About chrisaxon

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

Tales From The Warm Afterglow.

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 25 April 2017.

It was a surprisingly cold evening in SW6. There had been plenty of time for a couple of lagers in “The Goose” with the usual suspects, and the talk was all about our win over Tottenham in the semi-final on Saturday and the remaining games left for us this season. The huge 4-2 win had certainly warmed us all, and had given us renewed hope for the remaining games. In the beer garden, there was a glow from Saturday insulating us from the biting cold. We had six league games remaining. If we could eke out five wins, our sixth championship would be assured. It’s all about numbers at this time of the season.

Inside the stadium, Southampton had only brought 1,500, which I thought was pretty poor, considering that their tickets were pegged at £30. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the banners were out in The Shed again, with the words “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” draped vertically down from the upper deck.

Our team was a strong one, with Gary Cahill returning and Cesc Fabregas starting.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

Featured in the visiting line-up were two former Chelsea players, both of whom were in our numbers in Munich – Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu.

Just before the game began, my pal Rob – who sits a few rows behind me in The Sleepy Hollow – told me that he had organised tickets for a neighbour and his son, who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game, to sit alongside him. Rob asked me to take a few candid photographs of the young lad during the game as a little memento of the evening. It was a pleasure to be able to do so. I explained to Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside me, what Rob had asked me to do and he in turn suggested that I should shout up to him to get the lad to smile. However, not only would that spoil the shot that I was looking for, but I also added “nobody ever smiles at football, mate.” And it’s certainly at least half-true. At Chelsea games, we tend to look on with our faces being pictures of studied seriousness, often beset with worries, only smiling or laughing at irregular intervals.

“Sombre business this football.”

Not long in to the game, the shots of a suitably pensive Harrison were in the can. I hoped that he’d appreciate the photographs in his later years. It took me back, momentarily, to my first game in 1974. As I have mentioned before, despite my parents having taken many photographs of myself during my childhood, it is a little gripe of mine that there is no photographic record of my first-ever game at Chelsea. In fact, until I took my camera to games in 1983/1984, only one photograph from my first ten years of Chelsea games exists, and it came from a game against Southampton in 1976. It marked the return of The King, Peter Osgood.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us in the queue. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. My first-ever Chelsea photograph depicts the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings.

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I have, sadly, no real memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day over thirty-nine years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwRXqPoSZts

Back to our game with Southampton in 2017 and, thankfully, we did not have too long to wait for a goal. After just five minutes, a lovely long ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who ploughed a lone furrow forward. I will be honest, I thought that Diego was undecided with what he would do. He held on to the ball – “too long, too long”  I moaned – but was then able to look up and perfectly cut a ball back towards Eden Hazard. His low shot screamed towards the far post, and in it went.

GET IN.

I was the target of some good-natured ribbing from the lads sitting nearby – “too long, ha” – and then Alan and myself enacted our usual opening goal routine.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I had naively hoped that the opening period of the game would be marked by a relentless barrage of noise, effectively thanking the team for their hugely important win at Wembley, but even with a goal to cheer, the noise levels were not that special. To be honest, the spirited Southampton team caused us a few moments of concern as they fought hard for possession. They worked the ball well. But Chelsea were zipping the ball around too. It was an open game. There were groans after Eden Hazard blazed over after another delightful set-up from Diego from a pass from Fabregas.

On twenty-four minutes, a Southampton corner down below me was whipped in and it found Manolo Gabbiadini at the far post. His shot was thumped right at Courtois, but it was deflected by David Luiz in to the path of Romeu, who easily slotted home from very close range.

I rolled my eyes and envisioned an awakening from their post-Wembley slumber by Tottenham fans.

Bollocks. This was not part of the plan. I just hoped that the equaliser might generate a little more noise of support from the home areas. It did for a while.

A truly mesmeric run from the loved N’Golo Kante – at first winning the ball on the right wing and then pushing on past opponent after opponent – stirred us all. His penetrating run deep inside the box, which ended with a blocked cross from the goal-line, was just sublime.

Nemanja Matic – urged to “shoot!” by thousands – fired an effort at the Southampton goal but Fraser Forster was not worried.

Southampton continued to press, with the former players Romeu and Bertrand as good as any, and were especially dangerous at set pieces. The crowd grew nervous. There were a few dissenting voices aimed at Diego Costa as the first-half continued, which I thought was a little unfair. The frustration in the crowd grew.

One minute of injury-time was signalled. We forced a corner. It was played across the box and was cleared, but only as far as Kante. He floated a ball towards the far post and Marcos Alonso did well to head the ball back across the box. We watched as Gary Cahill flung himself at the ball and it bounced down and past Forster into the Shed End goal.

YES.

The Bridge responded with a boom of relief. He fell to his knees and then collapsed by the corner flag. I knew how he felt.

The first song from the PA at half-time was “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam.

“Something like that” I thought to myself, wondering if Messrs. Weller, Foxton and Buckler ever released a song called “Fuck entertainment, just give us a win.”

After only eight minutes into the second-half, Cesc Fabregas – playing very well – picked up a pass from Eden and floated a ball towards Diego Costa in a packed penalty box. Diego’s neat header seemed too easy. It dropped in to the goal. The crowd roared again.

We were winning 3-1. Get in.

After the applause had calmed down, I stood pointing towards one of the lads that had been giving Diego such a hard time. I stayed pointing – like Usain Bolt – until he eventually caught my eye. There were smiles from both of us. It was a lovely moment. I hoped that the third goal would calm our nerves. And I also hoped that Diego’s goal would galvanise his doubters over the final push of the campaign. We dominated now, but without causing too many problems for Forster in the Southampton goal. Kante, bearing down on Forster from an angle, forced a fine reflex save from the Saints’ keeper. Alonso’s long shot came to nothing. In the closing moments, there were further shots from substitute Pedro, on for Fabregas, and from Matic. Throughout the match, I thought that Fabregas, Kante and Luiz had been our finest players.

With five minutes’ remaining, the Stamford Bridge crowd rose as one to welcome John Terry on to the pitch as he replaced Victor Moses. His first touch, a side-footed clearance out of defence, was met with one of the loudest cheers of the night.

In the last minute of normal time, a sublime move down below us involving a tricky run from Diego, playing one-twos with first Pedro and then Eden Hazard, ended with Diego planting the ball in to the Southampton goal. It was just a beautiful moment. Diego raced away, cupping his ears, as if to say “where are the boos, now?” I followed suit, cupping my ears towards my mate in the row behind. More smiles, more laughter. The serious faces were no more.

Bizarrely, almost as an after-thought, Ryan Bertrand rose and guided a looping header past Thibaut into our goal and we ended up with a second 4-2 win in four days.

There was predictable joy as the game ended. “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the stadium as Antonio Conte came on to the pitch to hug his players.

Five games left. See you at Goodison on Sunday.

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Tales From A Wembley High.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

We all knew how important this FA Cup semi-final was. We had suffered a recent blip in the league with two defeats out of the past four games and so we all realised that this game against Tottenham Hotspur – aka “that lot” – had the potential to make or break our season. A once seemingly impenetrable lead of ten points had been frittered away to a meagre four. A defeat – God forbid – at the hands of that lot at Wembley, we reasoned, would strike a horrible blow to our self-belief, while handing a lifeline to them.

No further build-up required. It was a massive match.

I woke early – again before the alarm – and unsurprisingly nervous. I was, if I am honest, full of trepidation. And this certainly felt odd. In recent years I have rarely felt so unsure of a Chelsea win and, with it, a grand day out from start to finish.

The four Chuckle Brothers – Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – had travelled up by train once again. It brought back memories, thankfully briefly, of the train trip that we all took just a few days after my mother passed away for the League Cup semi-final against the same opponent just over two years ago. On that day, I didn’t feel much like football, but my friends famously pulled me through. We had set off from Frome at 8am, and were soon at the lovely and delightful Paddington Station. There is something quite wonderful about alighting at a grand terminus, especially on a football day out. We had not spotted fans of either team on the journey to London. I certainly expected to bump into groups of “them” throughout the day.

As we strode out across the busy concourse towards Praed Street, I pointed out the metallic bench seats where the four of us had slumped – silent, stony-faced, sad – after the away game at The Emirates in September, and we all remembered those fleeting moments of pain and worry. The bench really sticks in my mind. It is undoubtedly one my personal totems of this incredible season. It made me think of another football club and one with which our current manager is heavily linked. I always remember that during the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Juventus Stadium in 2011, a bench played a starring role, since the famous old club was formed by some youngsters who met by a bench in one of Turin’s main streets. A replica of that bench was floodlit, in the middle of the pitch, as all other lights were dimmed. It was a simple and fine image. It represented a pivotal moment in time for that club. I promised the boys that if we ever made it to the FA Cup Final in May, we would make a point of returning to sit on that same bench on the Paddington concourse – maybe as league champions – and remember how far this team has come. Imagine returning on the evening of Saturday 27 May after an FA Cup Final with some silverware in our back pockets. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have travelled in 2016/2017. After that game at Arsenal, it felt like we were down and out. We had a team in need of fresh blood. The mess of the previous season was set to continue. Our new manager had been found out. We were to face a long and testing season.

I had sorted out a little pub crawl. After scoffing a great breakfast outside the station, we were the first patrons to enter “Sawyers Arms” bang on 11am. We had already admitted to ourselves that we were all nervous about the game. Over a “Peroni”, the talk continued about the game. We all admitted that the result at Old Trafford had really been a “bad day at the office” especially when the news broke that a few players had been stricken with a stomach bug. The team had obviously been knocked sideways by the pre-match changes. In retrospect, everything looked out of kilter. But we were sure that the manager would be suitably prepared for the semi-final. Of course, the loss of Gary Cahill would be a tough one. We favoured Nathan Ake over Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

As we approached “The Sussex Arms” I spotted a gaggle of Herberts supping pints outside.

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

As I got closer, I recognised a few familiar faces. Inside the dark boozer, I recognised even more. Many of the Chelsea fans from our neck of the woods had evidently decided to forego the bars closer to the station. I took my pint of San Miguel and chatted to one of the Swindon lads, Paul. Close by were lads from Melksham, Westbury, Trowbridge and Gloucester. Outside, the banter continued. None of us were overly confident. We were joined by three Chelsea lads from California – Tom, Brad and Mike, all in and out for just the one game – and we then headed off to the next pub on the list.

“The Victoria” is a cracking pub and I last visited it on the day of the 2012 FA Cup Final with Parky. The return visit in 2017 was, I will admit, a superstitious move by myself. But it is a fantastic boozer and it has retained its charm. A couple more drinks went down well. It was approaching 2pm.

We hailed a cab and darted off to “The Green Man” by Edgware Road tube. Daryl, Ed, Gary, Alan, John, Simon and Milo were already there, and the pub soon became swamped with many of the West of England Chelsea that we had met in “The Sussex Arms”. There was a moment when I looked up and each and every one of my London mates were chatting to lads from my part of England. It was a lovely moment. It encapsulated the buzz that I get out of following the team all over this country and beyond. All of us united by our love of Chelsea. All of us loving a beer. All of us loving a laugh.

The pub is nestled under the Westway and we were able to spot the Manchester City team bus that became stuck in traffic It was daubed with the club crest and a huge image of their players doing a “Poznan.”

I hope that Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kopmany appreciated the variety of hand signals that welcomed their slow advance into London.

Believe it or not, we were yet to see any opposing fans. Not one. Or at least, none that were wearing club colours. Maybe a few had sidled past us at Paddington but we would not have known. We had spotted little knots of police at Paddington, but there had been no Spurs fans. We walked to Marylebone train station. On the ten-minute ride to Wembley Stadium train station, right next to the ground, I spotted my first two Spurs fans of the day. One of them overheard me say “oh, there’s one” and apologised.

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

The team news had broken through and it surprised us. Completely.

Out went Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, in came Willian and Michy Batshuayi.

Wow.

As for Gary Cahill’s replacement, we were right. In came Nathan Ake.

Unlike in previous years, there was no last-minute struggle to get in before the kick-off. We were all in with plenty of time to spare. The four of us were high behind the west end goal. Just like in the 2009 and 2012 finals, we were in that small section right above the TV screen. More positive superstition. Wembley is huge, of course. We preferred to be up high, since the patterns of play are able to be followed easier. Nearer the pitch, it becomes difficult to get much of a perspective.

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

Hardly any flags and banners were on show. New stadium regulations had meant that flags over a certain size needed to be pre-registered and have fire-certificates, thus stopping most from being allowed in. The cynical view is that banners obstruct advertisements along the balcony walls. Only one winner there, I am afraid.

It was lovely to spot thirty Chelsea Pensioners sitting in the lower deck to my left.

A few songs boomed out of the PA. A white flag wended its way from left to right in the lower tier of the east terrace, a blue flag moved over the heads of our supporters down below us. As the teams entered the pitch, supporters in our end frantically waved thousands of royal blue flags, while the other end depicted “COYS” amid alternate white and navy sections.

The scene was set.

But first, a minute of applause as the football world remembered Ugo Ehiogu, the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender, who had sadly passed away the previous day. He was a fine player. Both sets of players wore black armbands. Towards the end of the minute’s applause, we joined in chanting “Ugo” too.

We stood the entire game as did the majority around us and below us.

The match began and we started very well indeed. We thwarted an early attack which resulted in a corner but a fine Nathan Ake tackle set us off on a rapid attack of our own. A lovely touch from Michy set the raiding Pedro on his way. As he approached the penalty box, he was clumsily tackled by Toby Alderweireld. Barely three minutes had passed. A free-kick in “Willian territory.”

He steadied himself before clipping a fine shot just over the line of defenders. The net rippled and we roared. What a dream start and other clichés. The players raced over towards the side of the pitch, no doubt winding up both the opposing fans and also Mauricio Pocchetino, watching on like Rodney Bewes in a dark grey flasher mac.

I spotted a plane trailing an “ANTONIO ANTONIO” banner.

The pre-match worry had been temporarily lifted. For a while, we looked in control and at ease. Nathan Ake, bless him, looked particularly good. His movement is so natural. Sadly, this purple period did not last. A corner from Cristian Eriksen was cleared but he had a second bite of the cherry. A cross towards the near post was met by a stooping header from Harry bloody Kane, whose slight touch took the ball bouncing into goal way past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

There wasn’t constant noise, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all bad. The slow and dirge like “oh when that lot go marching in” was matched by a few “carefrees.”  I was able to spot a few empty seats around and about but this was virtually a full house. There were little battles everywhere. N’Golo Kante was right in the middle of everything. I couldn’t work out why Son was playing at left-back. Victor Moses had a few trademark runs down that flank. That lot began to dominate and our defenders did well the repel their attacks. Luiz was at the centre of those blocks, ably aided by Ake to his left and Dave to his right.

Just before the break, the ball was pushed forward to Moses. He took a touch, but the poorly-timed challenge from Son immediately looked promising. After a split second, the referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

“Get in.”

We waited. It looked like Batshuayi wanted to take it. Silly boy. Thankfully, Willian grabbed the ball. There was a slight stall as he approached the spot. Hugo Lloris was already on his way to his left as Willian struck it to his right.

“Yes.”

We punched the sky. But whereas there was wild euphoria with his first goal, there was just relief with this one.

The French ‘keeper appeared to touch the ball outside of the box, but we were one hundred yards away. At the break, texts came through to say that the touch was outside the box.

But the mood was buoyant at the break. We were halfway to paradise.

Our old rivals started the second-half the brighter. Luiz was soon heading and blocking in fine style. As Eriksen was allowed a little space, Glenn uttered the immortal words “no, don’t let him” and at that moment, we let him float a superb ball in and Delle Alli was able to meet the bounce of the ball and prod it high past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

Only seven minutes of the second-half were on the clock.

That lot then dominated for quite some time, though in all honesty rarely threatened our goal. Luiz headed cross after cross away. A strip of sun edged slowly towards the eastern side of the stadium as the game continued. Elsewhere the pitch was in shadow. The songs ebbed and flowed.

On the hour, our manager pulled the strings. Off came Willian the goal scorer and on came Eden Hazard. Off came Batshuayi and on came Diego Costa. After a bright start, Michy had been largely stranded up front as the game continued. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a bonus for us to bring on such quality from our bench. They still had most of the ball though, but again found it so difficult to get behind us or even through us. Our royal blue wall was not going to be easily breached. Time after time, their attacks petered out.

Cesc Fabregas then replaced Pedro, who had also started brightly but was beginning to fade. Very soon, we won our first corner of the game. The ball reached an unmarked Eden Hazard, lurking just outside the box. He took one touch and shot low, through a forest of legs, and we watched – on tenterhooks – as the ball continued unhindered into the goal.

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

“And its super Chelsea. Super Chelsea FC. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”

This was the loudest that I think that I had ever heard us at the new Wembley Stadium.

Five minutes later, our two craftsmen combined inside the box. Fabregas twisted a ball back to Hazard from the bye-line, and Eden took a couple of touches as he ran across the pitch, just keeping the ball under control. The ball was pushed towards Nemanja Matic, some thirty yards out.

Smack.

The ball crashed in off the underside of the bar, Lloris beaten, the whole team beaten.

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

At the other end, red seats started appearing. They had seen this all before. They were off home. In 2012 we administered their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. Now, in 2017, we had given them their seventh in a row.

Incredibly, Hazard and then Costa came close in the final few moments. A Kane free-kick in the dying embers of a fantastic game was saved by Courtois.

At the final whistle, of course many more red seats visible now, the joy of reaching another FA Cup Final almost matched the joy of beating “that lot” in a hugely important game in this most incredible, mesmerising, entertaining and dramatic of seasons.

The players cavorted down below. The manager looked breathless. The twin staples “One Step Beyond” and “Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

The return train trip into the centre of London was full of smiles. At a bar outside Marylebone station, we met up with more Chelsea pals. Outside the redbrick hotel opposite, we spotted the Manchester City coach. Apparently, the Chelsea team had stayed at the very same hotel the previous night. We caught the 10pm train home, and there was time for one last gin and tonic from the buffet. Looking back, I should have asked for a double.

We reached home at midnight. It had been another fantastic day.

On Tuesday, the show rolls on. There is no time to rest. Southampton at home. See you there.

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Tales From A Humdrum Town.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

“U. N. I. T. E. D – United are the team for me.”

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From Glorious Bournemouth.

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 8 April 2017.

The game of cat and mouse was continuing. Try as we might to free ourselves from the clutches of Tottenham, we were being forced to strive for a further three points from our game with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. While the pints were being sunk with regularity in the big and breezy “Moon On The Square” in Bournemouth’s sunny town centre, Tottenham were scoring goals for fun at home to Watford. They went three-nil up by half-time, and eventually won four-nil. The gap was back to four points. It was up to us to regain the seven-point advantage.

It was certainly a day of pints and points alright.

After missing out on the pre-match fun in the corresponding fixture last April – I had to work in the morning and only made it to the Vitality Stadium at about 2pm – I was hoping to make up for it this time around. Although several friends had traveled down on the Friday night, Glenn and myself had driven down on the day of the game. A pint of San Miguel on the pier at about 11.30am – clear blue skies, the sun glistening on the ocean, a warm day getting warmer, memories of family holidays in the neighbouring resort of Southbourne –  had been a perfect start to a day of football. It could have been even better; the team were staying at the Hilton Hotel, just a stone’s throw away, and Alan explained that the management staff and players had recently appeared in the perfectly manicured Lower Gardens about an hour earlier for their pre-match “walk.”

Breezing past the lads would have been a lovely start to the day.

As the drinking continued, we were joined by a smattering of friends from near and far. There was no rush, the game was hours away.

Pint, chat, laugh, pint, chat, laugh, pint, chat, laugh.

Eventually it was time to move. Outside the weather was perfect.

“Dear Footballing Gods. Please do all you can to keep AFC Bournemouth in the top flight of English football for as long as possible. Additionally, please do your very best to ensure that Chelsea Football Club keep paying them a visit in April. Or May. Or August. Or September. We’re a bit fussy about things like that. You see, we love the idea of palm trees and beaches on an away day. Thanks. Stay in touch.”

Inside the Vitality Stadium, it was clear that we were not the only ones that had been enjoying the hospitality of the local pubs. There was a raucous noise in the small concourse beneath the seats. While others squeezed in “one more pint” before the match kicked-off at 5.30pm, we took our seats in row E, just five from the front. Since our last visit to the Vitality Stadium – capacity barely over 11,000 – I had seen stories of the football club wanting to re-locate to a new build stadium. I can understand the reasons why. As it stands at the moment, the stadium formerly known as Dean Court, makes a nice change from the usual identikit new-builds that we visit. If only more away fans could be admitted. With our numbers limited to around 1,200 we were the very lucky ones. Many Chelsea had travelled without the slightest hope of getting in.

The team news was dominated by the return of Victor Moses. Who would have ever thought that this man would be so missed when injured recently? It was a very strong Chelsea team, and was proof that we needed to keep grinding out results.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Alonso.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

For the fans in the single-tiered stand, we were battling the elements all game. The falling sun was right in our eyes. Even with sunglasses, everyone was having trouble. Hands were brought up to the head to shelter our eyes from the glare. From such a shallow viewpoint, I found it difficult to follow not only the ball but the movement of the players too. It was like watching football in two dimensions. I found it difficult to judge the depth of play.

Bournemouth began the brightest. Always neat and tidy, they attacked with pace too.  A cross from the right from Fraser in the very first minute was met by an errant swipe at the ball by David Luiz. A crazy deflection forced Thibaut Courtois to react well. Fraser then forced another effort on goal, but the ball spun wide. Unlike last season’s 4-1 victory, maybe this would not be a walk in the park that I had hoped.

The Chelsea support urged the team on.

In the early evening sun – everything so hazy, and not just alcohol induced – we slowly edged our way in to the game. Then all of a sudden we were in among the goals. The ball was worked to Diego Costa, who was able to twist around and prod the ball towards goal. A fateful deflection off a luckless defender steered the ball in off the post, but also robbed Diego of the goal.

Our cheers were still ringing around the stadium when N’Golo Kante released Eden Hazard a few minutes later. He broke away, evidently just beating an offside shout, and drew Artur Boruc before slipping the ball past him.

Two nil, too easy?

Not at all.

The home team, with Wilshere starring for the Dorset team, kept playing to their strengths. Afobe crashed a volley on to the woodwork, down low, with Courtois beaten. Chelsea then dominated for a little spell. It was turning into a very competitive game.

One song dominated.

“Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

How we love this slight and stylish man from Lecce.

Just before half-time, Bournemouth moved the ball out to King, who only took a couple of touches before whipping the ball in past Courtois at the near post.

Game on.

Bollocks.

At the break, there was no mass-exodus. I was so happy that everyone was staying inside the stadium to watch the game, unlike last year when many left at the break to continue their drinking session in the town centre.

With the sun disappearing behind the stand to our right, I was happier with my sight lines as the second-half began. Yes, this was a better feeling for sure. The action was clearer. And it helped that we were attacking our end. It was a very pleasant evening.

But still the home team threatened. Thankfully we rode our luck and withstood any attempts on goal. In front of us in the away seats, Alonso and Hazard were seeing a lot of the ball. It is always an absolute joy to see their skills so close.

Halfway through the second-half, Diego Costa was fouled. From about twenty-five yards out, just beyond the centre of the goal, Marcos Alonso stood alongside Nemanja Matic. There was only one person who was taking this one, surely. Alonso clipped the ball over the wall with his trusted left foot and the dipping curve was perfect, past a stranded Boruc. It was a sublime goal.

We were three-one up.

GET IN.

Deliriously, the scorer raced over to our seats and was mobbed by his team mates. The smiles on their faces were mirrored by ours.

They were only yards away. A fantastic moment.

“Oh Marcos Alonso, oh Marcos Alonso.”

Moses the journeyman. Alonso the journeyman. Now much-loved stars of a team chasing a championship. Funny game, football, eh? As the game continued, the nerves had been calmed. We played with a little more composure and a little more flair. A few late chances would have flattered us, since the home team gave us a nervy test at times, but we fully deserved the 3-1 win. One song – a new one – dominated the latter part of the game.

“We’re coming for you. We’re coming for you. Tottenham Hotspur. We’re coming for you.”

I loved that. I first thought that this had lovingly turned the Spurs chant at us on its head – since they are seemingly always below us, no matter what year – but I then realised that it was, more mundanely, referencing the FA Cup Semi-Final. Whatever, it summed things up nicely. Last year, at Bournemouth in the sun, we urged the players to “beat fucking Tottenham” and now, a year later, they were in our thoughts again.

Some things will never change I guess.

Back in Bournemouth town centre, the “pint, chat, laugh” routine continued on.

And on. And on.

Eventually, I went for a wander and by the time I had returned to meet up with the boys, they had made their own way back to the hotel.

The next morning I awoke without the slightest hint of a hangover – a miracle – and I noticed that Glenn had previously posted an update on Facebook at just before midnight :

“Chris Axon we’re looking for you.”

What a crap song. That will never catch on.

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Tales From An Evening Of Cat And Mouse.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 April 2017.

There is no need for a fanciful and overly-elaborate scene-setter for this one.

The loss to Crystal Palace on April Fool’s Day was an unwanted shock to the system. As a result, Tottenham Hotspur were – if not breathing down our neck, yet – then at least shouting abuse at us from a shorter distance than before. The home game with Manchester City was a – cliche #418 – must-win game.

If Tottenham were to win, out west in Wales, and we were to lose to City – God forbid – then our once impregnable lead at the top would be cut to just four points, with eight games left. Even a draw against City, in my mind, would not be enough.

“Three points or bust, Chelsea.”

Before the possible dramatic events at Stamford Bridge were able to unfold, I was embroiled in my own little moment of drama at work. As the day rolled on – with work piling up – I wondered if I would be able to get away on time. At just after 2pm, I called over to see PD and LP who were just about to launch into their traditional pre-Chelsea home game gammon and chips at “The Milk Churn.” I passed over Glenn’s season ticket to PD so he could in turn pass it on to Bournemouth Steve. Reluctantly, I had to tell PD to make his own way up. There were severe doubts that I would be able to make kick-off, at best, or the game itself, at worst. Thankfully, things fell in to place during the next two hours and, with a big chunk of onerous work being able to be delayed for others in the morning, I was able to leave for SW6 at 4pm. I could relax a little, even though I would now hit all of the traffic going in to London. A journey that usually takes two and a quarter hours would now take three. And it felt odd to be driving to a game alone. It unsurprisingly felt like a potentially seismic Champions League night. A massive game, for sure.

As is so often the case, I noted one car – a red mini – that I constantly passed on the tedious last ten miles, as we accelerated and then slowed, passing each other every few minutes, and I wondered if this was a metaphor for the final stage of the season. Would one team slow right down, allowing another to catch up, before their positions changing over the very final stretch? I remembered a similar instance a few years back when I played one particular bout of cat-and-mouse with one car on the last few miles of the M4, before eventually seeing it lose me at Chiswick. It rather freaked me out when I saw it was parked up just a few yards away from my usual parking space at Chelsea. As I saw the little red mini disappear over the Hammersmith flyover, I waited with baited breath to see if I would spot it again in the streets that surround Queens Club. Thankfully I didn’t. My own little bout of football madness was over. And in any case, the girl who was driving the red mini was unlikely to be a Spurs supporter, right?

Bloody hell, relax.

It still took me a further ten minutes to find a parking spot in the usual areas. At around 7pm, I was evidently one of the last ones to arrive. Bramber Road, Normand Road, Chesson Road, Archel Road, Turneville Road were all chocker. I eventually parked up on Star Road, a good few hundred yards from where I saw PD’s car.

I briefly met up with the troops in The Goose. Time for a bolted “Peroni” and the briefest of chats. Bournemouth Steve eventually arrived to collect the ST card. Rush, rush, rush. A few US pals were still in town and I wanted to meet up with them briefly in “The Cock Tavern” before they disappeared into the ether of international travel. They were leaving just as I arrived; perfect timing. No time for a beer, the time was racing on. We walked to the stadium together.

The Chelsea team had been re-arranged by the manager since the previous game.

Courtois.

Zouma, Luiz, Cahill.

Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

My first worry – perhaps there were many – was that the guile of the slight Aguero, Silva, Sane and De Bruyne might be too much for the tall trio at the back. A big test for Kurt Zouma. He just needed to stay tight to his man and do the simple stuff. I was concerned.

My second worry was that I would be suffering an intense migraine by the end of the night after being blinded by the shocking orange of the Manchester City kit. Bloody hell, if that is an indication of our upcoming life with Nike, I might even pine for the days of the Chelsea Collection of 1986/1987. Kevin de Bruyne, the strawberry-blonde and rosy-faced winger, must bloody well hate it, in exactly the same way that David Hopkin must have detested wearing the tangerine and graphite debacle of 1994 to 1996.

Shudder.

City had three-thousand away fans. As they should. One poxy flag : “Kidderminster.” Must do better.

The atmosphere was buzzing at the start. Ripples of noise grew louder as each chant enveloped the stadium. This felt like a proper game of football.

I wondered if Chelsea would spend the entire night confirming one of modern football’s oxymorons –

“The Manchester City defender.”

City had the infrequently-used Kompany alongside the maligned Stones, with the attack-minded Clichy and Navas on the flanks. Going forward, they looked fearsome. But our team looked top-heavy too, with Cesc in place of Matic. It looked like N’Golo would have his work cut out.

I whispered to Steve : “Never mind, if any man can, Kante can” and immediately sounded like Suzi Quatro.

Almost astonishingly, we heard that Swansea City were 1-0 up against “that lot.”

I wondered if this might, just might, turn out to be a legendary night.

We certainly began well. I soon spotted that we kept hitting early balls out wide in an attempt to stretch their defence. After just ten minutes, the ball was worked forward by Azpilicueta to Pedro on the right. Pedro held the ball momentarily, but Dave had pushed on and Pedro slipped the ball through to him. A quick look up, and the ball was ably played into the path of Eden Hazard. Much to my surprise, his low shot ended up flashing past Caballero.

In my mind I was thinking “how the hell did that go in?” but outside I was shrieking a loud and sustained roar of pleasure. I soon turned to Alan and said “of course, on bloody Saturday, that would have been deflected wide.”

In the replay, it was unclear to me that the slightest of deflections off Kompany’s shiny pate had edged the ball away from Caballero’s sway to his left. Football games are often won and lost by inches.

However, I turned to Alan and admitted my worry : “You know it won’t stay 1-0?”

The crowd were roaring, but Manchester City began working the defensive three, five, seven. Their movement impressed us all. It seemed that everyone of their attacking players were never seen in the same place twice. They tested Thibaut a few times.

A pass from the excellent Hazard to Fabregas resulted in a shot which deflected high off a defender and dropped on to the crossbar. This was such an open game. Sadly, on twenty-six minutes, a dithering Courtois hacked a clearance away, but it fell right at the feet of the neat and tidy David Silva. We groaned the hugest groan. He advanced and shot straight at Courtois. The ball travelled only a few yards from Thibaut’s block and now ended up at Aguero’s feet. He easily dispatched the ball home.

Luiz comforted the ‘keeper with a slapped handshake, but Thibaut must have been hurting.

It was an equaliser that, if I am truthful City, warranted. I remembered that their play in the opening segment of our 2-1 win against them in 2011/2012 was as good as I could recall by an away team at Stamford Bridge over the years, and this was an updated version of it. Constant movement everywhere. On the touchline, the two suited Europeans Guardiola and Conte were stood the whole game.

Courtois shifted his feet well to tip over a Leroy Sane lob. We were under the cosh alright.

For a few fleeting moments, the City fans could be heard.

“We’re not really here.”

With thoughts of keeping it tight and reaching half-time – a Conte half-time masterclass from us to counter a Pep-talk from them – the ball found Pedro inside the City box. A crude chop by Fernandinho made referee Mike Dean quickly point to the spot.

“Nailed on penalty, that.”

Without any need of a prompt, Albert – who sits in front of me – upped and visited the gents. We have lost count of the number of times over the years that we have scored when he has disappeared off to turn his bike around.

Eden placed the ball on the spot. We waited. His shot was low and saved by the ‘keeper. Thankfully, the ball rebounded right in to the path of Eden and as Caballero dived to his right, the ball was stroked to his left.

GET. IN.

Albert returned to his seat, beaming.

“Job done, saahn.”

A few more City attacks were thwarted. After a few dodgy moments by both, both Luiz and Zouma defended well.

It was still Swansea City 1 Tottenham 0.

At the break, Neil Barnett spoke of the recent passing of former goalkeeper John Phillips, who played 149 games for us in the days of my childhood. In fact, he played in goal in my very first game : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 1974. You could argue he is the first Chelsea player I saw play. He is certainly the first-name entered in the 48,762 cells of my ever-increasing “Chelsea Games Spreadsheet” which sits proudly in my computer at home.

Garry Stanley – he of the US Tour this summer – toured the pitch as images of three players from the ‘seventies were featured on the TV screen.

John Phillips.

David Stride.

Ian Britton.

There was clear structural changes to our team at the break. Simply put, Nemanja Matic replaced Kurt Zouma, but the pack was significantly re-shuffled.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahil,

Pedro, Kante, Matic, Alonso

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

And what a half of football. Chelsea chances were at a premium as City swarmed at us throughout the forty-five minutes. I seemed to spend the entire period clock-watching. Thankfully, the Chelsea defence was proving a tough nut to crack, but that didn’t stop everyone’s’ nerves from jangling.

The first major worry involved a header from a deep City free-kick that bounced on to the bar with Dave right underneath if needed. We heaved a sigh of relief, but City kept us worried. For all of their possession, however, they did not pepper our goal. As tackles crunched, Fernandinho volleyed ridiculously wide and Stones headed right at Courtois.

We were nervy in the stands, but there was a great reaction to a Marcos Alonso pass to Eden which was miss-hit and went off for a throw-in. Rather than howls of derision, the Matthew Harding replied – loudly, with encouragement – “CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

It warmed my heart.

But generally we were too nervous to sing constantly. There were great “Carefree” moments when the whole ground were together, but the nerves were in control alright. I watched the clock, tick-tock.

A rare Chelsea chance but a David Luiz free-kick went to waste.

Then, a gift-wrapped chance after a fine move, starting with a break from the inimitable Hazard down our left. The ball was moved across the pitch, several players involved, and eventually played back by the intelligent Pedro towards the central Hazard. He kicked through the ball, but it flew over. It was the hat-trick goal that never was. Bollocks.

Sadly, it got worse.

Late on – FUCK – we heard that Spurs had not only equalised at the Liberty Stadium, but had scored two and then three.

That car in the rear view mirror – white, navy trim – was getting closer.

A ten-point gap had shrunk to seven within minutes.

Whether or not it was because of Pep Guardiola’s reappearance again at Stamford Bridge, but as City kept searching for a late equaliser, I kept thinking of that Iniesta heart-breaker in 2009. The linesman on the far side continually flashing the red and yellow flag of Catalonia clearly did not help.

It was evident I was suffering. We all were. I have never seen Alan look so nervous.

Willian replaced Cesc.

Tick tick tick tick.

A long searching ball towards the far post was ably reached by the lunge of Aguero. We could not see if his toe-poke was saved by ‘keeper or post.

“Not long left now, Chelsea, keep going.”

Loftus-Cheek replaced Hazard, our best player on the night.

One last corner was swung in. The ball evaded everyone at the front post – all it needed was a nod – and Stones stabbed at it from a few yards out. Ridiculously, miraculously, the ball thumped against the turf and ballooned over. It was another of those “clasp the back of your neck with your hands” moments.

“Phew.”

The three minutes of added-time were running out. The ball was deflected for a Chelsea goal-kick. My eyes, and camera, was on referee Dean.

I snapped at the moment he blew up. It seemed the most significant moment of the entire night.

“Thank fuck for that.”

Another “phew.”

“One Step Beyond” boomed around The Bridge, but I let others bounce up and down. I was just grateful that it had ended in our favour.

As you were. Seven points. Catch us if you can.

Big John looked up and smiled.

“Didn’t enjoy one bit of that.”

I knew what he meant.

Outside, Andy admitted City had been impressive. Over the past two home games, we bossed one yet lost, and were dominated in another yet won. Such is football, such is life. We even spoke about how Spurs don’t give up; they deserve a little praise from us for that. Ugh.

“But imagine how gutted they must feel. Coming back to score three late goals to win. Get inside the dressing room. Wait twenty minutes for our result. And then hear that we hung on. Ha.”

Outside, as a trip to a curry house was aborted, I waited to hear from a few US friends. I spotted Claudio Ranieri brush past and I seized the moment. We posed for a selfie. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, him or me.

I was able to meet up with a few pals – Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania – in “The Butcher’s Hook” for a while. The place was packed and buzzing at first, but eventually thinned out a little. The visitors had enjoyed two varying games at Stamford Bridge from the supporters’ club section of the Shed Lower over the past few days. They had seen both of our goals at The Shed tonight of course. They loved the atmosphere. It was reassuring to hear. Neil Barnett popped in and we had the first real chat since Minneapolis in the summer. Like me, he did not predict us to win the league this season. I had us finishing third behind City and United. Neil had us finishing sixth. This season has fooled us all, eh?

Late on, I scoffed down a late night kebab with Frank from Queens, New York and Taryn from Reading, Pennsylvania. It had been Taryn’s birthday and what a lovely result for her. I soon realised that the premises of the kebab shop on Fulham Broadway were the same as the “Wimpy” restaurant where my parents and I stopped for burger and chips after my very first game all those years ago.

At 1.30am, I left London. At 3.45am, I reached home, tired but contented.

Eight games to go, four at home, four away.

Keep it tight Chelsea.

On Saturday, this busy week finishes with the jolly to Bournemouth.

I will see some of the very lucky ones there.

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Tales From A Fool’s Paradise.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

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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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