Tales From A Slow Start.

Rapid Vienna vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2016.

By the time that the Austrian Airlines plane had touched down at Vienna’s Schwechat airport at 9.30am on Saturday 16 July, I had already been awake for nine hours. Day one of season 2016-2017, my forty-fourth year of attending Chelsea games, would undoubtedly be a long one. With Chelsea sadly not competing in either of the two European trophies this season, I was easily persuaded to attend the season-opener a week or so ahead of a trip over to the US later in July. European travel would be sorely missed by myself, and thousands of others, this season, but here – at least – was a chance for me to do what I love best; a couple of days in a foreign city following The Great Unpredictables.

I had woken, ahead of my alarm, at 11.30pm on the Friday night. What a ridiculous time to be waking. I set off at 1.30am on the Saturday and headed east. I had arranged to park my car at my friend Michelle’s house in Bracknell, and then her boyfriend Dane would then drive the three of us to Heathrow ahead of our 6am flight. We were checked in at 4.30am and we spotted a few fellow Chelsea on our flight. We grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll, and were soon on our way. “The Blue Danube” – that soothing Strauss favourite – greeted us as we took our seats on the plane. It set the tone nicely. I settled back in my seat and reminisced about previous visits to the Austrian capital.

Back in my early ‘twenties, newly graduated from college but with no idea of where I wanted my life to be headed, I often travelled around Europe by train on various Inter-Railing adventures. My fourth such trip, in the late autumn of 1987, doubled as a chance for me to make a little money on the side by selling British football badges at some European games. A few weeks were spent zig-zagging – if not zigger-zaggering – between Europe’s great cities, sleeping overnight on the trains, and waking up the next morning with that wonderful thrill of exploring a new city, and possibly – who knows? – even making the acquaintance of a mysterious European female with high cheekbones and low morals. These were my wanderlust years for sure. I had visited Austria for the first time on a family holiday with my parents in 1977 – Seefeld, in the Tirol – but my first visit to Vienna was ten years later. On a cold and misty November morning, I alighted at Vienna’s Westbanhof station and headed off for an early morning visit to the wonderful Schonbrunn Palace. There was a certain dark austerity about those grey streets and I wondered if I was in a city further east, such as Belgrade, Budapest or Prague – still under communist law – rather than the sprightlier and more cheerful Austrian capital. I later visited the stunning buildings of the city centre and was immediately impressed. There was a certain class to the whole city. Vienna had certainly left its mark on me.

I would return some seven years later, and this time with the love of my life.

With Chelsea having qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994/1995 (despite only finishing FA Cup runners up to double winners Manchester United), and after seeing off Viktoria Zikkov in the first round, we were paired with Austria Memphis. I had attended the Zizkov game in September 1994 – which had taken place in the small town of Jablonec rather than Prague due to concerns about crowd trouble – and I soon booked myself a return visit to that part of central Europe for the game in Vienna in November. A rather fractious first game at Stamford Bridge had ended 0-0 and there was nerves aplenty as I traveled out to the game in Vienna.

One of the nicest memories that I have of that particular trip was the couple of hours that I spent in a quiet bar, adjacent to the canal that cuts through the city of Vienna as an adjunct to the Danube, where I was able to relax with a few beers, and have a really lovely chat with two lads who I had not met before; Ally and Barney. We bought each other some beers, and enjoyed each other’s company, speaking of our love of the club, our personal stories, and how much fun we hoped to have on a potentially long European campaign in 1994/1995. Remember this was Chelsea’s first European adventure since 1971/1972. It was therefore the very first time that the thousands of fans who had been lured to the club after the twin cup triumphs of 1970 and 1971 had ever experienced such extravagance. That often overlooked European campaign of 1994/1995 is fondly remembered by myself and my friends as our great reward for sticking with the club through a dark period of our history. There had been three depressing relegations, financial calamity, the threat of moving away from Stamford Bridge, a flirt with relegation to the Third Division, hooliganism on the terraces, and much gloating from fans of our rivals. As I sat in that bar in Vienna in 1994, laughing with fellow Chelsea fans among the wooden panels and shining beer pumps, with the game taking place just over the canal, just out of sight, in a few hours, the excitement was tangible. It was just a lovely moment in my Chelsea life.

I would also visit that same bar on a visit to Vienna in 1997 – this time alone, but still savoring the moment – ahead of a game against Slovan Bratislava, just over the Slovakian border. It was, and still is, one of my favourite bars of any city that I have ever visited.

After checking in to my hotel on the Saturday morning, not so far from where I stayed in 1997 in fact, my first priority was to hunt out that bar, sit and reflect on how far my club has come over the past twenty-odd years, and to raise a toast to Antonio Conte as he took charge of his very first Chelsea game later in the day but also to the memory of Barney, who sadly passed away in 2011. I used to bump in to him quite often at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere – Ally not quite so often – and there would always be an outstretched hand and the “hello son” greeting. He was a nice guy. I miss his cheery smile.

For an hour or so, I searched east and west and then east again, but the bar was proving as elusive to pin down as the racketeer Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s atmospheric post-war classic “The Third Man.” As I roamed the streets, I hummed the film’s classic refrain to myself. I looked hither and thither to the sound of the zither but was so disappointed to realise that the bar was no more. As with many cities, there has been much riverside development in Vienna, and the quaint local bar was nowhere to be seen. I was genuinely dismayed that my first pint of the season – last season it was in Newark, New Jersey – could not be on my third visit to “my bar” in Vienna.

The weather was a little overcast and cloudy as I now turned and headed for the city centre.

I walked past a small neighbourhood bar and peered inside. There were a few locals inside, but also the strong smell of cigarette smoke. I turned to leave, but then looked up to see a large poster of former Rapid Vienna and Austrian international Hans Krankl – quite probably the nation’s most famous footballer of all time.

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I then noticed the photographs of a local, lower league, football team adorning one wall. I spotted the green wallpaper and upholstery, hinting at maybe a Rapid allegiance.

“I think I’m staying.”

I ordered a pint of Weiselburger and relaxed. The locals were amazed that I had traveled over for the game. The bar owner – not present – was the president of the local team featured. The locals were Rapid fans. It was great to chat to them. I love a local bar.

I headed on. The streets were remarkably quiet. Only around St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the main shopping area of the old town were busy. I crossed a road but heard a “Chelsea” song being faintly sung. I turned and spotted a few Chelsea flags draped outside the Match Box bar on Rotenturmstrasse. For an hour or so, it represented base camp. I bumped into a few friends and relaxed some more. After only two months after the last game of 2015/2016, we were back on it again. I suppose there was around twenty of us huddled outside the bar. It was not a huge figure. Some had spent the previous night in Bratislava, and had travelled down the River Danube to Vienna by boat. The talk turned to the game. We had officially been given four hundred tickets for the match, which was to mark the opening of Rapid’s revamped stadium, and a fair few had traveled out without tickets.

A few odd-looking characters suddenly arrived on the scene, obviously not English, wearing Harrington jackets with both “Chelsea Headhunters” crests woven into the backs, and with Stone Island patches on the arms. A couple had “Chelsea Headhunters” scarves draped around their waists.

File under “trying too hard.”

They looked, and sounded, totally unsavory. It was time for me to move on.

I headed off at just before 3pm in order to meet up with Emily, a Chelsea supporter from Atlanta, but who has been living in Vienna for a few years, and George, a Chelsea fanatic from the Czech Republic. Both were “Facebook friends” but there had been much communication between us ahead of the game. I was also hoping to meet up with my good mate Orlin, who often gets mentioned in these dispatches, who was desperate for a match ticket. A few days previously, Emily had sourced a spare for him, but it fell through at the last minute.

I walked in to “Flanagan’s” on Schwarzenbergstrasse and was expecting it to be busy. It was very quiet. If we had four hundred tickets, and four hundred fans, we were certainly spreading ourselves thinly throughout the city. I soon spotted the ever-present Cathy, with Becky and Emma. George, with two Czech mates, soon arrived. Emily too. For an hour and a half, we supped a few ales – Weiselburger and then Stiegl – and chatted about all things Chelsea. A few others arrived – Neil and Dave – and we pondered options of how to reach the stadium, which sits on the western edge of the city. We ended up catching an Uber, and off we went through the city’s streets.

The sun-bleached frontage of the Schonbrunn Palace was spotted to my left and I wondered if I would have time to visit it again on this trip. I had recently seen a concert from its grounds a few weeks earlier and it certainly brought back memories of my childhood. Often my father would tune in to some classical music on the radio and he especially liked the music of Strauss. I think his favourite was the Radetzky March. I had been reminded of another memory from the game in 1994; the day after the match, I enjoyed a leisurely walk in the autumn sun. I happened to chance upon a band playing music in celebration of the Austrian president Thomas Klestil’s birthday. For a few moments, I watched as the music whirled around in the Viennese morning air. I had lost my father only eighteen months earlier and I do not mind admitting that the sounds of some of his favourite tunes made my eyes moist. It was a lovely moment for me.

Outside the stadium, we soon spotted a bar, so we quickly decided to have another beer before the game.

With another Italian in charge of the team once more, I was keen to welcome Antonio Conte to our club with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner, which I hand-crafted some twenty summers ago in celebration of the twin signings of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto di Matteo. At the time, who could have possibly have guessed that those two players would go down in Chelsea legend as the managers of twin European triumphs in Stockholm and Munich?

I hastily gathered some troops and we had a photograph.

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Time was moving on.

Emily had a ticket in the home end, so we went our separate ways. With typical Chelsea protocol, I only made it in to the stadium with mere minutes to spare. The away end didn’t seem particularly full. We had been allocated the corner section, and it was clear to see that many locals – or at least non-English, if not wholly Austrian – were in our section. If I was expecting to see many familiar faces among the “400” (now seeming a mythical figure invented by Chelsea), I was to be disappointed. I bumped into Les from nearby Melksham, and maybe a few more, but there were strange faces everywhere. I didn’t spot my good pals Alan and Gary, who would be staying over for the second game in Klagenfurt. There was an odd feel to the mix of supporters. Of course, the big clue that not too many were from England was the predominance of Chelsea shirts in the away end. Emily, George and myself had touched on this subject in the bar beforehand; that Chelsea, specifically at away games, simply do not wear club colours to any great extent.

I made my way to the very last row, overlooked by a row of a bored dozen Austrian policemen. Alas there was nowhere to pin “Vinci.”

The home fans were in the midst of displaying a huge banner announcing “Weststadion” as opposed to the official, and ultra-corporate Allianz Stadium. Like the Allianz Stadium in Munich, I spotted a hill outside, wooded, and with houses.

“Tales From The Vienna Woods” anyone?

OK, the game.

Do I have to?

Clearly, Antonio Conte has only been at the club for a ridiculously short time, and was unable to select a free choice of players since some were still on an extended break. Nevertheless, the team looked like a Chelsea team from a parallel universe, or maybe even last year’s odd start. It could easily have been the team that played Walsall last September. It was a mixture of old favourites and fledgling youth.

Begovic.

Ivanovic.

Terry.

Djilobodji.

Rahman.

Mikel.

Matic.

Willian.

Loftus-Cheek.

Moses.

Diego Costa.

It seemed to be the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 of recent memory. It was lovely, at least, to see John Terry still with us after the conjecture of the last week of the previous campaign.

Like so many fellow Chelsea fans, I was impressed with Antonio Conte during the recent European Championships. He is quietly spoken, but has eyes of steel. He is plainly a passionate man. It remains to be seen whether or not he can repeat that sense of camaraderie and teamwork so evident in his Italian team, overachieving through togetherness, at our club, which has been beset with power struggles and divisions within the changing room over the past few years. My good friend Mario, the Juventus supporter, told me that he is more of a leader of men through his emotional bond with his players, rather than through his tactical nous. This goes against the quickly-gained view by many in France that Conte is a fine tactician. If I heard the phrase “tactical masterclass” emanating from the media and fellow fans alike, I must have heard it a hundred times.

We’ll see.

I certainly wish him well.

“Win For Us” indeed.

Chelsea were in all blue – I still dislike seeing us in blue socks after all these years – with Rapid Vienna strangely choosing away stripes.

The game was dire. We let in a soft goal, allowing a nice one-two to cut us open on just seven minutes as Joelinton rounded Asmir Begovic before coolly side-footing home, and then celebrated down in front of us. Green flares were set off, and the home fans – wearing a lot of scarves despite it being the middle of summer – made a lot of noise. It was quite a din from their sections throughout the game.

We struggled to put anything of note together and – let us not be surprised – looked several yards off the pace against a team that seemed to be at a further advanced stage in their pre-season.

A few shouts of Chelsea support at the start soon gave way to periods of quiet in the away end as the game continued.

Suddenly, Emily appeared next to me. She had explained that she was a Chelsea fan to a steward in the home areas and had been allowed to join us. That she found me so easily was proof that our end was not full.

Willian buzzed around and Diego narrowly shot narrowly wide, but the Chelsea fans in the away section were not impressed.

“Shite, eh?”

At halftime, I made my way downstairs to purchase some beers. It was one of those games where beer was certainly a welcome addition. We were even allowed to bring them back to our seats.

It was more painful stuff in the second-half. Changes were made, with Aina, Oscar, Chalobah, Traore, Kenedy, Atsu and Remy all coming on.

We shuffled the ball from one side of the field to the other, but with little thrust or incision into the Rapid area.

It was slow.

Out of nowhere, Orlin appeared below me. He too had been lucky and had found, miraculously, a ticket. This was all very strange though. There were gaps in our section throughout the game, yet Chelsea had sold four hundred. Answers on a postcard.

Ola Aina played a ball in from the inside-left position, aiming for some onrushing attackers, but the ball avoided everyone before hitting against the left-hand post. The keeper was beaten, but watched as the ball rebounded away to safety. That this unintentional strike on goal would be our best attempt on goal the entire game summed it all up.

Sigh.

With ten minutes left, a defensive error between Ivanovic and Terry allowed the home team to strike. The ball was played out wide, and a shot on goal followed. An attempted clearance only set things up for Tomi to follow up.

Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

More flares and flags.

The game ended.

We shuffled off, with our hands in our pockets, and with faces being pulled.

“Bloody hell, that was crap.”

I suppose I am spoilt. I have seen so many enthralling and entertaining games with Chelsea over the years. This was just a friendly, just the first in a long season, just a training session in reality.

Outside in the drizzle of a Viennese evening, we waited for transportation.

“Bloody hell, this seems like Wigan in the rain in November not Vienna in July.”

Our spirits had taken a bit of a knock, but I must admit to being so pleased to have made new friends with some good people.

George kept shouting “Vinci Per Noi” and I smiled.

We caught two trams back to the centre of Vienna, and I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza. It would be my only sustenance since the bacon roll at Heathrow. I chatted, solemnly, to Emily and aired a concern that I have had, and shared here, for a few years; that my passion is waning, that things might never reach the heights of – when? Vienna 1994? Wembley 1997? Stockholm 1998? Bolton 2005? Munich 2012? – but then I smiled as the thought of another campaign entered my head. We dropped in to “Flanagan’s” once more but my lack of sleep and the first glut of beer of the season suddenly took its toll. At around 9.30pm – yes, probably as early as that – I made my way back to the hotel. I was so tired.

For me, at least, it was a solemn case of “goodnight, Vienna.”

I awoke on the Sunday, miraculously with no hangover. My flight back to Blighty was not until 8pm, so there was plenty of time to explore Vienna on day two.

The first part of my day would be a personal homage to that game in 1994 against Rapid Vienna’s cross-town rivals. Vienna’s two main teams have monopolised the trophies in Austria, with Rapid winning 32 championships and Austria Vienna 24. Back in 1994, Austria Vienna were known as Austria Memphis, after a short-lived sponsorship deal with a cigarette manufacturer. There is a third team, First Vienna, but they have suffered in recent years. Another club, even smaller, Wiener Sport Club, played us in the Fairs Cup in 1965.

When I left that bar in 1994, I walked over the river towards the Ernst Happel Stadium and memorably heard shouts of “Carefree” from the huge Ferris wheel – the Wiener Reisenrad – at one end of the Prater park. In 2016, I rode on the Ferris wheel for the first time. It is a fantastic experience, and offers lovely panorama views of the whole city. I remembered a famous scene from “The Third Man” between the two main characters which took place on the wheel. As in 1994, there is an amusement park at the Prater, and I recreated my long walk that evening twenty-two years ago, ending up underneath the stadium. There has been a new roof canopy slung on top of the concrete bowl since 1994, but being there brought back lovely memories. It has hosted some memorable European finals in its day. Back in 1994, it was used for our game rather than Austria Memphis’ smaller Favoriten stadium. It was recently the home of Rapid, too, while their new stadium was built. I was able to peer in and spot that the seats were now Rapid green, rather than the multi-colours of yesteryear.

There is something very dramatic, in my mind, about a resting football stadium.

My mind raced back to 1994.

Such were the rules with UEFA then, that only two or three “foreigners” were allowed in the ECWC. With injuries to other players, this meant that manager Glenn Hoddle’s hand was tied. His team selection on that memorable night tells its own story –

Kharin.

Hall.

Barness.

Johnson.

Spackman.

Newton.

Rocastle.

Myers.

Shipperley.

Spencer.

Wise.

I remember Nigel Spackman was forced to play as a central defender. Young Neil Shipperley lead the line. I had a seat, among home fans, but with other Chelsea too, along the side, with an army of around four thousand away fans in the middle tier of the end to my right. It was one of the greatest nights of my life until that point. We went ahead in the second-half after a memorable breathless run by John Spencer – it seemed to go on forever – resulted in him dropping his shoulder, edging wide of the ‘keeper and slotting home.

“Get in.”

What wild celebrations.

I remember falling arse over tit on the Vienna fans next to me.

I was so new to European football, that even when the home team equalised, it took me a few seconds to realise that we still held advantage. The Chelsea fans were in great form that night; it was a proper old school following, and the songs echoed around the half-full stadium. I remember “God Save The Queen” and even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – a rugby song – being sung with gusto. At the end of the game, with Chelsea through to the next round on a brilliant European night, I bounced out of the stadium and walked south to the nearest U-bahn station, almost too excited for words.

It was one of the very greatest of feelings.

At last, at the age of twenty-nine, I had a European adventure all of my own to tell fellow friends about.

Chelsea were back.

It was fucking brilliant.

I took a few photographs of the Ernst Happel Stadium, then retraced my steps south again.

Throughout this trip, 1994 would be forever on my mind.

“Vienna. 1994. It meant something to me.”

Later in the day, I visited the palatial majesty of the Belvedere Palace – a mini Schonbrunn – and met up with Emily once more. We sat in the al fresco bar outside the Palace and spoke about all things Chelsea. Emily was keen to hear some of my stories and some of my tales. There was talk of US tours, football fan culture, rivalries, past games, the entire works. It transpired that one of Emily’s relatives – her grandmother’s first cousin – played for Manchester United in the 1940’s, and I laughed that many United fans living in the UK would give their right arm for that kind of lineage to Manchester. If you ask them why they are United fans, you often get them looking away, avoiding eye contact, before they utter some unconvincing tripe about their relatives coming from Manchester. What a load of old rot. Emily has visited Stamford Bridge twice before, 2011, and promised to make a return visit as soon as she could. I look forward to that.

I walked back to the hotel – time for one last curry wurst – and I met up with Michelle and Dane before we returned to the airport.

It had been a long two days in the Austrian capital.

We heard that there would be another pre-season game in Bremen, another lovely city, on a spare Sunday in August. That would be for others, though, not for me. My next game is in Ann Arbor, college-town USA, against Real Madrid.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From The Thick And The Thin.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2016.

Even though we had gathered from near and far for the final game of this oddest of seasons to cheer on the boys one last time, to stand and applaud the astounding achievements of Leicester City, and especially their cheerful, funny and charismatic manager Claudio Ranieri, the huge presence of John Terry loomed over every moment. Our captain, dismissed at Sunderland the previous Saturday, would not be playing, but all of the talk – or at least a sizable chunk of it – in the pub beforehand was about his future.

In the words of Joe Strummer, “shall I stay or shall I go?”

As recently as last Wednesday, while we played out an entertaining draw at Anfield in the evening, there had been no move, no gesture from the club about his future. On Thursday, still nothing. Then, in the early afternoon of Friday 13 May, it was announced that the club, leaving it ridiculously late, had handed John Terry a lifeline and the chance of a one-year contract extension. Immediately, I felt joy and triumph, but then as we witnessed John’s tears at the Player Of The Season “do” on Friday, I personally wondered if the contract would ever get signed for a variety of reasons. There was an announcement that he would need to consider the deal. It looked like – guessing from outside – that his role in one final year in royal blue would be greatly changed, greatly diminished. The conjecture continued among friends on the Saturday and Sunday. Nobody was sure. I hated myself for thinking it, but I had a gnawing doubt about him returning.

There was rumour and counter-rumour, talk of brinkmanship, conspiracy theories and heaven-knows what else.

Regardless of John Terry, this would be Guus Hiddink’s last game in charge – unless a manager yet-to-be-named royally messes up and the Dutchman gets a third stint at the helm – and although there have been a few poor performances under his tutelage, Guus has steadied the ship since taking over before Christmas. We have steadily risen throughout his spell in charge. There have been a few memorable highlights. A fantastic win at Arsenal, an iconic draw against Tottenham, plus some notable victories elsewhere. As seasons go, it has been “interesting.”

I loved the US tour – a few days in Charlotte, North Carolina was the highlight – but not the bizarre aftermath when we seemed to self-destruct. Those days of autumn were, honestly, some of the oddest times I have experienced as a Chelsea supporter. Although the relegation seasons of 1974/1975, 1978/1979 and 1987/1988 were much worse, those maddening days under Mourinho, with the entire football world watching and laughing, were excruciating. Yet I loved the away jaunts to Portugal and Israel – Jerusalem was, well, my Jerusalem, the very best of 2015/2016 – and I enjoyed the bonhomie and camaraderie of my extended Chelsea family throughout the campaign. The simple pleasure of a lovely pre-match meal with Glenn and Dave before the Bournemouth home game, a riotous pre-match in Norwich with a cast of thousands, being able to watch the PSG home game alongside my mate JR from Detroit, and two lovely visits to Tyneside were some of the most memorable moments of this crazy season. But there have been others, too many to mention.

On this last day of the season, the fun continued on. In the hotel, it was lovely to see Beth, Tom and Andy from the US once again. It was the first time that my dearest and oldest Chelsea mate Glenn had met Andy since that night in Munich, when we met up after the game at “The Shakespeare” pub near the train station, and then shared his hotel room; a place to crash after the best night of our lives.

In The Goose, I had a good old chat with Paul – once of Knoxville, Tennessee but now living in Los Alamos, New Mexico – and also a brief chat with Austin from Houston, Texas.

Pints were shared.

“Friendship and football.”

There were a few Leicester City fans in The Goose. They were causing no harm and we let them be. Only at the end, after the beers stirred their vocal chords, did they start singing.

“Leicester City – Five Thousand To One.”

I wished a few my heartiest congratulations. I like two of the T-shirts that I saw them wearing :

“les-tah.”

“Dilly Ding Dilly Dong.”

One final walk down to Stamford Bridge.

Ah, I’ll miss this.

Unfortunately, I managed to get my timings all wrong and I sadly missed all of the pre-game pageantry. One last pint of “Peroni” in The Goose, and some elongated “goodbyes” to friends, resulted in me arriving at my seat in the Matthew Harding just as the teams were shaking hands with each other. I had therefore missed the guard of honour that the Chelsea players had bestowed on the new champions of England. A massive John Terry banner was being held aloft in The Shed, and I missed the chance to take a photograph of that too. The banner depicted JT in a typical pose, his right palm beating his heart, something that I noticed him doing around five years ago as a mark of solidarity with us fans. Along with the John Terry chest-pass, it is trademark. If and when the powers that be decide upon a John Terry statue at Stamford Bridge, I would suggest that it will be of his hand-to-heart pose. It certainly strikes a chord.

At times, the ensuing football match seemed nothing more than a side-show.

This would be my fifty-fourth game of the campaign. Although I have seen more games during four other seasons ( a 58, a 57 and two 55s), this would be my highest ever percentage. Fifty-four out of fifty-six.

96.4%

I don’t think that figure will ever be matched by myself again. I only missed the CL games in Kiev and Paris. Happy with that.

With the sun shining down, and the stadium packed to the rafters, but with my head full of thoughts about the craziness of the current season, with the close season looming, I found it difficult to get too involved with the game being played out before me.

Hiddink had chosen a strong team, but I was a little annoyed that Ruben was a substitute.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Baba – Fabregas, Matic – Pedro, Willian, Hazard – Traore.

We were wearing the new kit for the first time, and I really wasn’t impressed. I don’t mind the Adidas stripes down the sides of the main body of the shirt, but I think the collar looks messy, like someone has pulled it out of shape, and the lions all over the shirt look infantile.

Not for me.

The last Chelsea shirt I bought was in 2005.

I can’t see myself ever buying another one.

It wasn’t a bad game, and Chelsea began well. A nice move involving Willian, Matic and Pedro resulted in the ball just missing the target.

Leicester had their full three thousand, though I was a little dismayed to see many – too many – of their fans wearing blue curly wigs. Shocking.

On twenty-six minutes, there was a hearty round of applause for John Terry, and a sea of “number 26” cards were held aloft in the Shed Upper.

Vardy, the unlikeliest of heroes for Leicester this season, caused a couple of moments of panic in our defence.

Pedro then caused Kasper Schmeichel to scamper on all fours to keep out a loose ball, before Traore was unable to convert as the ball broke again. The Leicester City ‘keeper was certainly the busier of the two. It had been a decent enough opening period.

There hadn’t been a great deal of noise throughout the first-half. The Leicester City fans seemed a little subdued. Maybe it still hadn’t sunk in.

Soon into the second period, Hiddink replaced Pedro with Loftus-Cheek and Traore with Tammy Abraham.  On the hour, debutant Fikayo Tomori replaced Ivanovic, with Dave moving in to central defence alongside Cahill.

The game, which had quietened down with all of the substitutions, suddenly came alive. Eden Hazard, the shadow of the man against Liverpool thus far, raced past his markers and played in Abraham. The ball fell to Matic, who was upended just as he was looking to gather himself to shoot.

Fabregas slotted home.

One-nil to the former champions.

I had always fancied our chances in this game, and I was confident that we would hold on. Leicester tried to retaliate but their possession amounted to nothing. I joined in the applause as Riyad Mahrez was substituted by Ranieri with ten minutes to go. I remembered his goal against us in December on that night of “betrayal.” Sadly, just after, a Danny Drinkwater shot from way out – a blot into the blue – caught us all unawares and the game was tied at 1-1.

I spotted a handful – no more than twenty – Leicester fans get to their feet in the West Upper, but there were no handbags.

The funniest moment of the day? Hearing that Tottenham had lost 5-1 at Newcastle United. How we laughed.

The Chelsea fans – who had been generally quiet all game – were roused to honour Claudio Ranieri as the game continued on.

“One Ranieri, there’s only one Ranieri.”

Tammy Abraham caused us all to inhale quickly as he spun tidily and whipped a curler towards Schmeichel’s goal. It only narrowly missed the far post.

Referee Craig Pawson blew the final whistle of the 2015/2016 season and that was that.

A few fans – in fact more than a few – disappeared as soon as the whistle sounded, but many stayed. We applauded the Leicester team as they walked over to celebrate with their fans. The John Terry flag appeared at the Matthew Harding, draped over both tiers. I stood with Alan and Glenn as the team reappeared. John Terry, of course, lead them out. There was a noticeable gap between him, with his two children, and the rest of the squad. Suddenly it was all about him.

He was wearing a white training top, which made him stand out.

He beat his heart, he clapped us. He walked down to the MH and shook hands with a few fans, and handed out a shirt or two. There were calls of his name. He seemed to be very touched. There was still a gap, a respectful space, between John Terry and the rest of the players.

The sun shone down.

Glenn sped off for a burger from his favourite burger girl at “Chubby’s Grill.”

“See you back at the car.”

I shook Alan’s hand.

“Have a good summer. See you in Vienna.”

The players walked down to The Shed End. I had decided to stay on, to watch the last few moments of this ridiculous season. Neil Barnett then, unexpectedly I thought, announced that John Terry wanted to say a few words. I remembered JT’s rousing speech after the last game of the season against Blackburn Rovers before Munich in 2012. That was good, but this one was one for the ages.

He praised Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City for their deserved title win.

“I’m delighted Leicester have won it and I’m just glad Tottenham haven’t.”

He thanked us for our support in such a difficult season.

In many respects, at this stage this seemed like a “goodbye speech.”

He thanked us for sticking with us “frew the fick and the fin.”

“We’ll be back next year and we’ll be fighting for the title.”

This was music to my ears, the use of “we” and the notion that he would be with us.

With a new manager, new to the English game, having JT as a “bridge” between the old and new regimes would be priceless.

He thanked us for our support in an emotional few weeks.

His voice croaking now.

Oh boy.

I felt the emotion.

I looked up at the TV screen and he was holding back some tears.

He thanked Guus Hiddink, almost the forgotten man in all of this, and much applause from the fans.

“A great man.”

He praised the first team staff.

The crowd responded : “John Terry, we want you to stay.”

He then – his voice croaking a little more and I turned to one side, almost croaking too – said that the club and him wanted the same thing.

“I wanna stay. The club know that. The fans know that.”

There were words for the young boys, for Tammy, for Ruben, and then a few more words of thanks.

“Blue Is The Colour” began booming.

I watched, now confused beyond belief, wondering if John Terry would be playing for us again or not. For all of the positive words, the cynical me still wasn’t sure. I walked to an exit, but stood mesmerized, unable to leave Stamford Bridge, as I watched the man with the white training jersey shake hands with a few last well-wishers and then disappear down the tunnel.

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Tales From A Long And Winding Road.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2016.

There was a moment, not long in to the trip north, when the heavens opened and a spell of intense rain fell. The sky darkened, to an almost surreal dark green hue, and the light diminished. The spray from the cars ahead made visibility a struggle. I heaved a heavy sigh. After the second-half slow-down, and eventual capitulation at Sunderland, I had already made it quite clear that I was not relishing the long trek up to Liverpool for a Wednesday night game. I had picked up an annoying cough since just before the weekend, and as I battled the rain and the spray and the darkness, I kept barking every few minutes. There was a hint of a headache. I was not in a good place. If the rain continued on, this would surely turn out to be one of the most tedious away trips of them all.

I had taken a half-day holiday, and alongside me were Young Jake and Old Parky. They could both tell that I was getting stressed at the thought of another four hours on the road. Up on Merseyside, a few friends would be waiting for me. Jason had flown in to Liverpool from Dallas the day before, especially for the game, and I had managed to get him a ticket in the away end. It would be his first-ever Chelsea away match. If I was feeling sorry for myself a little, I was certainly feeling for him too. Let’s be honest, after our poor show at Sunderland, I think most Chelsea supporters – apart from those ridiculously optimistic ones, of which I know around four – were fearing the worst against a Liverpool team that, on their day, could shine. Jason would also be missing John Terry too, banished to some excruciating nether world. I was also mindful that our end might possibly be full of empty seats. I had memories of our 4-1 loss at Anfield on the Wednesday after we beat them in the 2012 Cup Final, when our end had swathes of empty seats. Our end was maybe only half-full. As far as first away games went, for Jason this could well be a most rotten one.

Thankfully – and I really was thankful – at around Cheltenham, the sky miraculously cleared and the sun eventually started to burn its way through the layers of foggy cloud.

By the time I had reached Birmingham, the day was turning out to be very pleasant.

I had become suddenly, yawningly, tired though. At Hilton Park Services, just out of Walsall, I decided to have a thirty-minute power nap. Jake and Parky were banished into the services as I reclined the seat. I closed my eyes. I was away. Only my bloody coughing woke me. Feeling instantly refreshed, I made light work of the remaining ninety miles or so. These away trips can be so tiring. Thankfully, I was pencilled in to do a late shift starting at 2pm on the Thursday; there would be no doubt that I would be sleeping for England once I would eventually return.

We were parked up near Albert Dock at just after 4.30pm, some five hours after I left work in Melksham. We met up with an excited Jason at a bar adjacent to “The Beatles Story” in the Albert Dock complex. I last saw him when he came over for a game in SW6 in 2013. He was having a fine time in Liverpool; he had popped up to have a look around Goodison Park on the Tuesday. This was the same bar that we chose for pre-match beers before the Everton cup game; it serves excellent Warsteiner lager.

“Four pints please.”

As at Everton, we were joined by Kim and Eddie, and it was lovely to see them both again. As before, music and football dominated the chat. We spoke about places for Jason to visit on the Thursday, and a few ideas were suggested. We chatted about The Beatles. Eddie was rather taken aback when it transpired that the five of us – Kim, Parky, Jake, Jason and myself – were not really fans of Britain’s greatest ever pop band. Coming from Merseyside, and a musician himself, his astonishment was real.

What a tragedy. What a mystery.

Time was moving on and I wanted to make sure that I was parked-up in good time. I wanted to make sure that Jason wasn’t rushed on his first visit to Anfield, and – more importantly – got to squeeze as much as possible into his two hours with the Chelsea hard-core.

Our walk through a housing estate would have caused me a severe anxiety attack back in the ‘eighties, but there was thankfully no antagonism or nastiness from any loitering youths. Strangely enough, we found ourselves on Robson Street, near the very bus stop that I had first alighted at Anfield on my first trip in May 1985, over thirty-one years ago. I easily remembered walking down the terraced road, with the almost mystical Kop at the bottom of the street. In 1984/1985, I only went to five away games due to finances, and the visit to Anfield was one of the highlights for sure. Liverpool were European Champions in 1984 and reigning League Champions too. They were in their pomp. Growing up as a child in the ‘seventies, and well before Chelsea fans grew tired of Liverpool’s cries of history, there were few stadia which enthralled me more than Anfield, with The Kop a beguiling wall of noise.

No gangways on The Kop, just bodies. A swaying mass of humanity.

Heading up to Liverpool, on an early-morning train from Stoke, I was excited and a little intimidated too. Catching a bus up to the stadium outside Lime Street was probably the nearest that I came to a footballing “rite of passage” in 1985. I was not conned into believing the media’s take that Scousers were loveable so-and-sos. I knew that Anfield could be a chilling away ground to visit. Famously, there was the “Cockneys Die” graffiti on the approach to Lime Street. My first real memory of Liverpool, the city, on that murky day over three decades ago was that I was shocked to see so many shops with blinds, or rather metal shutters, to stave off robberies. It was the first time that I had seen such.

The mean streets of Liverpool? You bet.

We walked down Venmore Street – I am adamant it was the same street I walked in 1985 – with the new main stand dominating Anfield. It will be a huge structure once completed, adding 10,000 more to the stadium’s capacity. There has been extensive housing clearance around the stadium for a while. Venmore Street has grassy areas now, and only The Albert pub underneath the new stand has been left standing, solitary, for ages, it’s terraced neighbours razed to the ground.

Back in 1985, the local scallies – flared cords and Puma trainers by the look of it, all very 1985 – were prowling as I took a photograph of the old Kop.

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Back in 1985, traveling down to Chelsea from Stoke, I was well aware of the schism taking place in the casual subculture at the time. Sportswear was giving way to a more bohemian look in the north-west – flares were back in for a season or two – but this look never caught on in London.

I always maintained that it was like this :

London football – “look smart.”

Liverpool and Manchester football – “look different.”

We walked around past The Kop – and mirrored the route that I undoubtedly took in 1985.

The Centenary Stand, in 2016, was the site of the Kemlyn Road Stand – complete with newly-arrived police horses – in 1985. You can almost smell the gloom. Note the mast of the SS Great Eastern, which still hosts a fluttering flag on match days to this day.

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We were now outside the site of the old away end at Anfield. Back in 1985, the turnstiles were housed in a wall which had shards of glass on the top to deter fans from gaining free entry. Note the Chelsea supporters’ coach and the Sergio Tacchini top.

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To complete this visit down memory lane, and to emphasise how bloody early I was on that Saturday morning in May 1985 – it was an 11.30am kick-off to deter excessive drinking and, ergo, hooliganism – here is a photograph of an empty, waiting, expectant Anfield. I guess that this photograph of the Chelsea squad in their suits was taken at an hour or so before kick-off. This is something we never see at games now; a Chelsea team inspecting the pitch before the game. I suspect that for many of the players, this would have been their first visit to Anfield too. Maybe that half-explains it.

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Incidentally, we lost that game at Anfield 4-3, but it was a fantastic Chelsea performance. The attendance, incidentally, was only 33,000 – way below capacity at the time. Maybe we should take to inquiring of the Scousers “Where were you when you were good?”

Inside the stadium, with the new upper tier peering over all, I was pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea fans were already in attendance. My worries of an embarrassingly small “take” were proving to be unfounded. In the concourse, I introduced Jason to a smattering of the loyalists. The mood among us was not great.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Hiddink had tweaked the team since Saturday.

Begovic – Baba, Mikel, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Traore.

Eddie, the Liverpool supporter – he has a season ticket in the Kemlyn, er Centenary Stand – was convinced that Klopp would put out a “B” team ahead of their Europa League Final, but it looked pretty strong to me. It included the England’s most boring international of recent memory, the plodding James Milner.

The Chelsea fans were assembled, and the home fans too.

Liverpool supporters always mock our plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, and they poke fun at our supposed plastic and manufactured atmosphere. Well, just before the teams came out on to the pitch, we were treated to “We Will Rock You” in an effort to get the locals energised and I rolled my eyes.

The teams.

Red.

Blue.

The atmosphere heightened.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I looked around. Familiar faces everywhere and not too many empty seats. A fantastic effort on a Wednesday night.

Liverpool, as they always seem to do at Anfield, began very brightly and that man Coutinho seemed to be everywhere. I really like him. He’s a fine player. We were immediately concerned about Baba’s waywardness – “Have you turned your GPS on Baba?” bellowed Alan – but through a mixture of poor finishing, and strong defending we survived the early onslaught. Sturridge was wasteful early on with a ridiculously high free-kick, and we loved that. We never really warmed to him at Chelsea, and since joining Liverpool, there has been no love lost. Soon into the game, we rounded on him.

“Chelsea reject.”

Rather than smile it off, he pulled a stern face, and encouraged us to sing up, waving his hands in mock encouragement. He was the target of our abuse for ages.

“Well this is going to end one of two ways” I laughed.

Begovic was particularly active, saving well, but many of their shots were right at our ‘keeper. A heavy touch from Firmino when through was met by howls of derision. Our goal was, if I am honest, living a rather charmed life. Chances from Lallana and Lovren were wasted. After around twenty minutes, we kept possession for a lovely spell, and seemed to get a foothold in the game, as so often happens at Anfield. We began to get Eden Hazard involved, and how he warmed to the task. He danced and weaved past defenders with ease and came close with a long shot that Mignolet saved. Our support was strong throughout the opening period, and grew noisier, while poking fun at the docile home fans.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

A blue flare was set off to my right, and the away end was filled with sulphurous fumes. I spotted a banner in praise of John Terry.

“Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up.”

We were on top now, and playing some lovely stuff. Matic was the Matic of old, breaking play up and moving the ball on. We grew stronger with every tackle won. What a Jekyl and Hyde season. Why were we not so fired up against Sunderland?

The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who waltzed out wide, and then exchanged a pass with Baba, before cutting in, like a slalom skier, and dancing past innumerable Liverpool defenders – I use the term with a little reticence, since none of them bothered to put in a tackle – and slotted home, the ball nestling just inside the far post

One-nil to Chelsea and The Kop go mild.

Fantastic. What a sublime goal. He’s having a goal of the season contest all to himself as this campaign closes. We celebrated wildly.

Ah, this game could turn out to be alright in the end.

Traore, full of running, but with a tendency to cut back on himself rather than push on, then came close to making it 2-0. Baba, playing better now after a shaky start, was in place to hack away after a timely block.

One-up at the break and time for a photo with Jason, who was watching right down the front.

At half-time, Star Wars paratroopers and a dance routine.

First, Queen and now Star Wars. This was turning into a “Room 101” evening for me.

Queen, shite, Star Wars, shite.

The second-half, with Chelsea attacking the loud and proud away fans, will be remembered by myself for the number of times that Eden Hazard, looking every inch, every centimetre, the player who so beguiled us last season, took flight and attacked the cowering Liverpool defenders. I brought my camera up to my eyes and captured several of his wonderful flights of fancy.

The puff of the cheeks, the body getting ready to explode with pace, the eyes wide open and in focus, the acceleration past a defender, the sudden stop, the change of direction, a feint, the move again, the flick, the touch, the energy.

It was truly mesmerising.

Baba of all people went close.

I thought of two mates in the US.

Steve, soon heading off to see a Liverpool vs. Chelsea pairing, of sorts, in Pennsylvania; Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole now team mates at LA Galaxy, playing at Philadelphia Union.

JR, his wife Erin expecting the birth of their first child and the birth very imminent. If we could hold on for an unexpected win, and the baby was born on Wednesday 11 May, maybe they might be tempted to name the baby Eden.

Sturridge was having a ‘mare in front of The Kop. Maybe we had got to him after all.

This was turning into a great game of football. We broke at will on a few more occasions, and Pedro – the latest of our masked men – should have done better on two occasions.

Mikel was coolness personified as he chested down a cross before releasing a great ball out.

“Jon – Obi – Mikel” sang our support, with no hint of irony.

To be honest, there had not been the all-out songfest in praise of John Terry that some had perhaps expected.

Liverpool slowly clawed their way back, but the noise was quiet. I remembered my first visit to the same stadium in 1985. We had all been brought up on the notion of Anfield being red hot, but I remember coming away all those years ago being very underwhelmed.

Kenedy came on for a quiet, again, Willian. He began in a blaze of glory with a spectacular dribble, but faded.

News came through that Sunderland were beating Everton.

Newcastle United and Norwich City were no more.

The Chelsea choir were celebrating :

“He’s going down, he’s going down. Rafa’s going down.”

So much for my bloody cough. Despite the risk of irritating my throat further, I was joining in with all of the songs; there is no rationality to it, is there?

Baba blocked an on-target Coutinho effort.

Traore came close before being replaced by debutant Tammy Abraham. The play swayed from end to end, with both teams looking to score. Abraham, clean through, could not finish. Pedro was wasteful again. I was convinced that we would hang on for a win – for you, Jason, for you JR – but with extra-time being played, a cross from the Liverpool left was parried by Begovic, but we watched aghast as the ball fell for a Liverpool player to head home.

Bollocks.

At least it wasn’t Sturridge.

The Liverpool fans were now noisy as hell and I wondered where they had been all game. Of course the goal hurt, and I think our play definitely deserved a win, but I would have taken a draw before the game, as would many. I had thoroughly enjoyed the game. What a surprise. It had been a cracker. And Eden Hazard; at times, unplayable.

Outside in the concourse, we said our goodbyes.

Parky, Jake and I walked back to the waiting car, at the top of the hill, equidistant between the two football cathedrals of Goodison and Anfield. Out onto the East Lancs road, around the city and the long trip south.

And it was a long trip south. We were diverted off the M6 on two separate occasions, and I took a silly error-ridden detour through Birmingham city centre. It was a proper Chelsea-themed magical mystery tour.

The evening’s game at Anfield would represent only the second time in my life that I had completed all away league games in a single season.

Nineteen out of nineteen.

I did it in 2008/2009 and I have done it in 2015/2016.

I dropped the lads off, feeling so tired now, driving on auto-pilot. This long and winding road – The Away Club 2015/2016 – finally ended as I turned into my drive at 3.45am on Thursday.

It was time to sleep.

 

For Harrison Patrick Lotto, future Chelsea supporter, born 12 May 2016.

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Tales From Tyne And Wear.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 7 May 2016.

The four of us were in town. I had traveled up from the West of England with PD and Parky. Kev had traveled down by train from Edinburgh. The plan was to enjoy a little pub crawl in Newcastle, where we would be staying that night, before heading off by metro to the game in Sunderland. First up – my choice – was “The Strawberry” right outside the Gallowgate End at St. James’ Park. Away fans rarely get a look in on match days, hence my desire to visit it on this particular day. What a fantastic pub; small and cosy, with Newcastle United photographs and memorabilia on every wall. We continued our little trip, heading down the hill towards the station, and called into “Rosie’s Bar” and then “The Mile Castle.”

We bumped into a few Chelsea fans at the train station, then grew frustrated as our journey was delayed by a slow-moving train.

“Don’t think we’ll make the kick-off, boys.”

The walk from the Stadium of Light metro station to the ground took around ten minutes. We found ourselves walking through the alleyways between red-bricked terraced streets. The white steel supports of the Stadium of Light were shrouded in mist. It might have been May, but it seemed like the month of November. There was no time to waste. We could hear the crowd’s muffled sounds from inside the stadium’s white casing. Deep inside there was a voice begging Chelsea not to score until we were in. It was a deep irony that even though I had been awake before the alarm at 3.40am, I would still miss the bloody kick-off. The eight or ten flights of stairs were eventually navigated and – deep breaths – we were in. I glanced up a TV screen inside the concourse. We had missed just eight minutes.

Phew.

I am a very rare visitor to Sunderland. I never ever made it to Roker Park. This would only be my third visit to the Stadium of Light. My first visit was in 1999, when a Kevin Phillips hat-trick helped inflict a 4-1 defeat on the boys. In 2009, the last game of the season, we won 3-2 in a game which brought me a fair bit of pride at the time; it marked the first time that I had watched all thirty-eight league games, home and away, the full set. On that day, while we were battling Sunderland, their fierce local rivals Newcastle United were losing at Aston Villa, a result which relegated the Geordies. I can well remember the home fans booming with joy when they heard the Newcastle result. Damian Duff, if I am not mistaken, assisted in the loss, scoring an own goal.

In 2016, seven years on, fate had transpired to replicate the set of fixtures.

Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea.

The joke during the week had been that Chelsea would win at Sunderland, Newcastle would win at Villa – of course – and we would get back to a jubilant Newcastle town centre, where friendly locals would buy us drinks all night.

That was the idea.

Before these two twin games, we heard that Norwich City – the other protagonists attempting to avoid the relegation trap door – had narrowly lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United. I wasn’t exactly sure of how that left things. At one stage it appeared that our weekend on Tyne and Wear might well be a “so long farewell” to the region’s two teams. Now, with Norwich looking unlikely to avoid the drop, the script had further changed.

I shuffled along the row to stand beside Alan and Gary, with Parky soon joining me. Our away end seemed pretty full. It was a good showing. In the previous two visits, the away section was in the southern end; the single tier. In 1999, to the left, in 2009, to the right. Since then, shades of St. James’ Park, the away crowd has been banished to an upper tier, behind the goal to the north. It was a fine view to be fair. The crowd was virtually a sell-out. A few pockets of empty seats around and about, but a good show by the locals.

Sunderland in their famous red and white stripes, black shorts and black socks.

Chelsea – keeping it simple – in the traditional blue, blue, white.

Time to quickly scan the starting eleven.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana – Matic, Mikel – Willian, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

In 2014/2015, this would have been regarded as our strongest starting eleven. This season, we have been wondering why the same eleven have rarely showed up en masse. What a year it has been.

Just as I was settling, getting my bearings, warming up my vocal chords, we pushed deep in to the Sunderland box, and Diego Costa picked up a loose ball down below us. An instinctive shot at goal – one touch – had Mannone beaten. As easy as that, we were 1-0 up.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

How nice of the boys to wait until we had settled in before scoring.

The game opened up a little, with Chelsea in the ascendancy, but there were a number of half-chances for both teams. Ivanovic zipped a low cross right the way past the goal, but there was no Chelsea body close enough to convert. Down at the far end, the Chelsea defence was well-marshaled by John Terry, and Courtois was able to gather any high balls lofted towards him.

However, a free-kick was not sufficiently cleared, and it fell to USPA (Unknown Sunderland Player A). Although a long way out, USPA steadied himself, and took a swipe at the ball. We watched mesmerised as the ball flew into the Chelsea goal.

Bloody hell. What a goal. I didn’t applaud it, but I felt like doing so.

“Cracking goal. The way he kept it down.”

It brought me no satisfaction to see USPA – Wahbi Khazri, I think I prefer USPA – celebrate with the home fans, who hadn’t been as loud as I had expected until then. It ignited them, but we were soon back on top. Just a few minutes later – deep in to injury time in fact – Sunderland’s defenders were at sixes and sevens, allowing Dave to set up Matic. He had not had a great first-half, in the same way that he has not had a great season, so it was odd to see him calmly advance and slot home. We celebrated wildly, while he was mobbed by his team mates below us.

Phew. We rode our luck a bit, but in we went at the break.

2-1 up.

Those free drinks back in The Toon were on my mind.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, it was 0-0 at Villa Park.

We began the second-half in relatively fine fettle. We dominated possession, and looked at ease. However, time and time again, we seemed intent on taking one extra touch, and one extra touch especially in front of goal. We were getting behind the Sunderland defensive line, and creating a few chances. Hazard seemed to be full of tricks, and set up Diego Costa, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Another lovely move, reminiscent of our play from last season, involving Hazard and Fabregas, and then Diego Costa, had us all on our feet, expecting a goal.

It went something like this.

Eden Hazard.

Pass.

Cesc Fabregas.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Pass.

Diego Costa.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Shot.

Smothered by Mannone.

“Bollocks.”

Although I was stood in the first half, now I was sat, resting my feet. It had been a long old day. I had already been awake for more than twelve hours. I was awake before the alarm sounded, and awake even before the dawn chorus. Our early-morning flight from Bristol to Newcastle seemed ages ago. Our singing wasn’t great as the game went on. There was one song which dominated, and – if I am honest – it is starting to annoy me a little.

Frank Lampard. Two hundred. West Ham United.

Sunderland weren’t giving up, and they grew stronger. I noticed that Branislav Ivanovic was on the floor on the half-way line, and it was easy to spot that a few Chelsea players were distracted. As the move developed I sensed fear. Patrick Van Aanholt – when he first broke in to our team, I rated him more than Ryan Bertrand – was able to pull the ball back for Fabio Borini – another former Chelsea player – to strike. Courtois, not exactly flavour of the month in the away section, seemed to react slowly, and the ball half-heartedly, apologetically, squeezed past his late dive.

2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Hiddink replaced Ivanovic with Baba Rahman, with Azpilicueta switching to right back.

Within a few seconds, we were all regretting the substitution. A rash, poorly-timed challenge by Baba, set USPB – DeAndre Yedlin –  up to cross from the right. We again sensed fear. A deflection set the ball up perfectly for Jermaine Defoe to smack home.

The Stadium of Light boomed. I watched as the folks sitting in the front row of the main stand to my right– plus those on the Sunderland bench – jumped to their feet and raced a few yards ahead, energised and electrified. I knew how they felt. On Monday, we had felt the same against Tottenham.

Hiddink replaced a very quiet Willian with Oscar, and Mikel with Traore. We still kept pressing, but a goal never ever seemed likely. Baba continued to make hopeless, ill-timed challenges. I want him to do well, but he looks so green it hurts. Our play stalled. We lost all drive. The mood among the away support was deteriorating with every minute. Bloody hell, Chelsea.

Things would get worse still.

I had missed Gary Cahill’s booking in the first minute.

I witnessed John Terry’s booking on the eighty-seventh minute.

As yet another Chelsea attack looked like petering out, the ball was cleared and was bouncing in no man’s land on the halfway line. I saw John Terry racing towards the ball, along with Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson. My thoughts were this :

“Good on you John. At least you care. Good to see you trying your damnedest to keep the ball alive, to keep the ball in our possession, go on my son!”

Both players leapt for the ball, both legs were high. My honest appraisal at the time was this :

“50/50 ball. Maybe our free-kick.”

Both players stayed on the floor.

My next thought.

“Not like JT to stay down. God, hope his Chelsea career hasn’t ended right there.”

I then saw referee Mike Jones brandishing a yellow card at John Terry, scrambling to his feet, and then – the enormity of it all – a red card.”

Oh no.

Thoughts whizzed through my head.

There had been no news about a contract extension over the past few months. The silence had been deafening. No news from the club. No news from Antonio Conte. No hint of another year. Silence. Damned silence.

A red card. A two game ban?

That’s it.

We had – surely – just witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for Chelsea Football Club.

I watched through my telephoto lens as he walked, stony-faced, past Hiddink and down the tunnel.

Photograph one.

Photograph two.

No more.

No more John Terry.

My heart sank.

The game ran its course. It was a horrible loss. After the euphoria of the draw against Tottenham on Monday – football at its best, Chelsea at our best – we stood disbelieving at the lack-lustre show from the team in the second-half. Outside, with the wind bitterly biting at us from all directions, we met up, and began a slow march in to Sunderland town centre. Alan and Gary were due to catch the subsidized Chelsea special back to London at 6.45pm, so we decided to share a couple of pints with them in a central pub. Sunderland fans, of course, were boiling over with joy. We edged past the lovely statue of Bob Stokoe – Wembley 1973 – and then out on to the main road. The bridge over the River Wear, a poor man’s version of the grander one over the Tyne, was shrouded in mist. Whereas Newcastle is a grand city in every sense of the word – architecturally pleasing, an iconic and photogenic setting on that deep gorge, with fine shopping, nightlife, attractions – Sunderland pales by comparison. Its town centre resembles a ghost town. It is no wonder Geordies look down their collective civic noses at their near neighbours.

Inside “The William Jameson”, we raised pints to John Terry.

Reports came through of him throwing his armband down, of a two game ban, of this being his last game.

How typical of this mess of a season. It was the perfect metaphor for the campaign. And how typical for John Terry too. Undoubtedly he has enjoyed a wonderful career at Chelsea; a fantastic leader, a respected captain, and well honoured in his time at Stamford Bridge. And yet. And yet. John missed our most famous game – Munich 2012 – due to an indiscretion in Camp Nou. He missed the Europa League Final too. His most famous moment, in some circles, was the infamous slip in Moscow. It has not been a career without blemishes. There have been indiscretions. And how typical, how Terryesque, that his Chelsea career would end with a sending off. There would not even be a grand finale at Stamford Bridge against Leicester City.

Bloody hell.

Newcastle had only managed a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. Sunderland were now in the ascendency. A win for them against Everton on Wednesday would keep them up.

All of a sudden, I wanted the season to end. The trip to Anfield on Wednesday hardly enthused me; it would surely prove to be one of the least anticipated trips with Chelsea for ages. There would be the bittersweet last game of the season against the new champions, but I was ready for the summer.

We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed back in to Newcastle. There were laughs on the return journey, and the four of us were soon enjoying pints in a number of town centre pubs. Newcastle is such a fantastic city that our poor loss against Sunderland soon drifted away from our collective thoughts. “The Bridge Hotel” overlooking the river, and live action on the TV of Leicester City’s celebrations. “Akenside Traders” and an ‘eighties sing-song, and some Burnley fans celebrating a promotion. A quiet pint in the “Pitcher & Piano” overlooking the floodlit Millennium Bridge. Then up in to town and yet more drinks at “Sam Jack’s” and laughs with a few Chelsea fans out on the town. Then down to “The Rose & Crown”, with a karaoke, and a chat with a Leicester City fan – so happy – and a Brighton fan – so low after only a draw at ‘Boro. The lagers gave way to gin and tonics. Our chats became blurred. After a day in Tyne and Wear, we were getting a little tired and weary. The night continued but there were no free drinks for us Chelsea fans this time. In fact, I think I bought the Leicester City fan a drink, but it’s all a bit hazy.

Ah, the madness of a night on the toon.

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Tales From A Theatre Of Hate.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 2 May 2016.

Hate. It’s a strong word, isn’t it?

I would like to think that I try not to use it too often in my day to day life. I’d like to think that I manage to scrabble around and use alternatives if I can. It’s not a nice word. I would imagine that at some time or another, especially as children, either in the presence of parents or schoolteachers, we were all scolded for using the word “hate” at one time or another.

“Please don’t use that word.”

It’s ugly, but yet overused.

It seems to be especially overused within sport, and football, in particular. Rangers hate Celtic, City hate Rovers, Swansea hate Cardiff, Liverpool hate United, Villa hate Blues, Pompey hate Saints, Millwall hate everyone. Further afield, Toro hate Juve, Real hate Barca, PSG hate Marseilles and River Plate hate Boca Juniors.

Of course it is not a recent thing. Back in 1981, I remember buying an “I Hate West Ham” badge outside Stamford Bridge – I would imagine that my parents were not too impressed – and I can remember the glee of learning a previously unheard-of song aimed at Leeds United to the tune of “The Dam Busters” on The Benches in 1984, which involved that word. For the past twenty years we have been urged to stand up if we hate Tottenham.

Ah, Tottenham.

Of all the clubs that we meet on a regular basis, it seems that a sizeable number of Chelsea supporters have reserved an extra special portion of hate for that one club above all others. I am no different; I still rank them as the team and club that I dislike the most. There, I didn’t say it.

Dislike? Oh, I dislike them intently.

For the outsider, with maybe a distanced and more objective view, perhaps this loathing is seen as surprising. Chelsea Football Club has, after all, undergone such a rich period of dominance over Tottenham since the late ‘eighties, that it might be argued that our disdain for them needs to subside, to wane, to fall.

Prior to the game with Tottenham on Monday 2 May 2016, Chelsea had not lost to them at Stamford Bridge in the league since February 1990.

Twenty-five games unbeaten.

A quarter of a century of dominance.

“Dad, what was it like the last time Spurs won at Chelsea?”

“I don’t know son. Ask your grandfather.”

There are other gems too.

Since losing 1-0 at White Hart Lane in 1987, Chelsea remained unbeaten against Tottenham in all games, all venues, all competitions, until a loss at their stadium in the League Cup in 2002.

That’s over fifteen years of dominance; I think it topped out at around thirty-two games all told.

From 1987 to 2006, we were unbeaten in the league at White Hart Lane.

Nineteen years.

We beat them 4-1 at White Hart Lane in the league in 1989.

We beat them 6-1 at White Hart Lane in the league in 1997.

We beat them 5-1 at Wembley in 2012.

We single-handedly robbed them of a Champions League place in 2012.

We beat them 2-0 at Wembley in 2015.

Dominance ain’t the word for it.

(For a matter of balance, I should mention two painful Tottenham triumphs that simply do nothing more than re-emphasise our ascendency; apart from that 5-1 loss in the League Cup in 2002, there was the 2-1 League Cup Final defeat in 2008 and the 5-3 loss at their place on New Year’s Day 2015. There have been recent losses too but those stand out. Big deal, right?)

In fact – since I am enjoying this so much – I should further elaborate on the Stamford Bridge record since 1990; it had actually reached twenty-eight games, since there were two draws in each of the domestic cups and one win in the League Cup too.

So : twenty-eight games unbeaten in all games against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Monday 2 May, we were praying for the run to stretch to game twenty-nine.

On any other normal evening of a Chelsea vs. Tottenham game, the narrative would end right there. This year – this crazy season – there were other weightier concerns.

If we were to avoid defeat to Tottenham, then Leicester City would become champions of England, since Tottenham – of all teams – needed all three points to stay in contention.

It’s almost too difficult for me to cram every subplot in, but there were stories swirling around this match that almost defy description.

Leicester City, managed by former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, whose 2-1 victory at the King Power Stadium in December proved to be Jose Mourinho’s last game for Chelsea.

Claudio Ranieri, with whom the Chelsea crowd fell in love from 2000 to 2004, but who was unceremoniously replaced by Jose Mourinho after Roman Abramovich’s first season as owner of the club.

A night of ecstasy and perhaps a degree of revenge for Claudio?

Tottenham Hotspur, enjoying a fine season – I hate writing that for sure – with a title bid – and that – with just three games left to play; still in the hunt and looking for their first win at The Bridge since the days of Paul Gascoigne, James T-shirts, baggy jeans and baggier hairstyles.

Chelsea, trying to salvage a little lost pride in a catastrophe of a season, with one huge effort.

“They must not win.”

At Bournemouth, we pleaded with the players to beat Tottenham.

In reality, most of us would be grateful for a draw.

On the drive up in the car, we all agreed.

“A draw. I’d take a 0-0 now.”

We reached the pub at around 5pm, and for the first time for ages and ages, there were a few policemen outside. Once we were inside, and once we had met up with all the usual suspects, we wanted to know what was occurring. Where were Tottenham? Had they turned up en masse? Were they drinking at Earl’s Court? Were they staying there, at arm’s length? It was soon apparent, as I scanned the surprisingly quiet pub, that the evening’s game had enticed a few faces of Chelsea’s older hooligan element out. There was no hint of trouble though. Maybe they were a peace-keeping force, rather than aggressors, protecting a few pubs which might have been under risk of attack. Whatever, it was quiet. If there were nerves concerning the game, nobody was showing signs of it. I chatted with Kathryn and Tim, visiting from Virginia, while we half-heartedly glanced at the Burnley game on the TV screen. I first met Kathryn and Tim on the US Tour in 2012, and they were besides themselves with joy at the thought of witnessing a proper London derby.

“Just think of the millions, no billions, of people who will be watching this game around the world, and we will be lucky enough to be inside.”

Burnley won, and were up. I was pleased. I will be visiting Turf Moor, under happier circumstances than three weeks ago, once again next season.

The team news came through; the headline was that John Terry was in.

Superb.

The pub got busier and busier and then, after 7pm, fans began to leave to head off to the stadium. There were plenty of laughs as we strode down the North End Road, with a police car’s siren screaming in the distance.

“By the time you see me next, Kathryn” said Parky “I will have had a hip operation and I’ll be fighting fit.”

“I heard you’re getting a wooden leg fitted, Parky” someone said.

“Yeah, like his wallet” I replied.

Inside the stadium, there was a great sense of occasion. It is probably a cliché, but it certainly felt like a European night.

A Liverpool, a Barcelona, a Monaco, an Atletico Madrid.

Three thousand Spurs fans were in residence in the far corner. There was one poxy flag, presumably aimed at Arsenal.

“Tottenham Hotspur.

1 Cup First.

1 League First.

1 Double First.

1 Euro Trophy First.

1 Team From North London.”

It was a mild night and a perfect night for football. The nerves were starting to bite now, though. Although the addition of John Terry to our team – his first game since West Ham I believe – a few other changes caused a raised eyebrow.

Asmir Begovic in. Thibaut has his Charles de Gaulle impersonation classes on Mondays.

Gary Cahill in. Alongside JT. The old one-two. Need to watch Kane.

Dave and Brana. Solid.

Mikel and Matic. A defensive shield.

No Eden Hazard. Why? Instead a three of Willian, Fabregas and Pedro.

Diego. Phew.

The stage was set. Hardly an empty seat anywhere.

The world was watching.

They were watching in Bangkok, in Calcutta, in Los Angeles, in Milan, in Oslo, in Glasgow.

They were also, most certainly, watching in Barrow Upon Soar, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Hinckley, Coalville, Market Harborough.

And Leicester.

The noise was fantastic. Spurs were leading with their dirge-like “Oh….when…the…Spurs” and we were singing songs about Willian, air flights, phone calls, John Terry, and doubles.

Spurs began better, but we then had a little spell where we looked to have the upper hand. Such is the way of football these days, with teams likely to have five and ten minute segments of possession, rather than the midfield stalemate with tackle after tackle, which epitomised the football of my youth, with goal scoring chances often the result of punts up field. The art of football these days is generally more controlled, more clinical, more restrained.

It’s all about making that possession count.

Soon into the game, and after the opposition began getting an upper hand, Kyle Walker scythed down Pedro, but Mark Clattenburg waved play on. Azpilicueta raced forward, but a Fabregas shot was wide. Thankfully, Clattenburg went back to book Walker, who was roundly booed the rest of the half. This was turning into a feisty game. Chances were at a premium. Tottenham now appeared to be in control. Sadly, on thirty-five minutes, our fears materialised. Pedro, tapping away at the ball, trying his best to keep possession, was roughly dispossessed – unlawfully in Alan and my eyes – and the ball was worked forward towards that mane Kane. One touch took him past Begovic, but from my seat, I thought that our ‘keeper had managed to claw it away. Alas not. Kane – he was always my biggest fear – side-stepped Begovic and slotted the ball home.

Chelsea 0 Tottenham 1.

Now it wasn’t about Leicester City, it was about us.

Things got worse.

Only a block by Gary Cahill denied Spurs a second goal. Around me, our noise fell away.

Just before the break, Ivanovic, playing high, lost possession and Eriksen fed in Son. This was ominous. We watched, silently, as the Spurs player swept the ball in. In immediate view, the Spurs fans were sent into a frenzy.

Hate.

Chelsea 0 Tottenham 2.

At half-time, I witnessed some of the longest faces that I have seen at football for some time.

No words.

As I made my way back to my seat at the start of the second period, it took me a few moments to realise that Eden Hazard had replaced Pedro. Unlucky, I thought, that. Pedro had offered a little extra zip in the first-half.

Both Alan and myself would have taken off the poor Matic, moved Fabregas back, and played Pedro, Willian and Hazard together.

Still, what do I know?

I’m serious.

Eden breathed life into our play with his very first shimmy and gallop forward – oh, how we have missed you – and the crowd, so low at the break, reacted spectacularly.

“Just one goal, Al.”

The Tottenham players continued to commit their very own version of the seven deadly sins on our players and the cautions mounted up. This added to our noise and our passion. This added to the heat. And it added to the hate. With every passing minute, the temperature inside Stamford Bridge rose. I found myself standing for most of the second-half, something that I haven’t done at home for ages.

Nerves? You bet.

The noise was bellowing around Stamford Bridge.

Just before the hour mark, Willian played in a deep corner. For once, Tottenham could not clear. I clicked my camera just before Gary Cahill swiped at the ball, and we were lost in ecstasy as we saw the back of the net crumple on impact.

Screams, shouts, wildness.

Chelsea 1 Tottenham 2.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Now, the noise really increased. I am sure that I am not exaggerating by saying that it matched anything I have ever heard at Chelsea in over forty years. I cannot remember a noisier half of football, or a more sustained barrage of noise. People talk of Bruges at home in 1995, and that was loud.

But this was deafening.

“CAREFREE.”

I became mesmerised by the clock.

“Thirty minutes to go yet.”

A few chances to us. It felt odd to see us attacking The Shed in the second-half. Kathryn and Tim, not too far from Parky, in The Shed, were surely lapping this up.

More chances.

Hazard like a slippery little eel, twisting and turning, now up for the fight.

“Fifteen minutes to go.”

Oscar replaced Matic. I approved, but we needed the little Brazilian to show some fight, some mettle. He did not let us down.

The noise continued.

“Ten minutes to go.”

We still dominated. What a recovery.

“Death or glory, Chelsea – get into the bastards.”

I thought back to that Iniesta goal in 2009. It tied the game at 1-1, and a similar strike – out of nowhere – would do the same, but the result would be just as emphatic.

The clock was ticking…

Another trademark twist and turn from Hazard – how does he spin so instantly? – drew breaths of amazement. He exchanged passes with Diego Costa, who had grown with the game, and met the return pass instantly.

We watched, our mouths open, our eyes wide, as the ball arced instantly past Loris and into the net.

BOOM.

Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2.

I grabbed hold of my glasses, painfully aware that I did not want another Munich 2012 moment, but then screamed, my arms wide, looking high into the night. I turned and exchanged screams with the lads behind me. A chest bump and then an embrace with Alan.

The place was bumping.

Oh my.

There had been seven minutes left before Hazard struck. Not exactly Iniesta territory, but not far away.

The last seven minutes of normal time, and the last six minutes of extra time are a blur. It is hardly surprising. Tottenham looked crestfallen. Their cock had fallen off their ball. The noise roared around The Bridge. For the last few minutes, my eyes on the game and then on my phone, I prepared a message to send out at the final whistle.

We had one last song for our foes, screamed with such venom.

“Two-nil, and you fucked it up.”

More Tottenham bookings followed. With each one, I could hardly believe that a new player had been booked. How Tottenham did not have a player sent off is a fucking mystery.

At 9.55pm, Mark Clattenburg whistled the end of the game and I pressed “post” on Facebook.

“Congratulations Leicester City. Congratulations Claudio. Tottenham Always The Bridesmaid. Twenty-Six Years. See You All At Sunderland On Saturday.”

It is easy to get complacent about football, and to take for granted what people like me get to witness on a yearly, monthly or – if we are lucky – a weekly basis, but at the end of this particular game of football involving two bitter rivals, sometimes it is just enough to stand back, exhausted, breathless, bewildered, and be grateful that football can send us into such states of joy and ecstasy.

Football. Bloody fucking hell.

The smiles were wide as we said our goodbyes.

Exiting the stairs, three of us tried to squeeze in the syllables of Claudio Ranieri into a song in honour of Leicester City’s magnificent achievement. Out into the night, the joy was palpable. It seemed like a win. It seemed – even – better than last season’s League Cup Final win against the same team.

Oh boy.

In years to come, this game will be remembered as the iconic moment of this most ridiculous of seasons.

2015/2016 : what a crazy bloody hateful mess.

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Tales From A Stroll In The Dorset Sun.

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 23 April 2016.

As I was chatting to a few good friends outside the entrance to the away stand at Bournemouth’s neat and tidy Vitality Stadium, I made a comment about our priorities for the remaining five games of the season.

“You know what, I could even forgive them for the last two games if they were saving themselves for Tottenham.”

It was said semi-seriously, maybe part in jest, but it made more sense the more that I thought about it. United might have Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, but Chelsea will be overdosing in Schadenfreude should we royally bugger up Tottenham’s bid for the title at Stamford Bridge on Bank Holiday Monday.

In this craziest of seasons, I was looking for a huge crumb of comfort.

The match at Bournemouth was always going to be a very special highlight of this 2015/2016 season. In the same way that the Chelsea faithful were relishing a beano to Blackpool in 2010/2011, but were then let down with a Monday evening game in March, this was an away game for all to anticipate with relish. That the footballing Gods gave us a trip to Bournemouth in April, on St. George’s Day no less, just seemed too good to be true. While others booked up hotels for the weekend, and hoped and prayed for match tickets to materialise, the Fun Boy Four purchased train tickets, arriving via Southampton in Bournemouth at 11am, and waited expectantly. This was going to be a brilliant day in the sun.

And then things went awry.

For the second successive Saturday morning, fate contrived that I had to work.

Bollocks. No pre-match giggles for me.

Thankfully the journey to Bournemouth is only an hour and a half and I would hopefully be away by 12.30pm. However, the last thing that I wanted was to get caught up in traffic, and get frustrated as I drove around in ever decreasing circles looking for a place to park. Thankfully, my pal Steve came to the rescue. He lives on the border between Poole and Bournemouth, and kindly suggested that I could park at his house and he would then drive me over to the stadium.

Job done.

I left work, thankfully, ahead of schedule at 11.45am. It had been a cold Friday, but Saturday broke with warmer weather, and on the drive south, the sun came out. This was going to be a cracking, albeit truncated, day out with the Champions.

My last visit to see a Chelsea game at Bournemouth was way back in 1994, when I witnessed a 1-0 win in the League Cup, back in the days when the early rounds were two-legged affairs. I watched alongside a visiting uncle from Australia, and one of his friends, in the home end. A Gavin Peacock goal gave us the win. In those days, the stadium was known as Dean Court. Today, it’s the Vitality Stadium, and although the new stadium is on the same site as Dean Court, the axis has been rotated 90%. I remembered it as a small, and tight stadium, and the new place is much the same.

My other previous visit was a personal low point in my days of following Chelsea Football Club. Back in 1988/89, with us newly relegated to the Second Division, I watched aghast from a particularly packed away terrace – with awful sightlines – as we lost 1-0 to Bournemouth, a team managed at the time by Harry Redknapp. I can still remember the solitary walk back to Pokesdown railway station after that game wondering where on earth my club was going. They were sobering times.

The gates at those two games were 8,763 in 1988 and 9,784 in 1994. The gate in 2016 would only be a few more thousand in number. I suspect that the Chelsea contingents in those two previous games were more than the miniscule allocation of 1,200 that we were given this season. This is ridiculously small, but it is in line with the league ruling. No wonder it was a hot ticket. With around 650 on the away scheme, there was only an extra 550 up for grabs for the rest.

Although, historically, Bournemouth was located in Hampshire, the 1974 boundary changes threw it in to the neighbouring county of Dorset. The area was well visited by myself in my childhood. There were day trips to the glorious beach at Sandbanks, now one of the most desirable locations in all of the United Kingdom – still home to Harry Redknapp – and two holidays in nearby Southbourne in 1979 and 1980. My father was born in Wareham, not more than fifteen miles to the west and many summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Purbeck. Although I am a native of Somerset, the area around Wareham is very close to me. It is a wonderful part of the world, with castles and beaches, country pubs, holiday parks, and perfect villages.

My drive south took me past some wonderfully named towns and villages : Longbridge Deverill, Melbury Abbas, Fontmell Magma, Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Sturminster Marshall, Lytchett Matravers.

Just out of range were my two favourite place names of all : Toller Porcorum and Piddletrenthide.

Dorset has all the best names.

It also has AFC Bournemouth, changed a while back for no other reason than being the first club in an alphabetical list of all ninety-two professional clubs in the football pyramid. Before that, they were called Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Only as recently as 2008/2009, the club was relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League and were in administration. Their recent rise has been mesmeric.

My aunt Julie, who lived all of her life in and around Bournemouth, played a major part in my recent Chelsea story. She kindly left me a sum of money in her will after she sadly passed away in 2004, and this enabled me to travel out to the US with Chelsea during that summer. Since then, my life has been enriched greatly after meeting many good people – Chelsea folk – from the US, and I owe a lot of this to dear Julie. She always spoke to me about Chelsea and would be pleased as punch to know that I was returning to her town to see the boys play her home-town team. I can remember how upset she was when it looked like Bournemouth might be relegated from the Football League back in the ‘nineties.

As I drove in to Bournemouth, if felt slightly odd that I was apart from my usual match day companions. They kept me updated with their progress though; they were having a blast.

Steve dropped me off at around 2pm, and it was great to be back in the tree-lined streets leading up to the small stadium, situated alongside other sporting grounds in the Kings Park. The slow walk to the stadium was an arboreal treat.

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I spotted a few Chelsea faces, and walked around the stadium, taking it all in. The locals were bedecked in red and black, and there was an expectant buzz in the air. Maybe I miss-read their smiles, but I think there was an air of “I can’t really believe we are playing Chelsea” in and around the stands.

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Everything was neat and tidy. For once, I bought a programme. Inside there was a facsimile of the 1994 edition. It seemed so old-fashioned in comparison to the fine production standards of the 2016 version. The sun was warming the air. A while back, the club changed their kit from all red to the red and black stripes of yesteryear, which were taken from the classic lines of the Milan kit. Outside the away stand, the club training facility was spotted, all sleek and modern, with Italian styling, like their own version of Milanello.

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On the red brick wall surrounding the northern boundary, keeping out the prying eyes of suburbia, there were large posters – evidently weather-resistant – of past teams and past eras. Bournemouth have certainly had their fair share of different kits over the years, but the red and black resonates throughout.

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Lastly, there was a nice remembrance of times past. The Jubilee Gates from 1960. The image conjured up potting sheds, Woodbines, the home service, The Goon Show, and men sitting in deckchairs on Boscombe beach wearing not only shirts, but ties too. Another era.

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Just before I entered the away turnstiles – how I love the click click click of those typically British contraptions – I will admit to being worried about the game ahead. This was just too nice a day, too nice a setting. It almost seemed like a pre-season friendly. Would we be fully focused? Would AFC Bournemouth hand us the A to Z on attacking and incisive football on this hazy day on the south coast? Hiddink had selected a strong team with Eden Hazard recalled, but there was surprisingly no room for Rueben Loftus-Cheek. Elsewhere, Jon Obi Mikel was preferred to the raw American Matt Miazga. Asmir Begovic replaced the suspended Courtois. Sadly there was no place for John Terry. One wonders if we will see him play again this season, and indeed if this season will indeed be his last in our colours. If fit, surely deserves a start against Tottenham.

I was half-expecting many of the Chelsea faithful to be stuck in the town centre as the kick-off approached, unable to coordinate the final leg of their match day plans. In the final twenty minutes, there was a late surge and most people were in. I met up with all the usual suspects. Everyone had had a blast in the busy town centre pubs. Bournemouth, with golden sands, high cliffs, sunken gardens, and white-faced hotels everywhere, is a very fine seaside resort.

Chelsea were playing in all white, and we had a great view of the action, along the side of the pitch, and with a similar vantage point as that cold night in Blackpool in 2011.

Bournemouth began marginally brighter, but we took the lead on only five minutes when a well-worked move, involving Hazard and Costa, found Fabregas. His fine forward pass, which dissected the centre-back and full back, found Pedro who adeptly lifted the ball over Artur Boruc. We were one-up, and it was time for Alan and myself to go through our Tommy Docherty-inspired celebration.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The game continued with some crisp passing from both sides, and with the Chelsea fans in good voice. All of that beer and cider had the desired effect. Joshua King wasted a good opportunity, slashing the ball over the bar, and Bournemouth then got the bit between their teeth, especially exposing our right flank. They had a few chances, and could easily have scored if their finishing had been better. A nice Chelsea move, again involving Fabregas, then picked out the previously quiet Hazard. He let fly with a speculative effort, which Boruc was unable to stop from reaching the net. It was – read it and weep – Hazard’s first league goal of the season. It was late April. Oh boy. However, the ‘keeper really should have done better. This was against the run of play to be honest. We were 2-0 up but Bournemouth were giving us a few moments of concern.

We spotted Cesc’s pink and yellow boots. It looked like he was wearing one of each.

“Rhubarb and custard” said Gary.

My pal Kevin was stood behind me and was talking to me about the bet that he had put on before the game.

“I got a bet that we’d win 3-0, so let’s see how this goes.”

In the very next two seconds, Elphick rose higher than anyone else and nodded a slow header past Begovic’ despairing dive.

I turned to Kev, smiling, as his betting slip became Chelsea Confetti.

“Ha. Perfect timing mate.”

Soon after, Bournemouth came close on two occasions, while Pedro skied a shot from a similar angle as the opening goal. I will be honest; we were lucky to be 2-1 up at the break.

After I returned to my seat alongside Glenn, Alan and Gary during the break, I could smell the sulphurous fumes of a flare which had evidently been let off by our support. The OB were swarming around, but there was no animosity anywhere.

As the second-half began, I was really pissed off to see so many empty seats in our section. So much for everyone wanting a ticket for Bournemouth. Immediately behind me, and right behind Kevin, there were around fifteen seats which had been vacated. Now, let’s get this straight. I acknowledge that going to football never has been “just” about the football and the pre-match and post-match drinks are as much a part of football culture as songs, pies, Adidas trainers, banter and boredom, but for fuck sake.

Leaving a Chelsea game at half-time?

Please fucking explain that to me.

Everyone likes a drink or two, but surely drinks could wait for forty-five minutes? The pubs would close in seven or eight hours’ time. Why the need to fuck off before 4pm? I especially thought of many good friends, and quite a few bad ones, who had missed out on a ticket for this game and would be watching on with a mixture of feelings from afar.

This was a very poor show.

Ironically, the absentees missed a much-improved performance from us in the second period. Diego Costa ran and ran, holding the ball well, challenging for the ball, leading the line well. Pedro was all hustle and bustle, a fine game from him. But the star was Cesc, teasing openings for our forwards, and looking at ease in the middle of all of our attacking plays.

There was a song or two for JT.

“John Terry – We Want You To Stay.”

“Sign Him up, Sign Him Up, Sign Him Up.”

Baba, seeing a lot of the ball in front of us, set up Matic who drilled a low ball across the box. Diego Costa stretched, but could not get enough of the ball. Stanislas curled a fine effort past Begovic’ far post, but we were hogging the ball, and threatening the home team at every opportunity.

Hazard skipped in to the box, but decided not to shoot – why? – and the chance went begging.

There was a little banter between the two sets of fans, but a song from us annoyed me.

AFC Bournemouth, a small club who almost went out of business not so long ago, and who exist on gates of 11,500, were being picked on by the mouthier elements of our support –

“Champions of England – you’ll never sing that.”

Again. Embarrassing.

Take the piss out of Tottenham, West Ham or the like with that song.

But not AFC bloody Bournemouth.

Kevin spoke about the embarrassing moment at Villa Park three weeks ago when the younger element of our support were taunting the home fans with “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.”

Equally embarrassing.

With twenty minutes remaining, that man Fabregas picked out Willian and our little Brazilian waited for the ‘keeper to advance before guiding the ball past him.

3-1, get in.

Costa played in Pedro, who attempted a cheeky bicycle kick. We were pouring forward now and the home fans were starting to head home. Then, the mood changed.

Out of nowhere, from behind me and to my right, came a new chant.

“Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham. Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham.”

I joined in.

I had to.

It summed up everything.

It begged a question of our team’s application. The perception was that we could play well if we felt like it. If we fancied it. If we were in the mood. Well, against Tottenham the players had better be in the mood. We have a twenty-six-year record to protect and, should Leicester City falter, we needed to extinguish Tottenham’s title hunt.

Ugh, even writing it.

”Tottenham’s title hunt.”

The noise was deafening, and it really developed when the play was over on our side of the pitch. There seemed an immediate schism between team and support; not something that I would normally advocate, but on this occasion, at this moment of time, at this stadium in Dorset, it seemed absolutely correct.

“Beat fucking Tottenham.”

And I immediately noticed the exact words used.

“You’d better beat Tottenham” and not “we’d better beat Tottenham.”

That divide. That gap. The supporters were laying everything at the feet of our under-performing players.

When Eden Hazard poked home a deserved fourth, the applause seamlessly merged into the same mantra.

I bet the players were thinking “oh, here they go again.”

They heard us. It would be hard for them not to. The players looked sheepish. Not one looked towards us.

The message was loud and clear.

Don’t let the club down on Monday 2 May.

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Tales From Lancashire And London.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 16 April 2016.

I was inside Stamford Bridge earlier than usual and it seemed to take ages to fill. There was one section, though, that would remain empty. Despite all of their recent successes, Manchester City were unable to fill the three thousand seats allotted to them. A large swathe of around six or seven hundred seats in the Shed Upper stayed empty. I’ve always had a grudging respect for City – especially when their supporters were tested in the lower divisions fifteen or more years ago  – but at times their current support is woeful. We always take three thousand to Manchester, except when there was a hastily re-arranged midweek game in 2012, and we too left five hundred unsold.

There was hardly a crackling atmosphere in the stadium beforehand. As kick-off grew nearer, the stands filled. There would be empty seats, but not many. I had managed to sort out two tickets for a couple of acquaintances – from the USA and Finland – in the West Upper, and I wondered what their match-day experience would be like. They would know what to expect though. Joni, formerly from Helsinki and now living in Austin, Texas, had watched from the whispering gallery before.

With about ten minutes to go before the game would kick-off at 5.30pm, Neil Barnett took to the microphone and said a few words regarding the sad loss of former midfielder Ian Britton. There was a black and white image of Ian on the large TV screen above the City fans in the far corner. I checked my match day programme, and indeed there was a small article regarding Ian’s death on page eleven. However, there had been considerable debate among the Chelsea support since Ian’s passing on 31 March, and rising disdain that black armbands were not worn at neither Villa Park nor the Liberty Stadium. It had transpired that the club had assisted Ian’s family financially with his care over the past few years, but there was still the feeling that the club had not acted quite correctly on the detail over the past two or three weeks.

As Neil finished his words, I joined in with a rousing show of remembrance for Ian, one of my most very favourite players. As the clapping died down, and the noise drifted away, it still felt that this was still not enough. There was talk of a minute’s applause on the seventh minute, but was that it? I wasn’t even sure if black armbands would be worn against City.

It still seemed a little disrespectful.

Ian Britton had played 289 games for Chelsea between 1972 and 1982. Someone had worked out that only thirty-three players had played more games for Chelsea Football Club than Ian Britton. Ian had played more games for us than Ray Wilkins. More games than Jimmy Greaves. More games than Tommy Baldwin. More games than Eidur Gudjohnsen.

At Ian Britton’s funeral it seemed that Chelsea had not done enough either.

It felt right that I should attend the funeral. I have often written about key moments in my life as a Chelsea supporter, and I have tried to piece together certain touchstones, or staging posts, along the timeline of my support of the club. Looking back, to my first game of March 1974, and the little article from “Shoot!” magazine that I carefully pinned to my bedroom wall featuring the dimpled smile of the young Dundonian, there is no doubt that I owed it to Ian Britton – and to the eight-year-old me – to attend Ian’s funeral. I have recently detailed why he meant so much to me, but to recap he was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1982. That was reason enough.

The funeral would take place at 3.30pm on Monday 11 April, meaning that it would be a long old day should I decide to drive up and back on the same day. Instead, I had other plans. On the Sunday, I drove up to Morecambe and stayed one night in The Midland Hotel, a recently renovated art deco masterpiece, looking out at Morecambe Bay. It felt odd that I would be enjoying the ambiance of a hotel that I have wanted to visit for years on one day, yet on the following day I would be paying my last respects to a hero of my youth. It felt strange. The highest high and the lowest low. On the Sunday evening, the western sky provided a magnificent panorama, with the sun setting across the bay. I raised a glass of “Peroni” to Ian Britton, as the sky turned from blue to orange, or maybe tangerine.

Chelsea blue, Dundee United tangerine.

“Bless you Ian.”

On the day of the funeral, I slowly edged along the seafront past the lovely statue of comedian Eric Morecambe, and headed south to Burnley. I was caught in a little traffic, but entered the grounds of Burnley Crematorium in good time. With around an hour to go before the funeral was due to start, people were already massing in the car park and outside the chapel. I quickly spotted Cathy and Dog, then Rodney, a fellow fan who I had not previously met in person, but who had very kindly kept in contact with me regarding the arrangements for the day.

On the lapel of my dark grey suit, I wore two badges.

Chelsea.

Dundee United.

The sun was out. There was a wind blowing. But it was a fine day.

Hundreds of Burnley fans had shown up in force. I spotted Brian Flynn, the former Burnley player. I had the briefest of chats with Neil Barnett, then a few words with a couple of Ian’s former Chelsea team mates.

There would be no official representation from Chelsea Football Club.

Just let that sink in one moment.

As we waited outside, more people arrived. More Burnley favours. I spoke to John Reilly, wearing a Dundee United scarf, who was a team mate of Ian during the 1982/1983 Scottish Championship winning team.

Ian’s team mates from the ‘seventies had done him proud.

Ray Wilkins, Graham Wilkins, Steve Finnieston, Clive Walker, David Stride, Tommy Langley, Kenny Swain, Garry Stanley, Paul Canoville. Chris Mears, the son of former chairman Brian, was also present.

And then, in the distance, the eerie lament of the bagpipes. The cortege had assembled outside Turf Moor at 3pm, where there is a lovely photograph of Ian Britton after scoring that goal in 1987 on a montage by the old stand wall, and it had now reached the leafy grounds of the cemetery. A row of black cars followed the hearse. Suddenly this all hit home. We were here to say goodbye.

I did not possess a ticket for the ceremony, so I chose to stay a respectful distance away from the cemetery and watched, silently, as the coffin was hoisted onto shoulders and in to the chapel. I bit back some tears and turned away, looking out at the bleak Lancashire hills.

Memories of that “Shoot!” clipping, memories of goals, memories of my childhood.

I turned back, and could not help but notice that some of the people that had previously been stood outside were walking towards the doors of the chapel. I wondered if there was room for a few more. Within a few seconds, I found myself standing at the rear of the chapel, alongside some heroes of my youth. I immediately felt a sense of guilt;

“Oh damn, I really shouldn’t be here.”

Outside there were hundreds, yet I was inside.

But I couldn’t leave. I was stood right next to Garry Stanley and Kenny Swain. I bowed my head.

The first few minutes belonged to “Blue Is The Colour.”

I silently mouthed the words.

The service lasted an hour and a quarter. It was a privilege to be present. There were a few wet eyes, I am sure, but it was an uplifting occasion. There was a photo – that photo from 1987, the most famous photo in the history of Burnley Football Club it seemed – at the front of the coffin. The funeral celebrant David Carson had been present at the Orient game in 1987. It gave the service a sense of authenticity.

Friends and family members shared memories of Ian. Throughout, his sense of humour and his positive attitude shone through. Ian’s great friend Mark Westwood told many stories of Ian’s early years at Chelsea. There was laughter as tales were shared. One episode gave me a wry chuckle. After a game at Luton Town, the Chelsea players were sat in the away dressing room, awaiting to catch the coach back to Stamford Bridge. Who should poke his head around the door, but comedian Eric Morecambe – yes, him again – and he immediately spotted young Ian Britton, who happened to be wearing a full length leather trench coat.

Morecambe quipped “are you standing up?”

This was met with laughter in the Luton dressing room in 1976 and in the Burnley crematorium in 2016. However, the comedian’s next line was better still.

“I’ve always wanted a full size leather wallet.”

Ian had won promotion with Chelsea in 1977, had won the Scottish Championship with Dundee United in 1983 and had scored the most important goal in the history of Burnley in 1987, but Ian had also been the butt of two Eric Morecambe jokes.

Life doesn’t get any better than that, sunshine.

Wonderful.

It was not a particularly religious ceremony and pop songs were played during the service.

“Day Dream Believer.”

Vicki Britton, Ian’s daughter-in-law, told stories of Ian’s devotion to his family and John Smith, a Burnley fan and close friend, really did a very fine job in sharing a lot of what made Ian so special. There were more laughs. It was a very nice ceremony.

“Saturday Night At The Movies.”

At the committal, we all stood. This is where it all got serious again.

Goodbye Ian.

“Simply The Best.”

After the service, we reassembled at Turf Moor, home of Burnley Football Club, where Ian had often been a guest on match days. His last appearance had only been a few weeks before he was admitted to the hospice where he spent the last couple of weeks. Hundreds were in attendance. I was able to chat, in a more relaxed fashion, with a few of Ian’s former team mates. I spoke briefly, my mouth suddenly dry, to Ian’s brother Billy and his son Callum. It was important that I passed on some personal thoughts. They were very grateful.

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I looked out at a quiet and silent Turf Moor, where I had enjoyed my one thousandth Chelsea game at the very start of last season. Who could possibly guess that I would be back so soon under wildly differing circumstances? There was a recollection, still vivid, of that pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle at the left-hand goal. It was the same goal where Ian Britton had scored against Orient in 1987.

There was clearly so much love for Ian Britton at Burnley Football Club. As we tucked in to a classic northern dish of meat and potato pie and mushy peas, the sense of place, of the club’s identity, really hit home. I think I have always had a little soft spot for Burnley – Leighton James, Brian Flynn – and I certainly hope that they get promoted this season so that I can pay a return visit to Ian Britton’s home for the past twenty-five years or more.

In a quiet corner, I spotted a small array of bouquets. In addition to one from Ian’s family, there was one from Burnley Football Club, there was one from Blackpool Football Club, there was one from Dundee United Football Club.

There was nothing from Chelsea Football Club.

Let that sink in too.

So, although Chelsea did the typical Chelsea thing of aiding Ian via financial support over the past few years – admirable, of course – they did not do other, smaller, respectful, subtle things on the day of the funeral.

Is that any surprise to anyone?

Chelsea flashing the cash, but fucking up the fine detail?

Not me.

Over the past few days leading up to the game with Manchester City, it had been a case of looking back at the past, assessing the present and anticipating the future. There had been Ian’s funeral and warm and fuzzy memories of the past when I had true admiration for my childhood idols. Those days seem distant. There had been a solemn appraisal of the current problems of the team, and with it the gnawing acknowledgement that I’d hardly like to spend much time in the company of too many of the current squad. I would even be pressed to name my current favourite Chelsea player if I was honest. There is, to coin that famous phrase from the goon Emenalo a “palpable discord” between the current players and myself. It would be too easy to class them all as pampered and cosseted mercenaries, but I find it increasingly hard to have any real affection for too many of the buggers. Far too many seem aloof and distant. Too many seem to be passionless automatons. Has anyone seen Thibaut Courtois smile? Has anyone seen Oscar laugh while playing football for Chelsea? Where is the joy, where is the passion, where is the fun in our team? As for the future, it didn’t take long for me to book up a flight to Vienna for what is likely to be new boss Antonio Conte’s first game in charge of Chelsea Football Club. It will be “game one” of season 2016/2017, and I will be there, revisiting the scene of John Spencer’s run and swerve and shot against Austria Memphis in 1994/95, which ranked as one of the very best Chelsea games in my life. It was a proper Chelsea Euro Away and I bloody loved it. Ah Vienna.

At the time – 1994 – with Chelsea on the up at last, European football returning for the first time in over two decades, and with exciting ground redevelopment on the horizon, I remember thinking “there is no better time to be a Chelsea fan. What a buzz.”

Now, as a comparison, in 2016, it seems that Chelsea fans would rather miss out on European football in the guise of the Europa League next season, and most seem underwhelmed to be renting Wembley for three years while Stamford Bridge is renovated further. The football team is better placed, surely, than in 1994, but still it seems that everything was so more enjoyable back then.

Anyone care to explain all that?

As the teams strode out on to the pitch, with billowing clouds overhead, and the sun shining down, we were set for a game between two teams that had, together, seriously underperformed during the current season. Regardless of Chelsea losing ten games – ridiculous enough – who could have imagined that City, backed by all that wealth and with such attacking riches, could have lost nine?

Crazy.

For Chelsea, Courtois was back in goal and at the other end Diego Costa was upfront.

In between, there were the usual suspects.

Thankfully, three games too late, Chelsea – and City – were wearing black armbands in memory of Ian Britton.

At The Shed, there were two new banners, in praise of Gianfranco Zola and Bobby Tambling. A nice touch.

On seven minutes, I began clapping in memory of Ian Britton, but I was seemingly alone.

I thought we had moments, little pockets, in the first-half, but Manchester City looked more dangerous. The free-spirited runs of Kevin De Bruyne and the fat-arsed Lesbian Samir Nasri caused us anxiety every time they broke. It was, incidentally, nice to see De Bruyne getting applauded as he walked over to take a corner within the first few minutes of the game, and to see him reciprocate. To reiterate, this is something Chelsea fans simply do not get enough credit for. Last season, Lampard, this season De Bruyne. It goes on.

We were unlucky to see Pedro’s shot slammed off the line by Otamendi, but further chances were rare as the first-half developed. Rueben Loftus-Cheek showed moments of good control and penetration, but elsewhere we found it hard-going.

Courtois did ever so well to thwart De Bruyne.

Still no smile though.

After a little cat and mouse, sadly some defensive frailties allowed Sergio Aguero to pounce on a De Bruyne cross.

City, in a horrific Stabilus lime kit, were 1-0 up.

At the break, I commented to near neighbour Dane “we’re not out of it.”

Tellingly, Dane replied “not yet, no.”

The game was over – and our second successive league defeat – just ten minutes in to the second half when another break caught us out. This time, Nasri played in that man Aguero, who never looked like missing.

He didn’t.

2-0, bollocks.

The game then died, and the atmosphere – which had never been great – died with it.

Up in the lofty heights of the West Upper, Joni was furious :

“Biggest problem I have is that I hear City fans. Not ours. What’s with that?”

Well, I think it is pretty standard across the board these days, no matter where you go. Quiet home fans, noisy away fans.

The second-half wearily continued with only rare moments of passion or fight.

A spirited run from Pedro.

A series of blocks by Mikel.

But, it was a sad old game.

With ten minutes remaining, Fernandinho raced through and was blocked by Courtois. A red card followed, and that man Aguero calmly slotted home the penalty past Asmir Begovic.

Chelsea 0 Manchester City 3.

Ugh.

This mess of a season continues and although I plan to attend the remaining five games, it will not be fondly remembered. Already, I am looking towards the future.

Vienna. Season 2016/2017. Game One.

It can’t come quick enough.

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