About Chris Axon

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

Tales From Five From Five

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 15 September 2018

During the recent international break, England played matches against Spain on Saturday 8 September and against Switzerland on Tuesday 11 September. On both of those days, I did not see a single kick of the England games. Instead I chose to attend my local team Frome Town’s FA Cup matches against Winchester City, first at home – a 1-1 draw – and then the subsequent replay – a 1-2 loss – and that just about sums up my feelings about international football in the current climate. I would rather make the effort in supporting my local team, pay the money at the turnstiles, travel to games, feel connected, than gormlessly gawp at the international game in a rowdy pub full of people who would probably annoy me no end.

I feel like I am the footballing equivalent of a music lover with one of those yellow “Keep Music Live” badges on his rucksack.

To me, in 2018, football is all about the live experience.

And it always has been, ever since I was bitten by the bug – I hope there is no cure – in March 1974, at Stamford Bridge.

Or maybe even earlier still.

With help from my fellow Frome Town friend Steve, we worked out recently that my first Frome Town game was in the autumn of 1970, when I was aged just five.

Another game is worth talking about too.

In around 1971 or 1972 – I can’t be certain – my village team Mells and Vobster United won the Mid-Somerset League and I can vaguely remember watching the championship-decider on the Saturday. At school on the Monday or Tuesday, I was to learn that the team were to take part in the “Cup Final” at nearby Stoke St. Michael on a weekday evening. I can vividly remember excitedly pleading with my parents to take me to the game. My mother would undoubtedly have said, in that time honoured fashion, “wait until your father comes home”, as she prepared my tea after school. I can honestly remember saying the phrase “everyone is going to be there” – knowing full well that I was exaggerating somewhat – and then managing to persuade my father to drive the five or six miles towards the Mendip Hills to the nearby village, which was chosen as a neutral venue. There is no doubt that I would have taken my ball with me – I went everywhere with my white plastic football – and I can certainly remember the sense of pride and involvement in seeing my team at an away game. I can’t remember the opposition. But I am sure that Mells won the game, and hence “the double.” It is a memory which has remained with me for decades. It is, I am sure, where my passion of seeing live football, and supporting my team, was born.

Sadly, after a proud history of one-hundred and thirteen years, Mells and Vobster United are no more. Last season was their final tilt at glory. The news really saddened me. My grandfather played for the village team in the 1920’s, and I played a smattering of games for the reserves from 1978 to 1981. I always remember my first game, when I was only thirteen – playing against men more than twice my age – and being full of pride when I told my parents about it when I returned home. I had just shown up at “the rec” with my boots and my ball on a Saturday afternoon just intending to watch from the side-lines. The manager asked me if I fancied coming on as a “sub” during the game. I was not a very confident footballer – I would eventually slide out of the school first team and into the dreaded “B team” later that season – but I jumped at the chance. Fifty years after my grandfather represented the village, I was playing too. It was against Ashwick and Binegar. But there is no fairy-tale ending; I am sure that we lost.

At the end of May, I retraced my steps and stood for a few solitary minutes behind one of the goals at Stoke St. Michael’s football pitch, and my mind cartwheeled back to around forty-seven years earlier when my footballing journey had taken a massive step. It was the first time that I had been back since that evening with my parents – in Dad’s green Vauxhall Viva, and my football – and it was, of course, such a bittersweet moment.

This football life, eh?

Visits of Cardiff City to Stamford Bridge do not come around too frequently. This would only be the fifth time that I would be seeing “The Bluebirds” play at Stamford Bridge. And as the saying goes, you never forget your first time.

On the second day of October in 1976, a Chelsea team which included old hands Peter Bonetti, David Hay and Charlie Cooke, plus a smattering of youngsters including both Ray and Graham Wilkins met the visiting Cardiff City. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth; that position was filled by Brian Bason.  Stalwarts of that promotion-winning campaign Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi – recently assistant manager to Roy Hodgson at England –  didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. I can distinctly remember watching the action from the lower tier of the East Stand, with me peering over at the sizeable following from South Wales. I can definitely recollect punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as they attempted to get at the waiting Chelsea fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

The match highlights – of which there were more than these three minutes – appeared on that evening’s “Match of the Day” with the trainspotter-esque squeals of John Motson accompanying the action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxspfc1NzBY

Since then, our meetings have been rare. I first saw Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt on a windswept and rainy Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge in 1983. There was no TV coverage of that game, so no match action is available, although there are a few grainy images of both sets of fans running at each other outside the North Stand – once again – on the internet – from a news programme – should anyone feel the need to get nostalgic. My next Cardiff game was the notorious 2010 Cup game, when hundreds of hours of film of the various members of the Soul Crew and the CHH – or the 388 as they are now apparently known – bouncing towards each other on the Kings Road and elsewhere resulted in banning orders for many.

The 2013 league game at Stamford Bridge – the season when Vincent Tan became public enemy number one in Cardiff for his desire to kit out the team in red and black rather than blue and white – passed without incident. I am no fan of Cardiff City – why should I be? – but at least their fans have the pleasure of seeing their team in the hallowed top flight wearing the correct colours this season.

In 2018, a sunny day in September welcomed both teams, and supporters, to Stamford Bridge once more.

In the build-up to the game – drinks in the Famous Three Kings and The Goose – I had unfortunately spotted a few people wearing the new third kit. Apparently, this design is meant to pay some sort of – non-ironic – homage to the tangerine and graphite kit from 1994 to 1996.

They have done a great job.

They have referenced the worst fucking Chelsea kit ever with a messy and insipid tribute.

Up close, the images of “Landon Tahn, Fackinell” are out of focus and made my eyes hurt.

It’s bloody shocking.

But Nike have surpassed themselves this season. The even more ridiculous checked warm-up gear featuring blue, red and white squares, is truly horrific. I wonder if it was intended to confuse the opposition by making their eyes twist out of shape.

Modern Football…you know the rest.

Amidst all of these negatives, a word of praise for the match programme this season. It is now £3.50, but seems a lot more stylish. There is a spine – like the European ones of recent memory – and the covers have a certain gleam to them. The cover for the Cardiff game features a stylised photograph of Kepa Arizabalaga, with an image akin to that of a sporting poster from the former Eastern Bloc, all angles and strength.

I approve, anyway.

There was no surprise that the boyos from Cardiff, the valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan took their full three thousand. But there was just one flag; the red, white and green of Wales with the legend Llanishen Bluebirds.

Over on the East Stand, a banner – from the West Ham game in March – remembered Ray Wilkins – RIP – who would have been 62 on Friday. A nice touch.

Maurizio Sarri made the slightest of changes to the team that had defeated Bournemouth; in came Olivier Giroud for Alvaro Morata and Pedro replaced Willian.

Yet more nonsensical flames and fireworks went with the entrance of the teams.

Good fucking grief.

The game began, and the Welsh legions were in good voice. Thankfully, we did not have to wait too long for the home support to get going, even though the noise was hardly stratospheric. We dominated the early moments, and Cardiff were happy to sit back and soak it all up. A Giroud header dropped onto the roof of the net. We kept moving the ball, with much of the play coming down both flanks. For two defenders, both Alonso and Azpilicueta certainly found themselves in high areas on many occasions. Another chance came and it was an Alonso cross which was headed wide by that man Giroud.

A leaping Bamba wasted a good chance from close in, misdirecting a header down rather than on target. Sadly, we did not heed this warning sign. A long cross from a free-kick found Morrison who easily out-jumped the back-peddling Alonso, who was the wrong side of his man. The ball was headed into the six-yard box, and the Chelsea defenders looked startled as the ball dropped. The tall Bamba pounced, nipping in to cause havoc amidst our defence. We looked as ill-equipped to counter the threat of high balls into our box as Amish kids at a gaming show.

The net rippled and the Welsh legions roared.

Bollocks.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers” sang the Cardiff City supporters.

Alan noted, and I agreed, that the shock of a goal conceded woke up both players and supporters alike. There was now a real sense of urgency from both.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The stadium woke up.

We struck at Cardiff’s goal via Hazard and Kovacic. Our play improved. When needed, N’Golo Kante would shine. In exact copy of what happened against Bournemouth, he chased an attacker down from his usual right-midfield berth to a position just in front of the left-back Alonso. He accomplished it with such a minimum of effort that it had me purring.

What a player.

A curling effort from Pedro went close. Our chances were piling up. Pedro again, at his best, twisting and turning, leaving defenders in his wake.

My friend Rick, in Iowa, has a great nickname for Pedro.

“El colibri.”

The hummingbird.

It is a perfect description.

Yet another effort from Pedro.

Surely a goal would come.

Twenty minutes after the Cardiff goal, we watched a beautiful move develop. A Rudiger pass was left by Hazard so that Giroud could collect. A divine touch from the centre-forward played in Hazard. A delicious feint – “see you later, a bientot” – gave him space to move away from a marker.

As he broke on goal, my mind leaped into gear.

“Come on Eden. You are a fantastic player. But you are not a great goal scorer. To move on, to improve, to become an even better player, you need to get more goals. Come on. Score this.”

He drilled a low drive into the goal, as perfect a finish as there could ever be.

Chelsea were back in the game.

Just before half-time, we worked an opening down their right, and a subtle touch again by Giroud allowed Hazard to poke a ball home, albeit off a luckless Cardiff defender.

We were in front.

“YYYYYEEEEESSSSS.”

Tidy.

As the second-half began, with Chelsea attacking our end at the Matthew Harding, I fully expected more chances and more goals. After just five minutes, Mateo Kovacic – injured – was replaced by Ross Barkley, who immediately looked keen and involved.

After the constant activity in the last moments of the first-half, the second half took a while to warm up.

Cardiff rarely threatened our goal. But for all of our possession, we struggled to get behind their defence. As the game wore on, I kept thinking “2-1 is not enough.”

We needed that elusive third goal.

David Luiz, on more than one occasion, looked rather lackadaisical. How much better a player would he be with John Terry alongside him?

Pedro created some space and curled one wide. Then another from Pedro squirmed wide.

With twenty minutes remaining, Peds was replaced by Willian, and there was a hearty show of support for our little Spaniard.

The clock-ticked on.

A low shot from Reid narrowly missed the framework of our goal.

We again found it hard to create anything of any substance. Our chances all seemed to come in that first-half. We still bloody needed that third goal.

With ten minutes remaining, Willian charged into the box, but was scythed down by Bamba. A penalty was an easy decision for the referee to make.

Jorginho handed the ball to Eden.

Eden gave the Cardiff ‘keeper the eyes and planted the ball in the corner.

A hat-trick for Hazard.

Glorious.

A minute later, Willian created some space for himself and – despite a bobbling ball – crashed a fantastic curling effort past the hapless ‘keeper and into the goal.

His run towards us was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

There was even an impromptu Brazilian dance-off twixt Willian and Luiz, all under the disbelieving gaze of Rudiger.

Late on, there was a fine full length save from Arizabalaga, but in truth the young lad had not really been troubled during the second-half.

There was more raucous applause as Davide Zappacosta replaced Eden Hazard, who had undoubtedly been the star of the show. His dribbles have always made us dribble, but on this occasion, his goals had been a very welcome addition to his armory.

So, another 4-1 win for Chelsea at home to Cardiff City; the same result as in 2010 and in 2013. They must be sick of us.

With Liverpool winning at Spurs 2-1, we needed that extra goal to prise our way onto the top of the pile.

Perfect.

I looked back on the game. The visitors were a poor team, but we had to persevere to get past them. Five wins out of five is a very fine start to the season, but I am not getting carried away at all with any of it. We still look frail defensively, while we honestly have not been tested by any of the tougher teams yet. I will reserve judgement for a few more matches.

No trip to Greece for me this upcoming week; stay safe those of you who are making the pilgrimage.

Next up for me is our away fixture in Deepest East.

See you there.

 

Tales From Flags, Flames And Four Out Of Four

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 1 September 2018.

Unlike the last home game against Arsenal, I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare. It was a sunny and warm afternoon in London. The team had been announced earlier with just the one change since the match at Newcastle United the previous weekend; Willian was in for Pedro. As I had commented last time, there is little to choose between the two.

In the wraparound of the MHU, I said “hello” to a few good friends and waited for the entrance of the teams. I was pleasantly surprised that Bournemouth had almost brought a full three thousand supporters. It helped make sure of another near capacity gate at Stamford Bridge. There was a wide “no man’s land” between the home and away sections of the Shed Upper, but all other areas were full. Bournemouth were maybe just three-hundred shy of the full allocation. With a capacity at the Vitality Stadium – it will always be Dean Court to me – of just 11,000, but with a large catchment area on which to draw, it is difficult to judge the size of the former Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic Football Club’s current support. But 2,700 away fans from a home gate of 9,000 supporters is a good return in my book.

It had been my turn to drive to London. This was my first drive to Stamford Bridge for a weekend game since the West Ham match in early April, almost five months ago. And it seemed like it. On the approach in to West London, high on the M4, I drove past Griffin Park, where Brentford would soon be playing former European Champions Nottingham Forest in a second tier game. A few hundred yards further on, we spotted their new stadium taking shape with the steel of the main stand now standing firm. Fair play to Brentford for keeping within a goalkeeper’s kick of their current home. I’m just glad I managed to visit Griffin Park with Chelsea five years ago. It would be lovely to see them in the top flight at some stage in the near future.

The pre-match had been very pleasant. First up, a two-hour stay in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, with all the usual suspects. A few of the boys who went on out little pre-match pub crawl against Arsenal, when told of a similar plan against Liverpool, expressed a little concern.

“Blimey. I didn’t remember too much about that Arsenal game.”

“That’s the problem when you drink out of wet glasses.”

Glenn and I moved on to Earl’s Court and popped into a new pub for us, “The King’s Head”, which is tucked away in a quiet side-street behind Earl’s Court Road. In our quest to have a pre-match drink-up in every single pub within a three-mile radius of Stamford Bridge, we are crossing them all off at a fair rate of knots these days. We met up with our friend Russ, who we first met over in Perth in the summer. He was over for a fortnight – he is originally from Wokingham – and it was a pleasure to see him again. He runs the Melbourne Supporters Group and we spoke about the inherent problems in rewarding someone who travels 12,000 miles to see a game via the loyalty points scheme. It is always a toughie. There is no easy answer.

Russ was with a chap who lives, wait for it, in the Melbourne district of Chelsea, home to the Victoria League Division Three team which used to feature in the football pools coupons during the summers of my youth in the ‘seventies, and for whom every Chelsea fan in England used to support, even though they were consistently rubbish. I used to love pouring over those team names though; Chelsea, Dandenong, Geelong, Fitzroy. The memories came flooding back. Starved of football during those long hot summer of my childhood, I would consistently hunt out Chelsea’s latest result in Australia. When my Australian relatives visited in 1980, I was quite stunned when they saw some of the teams’ names – from the Brisbane area – and informed me that they were basically of Sunday League standard. You have to wonder why anyone would bet on such low grade football half a world away. The ‘seventies were odd times.

We also met up with Chelsea fans Jason – from Derbyshire – and Pam – from Staffordshire.

It is always a fine boast that Chelsea supporters from London and the Home Counties always welcome with open arms supporters from other parts of England and the United Kingdom. Speaking as someone from Somerset, I know this to be true. Londoners would often take the piss out of my accent but never my support.

…it is only to the supporters from further afield that some take an irksome view.

“Discuss.”

There was talk of the Europa Cup draw which kept us all occupied on Friday afternoon and evening. I am going to just one of the three away games, against Vidi – the former Videoton – whose game against us will be played at Ferencvaros’ stadium in Budapest. Of all the football cities in Europe that I have not yet visited, the three “Bs” (Berlin, Bilbao and Budapest) are probably top of my list. In December, I will at last be visiting the home of Honved, Ferencvaros, Ujpest Dozsa, MTK, Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and all those magical Magyars of old. It promises to be a fine trip. Time, eventually, I think to buy myself a retro Chelsea scarf from 1972. In the first pub, as if to pay homage to that era – and our trip to Hungary – Daryl had sported a bloody gorgeous Sergio Tachhini polo shirt sporting the three colours.

In front of the East Stand, large flags denoting the eleven starters were being waved frantically by a few of Chelsea’s ground staff. They then reassembled at both ends of the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, flames erupted into the sky from along the East Stand touchline.

The flags I could just about stomach. But flames for Bournemouth? Good grief.

I longed for the days when the Stamford Bridge crowd could be relied upon, without any fuss, to generate enough atmosphere of our own.

Returnees Asmir Begovic, in fluorescent yellow and orange, and Nathan Ake were in the Bournemouth team.

Both teams were unbeaten.

We had watched parts of the Liverpool game at Leicester on TV in the pub at West Ken. A win there for the Mickey Mousers had out them on top with four wins out of four. In the build-up to the game, I had conjectured that we could possibly win against Bournemouth, against Cardiff City, and maybe even at West Ham. We could go into the game at home to Liverpool with six wins out of six, but I worried that Liverpool would be the real test. What a game that promises to be.

The game began.

Without much chance of being accused of over-exaggeration, it was all Chelsea in the first period of the first-half.

Everything was eerily similar to the game at St. James’ Park last Sunday. We dominated possession, and our opposition defended deeply but resolutely. I was really impressed with the away team to be truthful. Eddie Howe is a fine manager, and they are lucky to have him.

Down in Australia, I wondered if my cousin Paul would be conflicted. Chelsea is his team – I am the one to thank for that, see a previous tale – but he was born in Bournemouth and so does admit to keeping a keen eye on their results. I promised myself that I would not send him a Chelsea / AFCB half-and-half scarf. But you knew that.

Morata looked livelier than normal in the opening few salvoes, and a few nice moves were generated, but from an early stage, we knew that Bournemouth were well marshalled. A loose touch by David Luiz, sadly typical, was gobbled up by the lively Callum Wilson, who pushed the ball to Ryan Fraser. Annoyingly, Luiz had another chance to redeem himself, but chose not to tackle, but thankfully N’Golo Kante was on hand to chase the attack away.

A lovely deep pass from Luiz made up for his earlier aberration. Jorginho struck a shot wide.

In the first five, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty minutes of the game, the 2,700 away fans were the only ones making any noise.

Last week, I berated the Geordies for their support as being timid, lukewarm and insipid.

Now it was our turn.

As the kids say : “Hold my beer.”

Not a peep could be heard from the 37,000 Chelsea supporters. And I looked around at the faces in the stadium. Surely not everyone was a tourist, that most lampooned – at best – and disliked – at worst – of all Chelsea supporters in 2018.

“Is this a library?” sang the Bournemouth fans.

“Is this the Emirates?”

There was no retort.

Out sung by Bournemouth.

The cherries were on top.

Fucking hell.

I guess we have been spoiled, right?

When I was a child, before I went to school, and maybe for a few years after, I sometimes used to accompany my father on one specific little journey. My Dad was a shopkeeper – menswear – in our local town of Frome and there used to be half-day closing every Thursday. I used to love Thursdays – I feel the same way to this day, “one day to go to the weekend” – as it meant I would be able to spend time with Dad during the daytime. On occasion, he would announce to me “right, I’m off on my rounds, do you want to come?”

I would always say “yes.”

His “rounds” were visits by car to one or two outlying customers who could not always visit his shop in town. I remember Mrs. Doel in Maiden Bradley was a regular. After lunch, just Dad and I would head off through Frome to visit her in her little village a few miles to the south of Frome. I seem to recall that she might often reward me with a couple of sweets or a bar of chocolate. I would stick my plastic steering wheel with its suction cup on to the dashboard and we would set off. The highlight for me, every time, was the return journey when, on a relatively long and straight section of road, I would urge my father to “do fifty.”

This meant for my usually conservative and safe father – I suppose in those days, he would only hit forty miles per hour to save on fuel – to put his foot on the accelerator and aim for the heady speed of fifty miles per hour. With me used to my father driving at thirty through towns and villages, please believe me when I say that for a five or six-year-old boy to be driven at fifty miles an hour seemed simply exhilarating and almost supersonic. I know my father got a buzz out of it too.

These days, damn it, I drive at fifty miles an hour as a norm.

It feels mundane. It feels slow. There is no thrill.

All things are relative in this world.

In 1971, 50 mph was the most exciting feeling ever.

In 2018, 50 mph seems simply mundane.

I think that, at Chelsea, we need to get back to 1971.

On twenty-three minutes – I was keeping count – the Chelsea support at last responded with a song which was audible and sustained.

Twenty-three fucking minutes.

Every year I say it, but for 90% of our home games, the atmosphere gets worse and worse with each passing campaign. In some ways, though, modern football does not help. Decades ago when the shape and pattern, its physicality, of football was so different, the crowd were more likely to be on edge, involved, and more likely to feel that a song of support would help.

In 2018, much of our football involves watching Chelsea maintain the ball for long periods, and working out how our players can break through a packed defence. Although it is technically superior to the cut and thrust of the ‘seventies, ‘eighties and even ‘nineties, it helps to produce a different type of spectator. There are few crunching midfield tackles – a bona fide noise generator in days of old – and there are few surprise breaks, with a rise in noise at each touch. We watch players pass, pass, pass, we watch players close down space and shuffle positions, all within a thirty-yard band across the pitch. We sit on our hands and discuss tactics. We clap occasionally.

Regardless of the changing demographics in which many are turned off by some of the financial absurdities of football, the dying out of football as a working man’s game, the lack of youngsters going to football and the changing codes of behaviour in society, the patterns of modern football itself are not always conducive to the noise of old.

Anyway, suffice to say, until the twenty-third minute, the atmosphere at the Chelsea vs. Bournemouth game on the first day of September 2018 was the worst I had ever known.

On the half-hour, despite our dominance, a rapid Bournemouth break – cheered on by the away fans, see what I mean? – almost resulted in a goal against the run of play when a Rico cross was touched over by Wilson.

“Should be one down” I muttered.

At the other end, Morata and Kovacic had half-chances. In the closing moments, a fine run by Kante resulted in a cross from Hazard being met by the right foot of Alonso. His shot struck the post.

For all of our possession, it had been a little frustrating, but was my frustration a result of the morgue-like atmosphere in the stadium?

We had enjoyed tons of possession for sure, more than even we are used to, but I noted at times a lack of movement from the forwards, and even though Jorginho must have touched the ball every few seconds, I could not honestly remember him playing a killer ball. If anything, the two most incisive passes came from the defenders Rudiger and Luiz. Hazard and Willian had been involved but had – wonderful football phrase coming up – “flattered to deceive.” Alvaro Morata had not shone. And I am still not sure about us letting Kante roam. I am not convinced we will get the best out of him in a box-to-box role. But Jorginho is Maurizio Sarri’s man. He will choose him constantly I suspect.

Oh, by the way, Sarri in an ill-fitting Nike T-shirt must be the exception that proves the rule that all Italian men have an inherent sense of style that the World envies.

The second-half began with clear blue skies overhead still. It was a perfect afternoon in SW6.

After some majestic fleet-footed wizardry from Hazard in front of us, Alonso belted a strong shot from just outside the box, but former blue Begovic saved. Alonso was having a fine game, more involved offensively than Azpilicueta on the other flank. I don’t think that Marcos has been paying attention to the new system. He thinks he is still a marauding wing-back.

Incredibly, a Bournemouth corner fell at the feet of Nathan Ake but he somehow managed to push it over the bar.

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

Despite his early promise, and a few quarter-chances, it had been quite painful to watch Morata flounder in the second-half. His aerial challenges were not worthy of the name. He was replaced on the hour by the more physical Olivier Giroud. He immediately looked the business, his whole body language – “aggression” for the want of a better word – impressed. When he went up for a ball, it at least looked like he wanted to win the header.

Soon after, Pedro replaced Willian.

We noted an upturn in our fortunes. More pace. More direct. And, damn it, a little more noise too.

Mateo Kovacic was fighting hard to make his presence felt. He engineered a couple of efforts.

With twenty minutes remaining, Alonso played the ball inside to Pedro, who neatly made space to play a one-two with Giroud. The big Frenchman moved the ball back superbly into the path of Pedro, who took a further touch to edge into space past Ake. His low shot hit the corner perfectly. The roar went up and Pedro raced away to the far corner before carrying out a Crystal Palace North Stand 1976 Kung Fu kick at the corner flag.

Chelsea 1 Bournemouth 0.

Phew.

“He can certainly find the corners, Pedro. He is more of a goal threat than Willian.”

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic with just over ten minutes remaining. His big season this, I wish him well.

Another shot from Pedro. Saved.

With around five minutes to go, Alonso – involved again – slipped the ball into the path of Hazard, who easily slipped past challenges to drill the ball low past Begovic.

His little jump and fist pump, then smile with arms outspread, was a joy to watch. The players joined in with the celebration down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. I love to see everyone together.

Team Chelsea.

Antonio Rudiger joined in with the celebrations, but seemed to flick Eden’s ear, and Eden – far from playfully – struck back. Dave was able to be on hand to keep them apart. It was an odd moment. I’m sure it amounted to nothing.

We walked out into the warm evening with “Blue Is The Colour” ringing in our ears.

I liked the way that the substitutions seemed to open things up after the hour. I liked the way we kept going. I loved seeing Eden on form. Pedro was introduced just at the right time. It was, in the end, an impressive win.

So, Chelsea.

Four out of four.

Bloody hell.

On we go.

Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.

 

 

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.

Tales From Life In A Northern Town

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2018.

The new league season was upon us. The disappointment of last Sunday’s Community Shield loss was quickly swept under the carpet and all thoughts centered upon our away game at Huddersfield Town. This was a perfect start for me personally. I only missed two league games last season – both due to work – and these were the two trips to Huddersfield and Burnley. I was certainly upset to miss the Huddersfield game just before Christmas because I had never seen Chelsea play there before, either at Leeds Road or their new stadium. In fact, I had only ever visited the town en route to a couple of games at Elland Road in the late ‘eighties. As Huddersfield flirted with relegation for a while, I was pulling for them to stay up. I desperately wanted to cross another ground off, in that worryingly train spotter style of us football supporters. In the circumstances, I loved the fact that the often temperamental league fixtures computer had churned out an ideal match for us to get the ball rolling.

Saturday 11 August : Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea – 3pm.

It was bloody perfect.

We decided to stay the Saturday night too. I wondered if they might last more than two seasons. This might be my only chance to visit the town for a while. It would give me the chance to have a little poke around the former mill town. A chance to get under its skin. The other lads – Glenn, PD, Parky – hardly needed any persuading. Tickets were purchased, hotels were booked.

We set off from home at 6am. The traffic was light. We drove right through the heart of England and as we neared our destination, the road signs on the M1 were a reminder of a time when we were playing teams in a lower division.

“Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Leeds.”

It was the ‘eighties all over again.

The weather had kept fine. It was a reasonable drive. I ate up the 240 miles and we were soon knocking back the first pint of lager in “The Crown Hotel” in the town centre.

Mission accomplished.

The pub was a mix of Saturday shoppers, home fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, with only one wearing colours. We stayed two hours and it was a lovely time, apart from the fact that Tottenham, in a lurid green strip, won 2-1 at Newcastle United in the televised game.

We had obviously dissected our chances for the new season during the five-hour drive in the morning. The general consensus was that we thought it might take a while for the new manager to get his players to fully understand the high tempo and high press style of football he wanted. We were pragmatic and philosophical. If it took a few months, even a whole season, so be it. As for predictions, I thought we might struggle to finish in the top four, and hinted at a similar position to last season. Unsurprisingly, I chose Manchester City to win it again, with Liverpool a reluctant pick as runners up. Then, perm any two from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and us. My gut feeling was a repeat of last season; fifth.

We left the boozer at just after two o’clock, with a nice warm buzz from the four pints of lager. We didn’t go mad; we wanted to be able to savour the game. On the walk to the stadium, a mile or so to the north, the vibe was certainly of a typical Northern town. There was occasionally ornate stonework on some of the larger shops and civic buildings, but all in that rather dull cream hue which is typical of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Nearby, there were old mill buildings and canals. The flow of home supporters in their light blue and white shirts guided us to the stadium. I noted the reintroduction of the Umbro diamonds on their shirts; this time as a trim to the cuffs, unlike the piping which used to adorn the sleeves of our Umbro kit from 1977 to 1981. Hardly any away fans were wearing colours.

Oranges, pinks, light blues, greys, racing greens, dark blues, lime greens, whites, the light beige and cream of Huddersfield stone.

The garb of a typical away fan in the UK in 2018.

In its day the current Huddersfield Town stadium, which opened in 1994, was seen as quite a departure from the more mundane new builds. It originally had just three sides I seem to remember – the away end came at a later stage – and its arched roof trusses were quite unique. A couple of work colleagues, who had visited the stadium on a number of occasions with Swindon Town, had warned me that it was looking rather tired after almost a quarter of a century and was overdue a lick of paint. In fact, I was totally impressed with it. It looked every inch a fine stadium, not unlike the new builds at Bolton and Brighton, and it certainly pleased me. It was nestling beside a hill, festooned with trees. It was a fine sight.

Just half a mile further north is the site of the team’s former Leeds Road stadium, which was a sizeable ground in its day, with its famous Cowshed stand along one side. It was the home of the league championship in three consecutive years from 1925 to 1927, before the manager Herbert Chapman sullied his reputation by joining Arsenal.

It is also, regrettably, the sight of a very sad day in the history of Chelsea Football Club. On the first day of October in 1983, Chelsea won 3-2 at Huddersfield Town, but the day will be remembered when a young student from Stroud in Gloucestershire, Richard Aldridge, was killed during a fracas after the game when he was hit over the head with a pool cue. He was an innocent, sadly caught up in a typical moment of stupidity which was sadly all too prevalent in those days.

A lot of nonsense has been written about football hooliganism over the years, but I am afraid this incident shamefully spotlights the insanity of a large part of it.

Richard Aldridge, a Chelsea supporter and a student from the west of England, attending a game due to his love of football.

The parallels with me are just too scary for words.

RIP.

Thankfully, in 2018, everything was super-relaxed. There was a little good natured chat with some of the locals as we neared the stadium. We talked to many friends in the bar area outside the stadium, which is cut into the hillside. It was great to be back amongst it once more. There is nothing like an away game with Chelsea.

The minutes ticked by.

We had tickets in row F, just behind the goal. The attendance would be around 25,000. We had 2,500 away fans.

The minutes ticked by.

The team had been announced earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz- Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Willian

The skies were clear overhead. A fine day. Not oppressively hot. Just right.

The players entered the pitch.

2018/2019 was just minutes away.

The yellow, yellow, blue of our away kit looked simply stunning. It is a winner. I wish I could say the same for the flecked nonsense of the home kit.

Ross Barkley kicked off the new campaign.

My fear was of 0-0 draw from which no assumptions could be drawn for the season ahead, rather like the Villas-Boas opener at Stoke in 2011.

Over the course of the first quarter of an hour, I quickly spotted that the Chelsea players were very quick in releasing the ball to others. This really was high tempo. It was if the ball was a hot potato. More than two touches and there would be a scalding pain.

Touch, touch, pass. Touch, touch, pass. We were moving the ball into space with Ross Barkley and Pedro especially involved. It was interesting to see N’Golo Kante in a more attacking role. He was afforded a fair bit of space. This was a fine start.

Throughout the opening section of the game, the home fans were making a right racket. Sadly, they were aided by those bloody hideous cardboard noisemakers and there was one monotonous drum in the home half of the end that we were sharing. But there was noise, and the Huddersfield fans should be commended for that.

Willian looked lively on the left, but it was our new ‘keeper from Athletic Bilbao who was forced to make the first real save of the afternoon. He handled a long shot with ease. The home team went close again, and then we enjoyed a little spell.

The Chelsea support was trying its best to counter the noise of the home fans.

“He came from Napoli.

He said fuck off City.

Jorginho – wha – oh.

Jorginho – wha – oh – oh – oh.”

Oh well, at least it is better than the infamous Morata one.

With half-time approaching, Willian raced past his full back and played a ball into the box. Beyond the angle of the six-yard box, the ball ended up in the vicinity of N’Golo Kante. His quick reaction guided the ball goal wards, but not before looping up after hitting the turf.  To everyone’s surprise – not least N’Golo Kante – the ball nestled in at the far post.

Get in you bastard.

Shortly after, Alan and I enjoyed the first “THTCAUN / COMLD” of the new season.

Right after, in virtually the next move of the match, Huddersfield hit the post after a flick-on at a corner fooled everyone.

Just before half-time, Ross Barkley – who had looked nimble and involved – passed to Marcos Alonso with a lovely back heal. Just as the Spaniard was about to let fly, Schindler took him out with an ugly tackle.

Penalty.

The locals were far from happy.

We waited an age.

Jorginho slowly approached, sold the goalkeeper Hamer a ridiculous dummy. It was so convincing that the ‘keeper hopped in to a cab to take him to Halifax.

Jorginho simply slotted the ball into the empty net.

We were winning 2-0.

Love it.

At the break, all was positive in the packed away end. We had hardly peppered the home goal with efforts – far from it – but we were just happy to be ahead. In the first-half, I was impressed with David Luiz. Does the phrase “calm efficiency” seem right? Whatever, welcome back David.

Chelsea dominated the opening exchanges of the second period, with Willian and Alonso getting behind the right full back in front of the main stand time after time. But chances were at a premium. Morata’s movement improved and space opened up a little. A deep corner from Willian was met with a fine leap from the impressive Rudiger, but Hamer dropped to push the ball past his post. From another Willian corner, Rudiger was again involved, with his header teeing-up an overhead swipe from Alonso which skimmed the Huddersfield bar.

It seemed to be all Chelsea.

After a foul on Morata, an Alonso free-kick was smacked too centrally and too high of the target.

On sixty-eight minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ross Barkley.

The most bizarre part of the entire game took place right in front of us when our new keeper touched a header over.

“Goal kick” said the referee.

The natives grew even more restless.

A wild shot from substitute Depoitre hardly troubled Arrizabalaga, our new kid in the box.

On seventy-five minutes, Eden Hazard replaced Willian. He looked energised and “up for it” in the fifteen minutes that he was involved. A trademark run deep into the home third set up a square pass to Pedro, who clipped his shot past Hamer.

Huddersfield Town 0 Chelsea 3.

Game, set and match.

I loved the fact that Pedro went straight to Eden and hoisted him up onto his shoulders.

Victor Moses then replaced Pedro. He had been one of our stars. Always running, always smiling, I am a big fan. Another trademark run from Eden was ended with a rugged challenge, and then after yet another run deep into their final third, the ball was played out to Morata who should have at least hit the target.

No further goals followed.

So. That was easy, eh?

My pre-match worries were ill-founded. The boys done good. I especially liked Luiz, Kante and the quiet efficiency of the new boy Jorginho. I also liked the way that our new ‘keeper was actively shouting instructions at corners and free-kicks.

Thibaut who?

The players thanked us for our support, but the new manager Maurizio kept his distance, as did Gianfranco Zola.

Let’s hope we can build on this steady start to the season.

After the game, we wandered back in to town and enjoyed some relaxing drinks at four different pubs and bars, of admittedly varying standards. We ended up in a part of town which was worryingly called the Beast Market.

“Sounds like a nightclub.”

The evening ended with pizza and Peronis in a nearby Italian restaurant. We were sat next to a Huddersfield Town season ticket holder – I have a feeling that his wife was used to him talking football with strangers – and he spoke about his aspirations for the new season. He was hopeful that his team could stay up, but was just enjoying the ride to be honest. I thought it was noticeable that although he had gone to see two England games in Italia ’90, he too had struggled to get too wrapped up in this summer’s World Cup.

We asked him about Leeds United, the wicked witch of West Yorkshire, and – yes – he did regard them as a very special foe. They still dominate the support in that part of the world, and – yes – he couldn’t stand them.

Eerily, he knew the Huddersfield Town fan that had killed the youngster from Stroud way back in 1983.

We chose a few words to sum up the absurdity of it all.

Sigh.

We caught cabs back to the hotel and the night was over.

Our next game is at Stamford Bridge against Arsenal.

I will see many of you there.

Tales From A Long Hot Summer

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 August 2018.

Picture the famous opening sequence of “The Simpsons” and the scene where we see Bart in detention and writing on the chalkboard. Ahead of this match report, I am Bart Simpson and I am writing :

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

In the build-up to this game, there were the same feelings that I had experienced in recent years’ Community Shield games. In a nutshell, I was supremely underwhelmed by the prospect of having to schlep over to Wembley yet again for this seemingly regular curtain raiser. I remember getting pretty excited about my first one, way back in 1997 when – guess what? – we lost on penalties to Manchester United. And then we went to more and more and more and more. I can’t say I even enjoyed the few we have won too much.

We had set off early. Glenn’s mate from Berlin, Ulf, was with us, and as Glenn drove up the M4, I explained to him about the history of the Charity Shield and Community Shield. I told him that it hadn’t always played between the previous season’s champions and cup winners. In its early years, it was played between amateurs and professionals; what a novel concept. I had a vague recollection of Stamford Bridge holding a few of the first ones. I remember seeing photographs of us parading the FA Cup before the 1970 Charity Shield against Everton at Stamford Bridge. Images of our 1955 win are rarer. Our record is hardly one of legend :

1955 : won

1970 : lost

1997 : lost

2000 : won

2005 : won

2006 : lost

2007 : lost

2009 : won

2010 : lost

2012 : lost

2015 : lost

2017 : lost

Our thirteenth shield was one in which I felt an over-riding sense of duty to attend. I would have been riddled with guilt had I not bothered with it. At least it was just £20. But, really, it was all about seeing the chaps again and slowly, slowly getting back in to the swing of things.

On the drive up to London, we were only in the car for around thirty minutes when I became embroiled in a series of text messages regarding match tickets for future games. From that perspective, I was back into it. I love nothing more than planning away days, sorting out hotels, snapping up spare tickets and suchlike. Coming up, we have overnight stays in Huddersfield and Newcastle coming up.

It gets me out of the house, eh?

Glenn made good time. We were parked up at Barons Court at 11am. However, disruption of the Circle and District Lines messed up our plans to head up to Paddington for an abbreviated pub crawl. In the end, we took a cab from South Kensington. At least, it meant that we were able to give Ulf a little tour of West London. Our route took us right through Hyde Park. As we neared the Royal Albert Hall, I was reminded of my first ever visit to that wonderful venue back in June, just as the summer was warming up, when I saw Echo And The Bunnymen on a sultry Friday night. It was a fine gig – yet again one of my match reports includes music and football – and I even bumped into a Chelsea mate, quite unannounced, halfway through it. After the gig, I was slowly making my way back to the nearest tube when a couple of chaps who had been to the gig were chatting about where to go for a drink. I mentioned that there was a pub tucked away behind a main road, and – without really thinking – joined them as they crossed the road. I fancied one more pint for the road, but as I entered the pub, there was a moment of clarity when I realised the difference in football and music, or at least music on this particular occasion. With Chelsea, after a game, if I had bounced into a pub with two strangers we would have bought each other drinks and nothing would have been made of it. Here, there was a distinct difference. It would have felt odd joining these two strangers at the bar. I did an about turn and headed back to my hotel.

Just an example of the kinship that exists at Chelsea – and nothing else in my life is really comparable.

“Discuss.”

Our first stop was “The Sussex Arms”, much-loved by Chelsea fans from Reading, Swindon, Bristol and all-stations west who use Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent terminus as their gateway into London. A quick pint there and a chat with a few Chelsea season ticket-holders from my neck of the woods; a couple of villages in the shadow of the Mendips, Kilmersdon and Clutton. Then chat with Paul from Swindon and Paul from Reading, who spoke about his brief appearance on Arsenal Fan TV en route to Dublin.

From there, we marched up to a pre-Wembley favourite, “The Victoria” where I enjoyed the first domestic Peroni of the season. Outside, I chatted to Dan and Cliff. We had heard that we had sold virtually all of our 30,000 tickets but City had only sold around 20,000 of theirs. But it is what it is. I was sure that if the game had been held at Old Trafford, as a geographical equivalent, we would have struggled to sell 10,000. Cliff and I remembered the 2006 Community Shield at Cardiff against Liverpool when the red half was packed, and we barely had 15,000 in the stadium.

From there, a quick walk up to “Fountains Abbey” where Alan, Gary and Ed were drinking. Handshakes all round. The team were back together again. I spent a little time with my mate Jim, who I have got to know over the past few seasons, and who remains one of the wittiest people I know…on Facebook and in real life. He spoke of his growing Chelsea programme collection and of his long-suffering girlfriend Lisa.

I am not sure what the collective noun is for a group of fifty-year old blokes in polo shirts and shorts – a “stretch” maybe? – but in the heat it was the only way to go. And mighty fine we looked too.

From there, Parky, PD, Ed and I had time to pop in to the famous “Sports Bar” at Marylebone Station, where we bumped into five or six of The Usual Suspects – aka “the drinkers” – outside in the afternoon sun. I suspected that a few of them might struggle to make the match.

We caught the 2.27pm train, and I bumped into Rich who I last saw in Perth.

On the drive up to London, I promised not to mention Wembley Stadium and 1966 too much.

We were inside, high up above the south-east corner flag but thankfully out of the sun, with around five minutes to go. The timings were virtually the same as for the Cup Final in May.

Yes, it was a hot one alright. Ironically, Glenn and I had missed the height of the English summer while we were enjoying a very pleasant Antipodean Winter, but it has certainly been a very hot one this year. It was a summer, though, where I – somewhat predictably – failed to warm too much to the World Cup, for reasons that are probably well known by most. Was I thrilled by England’s progress to the semi-finals? If I am perfectly honest, “no, not really.” I generally gave the tournament a wide berth, though I did enjoy a few games. But wasn’t the Russian World Cup (and the one in Qatar) meant to be the one that a lot of people were dead against when the decision was announced in 2010?

FIFA collusion, Russian hooliganism, racism in the stands. I never ever really bought into it from the start. As for Qatar, and with it the disruption of the European leagues before and after, the horrible working conditions of many of the immigrants being used to build the stadia, and the fact of games being played in ridiculous conditions, well I am certainly boycotting that one in 2022.

Oh, and another thing FIFA. How come England are never mentioned as a host nation. Since 1966, Mexico will have held the competition three times (1970, 1986, 2026), the USA twice (1994,2026 – not bad for a country that has only really woken up to the World’s favourite sport in the past two decades) and Germany twice (1974 and 2006).

Feel guilty, FIFA?

No. I thought not.

Anyway, to sum it all up, in Sydney on the evening of Saturday 14th July 2018, while England played Belgium in the third/fourth place play-off, it was being shown in a crowded Irish pub, and both Glenn and I hardly watched more than ten seconds of it.

Club over country, or at least club over FIFA every time for me.

Down below us, I felt for the thousands of Chelsea supporters in the lower tiers, exposed to the bleaching sun. away to my left, there was a huge expanse of empty seats in the upper tier. Down below were the sky blue shirts of the City fans. The teams entered the pitch. Two flags were passed around the lower tiers.

The Chelsea team?

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We enjoyed the larger portion of the ball in the first-half, though found it difficult to get either behind Manchester City or between them. We held the ball well and picked out passes. But it was soon evident that City were happy to soak up the pressure as we struggled to find killer balls in the scorching heat.

There was no noise from anyone in the Chelsea end. Everyone was sat. There was no sense of occasion or any discernible enjoyment either. I looked over at Ulf – “I’m not really a football fan” – and wondered what on Earth he made of it all.

The track suited Sarri – with his belly stretching the Nike training top – reminds me of the Kray Twins gone pub casual, and it is quite a harrowing image. Alongside him, Guardiola looked like his son, back from a night out with the lads.

City started with Riyad Mahrez. He would have been a good addition to our team. Oh well.

After just a quarter of an hour, we gave up possession way too easily and backed off from Sergio Aguero, allowing him to pick his spot and drill a low one past Caballero.

The first “bollocks” of the season.

We still had most of the ball – pass, pass, pass – but Caballero was called into action to rob Sane when he was clean through.

On the half-hour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, clearly one of our more eager performers, curled a shot over. He followed it up soon after with another shot. All eyes were on him. We see him as a great hope for this season.

“No pressure, son.”

The torpor was evident in the stands all around me. I had reached half-time without joining in with a single song, although to be honest, I can hardly remember a song in the first place.

At the age of fifty-three, I was turning into the football fan that I had always hated.

Sitting, not standing, silent not singing.

I kept saying to myself “it’ll be different in Yorkshire next Saturday.”

And of course it will be.

It was the Willy Caballero show in the second-half as a number of agile stops, blocks and saves stopped Manchester City from adding to their tally. However, on around the hour mark, a clinical pass found that man Aguero again and he was able to steer another low shot past Caballero to make it 2-0.

The City fans roared, and we slumped further into our seats.

On the hour, on came Danny Drinkwater and Willian (who had been serenaded during his warm up with virtually the first Chelsea song of note the entire day) in place of Fabregas and Hudson-Odoi.

Tammy Abraham replaced the lacklustre Morata, but in all fairness the Spaniard had received hardly any service the entire match.

At last a rare Chelsea song, the horrible “We’ve Won It All “ dirge.

And then, the inevitable –

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

Victor Moses replaced Pedro.

At the death, Tammy went close, and then our boy Willy denied Aguero once more.

On another day, it could have been 4-0.

2018 : lost

Outside, waiting for the train at Wembley Stadium station, the sun was relentless. I can only imagine how horrific the playing conditions must have been. There had been several drink breaks during the game (as indeed there was for us before it).

Back at Marylebone, I chatted first to Neil Barnett, just back from a trip over to the US, and then Clive Walker, who still looks as fit and trim as ever.

Neil and I were both philosophical after a disjointed performance. But we knew that we have seen such riches in recent years, that it is not hard to feel that “after Munich, so what?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll still be there next week” I said.

Clive mentioned that he thought the game against Lyon would be vital to get more practice in before Huddersfield and the new league programme. But I have a feeling that the Sarri project might take a while to come to fruition.

Do we have the players to make it work? Watch this space.

See you all in West Yorkshire.

IMG_0100

 

Tales From Half A World Away

Perth Glory vs. Chelsea : 23 July 2018.

It was apt that the news regarding Antonio Conte leaving Chelsea Football Club was announced while I was driving up to London with Glenn ahead of our trip to the other side of the world to watch us play in Perth in the middle of an Australian winter. By the time I had parked my car outside our friend Russ’ house in Shepperton – Russ used to sit in front of us in The Sleepy Hollow at Stamford Bridge – the reign of Antonio Conte was over. It was hardly surprising news. The worst kept secret of the English summer was our courting of Napoli “mister” Maurizio Sarri.

On day one of my personal Chelsea season, I was having to sort out my feelings for one manager and those for another. To be brutally frank, I was underwhelmed by the whole sorry mess. I have not hidden the fact that I liked Antonio Conte a great deal. Despite his wayward moans throughout last season, I would have stuck with him. A serial winner with Juventus as player and then manager, he clearly knew football. But a title in his first season at Chelsea and a cup win in his second was deemed – fuck knows how – a sub-par performance for the people who run Chelsea Football Club.

So, there will be no more twinkling eyes of Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge. I will miss him. Yes, there were issues with certain players which he perhaps should have managed a lot better, but throughout the closing months of last season, I regarded him as a flag-waver for the Chelsea fans, making a stand against those in power at board level.

In a nutshell, who knows more about top level players, of the ever-changing styles of football, of the inner-machinations of a modern football club, and what it is like to be a footballer, and a football manager.

The ultimate “football man” Conte or the board at Chelsea Football Club?

I know my answer.

But as Glenn and I made our way through the checks at Heathrow’s Terminal Four, we knew that it would be the new man Maurizio Sarri who would be leading a squad – of sorts – out to Australia a few days after us.

With a few hours to go until the first flight which would take us to Abu Dhabi, we settled down for a bite to eat and I toasted good fortune to Antonio Conte.

A few hours later, we boarded a double-deck 380 and were soon soaring over London and we were on our way.

Australia. Bloody hell.

We had known all about our game in Western Australia for quite a while. Chelsea games in Australia are quite rare events. And although I had previously shown no real desire to visit Australia, the lure of seeing Chelsea play in Perth whetted my appetite and, with it, gave me a fine reason to eventually visit the continent on the other side of the world. For a while, it looked like I would be making the trip on my own. And then my long time Chelsea mate Glenn – first spotted my me in The Shed in 1983, everyone knows the story – decided to join me. We both relished seeing the boys in Beijing last summer. But this would be different, a wholly dissimilar adventure. This time, the football section would be surprisingly small. It would all be about Australia. A fortnight in an alien environment for both of us. Glenn loves surfing. There would be beaches. And as the flights were booked, I began to work on an itinerary, encompassing all that Australia had to offer. I wanted to create a holiday of contrasts; cities, countryside, bars, beaches, mountains, and a little football thrown in for very good measure.

As the final months of our 2017/2018 season was played out, Australia loomed heavily. I read a few books, did some research, and put a plan together. I hoped that all of the hard work would pay off.

As the days slid past, I thought long and hard about doing something a little different with this blog for the Australia trip. I seriously considered writing a “day by day” account of my time in Australia, focussing on the holiday and Chelsea in equal measure. But then I thought better of it. Not only would it be something of a burden in having to set aside an hour or so each evening and jot down my thoughts – “I am on holiday for heaven’s sake” – I also thought this might be seen as being rather self-indulgent.

“Who bloody wants to know what I had for breakfast today?”

So, I decided against it.

In the back of my mind too, were the viewing figures from last year’s jaunt to China, when the blog that I penned drew a disappointingly low number of views – much to my surprise to be brutally honest – and so, I closed that avenue of thought.

Last season was the tenth anniversary of these match reports. The first five years were on the much-missed Chelsea In America website, the last five on this site as an entity in itself. I did momentarily think about stopping. Ten years is a long time. But I enjoy writing these. They have become part of my Chelsea match day experience. So, on we go. Here’s to the next ten years.

For those interested, as I have marked ten years of these match reports ( now standing at over five hundred reports, and well over one million words, phew), here is a list of the ten matches with highest views in that period.

  1. 1,804 : Galatasaray vs. Chelsea – 2013/2014
  2. 1,660 : Liverpool vs. Chelsea – 2013/2014
  3. 945 : Chelsea vs. Tottenham – League Cup Final 2014/15
  4. 876 : Chelsea vs. Tottenham – 2015/2016
  5. 800 : Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea – 2016/2017
  6. 648 : Tottenham vs. Chelsea – 2017/2018
  7. 512 : Chelsea vs. Genk – 2011/2012
  8. 490 : Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2014/2015
  9. 406 : Chelsea vs. Manchester City – 2016/2017
  10. 398 : Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2015/2016

Rather than detail too much of what happened in the week before and four days after our game in Perth I have decided to go with the adage that a photograph is worth a thousand words. I include a scrapbook of photographs from the trip at the end of this blog.

But there is one story which certainly needs to be told.

My mother’s father, who was born in 1895 in the same Somerset village where I sit typing, had a number of brothers and sisters. I never recollect meeting any of the sisters. I remember meeting Uncle Chris many times. He lived in nearby Trowbridge and would often drive over to our village on his motorbike. He always had a story to tell, and a glint in his eye. He really was a rascal of a character, most unlike my staid and upright grandfather. I remember meeting Uncle Willie – at his house in Southall, he was a former train driver on the GWR – just once. And I never met Uncle Jack, who was once the village baker, who emigrated to Australia with his with Rene in the ‘sixties. Uncle Jack passed away in the early ‘seventies, but I remember Aunt Rene visiting us in 1980 along with her only child Audrey and her husband Brian. Audrey would often send us letters updating us on life in Australia, and often included photographs of their children Paul and Linda. Aunt Audrey and Uncle Brian visited again in 1990 at around the time of the Italia ’90 World Cup.

The next year – 1991 – saw my dear parents embark on a round-the-world trip encompassing Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, the US and Canada. Memorably, they stayed with Audrey and Brian at their bungalow on The Gold Coast – just south of Brisbane – for a few weeks. At the time, my father had just bought a hefty camcorder, and took it on this most monumental of trips. I have watched clips from that holiday on many occasions – of Mum and Dad in Australia specifically – and the words uttered by my father and Brian, when he took a turn with camera operations, have remained resolutely in my memory.

Visits to Brisbane, to Beaudesert, to Tambourine Mountain, to Coolangatta.

Audrey and Brian visited again in the autumn of 1994. As luck would have it, it tied in with a Chelsea match. One evening after work, I drove down to Bournemouth with my mother, and visited Brian’s brother Peter, with whom they were staying. The ladies stayed at home, while Brian, Peter and I shot off to nearby Dean Court to watch Bournemouth play Chelsea in the second leg of a League Cup tie. Chelsea won 1-0 and the three of us watched on the terraces of the home end. It wasn’t much of a game to be honest, but it felt lovely to have Brian alongside me.

Sadly we were to hear that Audrey – Mum’s cousin – passed away in 2003. I remember taking the phone-call from Brian in the room where I am typing this. That was a horrible shock. I always thought that my mother and Audrey were quite similar. I felt that if they had not all emigrated to Australia en masse, my mother and Audrey would have been the best of friends. They were both only an child. My presumption was that they would have been like sisters.

The years passed, and correspondence from Australia passed me by.

About a year ago, with the trip to Perth in my mind, I tried to search for Paul and Linda on Facebook to no avail. I wondered if I would ever be able to contact them. Their family home was in Ipswich, close to Brisbane, but I almost gave up. Then, at the start of the year, I miraculously uncovered a photograph of Paul’s children Christopher, Daniel and Adam, alongside a couple of girlfriends. I took a leap of faith and entered one of the girlfriends’ names (which was quite rare) alongside Paul’s family name (on the premise that there might have been a marriage) on a Facebook search and – much to my surprise and amazement – I was able to locate the whole family.

I was suitably thrilled when I sent messages to Paul and Linda, and they both replied.

I was especially pleased – no, that doesn’t do it justice – to hear that Uncle Brian was still alive at the grand old age of eighty-five.

Suddenly, the trip to Australia took on a whole different meaning.

I corresponded with Paul and learned the detail of the photograph.

Apparently, Paul – along with his wife Margret and Uncle Brian – had called in to see my mother in 2008. I had no recollection of this. My mother was already suffering slightly with dementia, but I am sure she would have remembered the visit. I racked my brain to remember if my mother had said anything. The photograph, evidently, was from that visit.

And then Paul shared some lovely news. Paul was born in England – in Bournemouth, in 1958 – and had never really supported a football team of any description. But Paul was so bowled over by my fanaticism for Chelsea Football Club, as explained to him by my mother on that visit in 2008, that he decided to adopt Chelsea as his team.

When I heard this, I just exploded with joy.

Paul also explained that his son Christopher was a Chelsea fan too.

Bloody perfect.

In May, a flag from the FA Cup Final and a Cup Final T-Shirt were sent out to Australia for Christopher’s young daughter Bobbi.

So, although three days in Sydney and three days of travelling through the Blue Mountains to The Gold Coast were quite magical, my focus all along was meeting up with my distant relatives. Unfortunately, Paul’s sister Linda and her husband Scott were not able to make it, but it was just wonderful to meet Paul and Margret for the first time, and – of course – to see Uncle Brian once more, for the first time in twenty-four years.

Paul had warned me that his father’s memory was not great, and I wondered if his apartment in Southport was sheltered accommodation.

Not a bit of it.

Not only does Brian have his own apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but he takes care of himself, does his own cooking, does a little oil painting in his studio, drives a car – and even has a girlfriend.

“Bloody hell, Brian, you have a better lifestyle than me.”

We smiled and laughed.

That evening, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at a nearby restaurant, and shared some great stories, with Paul and myself taking it in turns to fill in some gaps. Because I have seen photographs of Paul throughout his life, it felt like I had known him for years. I have rarely enjoyed four hours more than those four hours in the company of my relatives from Australia.

I promised to send them some more Chelsea goodies once I returned to England. I fear that there might be a battle for Bobbi though. Although Paul sent me a photo of her in full Chelsea kit, I have since seen her dressed head to toe in both a West Ham (please God, no) and a Bournemouth kit. The Bournemouth I can understand. Brian told us at the restaurant that his father would cycle from his house to watch Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic games in his youth, and Brian often used to watch The Cherries play too. So, there is some history there.

Meeting Brian, Margret and Paul was the highlight of the trip for me.

But it was now time to start thinking about football.

On the Sunday, we caught a Virgin Australia flight from Sydney to Perth and landed at around 5pm. We quickly caught a bus in to town, but we were dismayed to see that it had been raining in Perth. Until then, the weather had been dry and favourable. We quickly checked-in to our central hotel, and were quickly met in the foyer by Steve, who had flown in from his home in Vietnam on the Saturday, and who I had last bumped into in Liverpool a couple of seasons ago. All three of us caught a cab to the Crown Towers, where the team were staying, to take part in a Chelsea “Question & Answer” evening. We met up with Ray from Watford, who cunningly managed to drop in to Perth for the game after some business meetings in Singapore. Cathy and Rich from England were there. Plus a few Australian friends who I had befriended over the previous few months and who had greatly assisted my planning.

You know who you are. Thank you!

Unlike in Beijing the previous year, when the five of us from the UK were not allowed to take part in the local supporters’ evening at the team hotel, this was a far more welcoming event. Around three hundred Chelsea fans were given lanyards, flags and retro silk-scarves (Bobbi is getting one, obviously) and there was a nice feel to the evening.

Cesc Fabregas and Tammy Abraham were first up and they spoke well about Chelsea and their hopes for the new season. Then, Mark Schwarzer and Bruce Buck answered a few questions. I am not still unsure about Bruce Buck. It is as if he is trying too hard at times. There was a raffle, and prizes were given out. The club then presented pennants to the five Australian supporter groups.

Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

The biggest cheer was for the Melbourne contingent.

“They’re the drinkers” I thought.

Bruce Buck had asked for the raffle to be made by the youngest child present and, after the last of the tickets had been chosen, the lad was given a round of applause. Bruce Buck then said that he would personally arrange for the youngster to be sent a signed Eden Hazard shirt.

“…mmm, it’ll be a Real Madrid one” I whispered to Ray.

A few of us then retired to the nearby casino – a horrible and gaudy cave of a building – for further liquid refreshments. But it wasn’t a late night.

On the day of the game, Glenn and I surfaced at around 10am and had a nearby McBreakfast before going on a little tour of the immediate area of the quayside. We bumped into Jayne and Jim, from Spain, who I last saw in Ann Arbour two summers ago. They had just spent a few fine days on the Great Barrier Reef. Given an extra week in Australia, I would have spent a few days split between there and Ayers Rock.

We joined up with the other Chelsea supporters at “The Globe” pub – spacious and airy, just right – and stayed there from around midday to about 6.30pm. It was a fine time. The beers flowed and chit-chat followed along behind. I spoke to a few Chelsea supporters based in Australia. Pride of place must surely go to Bill, who saw all of our home games in our first championship season of 1954/1955. Only around twelve Chelsea fans from the UK made it over to this one. I spotted Paul and Scott in the boozer too. It was great to see familiar faces so far from home. Glenn reported that a chap had spotted him as one of The Chuckle Brothers from my recent match reports and I think that made his whole holiday.

Bless.

More beers, more laughs.

I don’t honestly know where the time went.

We caught a free bus to the stadium, which sits on a spur of land on the Swan River. The previous evening, there had been an open practice at the WACA – the famous old cricket stadium – but everyone got drenched. I wasn’t sorry that I had missed that. Future test matches will now be played at the Optus Stadium, but the WACA is to remain for other cricket games. Night had now fallen of course, and we walked over a pedestrianised bridge towards the illuminated stadium.

The stadium looked half-decent. Bronze and golden panels made up most of the outside shell, with clear panels at the top. We arrived with not too long to wait, taking our positions just under the overhang of the tier above. Our tickets – in the lowest level – were $39 or just £25. The stadium took a few minutes to fill up. Being a multiuse stadium – cricket, Aussie Rules Football – the pitch sits in a large grass area, not dissimilar to West Ham’s much-maligned stadium. This would be the first ever football game hold at the stadium. Perth Glory play their games over the Swan River at the much smaller stadium. There are three tiers on three curves of the oval, but five tiers – including three tiers of boxes – on one side. The seats are all neutral grey, similar to St. James’Park.

We were treated to a darkening of the stadium lights, and then fireworks and strobe lights. All very modern. We have similar stuff at The Bridge these days. And then it got a little weirder. Phone torch lights were turned on and the stadium resembled a very starry night. I half expected Sir Patrick Moore to stumble out onto the pitch.

Although we were the away team, we were allowed our home colours. It clearly was all about us on this occasion. The Chelsea badge and colours dominated scoreboards and touchline displays.

The teams entered from the right hand side.

Suddenly, the football was minutes away.

The new manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen the best eleven from the depleted squad. A surprise was the goalkeeper. I had not heard of him.

The much vaunted 4-3-3 lined up.

Bulka

Zappacosta – Luiz – Ampadu – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

The Perth Glory team contained names which seemed to characterise Australia’s immigrant population, almost to the point of caricature.

Steadfastly English names – maybe from Manchester and Salford – such as (LS?) Lowry, (Phil? Gary? Neville?) Neville and (Anthony H.?) Wilson.

Croatian names Djulbic and Franjic.

Bog standard Irish names Kilkenny and Keogh.

And the Italians Chianese and – as if it wasn’t bloody obvious – Italiano.

Perth Glory in a muted grey away kit.

Chelsea in blue / blue / white.

The shirt for this season looks great from afar. From about three miles. Up close, it is horrific.

Chelsea worked the ball out to Callum Hudson-Odoi on the Chelsea left and he created a half a yard of space in order to turn the ball in to a packed penalty area. But the youngster had adeptly spotted Pedro, and the Spaniard met the cross with a volleyed prod at goal. The pace of the ball beat the Perth ‘keeper and we were 1-0 up.

It was certainly enjoyable to see David Luiz back in the team – a Doug Rougvie style tackle on a home player brought howls from the Perth fans – and he was soon spraying the ball about with ease. Ross Barkley kept the ball well and looked fit and healthy. There was the usual endeavour from Davide Zappacosta and Marcos Alonso. Pedro was constant motion. Jorginho had tons of possession. But the star of the first-half was probably the youngster Hudson-Odoi. The rain returned to Perth midway in to the first-half, but I was watching in my shirt sleeves, sheltered from the rain, and enjoying the view from virtually the back row of the lower tier. The singing section – Melbourne in the main – to my right were getting soaked.

Both Cathy and I did a couple of “Zigger-Zaggers” in an attempt to get some noise generated. The noise wasn’t great to be honest. Many fans in our section showed no willingness to get involved, despite a little banter from Glenn, Ray, Steve and little old me.

Perth Glory looked a poor team to me.

The first-half was a breeze for Chelsea. The only negative was the performance of Alvaro Morata, whose play was generally sloppy.

At the break, there were changes.

Emerson Palmieri replaced Marcos Alonso. Timeoue Bakayoko took over from the new boy Jorginho. Mario Pasaloc replaced Hudson-Odoi.

Soon into the second-half, close control and a nimble turn from Barkley resulted in him scuffing a shot against a post. Fabregas – the captain for the day – hit a long shot and saw the ball hit the same post as Barkley. Perth only rarely threatened our goal.

Further substitutions followed.

Ola Aina for Zappacosta.

Tomas Kalas for Ampadu.

Tammy Abraham for Morata.

Lucas Piazon for Pedro.

Charley Musonda for Barkley.

Towards the end of the game, with the Chelsea end rarely able to put together a coherent series of songs or chants, we were treated to a further indignity.

A wave.

A bloody wave.

Around and around it went.

It will surprise nobody to hear that none of what I would call the Chelsea “hardcore” joined in.

The game ended. We were more than worthy winners. Perth were simply not at the races. But it is all about getting games in at this early part of the season. Apparently Sarri had planned six training sessions in the three days that he had available in Perth. Our fitness looked fine. But it was, let us not forget, just a glorified training session.

We made our way back to the casino for the second night in a row, and some of the group fell out with some of the heavy-handed security staff. At about midnight, or maybe a bit later, we called it a day. A cab back to the centre and the first win of the season – on what was my 1,200th Chelsea game – in our back pocket.

I was just happy with the win. It would certainly have been a bastard long way to go to see us lose.

After Perth, there were a further four days of wonderful sights and sounds of Western Australia. In total, we ended up driving 2,400 miles as we took two fairly sizeable chunks out of both sides of the continent. The football counted for a small portion of this particular holiday.

So, thanks Chelsea Football Club for getting me to Australia at long last.

Did I enjoy it?

Strewth. Too bloody right I did.

It was ripper. It was bonzer.

It was fair dinkum, mate.