very soon into our chat, which would last until around a quarter-to-five, we were augmented by Julie and Tim from South Gloucestershire.

I kept to the “diet Cokes”. To be honest, I could not believe how quiet the pub was. It was half-empty. The lads soon told me that they had been chatting to a couple from Chesterfield, in the pub with their son, and how the son had been invited down to Cobham with hundreds of other Chesterfield academy players. Top work, Chelsea.

I spoke with Julie and Tim about Abu Dhabi. They had already booked flights. I had explained to PD and LP on the drive to London that I was only 50/50 about going. The stress of testing, the forms, the red tape, the risk of getting COVID – again – out there…it was weighing heavily on my poor mind. But chatting to them assuaged my worries a great deal.

Steve told of how, when Pulisic scored the second against Liverpool, he spotted Parky’s blue walking stick fly through the air. It was then quickly followed by Parky who, despite his dodgy leg, raced down the aisle and ended up on top of Steve in his row.

With no tube trains, we caught a 22 bus up the King’s Road. In slow-moving traffic, it passed Parson’s Green and Eel Brook Common before depositing us outside “The Imperial”, a mere five-minute walk away from Stamford Bridge. It felt odd to be approaching the ground from the east.

At around 5.10pm we started queuing to get into West View. Thankfully, the lines were short. Annoyingly, there seemed to be no lift. Parky and PD, both with gammy legs, really struggled with the ten flights of stairs. Parky had mentioned a lift that he had used on Wednesday, but there wasn’t one to be seen. Well, that’s just crap.

I wasn’t able to mooch around the bar areas before the game began due to the lack of time. To be honest, after a couple of minutes, I had seen enough. It’s all rather swish and sleek. But it resembled a posh cinema rather than a football stadium. I wasn’t able to peruse the food and drink options, but I am the last person who would ever get too excited about the quality and variety of food on offer at football. A game last two hours at the most. I hardly ever buy any food at games these days. I just don’t see the point.

We made our way to our four seats in row 23. We kept going and going; more steps for PD and Parky to climb. We ended up in the back row. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It was some view from our seats. I had never been so high in the West Upper before. On my five or six previous visits, I had been, maybe, half the way up. My last visit was also an FA Cup tie, just over seven years ago, against Watford. We were midway into the half towards the Matthew Harding. I looked down and saw Alan in a thin sliver of terrace down below. We were so high that I only saw the lower tier of the East Stand.

The seats are padded, but not as luxurious as those at Arsenal. There are three huge TV screens at the front of the under hang of the roof, with smaller screens further in. I have never really bothered with TV screens while the game is in progress. I soon noticed that the TV feed was a couple of seconds slower than the game itself. I suppose they are fine for watching replays. With nobody behind me, I was able to stand for a massive chunk of the game; old habits and all that.

As soon as he reached our seats – there were empties to our left – Parky totally embraced the luxurious setting and led down on the concrete floor. I half-expected PD to feed him some grapes in the style of a Roman emperor.

Emperor Oscar Parksorius anyone?

I soon spotted plenty of youngsters in our immediate vicinity. Parky saw that a family with three youngsters, aged five to eight maybe, were in the row in front but the kids were having trouble seeing the pitch. There was space alongside us in the back row, so the kids were lifted up alongside us. It meant there was nobody, now, in their way in their former row. I was sure that many regulars had decided not to attend this one. In their place were those who maybe could not afford regular prices. It is often the way on FA Cup days.

So. West View. My thoughts?

The West Upper has always been an expensive part of the stadium. This season, general sale seats are a hefty £95. As a comparison, my seat in the MHU is knocked out for £65 on general sale; for me as a season ticket holder it equates to £46 per game. But for now, those wealthier Chelsea fans who can afford the current West View prices, and if the demographics of our support are correct we have a few, I suppose that £95 per game is affordable; it must be, we are always sold out.

The spectators in the West Upper, one would imagine, are bona fide Chelsea supporters, and thus have a vested interest in the team and the game. There must be around 4,000 of them in the West Upper each match. However, from next season, West View season tickets will cost from £1,500 to £3,900 although I believe that all games are included. Let’s say we play thirty home games per season. For the £3,900 season ticket, that equates to a chunky £130 per game. I would imagine that not all 4,000 seats will be sold as season tickets and thus those left for game-by-game sale to members or the general public will probably be knocked out in excess of £150 per game.

And my point, really is this. Who can afford to pay £1,500 to a staggering £3,900 for a season ticket? Surely not most fans. Surely not those with families. Surely not your average Joe. I’d imagine that companies, in the main, will be buying those tickets, and employees will be hosting guests at most games as part of the corporate schmoozefest that has taken over parts of modern day football. And will those people be Chelsea fans? Not always. Will they be vested in the team and club? Maybe not.

West View seems to be an exact way to further reduce the ability for regular Chelsea fans to attend games. Revenues, if the club has got it right, might increase but surely the atmosphere will be quieter than ever. But most importantly, I feel for the 4,000 Chelsea fans who must be thinking that that they are being priced right out.

That can’t be a good thing.

Kick-off time soon arrived.

It was nigh on 5.30pm.

The lights were dulled, the teams entered the pitch. Chesterfield were in a change kit of all red.

From my vantage point, I soon spotted that the pitch was looking a little worn. These four home games in rapid succession were taking their toll.

A quick scan of the team.

Two debuts, and we seemed to get stronger – or at least more experienced – as we went from defence to attack. As the game began, I tried to work out the formation. You would think that with my sky-high view, which I honestly did not mind for a one-off game, the shape would be easy for me to fathom. Not likely.

Bettinelli was in goal. Christensen and Sarr were in the middle, but I guessed that Hall was in a three with them. Saul and Kovacic were the anchors in midfield. But that must have meant that Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi were the pushed-on wing backs. Pulisic seemed to float around, but strayed often to the right. Upfront was Lukaku and Werner drifted next to him.

The six thousand away fans were making a racket as the game began, and all were standing. The away team had an attack in the first few minutes and thus, officially, had begun brighter than Tottenham on Wednesday. However, they soon mirrored Tottenham’s start to that game. Kovacic broke and slipped the ball to Ziyech. His shot was parried but the ball fell to Werner who stabbed the ball in from a couple of yards.

I thought there might have been a hint of an offside; thankfully not.

Just six minutes had elapsed.

Alan in The Sleepy Hollow : THTCAUN.

Chris in West View : COMLD.

Unperturbed the away team still endeavoured to attack.

“Definitely a better start than Tottenham.”

However, we were creating some nice patterns in the final third with Ziyech the most noticeable. On eighteen minutes, Hudson-Odoi advanced and curled an exquisite shot from the angle of the penalty box into the far post. It was a stunning goal. Whereas my celebrations had been muted for the first with the threat of an offside, this one was loudly cheered by myself.

“Get in Callum.”

Two minutes later, Lewis Hall lost possession on the left flank but quickly won the ball back, a great recovery, and advanced before picking out the run of Lukaku. From inside the six-yard box, this was an easy finish.

The game appeared to be won on just twenty minutes.

“And relax.”

But the away fans were in party mode and were still singing.

“Jump around if you love the town.”

“I’m Spireite ‘till I die.”

And then a chant that aimed a dig at our scorer.

“Romelu Lukaku, he’s Inter Milan.”

Two very similar shots from Lukaku sadly didn’t trouble Sam Loach in the Chesterfield goal. They were two poor finishes.

There was a rare Chesterfield effort on our goal but Bettinelli was untroubled.

The atmosphere wasn’t great in the home areas. But I joined in with every hint of a song in the lofty heights of row twenty-three. I was glad that a surprising number of supporters took part too. On the pitch, there was good movement from Werner, Hudson-Odoi looked lively and Ziyech was creating good options as he danced and weaved into space. Pulisic was, by comparison, rather quiet. Hall, the debutant, was enjoying a fine, solid game.

However, he almost blotted his copybook on a superb debut by slicing a clearance into his net but Bettinelli came to the rescue.

With half-time approaching, a shot from Hall was parried and Christensen was on hand to adeptly loop a header over the ’keeper. It was a fine, cool finish.

At half-time, we were 4-0 up.

There were game recaps at the break on the myriad of TV screens in the stadium. The poxy video supporting the decision to clothe ourselves in Op Art zig-zags was shown. What with watching from so high up, plus the dizzy images on the screens, I might have been forgiven for losing my footing and joining Parky on the floor.

There were some changes for the second period,

Kai Havertz for Lukaku.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic.

Chances were exchanged in the first few minutes of the second-half. The reds were now attacking their six thousand followers in The Shed. “Carefree” with a northern twang sounded so odd.

On the fifty-fourth minute, Pulisic received the ball out wide and attacked. My thoughts were immediately this :

“Get inside the box, win a penalty.”

With that, he got inside the box and won a penalty.

Ziyech smashed it in.

I claimed the assist.

5-0.

I suppose “are you Tottenham in disguise?” is better than nothing.

Some further substitutions followed, and the game took on the appearance of a training session. It became a little hard work to be honest.

Harvey Vale for Pulisic.

Lewis Baker for Christensen.

Ross Barkley for Hudson-Odoi.

The game didn’t flow so well. Ruben and Ross flattered to deceive. The noise subsided further. Fraser Kerr shot wide in front of the travelling hordes at The Shed End.

With ten to go, Akwasi Asante was able to finish off a move after an initial shot was blocked. The away fans, unsurprisingly, went wild. Fair play to them. I had to keep reminding myself that they were a non-league team. The applause from sections of the home areas got louder; I joined in. I felt a bit of a prick, but there you go.

CFC 5 CFC 1.

The four of us slowly navigated the stairs and made our way back to the waiting car.

On the Lillie Road, at “The Anchor”, I bought and then devoured a saveloy and chips. Just behind the small shop, the towers of the Clem Atlee loomed. I wondered how many of the estate’s inhabitants had been tuned in to the game. And I wondered if any had been at Stamford Bridge.

Next up, a game at White Hart Lane. Tottenham away is not for the feint-hearted. I’ll see you there.

Tales From Us And That Lot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 5 January 2022.

I have to say that I was a lot more confident going into the first of three games against Tottenham Hotspur in just eighteen days after the Liverpool match than I was before it. That tussle on the second day of the year really helped to settle my nerves; we were good weren’t we?

This would be our fourth League Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

I have no recollection of the one in 1971/72. I would have been six years old. We went through after a Chris Garland inspired second-leg at Chelsea.

I can easily remember the one in 2001/2. Shudder. We won the first-leg 2-1 at The Bridge but I was working a late shift on the day of the return leg. I remember bringing in a portable TV to watch the game while I was at work in our portacabin outside the main warehouse of a company in Trowbridge. We lost 1-5 and I have never been more miserable after watching a Chelsea game on TV. The thought of having to come face to face with my Tottenham-supporting manager the next day was the stuff of nightmares.

In 2018/19, there was a much a nicer memory as we went through on penalties, David Luiz scoring the winner, in the second leg at Chelsea.

Three previous ties. Two wins with the second leg at home. One loss with the second leg away. Well, you can imagine my thought process.

There was just the three of us in The Chuckle Bus for this game. PD collected me outside work and we were parked-up in SW6 bang on two hours later. While my co-passengers visited “The Goose” I popped to the Italian restaurant two doors down on the North End Road.

I had only been sat at my table for a minute when the door opened and my good friend Andy walked in. What a nice surprise. He had visited it recently and fancied a return. Andy often features in these march reports; most memorably mentioned during the Porto trip last May. We both ordered pizzas and had a cracking natter for an hour or so. Andy is going to Abu Dhabi, and of course I hope to join him. Andy mentioned the pre-season game at Bournemouth that we both attended in the summer. Andy brought up the team on his ‘phone. We could hardly believe that Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta played, to say nothing of Baba Rahman. We briefly spoke about Romelu Lukaku. I personally wanted a line to be drawn under the whole shebang. Time to move on.

It was a cold old night on the border of Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea. PD had gone into the ground early and I joined him at around 7.15pm. Parky, ousted from the Shed Lower, would be watching in the West View.

I looked over at The Shed. There they were. Tottenham. There’s just something about them. And I am sure they feel the same way about us. Probably more so these days.

Our home record against “that lot” is still bloody magnificent, and of course I am not letting the moment pass without mentioning it once again.

Since December 1990, it goes something like this.

Won fucking loads, drew some others, lost just once.

The magic numbers were in fact 23-13-1.

I suppose that in the circumstances, I should not have been too worried. The weight of all that history, and misery – “misstory” – must be a heavy yoke for Tottenham to carry on their trips to Stamford Bridge.

The lights were dimmed at around 7.40pm just as I shot off for a last minute visit to turn my bike around. When I came back, and peered out through the exits, the lights were being slowly turned back on. I settled down next to PD, Clive and Alan and readied myself for the evening’s entertainment.

Lukaku was on the pitch. As his name was mentioned in a run-through of the team, there were no boos at all, just a hint of applause. I was happy with that.

As the game began, it took me a good few minutes to work out if my first thoughts on the shape changing to an old-fashioned 4-4-2 were correct, or was Hakim Ziyech really a very very very pushed-on wing back?

No, I was right the first time.

Kepa Arriabalaga in goal.

A back four of Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rudiger, Malang Saar and Cesar Azpilicueta.

The wide players in midfield were Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech, with Jorginho and Saul in the middle.

Up front were Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz.

For all of the advantages of other formations, there is something about a 4-4-2. It’s the system I grew up with – although 4-3-3 was the first system I ever played, way back in 1975 – but there is a nice solidity about it.

There was an unsurprisingly loud and unwelcoming noise aimed at the 4,500 away fans in The Shed.

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

They were soon up and running with their couple of songs which hark at their Jewish identity but now seem to be a little out of place.

Fuck’em.

Well.

This is what we did alright.

In the first five minutes, too.

Signor Alonso has his detractors, but he magnificently nipped in to steal the ball before it reached a Tottenham defender on our left. He played a perfect pass in to Herr Havertz who slammed the ball goal wards. His effort took a deflection off a Tottenham defender – I cared not who – and the ball ended up inside the goal, to be followed not so long after after by the scorer and his team mates.

Get in you bastard.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds. Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit, yap, yap, bunny, bunny.”

It seemed perfect that the Chelsea celebrations involved the blue-clad players celebrating inside the goalmouth with the away fans looking closely on in misery.

Chelsea in front, and in front of their fans too.

On the balcony wall of The Shed, the simple words : “Pride Of London.”

Gertcha.

Well, this was a cracking start to the game. In the myriad of Chelsea victories at Stamford Bridge against “that lot” I always have a little chuckle to myself about “how will we beat them this time?” and this match was off to a perfect start.

However, Havertz appeared to injure himself in the process of scoring and was off the pitch for a while.

We purred in that first-half and they hardly threatened at all.

I must admit it looked odd to see our former manager patrolling the opposition technical area, and looking pretty fed-up too, from the first few minutes.

A shot from Havertz was easily saved by the Tottenham ‘keeper.

Next up were blocked shots from Mount and Saul, who was enjoying a very fine half, and then Ziyech set himself up nicely but his left-footed curler was off target.

The opposition rarely got out of their half.

There was a lovely piece of recovery after a Tottenham attacker broke and avoided an offside trap. Ziyech was able to nibble and pinch the ball away. The threat was over.

On the half-hour, Alan and I couldn’t believe how Rudiger wasn’t able to pounce after a Ziyech corner was helped on its way by a Tottenham defender. From our perspective, it looked like a goal waiting to be struck. His eventual effort was blocked.

Soon after, a strong run from Lukaku – who indeed had been warmly encouraged thus far – resulted in a free-kick out on the right. Ziyech, right in the action again, punched a ball towards the six-yard box. Fortuitously I snapped just as one Tottenham defender headed the ball against another, and the ball flew into the net.

Get in.

At that point in the proceedings we wondered if the first goal had been credited as an own goal too.

Two OGs?

“Oh, let’s beat them like this.”

How Spursy.

I turned to “the bloke behind me” (copyright “When Saturday Comes” 1986) :

“He never misses from there.”

Oh my aching sides.

The players, almost embarrassingly, ran over to congratulate Ziyech. Well, they had to run somewhere. They could hardly run to the Tottenham player, whoever he was.

Next came, the ultimate piss-take.

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

Not sure I have heard that before, or at least not in the way it was intended, enticing them to join in our fun. Top marks.

We tried to stifle a little laughter when Lukaku had an awful first touch on the centre circle and resembled an out-of-control express train as he sprinted to retrieve the ball before it went out for a throw-in. He failed. The terrace wags were soon on his case.

“He can control it further than I can fucking kick it.”

“His second touch is a tackle.”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But then, a golden chance. A beautifully flighted ball from that man Ziyech dropped right on the head of Lukaku but his purposeful downward header guided the ball just past the far post.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

A goal there, three at the break, would have killed the game, killed the tie, helped to evacuate The Shed and would have led to forty-five minutes of arsenic-laced mickey-taking and tom foolery, and maybe even Micky Fillery.

But it had been a most excellent first-half. We were neat and purposeful, and seemed to over-run them in all areas of the pitch. Did they have a shot on goal? Hardly. Did Kepa make a real save? I think not. Stars of the half were Ziyech, Saul, Havertz and maybe even Alonso too.

As the second-half began, I settled in my seat but had missed the substitution announcement. It took me a few seconds to realise that Timo Werner had replaced Havertz.

The opposition were all over us in the first minute, then the second, third and fourth. Their manager had obviously fired some fine words into their shell-likes in the break. But we never really looked too troubled in this period. If anything, I hoped it would create chances for us to counter-attack at will.

On fifty minutes, a shot from them at a free-kick, but Kepa was able.

It annoyed me – saddened me even – to see three Italian flags being waved among the away fans. That was us. That was Zola, Vialli, di Matteo, that was Ranieri, that was Ancelotti, that is Jorginho. Damn you.

This game was more of a contest now. But our chances still dominated. Ziyech should have done better after a very fine move linking Werner and then Lukaku. I have to say the thought of a Lukaku and Werner partnership started to thrill me a little.

Saul was enjoying this game and we were enjoying seeing him play so well. There was a cheeky back-heeled volley, but I turned to Al and said :

“He’s no Zola.”

On the hour, I watched Werner as he collected the ball, opened his body up and attacked his marker. His pace took him past and he let loose a powerful strike that oh-so narrowly missed the far post.

“Three-nil and it’s all over, mate.”

There was a very rare outing of the “William song”; because, well, that lot, eh?

Lukaku set up Ziyech and he zipped the pass of the night towards Werner on the edge of the box. He chose to lift the ball over the ‘keeper but an outstretched arm defeated him. It was a fine save. Not long after, Ziyech blasted over from an angle.

“He could’ve brought that down, Al.”

We begged our heroes for one more goal. Just one.

I must say that I thought it was a little premature to be singing “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again” so let’s save that for White Hart Lane. Fingers crossed, eh?

Some late substitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Saul.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Ziyech.

Down in the far corner, a Tottenham substitute tied Christian Pulisic up in knots and his shot was, thankfully, well-saved by Kepa at full stretch on the floor. The ball was unceremoniously hacked clear. This was followed immediately by a much-desired counter-attack, involving Ruben, but a pass to Lukaku only resulted in a corner.

A free-kick in prime Alonso territory. Alas not. His shot only troubled the wall.

One last change.

Harvey Vale for Dave.

It was Vale who helped to combine neatly with others to set up the last chance of the match for that man Lukaku, but his shot was tame and hit centrally.

It’s finely balanced at 2-0.

One more goal would have meant that our trip to White Hart Lane next week would be one of lick-lipping eagerness. As it stands, it will be a little more difficult.

But we are suddenly in a good place again. The doom mongers have quietened down. We’ve got Lukaku back in the fold. Players are returning. We are on the march.

Next up, Chesterfield in the FA Cup and my first-ever visit to “The West View.”

For further updates, stay tuned to this channel.

Tales From Simply A Superb Game

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.

My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.

On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.

But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.

On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.

Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.

Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.

I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.

I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.

…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.

There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.

I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.

In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”

Talking of which…

I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.

Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.

Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.

My brain started ticking over.

“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”

PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.

Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.

“Zeke Rowe!”

Anyone remember him?

Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.

This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.

I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.

I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta

Pulisic – Havertz – Mount

Lukaku was not even in the squad.

Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.

There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.

On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.

After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.

Ouch.

Despite this, the noise levels remained high.

“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.

We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.

I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”

Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.

Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.

Fackinell.

I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.

Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.

The noise died a little.

But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.

Bloody excellent.

With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.

Whatafuckinggoal.

My immediate response?

Essien, Barcelona.

I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.

The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.

But then…but then.

An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.

Thankfully, the goal stood.

But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.

Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.

We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.

What bliss.

There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.

Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.

There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”

What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.

There was beautiful disbelief at the break.

Phew.

I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.

Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.

Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.

Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.

For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.

A shot from Alonso flew over.

On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.

I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.

On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.

A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.

On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.

Jorginho for Chalobah.

We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.

The whole team seemed to tire as one.

With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.

We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.

A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.

The final whistle blew.

2-2 on the second day of 2022.

Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.

I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :

“Lukak’who?”

Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.

And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.

Fulham Broadway.

The Eight Bells.

Stamford Bridge.

Tales From Tier One And Tier Eight

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 29 December 2021.

Over Christmas 2021 and into New Year 2022, I was planning to attend six games. The over-riding question mark over these games was of course COVID19. Let’s have a re-cap.

22 December : Brentford vs. Chelsea – check.

26 December : Aston Villa vs. Chelsea – check.

27 December : Frome Town vs. Melksham Town – still on.

29 December : Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion – still on.

1 January : Paulton Rovers vs. Frome Town – still on.

2 January : Chelsea vs. Liverpool – still on.

So, after the fine win at Villa Park on Boxing Day, I was a third of the way through this feast of festive football.

Thus far the Football Gods were defeating the Covid ones; long may it continue.

Next up was a widely anticipated local derby involving a home game for my local non-league team Frome Town and local rivals Melksham Town. Back in August – the Bank Holiday Monday – I attended the away game and was happy with a 3-0 win for Frome in front of a fine gate of 491. Frome Town’s home attendances have been exceptional this season, averaging over four-hundred, and this is in comparison to an average of around two-hundred a few seasons ago, before COVID19, before abandoned seasons, before lockdown. In a nutshell, the people of Frome have massively backed the local team, quite possibly to the detriment of some of the local professional teams. All along, I was telling friends that the local derby with Melksham could well break the one thousand mark. The team’s first league game of the season against Highworth Town drew a massive 867 although there is a sizeable asterisk against this game as a local company paid for all attendees to watch the game for free. However, against Oxford City in the FA Cup in September, the gate was a hefty 586. It was agreed that the Melksham Town game would easily draw 600, probably 700 and possibly even more. In the back of my mind, I was holding out for one thousand.

On the morning of the game, in a wet but mild Frome town centre, I met up with two of the “Villa Park Five” and we embarked on a mini-pub crawl involving five of the town’s pubs.

PD, Glenn and I would help to bolster the attendance. I have known Glenn to attend the occasional Frome Town game with me over the past ten years but PD is a very rare visitor to Badger’s Hill. In some familiar watering holes we spoke about Villa the previous day and a little about the upcoming game later.

As we walked towards the main turnstiles, there was a queue of around forty people at around 2.30pm with still half-an-hour to kick-off. This, believe me, is unheard of.

Once inside, I stood with my usual Dodge pals Louise, Steve and Fran. I was told, proudly by Fran, that he had entered by the very rarely used second turnstile, wherever that is.

I looked around. There were people everywhere. There were even people sitting in the small cluster of open air seats next to the fully packed main stand. That never happens. What a lovely sight.

“Easily a thousand.”

This match, though on a much smaller scale of course, reminded me of my “guess the gate” game at Stamford Bridge in my childhood and youth. These days, this would be a pretty dull game; every game is a 40,000 sell-out. But from the late-‘seventies to the early-‘nineties, our crowd capacity was around the 45,000 mark. More importantly, our gates varied wildly, often within the same month, often the same week. However, the wildcard in our gates involved the club – a bearded chairman is usually quoted – shaving off thousands in order to keep money from the taxman. This made the guesstimating a little difficult. But, let’s take an example; Chelsea vs. Leeds United for the promotion decider in April 1984. Previously, our highest gate was 35,147 against Sheffield Wednesday. I think I can remember talking to the lads on the car ride to the Leeds game – PD and Glenn again – that the attendance would easily breach the 40,000 mark. In fact, the publicised gate of 33,447 fooled nobody at all. The place was rammed. I am sure it reached 40,000. But at virtually all home games in that period, I tended to not “guess the score” but “guess the gate” and I am sure I wasn’t alone.

Back to 2021 and back to Frome Town.

In a wet and blustery first-half, Frome looked sluggish and succumbed to a goal in the thirty-fourth minute. It hadn’t been much of a first-half. A real shame for the bumper crowd. While I was queuing for half-time beers in the busy clubhouse – seventy-five in the line at the bar, bloody hell – the game had evidently re-started and I was told that Melksham had doubled their lead.

A Frome fackinell was muttered as I waited for beers.

On fifty-five minutes, crowd favourite Jon Davies pulled a goal back with a shot lashed in from twenty yards. Frome were reacting well and the crowd were getting behind the team. On seventy-three minutes, an equaliser from Rex Mannings was met with wild cheers. We were back in this. To our horror, just three minutes later the visitors scored again on a rare break. In the first-half, we were sheltered under the roof along the side of the pitch. In this second-half we were amassed with hundreds of others in the packed Club End.

Towards the end, the PA announced the attendance.

1,103.

Bloody superb.

The noise levels increased. Frome hit the post. Unbelievingly, in the ninety-third minute, Alex Hallett slotted home, though from my vantage point – low down, behind many – I didn’t see the ball go in, I just saw the reactions of the players and spectators nearer the pitch.

Get in.

The place erupted.

What a lovely afternoon. Not only an entertaining game and a frankly unreal attendance, but also a few hours among people who I hadn’t seen for a while. I lost count of the number of people that said “hello Paul” to PD. Frome maintained pole position in the Southern League Division One South, down at level eight in the football pyramid.

Back in one of the two pubs that we would continue our drinking, there was a little reference to Chelsea.

“1,103 today.”

“Maybe PD, Glenn and I were the three.”

“Back in 1976 – forty-five years ago to the day in fact – Chelsea played at home to Fulham in the Second Division and the gate was 55,003.”

I remembered how my mate Alan always says “I was the three.”

55,003 in 1976.

1,103 in 2021.

It’s a toss-up which has made me prouder.

The rather inclement weather that had spoiled the game at Frome to a degree was in evidence as I set off from my house at around 11.15am on the morning of the Brighton game. I soon called in to collect PD in Frome. Thankfully, the blustery wind and rain had abated by the time I reached the next passenger. A soggy Chopper is a horrible thought. I had been hoping to take him to the Leeds United game a few weeks ago – 1970 and all that – but he had made his own way up to London on the Friday.

Ron soon told us of a nice incident that had happened during that game though. Midway through the game, he was summoned to the boardroom and was introduced to former Leeds United player and manager Eddie Gray. The former winger apparently travels to all of Leeds’ away games, looking after some executive club members, and I suppose this mirrors the job that he carries out at Elland Road. The two former combatants must have enjoyed a few fine words.

Ron told of us of a gig that both attended “up north” a few years back. Gray stepped forward and presented Ron with a small gift.

“This is a stud that they have just been finally able to remove from my knee from the 1970 FA Cup Final.”

Ah, that tackle. After giving David Webb the run-around at Wembley, Dave Sexton chose to let the Chelsea captain man mark Gray at Old Trafford. Chopper did not disappoint.

Incidentally, I always find it hard to believe that Eddie Gray – at thirty-six years of age – took part in the afore-mentioned game at Stamford Bridge in April 1984. He was their player-manager at the time.

We collected Parky at about 12.15pm and we were on our way. Thankfully, the traffic wasn’t too busy and I made good time on my way in to London. At around 2.30pm I deposited PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” at the bottom of Fulham High Street. They would soon be knocking back a few pints at “The Eight Bells.” I dropped Ron off at the bottom of the North End Road and he made his way to the stadium.

I parked-up in my usual spot, then made a leisurely walk down to Stamford Bridge where my friend Ben from the Boston Blues enjoyed a little chat with a few former players. I then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge and joined PD and Parky – and also my friend Andrew, once of the New York Blues but now living in Brighton of all places – in the cosy confines of “T8B” which was full of its usual regulars. Andrew would be sitting alongside me in The Sleepy Hollow. PD, Parky and I were starving so we each indulged in a burger and chips. My good pal Mac – a Brighton season ticket holder – arrived with two, then three, of his friends and sat alongside us.

At the same time it was a busy yet relaxed pre-match and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Brighton lads spoke to me about their manager Graham Potter. They had started to get a little irritated with the way that Brighton would always seem to play conservatively and without risk, and that many fans were wishing that there was a change of plan. Only a few times in recent years have Brighton “gone for it.” Mac recollected that when they travelled to Manchester City in the early weeks of 2019/20, Potter had thrown caution to the wind, and although Albion had lost 4-0, Mac had loved it. It was an interesting comment. It brought make an eerie reminder of Frank Lampard at Old Trafford the same season. I didn’t enjoy that one quite so much. But we chatted about how so many teams “shut up shop” these days; I told them that I longed for the days when football didn’t resemble a game of bloody chess.

One of Mac’s friends – Chris from Somerset, confusing isn’t it? – asked me what my preconceptions were of Graham Potter.

I felt like saying that I knew more about Harry Potter. The Brighton manager surely has to be one of the most unassuming men in the modern game.

With the kick-off at 7.30pm, it was time for us to set off. It was a stupidly mild evening in old London town as PD, Andrew and I turned into the West forecourt and waved an “adios” to Parky as he wended his way to The Shed.

Here was the team :

Mendy – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger – James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Pulisic – Hudson-Odoi, Lukaku, Mount.

This was again a case of Thomas Tuchel having to shuffle an increasingly depleted pack of cards. But, on paper at least, it did look a half-decent team. Of course, we would miss the energy of Kante and the crafted calmness of Thiago Silva. Sadly, Ben Chilwell is gone for the season, while others are clearly not at full fitness levels. But a “plus” had to be the presence of Romelu Lukaku in the starting line-up. We just had to engineer a way of getting the ball up to him, or for him to attack. That was our huge task as the clock ticked towards kick-off.

The two teams appeared in what looked like a training game from c. 1987 with Chelsea in royal blue and the visitors in an all jade Chelsea Collection number. Brighton had a solid three-thousand in their half of The Shed, but not one flag nor banner. Must do better.

On a day when it was announced that John Terry was returning to the club in a coaching role at the academy – a move that really surprised me – a large “Captain. Leader. Legend.” Surfed over the heads in the home section of the Shed Upper.

Right, the last game of 2021, another bloody crazy year in the history of Chelsea Football Club, but one which turned out to be so typical of modern day Chelsea. For much of 2021 it was the same old song; supporter unrest, managerial problems, silverware, big name signings, glimpses of success, supporter unrest, repeat to fade.

Would I have it any other way? Yes, probably.

However : [clears throat]

“Let’s Go To Work.”

As usual, we attacked The Shed in the first-half. A few early forays hinted at good things. However, the first piece of action got the pulses racing was a full throttle race down our left involving former Chelsea youngster Tariq Lamptey and our man Reece James. Thankfully, that particular tussle ended in our favour.

The boisterous away fans went for an early dig.

“Tariq Lamptey, he left ‘cus you’re shit” and how we laughed.

After an early effort from Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lamptey attacked and struck a shot that did not bother Edouard Mendy. But their right back was looking effervescent. A corner from our right was not cleanly gathered by Robert Sanchez in the Brighton goal, and Cesar Azpilicueta swung a leg and the resulting shot cannoned off the near post. The ball bounced away and James swung it in again. However, a header from Antonio Rudiger was easily saved by the Brighton ‘keeper.

A clean move involving a run and pass from Mateo Kovacic to Romelu Lukaku set up Mason Mount but his shot was saved by Sanchez.

Sadly, we spotted that James was rooted to the turf on the half-way line. He was completely still. We all feared the worst. His walk off, supported to of Chelsea’s medical team, was the slowest I have ever seen. He was replaced by Marcos Alonso.

A Mason Mount corner was swung in and the ball perfectly met the free leap from Lukaku. The ball went crashing down and past Sanchez.

Get in.

After his excellent performance at Villa, it felt that he was the man of the moment.

There was a tough tackle in the midfield and the away fans did not like it.

“You dirty Northern bastards” caused a smirk from Andrew and myself in The Sleepy Hollow.

Brighton had caused us a few moments during the first-half and they had grown stronger as the game developed. Apart from our opening half-an-hour, we had drifted. The atmosphere wasn’t too special. The night was mild, on the pitch and off it.

“We’re hanging on a bit here” I said to PD.

However, I thought that Andreas Christensen had enjoyed a fine half, often intercepting and tackling with aplomb. It was just typical that he had taken a knock and was replaced at the break by Trevoh Chalobah. Our injury woes were getting worse.

Brighton kept up their pressure from the first-half. A cross from Solly March was met by Jakub Moder and his effort dropped – just – over the bar. Shots followed from Alexis Mac Alister and the very impressive Yves Bissouma.

Ten minutes into the second-half, at last, the home crowd got it together and a loud “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” enveloped the stadium. Just after, there followed a rare Chelsea attack. Hudson-Odoi broke from deep and advanced. Mount was in a good position, racing away too and square, and Callum decided to pass rather than shoot. The pass was poor and a defender intercepted. The howls of derision boomed around the Matthew Harding. Brighton immediately attacked and the atmosphere was suddenly red hot. Mendy blocked Mac Allister and Rudiger blocked Maupay. Other chances came and went for Brighton. We had nothing in response.

I messaged Mac : “Your boys are doing you proud.”

Lamptey was nicely applauded by us when he was substituted with half-an-hour to go.

Just after, N’Golo Kante replaced Hudson-Odoi.

We hoped that this would steady the ship. And this seemed to be the case. We even enjoyed a few half-chances with headers from Rudiger and Chalobah giving us a little hope for a second goal that would give us some security. There were further half-chances, nothing more, from Lukaku and Kante.

But I was surely not the only one who was half-expecting a late Brighton equaliser.

Four minutes of added injury time were to be played at the end of the ninety.

After just one of these, Marc Cucarella dropped a cross onto the head of a rising Danny Welbeck and the ball nestled in at the far post.

The players – far from jaded – raced away, the away hordes jumped and jumped, a blue flare was thrown onto the pitch. This was their moment.

Sigh.

We sloped away amidst comments of “this feels like a loss” and “they deserved that.”

Just as I was nearing my car, with PD and Parky already waiting, Nice Guy Kenny spotted Chopper walking alongside me and asked for a photo with his young niece. At least one Chelsea supporter left SW6 with a nice feeling.

Nobody likes dropping points of course. And this is a testing time for us all. But there is no doubt that our once vaunted squad is currently stretched. The immediate over-reaction by sections of our support was to be expected these days. All was rosy after Villa Park. One game later, not so.

I made good time on my return and I was home just after midnight.

Next up, Paulton Rovers away and Liverpool at home.

On we go.

Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

We don’t always play on Boxing Day, but when we do it’s usually at Stamford Bridge. However, for once this was going to be a rare trip to the Midlands for this particular festive fixture and that suited me. Sometimes Boxing Day fixtures at Stamford Bridge, especially the dreaded early kick-offs, can be eerily quiet affairs.

Back when I was younger, attending Boxing Day football was fraught with logistical problems. I didn’t see my first Boxing Day Chelsea game until as late as 1992 when, at last with a car to drive, I made my way up from deepest Somerset to see us play Southampton at home.

Since then, I haven’t attended every Boxing Day game; most but not all.

However, the game at Villa Park on Boxing Day 2021 would only be the fourth away game out of twenty Boxing Day fixtures that I would have watched. The league computer certainly favours us to play at Stamford Bridge on this most traditional of footballing days. We missed out on an away game at Arsenal last year; and that was probably just as well.

I set off at around 9.15am but instead of heading off to collect PD, Glenn and Parky, I was headed due south for half an hour to collect Donna in Wincanton, a town in Somerset that I rarely visit. I fuelled up, then drove through Bruton and I soon realised that unless we play Yeovil Town in the FA Cup it’s unlikely that I would ever take this road to see Chelsea ever again. It was mightily heavy with fog as I crept past the Wincanton Race Course, opening up for its annual Boxing Day Meet. I collected Donna at 10am, then made a bee-line for Frome. I’ve known Donna for a while – I spent some time with her and some other friends in Porto in May – but even though I had seen her at various Chelsea games over the past ten years or so, I only found out from Parky that Wincanton was her home relatively recently.

Donna’s first ever Chelsea game was a pre-season fixture against Bristol City in 1995 just after Ruud Gullit signed for us. I remember that I eagerly travelled down to Devon to see us play Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle during the week before the game in Bristol on the Sunday. Supporters of our club that were not around in the summer of 1995 will, I think, struggle to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the Gullit signing. It absolutely thrilled us all. We both remembered it as a swelteringly hot day – we drew 1-1 – and Donna reminded me that for a long period during the pre-match “kick in”, our new Dutch superstar wandered around the pitch talking on his mobile phone. It just felt that only he would ever be allowed such a privilege.

Twenty-six years ago and a Chelsea pre-season tour in the West of England.

I can’t see that ever happening again, eh?

The first Chelsea away game that I attended on a Boxing Day was at Villa Park too; in 1996/97, a nice 2-0 win, two goals from Gianfranco Zola , and I even won some money on him as the first scorer. Our lovely “1997 FA Cup Final” season was just gaining momentum and times were good, now with a team including Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and with Ruud Gullit now as the player-manager. The greatest of times? It absolutely felt like it.

Only the previous April we had assembled at Villa Park for an ultimately agonising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United; the memory of walking back to my parking spot amidst a sea of United fans haunts me to this day.

But Boxing Day 1996 was a cracking day out; twenty-five years ago to the day. Blimey. File under “where does the time go?” alongside many other games.

I collected the remaining passengers and we were on our way. There was fog, but not as heavy as on the trip up the same M5 to Wolverhampton a week earlier. I made good time and I pulled into the car park of “The Vine”, tucked under the M5 at West Bromwich, for the second time in a week at bang on 1pm. We had enjoyed our meal there so much after the Wolves game that we had decided to do so again.

“The Vine” – good food, a quiet chat, a few drinks – would do for us.

Curries and pints were ordered. Chelsea tales were remembered. Three hours flew past. A trip to Villa Park was long overdue. It has been a mainstay on our travels for decades, but the last visit was as long ago as April 2016 when Pato scored. We remembered that, ironically, I had plans to take Donna to Villa Park for our game in March 2020 – Donna had broken her wrist and was unable to drive – but of course that game was the first one to be hit by the lockdown of two seasons ago. Like me, Donna kept the tickets for that game on her fridge as a reminder that, hopefully, football would be back in our lives again.

It didn’t take me long to drop my four passengers off near Villa Park before I doubled-back on myself and parked up on the same street that I have been using for years and years. We used to drop into “The Crown And Cushion” pub on the walk to the stadium but that is no more; razed to the ground, only memories remain. We had mobbed up in that very pub for the Fulham semi-final in 2002; there is a photo from that day of a very young-looking Parky and a very young-looking me.

I stood outside the away end, a few “hellos” to some friends. I had a spare ticket but couldn’t shift it. Unperturbed, I made my way inside the Doug Ellis Stand. I was rewarded with a very fine seat; the very front row of the upper deck. Alas, Alan wasn’t able to attend again, but Gary and Parky were alongside me.

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

Villa Park is a large and impressive stadium. I looked around at the familiar-again banners, flags, tiered stands and other architectural features. Was I last here almost six bloody years ago?

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

The stadium was full to near capacity. The players appeared from that quaint “off-centre” tunnel that Villa decided to keep as a motif from the old, and much-loved, Trinity Road stand of yore. Chelsea as Borrusia Dortmund again; yellow, black, yellow.

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

The first thing of note during the game was the realisation that I had forgotten to include a good four of five songs and chants from the Chelsea catalogue at Brentford on the previous Wednesday. I had mentioned thirty; a few friends had added a few more later, yet I was hearing some others too, repeated in The Midlands. It’s a fair assumption that the tally at Brentford must have reached forty.

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

On the pitch, there were some early exchanges and Thiago Silva continued his lovely form from the previous Sunday at Wolves. The singing in the two-tiered Doug Ellis quietened down as our play deteriorated a little.

But we were still the loud ones.

“Shall we sing a song for you?” was robustly answered on around twenty minutes by the home fans in the North Stand, which was met with sarcastic clapping from the away section.

No surprises, we were dominating possession but Villa were looking decidedly useful when they countered with pace. A run and strike by Ollie Watkins was ably blocked by the nimble reactions of Trevoh Chalobah, and the away fans applauded.

We were having a little difficulty in building our attacks. Reece James struggled with crosses and gave away the occasional ball. From a wide position on the left, Mason Mount slung in a ball that tickled the crossbar; I am not sure if the attempt on goal was intentional.

Sadly, Villa themselves were breeching us too often for our liking. Just before the half-hour mark, a cross from Matt Targett was flicked on – in an effort to block the cross – by James. The ball spun up and over Mendy’s head and outreached arms. Our goalkeeper was stranded and the ball nestled in the net. Villa probably deserved their lead.

At that time, we were looking a little weak as an attacking threat, with only Kante – “imperious” the bloke next to me called him – living up to his billing. Callum Hudson-Odoi seemed as reticent as ever to take people on and Christian Pulisic just looked lost. Thankfully our response was quick and a little surprising. Marcos Alonso pushed the ball forward and Matty Cash lunged at Callum inside the box. It was an ugly challenge and a clear penalty.

Despite Martinez’ merry dance on the goal line, Jorginho rarely misses and he didn’t this time.

1-1.

Back in the game.

The first-half ended with a period of huff and puff with not much real quality.

At the break, the fifth cavalry appeared on the horizon. Although Chalobah had performed admirably, it was his place that was jeopardised in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Pulisic, out-fought and out-puzzled in a central attacking role “of sorts” was pushed back to right wing-back. Soon after the restart, Silva slowly walked off to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.

There is no doubt at all that the changes resulted in a noticeable improvement in our play, the vast majority of which seemed to take place down below us on our right wing. Pulisic looked a lot more potent and of course it was a huge advantage to have a target, a hit-man, a goal scorer on the pitch.

But there were the usual moans and grumbles when Hudson-Odoi fluffed a goal scoring opportunity in his favoured inside-left channel. However, those chastising our youngster were soon eating humble pie. His perfectly floated cross towards the incredible bulk of Lukaku just outside the six-yard box was nigh-on perfection. Our number nine lept and angled the ball past the Villa ‘keeper.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Our play improved. We looked more confident, more at ease. There was greater intent.

On the hour, Mateo Kovacic replaced Kante and we hoped our little miracle-worker wasn’t badly hurt.

A fine long ball from Christensen played in Mount. He drew the ‘keeper on an angle but with two team mates in good positions, decided to go for goal. With the ‘keeper having over-run his challenge and in no man’s land, Mount’s effort didn’t hit the target. The ball kissed the side netting.

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

At the other end, a rare Villa attack and – if I am honest – a cumbersome challenge looked a definite penalty but we were saved by an offside flag.

A strong run from Lukaku eventually tee’d up Callum again. But this was followed with a weak finish but also an excellent low save from Martinez.

More howls.

Late, very late, in the game, I was poised with my camera as Lukaku started a chase to reach a ball pumped forward by Hudson-Odoi. I watched through my lens as he quickly made up ground on Targett, and raced past. The defender lost his footing and ended up stumbling around like a newly born fawn. Our striker raced on, seemingly ripping up the turf as he sprinted away. It was simply a glorious sight. It was an instant classic, a reminder of older days when strikers were unshackled and free. He advanced into the box, and I was preparing for a Roy Of The Rovers – or Hotshot Hamish – thunderbolt. Instead, Ezri Konsa took his legs away.

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

But that run from Lukaku. The highlight of the season? Possibly. More of the same please. The second half had been a fine turnaround. Everyone was happy. I kept saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes” as we made our way down the many flights of stairs to street level.

As we all walked back to the car, a group of Chelsea fans were singing in the dark distant night.

“Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away…”

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From A Christmas Choir

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2021.

After the game at Molineux on Sunday in which we just couldn’t find a way to pierce the Wolves resistance, we were now set to play West London neighbours Brentford with a further-depleted starting eleven in the League Cup quarter final.

I again worked an early shift – up at 5.45am, in at 7am – in order to be able to meet up with the troops and drive them to London at 3pm. With the emergence of an extra ticket via my friend Steph, we were able to move tickets around so that the four of us – PD, Parky, Glenn and I – were all able to attend. This was a repeat of those attending the league game in October, though the pre-match was vastly different.

In October, Glenn was at the wheel, and we enjoyed a superb pre-match pub crawl along the river that took in five boozers. This time, once I had parked-up bang on schedule at 5.20pm a mile or so to the west of the Brentford Community Stadium, the pub-crawl was a lot more local to the game and a lot less extensive.   

At around 5.45pm, the four of us dipped into the dimly-lit back room of “The Steam Packet” a few yards from the river at Kew Bridge but we soon decided to head on to another. Just a two-minute walk away stood “The Bell And Crown” and we sidled in. Some friendly Brentford lads made room for us at the front of the pub. It looked a cracking boozer, full of Christmas decorations, and a few fellow match-goers. Brentford’s support might miss the old ground with the pubs on the four corners but the little knot of hostelries at Kew Bridge are a fine replacement. My diet-Coke was served in a plastic Brentford logo-d cup, the first time I had ever seen such a thing. My friend Trev and his son Luke arrived and it was great to see them. I had only mentioned Trev in this blog – for the Leeds United game – a few days back and here he was, appearing right in front of me. The last time I saw him was at a mate’s fiftieth in Bristol in 2016.

I whispered to Trev “maybe if I mention Jennifer Anniston in the blog for this game, I’ll see her in the pub before Brighton.”

Trev lives in nearby Twickenham – we probably drove within a few hundred yards of his house on the way up – and although he is a Leeds United fan, he has a membership at Brentford. This would be both his and Luke’s first game at the new stadium.

There was a nice pre-match buzz and I was enjoying the vibe in our little corner of the pub. We had heard Thomas Tuchel mention that a few youth players would be given a chance in the game. If Brentford were to field a full strength team, the match would be a real test. The memory of our slightly fortuitous win in October was fresh in all of our minds.

I needed to excuse myself and spirited myself away from the charms of the warm and welcoming boozer. I backtracked and met up with Steph outside the away end at around 7.15pm. Steph now lives in Portland, Oregon. I first met her – we worked out later – in 2007 in “The Elk Bar” at Fulham Broadway before a Champions League game with Valencia when the then leader of the New York Blues, the famous Mike Neat, pointed me in her direction. We have stayed friends ever since. I last saw Steph in New Jersey when we lost 4-2 to what was ostensibly the New York Red Bulls youth team in 2015.

We made our way into the stadium; our seats were in the slim North Stand, two rows from the rear, but not too far away from where I had watched the league game in October. After that first game, I had made the point that it felt that many old school Chelsea fans had managed to attend that game; I hope those who had missed out then were luckier a second time around.

There was a flashing light show well before the entrance of the teams with accompanying music. I wondered if I had stumbled into a Beyonce concert. It was easy to spot empty seats in the home areas despite Brentford camouflaging them in various colours. There were no such gaps in the away section.

The away support was raucous well before the game began.

It was a cold night, but not too cold.

The Chelsea team was shown on the screen above the main stand.

Arrizabalaga

Chalobah – Saar – Azpilicueta

Simons – Kovacic – Saul – Alonso

Barkley – Soonsup-Bell – Vale

So, three debuts.

Xavier Simons, starting as the right wing-back down below us.

Harvey Vale, alongside Ross Barkley and supporting the main striker, with the looks of a ‘fifties film star.

Jude Soonsup-Bell, a youngster from Chippenham – not so far from us – and asked to lead the line.

There were the requisite photos of Steph brandishing her New York Blues scarf, and we were ready to go.

Right from the off, the Chelsea choir were in fine form. In fact, as early as the first fifteen minutes, I was stunned with the number of different songs and chants being aired. I will go as far as to say that it might well have been the best ever.

Really?

Yes really.

“We love you Chelsea we do, oh Chelsea we love you.”

“Carefree wherever you may be.”

“We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

“We’ve got Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions League.”

“Hello, hello we are the Chelsea Boys.”

Chelsea began bright and eager. We had all of the ball in the first few opening minutes. But Brentford threatened with the first of a few lightening breaks. After an initial ball in was blocked by Trevoh Chalobah, a deep cross was hooked up towards Wissa who was completely and damningly unmarked. His weak header was punched out by Kepa. The ‘keeper was dressed all in orange, how Spanish. The away crowd roared.

“He’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

Saul, thankfully, started really well, winning tackles and looking more at ease. One turn and beautiful pass out to Marcos Alonso drew warm applause. The songs and chants continued to cascade down the terracing from that higher section behind the corner flag. The next section triumphed individual players, including one that nodded towards the awful news that one of our dearest former players now has to battle cancer all over again.

“Vialli! Vialli” Vialli! Vialli!”

We wish Luca all the very best. Everyone loves him at Chelsea.

“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fucking great goal, in the San Siro…”

“It was Wayne Bridge’s goal that sent us out of control and knocked Arsenal out the euro.”

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth? Kai Havertz is the best on earth.”

And it’s always nice to hear this one at Christmas.

“Osgood, Osgood, born is the king of Stamford Bridge.”

We were teasing them down the left flank with Alonso always involved. A cross to Ross Barkley but an easy save. There was a build-up of pressure but only really what could be called by the most optimistic of Chelsea supporters as half-chances. Saul was arguably our best player of the first thirty minutes.

Brentford always looked threatening on the break. Thankfully most of these petered out. But there was another save from Kepa, at stretch to keep out another header, this time from Jansson.

For the first time that I can ever remember, a certain pub song made it in to the away end.

“There’s a girl who I love best…”

The “Chelsea Ranger” continued on.

Other songs followed.

“One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.”

“Marcos, Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me (crashing Beamers, scoring screamers).”

“Zigger Zagger, Zigger Zagger.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

The home fans, in comparison, were absolutely quiet.

This was proper “men against boys” stuff.

They must have looked on in absolute awe.

Vale flung himself at a cross from Dave, and perhaps should have done better with what was effectively a free header. A late flurry of activity at the same end resulted in more half-chances from Vale, Chalobah and Simons. Hand on heart, we didn’t look like scoring and I half-wondered if this tie would end up being decided on penalties. The half-time whistle blew. For all of our domination, Kepa had kept us in the game.

At the start of the second period, two substitutions.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Pulisic for Soonsup-Bell.

I was pleased for Steph. It gave her the chance to see more of our time line players.

An effort from Saul almost caused an embarrassing own goal from Pinnock.

The Chelsea choir reacted.

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

And the chants, if not the chances, continued on.

“Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”

Ah, Ross Barkley. He wasn’t having the best of games but his song was still aired.

“Viva Ross Barkley.”

And there were more.

“He could’ve been a scouser but he said get fucked”

And more.

“Tsamina mina zangalewa, he comes from Senegal.”

“Fabregas is magic, he wears a magic hat.”

More substitutions.

Mount for Vale.

James for Simons.

More “A listers” for Steph.

“Reece James, he’s one of our own.”

The momentum swayed even more our way. Again, Alonso was so often used as an attacking option. He rarely gave the ball away.

A free-kick down below us and a direct effort from Reece James caused problems in the Brentford goalmouth. Barkley steered a shot just wide of the far post. The former Evertonian just wasn’t on it.

With fifteen minutes to go, he was yanked.

On came N’Golo Kante.

Steph was happy.

Our little maestro had an immediate impact, eating up space as he ran past defenders.

“He’s indestructible, always believing.”

On eighty minutes, it was Kante’s adroit control that set up Reece James on an overlap. His studied cross was fired in and the leg of Jansson deflected the cross high into the red and white chequered net.

Get in.

Time for jubilation in the tiny away segment.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

This was followed by :

“We’re gonna bounce in a minute.”

Five minutes later, Mount pushed the ball forward for Pulisic, who was clumsily upended by the ‘keeper. An easy penalty.

Jorginho. A skip. A goal.

Brentford 0 Chelsea 2.

“Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

As the players swarmed around the scorer down below us, there was time for one more song.

“Azpilicueta, we’ll just call you Dave.”

For those counting, that’s twenty-eight songs.

Throw in “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the sound of “Amazing Grace” and the standard “Come on Chelsea” and that’s a nice round thirty.

A superb effort by everyone.

Outside in the concourse, the boys met up with Steph, and we then went our separate ways. The four of us headed west, and I reached home at about 12.45am.

Tottenham await us in the two-legged semi-final in January; shades of 2019 and not 2002 I hope.

But first, Villa away on Boxing Day.

See you there.

Tales From Hi Ho Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 19 December 2021.

Six days before Christmas, we weren’t worrying about expensive gifts; we just wanted our football fix. After Everton on Thursday, many wondered if that was it for a while. I certainly half-expected our match at Molineux to be postponed due to the increase of omicron cases throughout the UK. But despite other games being called off on the Saturday, our Sunday afternoon game against Wolves remained most definitely “on” and so PD, Parky and I set off in good time in order to attend.

Deep down, I was still preparing myself for the news that the game could be called-off while we were heading north towards the Black Country. We kept our ‘phones on during the trip and secretly dreaded any incoming text alerts or ‘phone-calls. To my surprise, there was nothing.

We had left at 9am and we were parked-up at a very convenient parking spot no more than a ten-minute walk from the stadium at around 12.30pm. Molineux lies in a dip just to the north of the compact city centre at Wolverhampton. Although the pitch has been shunted a few yards to the east during its rebuilding a few decades ago, Molineux has played host to Wolves’ games since 1889.

The old stadium was so recognisable in past days. And in my mind, honestly, whenever I think of Wolves my mind quickly flicks up images of that old gold multi-tiered roof of the stand opposite the stand that housed the TV cameras in the ‘seventies. The voice of the ITV football commentator Huw Johns – he covered the teams in the midlands – also appears fleetingly before an image of the huge South Bank behind the right hand goal completes the picture. If I hear Wolves, I rarely think of the new stadium. Molineux was Wolves and Wolves was Molineux. It was quite simple. And during my childhood, this was the same for all of the clubs.

Stamford Bridge was Chelsea and Chelsea was Stamford Bridge.

Highbury was Arsenal and Arsenal was Highbury.

Anfield was Liverpool and Liverpool was Anfield.

I am not so sure this works quite so well these days. To my mind, stadia have become similar and there are simply not so many idiosyncratic and distinct stands in modern football. It’s our collective loss and is such a shame.

The old Molineux, before that old treasure of a stand was dismantled in around 1979, was completed by a cranked main stand opposite and, in the circumstances, a rather mundane roofed terrace behind the left-hand goal. In the ‘seventies – the golden age for many – there wasn’t a more interesting nor recognisable stadium in the Football League than Molineux.

Stamford Bridge maybe. But I suspect I am biased.

The three of us made our way to the stadium, emerging from the infamous subway and out into an area housing many food stalls, badge sellers, a tented beer area, and then a statue of Sir Jack Hayward was spotted in front of the turnstiles to the home end, the old South Bank, which now bears his name. The once huge terrace was embedded onto the natural slope of the hill with the pitch way below. Under the statue, a chubby Wolves fan in a blue fleece was sat stuffing his face full of chips.

As we began walking down the slope to the away turnstiles, I was asked by a fellow with a lanyard and a clipboard to show him my COVID pass. Out came my ‘phone. Check. There would be another check – another lanyard and clipboard, a sign of the times – right outside the away entrance at the bottom of the hill. While I waited for a couple of acquaintances to arrive to sort out tickets, I realised how cold it all was. A mist, maybe even a fog, was giving the pre-match something of an old fashioned feel. It felt great, just right. I half expected Billy Wright or Ron Flowers to walk past in monochrome. The fog had accompanied us up on the drive throughout the morning and it showed no signs of shifting as kick-off time approached.

I chatted to a few Chelsea friends in the concourse in the Steve Bull stand. Talk was of COVID and of how Chelsea had asked for a postponement of the game that very morning. I am not sure if I was being selfish or not, but I was just glad that the game was still on.

As I took my place in the second row, not far from the halfway line, it became clear that many had decided not to travel. I am not exaggerating when I say that in the immediate five or six rows behind me, around twenty-five seats remained unused the entire day. The risk of infection, no doubt, had caused this.

News broke not of our team, but of our bench with just four outfield players and two goalkeepers. The same joke about Kepa playing upfront took place in a grand total of one hundred and fifty thousand different locations throughout the world. I just hoped that despite the push to get the game postponed, the right preparations had not been skipped.

At least Emperor Kante was back with Mateo Kovacic on that bench.

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Rudiger

James – Kanye – Chalobah – Alonso

Ziyech – Pulisic – Mount

Pre-match, with me wishing I had worn another layer aside from a long-sleeved polo shirt and a jacket, everyone in the front rows were wonderfully warmed by the leaping flames that flashed in front of us in the away areas.

“Have you brought some marshmallows, Gal?”

Elsewhere, the fog loomed. The silhouette of a few trees beyond the south-west corner, now devoid of the temporary seats that Wolves used in that area for a while, looked like something from an oil painting of a rural scene rather than from inside a city.

Chelsea fans, stretched out the entire length of the lower tier, were trying hard to make ourselves heard. We were beaten when the home fans, mainly in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand to our right, augmented the team’s pre-game song being played on the PA.

“Hi Ho Wolverhampton.”

The game began with the Chelsea going right to left and with Marcos Alonso hugging the touchline in front of us all.

You all watched it. The first-half was shite, eh?

It began promisingly enough with a few early raids. But then Wolves muscled in on things and I photographed Daniel Podence before he shot from distance at Mendy in front of the now two-tiered Stan Cullis Stand to our right, the second stand to have stood there since the ‘seventies.

Gary, Parky and I were making the most of a so-so start to the game, and were all giggling like fools when we spotted lookalikes in the crowd of Francis Rossi, Mick Hucknall, the bloke out of Boney M and Shirley Crabtree.

You had to be there.

On a quarter of an hour, we wished we weren’t. Wolves went one-up after a ball was flashed across our box and Podence tucked it home.

Snot.

Then, after what seemed an age, and with no VAR signalled, we spotted the lino on our side hoist his flag. The Wolves fans were quietened. Of course I had no idea why the goal was disallowed; we presumed offside, but it could have been for a foul. These days, who knows?

The mist was staying. This really felt like something from the past.

It’s always so difficult at Wolves to get a sing-along started with everyone so distant from each other. We tried our best.

“He came from PSG. To win the Champions League.”

On half-an hour, although Thiago Silva should have met the ball before it bounced, I marvelled at his rapid recovery and how he not only won the ball but how he played it coolly out to a team mate. For a few minutes previously, I thought our great Brazilian had looked a little cold – long sleeved undershirt, gloves – and moved a little cagily but he soon moved up the gears when needed.

There was a smirk when I had mumbled to myself : “should have worn some Long Johns, Silva.”

Thankfully nobody heard me.

The great performance of the half belonged to N’Golo Kante, back to his best; rampaging, striding, probing, passing, eating up space with joyful glee, the engine room. It was a joy to see him again. What a player.

To paraphrase the pre-match anthem :

“You’re everywhere baby.”

Apart from a few corners – oh, I remember a Pulisic chance that wasn’t – there was absolutely no real threat on the Wolves goal throughout the half. There was earnest endeavour but nothing in the final third. Did we force a save? I think not.

At the break, I moaned to an acquaintance “we might have bodies up front, but we have no presence.”

And no presence at Christmas ain’t fun.

In the concourse, the youth were blasting out a reworking of a Jona Lewie Christmas hymn from 1980; rhyming Tuchel with bugle, I can’t see it catching on.

The second-half? It was better, but it couldn’t have been much worse could it?

Thomas Tuchel replaced Chalobah with Saul and we held our breath.

I whispered to Gal : ”Our Saul.”

He hasn’t set the world alight, has he?

Whereas Wolves showed a little desire to attack in the first-half, in the second forty-five minutes it seemed to be all one-way traffic. Yet here’s the thing; not once was I convinced that we would grab a goal. We kept trying to find gaps and spaces in the Wolves half but something was missing. We missed a Fabregas to unlock the defence for sure. But I can’t fault our desire to win tackles and keep the momentum going. Maybe the fog wasn’t helping; cross-field balls to spare wide men were in short supply. Though, to be fair, once balls were played to the flanks, what sort of cross should we play in? Clearly we had no aerial threat. Precision low balls to feet needed to be that; in such a crowded box, there was no margin for error.

On the hour, the return of Mateo Kovacic, on for Ziyech.

There was now more solidity in the midfield. Saul was finding his feet. Our domination continued. But chances were oh-so rare. Shots were blocked, as were intended crosses. With ten minutes to go, the chance of the game and with hindsight perhaps the only chance of the game; Alonso played in Pulisic but his finish was just too close to the Wolves keeper Kilman and a limb defeated us.

Bollocks.

In the ninetieth minute, with the Wolves substitute Adama Traore about to pounce on a punt up field, I watched mesmerised as that man Silva, from a standing start, almost flat-footed, leapt magnificently to head clear.

His performance throughout the game was truly worth the admission money alone. He never panicked, he glided throughout the entire match. What a player.

With a depleted squad and team, a 0-0 draw was half-decent wasn’t it?

I think so.

On the way home, we called in at “The Vine” – along with a few other Chelsea fans – at West Bromwich for a welcome curry. A lamb dhansak and peshwari naan warmed me up. The Baggies might be out of the top flight, but “The Vine” isn’t. It’s well recommended.

I eventually reached home at about 8.30pm, the game quickly disappearing from view in my mirrors.

But, the winter draws on.

Brentford await.

Wear something warm.

See you there.

Tales From A Night Of Frustration And Fackinells

Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 December 2021.

My dear father was born on 16 December 1923, and I thought it quite apt that we were playing Everton at Stamford Bridge on his birthday. Everton’s Goodison Park was the only football stadium that my father, who was more into swimming, diving, tennis and badminton, ever visited before I came along. Since my first game in 1974, he was with me on many trips to Stamford Bridge, Ashton Gate and Eastville in Bristol and the County Ground in Swindon in my childhood and beyond.

In total, Dad saw Chelsea play around thirty times. And it was again quite fitting that his last ever game was against Everton bearing in mind his Goodison Park visit in around 1944. This last match took place on New Year’s Day in 1991. I had travelled by train to spend New Year’s Eve with some college mates and then met up with my parents in the West Stand before the match. Watching the game with us were a couple of family friends and a young lad Edward, about eight years of age, attending his very first Chelsea game. When one of those family friends passed away – Jack lived four doors away and reached the grand age of ninety-eight – Edward’s father spoke about that day in 1991 and it pleased me that Edward is still a Chelsea fan. For the record, despite us going ahead with a goal from Kevin Wilson, Everton equalised at The Shed End in the first-half via Graeme Sharpe. In the second-half, to my horror, Pat Nevin pushed the ball across the six-yard box and it deflected in off Jason Cundy. We lost 1-2. The gate was just 18,351. I was on the dole at the time, not even drifting, and the game summed up the gloom in my life at the time.

Everton have never been relegated from the top flight, unlike their neighbours across Stanley Park, and so it is not surprising that I have seen them play a fair few times; thirty-five games at Stamford Bridge, twenty matches at Goodison, a Cup Final at Wembley.

PD, my work-colleague Simon and I were on our way to game fifty-seven. Sadly, Parky was unable to join us. There was the usual midweek dip into “The Goose” and then “Simmons” and I could not help notice that both places were much quieter than usual. We had noted light traffic en route to London too. It certainly seemed that this “Lockdown / Plan B” was having a real impact on people’s ability to get out and about as per normal. In both pubs, talk was of COVID19, and there were very real concerns that this football season might be pulled out from under our feet, if only for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, there was the eerie memory that the very last game before lockdown in 2020 was our home game against Everton.

There were reports of three of our players being out with fresh cases of COVID19; Lukaku, Werner and Chilwell, though were other rumours too of a couple more. As we supped our drinks, I was genuinely expecting the news to break that our game against Everton would be postponed. Regardless, we walked to Stamford Bridge, and I slapped on a face mask just outside the West Stand forecourt. I wore it all the way to my seat as per the new advice though it was clear that I was in the minority.

Not only was Chelsea’s team depleted with injuries and now COVID19, but Everton’s too. We heard on the grapevine that there would be a couple of debuts for them. Over in The Shed, the best part of three thousand Evertonians were amassed. Elsewhere, as kick-off time rapidly approached, it was clear that thousands of seats that would not be filled. In The Sleepy Hollow alone, we were missing one or two. Alan was still away with COVID19 – he hopes to be back for Wolves – and the elderly chap who sits next to PD was also absent. Simon was taking Clive’s ticket alongside me. Thus, in our little section of five seats, two were empty. Our friend John sits in the same row but around fifteen seats along. Next to him were six or seven empty seats that were never occupied the whole game.

I looked around Stamford Bridge. Easily five thousand empty seats, probably more.

Sigh.

We learned that Callum Hudson-Odoi was out with COVID19 too.

So, the team?

Eddy

Dave – Thiago – Rudi

Reece – Jorgi – Ruben – Marcos

Hakim – Christian – Mase

The Everton debutants were Jarred Branthwaite and Ellis Sims.

“Who?”

It was a very mild night in SW6. I didn’t bother with my coat which was draped over the back of my seat.

As is so often the case at home, we dominated early on and it continued throughout the first-half; for Manchester United and Leeds United, read Everton. We were soon peppering the Everton goal. A slick ball out to Reece from Jorginho set up our right wing-back, but his shot was sliced past the near post netting at The Shed End. Then came a low shot, wide, from Mount that should have hit the target. Ziyech looked keener than usual in the opening quarter and a lovely spin and turn – it drew gasps – and his pacey burst set up Pulisic with an opportunistic flick but Pickford was his equal.

The chances, pardon the pun, mounted up. I counted six in the first twenty minutes. A shot from Ziyech, two efforts from Reece, a free-kick from Alonso.

Everton rarely got out of their half.

Thiago Silva played a quarterback role again, teasing others to show for him, playing neat passes to feet and lofted chips out wide.

There was a nice little atmosphere brewing I felt. Everton had their standard selection and so did we.

“We don’t care what the red shite say…”

“Carefree wherever you may be…”

The chances continued at The Shed End.

I was enjoying an in-match chat with Simon, and we seemed to share a few opinions. After feeling distanced from football throughout all of last season, although there were frustrations that our almost total domination had not resulted in goals, I felt really involved in this game. It felt like I was back. I didn’t take nearly as many photos either; possible proof that I wanted to concentrate on the match being played out in front of me. I offered encouragement under my breath to our players, joined in with the chants, sang the praises of others.

It felt good.

We continued to dominate. Ziyech blazed over. Everton were defending so deep though and space was at a premium.

Rudiger found himself inside the penalty area and set up Mount just outside the six-yard box.

I was up celebrating the goal.

But Jordan Pickford saved it with a reactionary twitch of his leg.

Fackinell.

I turned to Simon :

“Oh please God let this not be one of those games.”

I didn’t think Ruben Loftus-Cheek was looking particularly dominant. It also concerned me that I have started to call him “Rubes” during games. This must be akin to the “Chels” moniker that was always only ever used during games, but now seems to be hideously omnipresent.

Another fackinell.

With the end of the first-half approaching, there seemed to be warm encouragement from the stands.

I joined in a vibrant “CAM ON COWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

As late as the forty-second minute, Everton struck at Mendy’s goal for the first time.

The half-time stats showed that we had enjoyed eighty percent of the ball.

Another fackinell.

As the second-half began, I spotted the increasingly more rotund figure of pantomime villain Rafa Benitez gesticulating on the touchline. I for one was pleased that the dull “we don’t care about Rafa” chant was not aired the entire match.

A song from 1984 : “Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”

For some reason, that always makes me chuckle.

The chances for Chelsea did not occur at the same rate as in the first-half. And the atmosphere was generally quieter.

Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek did not really bother Pickford.

On the hour, there was a guttural roar of support from the Matthew Harding but it was not to be often repeated.

The frustrations were rising all around me. Very often I realised that my head was in my hands.

“Nobody is a threat upfront, Si. Seems to me that the biggest problem with a False Nine is that nobody has the urgency to score. Everyone is too busy running around that nobody thinks it’s their responsibility to fucking shoot.”

It was just my frustration getting to me.

Don’t worry, BT and Sky won’t be calling on me for tactical analysis in the near future.

But the “running around” part of the plan had stalled and both Simon and I were getting annoyed with our strikers being unable to twist and turn a la Vialli or Crespo.

I decided it was time for an Alan impersonation.

I rocked forward and spoke to PD and Si :

“More fucking movement in a Burton’s shop window.”

On sixty-five minutes, Thomas Tuchel did things his way.

Barkley for Loftus-Cheek.

Saul for Alonso.

Pulisic was shunted back to wing back and for a few minutes at least, Saul was centrally placed up front.

Fackinell.

I know his options were limited, but that really caught us all out.

On seventy minutes, a breakthrough. Barkley to James to Mount, and we watched as he bore in on Pickford’s goal from an angle. My camera was poised and ready.

Shot.

Snap.

Goal.

Roar.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

I loved that. It looked like the points would be ours.

But wait.

Just four minutes later, and – honestly – a ridiculously rare Everton attack resulted in a free-kick from wide on their left. Anthony Gordon played a magnificent cross into the oft-quoted “corridor of uncertainty” and debutant Branthwaite touched the ball past the stranded Mendy. Should he have come out? My first thoughts were “yes” but my position was some one hundred yards away. There is no doubt about the outstanding quality of the cross.

But the defending reminded me so much of our defending under Frank Lampard twelve months ago.

Another fackinell.

The Everton players celebrated maniacally in front of their fans.

It was another head in my hands moment.

There was no final ten-minute push and, if anything, we seemed to play within ourselves. A late Chalobah for Azpilicueta substitution didn’t add to our potency or our desire. From a Barkley corner, Silva rose well and forced a fine sprawling save from Pickford. A towering leap from Rudiger and a header that flew over. But it simply wasn’t to be.

It was a frustrating end to the game.

There were a few boos at the final whistle.

Another fackinell.

“Will the real Chelsea please stand up?”

I’ll go back to my words from a few games ago; we are still developing, we are still learning about each other. But the frustrations are real nonetheless.

Walking back to PD’s car, it struck me that this might be the last Chelsea game for a while if the Omicron variant continues to wreak havoc. I have a feeling our that our away game at Wolves on Sunday is under threat, and I did wonder if it might be a few weeks before I see another game at Stamford Bridge. Outside forces will govern our football for a while I think.

To be quite honest, despite the possible cessation of top flight football for a while, I am sure that all of the games will eventually be played.

But it is so ironic that on a night that I definitely felt that I was “one hundred percent back” Chelsea might be taken away from us all again.

I hope to see some of you at Molineux on Sunday.

For the record, here’s how Everton shape up in the list of my most-viewed opponents.

Manchester United : 77

Liverpool : 75

Arsenal : 68

Tottenham : 64

Everton : 57

Newcastle United : 52

Manchester City : 46

Aston Villa : 44

Southampton : 41

West Ham : 41

Blackburn : 30

Stoke City : 29

West Brom : 27

Fulham : 26

Leicester City : 26

Sunderland : 24

Bolton : 22

Leeds : 22

Middlesbrough : 22

Crystal Palace : 19