Tales From Holloway Road

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 19 January 2019.

Chelsea together? Hardly. During and after this game, it certainly seemed like Chelsea divided. This is going to be another difficult one to write. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Looking ahead to the game at Arsenal, I always feared the worst. Bizarrely, I have positive vibes about the Tottenham game at Stamford Bridge on Thursday – don’t ask me why, football is not an exact science, I just have a hunch – whereas the Arsenal match filled me with dread. They were on the “up” – generally speaking – but we were stalling.

This was another 5.30pm game. Just two of us travelled up from the west of England for this one. I picked up PD at 10.30am, and we approached London via the “southerly” route of the A36, the A303 and the M3. I was at Barons Court at 1pm. On the drive up – the misty rain cleared, eventually – I mentioned to PD “I’ll take a draw, now.”

I spoke about how I had enjoyed the game against Tottenham in the League Cup at Wembley. It was a game that we had lost, but not without a fight. We had shown a great deal of vim and vigour – it surprised me to be honest – and I felt involved all of the way through. Conversely, the win at home to Newcastle United a few days after had left me cold. The performance was dull, the atmosphere worse. I had thus enjoyed a Chelsea loss, but not a win. What did I say about football not being an exact science?

We had been tipped off to make our way to a new boozer for this match. I have mentioned before how I loathe large and cavernous pubs. Therefore, I did not mind one iota that the huge “Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn was thus swerved, and we headed instead for a much more intimate pub near Highbury & Islington station. After bumping into Alan and Gary, we set off. On the walk to this new destination, we spotted one pub called “The Library” and this raised a chuckle. We met up with Daryl, who was the first to arrive, and the pub looked like ticking all the boxes, although it was awkwardly borderline-hipster. There were high tables and craft ales, but no knobhead Arsenal fans, and we settled down for a good two hours of Chelsea chat and a few pints. It had been the venue that had hosted Madness, The Specials and The Stranglers in the dim and distant. I definitely approved.

At 4.45pm, we set off for The Emirates. We were walking up part of the A1, and this became Holloway Road at Highbury Corner. It brought back a fragile memory from 1983 when I attended an open day at the then North London Poly, before my “A Levels” and with thoughts of attending that particular institution for a three-year geography degree. On that day, I was well aware of how close the campus was to Highbury, Arsenal’s venerable stadium. Maybe it was the thought of spending three years in the shadow of Arsenal that resulted in me fucking up my “A Levels.”

There were no surprises at all with the team that Maurizio Sarri chose. There was neither room for Alvaro Morata, so shorn of confidence, nor Olivier Giroud, so lacking in playing time and also goals.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was inside with about five minutes to spare. There did not seem to be too many empty seats anywhere, unlike the last few months of the Wenger regime. I soon spotted two Chelsea supporters to my immediate left wearing the hated and infamous half-and-half scarves. I tut-tutted once again. You have to wonder about the mentality of some of our “fans”. Surely these people must know how we dislike these damned things. Many of my US fans acknowledge how ridiculous these scarves are. Surely nobody among our rank and file buys them. What I can’t understand is if a friendship scarf is purchased as a memento, why bloody wear it, and if it is worn, why not just show the Chelsea half? Virtually all friendship scarves are worn with both halves on show – both teams on show – draped vertically and limply around the neck. Don’t these people know how to tie a scarf?

It does my nut.

We were just a few rows back from the corner flag. In front of us several fans held up a banner –

“THANK YOU PETR – CHELSEA LEGEND.”

So, The Emirates. On many counts, a magnificent stadium, but on other counts it still leaves me cold.

Even though we knew that a win would put us a mighty nine points clear of our North London opponents, I was hardly going dizzy with the thought of that coming into fruition. I am nothing but a realist.

Up close, I realised how truly awful both kits were. Those flecks on our shirts and a very odd block of red on their jerseys.

Arsenal were like greyhounds out of the traps. It is some time since I have seen an opposing team create so many chances with such gusto in the first five, then ten minutes. We were suitably shell-shocked, and – for the want of a better footballing cliché – were chasing shadows. There were errors everywhere, with a wayward pass from David Luiz signalling the first of much wailing which took over the three-thousand loyalists in the south-eastern corner with growing regularity throughout the evening.

They were all over us like a bloody rash.

Shots and crosses rained in on us. Aubameyang shot wide from close in, then Sokratis headed wide from point blank range. Kepa was rather lucky to see a header from Koscielny hit him on the chest. In the midst of all this Arsenal pressure, a meek shot on a rare attack from Eden Hazard did not test the Arsenal ‘keeper Bernd Leno.

On fourteen minutes, a corner on the far side was worked to the menacing Lacazette, who danced past a ridiculously half-hearted challenge from Marcos Alonso, and from a tight angle, the ball was lashed high into the net, beating Kepa at the near post.

Fuck.

Kepa then managed to block an effort from Aubameyang. This was hurting.

But I have to say the noise levels at the Emirates were poor. Despite their lead, the home fans hardly raised the roof. Our support was sporadic at best. There were more groans and grumbles and moans and mumbles from us than a defiant wall of noise.

Then, out of nowhere, a sublime long ball from David Luiz to Pedro – a replica of sorts of the first goal against the Geordies last week – but Peds’ chip dropped just outside the frame of the goal. To be honest, we enjoyed a little resurgence, but this was relative. In the first twenty minutes, we had been merely spectators. There appeared to be an abundance of space on our right which we continually failed to take advantage of. That man Aubameyang went close with an acrobatic flourish, and this was a hint of further damage. A ball was played into our box with too much ease and Koscielny jumped at the ball, and we watched as the ball looped up and over Kepa.

Fuck.

Again, a roar from the home fans, but they then went back to knitting, playing with their I-Pads, and lining up for half-time coffees.

By now, the mood in our section was rife with shouts and screams at players and manager alike.

Jorginho – never flavour of the month at Chelsea right now – was getting pelters from many.

Two chaps to my left were heavy on criticism, but not so eager to sing and shout in support of the team.

Willian was the centre of attention for one of them.

I had to speak out again, just like at Spurs in November.

“He’s not a cunt though, is he, mate?”

Just before Anthony Taylor blew up for half-time, a Willian header was met full on by a leap from Marcos Alonso which edged against the far post and went off for a goal kick.

It had been a grim old half of football.

At half-time, I wandered around the concourse for a few minutes, almost punch drunk from the onslaught that we had suffered in the first opening period, and spoke to more than a couple of good Chelsea people. A common line was “bloody hell, we could be 4-0 down” – or maybe more. None of us were relishing the second forty-five minutes. But I shuffled back to my standing position next to PD, Gal and Alan in row seven, and waited for the Arsenal players to join up with the Chelsea players who had been sent out of the dressing room early.

If nothing else, in the second-half at least we stemmed the flow of goals. But it was another frustrating forty-five minutes. At no stage was I confident that we would even score one goal. N’Golo Kante was his usual self, or rather his usual 2018/19 self and effectively this means several notches below his 2016/17 self and his 2017/18 self. Eden Hazard looked disinterested at times. Mateo Kovacic huffed and puffed but did little to change things. Pedro was keen and full of running, but often by himself and without runners alongside him. It was Peds who had an early chance from a set up by Willian on the left in front of us, but he skied it with his shin.

Mateo Kovacic was replaced by Ross Barkley.

Altogether now “like for like.”

But nobody liked this.

Why not bring on Olivier Giroud? Answers on a postcard.

What upset me most was that we were not creating space off the ball. Too often we were loath to lose our markers, and create a little pocket of space for a positive pass. We kept moving the ball around and Arsenal surprisingly let us play. The home team were well on top. They defended in a great shape and were first to too many fifty-fifties. I was slightly surprised that they did not push on and endeavour to score more goals, but I have an inkling that they wanted us to have the ball and stifle ourselves, rather than let us have space to counter.

It’s a rum old state of affairs when the opposing manager knows our strengths and weaknesses, and not our own manager.

At last the manager introduced Giroud, who came on for the poor Willian.

We were still shot-shy. The moans increased. Only occasionally was there a sustained chant from the away crowd.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal tackle.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal block.

When we were within shooting distance, I kept shouting “buy a raffle ticket!”

The ball was being moved along the same lines, between the same players.

In a cartoon chase, remember how the background was repeated every few seconds?

A tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate.

At the Emirates, the ball saw the same players ad infinitum.

Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso.

The bloke in front of me shouted “shoot!” and a voice behind him whispered “shoot the fucking manager.”

Ah, the manager. Do we give him the benefit of a massive amount of doubt and wait until he gets his players in during the summer? We should do, right? We would plead for time on any other occasion. But it grates with me that for all of his fanciful philosophy, I would love to see him adapt to his current squad and arrange his team to the benefit of our stars, no names and no pack drill.

At last Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro wide on the right but he was not really involved too much. It was more of the same, more of the same, is anyone bored yet?

I said to PD “I bloody hope their ‘keeper isn’t on piece work. He hasn’t made a save.”

As if to prove the ineptness of our play, substitute Giroud swung and missed when only ten yards out.

Fackinell, Chelsea.

To be fair to ourselves, I was really pleased – and proud – that very few of our support left until the last five or ten minutes, and even then it was a trickle and not a rush. There was a mighty six minutes of extra time but I had decided that we would not score in a month of Saturdays and Sundays and packed my camera and lenses away for the day. At the final whistle, we were put out of our misery.

And it had been a dire performance.

We shuffled out.

PD and I decided to wait for the queues to die down and so we popped into a Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road for a bite to eat. The food was good, but the conversation soon dried up. We were now only three points ahead of the twin threats of Arsenal and Manchester United, with many a tough game on the horizon. As we made our way across London – due south, then due west – we heard that the manager had publicly lambasted his players, which surprised me.

“Keep all that in house, Sarri.”

There was talk of the current squad being unresponsive to his ideas.

I wonder if a common response from any one of our players might be this –

“What have you won? We’ve won the league twice in four years. You dress like a regular at William Hill and you eat cigarettes.”

On Thursday, we have to fucking beat Tottenham.

See you there.

Tales From Saturday Tea Time

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 12 January 2019.

This was another 5.30pm kick-off and so PD, Parky and I took the train to London once again. One subject dominated our chat on the journey; the decision to hold the FA Cup tie against either Sheffield Wednesday or Luton Town at 6pm on Sunday 27 January.

Six o’clock on a Sunday evening.

What a ridiculous time.

“And there was much wailing.”

But, the FA had made another crazy decision to play an FA Cup game at a similar time some seventeen years earlier. In 2002, Fulham objected to their allocation for the first-choice venue of Highbury for our FA Cup Semi Final against them. So – and I still can’t fathom the madness of this – the FA chose to send both sets of fans up to Villa Park in Birmingham for a 7pm kick-off on a Sunday. And then, the deepest irony, Fulham failed to sell out, and in fact sold less tickets for the Villa Park game than their initial allocation at Highbury.

Altogether now : “For fuck sake.”

I don’t dislike Fulham Football Club one bit, but this has really tested me over the years.

5.30pm on a Saturday tea time is OK, there is at least Sunday to recover. In fact, it is rather agreeable as it allows for a good session in various pubs beforehand. But six o’clock on a Sunday is just wrong. At best, I would not return home until 11pm – 11.30pm is a more realistic prediction – and I would need to be up early for work the next day.

So, did I get a ticket when they went on sale on Thursday?

Yes, of course I did, but I partially hated myself for it.

File under “I am a twat” ( sub-section two thousand, nine-hundred and seventeen).

Maybe we can walk in after ten minutes, maybe we can turn our backs for the first five minutes, maybe we can produce banners. Some sort of protest would be good. But I won’t hold my breath on this. It would be nice, just once, for the club to see how much these mistimed kick-off choices affect the rank and file Chelsea support. I note that the Chelsea Supporters Trust wasted no time in condemning the time. Let’s see what transpires over the next fortnight.

It was the usual routine; a Paddington breakfast, a tube to Putney Bridge, into “The Eight Bells” for 11.30am.

We had decided to visit the southern tip of Fulham for the fourth time this season as a few friends from Scotland had sorted out tickets and had chosen the Premier Inn opposite the pub as their base. We had met John and Gary in a fantastic pub before our game at Sunderland in 2016 – “that Courtois save” – and had stayed in touch ever since. They touched down at Stansted at 11am and joined us in the cozy boozer at about 1.45pm. They were joined by their two mates Dave and Colin. All four are Heart of Midlothian supporters. It was fantastic to see John and Gary again. We sat chatting about all things football, though not all things Chelsea, and then moved on to “The Kings Arms” around the corner.

After a very enjoyable pre-match sesh we caught the District Line tube back up to Fulham Broadway.

As I have so often mentioned, my first-ever game was against Newcastle United in March 1974. First, my grandfather in 1920 – I think – and then my mother and myself in 1974. I am a third-generation visitor to Stamford Bridge, and doesn’t that sound good?

We were inside Stamford Bridge with a good twenty minutes or so to spare. John was alongside us in The Sleepy Hollow. It was his first visit to the “modern” Stamford Bridge since the rebuilding was completed in 2001. He was enamoured with our seats. We are truly blessed with our view.

But how the stadium has changed over the years. I can remember getting to Stamford Bridge really early before our game with Newcastle United in 1984/85 with the sole intention to take some photos with my little Kodak camera before any spectators were present. I walked up the steps at the back of The Shed and took several photos of a Stamford Bridge lying dormant. From memory, it was a bitterly cold day during a bitterly cold winter. But I am so glad that I took those photographs; I only wish that I had taken more of the old stadium over the years.

The Geordies were at their usual three thousand level despite a solid block of around one hundred and fifty left unused in a top corner. But this was a fine turnout from them.

There was the usual darkening of the lights before the teams entered. More flags, flames and fireworks, which are at least better suited to a 5.30pm kick-off than a midday one.

We half-expected another “false nine” role for Eden Hazard. And Maurizio Sarri did not disappoint :

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic.

Pedro – Hazard – Willian.

There was a reunion of former Napoli managers underneath the East Stand. But Benitez only flitted in and out of my consciousness; it is almost six years since he left us. If only those who claimed that they – still – don’t care about him would stop bloody singing songs about him.

Sigh.

I watched the Newcastle players down below me in a huddle on the pitch as the floodlights came on and the pitch was cleared of banners and the paraphernalia of the pre-match handshakes. It shocked me that I did not recognise many. Twenty years ago, I would have been able to spot a Warren Barton, a Robert Lee, a Temuri Ketsbaia, a Luis Saha, a Philippe Albert.

I have recently come to the conclusion that with so many overseas players – or specifically those signed from overseas teams –  in our game these days, my identification of them has dwindled. I still find it easier to note, identify and track a player that has bedded down in the English leagues for a while and then moves, than a player picked from a team in Europe and parachuted in to a team here. Back in the days of when I used to collect football cards as a child, my knowledge of teams’ players was encyclopedic. This continued as I started attending games, reading ‘papers and buying magazines. And it certainly continued as I subscribed to “Sky” for the best part of ten years.

But these days, I am rather lost, and have probably entered the most recent of “phases” that I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago.

I find it easier to remember a youngster from Torquay United or Tranmere Rovers who joins a Premier League team – I think my love of geography helps, in that I can pinpoint names to places – but I am floundering, if for example a Spaniard playing for an Italian team signs for another top team. There is just something untethered about these players. Give me a player like Chris Wood who played for Leeds United before joining Burnley and I might have a chance. So, unless I make the effort, they are just names to me. Most importantly neither myself nor virtually any of my Chelsea mates spend endless hours playing “FIFA” either, which would – I suppose – aid my knowledge of players, but there are just some things that are best left well alone, like Star War films, the books of J.K. Rowling, cruises and Jeremy Clarkson. Of course, if players take my eye when I see them play and have that something about them – that unquantifiable “je ne sais quoi” – then that makes them endear themselves to me and I track them.

But, Lascelles, Lejeune and Longstaff? Who?

The away team were playing with black socks, which made them look like the Newcastle of old rather than the white-socked team we played at St. James’ Park in late August.

The game began with Chelsea attacking the northern goal for a change.

There was the usual probing from us in the first portion of the match but without too much end product.

Then, on just nine minutes, David Luiz sent a ball from deep inside the Chelsea half into a space where Pedro was running. For so long I have asked that we send in an occasional early ball, just to keep the opposition back-line on their toes more than anything else. A team expecting us to pass through them all the time will not be expecting a long bomb. And this certainly was a long bomb from Luiz. It was sensational. Luiz played it with an almost nonchalant air, a sideways sweep. Pedro took the ball out of the sky and clipped it over the startled Newcastle United ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.

Whatabloodygoal.

At least I captured the celebrations if not the goal itself.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wo’ now, like.”

Chris : “Howay Pet, come on m’little diamonds, like man.”

With Arsenal suffering a surprising loss at West Ham United in the early-kick-off (it had been “on” in the pub but we did not bother watching), here was a fantastic start to our game. If we won, we would go a healthy six points clear of them. All of us have been well aware that we have an intimidating amount of away games to endure in 2019 and that we have to win as many home games as possible.

We still have to play at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Everton and Leicester City.

Tough games all.

But we did not capitalise and there was growing frustration as we struggled to get past a resolute back five. Our corners were especially poor. There were rare forays up-field from the Newcastle United players.

After half-an hour of huff and puff, Azpilicueta was fouled just outside the box and Willian floated in a cross which Luiz headed over.

There was a shot from Lejeune, but straight at Kepa. Salomon Rondon – “I know him!” – received a ball from Christian Atsu – “I know him!” – but he blazed over. Pedro shot meekly at the other end and then Perez did similarly at The Shed End. But the warning signs were there. With five minutes to go until half-time, a towering corner from Matt Ritchie was headed home by Ciaran Clark. It was a free header.

Bollocks.

The Toon Army went Loony.

It was a rare goal for The Geordies at Stamford Bridge.

I have seen the last thirty consecutive league encounters with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge – this was game number thirty-one, undoubtedly the longest stretch out of all the games that I have seen – and they had won only two of those. In the pub, I chatted briefly to three Toonistas and it did not take them long to mention the two incredible Papiss Cisse goals that gave them their first win at Stamford Bridge in twenty-six years when they beat us 2-0 in 2012.

But that was it. One win since 1986.

A meek effort from Willian and then a wild volley from Ritchie brought the first-half to a close. It was a very mundane performance from us and there was much shaking of heads at half-time. Eden Hazard had been especially ineffective.

Early in the second-period, Kante set up Pedro but Dubravka spread himself well to block. We looked a little more dynamic during the opening moments of the second-half and Kante was the one driving the team on. But we only had half-chances. A Luiz air shot and a scuffed Pedro effort did not worry the Geordies’ goal.

On fifty-seven minutes, the ball was worked over to Willian after some sublime skill from Hazard. He stood, with two defenders blocking his sight of the goal. Not to worry, his trademark hippy-hippy-shake bought him a yard of space and his curling missile found the net, just clipping the post before making the net bulge.

Whatabloodygoal.

With over half-an-hour to go, we obviously hoped for more goals, or at least more efforts, and indeed effort. Pedro had gone close with another chip, but the Newcastle ‘keeper did enough. And although the manager rang the changes – Barkley for Kovacic, Hudson-Odoi for Pedro, Giroud for Hazard) – no further goals followed.

Sarri is under the microscope now, and his man Jorginho is not particularly loved among the Chelsea match-going support. I am still trying my best to work it all out, I am trying to get my head around his philosophy, I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt.

It worked in Italy. Can it work in England?

Time will tell.

For all of the negativity during the game, the match game ended with a 2-1 win for Chelsea which solidified our fourth-place position.

Outside Stamford Bridge on the Fulham Road, after collecting some tickets for some upcoming games, PD and I bit into a couple of hot dogs with onions – the best of the season – as light rain dampened the evening air. Opposite us were a line of seven away coaches, taking the Toonistas back to Ashington, Long Benton, Swalwell, Byker, Jesmond and Gateshead. They would not get back home until 2am or 3am.

I tipped my cap to them.

“One win since 1986, bloody hell.”

We made our way back to Paddington where we met up with Parky. Although the game had been difficult to watch – I think it was John who called it “turgid”, a good word – we now enjoyed a healthy six-point gap on Arsenal.

And we play at The Emirates next Saturday tea-time.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From A Moral Victory

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 8 January 2019.

Not many Chelsea were saying too many positive things about this League Cup semi-final against Tottenham at Wembley. I was one of them. Just before I left work at 3pm, one of my work colleagues reminded me that I had uttered words of concern and apprehension a few hours earlier. It had been a reasonable day at work, but had become much busier with various problems snowballing in the two hours before I was set to join PD and Parky on a midweek flit to London once more. As I closed my computer down and packed up my goods and chattels, I uttered something to the effect – half-jokingly – that I’d rather stay on a few hours and get to the bottom of a few of these work issues than head up to The Smoke where Tottenham would be a very tough nut to crack.

But I left work, and grabbed a couple of items from the conveniently-located “Greggs” which sits just across a roundabout on the A350, next to “The Milk Churn” pub and a drive-thru “Starbucks” – all mod cons – and we made excellent time as PD drove to London. This was always going to be a long old evening. To that effect, I decided to take the Wednesday off work. So, as PD climbed onto the M4 at Chippenham, it felt good knowing that I would not be starved of sleep at work on the Wednesday where those problems would have required my full attention. I was even able to catch an hour of intermittent sleep. Such decadence. I awoke as PD was flying over the elevated section of the M4 just before Brentford’s new stadium came in to view.

As I came around, oddly spotting the Wembley Arch highlighted in a mid-blue, looking more Chelsea than Tottenham, “The King Of Wishful Thinking” by Go West was on Radio Two. It seemed almost appropriate, despite us heading east and then north. The game required a lot of wishful thoughts. We soon parked up at Barons Court and were soon enjoying the comfort of “The Blackbird” pub at Earl’s Court.

For an hour, we were the kings of wishful drinking.

It had taken PD a couple of minutes’ shy of two hours to cover the journey from the west of England to the west of London, possibly a personal best for these midweek trips. We were not sure where the other of the five thousand Chelsea fans would be drinking before the game. No doubt Marylebone would be the epicentre. In the pub, we ran through plans for the next run of games, but noticeably chose to ignore the evening’s game. In a nutshell, we were still hurting after the 1-3 defeat at Wembley in late November and, if anything, they have become stronger and we have become weaker.

I am sure that I was not alone in contemplating a possible heavy defeat. Involving goals, and lots of them, but let’s not be rude and mention actual numbers.

However, to be honest, an absolute shellacking has been very rare for our club for many years. In another conversation with a work colleague, I had reminded myself, from memory, that our last heavy defeat to any team in the league football was a 1-5 reverse at Anfield in the autumn of 1996. As a comparison, we have put six Tottenham in 1997, six against Manchester City in 2007, six past Arsenal in 2014, six past Everton in 2014, not to mention sevens against a few smaller clubs and even eight on two occasions.

We have enjoyed the upper hand, in general, over many since that game at Anfield twenty-three years ago.

There were, however, these two games against the evening’s opponents :

2001/02 League Cup : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 1

2014/15 League : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 3

So, despite us lording it over our rivals from North London over the past three decades, they have represented two of our biggest losses within the UK in the past two decades. By the way, if I am wrong (I have not forgotten our 3-5 loss to Manchester United in 1999 – shudder), I am sure another like-minded pedant will correct me.

So, I think we were all fearful of another cricket score.

In retrospect, I needed those two pints of “Nastro Azzurro.”

At 6.30pm we caught the tube to Edgware Road, then walked to Marylebone. There were no residual drinkers at the bar outside the station. We must have been some of the last to travel to Wembley. We caught the 7.15pm train to Birmingham New Street, which would make an additional stop at Wembley Stadium.

Perfect.

We were soon at Wembley Stadium station. Again, there were very few Chelsea around. There were a few isolated Yelps from the locals.

I tut-tutted.

We walked past a few souvenir stalls. To get around counterfeit rules, there were half-and-half scarves quoting “TOTTENHA9” which I thought was quite clever (for those not au fait with the UK postal service, Wembley Stadium is in Harrow, with its HA9 postcode).

We joined the line at the away turnstiles where at last there were more Chelsea fans. My usual camera was too much of a risk again, so the phone had to do.

In the rush to get to the stadium – in the end, we were inside at 7.45pm, well ahead of the 8pm start – I had only glimpsed at the team on my ‘phone. I had focused on the lack of Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata in the line-up, but elsewhere Andreas Christensen was in for David Luiz, and our Callum had retained his place.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Barkley – Willian, Hazard, Hudson-Odoi

PD and Parky were down in the corner, along with Alan and Gary. I popped down to see them. I was further along, behind the goal. My mate Andy offered to swap so I could be with them. But this would be a different viewpoint – I would be in that part of the stadium for the first time – so I explained how I’d be able to take a different set of photographs during the night (though, if I am honest, I knew that the subsequent quality would not be great).

“It’s not all about the photographs, though, Andy.”

“I think it is, Chris.”

I laughed, trying not to agree with him.

I walked over to gate 113 and to my seat in row 12. There were no spectators at all in the top tier; capacity had been capped at 51,000, still a healthy figure.

The teams came on.

TOTTENHA9 vs. CHELSW6.

Unlike the game in November, we were in all blue. It looked right and it felt right too.

Bizarrely, oddly, surprisingly, we began well. To my pleasure this was met with a fantastic salvo of many different Chelsea songs, as if we were forced to prove a point to the watching world that we are not all about the Y Word. Even when “that” song was aired, it ended with a whimper of “sssssshhh” rather than anything more sinister.

Why?

Because it just was not worth it.

It was a great selection of songs and chants. I knew that the other lot would not be able to compete with our selection.

Son Heing-Min and Christensen fell against each other, but no penalty. Despite our early domination, Spurs had the best of the chances in the first quarter of an hour when there was a timid overhead kick from Harry Kane which Kepa easily claimed. At the other end, Barkley, Hudson-Odoi and Hazard tested the Tottenham ‘keeper Paulo Gazzaniga which sounded like something that Paul Gascoigne might have called himself at one stage in his odd life.

Then, with Chelsea honestly dominating and looking at ease, having quietened the home support, a long ball for Kane to attack was played out of the Spurs defence.

This always looked like a problematic moment.

This is what happened in my mind.

  1. That bloody ball is going to drop right in the correct place, right in no-man’s land, we are in trouble.
  2. I did not spot the linesman’s flag, my main focus was on the race to the ball between Kane and Kepa.
  3. Kepa’s approach was full of hesitation. I feared the worst.
  4. There seemed to be contact.
  5. I expected a penalty.
  6. But there was no immediate decision. I presumed that there had been no touch.
  7. Then it dawned on me that the dreaded VAR would be called in to decide on the penalty.
  8. It became muddied in the away end with fans talking about an offside flag.
  9. The TV screen mentioned “VAR – penalty being checked.” Bollocks.
  10. The wait.
  11. The point to the spot by referee Oliver and the roar from the home fans.
  12. The further wait for the penalty to be taken.
  13. The goal, the roar, the run and jump from Kane.
  14. The bemusement – at best – and anger – at worst – that the fans in the stadium had not seen the evidence that perhaps other had seen.
  15. I hate modern football.

I made a point of looking over to the two hundred or so Tottenham supporters closest to the Chelsea crowd to my left. After only around ten seconds of the goal being scored, there was no ribald behaviour, no shouting, no pointing, no screaming, no gesturing, no passion. This was Tottenham vs. Chelsea and their lot didn’t seem to be bothered.

Bloody hell, I hated modern football further.

However, the dynamic of the game had changed irrevocably and the first goal seemed to inspire the home team and home fans alike. Their two dirges rang around the stadium.

“Oh When The Spurs.”

“Come On You Spurs.”

Y.

As in Yawn.

We lost our verve a little. Willian was enduring a poor game, seemingly unwilling to even try to get past his man. Eden Hazard was dropping ridiculously deep. Yet again, there was no threat in the box. Crosses were dolloped towards Kante. Quite ludicrous. Thankfully it was still Chelsea who were seeing more of the ball. The home team were content to sit deeper than usual. Towards the end of the half, a low Alonso cross from the left was nudged against the base of the hear post by N’Golo Kante.

We were amazed that there were just two minutes of added time; the VAR nonsense alone seemed to take more than that. Hudson-Odoi, enjoying a surprising amount of space on the right, played the ball in and it took a deflection up from Danny Rose and was deflected up and on to the bar, with Gazza back peddling, fake tits and all.

At half-time, I had a wander and the mood in the wide Wembley concourse was positive.

“We’re doing OK.”

I then spotted a “Krispy Kreme” stand.

At football.

For fuck sake.

There were police vans lined up outside Wembley and now we had Krispy Kreme stands inside it. Modern football, eh? From the threat of sporadic hooliganism to benign consumerism; what a mixture of oddities combine to make up the modern – or post-modern, I can never be sure – football experience.

Back in my seat, the chap next to me commented that we had “out shot” them by nine efforts to two. This mirrored my thoughts on the game thus far. I was enjoying it, and this surprised me. Although it had not been a riot of noise as befitting a London derby – far from it – this game was keeping me wholly involved.

It was hugely better than the November match.

This feeling of involvement would continue as the second-half began.

Spurs’ simply played very little football in our half throughout the second period. And the Chelsea fans, though not wildly loud throughout, kept backing the players in royal blue. As the game developed, I was heading every clearance and making every tackle. There was a rare chance for Tottenham, but a shot from Kane resulted in a strong-fisted save from Kepa. But for all our share of the ball, there were far too many lazy crosses, in great positions, to the far post where there were only Tottenham defenders. It seemed that a few of our players were suffering from old habits; on reaching the goal-line, how often had they been told to clip a ball to the far post throughout their footballing career? It is a standard move. But it tended to dominate our play at times. They must have strong muscle memory because this ball was often repeated, which caused much frustration in our ranks.

But a few of our players grew in the second-half, with Hazard becoming our main hope. He dominated the ball at times. I was fascinated with how he goaded players into a mistimed tackle before moving the ball on. But it was always frustrating to see such dominance hardly muster up many golden chances. We did well to work the ball into spaces, if only we had a cutting edge.

Hazard hit one straight at Gazzaniga, Kante caused the same player to stretch out and keep the shot out.

Just before the hour, Barkley – who had started strong but was drifting – flicked on a corner towards the far post. We all switched our gaze like those courtside spectators at a tennis match and spotted Andreas Christensen, unmarked, but his clumsy effort, confusing his left leg with his right leg went begging.

Pedro replaced Willian, but despite often overloading with wing play down our right, the final killer ball would never be played the rest of the game. We did have tons of space in front of the “Chelsea Corner” and it was tough to see it not coming to any use.

On sixty-five minutes, with Chelsea totally on top and pushing them back and back, Kane went down – classic gamesmanship from their captain – and play was halted. It took the wind from our sails momentarily. The home found responded with a rousing Billy Ray Cyrus, the twats. But we were not perturbed. We came back again. The fans were well in this game. We knew that our players were putting a great show of endeavour and fight.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

We continued to run the show, but there was one rare Tottenham break which looked like danger. It was a one-on-one, I forget the Tottenham player, but a seemingly ugly challenge by Antonio Rudiger went the other way. Free-kick to us. Answers on a postcard.

To our frustration, Hudson-Odoi was replaced Olivier Giroud with ten minutes to go. Another “answers on a postcard” moment.

Why? What? Who? When?

It made no bloody sense.

The clock ticked and I was still sure we might get a last-ditch equaliser. We still sang towards the end. Five thousand in a fifty-one thousand crowd seemed right; if only we could be allowed such a share in all games. I was surprised that Tottenham were so happy to defend deep. Were they sure that a 1-0 margin would honestly be enough?

Alas, the final whistle blew. We had – I think – deserved a draw. It was a loss, but it felt like a moral victory. On the walk out towards the train station – we would be on the last one out – it was reassuring to hear several groups of Tottenham fans saying that the 1-0 result had flattered them, that Eden Hazard was such a fantastic player and that the tie was far from over.

We made it back to Barons Court at 11.30pm and to Melksham to swap cars at 1.30am.

“Bloody enjoyed that lads. See you Saturday.”

Bizarrely, on the ten mile drive home from the Milk Churn car park, I narrowly avoided running over a badger, a cat, a fox and a rabbit.

If I had seen a cockerel, it might not have fared so well.

I was home at 2am.

It had been a good evening.

Tales From The Cock Tavern

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2019.

Along with a league opener and a Boxing Day game, an FA Cup Third Round tie was historically one of the games of the season. But, I have to be honest that the home match against Nottingham Forest was simply not exciting me as it should. I, along with many foot soldiers, had originally hoped for an away game at a new stadium such as Accrington Stanley, Doncaster Rovers or Lincoln City. But no, we were given yet another home tie, and against a team that we only met as recently as last autumn in the 2017/18 League Cup competition.

So, the tricky trees were heading to Stamford Bridge once more, and as I picked the Three Chuckleteers up in the morning, the game was simply not getting me too excited.

The alarm had sounded at 6.15am – bloody earlier than a normal working day – because I wanted to be on the road nice and early. By 8am, I had collected two Glenns and one Paul. There was a slight frost, everything was a light shade of grey outside. By 10.15am I had dropped Parky and PD outside The Old Oak, where they hoped they would be able to grab an early pint. I parked up closer to the ground and walked down to Stamford Bridge with Glenn, where we hoped to spend some time with some of the US friends that have been featured in these match reports of late.

We walked past the usual smattering of ticket touts that have been part of the match day scene at Stamford Bridge for ever and ever.

They were certainly present as long ago as 1920, when the FA Cup Final itself was held at Stamford Bridge for the first of three times.

My grandfather, being careful not to walk into the onrushing crowds as he picked his way along the pavement from the Walham Green tube station to the main entrance of Stamford Bridge, was approached on several occasions by Cockney ticket touts, offering the chance to watch from the main stand. His ticket, and that of his friend Ted, had been given their general admission tickets by the Somerset Football Association in lieu of their role in the running of their local team Mells and Vobster United, for whom they had both played for a few seasons, along with my grandfather’s brother Christopher. My grandfather wondered how the touts had managed to get their hands on these tickets. It was a surprise to him. This was his first football match, and he was simply unaware that such tickets would be available.

“No thank you. We have tickets.”

“OK governor. You want to sell them to me?”

This confused and surely bemused my grandfather. He thought to himself, simplistically, “how would we get in without tickets?” and he paused for a while with a look on his face which probably was more serious than it really should have been.

“No. No thanks. No – they are ours.”

His long-time pal chipped in :

“We’ve come from Somerset for this match. Why would we give them to you?”

The tout uttered a couple of oaths and moved on.

In 2019, my responses to a few touts were not so wordy. I just shook my head and solemnly moved on.

We were at Stamford Bridge for 10.45am, a quite ridiculously early time. In the bar area of The Copthorne Hotel, we settled down with a couple of astronomically priced coffees – £4 apiece – and chatted to a couple of our former players. I like to do this two or three times a season; it makes a lovely change from the usual routine, and I usually bump into a few Chelsea friends while I am there. Ron Harris, who Glenn and I got to know when he lived in Warminster in the ‘nineties, but who moved away to live on the south coast for a while, now lives a mere ten miles from me. It was no surprise that Ron was there early. He always is the first to arrive.

“I’m only ever late for a tackle.”

It was the first time that I have seen him since his move.

Colin Pates, the captain of “my” Chelsea team of the mid-‘eighties chipped in :

“I heard the house prices have fallen since he moved.”

We sat there, chatting away, for a while. Bobby Tambling was another early presence, and then former players John Hollins, Tommy Baldwin, Paul Canoville, John Bumstead, Gary Chivers and Kerry Dixon arrived too. I won’t name names for obvious reasons, but a few of these former players were quite scathing of our recent play, and playing style. I found myself nodding in silent agreement.

I offered an opinion.

“If someone who had never seen a game of football ever before, and the game was not explained to them, and they watched us play, they would probably think that the aim of the game was getting the ball over to within ten yards of the white corner posts by using as many touches as possible.”

Alas, the first of my friends – Lynda from Brooklyn – arrived just after the players went on their way around the various corporate areas, but we still had a good natter about her stay. She has been lucky enough to see four Chelsea matches. Outside, at about 12.30pm, I bumped into the “London Is Blue” team again, and said I would join them later. PD and Parky had spent a while in “The Goose” rather than “The Old Oak” and had by now walked back up to “The Famous Three Kings”. Glenn had dived into “The Malt House” and had bumped into Dave and Karen from Frome. After wishing Lynda a safe journey back to the US after the game, I met up with Glenn, Karen and Dave in “The Cock Tavern.”

This was turning into a tale of five pubs.

I chatted to a few of the American visitors in the beer garden of “The Cock.”

It was the first time that they had met Glenn, so we recounted a little of our Chelsea story for their general amusement and bemusement.

“Yeah, met Glenn in 1977 when he joined his brother and me at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome. We were one of only three or four Chelsea fans in our entire school, we were a rare bread. We always stopped and spoke about Chelsea when we saw each other at school over the years. Bumped into him on The Shed at the opening game of the season 1983. Went to our first game together at home to the Geordies in the November of that year.”

It then dawned on me.

“Talking of 1983/84, this pub is where I had my very first alcoholic drink at Chelsea, before we thumped Leeds 5-0 to win promotion.”

Ah, 1983/84. Here I go again.

I was eighteen. In previous visits to Stamford Bridge, the thought of going in to a pub was simply not relevant. Not only did I look young for my age, risking the humiliation of not being served, I was also usually broke. Very often I would not eat a single thing on these Chelsea trips to save money for the next one. I remember so much from that day. I certainly remember that this was the first occasion that I had travelled to a game with with PD, along with Glenn and two chaps from Westbury, Mark and Gary. My memory recalls a lager and lime. The pub filled up and I remember talking to a lad from Reading about some Chelsea characters, one of which I would later realise was Hicky. He also spoke about some Chelsea fans going over to the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980 after a game, intent on “aiding” the release of the people inside, though how that might have manifested itself heaven only knows. The songs started up and “One Man Went To Mow” – which was the song of that season – was heartily roared. We all sat until “nine”, then exploded onto our feet on “ten.” We stood on the sofas, we sang our hearts out. The pub was a riot of noise. I felt as if I was coming of age, a Chelsea rite of passage. Skinhead fashions had been taken over by a new movement on the terraces, more so in that season than in any other at Chelsea. The weekend before, I had travelled to Bath to buy my first ever bona fide casual garment, a blue and white Pringle, which cost me £25 or one week’s dole. I wore that with my Chelsea shirt underneath. I felt the business. I belonged.

The team news came through. To my surprise, Cesc Fabregas was playing, and was captain too. After his apparent “wave goodbye” to the fans after Wednesday’s dull game, I had blithely assumed that his Chelsea career was over.

  1. Caballero.
  2. Zappacosta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Fabregas.
  5. Christensen.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Hudson-Odoi.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Ampadu.
  11. Loftus-Cheek.

“Happy with that.”

Once inside the stadium, Alan and myself agreed that this was a potentially very attack-minded team. It would be good to see Ethan Ampadu in a more advanced position than in his previous starts. Alongside us was a young lad, visiting from New York, who worked for NBC sports. PD arrived a little late after his sesh with Parky and was soon cursing away, and Alan told the lad that maybe he could arrange for PD to get a job commentating on games for NBC.

“A colour commentator, I think you call it. This would just be the colour blue, though, fackinell.”

Forest had around four thousand. Their simple red/white/red is a surprisingly rare combination at Stamford Bridge these days. Their white collars looked like those starched ones from the Edwardian era. I am a big fan of the Nottingham Forest badge, which appeared years ahead of its time in 1977, but still has a lower-case “E” which infuriates me a lot more than it should.

The away fans were soon snorting derision at our lack of noise.

“Is this a library?”

“It’s just a ground full of tourists.”

They had a point. I thought that the atmosphere was bad on Wednesday, but this was even worse. It was, without a doubt, the quietest atmosphere at Stamford Bridge that I had ever witnessed.

We began – again – well but I hoped that we could carry it on for a longer amount of time than in other recent games.

Early half-chances came to us. A Fabregas shot, a Morata header, an Emerson free-kick. At least we were creating more than on Wednesday and moving the ball a little quicker. There was not, quite thankfully, a huge amount of frustration or cynicism in the home support. Morata appeared to go down way too easily to us, admittedly some one hundred yards away, and no infringement was judged to have been manifested on his frail body.

“Stay on yer feet, FFS.”

Forest goaded him with being a “poor Daryl Murphy” whoever Daryl Murphy is.

I turned to Alan.

“He’s a poor Brian Murphy, let alone Daryl Murphy.”

On the half-hour, a clumsy challenge of our Ruben resulted in an easy penalty decision. Unsurprisingly, Cesc stood up to take it. But his approach was too clever by far, and his poor low shot was ably pushed away by the Forest ‘keeper Luke Steele.

Bollocks.

Morata supplied Davide Zappacosta who cut in and smashed a shot goal wards, but Steele was equal to it. We enjoyed so much of the ball. I was pleased with the contributions from Ampadu, his body language is spot on. Fabregas was responsible for a few lovely forward passes. We were well on top.

After running for a ball down below us, our Ruben evidently injured himself and was substituted by Eden Hazard just before the break.

Forest were goading us with “WWYWYWS” but there was hardly a response from the Chelsea sections, apart from a few “YNFAs.”

They then rhymed “Aitor Karanka” with “Lampard’s a wanker” as the biggest rivalry in the East Midlands was transplanted to SW6.

Chelsea responded with songs about our Frank, which only remotely seemed relevant. Where were the songs about the current players? Still in the development process, I presume.

Forest sang a version of “Mull of Kintyre” ;”oh mist rolling in from the Trent.”

How 1977.

Ah 1977.

I find it hard to believe that of the three promoted teams in 1977, it was not the teams finishing in first and second place – Wolves and Chelsea – but the third-placed team Nottingham Forest who would surprise the football world with the League Championship in 1978 and then then the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. And all of this under the unique management skills of Brian Clough.

Clough – famously – rarely used to show up on the training pitch and would let his players play the game to their own devices. Of course he set the team up in a certain formation, but his view was this :

“You are all good players. I trust you. You are not stupid. You know how to defend. How to attack. Get on with it.”

He is at the other end of the football spectrum compared to the fastidious and studious style of many in modern football. I even suspect that there are dossiers produced by modern managers on how to tie bootlaces correctly. Clough was certainly of the “laissez-faire” school of man management. But bloody hell it worked. How he won the title in 1978 with journeyman players such as Kenny Burns, Ian Bowyer, Frank Clark, Larry Lloyd, Peter Withe and Martin O’Neil is certainly a mystery to me if not others.

Soon into the second-half, with thoughts of a midweek flit to the banks of the River Trent for the first time – for me anyway – since 1999, the game changed. The ball was played out to our Callum, who showed a classic piece of wing-play, a shimmy, before running past his marker. His low pass was magical, right into the path of Alvaro Morata who prodded the ball in from close range.

It was a money-shot from inside the six-yard box alright.

Get in.

Alan : “thay’ll have ta come at us naaa.”

Chris : “Come on me little diamonds, me ducks.”

It was then Callum’s chance himself to add to the score line, advancing with pace but forcing Steele to scramble away but with nobody on hand to force home the ball. Morata then suffered the miss of the century, touching the ball over from a mere four feet, but – thankfully for him – he was offside anyway.

“Obvs” as the kids say.

Not to worry, further stupendous wing play from our Callum – shackled by two defenders now – created a few spare feet of space which enabled him to send over a most remarkable deep cross which curved and dipped to hit Morata’s forehead and subsequent downward prod with perfection.

Get in.

There were late changes, with Dave replacing Morata, slotting in at left back to allow Emerson an advanced role. N’Golo Kante then replaced Cesc Fabregas, who hugged David Luiz before slowly walking off to tumultuous applause. I carried out the eulogy for this well-loved player a game too early, but it all still stands. One of the best passers of a ball I have seen at Chelsea. And I think we are definitely dispensing of his services too quickly. He is only thirty-one. But one supposes that he needs first team football, and being a bit-part player for someone such as Cesc is clearly not ideal.

The game continued, but we were never in danger of conceding any silly late goals. Hazard was rather quiet. Emerson enjoyed a few late runs. We peppered the Forest goal with a few shots from distance.

The referee blew and into the next round we went.

Phew.

As I slowly made my way out of the Sleepy Hollow, I watched Cesc Fabregas make a solitary walk towards us in the Matthew Harding. My camera was by now tucked away, so the moment is unable to be shared. But I applauded him as he strode on the Stamford Bridge turf as a Chelsea player for one last time.

He has been magical for us.

He waved to the left. He waved to the right.

We could have sung his song all night.

Tales From Another Year

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 January 2019.

Another year, another Chelsea game. The evening match at home to Southampton represented the forty-seventh consecutive year that I would be watching my team play “live” and, as the evening developed, at times it felt like it too. Here is a report of Chelsea game number one thousand two hundred and twenty-six – and my five hundred and fortieth consecutive match report.

This won’t be pretty.

PD was on driving duties again. I met up with him, Parky and Glenn in the pub car park opposite my place of work just after 3pm. It had been my first, tiresome, day back at work after an eleven-day break. The highlight was procuring my ticket for the League Cup semi-final at Wembley when they went on sale at 7am. I was not sure if I was being particularly negative, but it certainly felt that the football authorities were up to their conniving best in 2019 already. I remember not so long ago, there would be a full fixture list on New Year’s Day, with only one or two games displaced to the following evening. On New Year’s Day 2019, there were just three Premier League games. The following day, there were six, including ours. So rather than have all day to devote to football, with no rushing around like fools, fans of twelve clubs were forced to travel to games after work. To me, it just didn’t seem right. It felt like we were being short-changed.

However, let it not be said that I don’t enjoy a challenge; I still managed to hit three pubs, admittedly all along the North End Road.

In “The Goose” we sat by the executive boardroom – the disabled toilet – and we chatted to a good dozen or so of the usual suspects. It was not particularly busy. On the day that we had paid Borussia Dortmund a fee of some £58M for the American wunderkind Christian Pulisic, I turned to Glenn and said

“You have to wonder if signing an American Christian right-winger is going to work out.”

The others moved on to “Simmons” but I shot in to “The Cock Tavern” where I had a pretty good feeling that a few friends from afar would be drinking. There was a group of around thirty fans from all over the US in London for the Palace and Southampton games – backed by the “London Is Blue” podcast team – and I had met a few of a previous tour group before last season’s miserable Tottenham game in the same pub. As I walked through a very packed bar, sure enough there was the sound of a few American accents, and a fair few Chelsea scarves – a tell-tale sign that overseas fans were present – so I sensed that I had guessed correctly. There was even one chap wearing a Chelsea hat, but with also what appeared to be a massive Chelsea security blanket, the like of which I have never seen before. I soon met Mike from Tacoma for the first time and he followed me out to the beer garden where the main tour party were based. At Selhurst Park on Sunday, they had sat – quietly, without colours – in a block in the home section of the Arthur Wait. At this game, they would be in the East Middle.

“Blimey, I’ve only ever sat there once.”

It was great to reacquaint myself with a few old friends and to meet some new Chelsea fans for the first time.

I replayed the American Christian right-winger line and got even more of a blank response than I did from Glenn in the first pub.

Of course we chatted about all things Chelsea and I honestly could have stayed there all night. Steve from Seattle had been touring around the south-west the previous few days and must have been very close to my home village at one stage. I am not sure what was the catalyst for the conversation, but I spoke to Brandon and his girlfriend, from Minneapolis, about the Champions League games in Moscow and Munich. I admitted that I am probably, currently, on my tenth stage of being a Chelsea fan – maybe a topic for another “Tale” – but I had to admit that “really, after Munich, nothing really matters.”

I have an inkling that they knew what I meant.

My friend Natalie from Kansas City, who sat alongside me at the famous 6-0 thrashing of Arsenal in 2014, followed me a few yards along to “Simmons” and she met Parky again, the poor girl. She used to work for the MLS team the New England Revolution and was looking forward to seeing Chelsea play in Boston later this season, a game that I have already ruled myself out of. Time was moving on, though, and there was only time for one rushed bottle of “Nastro Azzurro.” At 7.25pm, we needed to hotfoot it to the ground. Nat was watching from the dreaded West Upper.

I reached my seat with about five seconds to spare before the game kicked-off. It is a good job that I work in logistics.

Fair play, a midweek game or not, Stamford Bridge was full to capacity once more. In the other corner, close to where the tour party were based, there were only 1,400 away fans.

Our team lined up as below :

  1. Arrizabalaga.
  2. Azpilicueta.
  3. Alonso.
  4. Kante.
  5. Rudiger.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Jorginho.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Hazard.
  11. Willian.

Talking of Munich, Oriel Romeu was in but Ryan Bertrand was out.

It had been a bitter day but Stamford Bridge did not seem quite so raw as I had expected.

The match began.

Southampton were in their traditional red and white stripes of course, but I had to have a double-take a few weeks back when I saw the team play an away game in two-tone red stripes, evidently their third kit. If ever there was an example of a football club taking the piss, this was surely it.

First kit : red and white stripes.

Second kit : yellow and blue.

Third kit : red and red stripes.

As so often happens, we began quite brightly but soon fell away. An early free-kick set up Alonso, but his effort slammed against the wall. A shot from Barkley, making a yard of space nicely, was blocked. For what seemed like the first time in ages, a long ball from Dave was aimed at Alvaro Morata but this great ball was headed meekly at the Saints goalie Angus Gunn (who?). Southampton gave the – false – impression that they were going to make a game of it with efforts from Ward-Prowse and Ings, but we then took a stranglehold of the game. But, I have to say, this was not a great spectacle at all. I lost count of the number of times that the ball was swept back along the defensive four, while the attacking players hardly tested their markers with neither runs into space nor incisive passing.

Alonso to Barkley to Luiz to Jorginho to Rudiger to Luiz to Azpilicueta to Jorginho to Kante to Alonso to Luiz.

Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass.

I was sure that I might receive the ball at one stage.

This was football by numbers, with the players seemingly handcuffed into playing a rather tedious variant of football the like of which I was struggling to find any merit in. It was tough going. At last, a neat lofted pass from Rudiger found Eden Hazard but his full-blooded swipe hit the Southampton ‘keeper in the face and the chance was wasted. An Alonso effort through a ridiculous forest of legs went wide. A Morata shot was deflected wide. There had been a few lofted passes from David Luiz, but none seemed to reach their targets. Eden was quiet. Only Kante seemed to have any urgency.

Willian – not involved to be honest – was injured and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Glenn had disappeared for a while and came back with an assortment of confectionary – “I’ve had a hot dog too” – and the game was so poor that this is worthy of a mention.

There were audible boos at half-time.

It was time to vent.

I turned to Alan : “we haven’t seen this sort of football at Chelsea for ages.”

I’m a pretty patient person and I knew that this version of football would take a while to gel, but this was teeth-grinding stuff. It was truly dire. And the atmosphere, of course – obviously – was morgue like.

Into the second-half we went. I was not sure it would be a bountiful journey.

Stuart Armstrong (who?) left fly from outside the box and Kepa scrambled down to turn it around the post. We grew a little, but only marginally, with a little dance and shot from Hazard which was aimed too closely to Gunn. We needed a lift and that was it; the crowd responded a little, but the noise was barely at the 5/10 level.

Ward-Prose hit Battersea Power Station with a rogue Southampton effort and then Jorginho – bloody hell, smelling salts please nurse – hit a riser from outside the box, but it was an easy save for the bearded debutant custodian.

“Bearded debutant custodian.”

Do I get points for that?

An audacious back-heel over on the far touch line from David Luiz – the London Is Blue team must have had a great view of it – found a Chelsea team mate, and the crowd responded with a burst of noise. As Alan commented to me, it is often a single bit of spontaneity that can lift a crowd. And I am not sure that there is too much spontaneity about Chelsea at the moment. I have this dreaded fear that football is headed the way of other sports where choreographed training plays are re-enacted ad infinitum on the pitch with players not allowed to show any individual spontaneity or – for the want of a better word – wit.

I love football that is breathless, off-the-cuff and passionate.

This fucking wasn’t.

On sixty-eight minutes, an ineffectual Barkley was replaced by Cesc Fabregas who played in a more forward role than in other appearances for Chelsea. Not long after, the best passage of play in the entire game involving Hazard and Fabregas set up Morata, who was on the shoulder of the last man. I sensed that he was in, and bound to score. His shot was captured on film, but as soon as the ball hit the back of the net, I soon equated that “yes, he was offside.”

“Of course he bloody was.”

Fabregas played a delightful pass to Morata, raiding in the inside-left channel, but the under-fire Spanish striker’s rather meek effort was well saved by Gunn. Morata was not getting much service throughout the game but it did not seem to matter; this lad could miss one or ten with equal ease.

Ugh.

There were a couple of long shots from Alonso as the game drifted into its final few minutes. The Southampton box became more and more packed. This was simply not to be. There were boos at the final whistle.

Well, that doesn’t help anyone does it?

As I exited the stairs, I spotted Tim, who had been in “The Cock Tavern” before the game and I vented further.

“When the Sarri career comes to an end in maybe ten years, I really do wonder if the Napoli era will be his high-water mark, when he happened to find himself in charge of the right blend of players at the right time, with no real pressure to win anything.”

I am, dear reader, still finding it difficult to warm to the bloke.

On the walk back to the car – the mood among the support was bleak – we heard that Cesc Fabregas had appeared to say his “goodbye” at the end of the game as he strode around the Stamford Bridge pitch looking emotional. A move to Monaco is apparently imminent. He has been a very fine servant for this football club. He may have spent eight years at Arsenal but his five seasons here have resulted in two league title wins, plus two other domestic trophies. I still remember his pass to Andre Schurrle in his first Chelsea game at Burnley, which happened to be my one thousandth, and that sublime disguised pass lit up that particular evening.

He wore a magic hat and he will always be one of us.

You’re a good man Cesc. You’re absolutely Fabregas.

We leave the league well alone over the next two games. We play in the FA Cup at home to Nottingham Forest on Saturday – did someone mention banana skin? – and then Tottenham in the League Cup on Tuesday. The season continues at a pace now. It is no place for the weak nor the meek.

Into the year we continue to go.

Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.