Tales From Beneath The Whispering Gallery

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 19 September 2021.

I have said it before and I suspect that I will say it again and again; to me Tottenham is our biggest away game. It’s certainly the one that I look forward to more than no other. It has history. It has substance. It has animosity. It has hate. With Chelsea flying high, and Tottenham faltering, I couldn’t wait to set off for their new spanking stadium that soars over the more down-at-heel shops and houses on the Tottenham High Road and its associated neighbouring streets.

But first an FA Cup tie.

Yes, dear reader, this was another weekend of football that was to give me the twin gifts of League and Cup.

I assembled at Frome Town’s ground Badgers Hill for the 3pm kick-off on the Saturday for a game against National League South outfit Oxford City, a team that we had recently played in the same step of the football pyramid. Since then, the Hoops have advanced one step, while the Robins have descended one.

What transpired was a stunningly perfect afternoon of FA Cup football, played out under a mottled sky, warming sunshine and with a really gratifying attendance of almost six hundred spectators. Frome soaked up some steady pressure in the first-half and an Oxford goal was called back for offside. Two stunning breakaway goals by James Ollis and Joe O’Loughlin gave the home team a surprise 2-0 lead at the break. Frome then improved further, with more attacks, more efforts on goal. But just at the very moment that my mate Francis uttered the immortal words “they look like scoring” and I replied “you’re right” – they did.

Despite an increasingly nervous last quarter of an hour, manager Danny Greaves’ side held on to win 2-1.

My friend Steve, the newly-crowned club historian, believed this to be Frome’s first win in the Cup against a team two divisions higher than us since a 1984 win against Bath City.

So, into the Third Qualifying Round we go. I remember watching Frome Town play against Team Bath at the same stage around ten years ago; a 2-2 draw at home, a heavy 0-4 loss away, at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

We would await the draw on Monday with keen interest.

I collected PD and Parky at 9.15am on the Sunday morning and pointed my Chelsea Blue Chuckle Wagon eastwards. We tend to break up the journey with a Greggs breakfast – being on a diet ain’t easy with all of the miles we travel for football – just before the A303 meets the M3. The woman serving us at Popham Services – Eddie Large in drag – has got to know our ugly faces the past two seasons and there is usually a little football banter while we order baps, baguettes and slices. She’s a Liverpool fan. Yes, you can only imagine.

Just as I slid the car away, PD announced :

“Jimmy Greaves has died, then.”

Oh no. What sad news. I know that he had been ill for some time.

“Did he pass away today? Bloody strange if he did, what with Tottenham playing Chelsea.”

I ate up the miles, and we were parked up at Barons Court tube at 11.45am; as quick and as easy a journey in as I can remember. We would eventually hope to catch the 3pm over ground service from Liverpool Street up to White Hart Lane, but we didn’t particularly care to be surrounded by coke’d up wannabes in the pubs that cluster around that station for a few hours, drinking out of plastic glasses and under the eye of the OB. I fancied somewhere different. We changed from the Piccadilly to the Central at Holborn, then alighted at St. Paul’s.

We made “The Paternoster” our base for a couple of hours or so. In a break from the light drizzle and then steady showers, I sped outside for twenty minutes to take a few photographs of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. I looked up at the huge and impressive dome, and remembered tales of The Whispering Gallery. I had been past St. Paul’s Cathedral once or twice by bus in recent times, but the last time that I had actually stood outside it was on a family trip to London in 1981. While my parents and an aunt toured inside the cathedral, I just walked to Stamford Bridge. It seemed the most logical thing to do in the circumstances.

From one cathedral to another.

I can distinctly remember reading the Jimmy Greaves autobiography “This One’s On Me” around that same time and, thinking back, it was undoubtedly the first footballer’s autobiography that I ever read. I can remember reading how he hated his time in Milan after his forced move from Chelsea. His decline into alcoholism was quite harrowing for a sixteen-year-old to read.

I wasn’t going to have a single beer, but I bought a single “Peroni” to toast his memory.

“Oh, he did die today. How uncanny.”

There was a photograph on the internet of Jimmy Greaves, from around maybe fifteen years ago, being presented pitch side at Stamford Bridge. I must have been there, yet – alas – I have no recollection of it.

Outside, the rain, but only a few spots. At 2.40pm, we whizzed up to Liverpool Street, and then found an empty carriage at Liverpool Street for the last leg of the journey. It was the earliest that we would be arriving in N17 for ages. On the twenty-five-minute journey, PD surprised us all and began chatting to some Tottenham fans. Parky and I kept our silence. To be fair, they were decent lads and we wished each other well, although I am sure none of us fucking meant it.

I wanted to take a few photographs of the stadium, so excused myself. Let’s not waste any time here; the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a stunner, an absolute beauty, surely the finest football stadium in Europe. That it sits cheek by jowl alongside the same fried chicken joints, nail shops, kebab houses and grimy pubs as the old White Hart Lane gives the place a very odd feeling, as uneven a setting as there is ever likely to be. It might be on The High Road, but it overlooks The Low Road.

Simple black and white images of Jimmy Greaves MBE appeared on the outside and inside of the stadium. His presence was everywhere. Again, how odd and yet fitting that he should pass away on the day of the derby between his two main teams. I was reminded of Dixie Dean passing away at Goodison during the Merseyside derby in 1980.

I whirled away, bumped into some Chelsea acquaintances from Bristol and New York on the High Road, then spun around to enter the away turnstiles in the north-eastern corner.

Just as I entered the away concourse, there was an almighty commotion and I couldn’t quite work out what was occurring.

United were winning 2-1 at West Ham, but there was a late penalty for the home team. Noble then missed. Bollocks.

How’s that for a match report?

This was Parky’s first visit to the new place. I looked at the towering South Stand and could hardly believe how high it extended.

The troops arrived.

Alan, Gary, Foxy and Drew from Dundee, Margaret and Pam, Calvin, Becky and Cath. There were a few chats with many of the usual suspects.

Turin dominated.

I had succumbed on Friday to a four-day trip to the home city of Juventus for our game in a couple of weeks’ time.

I chatted with Patrick, then Ali and Nick, then Alan, then Tim. There were differing levels of understanding of what testing and procedures were required. It would, no doubt, be a stressful time over the next week or so. Preparations for Porto proved to be a drain on my brain and I am sure Turin will be too.

“Mendy’s out.”

Bollocks.

The stadium filled. I couldn’t work out if the seats are all muted slate grey or a dull navy. Regardless, virtually all were filled. We were in row four, right down the front, not far from our spot in the 2019/20 season.

It shows how disconnected we were last season that neither Alan nor Gary nor myself could remember how we did at Tottenham last season.

“Draw, wannit?”

One of the former players being interviewed for the in-house TV Channel was Gary Mabbutt, his Bristol twang taking me back to when he used to play for Bristol Rovers, then Tottenham, then England.

Gary : “Good player, Mabbutt.”

Chris : “His father, Ray, used to play for Frome.”

The team was announced. Not only no Mendy, but no Kante either.

Kepa

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Havertz

Just before kick-off, that same image of Jimmy Greaves appeared on the TV screens in the four corners of the stadium, high above the pitch. Both sets of fans roundly and solidly applauded his memory.

He was loved by the fans of both clubs and the whole of the football world.

Jimmy Greaves was the greatest ever goal scorer produced by the English nation.

I remembered that in 2019, Martin Peters – unlike Greaves, a player in the 1966 World Cup Final – was similarly remembered.

Glenn Hoddle appeared out of nowhere and was given a fine reception by the 3,000 Chelsea fans in the corner as he walked around the edge of the pitch.

The game began. Tottenham attacked our northern end. With them playing in navy socks this year, we were allowed to wear our white socks. I approved. I soon found myself being distracted a little by all of the constant messages being blitzed across the various balconies. Supporters clubs from all over the world were featured. One made me double-take.

Baku Spurs.

Baku? Bloody hell. Probably just one bloke with a Tottenham mouse mat.

There is no denying it. Tottenham were quicker out of the traps than us in the first quarter of the game. We plodded along, and struggled to link passes through our midfield, whereas the home team looked sharper and created a little more.

With the home crowd singing “Oh when the Spurs”, Tottenham were given a central free-kick. The singing continued as the build-up seemed to take forever. Harry Kane was to take it. The singing grew louder.

“Fuck, if he scores now, after that song as a pre-curser, this place will bloody explode.”

He hit the wall.

Phew.

A rapid break in the inside right channel involving Mason Mount got us on our toes – the rail seating is excellent at Tottenham, I was able to lean forward on many occasions – but after a messy one-two with Lukaku, the chance was spurned, pardon the pun.

This was a tight game, and the home team were edging it. Havertz looked out of sorts, and on too many occasions Tottenham were able to cut through us. However, the away support was full of all the old favourites which we love to air in this particular part of North London.

“We’re the only team in London…”

“We won 6-1 at The Lane…”

“And the shit from The Lane…”

Alas, the players were not as entertaining. Tottenham managed a few set pieces, but corners were steadfastly headed away by various defenders. It was all a little underwhelming. After Tottenham – players and fans alike – were found to be bellowing at any perceived Chelsea foul or piece of wrong-doing, the noise levels increased. Gary had his usual response.

“Fackinell. More appeals than Blue Peter.”

Kepa saved well at the feet of the raiding Son, and was injured. Thankfully he recovered. Then an errant back-pass by Rudiger had only just been despatched in time by Kepa. Only a couple of shots from distance – wide and blocked – were forthcoming from the Chelsea attack the entire half. Their ‘keeper Hugo Loris had hardly had a shot to save.

That would soon change.

I turned to Gary : “Well, they can’t play as well as that in the second-half.”

I returned a little late at the break and missed the restart.

“Kante on? Who’s off? Mount?”

As much as we all love Mason, he had not enjoyed a great half at all. In came our tigerish tackler to replace him. I couldn’t quite work out how the new addition would fit in alongside Jorginho and Kovacic, but soon into the second-half I didn’t care.

There soon followed a sublime piece of football that had me purring. Thiago Silva pinged a wonderful ball into space for the on-rushing Marcos Alonso. It cut out everyone. A trademark volley at an angle from the left wing-back was superbly saved by the cat-like reflexes of Loris.

“That’s more like it Chels. Come on!”

The Chelsea pressure mounted. A few corners were whipped in just in front of us by that man Alonso. One more corner was then aimed centrally, from the other side of the pitch, and the silver hair of Silva was seen to rise above all those around him and the ball flashed past Loris into the Tottenham goal.

FUCKINGGETIN.

The goal on film, I remained steady to capture his exuberant run towards the Chelsea fans who had now been let loose into a wild orgasmic frenzy of arms and legs, or “limbs” as the kids say. Such joy. Such happiness.

This is why we go to football.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Donna and Rachael suddenly appeared in front of us after having disappeared a few minutes before the break for some bevvies. They had missed the first goal. But they did not miss the second one. Just after Dier blocked a shot from Alonso on the goal-line, a shot from distance from N’Golo – it could only be termed, at its most optimistic, as “speculative” – took a wicked deflection off Dier. The ball spun goal wards, hit the base of the post nearest us, and we watched – eyes on stalks, balancing on toes – as the ball skewed itself over the line and into the goal.

Laugh? I almost bought a round of drinks.

Oh that was beautiful.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

Kante looked, of course, so bashful. Bless him.

Just twelve minutes into the second-half, and we were now well on top. The home fans were now completely muted.

The whispering gallery had been moved from inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the top tier at Tottenham.

One of the many messages flashed all over the LED displays on the balconies at Tottenham mentions the Spurs Skywalk. This takes the unfortunate supporter out onto the roof, where – if they look well – they can just make out the East Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of the only club in London with not one, but two, European Cups.

I thought to myself :

“Those Tottenham players had best book themselves onto that skywalk. It’ll be the highest they will ever fucking get.”

Kante was everywhere and I mean everywhere. The whole team had been revitalised by his appearance at the start of the second period. Elsewhere, we suddenly had runners, and our attacking performance reached lovely levels.

A lone shot from the hidden, or hiding, Kane was well saved by Kepa. Silva, our man of the match, was foiled by Loris, who was easily the Tottenham man of the match. Yet more saves followed from Alonso – again! – and Timo Werner, a late substitute for Havertz. Lukaku enjoyed a late surge, running centrally on a few occasions at the disillusioned Tottenham defence, twisting and turning, turning defenders’ legs into jelly, Dier and Romeiro pleading for salvation, but Loris foiled both him and Kovacic. The Croatian was one of the stars of that second period. We were on fire.

If it had been the Bernabeu, white handkerchiefs would have been waved.

There was even time for a “Bouncy Bouncy” : how 2013.

Right at the end, with many of the home fans having decided that “enough was enough”, the ball was picked up and Timo Werner did ever so well to pull the ball back for Rudi to pick a corner and drill the ball in.

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 3.

The crowd erupted once more.

There was another ridiculously jubilant run by the scorer to our corner, and with Jorginho absolutely pissing himself, the photos were a joy to snap.

I turned to Gary again.

“We top?”

“Yeah.”

Parky and I met up with PD, who had enjoyed a great view in the back row of our section, and we slowly walked away from the ground. I overheard someone say “three league wins out of three here” – oh, it wasn’t a draw last season? – and maybe it is time to well-and-truly rename the new gaff Three Point Lane.

The Stadium.

The Game.

Us.

Our exit strategy was the same as at Christmas 2019; find a fast-food place for a chicken burger and wait for the crowds to disperse. We caught the 7.48pm train from White Hart Lane back into town, and the carriage was full of moaning Tottenham fans. A heavily made up woman with lips that looked like they had been filled with air was the main noisemaker :

“Right. I’ll say it. Don’t care. We are shit. We just gotta acclimatise ourselves into realising we ain’t that good.”

I looked at PD. Parky looked at me.

I whispered : “She’s got a point.”

Unlike Tottenham.

On we go, Villa next, see you there.

The End.

Tales From A Hard Watch

Chelsea vs. Zenit St. Petersburg : 14 September 2021.

I remember that in the first few tormenting weeks of lockdown in March and April of last year, there was a craze for lists to be shared on the global phenomenon that is Facebook. There were a fair few football-based lists. When it came to naming an A-Z of teams that I had seen Chelsea play against, I stumbled on one beginning with Z and named Real Zaragoza. Now, in the first group game of this season’s defence of the Champions League, Zenit St. Petersburg was able to be fully added.

I worked at home from 7am to 3pm and – I think for the first time – PD was able to provide me with a door-to-door, or at least a door-to-pub, service for the evening encounter with the moneyed upstarts from the glorious city on the Baltic Sea. There is no doubt that St. Petersburg is way up there on the list of cities that I would love to visit. UEFA may have gifted me two bites of the cherry this season; if the away game later this autumn proves impossible, there is always the hope that we might get a pop at the final next May which is planned to be held at Zenit’s Krestovky Stadium.

Football and travel.

Nothing comes close.

PD made super time as we headed up The Mother Road once again. By 5.20pm we had flashed around the roundabout at Hammersmith and had tucked ourselves in on Bramber Road. By 5.30pm, we were entering “The Goose” for the first time since the Liverpool game in the FA Cup in the Spring of last year.

The Goose is a gathering place for many on match days, especially those from the West of England. We waited in the beer garden for friends and tickets to arrive. Sadly, since our last visit, buildings have shot up out of nowhere at the rear of the pub, so that the once airy beer garden is now enclosed on all four sides. It has the feel of a prison yard, oppressive and claustrophobic.

My friend Mark from nearby Westbury arrived at about 6pm with a couple of printed-off tickets for PD. We chatted about all sorts; it was the first time that I had seen him – and Andy from Trowbridge – for ages. Soon into the chat, I updated him on my health issues of late. It then got rather spooky. I told him of my heart attack last autumn, and how I had two stents fitted on 12 October in a hospital in Bath. Mark replied that he had four stents fitted on 7 October in a hospital in Bournemouth. You can imagine how surprised we both were. Life can be very odd at times.

The two pints of Peroni hit the spot. It was a lovely treat to be able to unwind and to enjoy a few beers on an evening game, knowing that I would have no more driving to do later.

Next up, we sauntered down to “Simmon’s” where a few bottles of “Sol” were quaffed. The usual faces were there, give or take a few. My first sighting of father and son Simon and Milo since two seasons ago was a great treat. I chatted for a while with Andy – as mentioned in the Porto adventure – and we chuckled about some of the things I mentioned in the Aston Villa report.

Andy : “What gets me is…walking out of the ground after the game, and you overhear someone close by getting all excited because Harry Kane has scored a couple, because he is in their fantasy team.”

Chris : “They don’t say it to my face, but I think more than a few people at work regard me as a bit of a freak because I actually go to watch my team play.”

Modern football, eh?

My desire to finish off the last bottle of lager meant that I didn’t leave the second boozer, with Parky, until just gone 7.30pm.

Talking of Sol…

I presumed that there would be no place in the starting eleven for Saul. I am sure that, after his far from impressive debut on Saturday against Villa there might well be a chance for him to win us over against the same team on Wednesday.

Let’s hope that his road to Damascus begins next week.

Alas, there were huge lines at the turnstiles for the West Upper and also the Matthew Harding. I appeared at the end of the queue at around 7.40pm. While we were waiting in the mass of fellow spectators, I quipped that we needed Timo Werner to suddenly appear and take some people away to create some space for the rest of us.

After a few minutes, there were loud bangs inside the stadium, and the bright white flashes of fireworks inside lit up the sky. This momentarily confused me. The kick-off was 8pm, right? What’s this? Fireworks already? Surely the teams aren’t coming onto the pitch for a 7.45pm kick-off?

I checked my ticket.

20:00.

Phew.

I eventually reached my seat at 8.06pm. I was annoyed to have missed the anthem though. Bollocks.

Alan : “You ain’t missed much.”

I glanced around and about.

First thoughts?

“Blimey, a full house. Magnificent stuff, Chelsea. I had thought that, maybe, folk may have bought tickets for loyalty points with no intention of attending. But no, hardly an empty seat in the house. A small band of away supporters were grouped in the Shed Lower. They must be Russians now living in London, or at least the UK. Fair play to them.”

I ran through the team; a few changes from the Villa game.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Mount

Al explained all about the fireworks and the presentations that I had unknowingly missed. Oh well. The Russians were decked out in a neat mirror image of our blue / blue / white. I immediately admired their badge cum logo; it resembled a kind of Cyrillic equivalent of the slanted Los Angeles Dodgers logo. Kinda. If you looked at it quickly.

Moving on.

I soon heard that United, despite going 1-0 up while we were in “The Goose” had contrived to lose 2-1 to Young Boys.

Splendid.

Chelsea dominated most of the possession in the first-half without ever really posing much of a real threat. The Russian defence was well-marshalled and they seemed content to soak up all of our pressure.

It was, it has to be said, hardly a spectacle.

Only on a few occasions did the visitors attempt an attack.

Mason Mount seemed the liveliest of our attacking options, happy to burst through and take players out of the game. Yet for the most part, our approach play was laboured and rarely got out of second gear. We enjoyed only half-chances, or quarter-chances if I am brutally honest. A shot from the slight Ziyech was blocked.

Was that it? There wasn’t much more to shout about.

Late on in the first-half, the crowd awoke from their slumber.

“Carefree” boomed around Stamford Bridge, as welcome as a goal on nights like this, a sign that the support was willing to get behind the underperforming players. An equally loud blast of “Soopah Frank” quickly followed. Just before the break, Zenit recorded the game’s first shot on goal, a curler from distance from Rakitskyy but Mendy easily claimed the ball. A few late corners hinted at better things – a header from Romelu Lukaku flew over the bar – but the game was crying out for a goal.

It was scoreless, and possibly pointless, at the break.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking, as is our wont, the Matthew Harding. A shot from Ziyech gave us a little comfort, but then on the fifty-minute mark, an enterprising and entertaining run from deep from Antonio Rudiger continued on and on and on. With each touch, with each stride, the excitement – and disbelief – increased. His final movement took him to his right and he unleashed a fierce shot that just whistled past the post.

“Didn’t he have a run and shot just like that two years ago?”

“That was Zouma.”

“Ah yeah. Of course. Row Z, wannit?”

We were improving in this half, no doubt.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters in the Matthew Harding were soon applauding a Reece James goal, apart from the fact that the ball hit the side netting.

On sixty-three minutes, Kai Havertz replaced Ziyech.

Warm applause.

“Oh Roman, do you know what that’s worth?”

There was a Bobby Moore versus Pele style tackle by Rudiger just as a Zenit attacker was just about to let rip. Oh, we loved that.

I was preparing myself for a 0-0 draw when, with twenty minutes remaining, a cross from deep from the fine right foot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out Lukaku to perfection. Leaping at the far post, with two defenders close by but not close enough, the Belgian guided the ball down and past the keeper’s dive.

1-0.

On 69, the Russians were licked.

It almost seemed too easy, too obvious, almost cruel. The scorer reeled away and I captured the celebrations on film if not the goal itself.

Get in.

There was a sublime turn and shot from Marcos Alonso, but chances still remained at a premium.

With ten minutes to go, a rare break by Zenit caused our hearts to flutter, but the outstretched leg of Dzyuba guided the ball wide of the left-hand post when it looked easier to score. Mendy was injured as he came to challenge and he hardly moved for a few minutes. Thankfully he played on.

Two late changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Thiago Silva for Dave, Ben Chilwell for Alonso.

An even later change.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek for Lukaku.

A goodbye to Alan :

“See you Sunday, mate.”

The referee blew up and there was a feeling of relief.

“Thank God we won. And thank God that’s over.”

A word from an exiting Lee :

“Two thousand words on my desk in the morning.”

Blimey. This was a hard watch and this has been a hard write. But this was so typical of many of our first games on the European trail. Three points are all that matter on nights like this.

PD and I joined the crowd as we all made our way back along the busy Fulham Road. I have never seen the area right outside the West Stand so full of people.

“Covid, let’s have you.”

There was just time to call in on a re-vamped and re-named “Chubby’s Grill” for the first-time in a year and a half.

“Cheeseburger with onions please, mate.”

Next up is the most eagerly awaited away game of this season, of every season, of any season; a Sunday jaunt up the High Road for a London derby with that lot.

Time to drop Kane from those fantasy teams.

See you there.

Lee : 1,821…bollocks.

Tales From The Mother Road

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 11 September 2021.

It is a familiar motif from these match reports – I am tempted to say “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before” – of games from the early part of our campaigns that I usually need a few matches to get back into the swing of things. I was doing fine this season. I was acclimatising reasonably well, I was getting back into live football, the games were seemingly important once again and even my vocal chords were coping. It all felt a little different this season, though. Our forced absence from the game for so long was playing heavily on my mind and I suppose the crux of it concerned my fears that I wouldn’t get the pre-COVID19 buzz back.

But here was a real test. After seeing Chelsea Football Club play just seven times in five-hundred and thirty-eight days (an average of one every seventy-six days), I was now about to embark on a burst of five games in just fifteen days (an average of once every three days for those who failed CSE Maths). This represented, in my mind at least, a test, a litmus test, for my enthusiasm. I certainly hoped that this spell of five games in London would rid me of the considerable disconnect that has hounded me since March 2020.

We all live in a place called hope, right?

I woke again way before the alarm, and gathered my tickets, trinkets, passes and thoughts ahead of the 10.30am departure. A new car, a new Chuckle Bus, was parked on my drive-way and this would be its first journey of note, its maiden voyage with me at the helm and it’s first trip up my version of Route 66 – in fact, Route A303 would be very apt as it arrived with just 303 miles on the clock – to London SW6.

It would be its first trip along the Mother Road.

I collected PD and Parky in good time.

There was talk of these upcoming games (the printing-off of some of the tickets at home was proving to be a far from a straightforward task) and some matches even further out. Just like holidays, I get a great deal of pleasure in planning these games, especially the away games, and these sometimes awkward tasks feed into my Obsessive Chelsea Disorder. Tottenham was almost complete, Brentford was a work in progress, but Newcastle was sorted. More of those three trips later. Turin, Malmo and Saint Petersburg away games were taking a back seat. Not that I would plan on all three anyway, but travel within Europe was so much “up in the air” right now – or not, as the case might be – that I wasn’t wasting energy on plans for those three destinations just yet.

One potential destination that had ruled itself out of my plans was Tokyo. It had recently pulled out of hosting the World Club Championships in December, and I was now hearing that maybe Las Vegas or maybe Qatar would step in like some gallant knight in shining armour. This was met with growls of disapproval from me. I am not a fan of Vegas. And even less of a fan of Qatar. From one extreme from the other. From “anything goes” to “strictly forbidden.”

Such was my feeling of abhorrence when Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup a few years back, that I made the conscious decision not to watch a single second of the finals on TV. And I just recently decided not to watch any more of the qualifiers too. So, the recent International break absolutely passed me by. I may have lost England forever.

In the circumstances, the lingering presence of Qatar in talk of the World Club Championships focussed my mind further. I would be a hypocrite to avoid Qatar in 2022 as some sort of moral crusade – stop sniggering at the back – and yet blithely sign up to watch Chelsea in Qatar in December. So, let’s see how that all pans out.

No pressure, Vegas.

We only stopped at Fleet Services for a quick pit-stop en route from Somerset to London, but from then on in, we became embroiled in some nasty traffic. It usually takes me three hours from door to door (my door to the door of The Eight Bells in Fulham) but it took me just over four hours on this occasion.

I dropped PD and Parky at West Brompton, then about-turned to park my car just off Lillie Road. Then a quick flit by tube to Putney Bridge. Job done.

I had booked a table for 1.30pm, and the hosts had very kindly kept it for us when we arrived an hour later.

I met up with Mark, from Norwich, and his son Matt. We had been talking during the build up to this game how our first Chelsea match in 1974 was the very same one; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974. We are the same age. We both live out of town. A few nice similarities in fact. He is the first Chelsea fan I have ever met whose first match was the same as mine. I was quite thrilled when Mark shared a couple of previously unseen on-line photographs from that day forty-seven years ago. We chatted and reminisced about tons of Chelsea games, especially from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, and we found ourselves finishing off each other’s sentences on a few occasions as the memories and reference points interweaved and overlapped. That’s always a good sign.

I have to admit to being taken aback on a few occasions during our lovely conversation when I spotted a rather stern looking fellow, with a mop of white hair looking up at me from the other side of the bar.

Oh, it was me in a pub mirror.

The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again.

Note to self : must smile more.

Kim, Andy, Dan and the Kent lads arrived and it was the first time that we had seen them since last year. It was superb to spend time together once again; around a dozen of us in our cosy corner of The Eight Bells, all meeting up again, trying our best to prove that football is real life, and not a TV programme. I totally understand that many can’t attend live football due to finance and geography, but it seems that so many these days do not make the effort. Is modern football now a diet of watching games on TV in pubs, streaming at home, fantasy football and betting accumulators?

At Putney Bridge tube station, there were a group of boozy and cheerful Villa fans. One chap, of a certain age, approached me and told me that he liked my yellow Adidas SL76 trainers. Thirty-five years ago, the conversation might well have been different.

“You got too much for us today. Think you’ll beat us 3-0.”

I concurred. It was my prediction too.

At Fulham Broadway tube, the lad at the Krsipy Crème stand spotted my Boca Juniors T-shirt and asked if I was from Argentina.

My colours on this day of football were yellow and blue, in-keeping with the current Chelsea offering, but without me looking too much like a Billy Smart’s Circus reject.

There was further talk of South American football with Clive in The Sleepy Hollow. A few months before my visit to Argentina last year, he had visited Brazil, and had caught an itoxicating Flamengo game at the Maracana. He highly recommended Brazil. The World Club Championships in Brazil has a nice ring to it. Chelsea at the Maracana? Where do I sign up for that beauty?

From 1993 to 2016, my desire to witness new sporting stadia outside of Europe was clearly focussed on North American baseball stadia; twenty-one major league and four minor-league. I have a feeling in the future my focus will now be on South American football.

We had heard that ten-men Tottenham had succumbed to three late goals at Crystal Palace – how we laughed – but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace had helped Manchester United beat Newcastle. All of this fizzled away into insignificance as our collective thoughts focused on the game against Villa.

The sun was out despite some clouds, and the extra hours of drinking meant there was a bubbly atmosphere as kick-off approached.

The teams entered onto the beautiful green lawn. A new Mason Mount flag surfed below me.

I checked the team.

The inclusion of Saul Niguez surprised everyone, possibly none more so than him himself.

It seemed an oddly thrown together team, but one which was representative of the pressures put on members of our squad during the international break. No Mount. No Dave. But an injured Kante too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Niguez – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Havertz

Romelu Lukaku was to play in his first game as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge since a substitute appearance against the same team in August 2013. All the rail-seating was in now. The banners around the pitch lay heavy with the early evening humidity. “The “knee” drew boos but then louder applause. The game began.

A few early Chelsea raids acted as mere foreplay for the full-on end to end session that followed. The game was a cracker. A zipped-in corner on our left from Callum avoided everyone but hit a knee, I think, of a defender and bounced up onto the bar at The Shed End. The first thing of beauty that I noted was a deep and high ball from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva which dropped perfectly and pleasantly at the feet of the advancing Marcos Alonso. People talk of a deep-lying midfielder pinging balls like a quarterback, but here was Silva doing the exact same. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit and then Frank Leboeuf doing similar.

It turned out to be a precursor to an even better ball from Mateo Kovacic. Breaking away in that busy style of his, he spotted the advanced Romelu Lukaku. A magnificently-placed ball, cutting right between two scuttling Villa defenders, and curving and dropping into the exact place that both Kovacic intended and that Lukaku had expected, landed perfectly. Lukaku sized up the options, turned Tuanzebe’s limbs into a pretzel and dispatched a low shot past Steer into the Villa goal.

It is fair to say that The Bridge boomed.

Lukaku raced past Parkyville, and led on the floor, facing the sky.

At last we had a finisher in our midst, not a finisher in the mist, out of sight, lost.

A magnificently noisy and rude “Carefree” enveloped the entire stadium.

Bliss. Absolute bliss.

But Villa, who had already enjoyed a few moves into our half, were not put out and only a sublime save, low and late, from Mendy at his right post from a Watkins drive saved us. Halfway through the first-half, and with Villa vibrant, Saul Niguez surrendered possession and that man Watkins rounded Mendy. A goal looked on the cards, but Silva is an experienced fellow and he nimbly recovered to block the shot admirably.

Our Saul was struggling with the pace and tenacity of the early exchanges.

“Our Saul, you say? More like a fackin’ arsehole. Wake up you caaaaaaaaant.”

I turned to Clive :

“Well, they’ve had their chances.”

This was a good game, possibly a great game. I was involved, and I appreciated the moment. It was an intriguing game of football, but one which was causing Chelsea increasing problems.

On thirty-three minutes, our man Mendy threw himself to save a rocket from Mings, but was able to scramble to his feet to push away the follow-up from Konsa. These saves were simply sublime. They sent me spinning back to Wembley 1973 and the Jim Montgomery double-save.

This was becoming a disconnected and disjointed performance from us with only occasional flourishes. Ziyech was quiet. Saul was getting over run in midfield. There were only flashes from Havertz. Lukaku was hardly fed anything save the pass for the goal.

Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a disappointment. It was as if the well-worn football phrase “flattering to deceive” was invented for him and for him only. On several occasions he was presented with a few one on ones, but inevitably chose a soft option.

I moaned to Clive : “I wasn’t a great winger, but when I received the ball, my one thought was to get past my marker, not look behind me.”

It was Villa who grew in confidence as the first-half progressed and by the time we all reached the interval, there was a mixture of relief and worried expressions in The Sleepy Hollow.

“We should be 3-1 down. Villa must feel robbed.”

Lo and behold, Thomas Tuchel – still without a song, I still feel I don’t know him too well – spotted the obvious and replaced Saul with Jorginho at the break. It would be a move that we all wanted and that would help to solidify our position in the second-half.

Just four minutes into the second period, Lukaku lost possession but then harassed and harried Tuanzebe and the ball was rushed to Mings whose attempted back pass to Steer was ably intercepted by Kovacic. He doesn’t often find himself in such forward positions, but his finish was impeccable. It had something of the Pedro about it; an instinctive and incisive flick past Steer, and in off the far post it went.

GET IN.

Initial thoughts : “bloody hell, Villa must be spitting feathers.”

But the relief was palpable. We were now 2-0 up and able to consolidate things. A Havertz drive slid past the far post. Thankfully, the Villa offensive was not as potent in the second-half.

On fifty-eight minutes, I was poised to clap in memory of the wonderful comedian Sean Lock, a regular at Stamford Bridge for years, who sadly passed away recently. At the start of the dedicated minute, not many joined in, but thankfully at the end the applause was taken up by many. It extended past the minute mark. The Matthew Harding then started our own song of remembrance :

“One Sean Lock, there’s only one Sean Lock.”

Bless him. He was one of my modern day favourite comedians.

The game continued, and thankfully most of the visitors’ shots on goal were tame, and often at Mendy. Our crowd was surprisingly buoyant for a decidedly average performance. But we were leading, and I suppose that helped.

Stating The Bloody Obvious #716.

To be fair to them, the Villa fans were pretty noisy throughout the game, and even though they are not known for being particularly vociferous, I had to admit that I was impressed with their performance. The three thousand strong block virtually stayed en masse, despite the game going against them.

The devilish McGinn was running things for Villa, his spirit and energy mirroring that of our Kovacic.  I was really enjoying this battle. As, I think were most. There didn’t seem to be a dull moment. The supporters were enjoying it too, and there was even one rare moment of appreciation of a strong tackle by a Villa player on one of our lot. Is this the new normal? To be fair, this isn’t too uncommon. Great saves by opposition ‘keepers, tackles by opposing players, even the occasional goal against – only as long as we are winning – have been clapped in the past.

On the hour, another change.

Dave for Kai.

Dave to right wing back, Callum to outside left, down in the Hazardous Area below me. Again, he was all flicks but with no real finished product.

“Thing is Clive, he doesn’t have to beat his man over five yards. He has twenty yards to run into. Knock it past him, and kill him for pace.”

The Matthew Harding had twice goaded into getting The Shed to sing in the first half with no response. An attempt to get The Shed involved – this is invariably met with a defiant “Carefree” – again fell on deaf ears. Midway through the second-half, when The Shed did finally get involved, an audible noise able to be heard, the Matthew Harding Lower jumped in.

“We forgot that you were here.”

Not sure what The Shed thought of that, nor ironically if they even heard it.

Former Chelsea player Bertrand Traore was given a nice reception as he came on as a substitute for Ings. A shot of his from distance was deflected narrowly wide.

Alonso had a trademark dig at an angle down below us, but his daisy-cutter fizzed wide.

Villa’s attacks grew weaker and without much intent.

Their fans still sang, but the Liverpool “Allez!Allez! Allez!” needs to be dumped. Sharpish.

Werner, the forgotten man right now, got a late run out, with Tuchel no longer willing to witness the advanced Hudson-Odoi anymore. By now, the game was being played out in a strange murky twilight, the sun long gone, the floodlights on, a hint of autumn in the air.

In the last moments of the game, a typically positive run from Dave down the right was followed by an inch perfect pass into the feet of Lukaku. A slight adjustment, and then –

BAM.

The ball flew past Steer.

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 0.

Lukaku, attitude and / or arrogance on show, jogged over to our corner, and gave me – and others – a fine photo opportunity. Like the man himself, I don’t miss that easy an open goal.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

At last, after the stern face, Lukaku smiled.

The ref soon blew up.

This had been a hugely enjoyable game. Villa had certainly surprised me though. Absolutely no way they deserved to lose 3-0. As we left the stadium, I shared these thoughts with PD.

“There must be few occasions over the years where an away team has come here and lost 3-0, yet the Chelsea supporters know deep down that they deserved more.”

The top three performers were undoubtedly Mendy for his excellent saves, Kovacic for his growing command of the midfield, his sublime assist and his beauty of a goal and Lukaku, two shots two goals, Goodnight Vienna.

We met up with Parky back at The Anchor fish bar on Lillee Road.

“Saveloy and chips mate, please, open.”

The drive home was a lot less stressful than the trip to London. It was a blissful trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset. I loved this day out. And I am so pleased to be able to report that I am rapidly getting my appetite for the game back.  

Game one of five down, superb, very enjoyable. Zenit on Tuesday, my first European Night at Chelsea since that tough loss to Bayern in 2020. Then Tottenham away – “love it” – and one of the games of any season. Then Villa again in the League Cup (that might be the one that tests me) and lastly a possible season-deciding game against City. I suspect we will give them a few reminders of Porto, don’t you?

Good times. Let them roll. Let the Mother Road lead us back to London time and time again.

See you Tuesday.

Goal One.

Goal Two.

Goal Three.

Tales From Under A Pure Blue Sky

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 28 August 2021.

Before we get too deep into this, give yourself a point if you either uttered or thought this line after the game at Anfield :

“I would have settled for a draw before the game.”

Everyone? Everyone gets a point. Everyone apart from Arsenal. Thought so.

This was a cracking day out. A long day, but deeply pleasurable. It almost had it all.

I had set my alarm for 7.30am but was awake at 6.45am. No point trying to go back to sleep. I needed to fuel up again, and on the short four-mile drive to the nearest garage, I briefly found myself doing eighty miles an hour through the Somerset back-roads. Proof, if anything was needed, that I was keen to get “on the road” and on my way to Liverpool for this one. Our fine start to the season, admittedly against far from high calibre teams, had got me chomping at the bit for this mouth-watering fixture at Anfield. It would be twenty-eight months since my last visit, a weak 2-0 defeat in April 2019.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome bang on 9am.

Our initial plans had been adjusted as Parky was still laid low with COVID19. We called in to see him and he handed over tickets for Anfield as if they were atomic waste; face masks on, gloves on, everything at a distance. Sadly, Parky would be absent, and so would Alan and Gary too.

Regardless, the Frome Three headed north, diverting into Melksham for our first match day McBreakfast for months and months and months.

I headed north.

A familiar route, though less travelled these days.

My last trip up the M5 for football was for Hull City in January 2020. My last trip up the M6 for football was for Everton in December 2019.

Driving north, the three of us enjoyed a lovely chat about the state of our club and team at the moment. Many positives. Too many to mention.

With this being a bank holiday weekend, we predictably hit a few areas of traffic congestion.

One of my favourite vistas on my travels around this Sceptered Isle with The Great Unpredictables is from the Thelwell Viaduct. On this particular day, the high-rises of Manchester’s city centre were clearly visible to the east. Beyond Saddleworth Moor and its notorious history. Ahead, Winter Hill – appearing so close, despite being twenty miles away – with the home of Bolton Wanderers nestling a few miles to the south. To the west, the cooling towers and bridges at Runcorn, but the almost mythical city of Liverpool out of sight.

Football Land.

I had earmarked an arrival at Liverpool – or to be precise the car park outside Goodison Park, the blue-half of the city – at 2pm. In the circumstances, my arrival at 2.20pm was half-decent. Happy with that.

A short walk away, past the Dixie Dean statue, was The Abbey pub, which was to be our base for around two hours. Already inside were Kev and Rich, veterans from Belfast, and I had kept their arrival a secret from PD and Glenn. It was a nice surprise for my Somerset Chuckle Brothers. Next to arrive was Deano, just a short hop down from Silverdale near the Lake District. To complete the group, Kim, ex California, ex Florida and now a resident of Crosby a mere ten-minute drive away. The pub was a new one for me; I have walked past it many times en route to and from Goodison. It was a decent boozer. There were three other Chelsea fans on a nearby table. The locals were fine. The prices were cheap. Everything was good. On the way up, we chuckled as Arsenal lost again, and lost without scoring again.

They said that The Titanic would never sink.

Full steam ahead, Arteta, and fuck the icebergs.

We made the short walk up through Stanley Park – the scene of much aggro, hooliganism, violence and associated nastiness in previous decades – and I have to say it was a surprisingly lovely walk. It was the first time I have walked to Anfield from the north for a game. The sun was out, a clear blue sky, and there were Victorian features to the park which made it all very pleasant.

Was I really in Liverpool?

The shining mass of the new stand at Anfield that peered over the trees to the south confirmed that indeed I was.

There was the quickest of security pat downs outside the away turnstiles and we were in at 4.50pm.

I was almost blinded by the sun as I walked into the lower tier of the Anfield Road Stand – “The Annie” as the locals call it – and I quickly found our seats.

Row five, equidistant twixt the six and eighteen yard boxes. Ideal.

It was a familiar view, this. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Anfield with Chelsea. There have been the same number of visits to see us at Manchester United but, what with the two FA Cup Semi-Finals in 2006 and 2007, Old Trafford slightly edges past Anfield.

I spotted a few friends. PD, taking Parky’s ticket, was alongside me. Also alongside me were the empty red seats that would have been occupied by Gary – COVID positive – and Alan – COVID negative, but unable to make it – and it felt odd not having them alongside us.

Anfield took a while to fill. There were no COVID19 checks again this week.

I could not have been the only Chelsea supporter who thought “if I don’t catch it at Anfield, I won’t catch it anywhere”…

Pre-match songs included “Ring of Fire”, “Heroes” and “The Fields Of Anfield Road.”

Chelsea broke into song as the afternoon progressed.

One song dominated :

“Champions Of Europe…You Know The Rest.”

Out on the pitch, the game’s undercard was The Battle Of The Shit Training Tops.

Chelsea won it easily.

The clock ticked towards to the kick-off at 5.30pm.

The Liverpool PA announcer’s ridiculously deep and monotone voice announced a few items in that dead pan voice of his. Think Ringo Starr but at several levels lower.

The team was almost the same as the one that started against Arsenal.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azplicueta

Alonso – Kante – Jorginho – James

Havertz – Lukaku – Mount

The teams came on, Chelsea first, then Liverpool. The line-up. The Kop was ready with its myriad of DIY banners, and of course, their scarves.

The away end was virtually a scarf-free zone.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Not as loud as on many previous occasions.

Must do better.

It annoyed the fuck out of me to see a couple of Chelsea / Liverpool scarves in our cramped away section. These fuckers evidently didn’t bother reading the small print in their Chelsea contract.

Liverpool and Chelsea. Two league wins apiece thus far. This was a game that I had been relishing all week. I predicted a 2-2 draw.

Romelu Lukaku took the kick-off before the pre-game “knee” and I hoped that it would not be the last time that he would be out of synch.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Kop in the first-half.

Not surprisingly, Liverpool came out of the traps firing on all cylinders and other clichés. Their youngster Harvey Eliott looked neat and purposeful in the opening moments. His shot was knocked wide. Mason Mount fired over from the edge of the box. The next chance of the game came down the Liverpool right as Terence-Trent Darby-Alexander-Arnold pumped a long ball into our box that Jordan Henderson reached, but could only prod the ball wide with what appeared to be his heel.

It was an even start.

Liverpool were aggressively closing down our defenders but the ball was moved with pace out of areas that would hurt them.

I grimaced every time Mo Salah came at us. He was a very real threat for sure. A Van Dijk header at the far post was blocked.

Despite our regular utterings of “Champions Of Europe” there was, surprisingly, no usual retorts from the home support about our lack of “history.” This was a real surprise. This is their usual stock, almost Pavlovian, answer to any of our chants that either praise our successes or mock them. Maybe they are learning their history lesson after all these years.

It was, in fact, refreshing to hear no “Murderers” chanting from our section either.

Had the lockdown affected us all that much?

After some dogged perseverance from Marcos Alonso underneath the dreaded Anfield Clock, we won a corner.

Reece James pumped the ball in towards the near post. I snapped as Kai Havertz – already showing silky sweetness in attack – leapt. I watched, and snapped again, as the ball looped up and over everyone into the far corner of the box.

GET IN!

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

In truth, I had no idea how the ball had ended up in the net. I wasn’t even sure that Havertz had touched it last. Was it a defender’s head that had looped it on? I simply did not know. It all happened so quickly.

The scorer was announced as Havertz.

How did he manage it? It was from the corner, at least, of the six-yard box? I was flummoxed. What a goal.

People mention “The Catch” in baseball and everyone knows it’s Willie Mays at The Polo Grounds. “The Try” in rugby union, and it’s the Barbarians at Cardiff. “The Save” in football and it’s Gordon Banks against Pele in Mexico in 1970.

Now we have “The Header.”

It defied physics and football. He had his back to the goal, his back to the ‘keeper, his back to everyone. His flick managed to twist the ball up and over everyone in a perfect parabola. In the end, it dropped into the goal amidst so much space that it was almost unkind on Liverpool.

It was an absolute beauty.

A couple more Chelsea half-chances strengthened the air of positivity – if not euphoria – in the Chelsea end.

“Shall We Sing A Song For You?”

Playground stuff really, but you could tell the locals didn’t like it.

There were often long balls from Liverpool, in a red kit oddly trimmed with salmon pink, looking to catch us on the back foot.

Edouard Mendy anticipated an early ball and raced to clear with Mo Salah – or was it Michael Angelis from “The Liver Birds” and “Boys From The Black Stuff” – lurking menacingly.

A delightfully constructed passage of play down the inside light channel, allowed Lukaku to feed in Mount but his shot was brushed wide.

Firmino was hooked by Klopp to be replaced by Jiota.

Three minutes of extra time.

“Come On Chels.”

A Liverpool corner from their left.

Madness ensued.

A knock on. Matip managed to loop the ball up into the air. Both Mendy and Alonso went for the ball. Matip again, and onto the bar. By this time, I was already befuddled. Bodies swarming the six-yard box, a mere twenty-five feet away from me. A shot, blocked on the line – twice – then hacked away.

Phew.

Alas, alas, alas…a late VAR review, and the bloody inevitable result.

A Liverpool roar. In the confusion, a red to Reece James, which I missed amidst the madness, and a yellow to Rudiger.

That man Salah.

A swipe at the ball.

Goal.

1-1.

Bollocks.

PD : “We’re up against it now.”

A yellow for our ‘keeper.

Chaos on the pitch.

The Liverpool support, which had grown quieter throughout the first period, suddenly erupted.

At half-time, which immediately followed, there was a mixture of disbelief and anger in the away end. Of course, the strange thing is that even though I was so close to the action that lead to the penalty, the viewing millions had a much better view of everything than me.

The consensus was that the penalty was right to be given as the hand stopped a goal, but the ball was blasted at James from two yards and hit his thigh first.

Had the world gone mad?

How could that be a red?

We girded our loins at the start of the second-half and of course Thomas Tuchel made the inevitable changes.

He took off the unlucky Havertz and replaced him with Thiago Silva who bolstered the defence. The injured Kante was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.

We strapped ourselves in for a difficult forty-five minutes.

Five at the back – in reality – with three in midfield and the lone Lukaku upfront.

But I have to say that whenever we broke away, Alonso was up and down that left flank as if his life depended upon it.

What we hoped for was a defensive master class.

And that is exactly what transpired.

Liverpool, of course, dominated the ball, but we defended with such regimen and aplomb that I was only worried about our line being breached on a few, rare, occasions. Everyman played his part. Dave was sensational, the incoming Kovacic tackled, covered, and occasionally raided, but I thought Silva was magnificent.

Calm, assured, reliable.

A great performance.

Rudiger made a few rash decisions but more than made up for it with his steely determination. A super game from Christensen too. Jorginho was solid, and worked tirelessly.

As for Mendy. Utterly superb.

Soon into the second-half, I said to PD.

“Look at us.”

We were identical. Arms folded, one arm up, hand clenched and nested beneath our noses.

Classic art critic poses, as if we were studying a Turner, a Picasso, a Hopper.

Of course, we were witnessing a master class in defending.

We were, let’s make no qualms about it, sensational. There were echoes of Porto if I am honest. And just like that night in Portugal, I became obsessed with that bloody Anfield Clock.

55 minutes, 60 minutes.

PD was watching it too.

Salah to Jiota, a header. Over.

A long shot from Van Dijk, a daisy cutter, and Mendy scrambled to save. As similar save from Fabinho. A parry from a Robertson volley from distance.

The first-part of the second-half seemed to take forever, and then as the Liverpool chances grew less frequent, the time sped along nicely.

A rare attack, initiated by a strong break from Alonso, eventually enabled Mount to loft a ball in to Lukaku but his shot was blocked.

If I am honest, Lukaku struggled a little against Matip and Van Dijk, but his was a thankless task in the second-half. Van Dijk has fast feet, and on this occasion Lukaku had relatively slow feet. Let’s hope his feet won’t be the stumbling block to his progress this season.

The clock ticked on.

Sixty-seven minutes, thirty seconds.

“Half-way through the half PD.”

“I was going to wait until seventy.”

That man Lukaku then linked so well with Kovacic but his shot was weak and at the ‘keeper.

This was tense stuff.

A Liverpool break and the ball fell to Salah, centrally positioned. I had a mental image of him rolling into the corner, to Mendy’s right, my left, and The Kop going berserk. But his pathetically weak shot – shades of Pat Nevin against Manchester City in 1984 –  rolled apologetically to Mendy’s left, my right, and the chance passed.

Eighty minutes.

It was a joy to see many Liverpool fans head for the exits.

Eighty-five.

Trevoh Chalobah – surely he should come from Manchestoh with a name like that – replaced the tiring Jorginho.

Ninety.

An extra three, just like on forty-five.

We held on.

Ten Men Went To Mow.

Magnificent.

The away end was jubilant, but as at Arsenal last Sunday, I noticed only stern and serious faces on the Chelsea players. This shows amazing self-control. I am not so sure that we would have been quite so reserved under other managers.

Because make no mistake, a 1-1 draw at Anfield is a bloody fine result and us supporters almost regarded it as a win.

Walking back to Goodison, out through Stanley Park, the quietness of the home fans was a joy.

We had set our marker for the season with this result.

Lovely.

My exit route out of the city took my car right alongside the stands on the Bullens Road at Goodison park.

After the Annie Road at Liverpool, we now found ourselves on the Gwladys Street at Everton.

I made a quick exit, out onto the East Lancs Road, then the M57, then the M62, then the M6.

We stopped a few miles down the M6 in well-heeled Cheshire, now solidly in United territory.

“I love it how, through football, us three lads from Somerset can suddenly find ourselves in a curry house in Knutsford at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.”

The Eastern Revive on King Street did us proud.

I made it home at just after 1.30am in the small hours of Sunday.

It had been a good day.

Anfield.

The Header.

Gallery.


Chelsea at Anfield.

Played : 25

Won : 5

Drew : 7

Lost : 13

For : 26

Against : 39

Tales From The Arsenal Petri Dish

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 22 August 2021.

One weekend. One game on Saturday. One game on Sunday. An FA Cup game on Saturday. A Premier League game on Sunday. Two local derbies. One in Somerset. One in London. One four miles away. One a hundred and fifteen miles away.

Football was back.

This was my first footballing double-header in ages, and one which I was – of course – relishing. At work on the Friday, I could hardly believe my own ears as I repeatedly told colleagues that I really fancied us – “us” as in Chelsea, not Frome Town – to do really well at The Emirates and I genuinely meant it. Whisper it, but I even told a couple that I half-expected us to pump a fair few goals into Arsenal. This sort of over-confidence is rare, especially before an away game and especially at a ground where we haven’t always had it our own way in recent times.

It was with a beautiful feeling that I woke on Saturday morning with a near perfect football weekend ahead of me.

First up, a Frome Town vs. Paulton Rovers FA Cup Preliminary Round game. Last weekend, while I was at Chelsea, a local company sponsored the town’s league opener at home to Highworth Town by giving away free tickets to anybody who fancied it. A fantastic crowd of 867 duly attended; it was the fifth highest league crowd in Frome Town’s one hundred and seventeen year history and I was a little annoyed that I could not be part of it. A 1-0 win followed. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of old school friends for the FA Cup game against the local rivals from Paulton. We were treated to a very entertaining game of football. Frome went ahead with a sublime volley from Rex Mannings early in the game. Yet Paulton moved the ball well and came back into the match with a virtual carbon copy of Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick against Palace last weekend. The only difference was that the Frome ‘keeper made an effort to save it. Frome then dug in, and found a new resilience to win the game with two late goals from Jon Davies and James Ollis. The gate was a healthy 398. I even bumped into Glenn at the final whistle; he had strolled in late on after seeing another game across the road.

“See you tomorrow at ten.”

“Tomorrow” duly arrived. I collected PD and Glenn in Frome and set off for London. Unfortunately, Parky had contracted COVID19, quite possibly while at Stamford Bridge the previous weekend, and so was unable to attend. It was Glenn who picked up his ticket. I saw Parky briefly – at distance – during the week to collect the match ticket and the old soldier had been hit hard. But he was improving slightly as the week passed. I had both a Lateral Flow and a PCR Test early in the week; both negative, I was fine.

We were parked up at Barons Court tube station in West London at around 12.30pm. The classic green-tiled interior of the booking hall welcomed us. We always park here for Chelsea away games as its just off the A4. I remarked to PD that we didn’t always have great memories of walking up those steps after away games at West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham. But I was still supremely confident. And it didn’t even worry me, which was worrying in itself.

Was this just because the returning hero Romelu Lukaku was set to play his first game for Chelsea since his move back to SW6 from Inter? Yes and no. We are already a decent team, but his presence should round off the team very nicely. It would, hopefully, banish the nerds into blathering on about “false nines” into the wilderness for a few seasons too. Bonus.

I saw Lukaku play a handful of times – four starts plus a handful of substitute appearances – in his first spell with the club. His last appearance was as a substitute against Aston Villa on a midweek game in early 2013/14. I chose just one photo to accompany that match report, as was my way in those days (it was in fact the first-ever fresh match report on this site) and it was of him, shielding the ball below me.

I last got up-close and personal with him three weeks later before a league game at Goodison Park. I happened to be outside the main entrance as he arrived in his car after going on loan at the club and I shook his hand and said “have a great season here, then come back to us next season, God bless you.”

He must have misunderstood my sense of urgency.

The three of us joined up with Alan, Gary and Daryl in “The Euston Flyer” not far from St. Pancras. I was gasping so treated myself to one refreshing “Peroni” before getting back onto some “Diet Pepsi”. I felt a bit awkward admitting to the lads that I fancied us strongly later in the day. It was, no doubt, a most un-Chelseaesque feeling. The Southampton versus Manchester United game was on TV. A huge cheer met the Saints’ goal, a lesser cheer for the equaliser. It was Glenn’s first meeting with the three lads from London since Everton at home in March of last year. There were a few Chelsea faces that I recognised in the boozer, conveniently placed before the short hop up to The Emirates.

I wanted to visit Highbury and take a few photos of the old Arsenal Stadium, so excused myself and left at around 3.15pm. Alas, this didn’t go to plan.

I alighted at Highbury & Islington tube and walked up the Holloway Road, but instead of diverting towards Highbury I made the mistake of heading towards The Emirates first – like a moth to a flame – which was a bit silly really. I was soon entrenched in a line at the slope behind the Clock End entrance and soon realised that to visit Highbury, I would have to go back out and then return again, and I wasn’t keen on two security checks.

“Maybe next time.”

We were kept waiting for twenty minutes. I didn’t particularly enjoy being among the replica-kitted Arsenal fans, but I kept quiet and waited in turn for a security pat down. Unlike Chelsea, there was no COVID19 passport check required and, after getting a body check with a scanner, I avoided eye-contact with the team at the “bag check” tables behind and waltzed in through.

Outside The Emirates, as it curves towards the away turnstiles, I could not help but notice that the signage on the stadium wall now looks really faded. Everything is a light pink and not a strong red. Those images of the interlinked Arsenal players seemed lacklustre. It was as if the Arsenal shirts had been washed in the wrong type of detergent. Inside the stadium, even the famously padded seats looked faded too.

The faded glory of a once proud club?

I hoped so.

Of course hardly anyone was wearing face coverings. On the London Underground, a good 95% of passengers were wearing masks. At the football, it was less than 5%.

I looked out at the undulating top tier and the middle tiers awaiting to be filled, then the gentle slope of the bottom tier and wondered about the safety of it all. Was The Emirates a giant petri dish in disguise? How safe were we? Only time would tell.

I bumped into loads and loads. This was the first proper domestic away since Bournemouth in February 2020. Everyone was greeting each other like long lost friends, which is of course exactly what we all were.

I was down in row six, in line with the six-yard box alongside PD, Gary and Alan. This was my fifteenth visit to The Emirates; I have seen every one of our league appearances at the new place, excepting the 2020/21 fixture of course. It must hurt many of those who, unlike me, never miss a game, to have their records blown to smithereens the past year and a half.

Damn you COVID.

We had heard that many Arsenal tickets had not been sold. There were gaps, but not swathes.

The rain that had been expected was thankfully nowhere to be seen. All three of us had left rain jackets in the car.

Our team was announced and it did not surprise me to see Lukaku in and Timo Werner out. A few raised eyebrows at Marcos Alonso in, though.

Edouard

Antonio – Andreas – Dave

Marcos – Jorgi – Mateo – Reece

Kai – Romelu – Mase

Happy with that. Kante on the bench.

Arsenal’s team consisted of a few names that, due to my abandonment of TV football in 2020/21 could easily have been the names of TV repairmen, taxi drivers and hair-dressers. I fucking hoped that they would be playing like them too.

Pre-match, a few Chelsea warm ups from the terrace to get the vocal chords warmed up. Nothing from Arsenal.

Arsenal in an apparent nod to their 1998/99 kit – but looking a little too “Ajax” for my liking – and Chelsea in their Charlie Cairoli hand-me-downs of all blue.

Arsenal, as always, attacked the Clock End in the first-half and were first out of the traps but a shot from Emile Smith-Rowe, the chartered accountant, was easily dealt with by our man Mendy.

Sadly, the gentle rake of the lower tier and the fact that I am a proud short-arse meant that my view of the game was not great at all. I hardly saw any of the action down our right. I saw a lot of the backs of heads, but bugger all else. Only when the ball was in the other two-thirds of the pitch did I see enough. I felt a bit disjointed. At least the rain was holding off.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was played into Lukaku who touched the ball back to Mateo Kovacic. He then spread the ball out to Reece James and we sensed danger. All eyes were on the wide man, but I suspect that the viewing millions at home were more likely tuned to the run into the box of Lukaku. The ball was played into the six-yard box to perfection and, amidst a bewildered group of window dressers, sous chefs and car mechanics, Lukaku struck.

One-nil to the European Champions.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea crowd went berserk. Unable to focus on the celebrating players, I turned the camera on us. One image is of a beautiful gurning, exhilarated, beatific, orgasmic mess of humanity.

Ah, the joy of football.

It was back.

With no Chelsea goals in his first period with us, it was our new target man’s first Chelsea goal.

“Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romelu Lukaku.”

It is not known what Mateja Kezman nor Fernando Torres were thinking at that exact moment in time.

A header from Lukaku dropped over the bar.

Up the other end, the dance trio Xhaka, Saka and Lokonga combined but Mendy was not troubled.

We were dominating the game and the home fans knew it. The little group next to the away contingent behind the goal were trying to make some noise, but only when a ball was pushed through for the cycle courier to race on did the home crowd make any sustainable racket. Kieran Tierney in front of me seemed to have a lot of the ball but our defence was well marshalled. Efforts on our goal were at a minimum.

On thirty-four minutes, a magnificent move that started on our left but finished on our right, with Reece James free and in space and able to crash the ball past chat show host Leno.

The Chelsea 2 The Arsenal 0.

Magnificent.

I had silly visions of 3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

At that stage it did look possible.

Sadly, in the last ten minutes of the half, the heavens opened. We remained in place, in defiance of the weather. I just had a T-shirt on. I tucked my camera away. I remained stood, and prayed for a respite.

James tangled with Saka. No penalty.

We were playing so well.

But the clouds were darkening overhead and Arsenal’s supporters must have been immersed in the gloom.

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

The rain continued to fall throughout the half-time break and at the start of the second-half. We grimly stood on duty, and at least we were buoyed by a sterling performance from our team. The two goal scorers under Chelsea on the scoreboard were matched by two bookings for Arsenal.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

A fine strike from Saka was tipped over by Mendy. It was his first real test. Were Arsenal equipped for a comeback? They only occasionally hinted that it might be possible.

Lukaku played the ball back to Mason but his shot was dragged wide.

On the hour, head tennis in our box and Holding the sixth-form tuck shop supervisor headed over, though I only saw it on the replay.

A third Arsenal booking, a swipe at the marauding Lukaku.

The rain stopped.

Kante for Kovacic.

The entire Arsenal support : “Fackinell.”

With a quarter of an hour to play, Mount slipped the ball in to a central Lukaku. It was a perfect ball. The striker headed at goal but Leno adjusted so well to tip the ball onto the bar.

A third goal would not have flattered us.

Ziyech for Mount.

Havertz went close.

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

Werner for Havertz.

We saw the game out. Arsenal just missed a cutting edge. They hardly created anything of note. Our lads were excellent and my positive pre-match thoughts were justified. I really enjoyed the physicality of Lukaku. The modern game seems to be drifting inexorably to a “non-contact” sport so there is something gratifying, something that stirs the senses and galvanises emotion, about a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle. It used to happen in midfield in days gone by. Now it tends to be a very rare event. Shades of Drogba and Costa? Oh yes.

We said our goodbyes, and the three from Frome slowly wandered down the Holloway Road before diving into our usual Chinese for a bite to eat.

The drive home was blissful. It was a joy to be back on the road after such a lovely away day.

I pulled in to my drive at just after 10.45pm, and saw the very last of Ian Wright – I think – and his damning assessment of Arsenal’s woes on “MOTD2.”

Next up, another cracking away game.

Liverpool away. Ah, these away days are the best. The absolute best.

Herbert And Some Herberts.

Guns.

Super Dave.

Cross.

Head.

Joy.

Reflections.

Storm Clouds Above.

The Clock End.

Hands.

Out.

Marcos In The Rain.

A Shot Saved.

Serious Business.

Late on Sunday night, I cheekily posted on “Facebook” :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

side note : sadly, the petri dish at Arsenal yielded two further victims to COVID19. Two of my featured pals succumbed to the virus since Sunday and another has lost his voice. I have taken a Lateral Flow Test, and await the result of a PCR too.

Fingers crossed. See you at Anfield? I hope so.

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

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

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From Zig Zag Hill

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 27 July 2021.

Just fifty-nine days after our European Cup triumph in Porto, we were back in business. Or rather a thousand or so other Chelsea supporters and I were back in business. Some players had been back for a few weeks, and the management team rarely rest, but for the rank and file match-going addicts among our multi-million strong support base, this was Day One of the new season.

By a strange quirk of fate, the last domestic away game played by Chelsea Football Club where away fans had been able to attend took place at Bournemouth on Leap Year Day last year, Saturday 29 February 2020. And here we were again headed for the same town on the Dorset coast on Tuesday 27 July 2021.

I like a bit of symmetry as I never tire of saying.

When we left the Vitality Stadium last year, how many of us could have possibly dreamt that we would not be able to go to a single away game in almost seventeen months?

Not me. Not you. Not the next man. Not the next woman.

One abiding memory from that day is of me – quite by fate – stumbling into the players as they ambled through the Lower Gardens by the pier and beach on their mid-morning walk. I offered my hand to Antonio Rudiger for him to shake and for me to wish him “all the best” for the game but he was almost embarrassed as I saw him shoo me away with the ominous words “Corona Virus”.

The interim has tested us all. It has certainly tested my love of football, maybe of Chelsea, and I have experienced fluctuating opinions of football, fandom and the universe. It certainly has not been easy. Season 2020/21 was my least enjoyable football season ever – OK, maybe tied with the dire 1978/79 campaign – and yet we reached two Cup Finals and ended up as winners of the biggest prize in club football in the whole world. And universe.

Rationalising football was never easy, right?

I watched the European Championships recently with middling interest. International football just isn’t for me these days. I can’t even be arsed to explain why. My focus was always about getting back to the love of my life; Chelsea Football Club.

However, a lovely little present afforded itself to me on my birthday in the first week of July. My first Frome Town game since the cessation of matches last November saw me attend the Frome Town vs. Bath City friendly on Tuesday 6 July; the town of my domicile versus the city of my birth on my birthday. Perfect, eh? It was a lovely evening, even though Dodge lost 4-1. A couple of friends made a surprise visit from Bristol and Portsmouth, we all had a lovely catch-up and I survived my first session since Everton at home last March. Evenings like that are priceless.

I was tempted to attend the home friendly against Tottenham but the whole thing seemed like a massive waste of energy. My take on it was that I would be haring up to London on many other midweek evenings in the autumn, arriving home late, waking up tired for work the next day, and so why bother with an overpriced – £30 – friendly where there wouldn’t even be any away fans to abuse. No thanks. A lovely little dip down to Dorset – just fifty-five miles away – to be followed by a jaunt over to Belfast for the UEFA Super Cup (Parky and I re-joined the UEFA Away Scheme recently so are assured tickets) and then the Grand Reunion with all the familiar faces against Crystal Palace a few days later.

That will do me nicely thank you very much nurse.

So, AFCB versus CFC on Tuesday 27 July. It soon came around. And here was a first for me; my first-ever Chelsea trip after working at home for the day. I set off at 4.40pm, alone – none of the other Chuckle Brothers were available – but with my mind full of being part of a genuine match day experience once again. I was hoping for a full house and a 1,200 away contingent. Great though they were, both Cup Finals at the end of May were odd affairs, almost surreal, certainly strange.

The drive down to Bournemouth didn’t take long. How nice of the football Gods to bestow upon me the easiest of away trips. Over the past year and a half, I have spent many an hour out walking in England’s “Green and Pleasant” and I have fallen in love again with our countryside, often taking too many bloody photographs. On the way to Dorset, I was at it again. I stopped off momentarily at a few choice locations – at Longleat, on the chalk uplands near Longbridge Deverill, ascending Zig Zag Hill – not on the scale of L’Alpe D’Huez, the famed climb of the Tour de France, but with a series of acute turns – and overlooking Cranbourne Chase. It was a glorious drive.

Nearing the outskirts of Bournemouth, though, the ominous gloomy clouds darkened the early evening light. Down came the rain.

The first “fackinell” of the season.

But on the dual carriageway, I had my first “moment” of the new season.

As I accelerated away and overtook a car, I realised that I have a decent job, a nice car, my own house, my friends, my health – God, my health – and I was about to see Chelsea play. Hardly a life-defining moment but important enough for me to mention it three evenings later.

And although I have spoken with some close friends how I might be in a situation this season when I might have to choose between a classic Frome Town away day and a common or garden Chelsea trip, deep down I knew that there would only be one winner.  

I was parked up on a pre-booked private driveway on Littledown Avenue at 6.30pm. The ninety-minute drive had been lengthened by twenty minutes as I stopped to snap, snap, snap. I include a few of the photos.

The air was a little muggy outside. I had brought a light rain jacket. The walk to the stadium only took ten minutes. I spotted a chap wearing a Flamengo shirt – Bournemouth colours, but turned ninety degrees – alongside his mate who was wearing a Chelsea top. I couldn’t resist walking over to say a few words, but I avoided mentioning that, if I was pressed, I favoured their rivals Fluminense. After my jaunt to Buenos Aires last year, I have Rio in my sights too, though perhaps only after another trip to Buenos Aires.

File under : “Too many stadia, not enough time.”

I will be honest, it felt odd being among a crowd who were, in the main, not wearing masks.

I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz outside the familiar away turnstiles, the first of around a dozen friends or so that I would talk to during the evening. Big praise to Scott who would endure a 590-mile round trip from his home in Lancashire for this friendliest of friendlies. Just amazing.

There were three security checks to get into the stadium; a scan with an electronic device, a bag check, a body frisk. It seemed all a bit pointless. Anyway, my camera was in, unlike on 27 July 2019 when it was banned from a friendly at Reading.

I would normally trawl the concourse to chat to some familiar faces, but – I think that I felt at risk slightly – I decided to avoid the closeness of the crowded bar areas and head inside.

For the third game in a row, I was positioned in row three; clearly not my favourite viewing position. The evening sun was still glaring. I chastised myself for leaving a perfectly fine pair of sunglasses in my car.

The players – in a set of training gear sponsored by a completely different company to the playing kits – warmed up in front of us. There were a few familiar faces, but some strange ones too. I find it amusing that I can rattle off fringe players from 1983/84 – Phil Priest, Terry Howard, Perry Baldacchino, Paul Williams, Stokely Sawyers and Robin Beste – but struggle with the current crop.

With five minutes to kick-off, the PA played “Life Is Life” by Opus. I had a little smirk to myself. I was reminded of that classic film of the one and only Diego Armando Maradona’s pre-match warm up to this very song in 1989. If you have not seen it, do yourself a favour.

I wondered who on Earth could replicate that breath-taking performance at Bournemouth in 2021.

The 7.45pm kick-off soon arrived. So much for a 12,000 full house. The home areas were half empty and our section wasn’t full. There was a line of ten empty seats right behind me. So much for the lure of the current Champions of Europe. A few friends had notably lost a few pounds over the previous eighteen months; well done Jayne, Sam and Rob.

Just before the game began, probably just as the teams were being announced – hence my confusion with the starting eleven – I saw a deeply tanned Pat Nevin rush past. I shouted out to him and told him that I had loved reading his recent autobiography. We shook hands – another weird feeling – and he went on his way to take up a commentary position.

Lovely. My favourite-ever player. A fine start to 2021/22.

I was tempted to ask the PA chap to replay “Life Is Life” and get Pat on the pitch.

It was a nice thought…

Our team?

Kepa.

Sterling / Baker / Sarr.

Hudson-Odoi / Drinkwater / Gallagher / Alonso.

Ziyech / Pulisic.

Abraham.

The game began and Chelsea attacked the “home end” to my right, the scene of those devastating four second-half goals in early 2019.

First thoughts?

“I wish that bloody sun would soon disappear behind those towering clouds.”

“I don’t recognise a couple of these players.”

“That new kit is truly horrific.”

Zig fucking zag.

My heart has sunk over the summer as I have witnessed from afar – oh my disbelieving eyes – how a notable number of acquaintances throughout Chelsea World had succumbed to the dog’s dinner of our new Nike abomination.

We can’t be friends, real friends, now.

I am sorry.

But you should be the ones apologising.

Fackinell.

The effect that it has on me, if I may offer some sort of comparison, is as if those Hawaiian shirts favoured by our American cousins – I never know if they are worn ironically or not – are matched with the same pattern on accompanying shorts.

Get my drift?

The Chelsea crowd – some who had evidently been on the ale for a few hours – were lively in the first quarter of an hour. There were two early songs in praise of Frank Lampard. The Timo Werner one was soon aired and there were a few hearty renditions of “The Only Team In London With A / Two European Cups.” I joined in and tried to warm my vocal chords up for the new season. My view from row three was tough. Everything looked so flat.

Now then dear reader, let’s get this clear. This was a pre-season game in which virtually all of the Chelsea protagonists would be bit-part players throughout the upcoming season. Some – Kepa, Mendy, Alonso, Barkley – would have parts to play, but others would find themselves elsewhere. Some might get the odd League Cup game. Some would inevitably go out on loan. Some would begin a zig-zagging journey down the football pyramid. Some – sadly – would find themselves as footballing equivalents of the unclaimed black pram on the baggage carousel at airport arrivals.

The game against Bournemouth was always about getting game time for as many players as possible. I’m certainly not going to go into nerd mode and produce a deeply analytical report of each of the players’ performances. What would be the point of that?

That said, I was looking forward to watching Conor Gallagher – alas no relative of oor Hughie – to see what the hype was all about.

There was neat football from us in the first-half. Danny Drinkwater, of all players, started well, pushing the ball intelligently. Up close, I appreciated the pace of our right-sided defender (later identified as Dujon Sterling, ah of course…) and Malang Sarr (the other player who I was hard pressed to recognise) certainly possessed an impressive shape. Conor Gallagher was involved. Nice to see the old war horse Alonso again. Chances fell to Hakim, Callum, Tammy, Tammy and Tammy but our finishing was off the mark.

The singing from the away section quietened as the half progressed.

I wanted Our Callum to burst past his marker, but there always seemed to be a reticence from him. A shame.

Interceptions from Sarr and Baker thwarted Bournemouth, whose main threat on our goal was a series of deep free-kicks and corners. Dominic Solanke was upfront for the home team. We had high hopes for him a while ago, eh? For all of our possession, we went into the break without a goal to show for our dominance.

As the players lined up for the second-half, I spotted some changes, although not wholesale.

Mendy.

Miazga / Chalobah The Younger / Clarke-Salter.

Hudson-Odoi / Gallagher / Loftus-Cheek / Alonso.

Barkley.

Abraham / Broja.

Things were a bit disjointed, off the pitch as well as on it. This is pre-season for us fans too. Whereas we all stood during the first-half, many began the second-half sitting. Were we jaded already? Surely not. The home fans were a quiet bunch, though and there was little noise from them. However, a little riposte from the otherwise silent area to our left resulted in an embarrassing chant from us.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll Never Sing That.”

Fucksake.

I rolled my eyes so far backwards I almost saw Tottenham. Then I looked up at the roof, if not the heavens.

I turned to the young lad to my left.

“Fucking hell. Mugging off Bournemouth. Bournemouth!”

This football lark can be testing at times. By all means take the piss out of our main rivals, but not lovely and cuddly – hardly rivals to us, hardly anything to us – benign Bournemouth.

It was lovely to see Our Ruben back in royal blue again. For a big man, he certainly has a lovely touch. But he struggled a bit to get into the game. He played a deeper role than usual. He was pulled back – one of my most hated aspects of modern day football – so many times. So frustrating. It was his lazy pass to the covering Gallagher that set up David Brooks but his shot thankfully glided past the left-hand post.

A lad behind me roused the away contingent with a loud “Zigger Zagger” and the noise leapt a few levels.

“We’re The Only Team In London.”

A fine save from Mendy thwarted Bournemouth from close in. Alonso, urged to “shoot” by us, did so but his effort whistled wide.

Zappacosta – last seen by my eyes at Reading in 2019 – replaced Our Callum, Baba Rahman – just wow – replaced Alonso and Ugbo replaced Tammy.

Sadly, just after these changes a cross from the right found the head of Emiliano Marcondes and Mendy was beaten.

The crowd went mild.

Our reaction was immediate. A brilliant cross from that man Baba was whipped in immaculately into the “corridor of uncertainty” and the new man Armando Broja took a neat touch and avoided a Tammy-like entanglement of limbs to slam the ball home. Broja then charged down a clearance from the Bournemouth ‘keeper but the ball whizzed past the far post. Shortly after, that very rare thing; a crisp near post Chelsea corner – from Ross Barkley – that cleared the first man and Ike Ugbo was able to head home from mere inches.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 2.

In the final fifteen minutes, the home team made many changes and the game petered out.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea players soon headed for the tunnel. No signs of celebration at all. After all, it was only Bournemouth right? Fans take note.

I walked back to the car just before the rain came again. It took me an age to get out onto the main road out of town. But within the hour I had retraced my steps and was winding my way down the intense bends of Zig Zag Hill once again, the night now dark, my headlights on full beam.

“Steady as you go Chris.”

I was home at midnight and I was immediately reminded of my midweek football routine.

Get home. Try to relax a bit. Scan my photos. Chose one for Instagram. One for Facebook maybe. Check a few social media posts. Watch the game highlights on YouTube. Work in the morning. Bollocks. Head full of football. Try to get some sleep…

…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.





Tales From Porto : Part Three – Tears

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

It was 9.54pm. As the referee’s whistle eventually blew after seven tortuous minutes, I snapped the view that confronted me in the north terrace of the Dragao Stadium. I wanted to capture the exact moment of us becoming European Champions, just like I had done in Munich in 2012, and also when we became English Champions at Bolton in 2005 too. An image of our fans captured for eternity. The roar that accompanied this moment was surely not as fierce as the one in the Allianz Arena just over nine years ago, but the emotions were similar.

We had done it.

The photo taken, I clambered down off the seat and started to whimper, my bottom lip succumbing to the emotion of the moment, and then I could not hold it any longer. I brought my hands to my face and wept for a few fleeting seconds. My emotions genuinely surprised me. In Munich I had slumped to the floor, absolutely overcome with daft joy and relief. There were tears for sure. Hell, even in Moscow – just before John Terry’s infamous penalty – I trembled too. In Porto, the tears were real, but I soon dried my eyes.

There was a slight thought about my own particular story since 10 October 2020.

I had recovered well from a series of mild heart-attacks. I was now witnessing the second most important moment in the history of Chelsea Football Club – Munich will never be eclipsed, surely? – and it was all too bloody crazy to rationalise.

Football. Fackinell.

All through this craziness, since the semi-finals, the one thought that had been spurring me on throughout the stress and worry of reaching Porto was this :

“If the fans of Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham – the others don’t count – were pissed-off when we won the European Cup once, imagine what they’ll be like if we win it twice.”

Mister 33% was way off the mark.

In reality it was a breeze, a sweet-scented breeze of Portuguese delight softly sweeping up over the terracotta tiled houses from the Douro River.

My fellow fans were running down towards the pitch. There was a lovely melee in the area where I had been stood for three hours. I was soon joined by Luke and – such is the immediacy of the modern life – I wanted to share my moment of joy with the world. Aroha was nearby, and I asked her to take a photograph of the two of us. I think that the photo is worth a thousand words.

I posted the picture on “Facebook” at 9.59pm. The accompanying message was this :

“We’re The Only Team In London With Two European Cups”.

I then joked with Luke that we could now look Nottingham Forest in the eye. And we could at last look down on Villa.

My immediate thought, next, was of Aroha; carrying Luke’s baby. What a story, what a moment of joy for them both, knowing that their child – due in late July – was there in Porto when our club won our second European Cup.

A brief thought of the scorer.

It was all very apt. Kai Havertz, the COVID Kid, hit hard by the virus in the autumn – so much so that his first few appearances for us promised little, if anything – would be the one whose goal had been decisive, wearing number 29 on 29 May.

Perfect.

For ten minutes, everything was pretty much a Blue Blur. I was aware that the Chelsea players had run towards the fans in the western section of the north stand, between the goal frame and the corner flag. Fans were clambering over the seats to get to the front. I was again stood on the seat in front. I could not be any nearer the pitch. A few of us tried to free the official Champions League banner from its moorings but it was fastened solid.

I didn’t even notice the Manchester City players collecting their medals.

At 10.10pm, the victors stood in a line and slowly walked towards the waiting trophy. In Munich, the presentation was up in the main stand – I prefer that – but here the final act of the 2020/21 Champions League campaign took place on the pitch. I stood with my camera poised, making sure that I had a clean and uninterrupted view.

At 10.11pm, Cesar Azpilcueta hoisted the huge trophy into the air.

Blue and white tinsel – correction, royal blue and white tinsel – streamed everywhere. Fireworks flew into the sky. White smoke, not of surrender, but of glory drifted skywards.

A perfect scene.

The City fans had virtually all left the stadium, just as I did after the final whistle in Moscow. I did not relish their trip home to Standish, Stockport, Didsbury and Harpurhey.

It was time for some music.

“One Step Beyond” was especially poignant. We all remember how City mocked us by playing this tune after a victory against us at Eastlands in around 2010.

“We Are The Champions” of course. I am afraid to admit that this was the first single that I ever bought in early 1978. I grew to absolutely detest Queen as I became older, but this song does bring back a nice childhood memory; my blue house team won the school football tournament that year and our team sung this song after the final triumphant game against the red team.

In Porto, it had a new twist.

“We are the Champions…again.”

But oh those high notes that followed. Ouch.

“Blue Tomorrow” and a memory of our victory in the 2000 FA Cup.

For twenty minutes, we watched as the Chelsea players cavorted on the other side of the pitch. We begged them to bring the trophy over to us in our corner. We watched as the players indulgently took selfies of themselves with their wives and partners. We sang “over here, over here, over here” but it was all to no fucking avail. We were ignored.

At 10.30pm, Aroha, Doreen, Luke and myself set off for home. I took one final photograph of the scene and left the stadium.

I have always loved walking out of various football stadia with a win tucked in our back pockets. An away win on foreign soil cannot be beaten. Often the local police have closed, or blocked-off, roads so that we have a free march in the middle of deserted streets. I can especially recollect a lovely walk back to the nearest subway station on a balmy night in Lisbon in 2015.

Bouncing, bubbling, striding triumphantly, the occasional chant, the occasional song, the swagger of success, locals cowering – or so we hoped – behind windows.

In Porto, as triumphant as it all was, the walk back to the coach was tough. I had made a schoolboy error of wearing a new pair of Adidas trainers for the day and although I had worn them around the house and on a few shopping trips, I had not fully worn them in. My walk – uphill, damn it – back to our waiting coach was a nightmare. My feet were on fire. I hobbled along like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.”

I took my seat in the coach, turned my phone on, and answered as many messages of congratulations as I could.

There was a sweet air of contentment, and an overwhelming feeling of befuddled bemusement.

I soon shared the astounding news that we were the first – and we will forever be the only – team to double up on wins in the European Cup (2012 and 2021), the Europa League (2013 and 2019) and the now discontinued European Cup Winners’ Cup (1971 and 1998).

I spoke to a couple of supporters about my mate Jaro’s take on the game.

In the few days before the match, he was adamant we’d win.

The first time? 19/05.

The second time? 29/05.

I guess that means that we will need to wait for the Gregorian calendar to be replaced by a new version so we can win it a third time on 39/05.

People were tired. People were weary. Eventually the coach set off for the airport. At 11.45pm, I shared my last photo of the day; the blue-lit interior of our coach on its thirty-minute drive back to the airport. There was complete silence. Not a sound.

I guess we reached the airport at just after midnight. We spotted a few disconsolate City fans milling around. Thankfully, the security checks did not take long. I loaded up on those gorgeous Portuguese custard tarts – pasteis de nata – and gobbled down some Gummi Bears for a quick sugar buzz. We waited until it was our turn to board.

I bumped into Andy and Sophie again, down by Gate 18.

Andy started talking :

“Chris, there’s a bloke, tonight – right – in Madrid…”

And I stopped him in his tracks.

I corrected him.

“Andy. There’s a bloke in a flat in Levenshulme. And he’s saying…Chelsea, they always beat us in Cup Finals.”

From the Full Members Cup at Wembley in 1986 – away you go, new fans, start Googling – to the European Cup Final at Estadio do Dragao in 2021. Artistic licence allows me to forget the League Cup in 2019. Right?

We walked out to the waiting plane and it suddenly made sense. I need not have been too bothered about TUI’s colour scheme.

TUI – two-ey…if ever there was a clue that we were going to end up with our second European Cup, there it was.

The other company that covered Chelsea’s chartered flights was Jet2.

Say no more.

It was – to coin a phrase – written in the stars.

Our flight home lifted off at 2am.

I caught a little sleep, as did many. I had not eaten much the entire day, so I soon wolfed down the roast chicken dinner. The friendly air-hostess even gave me two extra puddings and that, sadly, is not a euphemism.

As I spoke to her about the day, I realised that my voice was deep and croaky. It was clear that I had been singing my heart out that evening. A silly sign that I had been immersed in the game, but it was further proof that I was now back.

We landed at Gatwick bang on 4am.

I had spent around sixteen hours in the spectacular city of Porto. Along with Athens, Stockholm, Munich, Amsterdam, Baku – and Monaco – our list of foreign fields that will be forever Chelsea continues to grow.

And get this.

Chelsea Football Club has now won more European trophies than the rest of London combined.

I was quickly through passport control, there was no baggage carousel, I caught the bus back to the car park. I made tracks at 5am. I stopped at Cobham Services on the M25 – a mere mile or so from our training centre – and demolished an espresso. A handful of Chelsea had similar ideas.

“European Champions only please.”

It was a chilled out drive home. I enjoyed a powernap for around forty minutes as I stopped at another services on the A303 at around 7am.

Not long after, I updated my “Facebook” status once more.

“Driving home, nearing Stonehenge. Absolute Radio on. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack.

Gone.

The perfect denouement to thirty hours of following Chelsea Football Club.”.

I called in to see Glenn, then Parky, then my Liverpool-supporting mate Francis. I eventually made it home at around midday.

I joked to all three of them :

“Bollocks to it, I’m only bothering with Cup Finals from now on.”

There was a brief mention of a potential Super Cup in Belfast in August. I had gambled on cheap flights from Bristol a month ago and the decision to go ahead would be with UEFA.

Season 2020/21 was the maddest ever. It was – overall – undoubtedly my least favourite season thus far. I had only seen us play twice. And yet, I had seen us in two Cup Finals. I had seen us win the biggest prize of all for the second time in our history.

But this will be the craziest part of all.

We will all assemble, God-willing, in mid-August to see our team play once again. For the vast majority of fans, people will see Thomas Tuchel in the flesh for the very first time. Normally there would be mutterings of “I hope the new coach gets off to a good start.”

And yet he has already won the bloody European Cup.

And Finally :

Two photos.

One from Porto in 2015 and a nod to the many fine folk who were sadly unable to travel to the game. This photo shows Gary, Alan, Kev and Parky alongside me on that fine bridge that dominates the central area and affords such a splendid view of the city. It has been my screensaver on my home laptop for many years.

One from my friend Donna. It’s probably one of the few photos that I have shared on here that I have not taken myself. It’s self-explanatory really. At last players and supporters as one.

Chelsea Football Club, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel, its players and loyal supporters : I salute us all.

Very lastly, I have to mention that as I sat down in The Blue Room – where else? – on Monday evening to begin writing Part One, I grabbed a Depeche Mode CD and pressed play. It was one of three CDs in a set from 2004. I had no idea what track would be played first. You’ve guessed it. “Personal Jesus.”



Reach Out. Touch. Faith.

Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.