About chrisaxon

Chelsea supporter, diarist, photographer, traveler, but not necessarily in that order.

Tales From North Staffordshire.

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 18 March 2017.

This would be Chelsea’s eleventh visit to Stoke City’s stadium at the top of the hill. It is one of those stadia where I have seen all of Chelsea’s previous visits and although our away record against Stoke City was pretty reasonable at one stage, we have recently struggled, with three defeats in the past four games. Last season was particularly painful, with two losses in just eleven days. After our FA Cup game with Manchester United, all eyes were now firmly-focused on the Premier League. With an international break after the Stoke game, it was vitally important that we kept our momentum going, to maintain our gap at the top and to – well – just keep winning.

Although I try to keep a reasonable balance in these match reports, I am aware that there are a few times when I tend to get rather self-indulgent. Rather than reporting on the club, the team and its supporters, sometimes I delve into my own personal story; I have heard some supporters say that they enjoy all of this background stuff, but I am sure that there must be others who wonder what on Earth I am blathering on about. I spent three seasons – er, years – in The Potteries, when I was a student at North Staffs Poly in the ‘eighties. On all of the previous visits to the city covered by these tales, I have touched on various memories from my college life mixed in with my love for football in particular, and Chelsea – of course – at the centre of it all. There can’t be much left to say about my experiences in the city of Stoke-on-Trent from September 1984 to July 1987. But worry ye not, there will be a couple more during this one.

“Oh great” said 50%.

“Oh great” said 50%, sarcastically.

The weather was overcast as I drove PD, Parky and Scott north on the M5 and M6. I turned off onto the A500 – “the D Road” in the local vernacular – and soon breezed past Stoke City’s home ground on the hill at Sideway to my east. The Britannia Stadium has now been re-named the “Bet365 Stadium” since our last visit.

Yeah, I know. It will be a while before I stop calling it “The Britannia.”

Like last season, we spent a while in “The Terrace” pub, right opposite the playing fields of my old college. Although it is a good two miles away from the stadium, it is – crucially – the nearest pub to the Stoke-on-Trent train station. The pub was packed with Chelsea fans, and only Chelsea fans, and the ranks were swelled every twenty minutes or so as another train pulled in. I was able to park my car right outside the boozer.

“Talk about door to door service, lads.”

I was able to chat to a couple of local Chelsea fans. It brought back memories of my time at Stoke, when I became friendly with a few local lads who followed Chelsea and who used to occasionally pop into our local “The King’s Arms.” Memorably, they once stopped me from a potential roughing-up from some Chelsea fans from London. It was in 1986 or 1987, and I was walking in to Stoke from my house near the old Victoria Ground. I was wearing a T-shirt, purchased from the old Chelsea shop by the main gates at Stamford Bridge, which celebrated our new-found use of celery at games.

“Chelsea ICF – Inter Celery Firm.”

I breezed past some lads, and I heard one Cockney voice yell – aggressively – out “Chelsea ICF? What’s that about mate?” I suddenly feared the worse; that would be ironic, me getting roughed-up by a Chelsea fan, thinking I was possibly a West Ham fan wearing a shirt which took the piss out of Chelsea.  Thankfully, one of the local Stokies that I knew validated that I was Chelsea and a potential nasty situation was averted.

The West Brom vs. Arsenal game was on the TV, and the pub erupted as Arsenal conceded one and then two.

We left The Terrace at just before 2pm, allowing me plenty of time to get to my anointed parking place on a grass verge outside the stadium. Cars were parked everywhere; on bridges over the D Road, on pavements, on verges. It was quite feral. Up the path past the canal and the familiar sight of the stadium, high on the hill.

It was good to back in Stoke, among the familiar clipped accents of the locals.

Back in North Staffordshire.

Or “Nawth Staff’she” as they say in Fenton, Longton, Tunstall, Etruria, Hanley, Kidsgrove, Bentilee, Shelton and Trent Vale.

I remembered my very first visit to the city, during the summer of 1984. I recollected the interview that I had with a grizzled old lecturer at the poly, a local Stokie, sporting a Zapata moustache and an NUM badge, and who we later learned was a Port Vale supporter. During the interview, I mentioned that Stoke City used to have a chairman called Percy Axon – no relation, but I thought it was worthwhile mentioning, as I would – and I think that the bloke was amazed that I had heard of him. In his role as a local councilor, the lecturer had known Percy Axon. My surname is relatively rare and I am always amazed when I encounter it anywhere. We must’ve shared a laugh about it. I remember asking the interviewee, quite candidly I thought, what I needed to do in order to fail the interview, since I had been virtually offered a place despite far-from-impressive “A Level” results the previous November.

Just as candid, the lecturer, replied :

“Be obscene.”

I got it. I understood. It seemed Stoke needed me more than I needed Stoke.

Memorably, this very same lecturer took our very first “getting to know you” session in the September of that year. His opening line went down in our college folklore.

“So, bearing in mind you ended up in Stoke, how many of you fucked-up your A Levels?”

In the away end, slowly filling with the loyal three-thousand, we heard that Eden Hazard had fallen victim to an injury. Pedro was to play with Willian and Diego Costa. We also heard that Arsenal had capitulated further at The Hawthorns, losing 3-1. What a joke club. Every year the same old story.

Stoke is one of the coldest grounds going, but this was bearable. I had known worse. We were down low, row seven, right behind the goal. It wasn’t the greatest viewpoint but it made a change. I spotted the spire of St. Thomas at Penkhull just to the left of the Boothen End. For once, a stadium with some sort of view. It made a change not to be completely encased. I noted that the scoreboard to our right was no more; maybe the club is infilling that corner now.

The usual flurry or red and white-checked flags accompanied the two teams.

Chelsea in all blue.

“Come on boys.”

The place was virtually a sell-out; just a few empty seats in the home areas. I wondered if my pal Chad, newly-arrived from Minneapolis in the morning, had made it in. He had posted a picture on Facebook of him inside a cab, on his way to the stadium, with time running out.

Over on the touchline were Mark Hughes and Antonio Conte. The teams were living and breathing embodiment of the two managers. Stoke City, intimidating and physical. Shorn of Shaqiri and Bojan, they were more like the Tony Pulis model. Chelsea, now fully Conte-esque, stylish and cool, yet passionate too. The two contrasts could not have been greater.

We looked at ease in the first few moments, and the away crowd were in good voice. We were stretching the home side down both flanks. It was a fine start. Marcos Alonso was hacked twice by Arnautovic, and referee Anthony Taylor blew up for a foul, out wide on the edge of the box. This was Willian territory alright. We waited for the ball to be swung in to the far post, but to everyone’s surprise the ball was whipped in towards the near post. I didn’t have a clear view, but we eventually heard the roar of others in our end who had seen the net ripple.

“Get in, duck.”

Willian reeled away and was mobbed. We were ahead after only thirteen minutes. What a dream start.

Stoke had already put their formidable footprint on the game, with intimidation mixed in with some late and dangerous challenges. Diego Costa drew the considerable ire of the home crowd and was booed every time he touched the ball. He was then booked for a foul on Martins Indi, which produced an odd response from the Stokies.

“Your club’s embarrassing.”

Odd. Never heard that one before. I didn’t dwell on it.

We kept applying good pressure. Thankfully, others were stepping up to fill the void provided by Hazard’s absence. Defensively, we looked at ease. David Luiz was in control.

Completely against the run of play, Stoke caused a scare. A deep corner from their right was headed back in to the box and Martins Indi headed the ball past Thibaut. The home fans roared – “bollocks” – but after a few seconds the referee spotted the linesman flagging for an indiscretion. We waited, and the body language of the two officials looked good. The referee flagged for a free-kick to us. No goal. Phew. Though none of us knew what had actually transpired.

Sadly, not long after, the referee swayed in the favour of the home side as an innocuous challenge by Gary Cahill was deemed worthy of a penalty. We were furious, and figured that the referee was not 100% convinced that he had made the correct decision in cancelling the Martins Indi goal.

Walters smashed the ball in, and celebrated wildly, possibly gaining some sort of retribution from his darkest hour against us in 2013.

The game became scrappier, and it genuinely seemed that it was all down to the Stoke players. Costa was continually fouled, but still the home fans howled. One challenge on Diego made Antonio Conte jump into the air and stamp both his feet into the ground. Pedro fired over just before the break.

It was time for quiet but strong words from Antonio Conte during the interval.

“Keep going. Do not lose your nerves. Keep calm. Keep playing. We will win.”

Chelsea began the second-half well. We did indeed keep calm, no more so than Diego Costa who simply did not give in to more hard line tactics. He did not yield. He was strong in possession and kept others in the game. I lost count of the times we played the ball intelligently in and out of – and around, and in between – the scurrying Stoke players. Kante was everywhere again. I’m sure I spotted him atop the church spire at Penkhull, mending a clock face, during the second-half. Pedro cut in after a defensive error on the Stoke flank but Grant saved.

Still the Stoke players hacked away. I turned to Alan and said “I can’t see it staying with eleven versus eleven, mate.”

A free-kick was awarded to us after Pedro was fouled. Luiz waited, but it was Alonso who crashed the ball against the bar with a sweet left-footed strike.

Conte replaced with Moses with Cesc Fabregas. In the excitement of the closing quarter of the game, I hardly noticed the change in formation. An extra man in midfield added pressure and stress to the home team and the home crowd, who were remarkably quiet, save from a few trademark “Cum On Stowk” chants.

But this was an odd game. Despite our continued dominance, Stoke occasionally threatened. Although deep down, I fully expected a winner, there was still a chance that Stoke could nab an unwarranted winner of their own. Inside, I knew I would be happy and sad at the same time if it stayed at 1-1.

Conte replaced Nemanja Matic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Fresh legs.

He was soon involved. He unknowingly played a one-two with himself, a la Kante at West Ham, and forced a corner. There were just a few minutes’ left. Cesc thumped a high ball in. Luiz, a little off-balance, was only able to prod it goal wards but with no real menace. Thankfully, a poor clearance by Pieters set up Gary Cahill. The entire away end was on tip-toes. Gary thrashed it high past Grant and the hexagons of the white netting were stretched and contorted as the ball flew in.

“FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.”

What a roar. What mayhem high on the hill. The players raced over to my left. I yelled. We pushed and shoved. A forest of arms and fists punched the air. Some fans ended up in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

There was the winner.

Stoke City 1 Chelsea 2.

There was still time for Diego – what a performance during that second-half – to strike the base of Grant’s left post and for Loftus-Cheek to go close too. As a fitting ending, Bardsley was sent-off for a second yellow (a foul on Diego, what a shocker.)

We counted down the injury-time.

The whistle was greeted by a massive roar of relief by the Chelsea faithful.

Very soon the crowd were singing “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in, and then quickly stopped. Not yet, Chris, not yet. It was one of those games where you just shake hands and embrace everyone and anyone around you, just to magnify the moment and to cherish it too. We watched as the players celebrated and I snapped away as Antonio Conte, the mad man, walked towards the Chelsea crowd, his fists pumping, completely losing himself in the moment, his face a picture of ecstasy.

Football can do this.

It is fucking wonderful.

Outside we were bouncing. More handshakes and hugs.

I kept repeating the phrase “season defining.”

At that moment, it felt like we were on the cusp, though there were still ten games left.

The shout went up again.

“We shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved…”

Outside in the North Staffordshire night, I joined in, weakening…I could not resist. 

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Tales From The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From Two Franks And The Jacks.

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 25 February 2017.

This was going to be Frank Lampard Day at Stamford Bridge. The club had announced that our magnificent midfielder – arguably our finest ever player – would be making an appearance at half-time during our match with Swansea City. There would be a celebratory programme too. It promised to be quite a day. I can well remember his last-ever appearance as a player at Stamford Bridge, in the colours of Manchester City, when he cut such a lonely figure on the pitch at the end of a game in January 2015. He looked desolate. Heartbroken. It would be fantastic to see him once again.

In “The Famous Three Kings” pub at West Kensington, a few of us were remembering another Frank. We had learned on Friday that one of our match-going crew had passed away the previous day. I first met Frank Portingale, a local builder from my town of Frome in Somerset, in the autumn of 1993 when I drove a few of the lads up to a Chelsea vs. Arsenal game. The next time that I remember seeing him was outside Wembley with PD in 1994. He loved his days out at Chelsea and he started going more regularly. From around 1996 to 2007, Frank was one of the gang, and we would take it in turns to drive up from Somerset. For a few years, we took two cars up from Frome. We were a solid bunch; Karen, Dave, Brian, Frank, Glenn, PD and myself. Frank came with us to Stuttgart in 2004 and Barcelona in 2005. He was at Bolton in April 2005 when the other Frank scored a brace to give us our first league championship in fifty years.

During that 2004/2005 campaign, Frank was there for the first and last games; a pre-season friendly at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium, which coincided with Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of the team, and a league game at St. James’ Park in Newcastle. These were stunning times to be a Chelsea supporter. It seemed like we were treading alien territory during that era; league titles and a real chance of Champions League glory seemed the stuff of dreams, but we were right in the mix. Heady stuff indeed. In between, there were many others of course. A game alongside the Thames at Fulham, and those games at the Reebok and Camp Nou. And Frank loved it all. The camaraderie, the beers and the laughs.

And there were many laughs with Frank. He would often bring up “Somerset Pasties” from a local Frome butcher for the lads at Chelsea. On that memorable trip to Barcelona, such was his desire to keep them secure, he locked some of his pasties in the hotel room safe. We all had a chuckle at that. Frank gave up his season ticket a few years back – he used to sit along from us in the Matthew Harding Upper – and it was with sadness that we all learned of his passing. He was generous to a fault, bless him, and I remember that he bought us all gold Chelsea rings after a game in 2004. A few years later, Frank built the front porch on my house and I guess there will always be a part of him in my life. Indeed, Frank will always play a role in our collective Chelsea memories.

Parky, PD, Glenn and myself raised our glasses.

“Frank.”

Thoughts slowly turned to the game.

Our little band of brothers have often questioned the desire of managers to play two essentially defensive-minded players at home games against lesser teams. On this occasion, Antonio had decided to relax things a little, pairing N’Golo with Cesc, and Nemanja dropping to the bench. Cesc has delighted us this season with his place in the squad enabling him to dip in and dip out of our line-up, but without complaint. Swansea City would be quite a test for us though; their form had improved over recent weeks. Elsewhere, the team picked itself.

Thibaut – Dave, David, Gary – Victor, N’Golo, Cesc, Marcos – Pedro, Diego, Eden.

With former Chelsea coach Paul Clement now in charge of the visitors – with midfield legend Claude Makelele alongside him – and with former midfielder Jack Cork playing for Swansea too, this was very much a day of reunions in SW6. It was apt that the visit of the Swans coincided with this day of praise for Frank Lampard since he played a handful of games at the old Vetch Field in 1995/1996.

It was an overcast day in London and rain was not far away. Swansea were ably supported by a full three thousand Jacks. A fine turnout in my book; OK, the city of Swansea is not too far away, but they are not known for their large travelling support.

Alan and myself wondered about the intensity that would be given to this one. Swansea were a team that we ought to beat easily. But we were sure that Antonio would fire the team up. It’s all about the league and there are just thirteen games left. It is all about the focus at this stage of the season. For once, I am not missing European football. Whatever will be will be in the FA Cup too. In fact, PD and myself boldly admitted in the car that neither of us would be devastated should we exit that competition at the next stage. Of course we want to beat United, but the league seems all important.

We admitted that the double is certainly “on” though. Heady days again in SW6? Maybe. Just maybe.

The game began.

We were bright in the opening exchanges. Pedro fired over the bar at The Shed End. Swansea seemed competent in moving the ball around but rarely threatened Thibaut at the Matthew Harding. In the middle of all of our creative scheming was the recalled Cesc, who has such a fine touch and an acute eye for a killer pass. Very soon he was picking out the runs of Diego and Eden. I was certainly impressed with our charging down of space, and our desire to get the “second ball.” Again, N’Golo seemed to be everywhere. We were enjoying another lovely game from him; I wonder if Claude was looking on longingly, despite his new affiliation. Once or twice, N’Golo lofted a sublime pass out to the waiting wings.

Claude : “Sigh. I wish I could have done that.”

On nineteen minutes, Eden initiated another move. In all honesty, it was a loose pass in to Diego who had to battle with a Swans defender. Thankfully, the ball was pushed out to Pedro on the right. He picked out the run of Cesc and the ball was bundled in, almost apologetically past the former Gooner Fabianski.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Soon after, Fabianski made a superb reflex save from a Cesc volley. It really was sensational. Victor was stretching the game out and occasionally asked questions of the Swans defence. Eden was a little quiet. Pedro buzzed as Pedro does. We were totally dominating. N’Golo was in fine form. The boys were hunting in packs all over the Swansea midfield. In an attempt to avoid boredom, Thibaut hopped up on to the crossbar down below us and went through a fine gymnastic display – a handstand here, a somersault, then a fine tumble and dismount.

Then, after it was announced that a minute would be added on to the first-half for stoppages, N’Golo was wrongly – in my book, but I’m biased – adjudged to have fouled in the centre-circle. From Sigurdsson’s perfectly placed free-kick, Llorente – thinly linked with us last month – was able to jump unhindered past Thibaut. What poor marking.

Bollocks.

The half-time whistle sounded and, for once, there was not a mass exodus. This half-time show would rival anything that the NFL could muster. The Frank Lampard banner was held aloft by around twenty supporters in the middle of the pitch. After a fair wait, Neil Barnett introduced our Frank  to the waiting thousands. Dressed in a dapper black suit – brown shoes – he began a walk around the sacred turf. There was tumultuous applause, as expected.

After completing a circuit, Frank took the microphone from Neil and slowly walked, hand in pocket, looking very relaxed, towards us in the Matthew Harding. I felt privileged that he walked towards us; it was, after all, where he had his most emotional moment at Stamford Bridge. That penalty against Liverpool in 2008 will never be forgotten.

Frank spoke for around a minute, and thanked the club for allowing him this chance to say a few words. He thanked us repeatedly for all of our support. There was a brief moment when his bottom lip momentarily wavered and I am sure that the penalty in 2008 flitted through his mind. It was another emotional occasion to be honest. But Frank battled on and did well. It was another perfect Chelsea moment.

The second-half began. Eden blasted at Fabianski. Just after Diego set up Cesc, whose rising shot struck the bar with a loud thud. Surely a goal would come. But the visitors were providing dogged resistance. I missed the Dave “handball” and was not convinced that the Diego incident warranted a penalty either.

It seemed to be all Chelsea at this stage. I was convinced that we would get a winner, though. There is an innate confidence in the team this season. It’s a beautiful thing. With around twenty minutes’ left, Cesc played the ball to Pedro, who was allowed to run. He struck a tentative shot from around twenty-five yards, and I watched as it curled in at the far post.

Here was the goal we craved. Stamford Bridge erupted.

“GET IN.”

Pedro ran off and celebrated wildly with Cesc. Fantastic.

The main Swansea threat Sigurdsson forced Thibaut to save well from a free-kick. There was a moment of lazy and loose football – involving David and Gary – as the defence took a few sloppy touches. That it warrants a mention in this match reports just shows how rare these occasions are. Antonio surprisingly replaced Pedro with Nemanja, who quickly ran deep in to the Swansea box. His pull back to N’Golo was excellent. The finish was not so great; it was blasted over.

Claude : “As good as me.”

Soon after, Eden took his turn in dancing down the left and pulled the ball back for Diego to slam home. Diego had to adjust on his approach to the ball and it was a fine finish. Diego made a point of signalling over to Eden for pulling the ball back and the two hugged. The rest of the team soon joined in. In the resultant melee, Dave hoisted himself  onto his team mates. Smiles all over. The game was surely over and the three points had been won. Antonio brought on Kurt for Victor and Willian for Eden. Cesc went close at the end, but it stayed at 3-1.

It was another fine Chelsea win.

I turned to Alan :

“That one is for Frank.”

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Tales From An Old Gold Adversary.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

After two easy home wins against Peterborough United and Brentford in this season’s FA Cup, we were on our travels. I would have preferred a new ground – Huddersfield Town, Sutton United, Lincoln City, not Millwall – but the Football Gods had given us an away fixture at Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was fine by me. Our last visit was five years ago and, since then, a new stand has been built, so there would be something new to see. Wolves away is an easy drive for me too; after the arduous trek to Burnley last weekend, this would be easy.

I remembered our last game against Wolves in the F. A. Cup in the spring of 1994. Our game at Stamford Bridge – on TV, on a Sunday – was only our second FA Cup quarter final in twenty-one years, and the stadium was bouncing. Memorably, there were blue flares in The Shed before the game, and the old – and huge – original “Pride Of London” flag made its first-ever appearance that day. From memory, it was the biggest “crowd-surfing” flag ever seen at a London stadium at the time. The 2,500 Wolves fans were allocated a large section of the East Stand because the North Stand was recently demolished. I watched from the old West Stand as a Gavin Peacock lofted chip gave us a 1-0 win. We were on our way to an F.A. Cup semi-final for the first time since 1970 and – boy – how we bloody celebrated. We flooded the pitch afterwards; in fact it would be the last time thst I would walk on the hallowed turf. However, the one thing I really remember from that game was the noisy repetition of “The Blue Flag” which really became an immediate and legendary Chelsea song on that particular day. It had not really been sung much until then. On the Monday, at work, I could not stop singing it to myself. The photographs from that day show a much different Stamford Bridge and a much-changed support. Of course I miss it.

Twenty-three years later, the four of us (Parky, PD, Scott and myself) were in Wolverhampton over four hours before the game was due to commence at 5.30pm. We darted into the first pub we saw, The Wheatsheaf, and once inside, soon realised the errors of our ways. We didn’t mind that it was a home pub – there were Wolves shirts pinned to the walls and ceiling – but the clientele soon began to change. We stood to one side of the bar supping our pints and watched as a few Wolves lads came in. We wondered if they were in the “Yam Yam Army”. I was certainly being eye-balled by a young chap. You could tell they had us sussed. One bald lad sauntered in – blue Stone Island jacket – and we soon decided to cut our losses. A few minutes later we were settled in an “away fans only” pub – big gothic columns outside, formerly “The Walkabout” which we have visited before, now renamed and re-branded as a nightclub – and we could relax a little. There were a few Chelsea “faces” of our own on a table on the back wall, and a few more friends and acquaintances soon arrived. I had a laugh with a local copper about the previous pub.

“Didn’t you think it odd there were Wolves shirts there?”

“Yeah, but there are home pubs and there are home pubs. This one was a little – pause – tense.”

“Ha. Bet your arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose.”

Songs were soon bellowing around the cavernous and dark boozer. There were only a precious few “away only” pubs in Wolverhampton and I was glad we had stumbled across one of them. We had heard that – quite a miracle – non-league Lincoln City had won at Burnley with a goal in the last minute of play. What a stunning result. At around 3.45pm, I left the others to it and departed for the stadium. Outside the pub was a sport shop owned by former player Ron Flowers. I walked past a pub called “The Billy Wright.” I wondered if another pub called “Slaters” was named after the former Wolves defender Bill Slater. I did wonder, in fact, if there were other such places in Wolverhampton, a town famous – only? – for its football team.

“Maybe it is all they have.”

Maybe in other streets there are the George Berry Tea Rooms, the Sammy Chung Bowling Green and the Kenny Hibbitt Bingo Hall.

In a previous edition, I briefly flitted through Wolves’ history.

Tales From The Old Gold And Black Country : 20 February 2010.

“The stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosyncratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, led by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days.”

By the time of my next visit, I was able to update on Molyneux’ expansion plans.

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

“Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.”

I was looking forward to sitting in the upper deck of this new stand, which was still being built on my last visit. However, the Wolves of previous eras were dominating my thoughts as I walked past pub after pub of home fans, each one with bouncers outside.

The Wolves of the ‘fifties were indeed a grand team. And the game against Honved in 1954 – during our first league title season – was shown live on BBC; a very rare event in those days. Played under new floodlights, Wolves played the game in special shimmering old gold silky shirts to add to the drama. Many observers have credited the series of Wolves friendlies against Honved, Tel Aviv, First Vienna and Spartak Moscow as kick-starting a pan-European knockout competition. In the very next season, Chelsea were advised, of course, not to take part in the inaugural European Cup by the curmudgeons in the English FA. One can only imagine how spectacular the Wolves vs. Honved game seemed at the time. The Honved team included six of the Magyars who had defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and again 7-1 in Budapest in 1954 including the legendary Ferenc Puskas. Watching on a TV in Belfast was a young lad called George Best, who chose Wolves as his team. The game must have had a similar effect on many; my next-door neighbour Ken is a Wolves fan and would have been a young lad in 1954.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxoI4AjgokU

Of course, Wolves were our nearest rivals back in that 1954/1955 season. A Billy Wright handball at our game at Stamford Bridge is the stuff, as they say, of legend.

Our paths memorably crossed during the 1976/1977 Second Division season too, when a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was followed by a 1-1 draw at Molyneux. Wolves were promoted as champions that year, with Chelsea also going up just behind them. I wrote a few words about this during our last visit.

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

“Alan and Big John were reminiscing about their visit to the same ground in April 1977 when our fans were officially banned, but around 4,000 fans still attended. A Tommy Langley goal gave us shares in a 1-1 draw and secured our promotion. Those were heady days. That was a cracking season. I only saw three games in our promotion push, but the memories of those games against Cardiff City (won), Bristol Rovers (lost) and Millwall (drew) are strong. On the day of the Wolves match, I can vividly remember running up the slope outside my grandparents’ house once I had heard that we had secured promotion and jumping in the air. But then the realisation that, as the lone Chelsea fan in my village, I had nobody to share my enthusiasm with.”

So, 1954/1955 and 1976/1977 and 1994/1995 – three instances when the two clubs have been thrown together. I wondered what 2016/2017 would bring. I approached the stadium from the south, and used the infamous subway, much beloved by home fans who used to ambush away fans in previous eras. It has something of the feel of “A Clockwork Orange” and it spawned the Wolves firm “Subway Army.”

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

There were Chelsea supporters milling around the Steve Bull Stand, whose lower tier would house 3,000 of our 4,500 supporters. But I headed on and took a few photographs of the stadium, which has changed so much over the past few decades.

It was soon clear that many away fans had been drinking heavily from London to the Black Country; the concourse in the lofty Stan Cullis Stand was soon full of Chelsea song and football-style rowdiness. One fan collapsed on reaching the final step, overcome with alcohol. Some younger lads could hardly stand. I made my way to our seats – black in this visitors’ quadrant, as opposed to old gold elsewhere – and I loved the view. A new perspective on Molineux. Many other away regulars had chosen seats in this section too. I noted that the Steve Bull Stand was so far from the pitch, but Molineux remains a neat stadium. We watched the sun disappear to our right and the air chilled.

Antonio Conte had chosen a relatively experienced team; our attacking options did not lack any punch. There was all change in the back three though, with the manager choosing John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake.

Begovic, Moses, Zouma, Terry, Ake, Pedro, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Costa, Hazard.

Happy with that.

I liked the wordplay of the slogan on the balcony of the Stan Cullis Stand :

“This is our love and it knows no division.”

From Champions to the depths of Division Four, Wolves have seen it all.

The stadium took a while to fill, but with a few minutes to kick-off, the place was packed. Although Wolves play to gates of around 18,000 to 24,000 for most league gamers, this one would be a 30,000 capacity. Wolves used to play “Fanfare For The Common Man” before the teams entered the pitch, but we were treated – oddly – to “The Wonder Of You.” More than a few Chelsea fans joined in. That drink again. As the teams appeared, the PA played the customary “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the place roared.

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

Soon in to the game, the Wolves fans to our right bellowed “The North Bank!” and it sounded like something from another era. The home fans were the first to be treated to a chance on goal when a loose header from Kurt Zouma allowed the unmarked George Saville a shot on goal. I sucked in some cold air and expected sure disappointment. Thankfully, his firm strike hit a post. The danger was still there, but again thankfully Andreas Weinmann ballooned over.

Just after, a fantastic pass from Fabregas found Willian in a central position, but he took a little too long to control the ball, and the chance was wasted. I sensed that Victor Moses had the beating of his opposing defender; an ugly tackle was clear evidence that he was a threat. Eden Hazard, despite plenty of willing support from the overlapping Pedro, was quiet. Nathan Ake oozed class and was easily the best of the three at the back. Kurt Zouma still looks so stiff. He did enjoy one “balls out” run deep in to the Wolves half though and – it reminded me of those barnstorming runs that Michael Duberry used to love. I have a feeling that King Kurt will one day score an absolute screamer following a typical run.

One fan in the Steve Bull Stand was clearly enjoying his five minutes of fame; he was spotted gesticulating to the away hordes, and he was soon singled-out.

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

(For those who remember, this is a famous chant from 1983 – even mentioned in “The Football Factory” by John King if memory serves – when the pastel-clad casuals from Portsmouth’s 6.57 arrived en masse on our North Terrace and one similarly-attired lad was picked out by the scallywags on The Benches. I know because I was one of them.)

Wolves were carving out occasional chances and Begovic saved low from Helder Costa (hair c. 1991). There were certainly grumbles throughout the first-half. I can only really remember another effort on goal; a cross from Moses was unable to be tucked in by the quiet Diego Costa. Wolves must have been annoyed as hell that their slight dominance did not result in a goal. But I was so confident that we had enough quality in our ranks to be victorious. What we did not want, almost as much as a defeat, was a horrible replay. But ours was a very patchy performance and we needed Antonio to fire up the troops.

There was another “hi ho – Wolverhampton” and the second-half began.

With Chelsea attacking our stand, things began to brighten. There were speculative efforts from Zouma and Pedro and then Diego carved out a fine chance for himself but his strong shot hit the side netting. On sixty-five minutes, we were warmed by an excellent move involving Cesc, Diego, Hazard and then Willian. As he paused momentarily, I spotted Pedro racing in at the far post and I hoped that Willian had seen him too.

No need to worry; an inch-perfect cross was sent over to the far post and The Hummingbird jumped, hovered in mid-air, and headed home. There was an enormous roar and soon the away end was covered in a blue sulphurous haze of a flare – the second of the day, how 1994. Wolves tried their best to mount a counter but rarely threatened again and the home atmosphere died. In one surprisingly dramatic race, we watched as John Terry just about reached a through-ball a mere  nano-second ahead of an attacker.

Phew.

The away fans were now in good voice. This was much better. There were songs of Wembley.

Antonio made three late substitutions involving Dave, Kante (all Wolves fans : “ah, bollocks”) and Loftus-Cheek.

We enjoyed a few more chances; Willian slipped while inside the box, Fabregas shot wide and Zouma went close with a header.

In the final minute, a loose ball was slammed home inside the box by Diego Costa.

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

The temperature had greatly-dropped in the second-half, but after the tundra of Turf Moor, this was no real issue. There was a rare event of a police escort back in to the town centre. Such must be the problems in keeping home and away fans separated in Wolverhampton. The police were out in force and the “Yam Yam’s” day was over.

On the drive home, we wondered about the draw for the quarters, while looking ahead to the league game against Swansea City next Saturday.

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From Turf Moor.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2017.

It seemed wholly appropriate that our visit to the most austere town on our travels this season was coinciding with the worst weather of the campaign thus far. There had been a short burst of winter sun as I had climbed towards Blackburn on the M65, but the bleakness soon returned. Lo and behold, as I raced on past signs for Accrington and then Clitheroe, I spotted snow on the distant Pennine Hills beyond Burnley.

We were well and truly “up north.”

We had set off from Somerset at 6am. Five hours later, I fitted my car inside a parking space outside Burnley’s bus station in its compact town centre. We gingerly opened up the car doors. Within seconds, we were scurrying to grab coats, scarves, and hats from the car boot. An arctic wind was howling and for fuck sake it was cold.

I had driven through the town centre and had noted a few pubs which seemed to be overflowing with locals. Rather than chance our arm there, we quickly decided to cut our losses and head towards the stadium, where – like at Swindon Town – there is a cricket club adjoined to the football club which allows away fans a drink or two.

Burnley. Such is the nature of the town that it allows no added affectation to its football club. Even the town’s stadium, Turf Moor, is named as abruptly as possible. But for all of the hackneyed jokes which would undoubtedly be aimed at the much-maligned town during the day by the visiting hordes, I approved. This was a grand old football team – twice Champions – playing in a grand old football town – population just 75,000 – and there is much to admire of the way the area has supported its club over the years.

I even approved of the quick ten-minute walk from the car to the stadium; it was a walk deep into Football Land.

Locals rushing by. The proud claret and blue. Ancient mill chimneys in the distance. Narrow streets and terraced houses. Police cars flitting past. A grafter selling scarves and trinkets. An ornate and historic bridge carrying a canal over the busy road. Echoes of an industrial past. A Balti take-away. The thin floodlights of Turf Moor. A couple of pubs. The rain starting to fall. A working men’s club. The grey of the main stand. Grizzled old locals selling lottery tickets. Programmes. Flags billowing in the wind.

We settled in at the cricket club and watched from the warmth of the first-story bar as the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. There was the usual chat with an assortment of friends from near and far. We all expected a tough game against Burnley, who had won nine of the thirteen games played at Turf Moor previously.

“A win would be bloody great though. Twelve points clear. What a message to the rest.”

Outside the away end, I was dismayed to see that the montage of past Burnley players was no longer present. I had hoped to pay my silent respects to the lovely image of Ian Britton, bless him, which was originally just along from the away turnstiles. It did not seem plausible that it was a full ten months since I had attended his funeral at the local crematorium. Instead of the montage, the stand was now covered with more formal photographs of former players.

The lads supped one last cider in a marquee outside the away concourse, and we then made our way inside. Memories of my only two previous visits came flooding back.

January 2010 : an equally bleak day, just after the John Terry / Wayne Bridge fiasco, when JT scored a late winner. There was snow on the way home after that one I remember.

August 2014 : my one-thousandth Chelsea game, and Chelsea league debuts for Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The night of “that” pass from Cesc to Schurrle.

We had predicted an unchanged side on the long car ride north; Antonio did not let us down.

Thibaut – Dave, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

What a cosmopolitan set.

In contrast, the home team was singularly Anglo-Saxon and solidly no-frills 4-4-2.

Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward – Boyd, Barton, Westwood, Brady – Barnes, Gray.

It was noticeable that the exotic Tarkowski, Darikwa and Gudmundsson were banished to the bench.

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

The sleet was still falling as the players went through their drills. I took the time to ask a steward why there is always a section of seats which are empty in the away end at Turf Moor. She answered that it is for the team members of both clubs that are not involved, plus other club officials, and sometimes wives and girlfriends. Glenn and I were down in the front row, and we were immediately soaked.

For the opening game of the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had over 4,000 seats and the entire end. At the time, Burnley wanted to concentrate all of their support in three stands. For this game, the end was shared with Chelsea having to “make do” with around 2,400.

As the game began, it was the home fans in our end – to my left – who were the noisiest. As before, they shared taking pot shots at us with songs of derision for their bitter local rivals from Blackburn.

“And its no nay never, no nay never no more ‘til we play bastard Rovers, no never no more.”

Lots of hatred between these two cities, eh? The venom was there alright.

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

They rolled up with a song calling us “rent boys” and I wondered why it had taken fifteen years to reach Burnley from Liverpool and Manchester.

To my right, John Terry was spotted in the cordoned-off area. Many fans posed with him for selfies. He looked cold, too.

We began very brightly indeed with tons of crisp passing and quick one-touch possession. It was a joy to watch. Pedro, Moses and Kante were always involved. After a fine passing move, an Eden Hazard shot should have caused Heaton in the Burnley goal more trouble. Just after, a Burnley attack disintegrated and we quickly exploited gaps in their defence. Hazard played an early ball wide to Victor Moses, who rode an ugly tackle before playing the ball in to Pedro, who arrived just at the right time to steer the ball low past Heaton. The Chelsea end exploded.

I screamed and stretched my arms out wide and could not help noticing Thibaut, just a few yards away, jump up, turn towards us in the away stand and do the same. His face was a picture. A lovely moment.

The Pedro strike was reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his very best. However, it was noticeable that it was Victor Moses, in lieu of his strong run and pass, that drew the plaudits and applause rather than the goal scorer.

Soon after, very soon after, parts of the away end decided to sing – ugh – “we’re gonna win the league” and I turned around to spot who was perpetrating this monstrosity and glowered accordingly.

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

At least wait until April when we are on the brink.

Back in 2005 – when we were ten points clear in early February – I think we sung it first at Southampton in early April. Even then, I wasn’t too happy.

There then followed the equally obnoxious “we’ve won it all.”

Another “ugh.”

At least we were saved from hearing the nastiest chant of them all – “Chelsea till I die.”

I could not help but notice that David Luiz, for once, was beset with problems with his distribution. I let it go the first couple of times, but as the half progressed, I became increasingly annoyed that he found it increasingly difficult to hit Diego or Eden or Victor. It was all Chelsea in the opening quarter, though, and I hoped for a crucial second.

The sleet continued. This would not be a day of too many photographs; a shame since I was virtually pitch side.

Burnley began to attack with a little more conviction – Ashley Barnes shot wide – but we always looked dangerous on the break.

Then, after twenty-five minutes, Burnley won a free-kick just outside the box. I watched as Thibaut arranged the all blue wall. We waited. Robbie Brady, with a fine curling effort whipped it over the Chelsea players and it screamed into the top corner of the net, just fifteen feet away from me. Courtois’ dive was in vain. It had might as well have been in Spain. He was nowhere near it. Brady was in ecstasy – like a proper Clitheroe – and the home fans roared.

For a few moments, we were reeling. Thibaut blocked a save at close range and Gary Cahill flung his whole body to block another goal-bound shot.

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

Glenn and myself walked back to join up with the lads at half-time and shelter from the sleet and rain.

“Eden has been quiet.”

Our support had died a little during the closing moments of the first-half. I think my support had died from the feet up. They were bloody freezing.

Glenn quickly shook Cesc’s hand as the substitute raced past us before taking his position on the bench. His face was covered in a black scarf. He looked freezing too.

The second-half resumed. More rain. More sleet. More plunging temperatures. My toes were tingling with the chill. Everybody had their hoods up, their hats on. One nearby steward wore a bobble hat and a baseball cap.

“Johnny two hats.”

His icy cold stare back at me suggested that his brain had already seized.

With Chelsea attacking our end, and with me yards from the pitch, I was looking forward to tons of action right in front of me. Instead, it was Courtois who was called in to action at the start of the second-half. He saved well, down low, after a ball evaded the lunges of both Cahill and Luiz. I am not sure if this was some sort of reaction to Luiz playing with his hair tied back, but his passing continued to disappoint. Maybe there are some sensors within that usual free flowing frizz, but against Burnley in the wet and the cold, his mechanics were off. He defended well, but his distribution was shocking.

Chelsea – not surprisingly – dominated possession. We kept the ball well, but just could not break the two banks of four. Time and time again, the ball was pushed out wide for either Moses, Pedro, Hazard or Alonso, but we failed to play in any balls to hurt the defence. The twin pillars at the back – Keane and Mee – won virtually every high ball. Diego simply could not reach.

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

Conte replaced Matic with Cesc Fabregas and we prayed for a Schurrle repeat. Matic had not been at his best, though to be honest many players were not performing too well. But they never stopped trying. They never stopped running into space, to try and tease an opening, nor did they shirk any tackles. There were no complaints from me about the effort from the boys.

Willian replaced Moses. The crosses still came over, but were dealt with admirably. It was all Chelsea again in the final quarter of an hour, and I was convinced that we would nab a late winner. I looked hard at Fabregas and saw him spot runners before lofting balls towards his team mates. I was enjoying the game from this fresh viewpoint; despite the extreme temperatures, this was a good enough game, full of tough tackles and earnest endeavour. The skilful stuff was missing, but if football is a chocolate box, there has to be room for the occasional nut brittle.

Batshuayi came on too late for my liking. It was another “three minute hero” appearance, but he hardly touched the ball. On a day when we needed to flood the Burnley box, I found his late appearance a little baffling. Surely better to support Diego with Batshuayi if the crosses continued to come in. Although it was difficult to tell from such a low angle, we wondered if Conte had changed to a 4/4/2 since Dave seemed to support Willian in an advanced position. He even found time to put in a few crosses from out wide on the right.

Wayward efforts from Pedro and Hazard just about summed the game up.

It was not to be.

Instead of a gap of a dozen points, we were now ahead of the pack by ten points.

We slowly walked back up the icy steps of the away end, gathered together, then headed back to the car. The walk back began to get some life back in to my frozen limbs. Inside the car, off came the wet jacket and pullover, the blowers were turned to turbo, and I began the five-hour drive home. The draw, we admitted, had been a fair result. No complaints at all.

“Hey listen, we’re not going to win every bloody game you know. Tough place Burnley. Especially on a day like this.”

I had enjoyed it. Despite the wind and the rain and the sleet and the snow – or maybe because of it – it had felt like a good old-fashioned football day out in good old, ugly Burnley. Not every away game is the same, thank heavens, and I relished the whole adventure.

Next week we visit another classic football town, Wolverhampton, that used to have a grand old team of their own a few years ago.

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From Classic Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 4 February 2017.

I was not worried about this game. I was convinced that we would beat Arsenal. My optimism actually surprised me since I am not usually so gung-ho about matches against one of the top four, five or six. But this season, or more importantly at this moment of this season, I was not concerned one little bit. There is just something so inherently fragile about Arsenal. Their current form has dipped. Indeed, their last four visits to SW6 have all ended in defeat; we were aiming to make it five in a row.

The boys were keen to be in London as soon as possible. I awoke to the confirmation that we would be repeating the day’s game against Arsenal in Beijing during the summer. Sign me up for that. My mate Glenn is keen too.

Chelsea fans in move to China shock.

Everything was fine and dandy as I collected The Fun Boy Three for our second game in five days; a lovely week of beer and football was continuing. We re-capped on the alcohol-induced highlights from Merseyside, and prepared for another – but much shorter – drinking session. We spoke how quiet the January transfer window had been in general. For our club, most of our activity involved players leaving. We said goodbye to Oscar – OK, in December – and Jon Obi Mikel, bound for China. On the last few days of the window, we heard confirmation that Branislav Ivanovic was off to Russia. That goal against Brentford was indeed his parting gift to us. They will all be missed. But these adjustments represented a purging of the squad, and we hoped that the arrival of Nathan Ake would be mirrored by other loanees returning. I was not concerned that no major signing took place. It underlined how happy everyone was with the current squad.

I was parked-up at just before 10am. We marched past around forty souls waiting in line for The Goose to open its doors at 10am and made a bee-line for “The Chelsea Pensioner.” I had hopes to meet up with a few friends from near and far. I was not disappointed. I last bumped into George and Petr – both from the Czech Republic – at the first game of the season, the friendly in Vienna against Rapid. They were ecstatic at being in town for such a high-profile game. Andy – from California – and his trusty beige jacket soon appeared and a few laughs were shared. He was again in town for one game only and it’s always a pleasure to see him. I briefly chatted to a group of young lads from New York, all bedecked in Chelsea bar scarves, knocking back lager like it had gone out of fashion. I asked if they had heard of the New York Blues, and was surprised to hear that they hadn’t. My guess that they were enjoying the beer in “The Pensioner” so much as they would have been under the drinking age back in the USA. Andy wondered how they had managed to get tickets. There was around ten in their group. An older couple seemed to be their chaperones. We presumed that they had stumped up for some sort of corporate package. I had a little chuckle to myself when two of them unveiled Stone Island tops.

File under “ah, bless.”

Anyway, I wished them well. When I was a young kid, standing on The Shed, I always loved how I was welcomed into the Chelsea family even though I was from Somerset, and there has never been any kind of London-only elitism about our club. At least domestically. These days, there is a certain wariness among the Chelsea support about our overseas fans. But I can spot “proper” fans a mile off. It’s a shame that the bona fide ones are lumped into the same category as half-and-half scarf wearing fools and those silent ones who don’t engage in our football culture of singing at games.

We popped next door to “The Fox & Pheasant” and met up with a few other mates. Lunchtime games still feel odd. I remembered a similar game from 2014 ; Arsene Wenger’s one thousandth game and Chelsea 6  Arsenal 0. What a game. What a memory. We were on fire that day. I had mentioned that an early goal in 2017 would settle us and I silently wondered if a similar score line might follow.

There was no surprise that Nemanja Matic continued to partner N’Golo Kante. There was simply no room for Cesc Fabregas. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian. It would be our strongest team for sure.

Neil Barnett spoke about Branislav Ivanovic and also Frank Lampard, who had announced his retirement from football during the week. A large Lampard banner hung proudly from the Matthew Harding as the teams strode onto the pitch. A montage of Frank Lampard moments were shown on the TV screen.

His exploits have been well documented in these match reports.

As I wrote in Mark Worrall’s book in 2013, when speaking about his goal at Villa Park which took him to a record-breaking 203 Chelsea goals, “his professionalism, his dedication, his spirit and his strength are much admired by all. We love him to bits.”

My favourite Chelsea player remains Pat Nevin. The most loved Chelsea player is probably Peter Osgood. But our greatest-ever player may well be Frank Lampard.

Enjoy your retirement, Sir Frank.

For once, Arsenal had a few flags. One simply stated “The Arsenal. Never outgunned.”

Yeah, right.

I wasn’t sure why Wenger had not chosen Welbeck or Giroud to give a little support to Sanchez upfront but I hoped that the little forward would not create havoc. We looked a little nervous during the first few minutes to be quite honest. Alex Iwobi pounced on some sloppy defensive play and sent a low shot towards Thibaut Courtois. It edged wide but only after the slightest of deflections. It was a warning sign that things might not go all our own way. Arsenal continued to move the ball around well. We then managed to get hold of the ball and our football began to shine. Gary Cahill rose unhindered at the far post but headed down and not towards the Arsenal goal.

There was a moment when the ball broke and both Eden Hazard and Pedro, out of position really, were running at the same Arsenal defender. I imagined a white flag being waved amid howls of pain.

On twelve minutes, we worked the ball out to Pedro and his magnificent cross was met by a high leap by Diego Costa. His powerful header crashed against the top of the bar. The ball spun up and seemed take forever to descend. Peter Cech was still scrambling back to his feet as Marcos Alonso sped in and headed the ball in. The crowd roared our pleasure. There was that early goal. Full credit to our left wingback to get his arse inside the box for a potential “second ball.”

One nil to Chelsea.

There was a break in play as Bellerin, laid asunder by Alonso’s challenge, was replaced by Gabriel.

Diego Costa caused the net to ripple with an angled drive.

We began to purr and enjoyed some gorgeous possession. Kante and Matic set a lot of our tone by winning plenty of loose balls, getting under Arsenal’s skin, tackling hard, then moving the ball quickly. We were relentless. This pace of ours was wonderful to watch. Eden Hazard was another on top form. One dribble out of defence was exceptional. Pedro buzzed around and never stood still. At the back, the chosen three were again playing supremely. Luiz was majestic, defending well, and releasing a few early balls for Diego. Dave was another who chased and tackled with such great desire. One Gary Cahill cushioned chest pass back to Thibaut surely had JT smiling in admiration.

I lost count of the amount of times that Arsenal were robbed of possession not by one Chelsea player but the contributions of two team mates working together.

Kante rushing to get close to Ozil, not actually tackling him or getting a touch on the ball, but putting the Arsenal player under so much pressure, that the subsequent heavy touch was pounced upon by Matic.

Chelsea hunting in packs; “unleashing the dogs” as a neighbour used to say to describe the Manchester United midfield of twenty years ago. Despite our dominance Courtois did well to push away a header from Gabriel, a defender so ugly that he makes Martin Keown look like a member of a boy band, and there was an even better save, low, to deny Ozil. It was a fine game of football.

The three thousand Arsenal supporters were very quiet. Apart from one “WWYWYWS?” there were a couple of monotone “Aaaaaaarsenal, Aaaaaaarsenal” dirges and that was about it.

Diego Costa continued to lead the line well as the second-half began. One shot was saved well by Petr Cech.

Seven minutes into the second-half, we were able to witness one of the very great Chelsea goals. And it was very much a typical – a classic – Chelsea goal. David Luiz cleared an Arsenal punt up field with a cushioned clearance towards Diego Costa. Facing his own goal and inside his own half, he did so well to flick the ball on, under pressure, to Eden Hazard. Eden, a few yards inside his own half, turned and set off. He raced away, his low centre of gravity allowing him to shake off challenges en route. One defender, Coquelin, spun off him like a drunken dancer, and as he continued his high-paced drive towards goal, there was widespread panic in the Arsenal defence akin to that experienced by children when they lose their mothers in supermarkets. We watched, hearts in mouths – me with my camera quickly brought up to my eye – and watched as he bore in on goal. It was a one-man onslaught. One final shake of the hips that Elvis Presley would have been proud, and Eden had slalomed the last two chasing defenders. He dinked the ball past the falling Cech and the Earth seemed to jolt off its axis.

I caught his beatific dance towards the far corner on camera, but inside my heart was pounding, and I felt myself smiling wide.

Click, click, click, click.

I hope that you like them.

At last, that stubborn old fucker Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud who must surely be the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere. Sanchez had been remarkably quiet. On came Danny Welbeck too. Wenger, watching from the stands for this game, is now a parody of himself these days. He is surely losing his most devout fans at Arsenal. He’s just such an odd character. And I really mean odd. Just look at the way he has always celebrated goals. Not the natural outpouring of emotion of most football types; instead the delayed, queasy, fist-punch, that doesn’t fool anyone. I have a feeling for all of his alleged passion for football, I am sure he would rather be at home, sorting his socks alphabetically. He is the sort of person who eats his Sunday roast in order of nutrional value.

A cross into our box was met by Welbeck, and his strong downward header was surely headed for the goal. Not a bit of it. Thibaut dived low to his right and pushed the ball away. It looked world class to me. I instantly likened it to the Banks save against Brazil in 1970. It certainly looked similar. It was a stunning save.

In the closing moments, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard with Willian.

The applause rang out all around The Bridge.

Shortly after, in a moment of pure melodrama, Petr Cech made a complete hash of an attempted clearance. The ball darted straight towards Fabregas, who quickly lobbed the ball back towards the empty net. Time seemed to stand still yet again. Initially, I thought the chip was too high, but – no – the ball perfectly dropped into the goal. I roared again but watched as Cech turned in dismay. There was no celebration from the scorer against his former team. I felt for Cech – just a little – but not for long. What a surreal and farcical moment it was.

We were three-up and had therefore mirrored the infamous 0-3 score line at The Emirates in the autumn, a result which helped define our season, not that we knew it at the time. I still look back on the four of us, utterly distraught, sitting on a bench at Paddington Station, completely silent, and saddened by our display, unwilling to look too far into our future as the strongest memory – emotion wise – of our whole season this far.

Diego, who I thought was magnificent during the second-half, sadly blasted high after a fine run.

4-0 would have helped us forget the 0-3 further.

Kurt Zouma replaced the tireless Victor Moses and soon had a little run at the Arsenal defence himself. What a laugh this game was truly turning out to be.

Bizarrely, Arsenal scored. Giroud put down his skinny macchiato and headed in from close range.

3-1.

Oh well.

Our amazing season continues on. All of our players were simply sensational. Our crazy manager didn’t sit the entire time; he was a picture of constant involvement. He is such an endearing character. When Eden scored his phenomenal solo-goal, a beaming Roman Abramovich was briefly shown celebrating in his executive box. This was clearly the type of football that he has always wanted to see at Chelsea. And it is a brand of football that clearly makes me happy; skillful, high-tempo, passionate, emotional, relentless. It takes my breath away. I’d like to think it is a hark-back to previous styles of football played at Stamford Bridge. The ‘sixties, the early-‘seventies, 1976/1977, 1983/1984, 2004/2005.

Classic Chelsea.

Back in the car, we listened as Hull City beat Liverpool and quickly did some mathematics.

“If we win at Burnley and Liverpool beat Tottenham next weekend, we’ll be twelve points clear of them.”

I’ll drink to that. See you all at Turf Moor.

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Tales From A Liverpudlian Pub Crawl.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2017. 

It had been a horrid time for Liverpool Football Club. In addition to a loss at home to Swansea City in the league, they were ousted from the two domestic cups within a few days. Not only were they “out” but they were Micky Flanagan “out out.” As for us,after our easy win in the FA Cup on Saturday, we were careering towards a huge game at Anfield, and it was a game that had thrilled and excited me for weeks, especially since Liverpool’s league campaign had faltered over recent months. The Chuckle Brothers, with no European adventures this season, had decided to stay over on Merseyside for this midweek match. And after overnight stays in Middlesbrough and Sunderland already this season, this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. Parky, PD and myself were joined on our trip north by my old school mate Francis, who has been an occasional visitor to Chelsea games over the years. I had collected all of the lads by 6.30am and made slow progress underneath cloudy skies; the rain was incessant. Eventually the skies cleared. I dropped down into the city of Liverpool and was parked-up at our city centre hotel by 11.15am. The trip to Liverpool had taken a full five-and-a-half hours.

The idea was for Francis and myself to head off on a little tour around the city before joining up with Parky and PD – who was celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday – in the afternoon. Francis had recently visited the city with his daughter, but – like me – had hardly seen much of the place over the years. I knew the stadia, and the area around the revitalised Albert Dock, but not much in between.

“Let’s just have a pint in a pub, come up with a plan and take it from there.”

The game was to kick-off at 8pm. At just after 11.45am, the four of us were settled in a magnificent old pub with wooden panels, stained glass, a low ceiling – “Rigby’s” – and I had a little chuckle to myself.

“Good effort boys – over eight hours to kick-off.”

Well, the first pint hardly touched the sides. One pint became two, then three, then four. Francis and I and soon decided to postpone the walk around the city centre until next time. Behind the bar was a black and white photograph of Dixie Dean, and this initiated a lovely chat with the landlord – a mad-keen Evertonian – who was soon taking the piss out of his city’s rivals.

“Well, you won’t hear many Liverpool fans going to the match tonight who will be speaking English. Norwegian, Danish, Swedish maybe.”

The landlord traded stories and memories of games and players with us, and a couple of Evertonians – supping pints on their lunch break – joined in.

Brian Labone, Pat Nevin, Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, Tommy Lawton.

I mentioned how my father had visited Goodison Park during World War Two, and talk centred on Everton’s stadium for a while. I mentioned that I had once seen a game from the top deck of the main stand – when Robert Fleck scored in 1992 – and the landlord mentioned that he had seen a few games at Goodison during the 1966 World Cup. I mentioned Archibald Leitch, the structural engineer who had planned many of football’s stadia over one hundred years ago, including Goodison Park, Anfield and Stamford Bridge.

“Archibald Leitch’s office was in that red brick building opposite just a few yards away. You probably walked past it this morning.”

What a small world and, indeed, we had. I had spoken to Francis about its imposing façade as we had walked along Dale Street earlier.

As he disappeared into the other bar, he commented that I should read a book called “Engineering Archie” which detailed Leitch’s life.

“I’ve got it mate.”

He smiled and said “you’re good, you.”

I laughed.

To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Austria. To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Germany. The landlord was right.

As the beers were downed, the landlord told the story of how he had not seen Everton play for a few years due to his increasing dislike of the way the club was being run. But he then had the chance to go to a game with a mate who he bumped into a few months back. Guess which one? It was the game at Stamford Bridge back in the autumn when we annihilated them.

He pulled a face.

“Youse lot were amazing that day.”

Interestingly, he mentioned that the girls serving food and drink in the away section at Chelsea wore Dixie Dean T-shirts. A nice touch, I thought.

From Dixie Dean to Dixie Dean, a circle was completed.

Steve, newly-arrived from Lime Street, joined us and it was great to see him again. He has been working over in Vietnam for a few years but still makes it back for a few games each season. We remembered our time together in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships and also the time in Philadelphia when we posed with the club banners on the city’s famous Rocky Steps. Before we left, the landlord posed us a question. Apparently, in around 1968 or so, Everton played Chelsea and all six half-backs in the game had surnames that began with the letter “H.” We quickly came up with Harris and Hinton for Chelsea, but had no hope of getting any of the Everton ones. This brain-teaser soon morphed into the old question of naming the seven Chelsea players from the ‘seventies with surnames beginning with “H.” We all chirped in.

“Harris.”

“Hollins.”

“Houseman.”

“Hinton.”

“Hudson.”

“Hutchinson.”

“Are you sure there were seven?”

“How about Hosgood?”

We giggled.

We moved a few yards down Dale Street to pub number two, “The Vernon Arms” which oddly had a sloping floor. To our right there were two Liverpool fans from Dublin.

“No English accents.”

We had to laugh, the landlord from the first pub showed up on his break.

“It’s cheaper.”

The beers were certainly flowing now. We moved on to pub number three, “The Exelsior” and the drinking continued. We bumped into a couple from Dundee – Chelsea fans down for the game – and we soon found out that they knew our mate Foxy, he of the Dundee-based “Charlie Cooke Flying Squad.” Again, a comment about a small world is surely in order.

The next pub – just a few more yards along Dale Street – was “The Ship & Mitre.”

Here, it certainly felt like we were enacting The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, as we were joined by Kev, who loves his real ales and who sits very near me at Chelsea, and Jeremy, from Kansas, who I last saw in the US. More drinks, more laughs, oh bloody hell, what a giggle.

We asked Kev about the riddle involving the Chelsea players.

“Hosgood?”

We laughed again.

The Chuckle Brothers were in town alright.

Time was moving on. At around 7pm, we took two cabs up to Anfield; PD, Parky and myself in one, Francis and the Charlie Cooke Flying Squad in the other. The accumulative effect of a ridiculously long drinking session began to take its toll. There were a few fraught minutes when I thought that I had mislaid my match ticket. I made my blurry way over to “The Arkles” at about 7.15pm where I had hoped to meet up with a couple of friends. Sadly, they were nowhere to be seen. Francis suddenly appeared in the bar and we hurriedly wolfed-down a couple of large gin and tonics.

With only a few minutes to spare, I made my way in to the away end and finally edged my way along to meet up with Alan and Gary. The Kop was full of scarves and flags, but my attention was taken up by the huge new stand to our right which dwarfed the other three structures at Anfield. The dull grey roof sloped down in sections towards The Kop and the Anfield Road. The rain was sleeting down. It was a horrible night but the green carpet glistened. Our end was packed. Elsewhere, I could hardly see any empty seats.

It was time for me to quickly assess the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Matic was selected alongside Kante. Willian had got the nod ahead of Pedro. Mark Clattenburg whistled the start of the game and it felt so odd to see Liverpool attacking The Kop in the first-half. In all of my years of attending games at Anfield – this was game number twenty-two – I could not remember many other matches that had begun in a similar fashion. One stood out, for all of the wrong reasons; that Louis bloody Garcia game in 2005. I tried my best to focus and concentrate on the action being played out in front of me. Liverpool certainly enjoyed a huge amount of early possession and I think that it surprised us all. The ball was moved across the pitch at will by Liverpool but to be truthful they rarely breached our defensive line nor exposed us.

Not long into our game, news filtered through that Arsenal were losing 2-0 at home against the might of Watford. Oh my aching sides.

We began to grow into the game. A run by Eden Hazard was abruptly stopped and we waited for the resulting free-kick. Willian stood over the ball. I took a photograph of him waiting. The referee whistled and David Luiz – not Willian – raced at the ball. His customary side-on strike caught everyone unawares. It certainly caught me unawares as he was too quick for my trusty camera. The ball dipped and curled at all the right places and made the net ripple, with Mignolet miles away.

My first thought; David’s first goal for us since his return.

This was followed a nano-second later with another thought.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

It was our first real effort on goal.

The three-thousand Chelsea supporters roared as Luiz reeled away and sprinted over to the Chelsea bench. Thousands of inhabitants of the new stand looked down in dismay.

Chances were at an absolute premium as the play continued. The ball zipped over the wet surface and although the two teams tried their best to engineer chances, the play was of great intensity but of little guile and craft. Liverpool again had most of the ball, but Thibaut Courtois was largely untroubled in front of The Kop.

Soon into the second-half, Firmino wasted a great chance for Liverpool, blasting high and wide.

At the other end, Moses scraped the outside of the post in a rare Chelsea attack.

Just before the hour, a deep cross from Henderson found Milner, only a few yards away from us in the away section. His header back across the six-yard box was subsequently touched home by Wijnaldum.

Bollocks.

I feared the worst, to be honest and kept glancing at the clock, willing the clock to keep moving on. We tackled and closed space. This really was a war of attrition. Kante won tackle after tackle.

With twenty minutes to go, Conte replaced Hazard with Pedro.

In one of his few forays into the Liverpool box, Costa was caught by Matip and – yes! – Clattenburg pointed to the spot. I can’t imagine what it must be like to step forward and take a penalty in front of The Kop, but sadly Diego shot weakly to Mignolet’s right – a very poor effort – and the ball was pushed away for a corner.

Fabregas replaced Willian in the closing moments and he added some steadiness amongst the frantic pin-ball. Both sets of fans were baying for a winner. Pedro, adding extra pace to our attacks, came close and then Firmino headed weakly at Thibaut. Batshuayi replaced Diego Costa.

The whistle blew. There was rapid confirmation that Arsenal had indeed lost against Watford, but also Tottenham had only garnered a draw at basement dwellers Sunderland. It had been a game that never really delivered its share of excitement, but it did not matter. We had increased our lead at the very top of the table to a massive nine points.

Outside in the cold night air, we all treated ourselves to burgers outside The Kop, before we piled in to the final pub of the day “The Valley” which sits at the end of Walton Breck Road as it meets Everton Valley. I can remember being marched en masse by the local “bizzies” past this big old pub on many occasions during the dark days of the ‘eighties. It looked a grim old place in those days and I always used to think that an ambush by battle-hardened locals was only a few seconds away. There were more drinks – more gin and tonics – and quiet chat among the four of us. It had been a fantastic pub crawl alright. Six pubs all told. We caught a cab back in to town, down the famous Scotland Road, and finally reached our hotel. There was time for one last nightcap, and a chat with two more Chelsea lads from Scotland, Andy and Graham, in the hotel bar.

After a long hard day it was time to call it a night.

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