About Chris Axon

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

Tales From Two Number Nines

Chelsea vs. Valencia : 17 September 2019.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Alan. As we turned into the West Stand forecourt, and after we had bypassed the programme sellers and after we had safely navigated the bag search, I looked up and spotted Champions League insignia adorning, as I had expected, the West Stand frontage. I took a photo with my Samsung phone and posted it on “Facebook.”

“The Champions League. Chelsea Are Back.”

I knew I’d have to linger a while and take some images with my trusty Canon EOS1300D.

“See you inside, mate.”

We had spent the previous forty-five minutes or so in “Simmons” in the company of some very good friends – mainly from London and the Home Counties – and, before that, PD and I had spent a similar period in “The Goose” with lads and lasses from mainly the West Country. We had commented to each other that we thought both pubs were quieter than usual. There was no doubt in my mind that this did not suggest a less than full house for the visit of Valencia, but rather it was an indication that such nights see increasingly fewer “regulars” in attendance. Milling around outside Stamford Bridge were, indeed, natives of many nations.

European nights at Chelsea always did attract a more cosmopolitan and diverse crowd.

I took a wide-angle shot of the stand head-on, with everything nice and symmetrical. I then noted that the evening sky was gradually changing from a solid blue. On the drive up in the car – just PD and I again – the sky had been completely devoid of clouds. It had been a cracking afternoon. And now, at around 7.15pm or so, the sky above was infused with delicate pinks.

I walked towards the Peter Osgood statue, and did my best to capture a little bit of everything.

Peter Osgood and the Chelsea flag atop the stand. Peter Osgood and the list of our trophies. Peter Osgood and a specific image of the 1971 ECWC trophy. Peter Osgood, in profile, against the early evening sky.

The King of Stamford Bridge would have loved a night like this. And it is truly sickening to think that he was taken from us at the relatively early age of fifty-nine. In comparison, Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton were sixty-two when they sadly passed. In my mind, I find this impossible to comprehend. Not only are my three favourite Chelsea players of my childhood (my some margin) no longer with us, but Ossie was taken from us at the earliest age. Of the three, he will always be the elder statesman, the most revered, the most loved, the most iconic, The King.

Fifty-nine.

It’s no age, is it?

It is only five years older than me.

A deep deep sigh.

Our time is so precious.

On some European nights, I make the point of touching one of the boots at the base of the statue. It’s not a strong superstition, sometimes I forget.

On this night, I didn’t.

Inside the stadium, it took a while to fill. Over in the away section, there were very few Valencia fans inside. They surely brought more in 2006/7, 2007/8 and 2011/12.

Ah, that season…

By kick-off time, the stadium was full to capacity. These CL group phase tickets are just £35. That’s great value, eh?

In the pub beforehand, though, Andy from Nuneaton and I had briefly touched on the demands of midweek football, especially for us that live a hundred miles or more from HQ. Sometimes, with an early start for work the following day dominating our thoughts, I just find myself wanting for the game to end and get home to get some sleep. Not so much on European nights, though. However, I will be honest; next Wednesday’s match against Grimsby Town might be one of those occasions.

The team was announced; it was the team that had started the second-half against Wolves on Saturday.

Arrizabalaga.

Christensen – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

This was an eight o’clock kick-off, and with a few minutes remaining, the players appeared on the TV screens, massing in the tunnel. Then, the iconic walk across the Stamford Bridge pitch, past the billowing circular black and white Champions League banner, and across to the West Stand. A slight pause, and then the Champions League anthem.

Chelsea were indeed back.

Hearing the familiar anthem, I am unashamed to admit, caused me to feel a surprisingly warm tingle. It surprised me because many see the Champions League as the epitome of the way that money has won out in this magical game of ours, and that this possibly cheesy and overly-dramatic anthem is a step too far. But it genuinely moved me. One word kept entering my thoughts.

“Barcelona.”

No European team has played us more over the past twenty years. No team has been at the centre of more drama. The anthem takes me back to 2000, to 2005, to 2009, to 2012 and to 2018, our last tie in this competition. I thought of Terry, of Iniesta, of Drogba and shuddered again.

The game began.

I turned to Alan.

“Just weird that Joaquin isn’t playing.”

It seemed that in every game against Spanish opposition not involving Barcelona featured the well-travelled winger. He played against us for Real Betis in 2005/6 and against us for Valencia in 2006/7 and in 2007/8. He even showed up at Stamford Bridge in 2015 in the colours of Fiorentina in that pre-season friendly (Marcos Alonso played too).

But no Joaquin.

Not even on the bench.

Just before the kick-off, and for a few moments, maybe twenty seconds in total, Tammy Abraham stood waiting for the whistle. He was loudly serenaded by the Stamford Bridge crowd. Wearing the famous number nine shirt that Peter Osgood wore with distinction in his two spells with the club, I wondered what was going through his mind. With seven goals to his name already this season, and fresh from his three-goal haul at Wolves, his confidence must have been pinky-blue sky high. And here he was, about to kick-off his first ever Champions League game.

What a time to be alive, Tammy Abraham.

At eight o’clock, Tammy kicked the ball towards the Matthew Harding and we were off and running.

We dominated – utterly – the first twenty minutes. The visitors – in the traditional white shirts and black shorts with the distinctive red, yellow and Batman black badge – hardly entered our half. There was early concern when Mason Mount was fouled and looked in pain. He tried his best to continue, but the foul by former Arsenal Goon Francis Coquelin proved too much. He fell to the floor again and was replaced by Pedro who took position out wide.

We dominated the play but did not create a great deal. There was a fine move down our right and a tight cross from Azpilicueta that Abraham met at the near post. We often played the diagonal to Alonso. Another quality Azpilicueta to Abraham cross amounted to nothing. We were lucky when a rare Valencia attack resulted in a low shot that was blocked by another Valencia player. We kept chipping away at them. It was Willian who managed our best efforts on goal. On the half hour, he twisted in and out of space and ran centrally and quickly but slashed a shot narrowly wide. Later, Kovacic spotted Willian’s run with a sublime ball from deep. The Brazilian chested the ball magnificently but his rushed shot was well over. There were occasions when Willian elected to pass out wide rather than shoot, but he was our main attacking threat. As the first-half drew to a close the last of his three efforts on goal produced a fine save at the near post from Jasper Cillesson in the Valencia goal.

We had most definitely dominated the first-half. Our 60% possession told that story. But Tammy had not received the best of service throughout the half. Our crosses, with a couple of exceptions, had been poor, often rushed and lazy.

I remember my games master – Mr. Ward, a Stokie who was on the books of Stoke City until a leg-break – once lambasted me, as a winger, for a lazy cross and I wondered what he meant. It soon struck home. It meant that I didn’t focus on the options, on the team mate running into space, on the best course of action. I guess that I simply looped it in. I was hurt that I was being castigated for a key part of my game but I hope I learned from it. It is a phrase that has stuck with me to this day.

At nine o’clock, the players reassembled.

Alas, as against Leicester City and Sheffield United, there was a familiar second-half story about to unravel before our eyes.

The atmosphere had been far from red hot throughout the first-half and the noise faded away during the opening moments of the second period as the away team, attacking The Shed, eased themselves more and more into the game. Everyone was sensing that we were defending deeper, and looking uncomfortable in possession. Rather than produce an invigorating and noisy backdrop in which our players would be lifted and taken to another level, we collectively sat back and became as nervous as the players.

There were only one or two occasions when we decided to get it going with our standard “COME ON CHELSEA” battle cry.

Not good enough.

Ten minutes in, a short corner resulted in a shot from Kevin – Kevin? – Gameiro flashed narrowly over from the edge of the box. On sixty-one minutes, Willian and Alonso stood over a free-kick. We were all expecting Alonso to flip the ball high and arch it over the wall. Instead, he struck a low drive which the Valencia ‘keeper scrambled away with a late dive at his left-hand post. Our chances then almost dried up. Tammy was isolated throughout the half. We rarely attacked with any cohesion. How we missed Eden Hazard down below us.

On seventy minutes, Frank Lampard bravely replaced Kurt Zouma with Olivier Giroud, switching to four at the back and paying with two upfront.

Just after, a silly challenge by Kovacic gave the visitors a free-kick from a central position. There was a smart run into space by Rodrigo and the ball was played perfectly to him. His snappy finish left us in complete silence. All ten Valencia outfield players raced over to celebrate in front of the three hundred away fans.

Our reply was immediate.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

In reality, only a fine effort from Giroud – creating space and moving the ball neatly – bothered the Valencia goal. They were now defending deep and space was at a premium. Very often an outstretched leg would stop a pass from reaching its destination.

With ten minutes to go, Ross Barkley replaced Mateo Kovacic.

On eighty-three minutes, a corner from Willian was met with a leap from Fikayo Tomori. I photographed the downward header and did not cleanly see what happened next. There was an appeal for handball, although neither Alan nor I were sure.

Sections of the home crowd began shouting “VAR, VAR” and a little part of me died.

I saw JD shake his head.

After a slight delay, it was announced that VAR was in operation.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

No decision.

The referee then sprinted over to watch a replay, and another replay, and another replay, on a TV screen which was on some sort of contraption in front the West Stand. Evidently, a team of experts locked away in a room in Nyon in Switzerland, or somewhere, could not decide, so it was back to the referee who had been standing around ten yards from the initial incident.

Alan : “Surely, if there is any doubt whatsoever, there should be no penalty.”

Chris : “Agreed. 100%.”

After what seemed like an ice age, the referee pointed to the spot.

For the first time that I can ever remember, I did not celebrate a Chelsea penalty. I looked at Alan and our expressions mirrored the opinions of each other.

“Good grief.”

Ross Barkley took the penalty after a considerable wait. His shot clipped the top of the bar and the ball flew into the stand.

Bollocks.

It was not to be.

We don’t lose many European home games, do we?

Lazio, Besiktas, Barcelona, Internazionale, Manchester United, Basle, Atletico Madrid, PSG, Valencia.

Nine.

I have seen them all, damn it. But it is a fantastic record, eh? I alone have seen ninety-nine European games at home from 1994 to 2020. And the complete record is just nine defeats out of one hundred and twenty-two games at Stamford Bridge in all UEFA games. That’s OK with me. It is a stunning run of numbers.

But, records aside, we have done ourselves no favours and this group phase will be – now – doubly difficult to escape from.

I whispered to JD as we trudged down the Fulham Road, “Gdansk is lovely in May.”

There was talk at the start of this week that the three games against Wolves, Valencia and Liverpool will be very testing.

Liverpool is next.

See you on Sunday.

Tales From Three Leaps

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 14 September 2019.

Football – of the right kind – was back after a self-imposed interruption of a fortnight. The international break saw England play Bulgaria and then Kosovo, and despite both matches being shown on “free-to-air” terrestrial ITV, I saw just five minutes of the second game. Even with appearances from Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, I’m afraid that my interest in our national team continues to wane. In the break, instead, I saw two consecutive home games involving my local team. Frome Town drew 1-1 with Evesham United and then beat Barnstaple Town 3-1. Both were excellent matches and I continue to feel an emotional attachment to my most local team, something that I struggle to do with England.

But now it was all about Chelsea.

The Chuckle Bus carried just two of its Brothers to our game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Parky was still recuperating after his hip operation and Glenn was otherwise engaged. I was parked-up in the city centre at 11.30am, and the two of us – PD and CA – were soon settled in “The Sunbeam” pub outside the city’s bus depot and not too far from the train station, right in the middle of everything. There were signs saying “HOME FANS ONLY” but we skipped past the security guard on the door and were soon inside, despite PD wearing shorts and thus allowing a loud and proud Chelsea tattoo on his leg to be seen by all.

We kept to ourselves and there was no bother nor trouble. This was despite the presence of some locals of a certain vintage who – if their clobber was anything to go by – might have been involved in some fisticuffs a few years back. However, not everyone who goes to football these days who sports a Stoney is a psycho and not everyone who likes the Lacoste label is a lad. We were joined by Scott, Paul and Kim. The mixture of accents must have confused the bouncers, although I suspect that Scott’s Wolves mate, who he met at the Chelsea Legends game at Real Madrid a few months back, might well have aided their entrance into the pub.

The sun was out, we had a good chat, and I liked being able to partake in a little bit of people-watching through the windows. By the time we had decided to move on, there was a large gaggle of Wolves lads drinking outside but the occasional Chelsea fan wearing colours who walked past received no trouble.

“Wouldn’t have been like this in the ‘eighties, PD.”

Wolves fans wearing all different types of replica shirts waltzed past. I soon realised how off the mark the home club was in 2018/19 with the yellow shirt rather than the warmer old gold of the current design.

There were more “home fans only” signs in a few other pubs. One day I’ll make it inside “The Billy Wright”, but maybe not on a match day. We bumped into Alex – originally from Sofia – and he moaned that the “away pub” down near the train station was rammed, so we decided to cut our losses and leisurely walk down to the ground, passing the university buildings and the leafy surrounds of the local church. Molineux was soon spotted, and we disappeared down to the infamous “subway” which was the scene of many an ambush in days of yore.

Despite my decision to forego home programmes this season, I just could not resist purchasing the £5 special edition that marked the one-hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the club moving to their current site. The famous old club was one of the twelve members of the inaugural Football League which began in 1888/89 and Molineux is their fourth home. The programme was wrapped in an evocative panorama featuring an artist’s adaptation of the stadium in 1889, 1958 and 2019. I can well remember the multi-span roof of the stand which used to sit on the land from where we would be watching the game in 2019. The old stadium was in poor repair for many years, but Sir Jack Hayward, whose statue welcomes spectators as they arrive with eyes blinking after walking through the darkness of the subway, helped renovate the stadium with huge success in the ‘nineties and the stadium has since been improved with a new double-deck north stand. It works well. If Goodison Park is my favourite away venue, then Molineux is surely my favourite “new build.” It is ridiculously close to the city centre, there is a perfect use of old gold in much of its structure and it all seems to fit together with a minimum of fuss.

In fact, I bought two programmes. When I was over in Italy during the summer, I spent a few hours in a bar on the beach in which one of the bar staff was a Swedish lad who, after I told him I was a Chelsea fan – I soon get this key fact out of the way pretty sharpish when I start chatting to a stranger for any length of time – he told me that he was a Wolves fan, and had been to Molineux a few times. I decided to send him a copy and he was very grateful when I quickly messaged him.

We waited in the cool of the concourse, PD supping lager, and little old me on my third and fourth Diet Cokes of the day. We welcomed a few friends as they arrived.

We made our way inside and I was well happy with our seats; right on the half-way line, just three rows from the front. For the FA Cup game in 2017, we were located in the lofty heights of the double-decker to my right. For this game, all 2,600 Chelsea were strewn out along the entire length of the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand. I knew from the off that getting consistent singing from us all would be a difficult task.

I centered my gaze on the ten outfield players going through their warm-ups. There were three centre-halves involved; Christensen, Rudiger and Tomori. I wondered what plan Frank Lampard had hatched.

The sun was beating down. This would not be “Dublin in July hot”, but this was a lovely early autumn afternoon. “Love will tear us apart” by Joy Division improved my enjoyment of the moment, but this was then cut short as we were treated to a prolonged display of pyrotechnics just before the teams entered the pitch. Our faces were scorched by the heat of the flames.

OK – old gold, orange, I get it. I can make the connection between the fingers of flame which darted into the air and the club colours, but on a bright sunny day it seemed rather pointless.

Surely a display at night games only would be better.

Old gold and black.

Perfect.

The teams entered the pitch. We had jettisoned the blue shirts, and even the blue socks from Norwich City, and were in all white.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Christensen – Rudiger – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

It was an Antonio Conte-style 3-4-3.

The game began and it was a quiet beginning. Tammy was soon booed for his Aston Villa connections. On the Wolves right, we were treated to a few lightning bursts from Adama Traore – built like a sprinter or a modern-day winger in rugby – but who (classic football cliché warning) “flattered to deceive.” We looked composed on the ball without creating too much. Things were a little quiet off the pitch too. It took a full twenty-five minutes for a pitch-long chant to unite the Chelsea support. I spotted that Willian and Mason Mount swapped wings once or twice. We tried hard to reach Tammy, but it was a struggle. If I was honest, I’d say that Wolves possibly edged the opening half-an-hour, if only in terms of possession. But there were no efforts on target. A wild shot from Willian which blazed over was our one notable effort. Before the game, in whispered tones, a few of us had been worried about the three games in the next week.

Wolves away, Valencia at home, Liverpool at home.

“We could…possibly…lose all three.”

On thirty-one minutes, everything changed. An attack on our right floundered and the ball was knocked away by a Wolves defender. The ball rolled at pace towards the onrushing Fikayo Tomori and he shaped to hit the ball without the need of a second touch. I snapped just as he connected. We watched, eyes bulging, as the ball made the net ripple.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

Oh my.

What a goal for this match, for this season, for any season.

His leap in front of me was euphoric.

After a few seconds…

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

Chris : “Come on moi little dimonddddds.”

Three minutes later, with the Wolves defence on their heels, we found our way into the box. Mount appeared to be fouled but the ball rebounded off a Wolves leg to Tammy who spun one-hundred and eighty degrees and lashed it in. The net bulged again. There was a kiss to the Chelsea support from an ebullient Tammy, back among the goals again.

Seven minutes later, and after a slight Wolves resurgence, a Jorginho cross was headed out. Alonso picked up the loose ball.

I had commented to Alan earlier that because we only had Tammy up front, our crosses needed to be on the money.

Alonso’s cross was.

He picked out Tammy perfectly and the tall striker headed home with ridiculous ease. It was a fantastic goal. Yet more lovely celebrations. I caught his leap towards the Chelsea support in the corner on film. This was another great celebration. It pleased me that I evidently took a better photograph of Tammy’s leap than that of Tomori.

Bloody hell.

We were 3-0 up at the break.

We could hardly believe it.

We had caught fire in the last fifteen minutes and the Wolves fans standing in the South Stand, the old Kop, were as scorched as we were from the pre-match flames. Our three goals might have flattered us a little, but we cared not. Wolves, after all, had not really forced a save from Kepa the entire half.

During the first forty-five minutes, I had mentioned our 5-0 win at the same stadium in 2003, which was my first-ever visit to Molineux. Alan had then spoken to me about his first visit too.

“To her dying day, my Mum never knew I came up here in 1977.”

Alan was just fourteen – I was eleven – and had been going to Chelsea for a few years. Our famous game in 1977, in which our travelling support was officially banned, was a huge occasion. Alan simply had to be there. He had told his mother that he was out to see friends and stayed out the entire day, via a secret trip to Wolverhampton, returning late. In those days – God, they seem so distant, before mobile phones and constant attention and interaction – kids would often disappear for hours on end. On this day – with Wolves needing a point to secure the Second Division Championship and with Chelsea requiring a point to gain promotion – thousands of Chelsea flooded Molineux. We drew 1-1 and, as I have reported previously, my one recollection of that day was hearing the result on “Final Score” at my grandparents’ house, opening the front door, running up the slope to the main road and jumping up, punching the air in a leap not too dissimilar to those of Tomori and Tammy forty-two years later.

Alan and I chuckled about the ridiculousness of it all.

We imagined Alan returning home at 10pm, in a scene not too dissimilar to that of Perry’s return from Manchester in the “Harry Enfield Show.”

“You’re back late, son.”

“Aye, I yam.”

“Why are you talking funny?”

“What yow talking about? Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.”

“What’s this, pork scratchings?”

“Bostin’ ah.”

Kurt Zouma replaced Toni Rudiger at half-time. Very soon, he was causing a few nervous jitters in the away section. However, we withstood some early Wolves pressure. On fifty-five minutes, Jorginho lofted the ball forward to Tammy. He controlled the ball, stood tall against Conor Coady, twisted into a little space, leaving Coady for dead, then struck a low shot past Rui Patricio.

He had silenced the Yam Yam Boo Boys in fine style with a sublime hat-trick.

Smiles everywhere.

Alan, knowing full well our past, uttered the immortal line :

“We’ve got the draw, let’s go for the win” and those close by chuckled.

Mount was set free and should have scored after darting past the ‘keeper after a magnificent pass from Jorginho, but his effort was wide.

With twenty minutes to go, Wolves grabbed a goal back after a corner was scrambled in after Kepa made an initial save. We would only learn much later that it was Tammy’s fourth of the game. Dave, playing wide, had several gut-busting runs down the right and should have created more with his final ball. At times, we were purring.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Michy replaced Tammy. We kept attacking. There was a lovely looseness to everything we did. Michy impressed me in the final quarter and could have scored a couple himself.

Bizarrely, Patrick Cutrone made it 4-2 with five minutes to go, stabbing home from close range after Kepa fumbled.

…maybe Alan was right after all.

“Bloody hell, we are 4-2 up, why are we all as nervous as hell?”

Wolves appealed for a penalty. The referee did not give it. VAR did not give it.

What a fucking non-story.

With six minutes of extra-time signalled, we found ourselves clock-watching.

“Come on ref, blow up.”

In the final minute, Michy controlled a bouncing ball, and fed in Mount in the inside-left channel. With ridiculous ease, he turned his defender and slotted home.

5-2.

Memories of the 5-0 in 2003.

Game, set and match.

Beautiful.

At the end of the game, Tammy grabbed the match ball. What a time to be alive for this young lad. May he go from strength to strength.

We are all right behind him.

On Tuesday, we reassemble at Stamford Bridge for our first Champions League match since Barcelona away in March 2018.

I can hear the music now…

…see you there.

 

Tales From The Return Of The Blades

Chelsea vs. Sheffield United : 31 August 2019.

Sheffield. My first memories of Sheffield football involved United and not Wednesday. Back in the early ‘seventies when I first became enchanted by football, and all that went with it, it was Sheffield United who were involved in the top flight while their bitter rivals and near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday were playing football in the old Second and Third Divisions.

Names such as Tony Currie, Trevor Hockey and Alan Woodward starred for the Blades in that period. They were a mid-table team and, at times, an entertaining team. In those days, Wednesday – even though they were the bigger of the city’s two clubs, with a few more trophies and a larger stadium – were off the radar for me. Wednesday’s plight mirrored that of Aston Villa who were also loitering in the middle two divisions in that era too.

Although Chelsea played Sheffield United at regular intervals in the ‘seventies, we did not meet throughout the ‘eighties. Instead, Wednesday became one of our biggest rivals in that decade. We met United a few times in the ‘nineties, but our last meeting was in the 2006/7 season.

In all of this time, I have only ever seen them play at Stamford Bridge on three occasions, and there has only ever been one trip for me to Bramall Lane.

The first time that I saw Chelsea play Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge came in season 1991/92 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. I remember that Daryl and I spotted David Lee and Robert Fleck enjoying pre-match pints in “The Stargazey” – alas no more – on the Fulham Road before the game. But don’t worry, they weren’t playing. We won a nondescript game 1-0 with a goal from Bobby Stuart. However, the most memorable part of the entire day took place in a pub in Camden several hours after the game had ended when myself and a couple of college mates, enjoying a quiet pint, noticed an influx of United’s lads – the Blades Business Crew – who were evidently playing cat and mouse with Chelsea and also Sheffield Wednesday who, remarkably, had been playing a league fixture at Highbury that very same day. Thankfully, we managed to sidestep any problems that arose that evening, albeit narrowly. The escapades that took place that night have been well documented elsewhere. It was, evidently, quite an evening.

The most famous Chelsea vs. Sheffield United game of the past three decades, however, was the final match of the 1993/94 season. Chelsea, under Glenn Hoddle, had struggled in the first part of the campaign, adapting to a more expansive and possession based style of football – ring any bells? – but had enjoyed a resurgence after Christmas. We had, monumentally, reached our first FA Cup Final since 1970 too. The home game against Sheffield United was to be our final preparation for the Cup Final. All of our focus was on that game. It was, however, to be the final day of The Shed. We had heard that the club was to demolish the famous old terracing during the summer in preparation for new developments.

I remember travelling up with Glenn, meeting up with Daryl and maybe a couple of others in “The Stargazey” but then deciding at the last minute to get tickets in the East Stand Upper rather than stand on The Shed for the last ever time. I remember that it was raining heavily and there would have been no guarantee of cover in The Shed. So, in one of my most shocking Chelsea decisions ever, I chose not to experience The Shed on its final day. I still shudder at this ludicrous choice twenty-five years on.

“What was I thinking?”

As the North Stand terrace had been demolished around Christmas 1993, the only place left to house the away fans was the East Upper. Lo and behold, Glenn and I found ourselves just a few rows in front of the large and boisterous Sheffield United contingent. The Blades were threatened with relegation, though from memory were unlikely to go down as they were several places above the drop zone. Other teams were in the mix too and it never really dawned on me that relegation would be an option for them. Famously, Everton were right in the mire. Jostein Flo – Tore Andre’s older brother – put the away team 1-0 up and the away fans bellowed “The Blades are staying up.” Jakob Kjeldberg equalised, but Glyn Hodges quickly restored the lead. This was looking good for Sheffield United.

“Now you’re gonna believe us…the Blades are staying up.”

But this was anything but good for us. We had lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City the previous Wednesday evening at Stamford Bridge – in front of a miserable 8,923, maybe everyone was saving their hard-earned for Wembley – and now we were losing to a poor team on the Saturday. It was hardly good preparation for Wembley. Then, miraculously Mark Stein – the season’s unlikely hero – scored in the seventy-fourth minute and again on ninety to give us a dramatic 3-2 victory. Elsewhere none other than Bobby Stuart – or Graham Stuart, now that he had left us – had scored for Everton to give them a late win at home to Wimbledon, and – much to my sadness – we soon realised that Mark Stein’s late winner, a poacher’s goal in front of The Shed, had relegated Sheffield United.

The away fans went deathly quiet.

It was a game that we wanted to win for sure, with Wembley coming up, but it was horrible to witness at close hand the absolute sadness being experienced by the Blades fans. Some younger fans were in tears.

It was the first time that they had been in the bottom three all season.

It was a bizarre experience. And, I’ll be honest, I really felt for them.

Glenn and I sloped away, quiet too.

My pre-match activity for the game in 2019/20 involved more history. I joined up with twelve other Chelsea supporters who had signed up for Rick Glanvill’s historical walk along the Fulham Road. Rick is the official club historian and is heavily involved at Chelsea, having written the official book celebrating our centenary in 2005 – what timing, what a year – and writes for the match programme to this day.

From 11pm to 12.30pm, Rick effortlessly guided us from the Fulham Town Hall to Stamford Bridge – the bridge, not the stadium – and from 1905 (and before) to 2019. It was a thoroughly entertaining ride through our history, with fascinating insights into key moments in our formation and subsequent decades. It’s probably best that I don’t report too much detail of the content and undermine Rick’s further tours, suffice to say that I heartily recommend them to anyone with a passion, like me, for social history, geography, football and a good yarn.

Rick painted a wonderful picture of the area before Chelsea Football Club was formed. And there were whimsical stories about the founding fathers, music hall performers, the club’s first official photographer, music studios, a local lad who became one of the first ball boys and the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945.

It was right up my street, or rather Fulham Road.

One of the same I guess.

I met up with the lads at “Simmons” and it was a real pleasure to see Dave once again. Dave now lives in the South of France with his good lady and their young lad – who, with perfect timing – was born a couple of hours before we won the league at West Brom in 2017. And no, Dave’s son’s name isn’t called Michy.

We last saw Dave on a good old pub crawl around the West End before the debacle against Tottenham at Wembley last season.

It was a joy to see him again.

One of our party was missing however, and it felt odd. Parky was recuperating in a Bath hospital after his hip operation on Thursday. After work on Friday, PD and I had visited him and he was doing well, and in fine form.

This is code for “we couldn’t shut him up.”

With or without Parky, everyone was having a blast. I met up with a few of the usual suspects for the first time of the season in “Simmons” and it felt great. It is a very popular little bar among people I know.

To tie things up nicely with Rick’s pre-game tour, the son of our former chairman Brian Mears was in attendance.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Dave, and the fifteen-minute journey was riddled with ridiculous laughter.

Good times.

On the forecourt, I tussled with my conscience and for the first time ever, I chose not to buy a home programme. I have tended to only flick through them of late, even though they are a good read, but I have crossed the Rubicon. I gave up buying away ones a good few years ago. I haven’t bought the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, nor the 2019 Europa League programme.

There is only so much space in my house for Chelsea paraphernalia.

Ugh.

Once inside Stamford Bridge, I had a few moments to settle and prepare myself for the game, which until then, had hardly entered my thoughts.

I looked over at the away section and wondered where two supporters were located.

On the Friday, I had received a lovely message from my friend Simon, who is a Sheffield United supporter, and who I have known for over three decades. On my only visit to Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006, I met up with him at his house and we drove in together. It summed up his take on the current regime, and really brought home how lucky we have been as Chelsea supporters over the last twenty-five years.

“Big match for us tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. My brother Chris and nephew Archie will. Either me or Chris need to be around for Mum so it’s difficult for us to go on away trips together. As for the Blades, most fans are in agreement that these last few seasons have been the best ever, certainly in terms of the quality of football and also that Chris Wilder is our greatest ever manager. The season before Wilder was appointed 2015/16 was awful, I remember watching us lose consecutive home games to Bury and Colchester and we finished mid-table League 1. A couple of players from that season are still involved (Billy Sharp and Chris Basham). Before that we had all the Ched Evans stuff, supporters were falling out with each other and it really felt like we’d hit rock bottom. I remember seeing us go down to the old Div 4 in 1981 but this somehow felt much worse. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time and the pride is back in the club. We’ve made a good start this season and so will be interesting to see how we go tomorrow. Hope you are well Chris and maybe we can meet up at Bramall Lane later on this season.

Best wishes, Simon.”

Since that match in 1994, the two clubs really have enjoyed mixed fortunes, eh?

The place slowly filled up, everyone took their seats. The away team were to be backed by a full three thousand. There weren’t too many away shirts dotted around the away section. I had walked past three Sheffield United fans a couple of hours earlier, each wearing the striped home shirt, looking like they had been refused entry from one pub and were on the search for another. They looked so forlorn. Neutral colours would have at least helped. Some people never learn.

The team was announced and – sadly – N’Golo Kante was missing. No place for Toni Rudiger either, still not match fit. It was a surprise that Tomori started, only his second game for us. Mason Mount was out wide again. Another start for Pulisic. Tammy leading the line.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pulisic – Barkley – Mount

Abraham

I was a little disappointed that Sheffield United didn’t show up in their famous red and white stripes. Instead, they chose all white with red socks. Their most famous kit of all was the admiral one from 1976, with black edging on the red stripes. I mention this as it is a kit that my home village side Mells & Vobster United  – or at least the first team, the team I never quite managed to play for – used to wear in that same period too.

I can still see Alan Ford turning away, arm raised, after scoring a belting free-kick in around 1977 wearing the Sheffield United shirt.

There were a few banners adorning the away section.

One, half out of view – said “Hated, Adored” and I presumed that the part of the banner out of view said “Never Ignored.”

Stolen from Manchester United.

Must do better.

The game began, and the atmosphere was so-so. But we began well, with almost total domination of possession. It wasn’t as good a start as against Leicester City, but it wasn’t bad. A few chances came and went. There was an early repetition of the move which lead to our first goal against Norwich City with Christian Pulisic knocking the ball out to an overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta, but the firm cross evaded both the on-rushing Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham. On twenty minutes, a very similar move earned dividends. Barkley won the ball, moved it to Pulisic and then it was played to Dave, who was deeper than before. His cross was headed down and towards goal by Tammy, and the Sheffield United ‘keeper Dean Henderson had great difficulty in gathering the ball. Under pressure from Pulisic, he could only knock it straight into the path of our young striker.

Playing for Bristol City a few seasons back, Abraham was known as “Tammy Tap In” and he lived up to his reputation.

Chelsea 1 Sheffield United 0.

GET IN.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Tammy’s celebratory run and slide in front of the away fans was just joyous. It was, of course, his first goal at Stamford Bridge.

Beautiful.

We continued to excel.

Ross Barkley was heavily involved in many of our attacks, ably supported by the passing of Jorginho and the runs into space of Kovacic, but very often Barkley simply moved the ball on rather than played an incisive ball into danger. I thought Mason Mount was quiet, and Pulisic struggled to get involved. Kovacic flashed a firm shot past the far post. Sheffield United themselves had a couple of quarter-chances. A quick turn and cross from Chris Basham almost resulted in a stooping headed goal from Callum Robinson

A meek shot into the wall from Ross Barkley free-kick summed up his half.

One moment frustrated us all. The fall fell to Jorginho, centrally positioned and within sight of the goal. Rather than look to fire an effort in on goal, he lofted a pass over the heads of everyone, including the intended Tammy, and the attack died. I commented to the lads that there just must have been something in Jorginho’s footballing DNA – after years of behaviour-inducing drills – to stop him from shooting.

The away fans were relatively quiet all first-half.

Alan and I spent a few moments chatting about the wonderful Ronnie Barker in “Porridge” and we quoted some pearls.

“What, from here?”

“With these feet?”

“It was a green one.”

“He’s doing rather well.”

On the pitch, we were in command, but drifting a little, hence the brief comedic diversion.

Thankfully, with two minutes to go before the break, Jorginho lofted another high ball towards the box and Tammy pounced after a blunder from two of United’s three centre-backs, and picked up a loose ball. He found space well, picked his spot and although the ‘keeper touched the ball, the pace beat him. It crept in, lovely stuff.

Chelsea 2 Sheffield United 0.

“That’s all Tammy has to do, just keep hitting the corners.”

I captured his run and jump on film too.

“Four goals in three starts – love it.”

And all was well with the world at half-time. Dave came over to join us, we took some photos, happy days indeed.

Sadly, the second-half began awfully, and it brought back shocking memories of last season. With less than a minute played, they moved the ball far too easily down our right flank. Enda Stephens wriggled past a non-existent challenge from Dave, and his pacey low cross was flicked home by Robinson. The away end erupted. They were back in it.

We sighed.

The away fans were now ignited and there was a slight whiff of “A gallon of Magnet”, one of the best football songs ever.

“You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet.
Like a packet of Woodbines.
Like a good pinch of snuff.
Like a night out in Sheffield.
Like a greasy Chip Butty.
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again.”

The sky turned darker, to match the mood, and there was a surreal quality of light as rain fell.

We countered relatively quickly. Some gorgeous control from Dave and an intelligent ball in to the box – the epitome of the word “dink” – resulted in a side-footed stab at goal from Tammy that was clawed away by Henderson, down low, and close to him. It was a brilliant save.

Sadly, this was a very rare attack for us in the second-half. The away team sensed that confidence was seeping out of every pore of our being and grabbed hold of the game. They moved the ball well, and we lacked leadership. We looked a poor team suddenly. A couple of chances were exchanged. On the hour, Barkley was replaced by Willian, and we hoped for a far better performance from the Brazilian than against Leicester City. Mount switched inside, surely a better position for him.

Our attacking play was immediately bolstered by a couple of energetic runs from Willian, but that didn’t last. Sheffield United looked the more likely to score and the atmosphere within the stadium became rather tetchy. A lone chance fell to Kurt Zouma but he headed over from a corner. I can rarely remember a half of football which included so many mis-placed passes from so many different players. It was a shock to the system; a visual clue that confidence was low.

Michy Batshuayi replaced the impressive Kovacic, and Billy Gilmour – surprisingly – replaced Tammy Abraham.

I caught Gilmour’s first touch on his debut; a header.

Our attacks stumbled along though. It wasn’t cohesive. I didn’t like the way sections of the crowd grew noisily restless with every miss-placed pass. Rather than a cheer of encouragement there tended to be noisy swearing.

Not good.

Not good at all.

We know our role this season, don’t we?

Shouldn’t we be supporting the lads a little better?

I think so.

Mount went close with a volley. At The Shed End, a timely block from Tomori and we reacted with our heads in our hands.

Fackinell.

Sadly, sadly, sadly the game ended as we had perhaps feared.

Another raid down our right, another “after you Claude” moment, and another whipped-in cross. I could not discern who managed to get the final touch – it was evidently Kurt Zouma – but the ball flashed high into our goal.

This time, the away fans really exploded.

Bollocks.

Another second-half meltdown had left us all rather shell-shocked. As I made my way out, alongside fellow fans who were pursing lips, shaking heads and muttering, I looked up and saw the away supporters enjoying their moment.

Remembering 1994, I clapped too and whispered “well played Sheffield United.”

There was the usual “Bramber Road to Barons Court Post Mortem” in the car, and we honestly wondered if the two late substitutions were wise, but I then reminded ourselves that Frank Lampard OBE has forgotten more about football than the three of us combined will ever ever know, so we quickly shut the fuck up.

To cheer me a little, I heard that my local team Frome Town had gone top of their division with a fourth win out of four, and to cheer us all up, we had heard that Parky was home from hospital.

It was turning into a good day after all.

Chelsea under Frank Lampard is clearly a work in progress. I am not going to waste any time, effort and words on those in our midst who are unnecessarily negative.

Let’s all move on positively.

I will see some of you at Molineux.

 

Tales From Out East

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 24 August 2019.

The three-day August Bank Holiday had arrived and it would begin with a lunchtime match at Carrow Road in the Norfolk city of Norwich. This would be our most easterly league match of the domestic season, and – for us in the south west of England – it meant that it would entail a five-hour trek through nine counties. I have driven up and back to Norwich on the same day on a couple of occasions, but those days are gone. As soon as the date of the game was confirmed, my hopeful booking of a Saturday night at a hotel a mere ten minutes’ walk from the ground came to fruition. There was no need to cancel and re-book. We were on our way.

And the three of us – LP, PD and little old me – were well happy. Norwich is a cracking city and we have enjoyed some good times there in recent memory.

I had left the office at 5pm on Friday evening with a skip in my step. We had managed to get through a busy two-week period at work, I was looking forward to the weekend ahead, and on a personal note, I had managed to lose a little more weight. I was the lightest for over three years. I have been a little inspired by a couple of good people among my Chelsea friends who have shed – pardon the pun – many pounds over the past year or so. A few weeks of eating sensibly and eating moderately had paid off and it felt great.

I was in a good place.

On Saturday morning, the alarm sounded at four o’clock. It would be a long day. I collected PD at 5am and Parky soon after. This weekend would be a bittersweet moment for Parky, and indeed for all three of us, since he is going in – at long last – on Thursday for his long-awaited hip operation. He will be in hospital in Bath for a few days, and out of action, football-wise, for five or six games.

So we’ll miss the old bugger, that is for sure.

If there was a lot of traffic on England’s roads on Saturday morning, we didn’t see much of it. Leaving so early, we were ahead of the game. The M4, especially, was super-clear. We stopped for a “Harry Ramsden’s” breakfast on the M11, pretty close to Stansted Airport where a few European adventures have started, and we bumped into four lads from our local area who were breakfasting too. And this was where the diet went off the rails for one day only. These football excursions are notorious for junk food. It is difficult to ask for a salad after a heavy away defeat.

Soul food is sometimes the only answer.

Just to the east of Cambridge there were signs for Babraham and then The Wilbrahams. I wondered if I might see a sign for Abraham. I rolled into the hotel car park in Norwich at about 10.15am. Luckily, we were only a five-minute walk from the “Coach & Horses” pub where we spent a good few hours before the “Peter Osgood Ten Year Anniversary” game in 2016. There were familiar faces in the packed beer garden. Although it was only mid-morning, the heat from the sun was relentless.

Talk turned to the game and the mood was of objective pragmatism.

“I’ll be honest; I’ll take a draw now. This won’t be easy. We just must not lose.”

There were doubts about N’Golo Kante’s fitness. That really would be a huge miss. In the beer garden, Parky met up again with the other lads from Wiltshire that we had seen earlier; Sir Les and Stretch from Melksham, plus two lads from Swindon who I first spotted in Baku and then en route to Dublin at Bristol Airport. PD and I sat with Julie and Tim from Bristol. The beers were going down well, but I was keen to head off to Carrow Road and be there in plenty of time. One of the security staff advised us of the route to the stadium and his accent was a thing to behold.

“Take a right down Stracey Road” seemed to have about twenty syllables and parts of it sounded like a whimpering dog. Norwich, like Bristol, is an urban accent that sounds decidedly rural. But we were on our way.

And it was turning out to be a cracking day in Norfolk.

Inside the stadium, fans were slowly filling up the yellow and green seats. Whoever chose these club colours for the team all those years ago did well. The vast fields which were visible on the roads in to the city, and certainly at this time of year, were painted with these most agricultural of hues and tones. Flags had been arranged on the seats in the home Barclay’s Stand to our right. I prepared myself for a photo opportunity. I reached our seats, just three rows from the front – but row B, work that out – and nodded a few “hellos” to distant acquaintances and shook hands with others. Glenn, watching at a bar in Frome, messaged to say that Pedro had been injured in the warm up and would consequently be subsequently replaced by Ross Barkley.

So here was the team :

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Mount – Barkley – Pulisic

Abraham

The kick-off time of 12.30pm approached. The Chelsea section of three thousand filled up. Our usual match day chants reverberated around the whole stadium as the minutes passed. I spotted Danny, originally from nearby Cambridge, but now a long-time resident of Massachusetts, and I called him over for a photo. Thankfully we were all in the shade; those in two of the home stands were going to be baked in the August sun. A special mention for Leigh, who was in the middle of a long weekend break with his loved ones in Bournemouth. On match day, Chelsea came calling and he made the four-hundred and sixty return trip to see us play.

“Top marks.”

With a couple of minutes remaining, the locals waved their colourful flags both sides of a large “Pride of Anglia” banner.

I commented to Gary :

“Bloody hell, they like their replica shirts here, don’t they?”

We were, of course, stood all match.

From the left : Alan, Gary, Parky, me.

Let’s go to work.

Many words have been spoken about our crisp white away shirt this season, but I soon fell in love with the socks; all blue with a simple red and white band. Classy. It reminded me of those blue socks that we sometimes used to wear at certain away games; Tottenham in 1987, when we wore blue / white / blue sprang to mind.

I spotted a few Norwich City fans wearing their jarring red away shirt. It looked horrible and seemed to be completely ill-judged.

Yellow. Green. Red.

No.

We began very brightly. Christian Pulisic had already seen some of the early ball, and when we broke at pace, a nice cross-field ball from Mason Mount fed the American on the right wing. He gathered the ball with ease and spotted the overlap of Cesar Azpilicueta. His long cross fell conveniently at the feet of Tammy Abraham who screwed it low past Tim Krul in the Norwich City goal. It was an excellent move and an excellent goal, and a real antidote to the tedious football of last season. How Tammy celebrated his first Chelsea goal. It was his well-cushioned lay-off in his own half that had released the ball to Mount. It was an exceptional team goal.

“Oh Tammy Tammy. Tammy Tammy Tammy Abraham.”

We roared his name.

Beautiful.

Sadly – and I hope that this is not a phrase that I will be repeating throughout this season – we soon conceded a soft goal. Our lead in fact lasted just three minutes. Norwich wriggled their way through our defence, with Emi Buendia allowed space. The ball was pushed out to Teemu Puuki and his low cross was turned in at the near post by Todd Cantwell, the ball nut-megging Kepa.

Fackinell.

The club anthem “On The Ball City” was bellowed by those to our right and it was quite a sound. Two goals in six minutes, a crackling atmosphere, what next?

We took control. In fact, we played some lovely football. Mount was often involved and it was the young midfielder who received a neat ball from a more central Pulisic, took a touch or two to glide past his defender and his finish, slightly curled, in to the goal was a joy to behold.

The young man was among the goals again and we loved his celebration in front of us all. I hope that I will not tire of the Frank Lampard comparisons as the season develops.

Seventeen minutes had passed, and the home team had rarely touched the ball since their goal. I liked the way that there was a variety in our attacks. Sometimes an overlap from wide and a traditional delivery in to the box. Sometimes some crisp passing on the deck. Sometimes a cross from deep.

From a corner, taken short, Ross Barkley played it way back to Emerson. His deep cross was met by a stooping header from Andreas Christensen, who forced a very fine point blank save from Krul. We were all over them. Shots from Barkley – neat but not overly productive – and Abraham kept the pressure on the home team. A nice run from Kovacic but he could not get his shot away. Jorginho took too many touches before being able to shoot.

There was a chant for Jorginho and hopefully his days as Maurizio Sarri’s poster boy are now forgotten.

We were bossing the game, but on the half-hour the match changed again. Norwich played through us from deep, and our defensive frailties were exposed once again. At the end of a crisp move, the ball was slid through to their main threat Puuki, whose low drive crashed past Kepa.

Ugh.

It was a poor goal to concede, and our young ‘keeper will be upset that his touch was not stronger.

“He needed stronger wrists there, Gal.”

I didn’t like the musical accompaniment to both of the home team’s goals. This is, horribly, standard practice at many stadia these days. Please keep it away from Stamford Bridge. Please let us be trusted to generate our own atmosphere.

Soon after, a quickly taken Norwich free-kick by Buendia resulted in an ugly, but effective, save from Kepa who did well to save the rebound from Grant Hanley. We then returned to our attacking patterns and there were a couple of late chances, including a blocked Pulisic effort after a deep ball from Barkley.

At the break, it was all square. It seemed that the home team had only enjoyed a handful of chances, whereas we had dominated.

Soon into the second period, a fine ball from Jorginho found Pulisic in the inside right channel. He possibly took one too many touches and the angle worked against him. His low shot rippled the side netting. The game drifted a little and I felt that it became a little scrappy. The team were not as dynamic as in the first-half. I hoped for no Leicester-style fade. The sun was still beating down though. There was no air. I was glad that I was watching from the cooler shadows.

We worked a fine opening for Emerson after some crisp and incisive passing, and our impressive Brazilian found himself in the same position as he did against United at Old Trafford. This time, his effort stayed low and Krul easily saved. A shot from Barkley was saved by Krul. Although chances were rarer during this second period, we were still dominating. In a rare Norwich attack, the ever-dangerous Puuki shimmied into space inside our box but hit straight at Kepa. The ‘keeper then released the ball early, rolling it to Barkley. He passed it square to Kovacic who – beautifully – slid the ball in to the path of a central raid from Abraham. He shifted the ball on to his right and hit a low belter past Krul.

I took a photo just after the impact and it is one of those shots where, in the follow through, his whole body is airborne.

Whack.

Oh how we celebrated that, and how Tammy did too. He jumped high and was soon mobbed by his team mates.

The Norwich manager was heard to utter “Farkenell.”

We had our noses in front once again and we were threatening our first league win of the season.

“OH TAMMY TAMMY.”

We did get the ball in the net again, but it looked like a foul on Krul to be honest. Hardly anyone in the Chelsea section celebrated.

It went to VAR.

How tedious.

Two loud chants from the away end.

“FUCK VAR.”

“What the fuck is going on?”

No goal.

A strong run from Godfrey – “do you think I might be excused?” – resulted in a slight scare, and then the same player rattled the Chelsea bar from the resulting corner. In the last action of an entertaining game, Barkley shot from distance but the ball slid past the near post.

At the final whistle, there was a mixture of relief and joy. All eyes were on Tammy. He looked drained but ecstatic. A heady mixture.

It was indeed a day of Wilbrahams, Babrahams and Abrahams after all.

And then the focus was on Frank Lampard, looking neat in a navy polo and track suit, as he hugged his players and slowly strode over to us. We didn’t get this engagement with Sarri last season. In Norwich, here was a really special moment. I used to love the fist-pumping and maniacal stares from Antonio Conte, and this was the Lampard version. His wide smile celebrated our first league win of the season, and his first win as the Chelsea manager.

It was bloody lovely.

We took our time leaving Carrow Road. There were a few pitch side chats. I was impressed with Mason Mount, and all three of our goals were absolute beauties. I think that Mateo Kovacic has been one of our most consistent players and he again played well, breaking up play and grinding away in midfield. There are defensive question marks, but we knew that.

We walked back to the hotel, freshened-up and donned a change of clothes. We took a quick cab up to “The Ribs Of Beef.” This is a cracking pub on the banks of the River Wensum that we visited in 2017/18. It’s a beauty. We got stuck in to some Peronis, and – quite unintentionally, but perfectly – met up with Tim and Julie again, and they became an honorary Chuckle Bother and Chuckle sister for the evening. We happily celebrated a late – late! – winner for Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, and the post-match giggles continued as we devoured some curries at a nearby Indian.

Good times, good people.

It was a blast.

There was a G&T nightcap in the hotel bar, but at just after 10pm – and after being awake for eighteen hours – it was time to call it a night.

I slept well.

Our next game is on Saturday at three o’clock at home to Sheffield United, but – before that – we have the most exciting day of the summer.

The Champions League draw will take place at 5pm next Thursday.

Happy days.

 

Tales From A Happy New Season

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 18 August 2019.

So there we were. Four of us in our row, re-united at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the Watford game towards the tail end of last season.

From the left, facing the pitch; myself, Alan, Glenn and PD.

PD has been sitting alongside us since inheriting dear Tom’s season ticket midway through 2015/16, but the other three of us have been season ticket holders in The Sleepy Hollow since the first game of 1997/98.

So, our twenty-third year of sitting together, and always in our own seats. We never swap around. That wouldn’t be right, would it? I love my seat – number 369 – as it is right next to some steps. I am not hemmed in. I don’t have to whisper an apologetic “’scuse me” as I get up to turn my bike around. And I can jump up onto the little viewing platform to my left, should the gravity of the occasion warrant it, to rigorously celebrate a goal. I have some memorable moments within those few square yards. You had better believe it.

In front were Albert and Paul, themselves season ticket holders like us from the glorious summer of 1997. Behind us, other pals dotted around.

Rousey, Lee, Mick, the two Robs and Alex, Frank, Tim, Gary, Dane, Nick, Big John in the front row, The Sleepy Hollow’s some-time cheer-leader (the dent in the advertising hoarding is his sole responsibility), Mark, Gary…and several whose names are not known to us even after all these years, we are English after all.)

There were a few empty seats in our section, but not many.

We were all in early. I was in at about 4pm, just after having a lovely photo with Andy, my long-time mate from Yorba Linda in Southern California, and one of the two Robs outside the West Stand, under Peter Osgood’s gaze.

In the last quarter of an hour before the kick-off, the stadium rapidly filled and – with it – came an increase in noise levels, of anticipation, of excitement. I am not sure if the atmosphere could have been cut with a knife because they, along with selfie-sticks, flares, cans, air horns and celery are banned.

But you get my drift.

The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely.

No surprises, it had been a lovely day thus far.

We had set off from our home town early; eight o’clock early. Within five minutes of parking up near Queens Club, I soon bumped into Eck from Glasgow and then Rob from Essex. I can walk around my home town for an hour and see nobody that I know. On match day at Chelsea, it is a vastly different story. Over the course of the day, I would meet around one-hundred fellow Chelsea devotees. It is a lovely feeling. To many I simply shook their hands and wished them a “happy new season.”

We met up with a reliable gaggle of friends – Aroha and Luke from Harrow, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh – in “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge at just after 11am. It was a joy to be back. Kev and Rich had been present for the Watford game in May; it seemed like just five minutes ago that we were huddled around a table a few yards away from where we were now ensconced.

Aroha, Luke and little old me reminisced about Baku and the time our pub reverberated to the same song for what seemed like an eternity :

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor, Lyon down to Rome. Tottenham get battered everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was talk of desired destinations in the Champions League. Luke thought we might well finish third in the group, but go all of the way to Gdansk and win back-to-back Europas. You read it here first.

PD and Parky were just happy to be knocking back some lagers. Aroha, Glenn and PD ordered roasts. The chat continued – but mainly the laughs continued.

Football was back.

And it felt bloody marvellous.

We then caught the tube up past Fulham Broadway to West Brompton and eventually met up with Daryl, Alan, Gary, Duncan, Lol – and a few others, unplanned, Ray and his daughter Gaby, Tom, Woody, some just nodding acquaintances – in The Old Oak, only the second time that I have ever visited it. Capacity was a big issue though, and it was a strict “one out, one in” policy. I sauntered over to where four of the lads were waiting to be allowed in, and I quipped “fackinell, if Tommy Murphy leaves, all four of you can enter.”

Daryl soon retorted –

“Done that joke five minutes ago, mate.”

What a giggle.

Inside the stadium, the minutes ticked away towards kick-off. Aroha and Luke had spent three hours of their Saturday morning along with a dozen other supporters arranging mosaics for The Shed’s supporters to create a chequered mosaic before kick-off, to be augmented by a huge “tifo” – banner – to honour the return of Frank Lampard to SW6. In truth, it was his fourth homecoming since his last game for us at Stamford Bridge in 2014.

January 2015 – in the colours of Manchester City, a ridiculous moment.

February 2017 – as a guest at half-time, suited and elegant, and able to receive absolute adoration.

October 2018 – as the manager of Derby County, but with banners to honour his Chelsea past.

Our team had been announced of course. There was a surprise, in my mind and many others’ – that Frank Lampard had chosen Olivier Giroud over Tammy Abraham, especially after all of the positive noise emanating from the manager, and elsewhere within the club, about how we need to back the striker after Tammy’s unfortunate penalty miss against Liverpool in Istanbul.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho

Pedro – Mount – Pulisic

Giroud

In the pub, we had discussed how to pronounce Christian’s name. I had presumed that it mirrored the pronunciation of Stanic, Matic, Ivanovic, Jokanovic and Kovcic.

“Pull-a-sitch.”

Oh no. My good made JR from Michigan confirmed that the natives of the US were instead opting for “Pewl-a-sick.”

Righty-oh.

As long as nobody calls him “Pool-o’-sick.”

Not good.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture as the teams entered the pitch. Way up on the orange brick of the hotel and apartment were two new additions; a square, slightly blurred, photo from The Shed circa 1982 – if I have to guess, Tottenham at home in the FA Cup – and I had to note that the photo hardly embraces the ethos of diversity that the club wants to foster inn 2019.

All of the faces were male, all apart from one was white.

There was also a photo of Kerry Dixon wining a header against Watford at home in 1984; another odd ‘photo.

Still, it sure beats “Thrilling Since 1905.”

There were flames to add – or detract – to our moment of seeing the team stride across the pitch. The mosaics were raised. The banner unfurled.

“Welcome Back Super Frank.”

Bizarrely, the additional spot lights under The Shed and under the Matthew Harding Upper were on, despite it being an August afternoon.

Frank went smart casual with a fetching white tracky top and royal blue bottoms. He looked ten times the part compared to Sarri, the paraffin.

We were wearing the shirt of a thousand roof supports while Leicester City – and a fair few of their fans – were wearing a light pink shirt, and it looked alright but nothing more.

The game began.

And how. We were on fire. Not the chess-like moves of the previous regime. But high-tempo action, with the crowd involved and loving it. We were all so pleased to see Kurt Zouma looking far more relaxed in his first few touches than at Old Trafford. And we applauded those touches. As we should. It was a very energetic start indeed. Very early on, Pedro slammed a shot just wide of The Shed End goal, with many in the crowd thinking that a goal had been scored. There was a shot from the lively Mason Mount, whose inclusion had surprised me too.

On six minutes, Casper Schmeichel gently rolled the ball out to Wilfred Ndidi, but the central defender dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied, lost his way and didn’t know where to roam. Mount pounced and robbed the defender before steadying himself before a potential stumble and prodded the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Suffice to say, Stamford Bridge roared.

The players raced over to Parkyville.

Alan looked at me.

“They’ll have to come at us naaar.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We laughed and Alan gave me a lovely hug.

“It’s fucking great to be back, innit?”

“It fucking is mate.”

A lovely moment.

“Hopefully no VAR.”

“Nah.”

Ah…VAR.

We all just hoped and prayed that we were in for a VAR-less afternoon.

Because we all fucking hate it.

On ten minutes, not nine as planned, a sizeable section of the crowd sang in praise of Tammy Abraham.

Good work everyone.

We played some lovely stuff in the first twenty minutes, with everyone on song. The noise was good, if not constantly thunderous, and there was a lovely vibe. Our next real chance again fell to the youngster Mount, but his snap header was straight at Schmeichel. A yard either side and we might have been two to the good. A shot from Kante was blocked close in.

Watching Kante is a joy.

I shared my thoughts with Alan.

“I don’t want to talk in clichés about black athletes, but Kante looks so graceful, his limbs are so loose, he has such perfect balance. He glides over the surface of the pitch.”

Until midway through the half, we had oozed confidence, and our play was warmly appreciated. At that point, Pedro – energetic as ever –  and Pulisic – neat and tricky – swapped wings.

There is a joke there, surely, about a Christian right winger from the United States, but I am buggered if I can think of one.

Leicester, on the other hand, had been rank, just voyeurs of this wonderful blue movie. They had hardly touched the ball. Our relentless pressure on them once they had the ball was impressive.

Please note that I am trying to avoid, like the plague, the word “press” – the buzzword of the moment – in these reports. I will try to find alternatives. Oh, and “block” too.

Leicester slowly awoke from their stupor, though. They began moving the ball and threatened with one or two rare attacks. Jamie Vardy is always a threat. I certainly felt that we needed the all-important second goal. But as Leicester improved, we seemed to stall. It looked like we needed a second wind.

However, at the break, the home fans were pretty contented. Claude Makelele was briefly introduced to us all as he stepped on to the pitch. There were a few words. Bless him.

The away team began the second half by far the livelier, and I waited for them to fade. But to be fair to them, they never did. With Vardy always pushing into space, James Maddison began to shine in the inside-left channel. He really impressed me as the second period developed. On one occasion, he rounded an unsure Kepa, but was unable to finish. The warning signs had certainly been sounded and the warning shots were not far behind.

A rare Giroud header at the Matthew Harding did not trouble Schmeichel. Leicester kept attacking us.

For Fox’ sake.

An effort from Hamza Choudray was saved by Kepa, a Maddison effort was swept across the face of the goal.

I held my head in my hands.

On the hour, Tammy replaced Giroud and he was warmly applauded as he took to the field. We all urged him on at every opportunity and, as we tend to do with our youngsters, overly-applauded his every touch.

Positive discrimination? I guess so.

On sixty-six minutes, though, that man Maddison looped a fine corner into the danger area and Ndidi rose to head the ball, way too easily, into the goal.

Did he celebrate?

Yes, Ndidi.

We sighed.

“Free header.”

The away team were emboldened now, absolutely bursting with confidence, with the two danger men Vardy and Maddison spurning golden chances.

“They’re ripping us to shreds, here.”

With twenty minutes to go, Willian replaced the fitful Pulisic and Kovacic replaced Jorginho. Our play didn’t really get the jolt that we were hoping for. We stumbled and bumbled along. Our play had certainly dropped off from the first quarter of the game. Was this due to the extended play in Istanbul? Almost certainly. Leicester still kept raiding away.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Willian was particularly disappointing in his twenty minutes on the pitch. Wearing the vaunted number ten shirt might may well be hazardous for him if our expectations continue to be dashed. A terrible corner here, a misplaced pass there.

Must do better.

If only we could meld together the positive attributes of Pedro and Willian (oh, I await the negative comments).

Tammy toiled away, but his only run into the channels was when he forlornly chased a back-pass. He tried, but had no service. One loose shot was blazed ridiculously high.

“How many minutes’ extra time?”

“Hopefully not many. Blow up ref!”

In the last heart-in-stomach moment, Kepa raced out to, just, clear before Vardy could pounce. It summed up the day.

We were grimly hanging on.

There were, dear reader, a few boos at full-time.

No words.

No fucking words.

On the walk out of the stadium, across the forecourt, I spoke briefly with Mark, a fellow-dweller of The Sleepy Hollow.

“I bet loads of people, fans, are giving Frank grief right this very minute. But we’re not experts. We need to get off his back, we need to give him time, we need to let him breath.”

It had been an odd game. We began like a shooting star, but one which soon fizzled out. Leicester City had been well worth the point. In truth, they could’ve won it.

But our first point was on the board.

Next up is Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From Reading, Writing And Arithmetic

Reading vs. Chelsea : 28 July 2019.

After a hiatus of a fortnight, my season was back on track. I was heading seventy miles east for a Sunday afternoon friendly against Reading. And while Glenn was on the beach in Dorset and while PD was on the piss in Somerset, my loyal travelling companion Lord Parky was coming with me to Royal Berkshire. At about 11am, I collected him from Parky Towers and our season started to gather momentum. He was pleased to see me – and vice versa – and we were soon on our way.

I had begun the day with a breakfast at the local McDonald’s in Frome. These McBreakfasts tend to start all of our trips to watch Chelsea and they feel like an essential part our regular match day experience these days. I am sure that this was my first such meal since last season and, as such, it honestly felt like some sort of quasi-religious ceremony, maybe like some sort of communion, what with it being a Sunday. The breaking of the bread and all that. Not so much the last supper as the first breakfast.

I explained all of this nonsense to His Lordship and he looked at me as if to say “you need to get out more.”

Thankfully, I was and so was he.

We were on our way to the Madejski.

I’ve never really enjoyed the four previous visits to the Reading’s stadium. We hurtle past it every time we drive to London. It’s therefore a familiar sight. And it is too close to home to feel like a credible away trip. The stadium is stranded out on the edge of Reading, close to the M4. And we would be silly to head into the town centre and then have to come back out again. The stadium itself is set among car dealerships, retail parks, offices and hotels, and there are no watering holes nearby. It’s a typically anaemic experience. It’s not my favourite stadium, although it is far from the worst.

When I first visited it in 2003/4 – a midweek League Cup game – I remember liking it. It was a little different to the other new builds such as at Derby, Southampton and Middlesbrough. The seating tiers undulated a little, there were odd angles. On that night, with us playing in the first of our never-ending supply of black away kits, we won 1-0 with a goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

2003

My next visit was in 2006/7 and was full of notoriety. This was Reading’s first season in the top flight, and although we won 1-0, the game will forever be remembered for the awful foul on Petr Cech by Stephen Hunt after just twenty seconds, which resulted in our great ‘keeper being stretchered off and missing around three months of football. Later in that game, Carlo Cudicini was injured by Ibrahima Sonko. None other than John Terry played in goal for us for the closing minutes. Reading’s Andre Bikey and Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel were sent off. We won 1-0 with a goal from Frank Lampard, but it was an insane afternoon of football. Things took a turn for the worse when I returned to my car to find that it had been broken into and a few personal effects had been stolen. Not a great day at the office, despite the win.

2006

The following season in 2007/8, it was another midweek visit. We went 1-0 down in the first half to a Bikey goal, but came back to won 2-1 with goals in the second-half from Frank Lampard and a long-range effort from Didier Drogba. There were great celebrations in the away end that night.

2007

Our last visit was in 2012/13, and was typical of our results at times that season. We were coasting 2-0 with goals from that man Frank Lampard – goal number one hundred and ninety-six for us, and pictured – and Juan Mata. We then let in two very late goals to draw 2-2, and Rafa Benitez was never more unpopular. It was a game that we should have seen out. Sigh.

2013

For our game this summer, we were given 2,200 and the £10 tickets were snapped up.

I avoided the tiresome M4 for the short hop to Reading and drove along the A4. We reached Hungerford just after mid-day and decided to drop into The Bear Hotel. There had been pints in Dublin, but this felt like the first real drink of the season.

“Cheers.”

This Chelsea pre-season consisted of seven games in all sorts of far flung places.

Dublin.

Tokyo.

Reading.

Salzburg.

Moenchengladbach.

I don’t know of anyone from the UK who went out to the games in Japan. I know a few did Dublin, a few are going over to Austria and Germany. But this might be a long old season and holidays need to be saved. Not only was this a very squeezed close-season for the players, this was my shortest summer break ever. The game in Baku was in late May and the game in Dublin was only fifty-two days later.

“No rest for the wicked.”

Out in the beer garden, we enjoyed the drinks despite being attacked by a few wasps. It was a cracking day. Just right.

I was parked-up in one of the official car parks at the Madejski at about 1.30pm. Perfect.

We made our way around to the away end. I had never approached the stadium from the north before, so at least I saw something different of the locale this time. It reminded me a little of the Bolton stadium where we won the league in 2005. We spotted the two Robs drinking outside the home stand and joined them. Although it was both of their wedding anniversaries – a thirty-fifth and a second – they were more than happy to be watching Chelsea on this sunny day in Berkshire. We moved around to the away turnstiles, and this is where it went momentarily wrong.

I was asked to have my bag searched, and was stopped from taking my Canon SLR into the stadium.

“But this is a friendly.”

“Copyright.”

I am not completely sure what my hackles are, but I felt them rising.

What to do? The steward told me to retrace my steps and see if the adjoining hotel could check it for the duration of the game. So, back I went. I politely asked at the reception if I could leave my bag there, but as I was not staying at the hotel, I had no choice but to walk all of the way back to the car. I was fuming. I spoke to a chief steward.

“How come there are Chelsea queuing up to get in the home end?”

He looked at me incredulously, as if I was a moron.

“It’s a friendly!”

“So why can’t I bring my camera in, then? It’s ridiculous.”

His colleague agreed.

“But rules are rules. Sorry, mate.”

I walked back to the car, muttering “I hate modern football” to myself.

Evidently, there were Chelsea going to be located all throughout the home areas of the Madejski, and this was not deemed by anyone to be a safety threat of any description. And yet I was stopped from taking my camera in to a friendly.

For fuck sake.

Outside influences keep chipping away at my enjoyment of this beautiful game. It is relentless.

So, I wasted half an hour trotting back to the car. At 2.50pm, I eventually entered the stadium, by which time there had been an announcement that the game had been delayed until 3.15pm.

“Poxy club.”

Parky was still with the two Robs, and I explained my tale of woe. Inside, the place was slowly filling up. We were in row four, quite near the goal. It was lovely to see so many friends. We were stood next to Andy, who I last saw in Baku.

“Don’t know why they just didn’t give us the whole end.”

I agreed with him.

I did find it odd that Chelsea were allowed in the home areas, and I found it odder that a few were wearing Chelsea gear. It seemed that the normal rules of behaviour were being ignored. Our usual away day companion Gary was a row or two behind us.

The teams came onto the pitch and we were wearing last season’s all yellow, thus avoiding a colour clash with either the new blue or white shirts.

The team lined up in a 4-2-3-1.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Christensen – Tomori – Alonso

Drinkwater – Bakayoko

Kenedy – Barkley – Pulisic

Giroud

With no proper camera, I relied on my ‘phone.

With Chelsea attacking the far end, and with me watching from a low angle, I found it a little difficult to track all of the movements of our players. These pre-season games are important for us fans to get back into it again. The old voice boxes need to get used to the workload ahead. The atmosphere was OK, but nothing special, as the game began. My throat survived a few rasping renditions of “Carefree” and I was back in the game.

It was, of course, my first sighting of the American Wunderkind Christian Pulisic who took up a position on the left wing. I have to admit that there were a couple of instances when, only naturally, I had a mental image of Eden Hazard appearing as if by magic and causing havoc.

But those days are gone.

There were a few early flourishes from the home team. On just thirteen minutes, Reading moved the ball well inside our defensive third and, after the ball broke to Josh Barrett out on their left, we watched as he adeptly lobbed the ball over Caballero.

Here was the first “fackinell” of the season.

The home crowd – especially the five hundred strong section to our left, who were all oh-so young – roared. There had been the usual “we support our local team” stuff from them in the first few minutes – a song that I remember well from all the previous visits – and they were now in their element.

Gits.

We struggled to get going and the game ambled along. We created a couple of half-chances. On twenty-two minutes, Olivier Giroud was fouled in a central area. Ross Barkley waited and waited. I spotted that the ‘keeper was marginally too far to his left. I predicted a sweeping curving shot over the wall and into the corner to the ‘keeper’s right.

We waited some more.

As Barkley struck and as the ball began its ascent I firmly spoke.

“That’s in.”

We watched as the ball curled just as I had expected it to. We roared. The woman to my right turned to me and smiled as if to say “you were bloody right.”

Get in.

It was only Reading. It was only a friendly. It was only a glorified training game. But a beautiful goal needs to be celebrated.

Lovely stuff.

Pulisic began to grow into the game with a few nice touches.

The young American was at times playing on the same part of the Madejski Stadium pitch as Boris Johnson occupied when the charismatic toff / shambolic buffoon (take your fucking pick) made that ridiculous rugby-tackle on the poor German player Maurizio Gaudino in a charity football match in May 2006. The look on team mate Ray Wilkins’ face was a picture, but the stricken Gaudino was an Eton mess after that bone-crunching attack. Maybe Stephen Hunt had watched Boris and had been inspired. The lunge on Cech followed in the October of 2006. Either way, what a Berkshire Hunt.

Reading rallied a little, but then Giroud headed wide from a deep Barkley free-kick.

There were a few Chelsea chants.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

The hideous “We’ve won it all.”

Just before half-time, Kenedy – who had looked eager to impress – slammed a shot wide. A few minutes later the same player took a swipe from outside the box. The ball seemed to move in the air, like a knuckleball pitch in baseball – and the Reading ‘keeper either misread it, saw it late, or saw it and still couldn’t gather it.

We were 2-1 up at the break.

There was time to say “hello” to a few friends at the break.

In the second-half, only Caballero remained.

As with the first-half against St. Pat’s, the team lined up in a diamond 4-4-2.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Pedro – Kovacic

Mount

Batshuayi – Abraham

Matt Miazga played the second-half for Reading. Charlie Adam played too. Where’s Boris Johnson when you need him?

There were defensive frailties in our ranks in the opening period and Reading equalised after only four minutes. A long cross found Mark Morrison unmarked and able to tap in at the far post. As with the first Reading goal, the stadium PA boomed out a dance track and the muppets joined in.

…if that ever happens at Chelsea.

Sigh.

The game opened up now, and we began to play some sweet stuff. From one of many second-half corners, David Luiz controlled a ball well, brought it down, touched it out from his feet and curled a majestic effort against the bar. It deserved to go in. Sublime.

Just before the hour, Tammy Abraham advanced from deep, but when his cross was intercepted, Mason Mount pounced and coolly slammed the ball past the Reading ‘keeper. There was something Lampardesque about that finish. Almost uncanny.

I kept urging both Tammy and Michy to be selfish and attack their defenders. They were full of endeavour. Kovacic looked strong. We were moving the ball well, but were using fewer touches than last season to reach dangerous areas. Pedro looked neat. His smile is so infectious.

On the hour, a Reading mistake gifted Mount a second goal. The ‘keeper Walker erred, kicking straight to Michy who passed to Mount to slot home.

A new chant was aired.

“Ole, ole. Ole, ole. Mason Mount Mount Mount. Mason Mount Mount Mount.”

Simple but effective.

Jamie Cumming replaced Wily in our goal.

On seventy minutes, Reading sliced through our defensive and Sam Baldock finished a fine move. There were further chances for us to increase our lead including an acrobatic effort from Tammy, but the game ended with no more goals.

Frank – our Frank – came over to us at the end and he was serenaded in fine style. I enjoyed the game in the main, but it was a typical pre-season run out which lacked real intensity. But it was another good excuse to see some friends, to have a beer and to get the vocal chords warmed up for the rigours ahead.

I am not – honestly – reading too much into any of these pre-season games. They are, let’s be honest, little more than glorified training sessions. And I think that Frank, Jody and the management team are paying more attention to the stuff that goes on behind the scenes in the confines of Cobham and elsewhere. The attentiveness of the players. The willingness of the players to try new things. The interaction within the squad. The discussions. Their confidence. The body language. The small details.

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So, that was Reading.

This has been me writing about Reading.

And if my arithmetic is not mistaken, this was a game that involved twenty-two Chelsea players and it also marked the third game in a row in which I have seen Chelsea score four.

And it all adds up. Frank looks in control. I think we are in good hands.

Sadly, we now have to wait two whole weeks for the league opener at Old Trafford.

But I cannot bloody wait.

Who’s going?

If you are, you are a lucky bugger.

I’ll see you there.

The Bear Hotel, Hungerford, Berkshire.