Tales From The South Bank.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2016. 

0557 : I am awake before the 0630 alarm, and there is simply no point in trying to get back to sleep. I have been buzzing for this game all week. I can’t wait to get going. A pre-planned pub crawl along the South Bank of the River Thames is the pre-curser to the London Derby later in the day. 0730 : I hop in to my car and turn the radio on. The song playing is by Madness and it seems wholly apt – “Lovestruck.” 0738 : PD, sporting a new navy Fred Perry, is collected and we are on our way. No words needed to express our sense of excitement. Belly laughs from the two of us. 0745 : Car parked at Glenn’s, the three of the four Chuckle Brothers are now on our short five-minute walk to Frome train station, where so many of my Chelsea trips had begun in the early ‘eighties. 0802 : Frome to Westbury, a beautiful sunny morning. 0821 : A text from Parky, the fourth Chuckle Brother, “just had a pint at the “Wetherspoons” in Melksham.” Off to a head start, Parky, you crafty old bugger. 0822 : Onto the Swindon train at Westbury, coffee tasting great. 0835 : Parky, with four cans of cider, joins us at Melksham. More laughter. The ciders are for the drinkers, PD and Parky. Myself and Glenn, the “B Team” will wait until we hit the first pub. This is already a fun time, and there are almost nine hours to go before the game starts. 0906 : At a windy Swindon station, all aboard the Paddington train. And relax. The journey flies by. Didcot, Reading, and in to London. We really should do this more often. 1015 : With a spring in our step, we step off the train, and go in search of a breakfast. 1030 : We are proper tourists now. Into a “Garfunkels” – a first-ever visit for me, surely no people from England visit this restaurant – on Praed Street for some nosebag. A decent fry-up hits the spot. The waitress even gets a decent tip. 1100 : The tube to London Bridge. 1130 : “The Barrowboy And Banker” – the first pub, right outside the station, and a pint of Peroni. Glenn spots some Millwall fans, who eye us up and leave. A walk past Southwark Cathedral, through Borough Market, thronged with people, our senses smacked sideways by the dizzying array of aromas emanating from the stalls selling a superb selection of nosh. 1200 : Into pub number two, “The Old Thameside Inn” right next to a replica of The Golden Hind. We sit outside, on a terrace right above the river, and note a few more football types, but can’t pin down their teams. The view is spectacular. “This seems like a European away.” And it’s true. We come up to London from our sleepy Somerset and Wiltshire towns and villages, yet very rarely open ourselves up to the majesty of London. We talk about how the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium, ahead of our trip there later in October, has proved to be so difficult for so many West Ham fans. Watching football in a sterile environment was always a fear that I had should we ever move away from Stamford Bridge. 1230 : “The Anchor” at Bankside, with the Manchester United vs. Leicester City game in an adjacent room. We prefer to sit inside, in the atmospheric snug, with a low-slung ceiling, with exposed beams. Our smiling beams were exposed too. What a brilliant time. “Let’s do something similar for Spurs at home, another 5.30pm.” “How about a stroll down the Kings Road?” United race ahead 3-0 on the TV game, and we mutter something about Jose Mourinho. Out into the sun, and I am gearing myself up for my round. 1315 : “The Swan” right next to the reworked Globe Theatre. “Looks a bit pricey, lads, wish me luck.” Again, more stunning views of the river, with the dome of St. Paul’s dominating. What a touch, the cheapest round yet. “Less than £20 boys – result.” Past Tate Modern – I last visited there in around 2002 – and past the Millennium Bridge. 1400 : “The Founders Arms” and the beers are flowing, the laughter is continuing. I last visited this pub on a Sixth Form trip in the summer of 1983, just before a gaggle of us watched Toyah Willcox in “Trafford Tanzi” in the Mermaid Theatre on the opposite bank. An England vs. New Zealand test match at The Oval in the day and a bit of culture in the evening. Back then, it was of the first pubs that I had ever bought a drink, and certainly the first in London. I remember thinking how charmless it was back in 1983, like something out of the Thamesmead setting of “A Clockwork Orange” but now everything was a lot lighter and welcoming. It was rammed with tourists. In 1983 – even on a Friday evening – it was a lot less busy. The plan was to head north and to join up with others at Holborn. We head south to Southwark train station. “Ah, bugger it, there’s ages to go yet, let’s pop into there for one more.” 1430 : “The Prince William Henry” and a quiet one, with no tourists, just a few locals. I am sticking to Peronis, PD and Parky are swerving from cider to lager, Glenn is – worryingly – on the Guinness. From Southwark, via a change at Green Park, to Holborn. 1530 : We quickly spot Alan, Gary and Daryl in a corner at the front of the final pub of the day, “The Shakespeare’s Head”, which is mobbed – as per usual – with Chelsea. Familiar faces everywhere I look. Two more pints. Up to a gallon for the day. Phew. “Not used to this.” Chelsea laughs and Chelsea smiles, and things are starting to get a little blurred. My good friend Starla, from San Francisco – a Chelsea fan for a while, and one of my first Chelsea “internet” friends from as long ago as 2006 – is over for a week, but we had not been able to rustle her up a ticket. I remember I was able to sort her out with a ticket for her first-ever Chelsea game in England at Newcastle in 2008. At least she can experience the pre-match with us. There are Chelsea songs bouncing around the pub. The team comes through on our phones, and it seems that for once a Chelsea manager and the club’s fans are on the same page. Cesc Fabregas in for Oscar. A return to The Emirates once more and let’s hope it is successful. There is – of course! – little talk of the game among all this drinking and boisterousness, but we all know that this will be a tough game. We have gone off the boil – wait, were we ever on the boil, yet, this season? – and I agree with PD. “I’ll take a point now.” 1645 : We shuffle down the escalators at Holborn and jump on a northbound train. The tube carriage is mobbed with Chelsea. Parky’s mate Ben leads the sing-song. “You want Wenger in. You want Wenger out. In out, in out, shake it all about. You do the Arsene Wenger and you turn around that’s what it’s all about.” There is also a shrill, high pitched chant of “Ar-senal Ar-senal, Ar-senal” from us and this is met with a few sniggers from the Goons among us. 1700 : I suddenly realise – as if I need reminding – how much they love their replica shirts, the Arsenal fans. Not us. 1715 : A quick bag search, and I’m in, quick to find my seat next to Alan and Gary. From the South Bank of the River Thames to the South Bank – the Clock End – at The Emirates. 1730 : The kick-off, and I’m trying to juggle photographs, text messages, some songs of support and the effects of a gallon of lager. It’s not going well. On the pitch it soon gets worse. 1741 : A calamity as Gary Cahill – heading towards the top of the unpopularity stakes – delays in playing an easy ball back to the waiting Thibaut Courtois, and Alexis Sanchez picks his pocket, and races towards goal. He dinks the ball over Courtois and sends the home fans delirious. “We’ll have to go at them now.” But we don’t. 1744 : A fine passing move in and around our defence – who are still and lifeless – ends up with Theo Walcott pushing the ball in from close-range. It is a typical Arsenal goal in many respects. For the rest of the half, Chelsea seem to have much of the ball but do absolutely nothing of note with it. 1810 : Arsenal go three-up as Ozil races through to volley a cross from Sanchez down, and up and over Courtois. This is grim, as grim as it can be. 1830 : The second-half begins, and I am just concerned about “damage limitation.” We beat Arsenal 6-0 in 2014, and I wonder if a horrible evening of retribution is about to befall us. Previously, our record at Arsenal’s new stadium is pretty decent, with four wins in ten games and just two defeats. The second-half is a little similar to the first. A decent amount of possession, but no end product. Around me, there is a dissatisfaction with our players. And that is putting it mildly. There are strong words among fellow fans, but I am pleased to see that as the second-half drifts by, very few Chelsea fans decide to leave. There are not many red seats on show. Out of nowhere, one song dominates. It soon gathers strength and is repeated, with clapping to give it an extra resonance, for what seems like ages but was probably not even ten minutes. “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.” Elsewhere, despite Arsenal winning their first game against us home since December 2010, I am amazed – no stirred, to be truthful – by the lack of noise from the home sections. “Three-nil and you still don’t sing” seems to sum it up. The manager makes changes as the half progresses. Marcos Alonso for Cesc. Ugh. It hasn’t worked out. Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for Hazard. The game continues. It’s dire stuff. Eventually a few fellow fans slink off into the murky London night. In the closing moments, Batshuayi has a couple of openings, and at last he produces our only shot on target throughout the entire game. 1930 : The referee signals a few minutes of extra time. “Come on Parky, let’s go.” I send a text to Glenn before my phone dies. “See you Paddington.” 2130 : The train back to the West of England pulls out of Paddington, and I just want to get home. The game I had just witnessed was one of the most lifeless and depressing performances in living memory. Where now, Chelsea? It might turn out to be a long long winter this one. There are a few boisterous Bristol City fans at the buffet as I get PD and myself a drink for the return journey. They are full of cheer about their 4-0 victory at Fulham, and there is a song for Tammy Abraham. I dislike – no, I hate – Bristol City and I must be one of a very small group of Chelsea fans who, although pleased for our young player, is far from happy about his spell at Ashton Gate. As the train heads west, the horrible Bristolian accent haunts me. Some City fans gave me a proper kicking in 1984 – Glenn and PD were with me that night – and this is the final twist of the knife on this most disheartening and depressing of days. 2330 : The night train to Frome sets off from Bath station, full of shrieking females from Trowbridge and Westbury. I just want to get some sleep. 0008 : The train slides in to Frome station and we say our goodbyes. “Have a good week Paul, see you at 6 o’clock next Saturday.” 

 

 

 

Tales From Friday Night Football.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

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Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

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Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea.

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

For once, I was in with quite a while to spare. The kick-off was over half-an-hour away. On the pitch, the Chelsea players were in the middle of their warm-up drills, chatting away, looking at ease. I soon spotted the wild hair of David Luiz. He looked a little subdued to be honest. Despite rumours of him being selected in the team, he was to take a place on the bench. While the players moved over to a more central area to take shots at Asmir Begovic, there was a song for our returning centre-half / defensive midfielder.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

The blue Carabao training gear looks slightly better than the hideous yellow, but only slightly.

I captured Luiz taking a shot at goal, with him looking away at the last minute, something of his trademark. Inside, I purred.

But there would be no place for David Luiz in the starting eleven against Swansea City on this Sunday in September. Ever since the news broke through that Chelsea were in talks to re-sign our former player, I have warmed to the idea of having him back in the fold. Yes, his defensive frailties are well known, and this is what concerned me most. I’ll not lie, I was quite stunned when I heard the news. We all remember the glee that we felt when PSG stumped up fifty million big ones just before his disastrous World Cup in 2014. Why on Earth would we want him back? And then I remembered that our new man in charge Antonio Conte favours a 3-5-2, or at least he has done in the most recent past. I started thinking about football formations, team shapes, and for many an hour I was lost in my own little world, conjuring up images of tactics board after tactics board, arrows pointing this way and that way, formations, formations, formations.

I thought back to the 1995/1996 season when Glenn Hoddle embraced a 5-3-2 – or was it a 3-5-2? – for the very first time, with Dan Petrescu and Terry Phelan as pushed-on wing backs, and a trio of central defenders, which varied a little, but tended to consist of David Lee, Michael Duberry and Steve Clarke.

This formation was relatively short-lived at Chelsea, but it produced a few thrilling performances. The FA Cup winning team of the following season was a more predictable 4-4-2, but there were three central defenders famously used against the aerial bombardment of Wimbledon in the semi-final. So it is a formation that we have experienced before. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not an expert on formations and tactics. It’s not really my thing. But I thought of David Luiz, playing in a defensive three, alongside two more robust central defenders, and I wondered if he could be our version of Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, who caught my eye in the euros in France, spreading passes around with ease. Think of David Luiz being Frank Leboeuf with hair, and lots of it. The thought of Luiz, however, in just a flat back four scared me a little.

I then heard talk of 3-4-3 formations and I threw my tactics board out of the window.

Formations come and go. The standard 4-4-2 at Chelsea – ah the memories of Jimmy and Eidur – gave way to Mourinho’s 4-3-3 for a while before the 4-2-3-1 gained favour. There was also the famous 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” though hardly used by us.

It begs the age old question, does a manager fit players around a formation or a formation around players? Over the next few months, I suspect we will see Conte trying out a few variations. It might be some time before he is settled. It took Claudio Ranieri most of his first season at Chelsea to figure it all out. At the moment Antonio Conte favours a 4-1-4-1.

It seems incredible to me, really, that so few teams play with more than one attacker. The days of Jimmy and Eidur, and certainly Kerry and Speedo, seem light years away. Maybe we’ll see its return one of the days.

David Luiz, in his second spell with us, would be wearing squad number thirty. This got me thinking about the past too. We first experienced squad numbers in the 1993/1994 season, the second campaign of “Sky TV” and all of its hideous mixture of subsequent pros and cons. Until then, there was something special about the simple 1-11 shirt numbering system. I didn’t like the idea of messing with it. It all seemed too American for my liking. And we also had to suffer players’ names on the back of shirts too. More finicky changes. More commercialism. More shite. Groan.

Very soon into 1993/1994, our Danish central defender Jakob Kjeldbjerg was given shirt number thirty-seven, and a little part of me died.

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

In today’s parlance – “Against Modern Football.”

In the good old days, the system was simple.

  1. Green shirts. Big gloves.
  2. Right-back. Always. No questions asked.
  3. Left-back. Always. Easy. For some reason, he always had “an educated left foot.”
  4. Midfield dynamo. Think John Hollins. Billy Bremner. Tended to be on the short side, don’t ask why, just accept it.
  5. Centre-back. Blocker. Man mountain. The leap of a salmon. Strength of a shire horse, brains of a rocking horse. Tackle first, ask questions later. Think Micky Droy, Steve Wicks, Joe McLaughlin.
  6. Centre-back. But the more skilful one of the two. Think Alan Hansen. Marvin Hinton.
  7. Right-winger. Again, for some reason, a short-arse. Think Steve Coppell, Ian Britton, Jimmy Johnstone. Pat Nevin. A skilful bugger, prone to mazy dribbles. And falling over.
  8. Box to box midfielder. The fulcrum of the midfield. Think Nigel Spackman in 1983/1984.
  9. The centre-forward. The most iconic number ever. Peter Osgood, Tommy Lawton, Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Kerry Dixon. Goal scorer supreme. Dream maker.
  10. A smaller, more agile, version of the centre-forward, playing off the number nine. David Speedie. Why am I referencing 1983/1984 here? Too easy. Ah, think Peter Beardesley, but not for too long, that boy was hardly a looker.
  11. Left-winger. And for some reason, a lanky bugger. Peter Houseman, Peter Barnes. Davie Cooper as the exception.

And there we have it. Growing up in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, this was the accepted numbering system. Liverpool buggered it up, as is their wont, in around 1977 when Ray Kennedy, a skilful left-sided midfielder, was given a number five shirt. I can still feel the sense of betrayal and confusion to this day. Phil Thompson slid into a number four shirt, and for a while, this was the one exception. Then it became the norm for central defenders to take a number four shirt – paging Colin Pates – and at Chelsea, this resulted in John Bumstead wearing number six. It is at around this time that Western Civilisation began to fall apart, and we all know why.

I blame Ray Kennedy.

Thinking about the numbering system of old, the simple one to eleven, I quickly ran through the Chelsea team to face Swansea City and came up with this.

  1. Thibaut Courtois.
  2. Branislav Ivanovic.
  3. Cesar Azpilicueta.
  4. N’Golo Kante.
  5. John Terry.
  6. Gary Cahill.
  7. Willian.
  8. Nemanja Matic.
  9. Diego Costa.
  10. Oscar.
  11. Eden Hazard.

Admit it, it looks strange but quite perfect at the same time doesn’t it?

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

As the minutes passed by, and as the players disappeared down the tunnel, the away end seemed to take forever to fill.

Swansea is an easy away game for The Chuckle Brothers and myself. Our pre-match drink, in the same bar as last April, down by the marina, soon followed the two-hour drive from our homes on the Somerset and Wiltshire border. We were joined by a mate from Atlanta, Prahlad, who was over on business for a while, and who was supremely excited to be able to go to a Chelsea away game. A mate had not been able to attend, and so I arranged for Prahlad to pick up his ticket. Both parties were happy with the result. Incidentally, Prahlad has been working up on Merseyside for a few weeks, and I wondered if his name was changed to “Soft Lad” once the locals realised that he was a Chelsea fan.

The minutes ticked by.

I was sat – stood – alongside Parky, Alan and Gary. PD and Young Jake were right at the front, below us and behind the goal, awaiting to be captured on TV camera. Prahlad was over on the other side of the goal in the lower section of Chelsea support.

I had received a photograph on my phone from another mate from the US, John – from LA, over on business too – but his view was from the other end. His decision to attend the game – his first Chelsea away game in England, er Wales – was a last minute affair, and he had missed out on tickets in the Chelsea allocation. Instead, he had managed to pick up a front row seat from the Swansea City ticket exchange at face value. I quickly spotted him. It reminded me of the time Glenn and I watched from the home end in 2013/2014.

At kick-off, there was an empty seat to my immediate left, and an empty seat in front of me. I got the impression, as I looked around, that there were many empty seats in our section.

This was really galling.

Of course, now that every single away ticket in the Premier League is set at £30, it is obvious that many Chelsea supporters are simply buying tickets without attending the actual game, stacking up loyalty points for the big games along the way, and perhaps offloading them if they can.

This can’t be right, can it?

Sure, buy a ticket, but only if you can be sure of passing it on to someone who needs it.

As the game progressed, many seats remained unused, yet poor John was having to slum it in the home end, away from his Chelsea brethren, and our support must’ve looked poor to the home fans and those watching on in TV Land.

I am surprised that we were not treated to a chant – “sell all your tickets, you didn’t sell all your tickets” – from the locals.

This was a black and white show at the small but trim Liberty Stadium. Swansea, having jettisoned their particularly neat Adidas in favour of a poor Joma kit – were in all white and we were in our all-black abomination.

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

I refer you to my “Against Modern Football” comment and its associated moans above.

Alan and Gary had travelled down from London on one of the official coaches and had, as with last season, enjoyed some fish and chips outside the stadium before the game. Alan was so contented with his food that he took a photograph.

[AWFUL ANNUAL “WHOSE COAT IS THAT JACKET?”JOKE WARNING, ADVANCE WITH CAUTION]

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

[THIS VERY SAME LINE WILL BE REPEATED NEXT SEASON TOO. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

We played well in the first-half, and for a fleeting moment I thought that we would see a repeat of our dominant 5-0 win in 2014/2015.

Soon into the game, the dire Conte chant was aired, but it thankfully did not reappear all game.

Willian, out on the right, teasing away in his number seven jersey – sorry, number twenty-two – caused Fabianski to make strong saves. We were attacking down the left flank too, with Eden Hazard looking lively. On eighteen minutes, a spell of Chelsea pressure allowed Diego to work the ball to Ivanovic. He let fly with a fierce shot, but the ball was not cleared. Oscar did well to gather under pressure and lay off to Diego Costa. His shot was perfectly placed to Fabianski’s left.

One-nil to us, happy days.

Eden Hazard is simply unplayable when he sweeps in from the wide left position, leaving defenders in his wake, and he drove hard into the box. Sadly his shot was saved by the Swans’ ‘keeper. Despite our dominance, the Chelsea support was rather subdued in my mind.

The home support is strong in the side section to our left, but elsewhere the Liberty Stadium is not particularly intense.

Chances came and went for us, and surely a second goal would kill Swansea off. Dave went close. Kante was everywhere. Swansea rarely threatened Thibaut’s goal.

Diego, bless him, drew the ire of the home fans with every tackle, every challenge. He soon became their pantomime villain. He would be booed by the Swansea fans every time he had the ball. Unbelievably, Diego managed to plant the ball wide of the goal when only a few yards out. From our end, we simply could not fathom how he had missed, nor how a Chelsea player had failed to get a touch.

There was a little “Wales” / “England” banter during the first-half, but that bored me rigid.

The only meaningful attempt by Swansea on our goal took place in the closing minutes ofv the half, when Dave allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson to much space, but thankfully his firmly-hit shot fizzed past out far post.

In many a conversation at the break : “we should’ve scored a second.”

As the second-half started, the tackles continued to come in thick and fast. It was turning to a feisty affair. Diego, continually booed, seemed to be inspired by this depth of hatred towards him, and twisted and turned past opponents as he continually broke with the ball at his feet. At times he hangs on to the ball, but here he seemed to release others at just the right time.

Then, a calamity.

A Swansea counter attack and a long reaching ball played across the edge of the box. Courtois, living a quiet life until then, raced out and fouled Sigurdsson just inside the area. Was his judgement at fault? I think so. It was no guarantee that the Swansea player would score.

The same player thumped the ball past Courtois from the penalty.

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

More bollocks just three minutes later when Gary Cahill was caught as he struggled to control a pass from John Terry. He was robbed by Leroy Fer, and could only watch as the Swansea player raced on and somehow bundled the ball past Courtois, after the ‘keeper initially partially stopped the first effort. From my position over seventy yards away, it looked like Cahill was at fault. The referee, Andre Marriner, was much closer to the action than me…

More hymns and bloody areas, the Welsh national anthem, and “I can’t help falling in love with you.”

At least none of the buggers were dressed as Teletubbies, unlike two unfortunates in 2015.

So, rather than a second goal for us, and the chance to go four for four, and sit atop the table, we were now 2-1 down.

Crazy.

We continued to attack. I looked over at the manager, seemingly about to self-detonate at any moment. He urged, he cajoled, he bellowed, he shouted, he gestured. He was stood the entire game.

Oscar curled one towards to goal, but Fabianski did well to arch his back and tip over. Diego went down just outside the box. Maybe even I am beginning to think the same way as others; his fall looked too easy. The referee waved play on. The Chelsea end was livid.

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

Within five minutes, constant Chelsea pressure paid off. Oscar played in Ivanovic, who glided past his man and shot right down below me. The ball caromed off a defender and looped high towards the far post. Diego Costa – who else? – was waiting for the ball to fall. Time was precious and he soon decided that he could not wait any longer. He jumped, swivelled, and hit an overhead shot goal wards. The ball hit a Swansea defender, but its momentum carried the ball over.

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

I could not fault our spirit to keep going, to keep pressing, to keep attacking.

The game ended in a frenzy of chances. Diego forced a fine save from Fabianski after a gliding run from Hazard.

Hazard then took one for the team after losing possession to Barrow. He chased the advancing Swansea attacker and cynically pulled him back. A goal then would have killed us.

Two final chances to us – Fabregas, Moses – did not test the Swansea ‘keeper and it stayed 2-2.

Despite my honest pleasure in seeing us fight back to get a share of the points, there was a definite sense of dissatisfaction that such long periods of domination over the entire game did not give us three points.

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

I bumped in to John on the walk back to the car. He had enjoyed himself too – behind enemy lines – but I didn’t have the stomach to tell him that there were many empty seats in our end.

It was a fine evening as we drove back towards England, the sun fading, the evening drawing in, music on, chatting away, another match, another day on the road following the boys, with thoughts of other games on the horizon.

I watched “Match Of The Day 2” later in the evening and it was obvious that myself and Andre Marriner were wrong on both occasions. Gary Cahill was fouled in the build-up to their second goal. Diego Costa had been fouled outside the box too. Bollocks and bollocks again.

On Friday, we play Liverpool and the top of the table is beckoning.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From A Simple Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 27 August 2016.

Oh dear. How soon people forget. It wasn’t long into the journey to Stamford Bridge that – despite our struggles against most teams last season – I was heard to comment that I expected us to easily win our game against Burnley, despite their recent surprising 2-0 win against Liverpool. This was based on the assumption that our manager Antonio Conte had managed to reverse the malaise of the previous campaign, which in itself was based on a handful of pre-season games, a narrow win against Bristol Rovers, and two equally close victories in two league games. Two league games. My – our, the other three Chuckle Brothers shared my view – new found optimism in all things Chelsea was, really, based on our performances in just two league games.

After such a troublesome season in 2015/2016, I wondered if my optimism was misguided. Was I overdosing on positive-thought? Surely, there are no games in the top division these days which should be taken as lightly as I evidently was taking this one? The others had predicted theirs scores, and I don’t usually join in with these parlour games. I jokingly retorted “7-0”, not wishing nor wanting to be taken seriously.

As the day unfolded, I was to find out if all of this new-found confidence in the manager and team was warranted.

There was something strikingly satisfactory about the game against Burnley. It would start up a three-day bank holiday weekend and it was a three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. There is just something about this; the traditional kick-off time for all football games in the United Kingdom before the TV companies got their grubby hands on the TV schedules, sending fans off around the country to witness ridiculous games at ridiculous times in ridiculous places.

3pm, Saturday, simple.

Glenn and myself had our own little pub-crawl before the game. We started off with a quiet drink in the newly re-opened “Wellington” on Haldane Road, tucked away behind the busy North End Road. We recently heard that the landlords at “The Goose” (our regular pub, in the main, since around 1999, apart from a few months of exile in “The Mitre” and the “Fulham Dray”), were to leave at the end of September and I suppose there will be a chance we will move on too, if the new incumbents do not run the pub in the way that we have been accustomed with Lorraine and Reg.

We spoke about the transfer policy of the club, or lack thereof.

I almost feel that everyone within the Chelsea Nation feels – roughly – the same way about all of this, so I have nothing much to gain from sharing my own particular views.

Ake, Bamford, Christensen, plus twenty-three others, an A to Z of confusion and mess.

I just hope that Kurt Zouma – the last on the A to Z, but the first in my mind – recovers as soon as possible this autumn. Most fans recognise that we need extra bodies in defence, but if Kurt can recover soon, and it is the biggest worry that he will not, we might – just might – be able to get through all of this without spending typically silly money on a panic buy. Daryl and myself spoke about this on Tuesday. This was before the promising Ola Aina had a knock.

I mentioned to Glenn it is the strangest thing that with all of our Italian managers, dating back to 1998, we have never bought a tried and tested Italian defender, apart from the short-lived and unsuccessful loan of Christian Panucci in 1999. You would have thought that an Italian manager at Chelsea would love a trusted defender from his own country. They know how to defend, those Italians.

In The Goose, there was a cast of thousands, seeping out from the bar and into the packed beer garden. There was the usual alcohol-induced banter, apart from me, a miserable bastard on “Cokes.” Daryl was knocking out a nice line in new Chelsea badges, while Gary was chatting away to two South London “sorts” and was the subject of much piss-taking.

“They’re from my area, Chris; Croydon.”

“Oh nice – are you talking about chip shops you all frequent?”

Wayne pointed at Gary and said “he’s quite the magnet, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll always find him near a fridge.”

There were a few – around twenty – claret-and-blue clad away fans in the beer garden, minding their own business. We wondered if, given that the most away fans pay for away games is now £30, they would take their full 3,000 allocation.

Glenn and I also called in to “The Malthouse,” just as the team came through on our phones, before continuing our walk to the stadium. We had heard on the grapevine that the “Lillie Langtry” at West Brompton had recently re-opened, and I noticed that the pub on Fulham Broadway previously known as “Brogan’s” has re-opened, or re-branded as they say these days, as “McGettigan’s.” It is a pub that I have only ever visited once and I don’t know of anyone that goes there. Odd. I guess we all have our favourites. If “The Goose” fails to impress, we might need to find alternatives.

As for the starting-eleven, Antonio Conte had kept Oscar instead of Fabregas and this surprised me, especially after his assists at Watford.

Courtois.

Brana – Gary – JT – Dave.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego.

There were a few spots of rain as we waited in line at the turnstiles this would soon pass. Inside, a quick glance over to The Shed, and only 1,500 Burnley fans.

Oh well, I have to remember how small the town of Burnley actually is. It has a smaller population – 73,000 – than places such as Bath, Gloucester and Eastbourne.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, Neil Barnett said a few nice words about Ian Britton, who sadly featured in these match reports last season.

I applauded his memory but the vast majority decided not to.

Thankfully there were no flames being thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams emerged. I looked over to see if Roman Abramovich was present. He had watched the Rovers game on Tuesday, with Andre Shevchenko sitting a few seats in front, but he was not able to be spotted for this game.

“Typical JCL, picking and choosing his games.”

It was a perfect afternoon for football.

For the second successive home league game, our opposition was in claret and blue. We hoped that Burnley would go the way of West Ham.

The pre-match drizzle had given the pitch an extra zip, and we were soon celebrating. With the game not even ten minutes old, Nemanja Matic released Eden Hazard inside his own half. He had the entire right flank of Burnley’s defence at his mercy and he drove on in to acres of space. He teased and toyed with his markers, but effortlessly drifted inside with his trademark drop of the shoulder and softly curled a beautiful low shot beyond the dive of goalkeeper Tom Heaton. As the team gathered around him to celebrate, he was soon to thank Diego Costa for a run which took the attention of other defenders away from his own run. It was textbook stuff.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were then treated to a period of sumptuous football from Chelsea, if not a little over-indulgent on occasion. Both Willian, stopping, then darting past his marker, on the right, and Hazard, gliding with 2014/2015 ease past everyone, were the main stars going forward, but that man Kante soon impressed me with his energy, work rate and industry. It would turn out to be a masterclass from him.

Burnley were simply not in it.

Hazard again went close. A Gary Cahill volley, which reminded me of that scissor-kick goal from JT at The Shed a few years back, was deflected for a corner. Dave went close. A Terry header was at Heaton.

With Kante anchoring the midfield, Matic was able to move further up the field. He needs to be teased out of his defensive shell. He needs support from everyone to reach his 2014/2015 level, when he was magnificent. Maybe we can help him. Support him. Cheer him on. That’s our job, right?

Fair play to their fans, though. From mid-way through the first-half for a good fifteen minutes, they supported their team well. They sang non-stop, presumably about the hated Blackburn Rovers, and it was a fine performance. I didn’t catch much of it, nor – more to the point – was able to decipher it, save for their most famous song.

“And it’s no nay never.

No nay never no more.

Till we play Bastard Rovers.

No never no more.”

I am sure that all of the other songs and chants uttered in thick Lancastrian were similarly aimed at the fans and players of Blackburn Rovers.

Songs about how the Burnley Womens’ Institute regularly get more gold medals in the Lancashire frock making competition than that of Blackburn. Chants about how the “Pig and Whistle” darts team in Burnley whip the arse of Blackburn’s “Red Rose” pub every year. Ditties extolling the virtues of the fair maidens of Burnley as opposed to the gin-addled whores of Blackburn. It’s a local vibe in that part of East Lancashire, alright.

Fantastic play between Willian and Oscar set up Diego, who shot low, and Heaton was able to parry. There was a little frustration, certainly within me, that our domination – total – was not being rewarded. Thankfully, we were soon to be rewarded with a deserved second goal. Diego had time to play a lateral ball out wide to Willian, who quickly assessed the situation. He moved the defender out of his way with a shake of the hips, then guided a low shot towards Heaton’s far post. It was a beautiful goal. It was what we had deserved.

Bloody lovely stuff, Chelsea.

Burnley – let me say – had been poor and it was not until the forty-second minute that they attempted a shot on goal. Scott Arfield, who had scored against us on that drizzle-filled day in Burnley in 2014 – ah that pass from Fabregas to Schurrle still warms me – banged in a low shot which fizzed past Thibaut Courtois’ far post.

At the break, all was well. We had played some sumptuous stuff at times. It could easily have been 4-0 at the break. Maybe my “7-0” would not be such a stupid remark after all.

As the second-half began, it was more of the same. High intensity everywhere across the midfield, and constant forays into the Burnley defence. Burnley were twisted this way and that. They probably didn’t know what day of the week it was. Diego failed to hit the corners of the goal after a fine passing move found him in the box. Heaton, a fine young goalkeeper, kept thwarting our efforts with a few fine saves. From a pin-point Willian corner, Hazard volleyed at goal, but Heaton saved well, down low, after probably seeing the ball late. John Terry blazed over, from inside the six-yard box, and we all wondered “how.”

Hazard broke in on goal once more, but another fine Heaton save, damn it.

Kante continued to impress during the second-half. It seems sacrilegious to even write these words, but this small, slight player, so much like Makelele in many respects, could even turn out to be a better player than our former midfield legend. I have mentioned it previously, but I love the way he wastes not one second of time in moving the ball on. He covers space, he tackles, he blocks, he hustles, he harries, he chases, he destroys. He is bloody magnificent.

Typically, a mere minute after I said to Alan “Kante has not put a foot wrong all day” he miss-played a simple pass to Diego.

The exception that proves the rule? Possibly.

With the end of the match approaching, I could hardly believe that Burnley had managed to keep it to 2-0. There was the usual flurry of late changes. With Willian having played well all game, he was given a good ovation when he was replaced by Victor Moses. Soon after Michy Batshuayi and Pedro replaced Diego and Hazard; much applause for them too.

Batshuayi made room for himself well, but blasted over, wildly. He needed ice in his veins at that last crucial moment. It looked like a third goal would be elusive.

At the death, I applauded the fact that Mark Clattenburg – never flavour of the month at any time of the year – allowed play to continue after a late challenge on Oscar by Tarkowski. Batshuayi played the ball out to a raiding Pedro. Burnley were wide-open.

“We’ll score here” I whispered to Alan.

A few touches from Pedro, and a perfect ball was played towards the on-rushing Moses, who prodded the ball home perfectly.

Alan and myself, smiles as wide as the gaps in Burnley’s defence, looked at each other with glee.

Three goals, three points and a perfect day.

It seemed that my pre-match concerns about being overly-confident were wide of the mark. Burnley, for all their huff and puff, were poor. They did not have a single effort on target the entire game. Thibaut has surely never had an easier day at the office.

Although the noise from the home sections did not match the quality of football on the pitch, thankfully Chelsea did not bother with that Conte chant from Watford – hopefully resigned to a place in the list of “Chelsea One Hit Wonders” – and Burnley, God bless’em – didn’t do a Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was another feel-good vibe as we slipped back to our car. Parky was even waiting for us on Lillie Road with a pizza for us to share.

Three games, nine points, simple.

Top of the league, having a pizza.

Good times in SW6.

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Tales From Bristol, Bath And London.

Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers : 23 August 2016.

The last time that I saw Bristol Rovers play was in February 1993 when I was lured to Bath – my nearest city and the place of my birth – to see the visit of Tranmere Rovers and, more specifically, Pat Nevin, in the second tier of English football, which was then called the First Division of the Football League. This was a season when I didn’t attend too many Chelsea games in the latter part of the season, since I was saving for a bumper trip to the US in the autumn of 1993, but I managed to gather enough money together to drive to Bath on a bitterly cold afternoon to watch my favourite ever player play one more time. Since I was supporting Pat, I took my place in the sparsely-populated away end at Twerton Park – Rovers’ home from 1986 to 1996 – among the Tranmere fans, and watched, with my extremities getting colder and colder as the game progressed, with decreasing interest in a game that neither excited me or even mattered too much. The home team won 1-0, thus pleasing the vast majority of the 5,135 crowd, but it did not save them from relegation that season. I looked on, disconsolate, as Pat Nevin struggled against the Bristol Rovers defence and I was left wondering how such a gifted player was now playing in the yellow and green away colours of Tranmere Rovers.

That I was lured to Bath for a Bristol Rovers game all those years ago was pretty typical of many like-minded souls from my local area around that time. When Bristol Rovers were forced out of their traditional Eastville Stadium, their temporary exile in the Roman and Georgian city of Bath at the home of Bath City resulted in many football fans in the Frome area adopting Rovers as a second team, or even a first team. There is no doubt that Rovers’ support – traditionally the northern areas of Bristol and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire – took on new characteristics in that ten years of alternative domicile. Their demographics definitely shifted east. I know of several local lads who now support Rovers ahead of other, larger, teams, and I think their base in Bath for ten years sparked this. I remember watching a couple of other games at Twerton too; against Middlesbrough in 1986 and Notts County in 1988. It was a poor ground to be honest, but suited Rovers’ needs.

Growing up, the two local football teams to me were Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. My father always contended that City were always a second division team and Rovers, the scrappy underdog, a third division team. I hardly knew any supporters of the two Bristol teams. They must have existed, but it wasn’t until I began middle school in the autumn of 1974 that I met one.

On my very first day at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome, I happened to sit opposite Dave, a lad from Frome, whose roots were in Bristol. It is very likely that some of the very first words that we said to each other were of our two football teams. I was Chelsea and he was Rovers. I had been to my very first Chelsea game in the March of that year, but I quickly learned that Dave had been to many Rovers games over the previous few seasons. In 1973/1974, Rovers had won promotion to the Second Division – I can still hear Dave extolling the virtues of the “Smash and Grab” striking partnership of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister – and he was full of stories of games at the endearingly ramshackle Eastville Stadium, especially involving the rough and tumble which used to accompany football in those days. We used to talk about our two teams. We even used to draw detailed drawings of Eastville and Stamford Bridge – both were oval, both had hosted greyhound racing – and our friendship grew and grew.

In the autumn of 1974, I played in my first-ever 11-a-side football match; it was a house match, Bayard – blue – versus Raleigh – red – and both Dave and myself were in the Bayard team.

We won 2-0, and I opened the scoring with a left-footed volley, while Dave followed up with the second goal as we won 2-0.

As football debuts go, it was damned perfect.

Bayard 2 Raleigh 0.

Chris 1, Dave 1.

Chelsea 1, Rovers 1.

Blue 2 Red 0.

The next season – around March 1976 if memory serves – the two of us were selected, as mere ten year olds, to play in the school team against a team from Bath, the only two from our year to be selected. It was a proud moment for me, yet – looking back with hindsight – it probably represented the high water mark of my footballing career. I would never reach such heights again, eventually dropping to the “B team” by the time I reached the age of fourteen, right at the end of the 1978/1979 season, unsure of my best position, and riddled with a lack of confidence in both myself as a person and as a player. Dave turned out to be a far more rounded footballer – a combative midfielder with a good pass – and played football at a reasonable level for many years. My mazy runs down the wing soon petered out against tougher opposition.

I will say something, though – and I was only speaking to Dave about this a couple of months ago after a “From The Jam” gig in our home town – there was a ridiculous chemistry between the two of us on a football pitch, which probably stemmed from the hours we played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard. I was a right winger and Dave played in midfield. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

I would play the ball to Dave, set off on a run, and he would find me. After a while of this – time after time, game after game – it almost got embarrassing.

Dave agreed.

“Baker – our games master – would say “what is it with you two?””

Good times.

No, great times.

Leading up to our League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers, I was in contact with Dave, though was sorry to hear that he would not be attending. I had to bite my lip from uttering the classic schoolboy line “shall I get you a programme?”

This would – hopefully – be a fun evening for myself, perhaps for Dave, and for the others from my home area who are afflicted with Chelsea and Rovers devotion.

As I caught a glimpse of the local BBC TV news bulletin at 6am on the day of the game, there was a brief mention of the game at Stamford Bridge. The graphic came up on the TV screen :

“Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers”

I shuddered and had a second look. It brought back immediate memories of when the two clubs were in the same division – the old second division – on a few occasions in my youth. But more of that later.

After another torrid day at work, I collected the Chuckle Brothers and we were on our way. Talk was all about the game at the start of the drive to London. A few friends would be in the Rovers end. News came through that a lot of Rovers’ fans had made a day of it and had been on the ale all day. This was brewing up nicely. A Chelsea game of course, but a game with a lovely local interest for us all. Whisper it, but Glenn often used to go and watch Rovers with his brother and a few other Frome rapscallions from 1986 to 1993, but he has since seen the light and now regards Rovers as an afterthought; a fling which had no long-lasting meaning.

Bristol Rovers. The Pirates. The Gas. The blue half – or maybe quarter – of Bristol, and therefore more palatable to me than Bristol City. Rovers spent most of their existence in the second and third divisions, before cascading down to the fourth division in the early-eighties along with their hated city rivals. Whereas City have enjoyed a little more success of late, Rovers were relegated from the Football League as recently as 2014. It was Dave’s worst ever moment. However, successive promotions have now hoisted Rovers back in to the third tier. Things are looking up for The Gas, a relatively recent moniker from the ‘eighties, which originated firstly as “Gasheads”, a derisory term from the City end of town, since an old gasometer used to stand over Eastville. The Rovers fans have now adopted it as a badge of honour.

Some stories to tell.

Of my first-ever twenty Chelsea games, four were against Bristol Rovers, at Eastville.

Because so much of who I am as a Chelsea supporter stems from my childhood passion for the team, I always say that my first one hundred games are the bedrock of my devotion. I can remember distinct details, most probably, from all of my first one hundred games. And as I am about to demonstrate I can certainly remember oodles from my first twenty.

Game 5 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 29 November 1975.

My first-ever Chelsea away game, and I can distinctly remember waiting outside my grandparents’ house in my local village for a lift to take my mother and I to the game. My father, a shopkeeper, was unable to get time off, but he had arranged for one of his customers, a Rovers season-ticket holder from near Cranmore, to take us to the game, along with his wife and daughter. I can remember the drive to Bristol, and the chat with the attractive blonde girl – a couple of years older, phew – to my right. I always remember she wore a blue satin jacket, edged in tartan.

“Blue for Rovers, tartan for the Bay City Rollers.”

Mum and myself took our seats in the main stand, and I loved being able to see Eastville in the flesh, at last, after all of Dave’s diagrams and related details. Chelsea wore the lovely old Hungarian red, white, green, and we won 2-1, despite Bill Garner getting sent off. I remember the angled flower beds behind the Tote End goal. There were outbreaks of fighting in the stadium. It was a fantastic first away game. The gate was a pretty healthy 16,277. Oh – I also remember a Chelsea fan getting a little too interested in my mother – awkward – and I remember seeing the very same bloke at Ashton Gate later in the season, this time with my father on the scene. My mother and I would have a knowing glance and smile at each other.

Game 9 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 5 October 1976.

I always remember that my parents and I travelled up to see the Chelsea vs. Cardiff City game on the Saturday, and were amazed to read in the programme that our away game at Eastville, originally planned for later that autumn, had been brought forward to the following Tuesday. Tickets were hastily purchased – again in the main stand – and this time it was a full family carload that left my village after my father had picked me up outside my school on the way home from work. Both my parents and, from memory, my grandfather (his only Chelsea game with me) watched us on an autumnal evening in Bristol. I remember Dad got a little lost nearing the ground, but that was the least of our troubles. We lost 2-1 after getting it back to 1-1. Chelsea in red, red, blue. My first midweek game. More crowd trouble. A gate of 13,199. Despite the sad loss, we were promoted at the end of the season,

Game 16 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 23 February 1980.

An iconic game, for all the wrong reasons. On my travels around the country with Chelsea, I bump in to many of our fans from the West of England. It seems that every single one of them, to a man, was at this game. We were riding high in the second division after relegation in 1978/1979, and I was relishing the visit to Eastville to see a good Chelsea team against a mediocre Rovers eleven. I watched from the main stand yet again, and was thrilled to see my friends Glenn – yes, the very same – and his brother Paul, with their grandfather, watching from a few rows behind me. There was untold fighting before the game, with Chelsea in the Tote End, and police horses in the Tote End too. It was pandemonium. On the pitch, a below-strength Chelsea team (Bob Iles in goal, for starters) lost 3-0 to a fine Rovers performance. The crowd was a feisty 14,176. There must have been 4,000 Chelsea there. Debutant Dennis Rofe was sent off. Tony Pulis – yes, him – scored for Rovers. It would eventually cost us our promotion place at the end of the season and we would not recover until 1984. A grim day.

Game 19 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 14 March 1981.

This was a poor season and this was a poor game. This time, my father and two school friends stood on the small terrace in front of the main stand. We were drifting towards a lowly position in the second division while Rovers were on their way to relegation. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, of the previous season, had dissipated. The stand on the other side of the pitch – where I had watched a couple of speedway matches in 1977 and 1978 – had been burned down the previous summer and the gate was just 7,565. We were woeful. We lost 1-0. I remember Micky Droy playing upfront in the last ten minutes and hitting the bar with a header. A dire afternoon of football.

So, those paying attention will realise that of the last three times I have seen us play Bristol Rovers, we have lost every one.

In 2016, bizarrely, it was time for revenge.

We didn’t see many Rovers fans on the M4. I expected an armada. It was just a trickle. Most were already in the pubs and hostelries of London. A former boss, up for the game with his two sons, texted me to say they had been asked tom leave The Goose. No trouble. Just, I guess, for safety’s sake.

I was parked-up at about 6.30pm. The ridiculously warm London air hit me hard. It was like a sauna. PD, Parky and Glenn had chosen shorts. I wish I had done the same. In The Goose, there were a residual few Rovers fans, but everything was quiet. It was not as busy as I had expected. We had heard that some of the 4,000 were drinking at Earl’s Court, quite a common occurrence these days.

The team news broke.

Begovic – Dave – Cahill – Brana – Aina – Matic – Cesc – Pedro – Moses – Loftus-Cheek – Batshuayi.

A mixture. A chance for some to shine. We presumed Ruben would play off Michy.

The air was thick and muggy on the walk down the North End Road, along Vanston Place and up the Fulham Road. There were Rovers fans about – in their iconic quarters – but there was no hint of 1980-style nastiness.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was more than happy with the crowd. Only a few rows at the top of the East Stand remained empty. For some reason, like Liverpool in 2015, the away fans had the western side of the upper tier of The Shed, in addition to the whole of the bottom tier. Only three flags; a poor effort to be honest.

It was clear from the onset – and no real surprise to anyone – that the good people of Frenchay, Easton, Yate, Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Fishponds and Bradley Stoke would be making all the noise.

Very soon I heard the familiar sound of the Rovers’ theme tune.

“Irene, Goodnight Irene.

Irene, Goonight.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

More bloody silly flames were thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams entered the pitch. For a League Cup game. In August. Do me a favour, sunshine.

Chelsea in blue, Rovers in yellow.

The game began. It was still ridiculously warm.

It was all Chelsea for the first part of the game. With Moses and Pedro out wide, and Ruben alongside Batshuayi, we moved the ball well, and – cliché coming up – the Rovers players were chasing shadows. Chances piled up in the first twenty minutes with shots from all areas. Batshuayi dragged his shot wide after a fine move, and Ruben drove a low drive hard against the far post. In The Shed, the away fans were singing away.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rovers hardly threatened. They put together a crisp move featuring over twenty passes, but got nowhere.

On the half-hour, Loftus-Cheek played in Matic, and his ball in to the box was deflected towards the waiting Batshuayi; he swivelled and lashed it high past Steve Mildenhall in the Rovers’ goal.

Fred Wedlock : “CHTCAUN.”

Billy Wedlock : “COMLD.”

Soon after, a cross from Dave was played right across the goal and Victor Moses had the easiest job to touch it home.

It was 2-0 to us, and we were well on top.

But, no. Just before the break, Rovers swept in a fine ball from a free-kick in front of the East Stand and Peter Hartley rose to head the ball past Asmir Begovic, who until that point had not been tested.

The Rovers end ignited and, no bias, the version of “Goodnight Irene” that greeted their goal was truly deafening. Good work, my luvvers.

They then aimed a ditty at City and Glenn and myself thought about joining in.

“Stand up if you hate the shit.”

City call Rovers “Gas Heads.”

Rovers call City “Shit Heads.”

It’s all very colloquial in Brizzle.

Ellis Harrison then went close with a header.

Thankfully, we soon restored the lead when Batshuayi turned in a Loftus-Cheek pass, again from close range. It was good to see us getting behind defenders and hitting the danger areas.

We lead, then, 3-1 at the break.

It was still a sultry and steamy evening as the second-half began. It was Rovers, though, who began on the front foot and a deep run by their bearded talisman Stuart Sinclair caused us problems. A clumsy challenge by Pedro – yeah, I know – gave the referee an easy decision. Harrison dispatched the penalty with ease.

Rovers soon started singing Billy Ray Cyrus. Fuck off.

We rather went to pieces, and for the next twenty minutes, the away team held the upper hand. Their reluctance to attack for most of the first-half was cast aside and they caused us a few problems. Moses twisted and turned but shot wide. Then, the loose limbed Harrison unleashed a fine shot from distance which Begovic did well to turn over. It was becoming quite a competitive match.

We slowly got back in to our stride, but our finishing was quite woeful. I watched Ruben Loftus-Cheek as our moves developed, but his movement was non-existent. On more than one occasion, I was begging him to make an angle, to lose his marker, to create space, but he did not do so. I guess that instinct is not inside him.

Dave Francis would have found Chris Axon in 1976, no problem.

Thankfully, Rovers began to tire in the final quarter. By then, almost ridiculously, the manager had brought on Eden Hazard for a poor Pedro, John Terry for Ola Aina – sadly injured – and then Oscar for Loftus-Cheek. Our play was invigorated again, but no further goals followed, despite Michy bundling the ball in after good work from Hazard; sadly he was offside.

The away end was still bristling.

“We’re Bristol Rovers, we’ll sing to the end.”

Batshuayi had impressed me throughout the game. He is strong, does not lack confidence, is mobile and has a good first touch. I have a feeling he will be among the goals this season. It was a pretty reasonable game, save for our second-half dip, and I am sure that the travelling Bristolians enjoyed themselves. I was in contact with Dave throughout the match, and I am sure he was proud of his team, and supporters.

However, for the blue and white quarters – the travelling Gas Heads – it was “Goodnight Vienna.”

We set off home, on the M4, along with thousands of others heading west. At Reading Services, the Rovers fans outnumbered us, but they were in good spirits. After delays at a couple of spots on the journey home, I eventually pulled into my drive at 1.15am. These midweek games, Chuckle Brothers or no Chuckle Brothers, do not get any easier.

It had been thirty-five years since my last Chelsea game against Rovers. I wonder if I will ever see another one.

If so, I’m looking forward to it already.

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Tales From Vicarage Road.

Watford vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2016.

After the euphoria of Monday’s dramatic win against a rather disappointing West Ham United, Saturday could not come quick enough. On the face of it – “although no team should be underestimated blah, blah, blah”- I for one was certainly hoping for another league win to get us off to a solid start to 2016/2017. I was on driving duties again, and picked up PD, Parky and Young Jake en route. The skies threatened with rain a little, but this would surely be a fine day. I was parked in our standard car-park at just after midday. All four of us looked at the skies and decided against jackets. As with last season, the pre-match drink-up was in the ridiculously busy “The Moon Under Water” Wetherspoon’s on Watford High Street. Alan and Gary were soon spotted and, while I slowly sipped on “Cokes” – deep joy – I watched with admiration from afar as the others kept returning from the rammed bar with plastic pint after plastic pint. Many other members of the Chelsea Away Club popped over to say “hello” and the time soon passed. Watford’s High Street is solid with pubs, bars, clubs, restaurant and fast food joints. One lot of Chelsea were over at “The Flag” near the station. And we were in “The Moon Under Water.” Watford fans were present but a minority.

This was Chelsea Central.

It didn’t take long for the place to be reverberating with Chelsea songs. I am sure that many of our foreign fans, possibly still to visit England for a game, have this notion that on every match-day at Stamford Bridge, every single pub is shaking to the rafters as Chelsea song after Chelsea song is bellowed out. It simply isn’t like this. Singing does happen, but it’s quite random and ad hoc. My local “The Goose” is noisy, but pre-match songs are quite rare these days. There is more condensed singing at away pubs – “The Arkell’s” outside Anfield, “The Shakespeare’s Head” on the way to Arsenal and “Yates” in Southampton’s town centre are three easy examples – but a lot depends on numbers. Often, with Chelsea in the minority, there are no songs, often there are no clues who we are. On this particular match day, amid the usual Chelsea standards, I quickly noted a new chant. It could hardly be termed a song, since it was very flat, with hardly a melody. I quickly made a note of the words.

“Antonio Conte. Does it better. Makes me happy. Makes me feel this way.”

The last few words sounded familiar – annoyingly familiar – but because there was no notable tune involved, I was struggling to name the song. It boomed around the pub and although I felt myself subconsciously joining in as I queued for my round, I really wasn’t convinced. Maybe it will grow on me.

After the game on Monday, in the car on the way out of Fulham, I suggested to my friends that Willian’s performance had been the only one that had been a little sub-standard. On the face of it, once the team news had come through on our phones, it seemed that Antonio Conte had agreed with me.

Pedro in for Willian, otherwise unchanged.

I passed this nugget of news to Parky, but he was sodden with cider and just smiled and gave me a big hug.

“Whatever” I said, smiling, “sorry for spoiling your drinking.”

It is a bloody good job that I wrested the troops out of the pub earlier than normal because we were met with a ridiculous wait at the away end. There was building work last season, but no delay. This season, all two thousand Chelsea fans were pushed like cattle towards a double doorway of no more than four feet wide, with four turnstiles located inside the stand. What a farce. Why not have four turnstiles built into the actual perimeter wall? Anyway, we made it inside.

Incidentally, a rather huge Watford fan had waltzed past us, bellowing some chant or another, as we waited rather impatiently to get inside. The Chelsea choir seized the moment and targeted him.

“You ate Dennis Wise, you ate Dennis Wise – you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis Wise.”

Unlike last season, shunted way to the left, we had good seats. Vicarage Road is a tidy stadium, and there is infill taking place on all four corners. The corner to our left was a work in progress.

Before I had time to think, the Evertonian “Z Cars” heralded the teams on the pitch, and with the home end opposite a riot of yellow, red and black flags, the scene was set.

Chelsea were in a rather neat all-white kit. It is much better than the sub-standard home kit, with the juvenile lions embedded into the knit, and a hundred times better than the black away kit. Overall, I have not been too impressed with the Adidas kits since they took over from Umbro in 2006/2007. I wonder if the standard 2016/2017 Nike template will continue into next season. It seems that every single one of Nike’s uniforms have the same colour shirts and shorts, with contrasting sleeves and socks. I wonder what horrors we have in store next season. Light blue sleeves maybe? Shudder.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – white.

Chris – dark grey.

Let’s not deny it, for a very large part of this match, we were quite woeful, and it reminded me so much of some of our soporific performances last season, with little urgency and drive. Our game at Vicarage Road during the last campaign had been poor, although we had slowly improved during the second-half, but this was almost worse. As the game continued, I kept thinking back to my very effusive match report from Monday and wondered if my enthusiasm would now be looked at as rather premature and excessive.

If it was the same 4/1/4/1 as Monday, I would not have known, since Matic seemed unwilling to move from a deep midfield berth. The first-half was truly awful. The singing, which had been strong at the start, drifted away with each passing minute of inactivity on the pitch. Soon into the game, the skies darkened and misty rain gave way to a stronger shower.

“Good job we’ve all forgot our jackets.”

The floodlights flickered on. This was November in August.

To my left, I noticed that many Watford fans had vacated their seats in the Elton John Stand simply because the roof overhead did not fully extend over the seats. What a joke. I guess they watched from inside the concourse on TVs. Pathetic, really.

In the Chelsea dugout, I was transfixed with the animated cajoling of our new manager, who again looked very dapper in his suit and tie.

“A penny for your thoughts, Antonio.”

“And what do you think of the new song?”

“Yeah, me too.”

In all honesty, Watford could have been two-up at the break. A fine save by Thibaut Courtois from an angle kept Watford at bay early on. As the rain continued, play did not flow. Chelsea were ponderous in picking passes and movement off the ball was poor. Watford, without creating too much early on, seemed to be up for the fight more than us. The robust and spirited nature of our play on Monday was sorely lacking. Dare I say it, we looked tired. Kante buzzed around, attempting to bring other players in, but too often Ivanovic’ cross failed to get past the first man, Oscar failed to do anything constructive, Hazard failed to pick out Diego Costa, and Matic was just Matic. To my left, Gary was turning the air blue with every swear word known to mankind.

I turned to TBBM (“the bloke behind me”) and sighed “I’ve got this all season.”

Cahill did well to block a Watford shot. There was a call – from me anyway – for a back-pass after Gomes picked up the ball under pressure from Costa after a Watford defender seemed to have got a touch after the much-barracked former Tottenham ‘keeper initially spilled it.

A game of few chances and little joy, at half-time there were yawns the size of underground tunnels in the away end.

There were no positives from the first forty-five minutes to be honest. After the optimism of Monday evening, there was a noticeable deadening of our spirit. The singing had almost petered out completely.

It wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good at all.

With Chelsea attacking the away support, we hoped for better things as the game re-started. Eden Hazard fired wide, and we seemed to liven up a little. Sadly, after just ten minutes of the second-half gone, we were caught napping when Guedioura – who? – was able to cross from the Watford right. As three Chelsea defenders rose to head the centre away – all missing the flight of the ball completely – I immediately spotted danger as the ball dropped invitingly to a completely unmarked Watford player beyond the frame of the goal.

I uttered the immortal words “here we go” with a knowing sigh, and watched as Capoue brought the ball down and volleyed it high past Courtois.

Watford were one-up. Oh bollocks.

After the Watford celebrations and flag-waving had died down, we heard the home support for possibly the only time during the whole afternoon, as they sang in praise of their goal scorer.

Yep, you guessed, it – the Billy Ray Cyrus song. Fuck off.

The Antonio Conte song struggled to get going. It needs to change, somehow, for it to become more palatable.

We seemed to marginally improve, in terms of chances on goal, with Hazard and Matic going wide, but there was still a dullness to our body language. Watford turned overly physical in their efforts to hold on for the win. Frustrations boiled over on a number of occasions. An unlikely attacker almost created an opening when Ivanovic tempted Gomes out of his six-yard box, but the resulting cross in to the danger zone was cleared for a corner. A handball appeal, which I missed, was waved away.

With twenty minutes remaining, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Victor Moses. No complaints there.

Immediately, our play seemed to be more direct, more intense.

Moses enjoyed a spirited run down the left, which was met by a song from a few years back.

The Victor Moses “Pigbag” was sung with far more gusto than the Antonio Conte “Chaka Khan” (for it was her song “Ain’t Nobody” which had been butchered that afternoon in Watford.)

Oscar, who had drifted over to the right wing, was then replaced by Michy Batshuayi.

Things improved further and the fans around me realised this. The support grew stronger.

The final change and Cesc Fabregas replaced the woeful Nemanja Matic. I turned to Alan –

“Bloody hell, that’s an attacking line-up alright.”

After only two minutes on the pitch, Fabregas daintily picked out Hazard outside the box. He moved the ball laterally and then unleashed a low shot on target. The much-maligned Gomes made a mess of his attempted save, only feeding the ball towards Batshuayi who was on hand to tuck the spilled ball into the net.

GET IN.

Our new young striker reeled away in ecstasy and we were back in it. Playing with two up had borne dividends. We had an extra striker in the six-yard box. It seems simple, but how often has this simple fact been ignored over recent seasons? I again turned to Alan.

“Mourinho would often change personnel, but he very rarely changed the shape. Credit to Conte. Game on.”

Everyone around me sensed a more adventurous Chelsea now. It seemed we were genuinely on top. We pressed forward, urged on by a support that had finally found its voice.

“Antonio Conte. Does it bet-tah.”

Ivanovic came close. It was all Chelsea. The noise cascaded down towards our heroes on the pitch.

A rare Watford attack broke down, and the ball fell to Cesc Fabregas. He instantly looked up and spotted an advanced Diego Costa, about to set off on a run into the Watford half. His clipped pass was perfect, dropping right between two bamboozled and befuddled Watford defenders, allowing Costa a clear run on goal. He aimed for goal and steadied himself. A touch to set himself up. I was on my toes now, awaiting the strike. He shot low. It flew in through the legs of Gomes.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Pandemonium in the away end, pandemonium everywhere. Bodies flying this way and that. I steadied myself to photograph Diego’s beautiful celebrations – his second late match winner in two games –  but Parky grabbed hold of me and shook me hard. I managed to release myself to snap the team’s celebrations, and immediately after the away end was reverberating to a song about a Spaniard and his magic hat.

Beautiful.

I am not sure how we had done it, but we were winning a game in which, for a good seventy minutes, we had looked second-best. Over on the touchline, Conte had masterminded another masterstroke. I was full of admiration. Five minutes of extra-time were signalled but we would not let this slip. The team remained strong, energised, together. I was really impressed with Batshuayi and the striker could have made it 3-1 but his very neat turn and shot crashed back off the Watford bar.

The whistle went.

Phew.

Two wins out of two.

Phew.

On the walk back to the car, we were full of praise for the way that our Italian manager had changed things, in almost a carbon copy of the game on Monday. It is early days, of course, but it seems that we are all in for a fine time this season. Thankfully, we narrowly avoided a few spots of rain, which started up just after we reached the car, and again on the way back west along the M4. There would be no raining on our parade on this fine day of Chelsea glory. At Reading Services, we again avoided getting wet as we called in to collectively re-charge our batteries with our assault on “Fifty Shades Of Greggs” (OK, three – a sausage roll, a tandoori chicken baguette and a Philly Steak lattice; three down, forty-seven to go, watch this space, with no European travels this season, we have to find excitement where we can). Who should walk around the corner but two local lads that PD and myself know who had watched my local team Frome Town play at nearby Kings Langley, drawing 2-2. Frome have begun the season well, and I have seen them play twice already. Like Chelsea, Frome Town are in fourth place in their respective league, and I wished a few of the players well as they appeared from their coach on their way to refuel.

It capped off a fine day.

On Tuesday, we play Bristol Rovers in the latest incarnation of the League Cup, in what promises to be a noisy affair with four-thousand Bristolians taking over The Shed. I am sure that by the end of the evening, I will be sick to the death of “Goodnight Irene” being sung on a constant loop but I am relishing the chance to see a local team to me at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. There will be, undoubtedly, memories of games against them at Eastville flitting in and out of my head, and the resulting match report, all night.

I will see a few of you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.

Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.

In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.

It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.

Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.

1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.

And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.

As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.

This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.

After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.

“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.

Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.

Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.

Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.

Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHotoVK13T4

It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.

This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.

It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.

Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?

(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).

Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.

It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.

It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.

“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”

“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”

Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.

An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.

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The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH.  West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.

Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.

Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.

I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.

West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.

“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”

Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.

Fuck off.

West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.

Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.

Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.

Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.

Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.

All level at the break.

We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..

We teased the away fans :

“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”

No complaints at the interval.

PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.

I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.

All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”

We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.

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

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.

For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.

“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”

It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.

The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.

Payet, the danger man, came on.

With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”

Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.

Bollocks.

Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.

Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.

This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.

Damn.

In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.

2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.

It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.

A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.

Ha.

This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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