About Chris Axon

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

Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From The Likely Lads And Lasses

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 13 May 2018.

On the evening of Sunday 13 May, at various moments and locations – exiting St. James’ Park, at a pub in the city centre, in a cab back to the airport, on the plane back to Bristol – one phrase kept reoccurring, time and time again, spoken by ourselves and many others :

“Fantastic weekend, apart from the football.”

And it’s a bloody good job that these match reports, ten years old now, are never ever just about the football.

We went in to the match with Newcastle United with an outside chance – a 10 per cent shot at the very most – of playing Champions League football next season, but only if Liverpool lost and we won, but we came out of it as demoralised as I can remember for some time. It was truly abject .

But, it never is just about Chelsea Football Club.

And rather than obsess about a very poor performance, I’m using this last league report of the season as an homage to a great weekend away with great mates in a fine city, and as a tribute to the lads – and lasses – who share my weekends, and weekdays, with the love of our lives.

For once the league computer had dealt us a tidy hand. With our last league game of the season announced as an away game against Newcastle United, a date that we knew would not change, I just sat and waited for EasyJet to announce its summer 2018 flight schedule. Way back in late September, I pounced.

Saturday 12 May : Bristol – 8.35am, Newcastle 9.20am.

Sunday 13 May : Newcastle 9.45pm, Bristol 10.30pm.

Tickets were just £55.

The four Chuckle Brothers would be on our way to Geordieland.

I was up at 4am, and quickly packed ahead of collecting PD and Glenn at 5.30am and then Parky at 6am. I guided my car in and around Bristol in the early morning hush, and was parked-up bang on time at 7am. At the bar were fifteen Chelsea faces from Trowbridge, Melksham and Swindon. A few others from further afield – Wincanton, Teignmouth – were spotted too. In total, around twenty-five Chelsea were en route north. It was no surprise that so many were there. Who can resist a trip to The Toon? As we waited to board, Paul from Swindon spotted a fellow-passenger who had won the FA Cup in two consecutive years as a manager? Who was it? Have a guess.

The flight to Newcastle only took forty-five minutes, and we were full of laughter. I was feeling merry and I had only had a coffee at the airport.

We took the metro in to town, through some familiar stops, and then walked down the steps past The Bridge Hotel pub to the Quayside.

It was fantastic to be back.

As I have so often said, Newcastle United plays an important part in my Chelsea story. My first game was at Stamford Bridge against them in 1974, and my first away trip of note – aside away games against the two Bristol teams from 1975 to 1981 – was the equally famous and infamous trip to St. James’ Park in 1984. This would be my tenth visit to Newcastle with Chelsea; many have visited more times than me, but for many years the twin constraints of money and distance were against me.

My first memory of Newcastle, the town – or toon – was as a child of around seven years of age watching “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes. Strangely enough, I have found myself watching a fair few repeats of late, and it brings back some rich memories of my childhood, the opening sequence especially, featuring old terraced streets and hideous new tower blocks as metaphors for contrast and change. Even then, I was critically aware of cities around the UK, the local accent, the local flavour, the sense of place, their history.

I can remember watching the very first episode in 1973 – it was a reprise of “The Likely Lads” from the ‘sixties – when the two pals meet again by chance in a darkened train carriage. They had both left Newcastle to join the army, but Bewes had wriggled out of it, leaving Bolam jettisoned and alone. Once Bolam realised who he was sharing a compartment, there was a strong reaction :

“You bastard.”

And this was met with stern words from my parents, and I often watched further episodes secretly since some TV shows were deemed too “colourful” for one so young.

Now, I find it odd that James Bolam was the only real Geordie featured; everyone else exhibited a generic “northern accent” although Bewes and Brigit Forsyth made good stabs at the Geordie lilt.

The series theme tune still haunts :

“Whatever happened to you? Whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be?”

The most famous episode involves the two of them trying to avoid the result of an England game so they can watch the highlights later in the evening. Two years later in 1975, Bolam starred in “When The Boat Comes In” – a grim post World War One tale of social unrest, unions, class, and poverty set on Tyneside – and again the sense of place dominated my thoughts.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Gritty. Working class. Northern. Football mad.

A proper Loony Toon.

Saturday was just fantastic. We darted in and out of several bars from lunchtime to night time.

“The Redbarn.”

“The Pitcher And Piano.”

“The Slug And Lettuce.”

“Akenside Traders.”

“The Crown Posada”

“Livello.”

The Somerset and Wiltshire contingent were reunited again at the “Pitcher And Piano”, which sits right on the Quayside, next to the Millennium footbridge, and opposite the Baltic Art Gallery, with our apartment just beyond. Our good friend Kev and then our equally good friend Deano joined us, and a superb afternoon evening of beers, laughter, and chit-chat ensued, with us bumping into the Kent lot yet again. The day was panning out just as we had hoped. We bumped into Donna, Rachel and Rob – only on “nodding terms” for me until now – and they followed us from bar to bar.

Chelsea here, Chelsea there.

There were a few attractions along the way.

“Where have those two girls from Middlesbrough gone?”

The drinking continued.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

We kept to The Quayside. It is such an evocative location, the deep gorge running through the heart of the city, and with bridges every hundred yards or so. It is one of my favourite places in all of the United Kingdom. We were last there together for the last away game of 2015/2016 when we played down the coast at Sunderland.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

In “The Akenside Traders” there were stag parties singing, hen parties dancing, girls with shot trays weaving in and out of us all, tons of boisterous laughter, and the place was packed.

It was only 6pm.

“Bloody hell, what is it going to be like at midnight?”

In “Vivello” a DJ played some fantastic music.

“Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

1984 again.

There was some Chelsea chat among the beers – “where has it all gone wrong?” – but that didn’t stop us all having a blast.

“Don’t think I’ve seen so many Lacoste polo shirts.”

Glenn entertained us all with an impromptu dance routine in which he utilised some props; namely the contents of a nearby umbrella stand.

One minute, Gene Kelly.

One minute, Mary Poppins.

You had to be there.

No – really – you had to be there.

In “The Crown Posada” we chatted to some local Newcastle United lads and they were warm and friendly. This was my favourite bar of the lot; a long and narrow Victorian boozer but with a high ceiling. There were stained-glass windows and evocative black and white prints of the city covering the walls. It oozed character. It was fantastic.

“Canny, but.”

Beer. Football. Mates. Laughs.

It had been a bloody perfect night out in The Toon.

On the Sunday, we checked out of our apartment, but not before realising that the away tier of St. James’ Park could be spotted, just past the Earl Grey Monument, at the top of the town. Everything is so immediate in Newcastle. There was just time for a photo of Deano, PD, Glenn and Parky on the apartment balcony, where a pigeon was quietly nesting.

Parky : “That thing was bloody pissed-off this morning, mind.”

PD : “Why?”

Parky : “I had its eggs for breakfast.”

We strolled down to another pub – “The Quayside” – and this was another fine building; no doubt an old warehouse in days of yore, it probably remained derelict for decades, but was now restored, with more high ceilings, exposed beams, red bricks, and endless coffee refills. Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed and Rich joined up with us, and we relaxed in the sun. It was another fine time.

Deano is originally from Yorkshire and he chatted to a friend from Huddersfield, who looked awfully familiar.

“Aren’t you?” we both said…

I had met Mick at Manchester airport en route to Istanbul with Chelsea in 2014. There were a gaggle of Yorkshire Chelsea fans outside in the sun. We seem to have a fair few from Yorkshire. It is always odd, to me, to hear Chelsea fans with Yorkshire accents. Deano, on Saturday afternoon, had stayed in our apartment for a while to watch the Castleford vs. St. Helens rugby league game.

“Castleford are the reason that I support Chelsea, Chris…in 1970, my father told me that I couldn’t support Leeds.”

The 1970 FA Cup Final has a lot to answer for. I have heard of Chelsea fans from Yorkshire supporting us in 1970 because of football reasons – “anyone but Leeds” – but this was the first time that the hatred of Leeds’ rugby league team being used as a catalyst for support.

(The FA Cup answer was Keith Burkinshaw, Tottenham manager in 1981 and 1982)

We caught a cab up to the stadium, past those solid, grey buildings of Grey Street. There were memories of Glenn and I being walked along these same streets in 1984, when the welcome was decidedly colder than in 2018.

We were deposited outside The Gallowgate, and we walked past the familiar sights of St. James’ Park. Immediately outside are many new apartment buildings. The town is certainly thriving now. Everywhere we looked were the famous black and white jerseys. We took a lift up to the top of the world, or rather, the away section at St. James’ Park.

One steward made me giggle.

“Aye, everyone says, like, they have a great time here, and we are friendly, but if youse want it, ye can find it.”

It was the Geordie version of the Wealdstone Raider.

“If you want it. I’ll give it yer.”

So, the last league game of 2017/2018.

It would be my thirty-sixth league game out of thirty-eight. I sadly missed games at Huddersfield Town and Burnley due to work. It would be my fifty-fifth Chelsea game of the season.

St. James Park looked as huge as ever. It was a stunning day, and I could see for miles.

Some wind turbines away in the distance. Some yellow cranes at Tynemouth. And closer to home, the green of the Tyne Bridge, the Earl Grey monument, the Baltic Art Gallery, and a pigeon nesting on the balcony of 182 Baltic Quays,

The team contained one or two surprises.

Thibaut Courtois

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – Gary Cahill

Victor Moses – N’Golo Kante – Ross Barkley – Tiemoue Bakayoko – Emerson Palmieri

Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

There was no “Blitzkrieg Bop” this season, but before the teams entered the pitch, we were treated to the classic “Blaydon Races”, a song that my father taught me ahead of my first game in 1974, or was it for the Liverpool vs. Newcastle United FA Cup Final a couple of months later?

“Ah – me lads. Ya should have seen us gannin’.

Passing the folks along the road, just as they were stannin’.

All the lads and lasses there. All the smilin’ faces.

Gannen’ alang the Scotswood Road.

To see the Blaydon Races.”

Then, “Local Hero” by Dire Straits. I have to be honest, it took me twenty minutes to realise that we were wearing the new kit. What a monstrosity it is. I like the idea of basing it on the iconic 1983/84 kit, but the shirt is just awful.

The game?

If it wasn’t for Thibaut Courtois, we would have been three-nil down at half-time, at least. We were shocking. The home team swarmed around our players every time that we had the ball, and we looked tired and listless. The manager – I am always worried when he wears a tracksuit and not a suit – began by encouraging the players, but soon gave up once the first goal went in. Shelvey and Diame – robbing Kante in the build-up – forced superb saves from Courtois in the first fifteen minutes.

On twenty-three minutes, Courtois did ever so well to claw out a Murphy lob from a Ritchie cross, but Gayle tapped in.

The home support boomed and we sat in shocked silence.

The pattern continued.

I remember one instance of Eden Hazard breaking in the inside-left channel with no less than five Newcastle United players running after him. The home team were full of energy and passion. And this was a team who, I am lead to believe, had been in holiday mode since their safety was assured a while back. The first-half continued on and I do not remember a single attempt on the Newcastle goal. Ross Barkley showed a neatness at times, but then quickly faded.

Our support started off in good voice, but one chant annoyed the fuck out of me.

If fans really “don’t care about Rafa”, I would fucking suggest that they don’t continue to sing songs about him five years since he left Chelsea.

Move on, boys and girls, lads and lasses.

Shelvey – their playmaker – went close again, and further chances flew past our goal frame.

At half-time, there were obvious moans everywhere I looked. I have never seen Alan look so quiet and disconsolate.

We seemed to improve slightly after the break, but Emerson annoyed me with his unwillingness to burst past his defender and get into some space behind. We are so high at St. James’ Park, so maybe we see space where there isn’t any, but we hardly attacked out wide all afternoon, or at least in a way that got the defenders back-peddling and worried. A Barkley cross from our right was whipped in, and the otherwise subdued Giroud did well to manufacture a deft touch. The Newcastle ‘keeper Dubravka – who? – tipped it over. We sensed that we were back in the game. I remembered our far from impressive record at Newcastle United over the past few years, but there was a great comeback to draw 2-2 on my last visit in 2015.

We were heartbroken when a poor Bakayoko clearance only reached as far as Shelvey. His long-range drive was touched home by Perez.

Fuck.

Some Chelsea left.

“Thanks for your support.”

Just after, a rare Chelsea attack, and the ball was worked in to Barkley who seemed destined to score and put us back in to the game. He seemed to hesitate slightly and the shot was blocked.

And just after that, a Shelvey free-kick was volleyed back by Lejeuene – who? – and Perez touched home again.

Newcastle United 3 Chelsea 0.

Goodnight Vienna.

More Chelsea “supporters” left.

We only attacked sporadically, and despite using three substitutes, we never ever looked like scoring. A shot from Pedro is still rising over the Town Moor. Our performance left us all confused and jaded. It was as dire a performance as I could ever remember. Courtois was the only one who had played OK. And there is an FA Cup Final next.

Our lack of desire and intensity beggared belief.

In the last few minutes, my pal Jason from Dallas appeared behind me, and shared our pain. He then joined us as we slowly marched around the stadium. We drifted past the listed buildings of Leazes Terrace; these were able to be spotted in the ‘fifties when that side of the stadium was an open terrace. It is the reason why the stadium has such a lop-sided appearance as that stand is unable to be raised any higher. We joked with a couple of locals, but they weren’t happy as Rafa Benitez might well be off before the next season begins. Football fans are never happy, eh?

We ended up down on The Quayside once again. There was time for a bite to eat, and a few last drinks, and a last look at the arse-end of many a stag and hen party.

This was Jason’s fourth Chelsea game in England and he had flown in from Gothenburg in Sweden on the day of the game. We last saw him at an away game at Anfield in 2016. It was great to see him once more, and we chatted feverishly about the worrying tendency of the North American colonisation of Europe via regular season NBA, NFL, NHL and now MLB games.

I abhor these.

They are a version of the hated “Game39” and I will boycott them all, even if it means avoiding the New York Yankees in London next summer.

We caught a cab up to the airport, and caught the 9.40pm flight back to Bristol.

The 2017/2018 season was over, and we had finished fifth.

It seemed about right.

Our next game – the grand finale – is at Wembley when we meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.

…just writing those words, just writing those words.

I hope to see many of you there.

Tales From An End Of Season Lapse

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 9 May 2018.

Memories Of Dick Kryzwicki.

Huddersfield Town, the terriers, have been rare visitors to Stamford Bridge over the past few decades. Their last top flight season was way back in 1971/72, just as I was starting to get interested in football beyond the three words “Chelsea Football Club.” During that season, I can well remember pouring over the Football League tables in my grandfather’s huge Sunday Express newspaper, and noticing that Huddersfield Town were rock bottom of the table for what seemed like the whole season.

“They must be rubbish” I must’ve thought.

At that time, I used to be transfixed by the sound of some of those distant football clubs, and I used to go into a dreamlike state as I read out ones such as “Crewe Alexandra” and “Preston North End”. In those days, the editor of the sports sections used to print the entire name of each club, rather than the simpler abbreviated versions of today. Looking back, I seem to remember being struck with how similar some of the names were.

Bury and Burnley.

Southport and Stockport County.

And I was particularly taken by all of the towns, predominantly from the north, who I had previously not heard of, yet were now part-and-parcel of my Sunday routine.

Workington, Halifax Town, Barrow, Rochdale, Hartlepool, Oldham Athletic.

I recall nothing, in all honesty, about that Huddersfield Town team from the early ‘seventies. I always remember, though, the Huddersfield Town player Dick Kryzwicki featuring in the football cards of that era, and he sounded like the most exotic player ever. How different today, eh? Today’s Huddersfield Town squad alone contains surnames such as Kongolo, Kachunga, Sabiri, van La Parra, Zanka, Stankovic and Haderdjonaj.

We have come a long way since Dick Kryzwicki.

Huddersfield Town drifted around the lower reaches for a while, and our paths crossed during a fleeting moment during the 1983/84 season. That was the last time that Chelsea played them in the league before the game in Yorkshire this season. I have seen Huddersfield Town play at Stamford Bridge before, though, for a League Cup game in 1999/2000 and then two FA Cup games in 2005/06 and 2007/08.

As I missed the away game before Christmas due to work, I was hoping that they would stay up for another season, so that I could at least tick off another away ground with Chelsea.

1922 And All That.

For this, the last home game of the season, we travelled up to Chelsea in two cars. PD and Parky had left early along with one of PD’s neighbours, while I drove up with Glenn and my work colleague Paul, a Chelsea fan from Reading, now residing in Swindon. At Heston Services on the M4, we bumped into a coachload of away fans, a mixture of blue and white striped replica kits and the usual gaggle of Stone Island, MA Strum and Adidas wearing Herberts. I wanted to blurt out “hope you stay up” but I couldn’t be arsed to then have a tedious conversation about “well, apart from tonight, ha, ha, football eh, ha, ha.”

I wondered if any of these Huddersfield Town supporters had relatives who had witnessed their team’s FA Cup win in the 1922 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge, the last before Wembley. Kryzwickipedia tells me that Herbert Chapman was their manager, just before he led them to consecutive league wins in 1923/24 and 1924/25. Huddersfield Town also won the league in 1925/26, by which time Chapman had left for Arsenal, who he then led to huge successes in the ‘thirties.

So, three league wins on the trot for Huddersfield Town.

I still shiver when I remember how some Chelsea knobheads had taunted the home fans at the Arena Stadium before Christmas with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

Pie, Mash And Liquor.

After parking up near Queens Club, the three of us made a bee-line for the little food stand near the Oswald Stoll Buildings to try some of their pie and mash for the first time. I had heard good reviews. We weren’t disappointed. A crusty pastry beef pie, a dollop of mash that Richard Dreyfuss could have gone to town on, and some green parsley liquor certainly hit the spot. It was my first pre-game pie and mash at Chelsea since one on the Wandsworth Bridge Road in around 1995. I remember the one on the North End Road, now long since-closed.

Typical Chelsea.

We back-tracked a little, and dived into “Simmons Bar” on the North End Road, which was jam-packed full of the usual suspects. There was a little talk of the away trip to Newcastle at the weekend, and then the grand finale at Wembley soon after. We spotted a few away fans around and about, enjoying their first top-flight league visit in almost fifty years. God, I feel old. We spoke about the evening’s game a little. I had mentioned to a few people at work, semi-seriously, that it would be typical Chelsea – not “proper Chels”, God how I hate that phrase – to beat Liverpool and then drop points against Huddersfield. For those of a nervous disposition, please do not read further.

Wednesday Night In London Town.

It was obvious straight away that the attendance at Stamford Bridge was going to be way off a full house. I had seen cries of help on Facebook to try to shift many tickets, and as I looked around, there were blue seats everywhere. There was a gap of around five-hundred seats that the away team had not shifted for starters. There were swathes of empty seats in the top corners of both side stands. The gate – tickets sold – would be later given as 38,910, but I am confident that as few as 35,000 were inside, probably even less.

Changes.

The change of shape to a 3-4-3 was no surprise, though the omission of Eden Hazard – and maybe a couple of others – was. In came Willy Caballero, though at the time we did not know of an injury to Thibaut Courtois. In came Andreas Christensen for Gary Cahill, and perhaps Antonio Conte was undecided about his final three for the FA Cup Final, and so “game time” was important for the youngster who has recently been rested. Elsewhere, Willian and Pedro flanked Alvaro. Davide Zappacosta replaced Victor Moses. I have to be honest, the shape and the personnel did not overly worry me before a ball was kicked.

Roy And Ray RIP.

Banners for Roy Bentley and Ray Wilkins were paraded again before the kick-off, one at each end, as on Sunday. The one in The Shed was held taught, as if the rather shoddy display on Sunday needed a redux. All things considered, and I certainly do not mean to be mean-spirited, that should be the end of the banners being paraded at games now, though I like the idea of a permanent statue of Roy Bentley at Stamford Bridge. That would be just champion.

One Way Traffic.

Such was our dominance in the opening quarter of an hour, the away team – playing in a QPR style Dennis The Menace shirt – only managed to hoof the ball into our half on two occasions. Both timers, there was a faintly embarrassing purr of excitement from the 2,500 away fans, as I often witness when lowly opponents pump the ball into our half in FA Cup games.

“Smelling salts, please nurse, we have an attack.”

Alonso and Willian were the first to threaten the Huddersfield goal, and we totally dominated. In that first period though, unlike the noise generated on Sunday, all was meekly quiet at Stamford Bridge, save for a pretty constant “Huddersfield, Huddersfield” from the Yorkshire hordes in the corner. Rudiger volleyed wide. More chances followed. Eventually, but only after what seemed like an age, Huddersfield had other occasion forays into enemy territory. But their main adjective was to defend in numbers, since a solitary point would guarantee their survival. At Wembley, Tottenham kicked-off against Newcastle United.

A Chelsea win and a Tottenham defeat would be the stuff of legend on this night in London town.

That Man N’Golo.

All eyes were on N’Golo Kante as he ran and ran at the back-peddling ‘Uddersfield defenders, and for the second-home game on the trot, I was taken back to the Zola trickery against Liverpool in 2003, this time in the same corner too.

The man is our best player by far this season. I love him to bits.

There was a quick text from a mate in Detroit extolling his virtues.

“What a fucking work horse that Kante.”

Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, and Pedro especially seemed prone to running into dead-ends and losing possession. Elsewhere, we seemed unable to reach the goal-line and cut back across goal. It is in my mind the most effective way to attack. I think it is in our English blood. Get it wide and cross. I always remember one of my Italian mates mocking me years ago.

“In England, if you have a penalty, you knock it out wide to the man on the wing who then crosses.”

I also remember a Bayern Munich fan on the morning of Sunday 20 May 2012.

“England are the masters at crossing the ball.”

The crowd were growing a bit restless.

Down below me, Big John was howling his usual “come on Chelsea, they’re fucking shit.”

Their goalkeeper Jonas Lossl was annoying the bejesus out of us with his ridiculous time-wasting at goal kicks, of which there were many. We ranted at referee Lee Mason, but it was all to no avail. On the touchline, Conte was very involved; pointing, gesticulating, cajoling, berating, encouraging.

The most pleasing effort on the eye came from Morata, who swept a fantastic cross on the volley, on the turn, right at Lossl. Morata, though, was not enjoying the best of games. His first touch was often heavy, and it annoyed me how he was often stationary when the play-makers were looking for movement. Furthermore, there was virtually no noise from the home stands and the atmosphere was all rather odd. The place, of course, should have been bouncing. In the last chance of the half, Kante released Morata, but his first touch took him wide, and the chance went begging as his ball in to the box evaded everyone, including Olivier Giroud, who was sat on the bench preening his beard. The referee blew up (if only) just before we were to take a corner, and the players and management team were livid.

At half-time, Tottenham were drawing 0-0, but sadly so were we.

The Morris Minors.

Jody’s all-conquering U18 squad were paraded around the pitch at the break. The boy has done good. Who would have guessed it? Jody was a rapscallion in days of old. Fair play to him.

There seemed to be a little more spring in our step as the second-half began, and Rudiger headed over from a Willian free-kick.

After You, Claude.

Then, horror upon horrors, everything fell apart. A strong Huddersfield tackle freed the ball and his was lumped forward for Laurent Depoitre to chase. What followed was catastrophic. The ball bounced and the striker stuck out a leg, Caballero blocked on the edge of the box, but fell, leaving Depoitre time to flick the ball over Antonio Rudiger, who had stumbled. What a bloody mess.

In all of my years of going to Chelsea, I don’t think I have seen an away goal celebrated with such wanton joy as by those bloody Huddersfield fans. They roared and roared. And I rued my comments about a draw.

I turned to Alan.

“At least we have forty minutes to reply.”

Conte’s mind acted fast. On came Olivier Giroud for Davide Zappacosta. Soon after, Pedro – disappointing on the night – was replaced by Eden Hazard. The mood among the home fans immediately changed. We were enlivened by the sight of our number ten. After five minutes, we were level. A low and searching cross from Dave fizzed across the six-yard box. Their defender Jorgensen swiped to clear, but the ball was struck right at Marcos Alonso who just adjusted his head slightly so the ball was directed back in to the goal.

Ha. What luck.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Again, I was clock-watching, and there was about thirty minutes’ left. I was convinced that we would get an equaliser, somehow. Sadly, by this time, Tottenham were beating Newcastle United 1-0.

At last the crowd were in the game, with a loud and invigorating “CAREFREE” waking those sleeping in Brompton Cemetery.

Who’s Your Father, Referee?

The referee, still happy to let the Huddersfield ‘keeper take ages at goal-kicks, was in for relentless abuse from the home fans. (We might well be biased but) there seemed to be several fouls which went unpunished, and at least one occasion of an advantage not being allowed to play out. When a Huddersfield player was treated by the medical staff, the trainer slowly lolloped back across the pitch with the air of someone on a Sunday stroll, and the referee did nothing. There was time-wasting at every opportunity. Indeed, on the evening of Wednesday 9 May 2018, a new word entered the lexicon of English football. Elsewhere, there might well have been stone masons and free masons, but at Stamford Bridge, the referee was a proper cuntmason.

Willian drilled a cross across the box. An effort from Kante. Umpteen chances were created, and the home support was desperate for a winner, but the Huddersfield box was a forest of legs. The flicks and touches were not falling our way. There were just too many bodies in the way. It was like Brighton beach on a bank holiday.

Pinball Wizards.

With time ticking by – tick tock, tick tock – an almighty scramble took place in the Huddersfield penalty area. I have rarely seen such pandemonium. Bodies were flailing everywhere. It was like last orders in a Wetherspoons.

Shots, blocks, ricochets, tackles, loose balls, swipes, tussles. It was like pinball. The ball was eventually headed goal wards by Andreas Christensen, but Lossl wasted no time – FOR FUCKING ONCE – and managed to claw it away off the post.

Bloody Nora.

Eden Hazard really should have done better after moving the ball into space and letting fly, but his low drive was well wide.

At last, at bloody last, Mason booked Lossl for time-wasting.

Morata went close.

Six minutes of extra time were signalled and for the first time known to mankind, it was met with a warm round of grateful thanks.

The minutes evaporated, and things became desperate. There was one last chance. The away team had resulted in hoofing the ball away, but keeping their shape at the back. On this occasion, they sensed a half-chance and committed a few men forward. For the first time in the entire game, the play was stretched. Eden advanced, the final third at his mercy, but the play typically fizzled out.

Balls.

There was huge disappointment at the final whistle.

I was unaware that there was a “lap of appreciation” planned, but with work in the morning, we decided to leave. I guessed very few stayed inside to watch.

As I met up with Paul at the Peter Osgood Statue, I referred to my match programme, and soon realised that while we were now unable to catch Tottenham, we still had a very slim, possibly anorexic, chance to catch Liverpool, should Brighton beat them at Anfield, and we win on Tyneside.

I’ll drink to that. But there again, I’ll drink to anything on Tyneside.

The Long Road Home.

There was a little post-mortem when we all reassembled back at the car. It had, of course, been yet another match when we should have been clear winners. Our lack of a cutting edge, even with Giroud and Morata on the pitch, had cost us dear. Our last home league game of the season was all very anticlimactic. We were hit by a closure on the M4, and managed to get slightly lost – a metaphor for the season – and after I had dropped Paul off in Swindon, I eventually made it home at 2am. It had been a strange old night, and one which will not be remembered with a great deal of fondness.

However…clears throat…two games left. And two fantastic weekends ahead.

Life is good.

IMG_6934

Tales From The Rising Sun

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 May 2018.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun public house on London’s Fulham Road on 10 March 1905. Some one-hundred and thirteen years later, the main bar of the same pub, now named The Butcher’s Hook, was filling up slowly ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, and I was alongside two friends from my home town in Somerset, Glenn and Francis. I had planned a little pub-crawl based around the stadium, but PD and Lord Parky chose to spend the pre-match in The Goose. Glenn, Francis and I had started off with a drink in the Copthorne Hotel – a gentle start to the afternoon at about 1pm, and a very brief chat to Ron Harris and Gary Chivers – before stepping over the road at the pub on the corner of Fulham Road and Holmead Road. I remember when it used to be called the Stamford Bridge Arms in the ‘eighties. I recalled one summer morning when I called in to the ivy-covered offices between the forecourt and the East Stand to get my membership card sorted for the upcoming season and seeing Robert Bates, our Ken’s son, stopping in for a lunchtime pint in the very same pub. On this occasion, decades later, while I supped on one of only two pints of lager that I was allowing myself, we spotted Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s Director of Communications, chatting to some others a few feet away. Jason Cundy was nearby too. It certainly felt like we were on a very important piece of terra firma.

Glenn had spoken to Francis about the day that he saw his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1978, and how the forecourt has changed since then. And I can remember Francis and I posing for a photograph on the same forecourt in front of The Shed turnstiles ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in 1991. That was Francis’ first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – a fantastic 4-2 win, we watched from the old West Stand seats – and he has seen quite a few Chelsea vs. Liverpool matches since, sometimes alongside me, sometimes elsewhere. For those who have not sussed it yet, Fran is a Liverpool fan – and a very fine close friend – and I am always happy when he is able to watch his team at Stamford Bridge.

In seven games from 1991 to 2012, he was yet to see a Liverpool victory.

1990/91 : Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

1991/92 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

1992/93 : Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

1995/96 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

2004/05 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0

2007/08 : Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2

2012/13 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1

1990/1991, 1991/1992, 2007/2008, 2012/2013 and 2017/18.

I was happy to have him alongside me once again. We joked about it in the weeks which lead up to this game. In the car on the way to London, PD had enquired of Francis what he did for a living.

“Trading standards, mate. Keeping an eye on con men, rogue traders, that sort of thing.”

“Scousers?” I suggested.

The Chuckle Bus roared.

After our little visit to where our club was born, we darted around a few more pubs on what was turning out to be a blisteringly hot day. We spent a pleasant thirty minutes in the crowded beer garden of “The Jam Tree” which was is known as one of the venues where “Made In Chelsea” is filmed. The pub was plainly cashing in on its fame; a burger was priced at £17. Next up was “The Imperial” along the King’s Road, and I was back on the Cokes, sadly. We bumped into our pal Dave, who had chanced upon a last-minute ticket. From there, brief stays in “The Rose” and finally “The Tommy Tucker” before heading along the Fulham Road to the stadium. With Tottenham losing at The Hawthorns, here was a fantastic chance for us to close the gap on both of the teams ahead of us.

(And still some Chelsea fans bemoan the fact that this has been – apparently – a poor season.)

Glenn had reeled-off the line-up in one of the pubs and it was almost the same starting eleven as at Swansea City, with the returning Alonso in for Emerson.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Giroud

As we approached the West Stand – “thrilling since 1905” still grates – everything seemed normal. The sun was beating down. There were no clouds. Programmes were purchased. There was a buzz of expectancy. There were fans milling around, though we had not spotted – to our knowledge anyway – any away fans. These days, there is a relaxed air at most games. However, over the past couple of weeks, one incident outside a football stadium has shocked many. Before the Liverpool vs. Roma Champions League game at Anfield, and right outside The Albert pub, in front of The Kop, some Italian ultras carried out a seemingly unprovoked attack on one or two Liverpool supporters. We would later learn that one of them, a fan of around my age, was knocked unconscious and was in a subsequent coma. Imagine my horror when I was to learn shortly after that he is the brother in law of a work acquaintance – no, more than that, a good friend – that I have been talking to in Dublin for over fifteen years. Sean Cox is her husband’s brother. And although there has been untold Chelsea vs. Liverpool banter between the two of us over the years, as you can imagine, the chill of knowing that an act of wanton violence can have such a devastating effect on someone that I know was quite awful.

I spoke to my friend just after the return leg, and she seemed desolate. Such was the pain that her husband did not even bother to watch the match, something that he would never normally do. On at least one occasion, he has been at Anfield the same time as me. He is quite a Liverpool fan. How his future will develop, I can’t imagine.

Inside the sun-kissed stadium, everything was just perfect. As ever, there were three-thousand Liverpool supporters over in the away end, though just two flags; one praising Virgil van Dyke, the other with – surprise, surprise – five yellow European Cups.

Some chap called Michael Buffer, he of the “let’s get ready to rumble” boxing clarion call, read out the teams. It was just dreadful. It seemed so out-of-place. I cringed as the twat said “and in the blue corner.”

Fuck off.

Whoever at Chelsea thought this was a good idea needs shooting. Was it you, Steve Atkins?

A good ten minutes before kick-off, Neil Barnett spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson, and we clapped as an image of him appeared on the TV screens. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Then, with the players appearing on the pitch, a tribute to Roy Bentley appeared in The Shed. I briefly met Roy Bentley on three occasions, and he seemed a thoroughly lovely man, his deep Bristol burr providing lasting evidence of his birthplace, and who can remember his little jig in front of the Matthew Harding at the last home game of 2008/2009, which I reported on at the time :

“Before the players came back on, an extra special moment. Ron Harris, Dennis Wise and John Terry – three of the four trophy winning Chelsea captains – were on the pitch to honour the eighty-fifth birthday of the fourth, Roy Bentley, the championship winning captain of 1955. It was a truly magical moment. Roy Bentley is a lovely, lovely man and I was able to meet him briefly in November at the CPO. The photo I have with him is one of my most-prized Chelsea possessions. He was in great form. He did a little jig as he made his way to the Lower Tier of the Matthew Harding. He was hilarious and Ron, Dennis and JT were in stitches. We all were.

“Looks like he’s been on the sherry” chirped Alan.

He had been presented with a shirt with “Bentley” on the back, but he threw it into the crowd…shades of Mourinho.

God bless you, Roy.”

Underneath us in the Matthew Harding Lower, a large banner remembering Ray Wilkins was passed over the heads of fellow spectators. These have certainly been sad times at Chelsea Football Club.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of Roy Bentley, our first Chelsea Champion. And the Liverpool fans applauded and clapped too.

Thank you.

The match kicked-off with lots and lots of noise. Francis always reads these blogs and has noted my comments about a decreasing amount of atmosphere at home games with note. I told him that the noise was far better than normal. After all, this was Liverpool. The highlight of the first few minutes was a sublime cross-field pass to Victor Moses from Gary Cahill, which drew a warm “well I’ll be fucked” salvo of appreciation.

However, Liverpool seemed to edge the first part of the game, and Roberto Firminio caused Thibaut Courtois to save early on, but it was the keen and incisive Sadio Mane who caught the eye. He seemed to be involved in many of their attacks. Victor Moses sent over a teasing ball, but no Chelsea players could add the needed touch. Eden Hazard managed to tee-up Marcos Alonso in the inside-left channel but his powerful effort was straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper Loris Karius. There was a simply magnificent tackle by N’Golo Kante on Mane, and this drew great applause from the supporters. The noise had subsided slightly, but this was much better than the usual levels at recent games. Over in the far corner, I tried to get my head around a few new Liverpool songs, no doubt harking on about European adventures of yore. I honestly found it hard to decipher much of it.

Another Mane shot. Another Courtois save.

The sky was still cloudless. The sun had certainly risen well on this Sunday.

The Liverpool red is darker than usual this season. Very often, thankfully, it ran up against a deep royal blue wall.

The often chastised Tiemoue Bakayoko was enjoying a solid start to the game and I was really elated to hear some warm applause for even the most basic of plays from our often beleaguered midfielder.

That, my friends, is what being a Chelsea supporter is all about.

On the previous Monday, myself and around one hundred Chelsea supporters had attended an evening with Gianfranco Zola at a pub in Ascot. It was a fantastic evening. I remembered what the great – little – man had said about Eden Hazard. He had been asked how he could improve his game. Gianfranco said that he would ask him to release the ball earlier when in a deep position, and then really save his tricks and crisp passing for the final third, when everything matters. I could not have put it any better. In this game, as in so many others, there were spins and twists from Eden when he was barely over the halfway line. I wanted him to improve.

We then came close when a Moses cross was met with a dive and a header from Bakayoko, but it flashed wide. Soon after, on thirty-two minutes, the same player sent over a cross after doing well to make space in front of Parkyville. His cross was aimed at the large frame of Olivier Giroud. We watched as the big Frenchman rose and guided the ball home. It was not dissimilar to the Morata goal versus Tottenham.

The ground reverberated with noise.

I tried to spot where the scorer was running, and soon realised that he was headed over to the Chelsea bench, by-passing Antonio Conte, and aiming straight for David Luiz. The players hugged.

A nice touch.

Francis, who had chosen that moment to turn his bike around, appeared back in the top tier just as the whole stadium was roaring a very loud and very defiant “CAREFREE.”

Phew. Get in.

Cesc Fabregas whizzed a shot across goal. Mo Salah, quiet thus far, was booked for diving.

There were a few rousing choruses of “Antonio.”

Will he stay beyond this season?

Probably not. Another great manager chewed up and spat out by my club.

I hate modern football.

At half-time, I was more than happy with the game. We had not created a host of chances, but everyone was on their game, the sun was out, and the stadium was as noisy as it has been for a while.

The second-half began, and the game – damn it – became a real test of my nerves. Liverpool tended to dominate possession once again, but as Fran kept saying, were unable to do much with it. Moses, always a threat out on our right, fizzed a low ball across the box but I was not convinced if he had intended to shoot or cross. A more delicate ball in to the waiting Giroud might well have been a better ploy.

Maybe Gianfranco Zola had managed to get a message to Eden Hazard at half-time. One move in particular, captured on film and featured below – along with two other Hazardous Dribbles – was just breath-taking.

Although he was hemmed in by three red-shirts, he miraculously dribbled into them and out the other side before slamming a shot towards the Liverpool goal. It was saved, just. It reminded me of when Zola was hemmed in over in the south-east corner in his very last Chelsea appearance and slalomed between four or five Liverpool defenders.

From the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose to head down and Toni Rudiger bundled the ball in but from a clearly offside position.

All eyes were on the clock now.

65 minutes.

72 minutes.

75 minutes.

Liverpool were given lots of space, and we defended deep, not allowing Salah or Mane any space to exploit. The three defenders were simply exceptional. Our performance mirrored that of our 2-1 win at Wembley versus Tottenham at the start of the season. The defence never looked troubled. Liverpool never really threatened us. We covered the pitch with great professionalism, and great desire. But I was still struggling with all of this.

I kept thinking to myself :

“This win will probably mean nothing. We will still probably finish fifth. This isn’t a cup tie. It isn’t a league title-decider. It isn’t a CL decider like that Zola game in 2003. It’s just a normal league game. But I love it that I am kicking every ball, heading every clearance, tackling every 50/50. This is a fucking great game. Blow up, ref!”

In the end, there were two late chances, one for the royal blues, one for the scarlets.

A high and deep cross from that man Victor Moses was aimed past the far post. Marcos Alonso, at a ridiculously tight angle, was underneath it, and let fly. The volley flew inches past the far post.

Then, Dominic Solanke – not applauded by any Chelsea supporter when he appeared on seventy-four minutes – saw a rather timid effort dollop over the bar.

Four minutes of added time were signalled.

As the last of these was reached, my protestations to the referee to “blow up you cunt” surprised even me.

At last, the final whistle blew.

GET IN.

My mate Rob, who sits a few rows back, soon appeared and we hugged and bounced for what seemed like ages.

“Loved that. Great game, Rob. Nervous as hell though.”

“It’s why we keep coming, mate.”

As we bounced out and down the Fulham Road, I made arrangements for Francis to attend next season’s game too.

Eight visits, no victories.

“A nice bit of history, la.”

All was well with the world as we headed home to Somerset and Wiltshire. The season has three games left, and all of them are Cup Finals.

See you on Wednesday.

Tales From Swansea Bay

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2018.

Going in to the game at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium, it honestly felt that everything had been decided. Manchester City were worthy champions, and – sadly – would be joined in next season’s Champions League campaign by Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It seemed that we were destined to finish fifth. It seemed inevitable that Arsenal would finish sixth. At the other end of the table, West Bromwich Albion had been seemingly assured of a last place finish at the end of a miserable campaign. And as the league season entered the final three or four games, it has looked increasingly likely that Stoke City and Southampton would be relegated too.

All cut and dried, then? It certainly felt like it.

The end of the season has crept up on all of us, and the game in South Wales represented the last away game that I would be driving to this season. We are flying up to Newcastle – “Fly me to The Toon” – for the final match, so this trip represented the last Chuckle Brothers Road Trip of 2017/2018. With an early-evening kick-off at 5.30pm, it meant that we could stretch out and relax a little. We had left our little part of England at 9am under grey and threatening skies, and had packed coats and jackets to insulate us from expected wet and windy weather in Wales. There was a breakfast at McMelksham en route, and the journey went well, apart from the final few miles when the traffic heading in to Swansea itself almost came to a standstill. It is no Cardiff, but Swansea is a reasonable city. The area down by the marina continues to be marked with new building developments, and there is always The Mumbles, just a few miles to the east of the city centre. The skies overhead were brightening. At last, I slotted the Chuckle Bus in a car park overlooking the rocky headland of The Mumbles, with the vast expanse of Swansea Bay stretching out before us. We spotted a nearby pub, The White Rose, and were settled around a table in the dark and old-fashioned boozer at around 12.30pm. There was an homage to Dylan Thomas – Swansea born and bred – stenciled onto one of the pub windows alongside the holy trinity of Welsh insignia; a red dragon, a daffodil and a leek.

“Though they go mad they shall be sane.

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.

Though lovers be lost love shall not.

And death shall have no dominion.”

The heavy prose made me smart. It wasn’t the most cheerful welcome to a pub that I had ever seen.

“Welcome to The Mumbles, bach.”

In fact, amidst the references to love, sanity and death, there was the same mood invoked by the great Pet Shop Boys song “Paninaro.”

Maybe Dylan Thomas was an unlikely hero of the Pet Shop Boyos.

I’ll get my coat/jacket.

Inside the pub, Glenn demolished some steak and chips, and I wolfed down a pint of Peroni. The Liverpool versus Stoke City game was on the lounge bar TV, and it was scoreless. Inside the gents’ toilets, there was evidence that some visitors from along the coast had previously called by.

“CCFC – SOUL CREW – WISH YOU WERE CARDIFF DONTCHA?”

We crossed the road, and were buoyed by the fact that the weather was really improving now. Whereas the previous pub was as old school as it gets, The Croeso Lounge was a modern and airy bar, and very busy. It seemed that a hen party had booked the upstairs area; while we supped on lagers, we admired the scenery.

The weather was improving still. Out across the bay, way in the distance, were the industrial buildings of the Tata steel works at Port Talbot, with smoke drifting into the sky and mixing with the low-lying clouds. But on this side of Swansea Bay, all was well. Locals were promenading along the seafront, and there was an almost Mediterranean feel to it. Hardly an Italian “passeggiata”, but all very pleasant in the early afternoon sun. We were joined in the Croeso Lounge by some friends from London – Callum, Reece, Pat, Viv – and this was a first-time visit to The Mumbles for them. We sat outside in the sun. It was bloody fantastic. We heard that Liverpool had only drawn with Stoke City. Deep down, I still thought that it would not matter, but football is a funny game as someone once said.

There was just time for a last pint in the third pub of the afternoon – The Kinsale – which was even more old-fashioned and darker than the first one. A rugby game from Cardiff was on the TV. We were the sole customers. We popped along the road for some fish and chips at “Yallops” and then set off for the Liberty Stadium. It was a good thirty minutes’ drive, allowing for traffic, and I was a little worried that we might miss the kick-off. I lead the way and Reece followed behind. We passed the St. Helens cricket and rugby stadium, right on the seafront, and there were memories of Gary Sobers knocking six sixes for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan in 1968, and there was a quick peak inside; I spotted a large standing terrace, with crush barriers. There was an immediate pang of regret that there are no more of these terraces of my youth left in our sport; the South Stand at Molineux, the Kop at Anfield, the Holte End at Villa Park, the Copeland Road at Ibrox, the Shed at Stamford Bridge. All are gone and there is nothing left but memories.

The city of Swansea is rather hilly, and the Liberty Stadium sits in a low valley alongside the River Tawe. There are dark wooded hills to the east, and terraced streets to the west, with houses layered on top of each other. Thankfully, the two cars were parked-up at the usual place just off the Neath Road at around 5.10pm. It was just right. We hot-footed it to the away end, and were met with some new signage.

“Eisteddle Croeso.”

This roughly translates as “welcome, be seated.”

We reached our seats just as the two teams entered the pitch.

I was happy with my timings. Job done.

Alan and Gary had called in at “Rossi’s” for some tidy fish and chips, which thankfully allows me to utter my usual “whose cod is that haddock?” line once again.

I expected a 3-4-3 but Antonio surprised me.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Cahill – Azpilicueta

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Emerson

Hazard – Giroud

All hint of sun had disappeared by the time of kick-off. There was nothing but grey in the rectangle of sky above us.

It disappointed me that there were spare seats around me – in quite some number – as the game began. I remember last season – at the start of the season, we struggled, Gary Cahill came in for some abuse, our season was yet to ignite – there were even more empty seats. What is it with Swansea? Does the Severn Bridge toll scare off so many of our supporters? I can’t fathom it, I honestly can’t.

“Swansea away? Can’t be bothered.”

Before I had time to think, we had picked up a loose ball and Eden Hazard drifted away from markers before pushing a ball out to Cesc Fabregas. Without breaking stride, the ball was clipped past Fabianski and into the gaping Swansea net.

Swansea City 0 Chelsea 1.

Tidy.

Only four minutes had passed.

There were brief thoughts of the 5-0 shellacking we administered to Swansea just over three years ago.

We had heard that both Southampton and West Brom had produced fine wins, and the pressure was now on the home team, and it showed. Their fans, always pretty noisy alongside us, grew more and more tense as the game progressed, and vehemently protested every decision which went against them. I think we always struggle with support at Swansea, and there wasn’t a huge amount of noise on this occasion either. There were, however, occasional chants of “Antonio” and it seems that a faction of the Chelsea support is happy to support him still. That’s good. Let’s support the manager and the players all the way to Wembley.

The home fans were indeed noisy at times.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

They just couldn’t get enough.

On the pitch, we absolutely dominated during the first-half. We went close from a corner, and then Swansea defender Mawson hooked the ball on to the top of the Swansea crossbar as he found himself under pressure. A fine searching ball from Victor Moses out wide whizzed into the six-yard box, but was untouched on its path. It was begging for a Chelsea foot, leg, thigh, chest, head or Tommy Harmer bollock. It never came. There was constant probing from Chelsea, although we didn’t manage to break them down further. In all honesty, we didn’t use Olivier Giroud as much as we ought to. Eden Hazard looked keen and involved, and there was a song for him too.

But there was a strange atmosphere. It felt like the end of season game that it undoubtedly was.

The second-half began and there were a few half-chances exchanged. The noise from the away end never really came. Some rain had fallen, and the skies grew darker. Everything seemed colourless. The black seats of the stadium, the grey concrete of the roof, the cold grey steel of the supports, the black and white LG advertising boards. Even our royal blue seemed duller than usual.

At last a little noise from the away end :

“Speakfackinenglish, why don’t you speakfackinenglish?”

“Down with the West Brom, you’re going down with the West Brom.”

“We’ll never play you again.”

The home fans retorted :

“Carvalhal’s Black And White Army.”

Our play really deteriorated in the second period. Our chances were rare. A move involving Fabregas and Hazard almost gifted a chance to Moses at the far post, but the ball bobbled just beyond his lunge. Emerson, who had impressed, kept running and running into the Swansea City half, and all the way through it, he never seemed happy to have to use his right foot. In the end, he thumped the ball goal wards and drew a low save from Fabianski. In the final twenty minutes, Swansea peppered our goal with a fair few chances, but virtually every shot seemed to go down Courtois’ throat. We were certainly enjoying a charmed life. One effort from the impressive Andre Ayew flew narrowly passed the post and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I admitted to Gary that Swansea’s frustrated fans must have wondered how on Earth they had not managed an equaliser. There were late changes; Pedro for Fabregas, Willian for Hazard, Morata for Giroud. Swansea still threatened, but – thank heavens – we held on.

It was a dour win.

But it meant that we had now won four on the spin.

Phew.

We made our way up the hill towards our car, and I was soon heading east. We spotted a large billowing cloud of black smoke from beyond the stadium, and beyond the verdant wooded hills to the east. I wondered what on earth it could be. Out on the M4, the smoke was still rising. As we passed the mess of the Port Talbot steelworks, all pipes and foundries, chimneys, brick, steel, grime, the clouds ahead were dark and brooding. Behind me, through the twisted steel of industry, a vivid orange sunset lit up the sky above The Mumbles, right across Swansea Bay. The steep hills adjacent to the motorway hemmed me in. It added to the drama. To my left, the black smoke of a presumed fire shot straight up into the evening sky. At that moment, I wondered what else might appear in my vision. It was as dramatic a sky as I have seen this season. It made the rather insipid second-half pale by comparison.

We spoke about the game, but the discussion did not last long. However, after the pre-game thoughts about the top four and bottom three, perhaps I needed to readjust my feelings after all.

On this last road trip of the season, we just didn’t want to go home. On the outskirts of Cardiff, we enjoyed a pizza just off the M4, prolonging the day further.

I reached home at around midnight, shattered.

It had been a long day.

Tales From Another Semi

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 22 April 2018.

It was around 7.30pm and we had just bought a round of drinks in “The Swan”, a high-ceilinged public house placed between the two buildings which form Hammersmith tube station. It had taken a while to leave Wembley Stadium, what with the wait for our eventual train south, and then changes onto the underground system and we were momentarily paused on our way back to Barons Court where my car was parked. We sat on stools at a high table, soon toasted ourselves – “the final” – and quietly chatted about the day. There had been blue Chelsea flags for everyone in the Chelsea section at Wembley, and Glenn had placed our four on the table. They would eventually be handed out to young Chelsea fans that we know; a nice little gift for the youngsters. Only last week, I had called in to see a neighbour who was looking after eight-year-old two twin boys for the day – the sons of my once next-door neighbours who moved to a nearby village a few years back – and I passed over a blue and white chequered flag from a few years back to Alphie. His face was a picture. I did feel a little embarrassed that I had nothing for his brother Isaac – who purportedly favours Manchester City – but I had to laugh when Isaac told me that he liked Chelsea too. I quickly put him in his place

“You can’t support two teams!”

And then I felt guilty that I had publicly chastised him.

Anyway, I had plans to give one of the Chelsea flags from Wembley to Alphie  – “you’ve made the wrong choice, Isaac, sorry” – and send the other one over to a young relative in Australia, who I recently learned was a Chelsea supporter. They would be nice reminders of yet another semi-final victory.

It had been a long day. I was awake at around 7am and I had collected the three other Chuckle Brothers by 8.30am. We would not be home until 10.30pm at least. This football lark can be tiresome.  The chat slowed and we stared at our drinks. Then, a chap with a Boss T-shirt and a pint of Guinness spotted the four Chelsea flags and approached us. It looked like he had enjoyed a few drinks as he was slurring his words slightly, and his girlfriend was hanging back a little.

“Why are you looking sad? You are Chelsea fans. You won, right?”

It was clear from his accent that he was from mainland Europe – I initially thought he was Dutch – and his words touched a nerve. Although I smiled in response, inside I was hurting. Had we become something that we had long hated? Had we become so used to success at Chelsea that we were blasé about yet another semi-final triumph? Was I at that stage in my long journey of Chelsea support that I had secretly dreaded? Was I taking all of this for granted? I experienced a few uneasy seconds as I tussled with the severity of the thoughts in my head. We replied that – indeed – it had been a very long day, and that he had caught us, maybe, at a weak moment. After all, what would he really want us to be doing? Constant somersaults and cartwheels on a Sunday evening? Anyway, we chatted about the game – “never really looked in trouble, just took a while to make it safe” – and the chap revealed that he was from a small town in Southern Denmark. He was in absolute awe that we went to every game – “a three-hour drive home, wow” – and he told how he was at Stamford Bridge for the Manchester United game last autumn. It seemed that they had watched from a corporate area. I wasn’t sure if he was a Chelsea fan too but his friend had been solemnly told that he couldn’t wear a Chelsea shirt – “that’s bullshit” – and we pulled faces of shock and astonishment, though I had heard long ago that colours are indeed not allowed in such areas. He gleefully admitted that his girlfriend – still keeping her distance – was a Manchester United fan, and he seemed happy that United had lost that game. I looked over at her and smiled but deep down I thought “it’ll never last.” For some inexplicable reason, none of us mentioned the FA Cup Final which would pit Chelsea and Manchester United once again. After a few more minutes, our drinks finished, we excused ourselves and left to head back to Barons Court.

At exactly 8pm, I pulled away from Barons Court, and pointed The Chuckle Bus west. Ahead was a fine drive home in the aftermath of another lovely day in the nation’s capital, with the sun slowly dipping beyond the horizon – but first a quick glimpse of the Wembley arch shining away in North London – and a clear night sky.

It had indeed been a good day.

After missing the excellent win at Turf Moor on Thursday – which was followed by the ridiculous over-reaction by many to that Alvaro Morata’s miss – it meant that it would be two consecutive Chelsea versus Southampton games for me. We had certainly been given a fantastic chance to reach an FA Cup Final with a semi against the relegation-threatened team. As for the first semi-final, played the previous evening, I could not have been happier. I was travelling back from a Frome Town game at Gosport Borough – the less said about that the better – and did not even listen to the match on the radio. But I was very happy that Spurs had lived down to expectations. A potential final against Manchester United would be absolutely fine. The thought of losing to Mourinho’s team in the final would be tough, but not nearly as horrific as a loss in an FA Cup Final to Tottenham. Beating them, of course, would be wonderful, but it was just too much of a risk. The stakes would be too great. A loss to Spurs in the final would go straight into a top three of most miserable Chelsea games.

But – wait!

This is Tottenham we are talking about.

1993 : Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.

1995 : Everton 4 Tottenham 1.

1999 : Newcastle United 2 Tottenham 0.

2001 : Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1.

2010 : Portsmouth 2 Tottenham 0.

2012 : Chelsea 5 Tottenham 1.

2017 : Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2.

2018 : Manchester United 2 Tottenham 1.

The pleasure in avoiding Spurs was a view shared by the Kent lads – yes, them again, they love a Chuckle Brothers pub crawl – as we enjoyed our first pints of the day in “The Swan”, a former coaching inn from the eighteenth century at the northern edge of Hyde Park, adjacent to Lancaster Gate tube station, and close to the FA’s former HQ. The pub was dotted with a few Chelsea fans, and one or two Southampton fans too. We then walked out into the bright London sunshine towards Paddington Station, popping into “The Sussex Arms” for one, and then on to “Fountains Abbey” where the London chaps had been based since midday. There was little talk of the semi-final, as so often is the way. We were so sorry to hear that one of our friends – John, who lives very close to Paddington / Marylebone / Edgware Road – had lost his mother on the Wednesday. Gillian, Kev and Rich were down from Scotland and it was great to see them once more. Kev told me that it was his first-ever visit to Wembley. I could tell he was excited. We had heard rumours that neither Chelsea nor Southampton had sold all the tickets available to both teams. This raised a few eyebrows. There was talk of high ticket prices, but I had a distinct feeling that if we had drawn Tottenham or Manchester United, our allocation would have been snapped up. I definitely got the impression that for many it was a case of “Southampton? Can’t be bothered.”

Time was now accelerating away, and it was time to move. We legged it to Marylebone, bumped into the usual suspects at the Sports Bar outside, but then had to wait a while to catch the 2.30pm train. We were certainly leaving it late, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion.

We alighted at Wembley Stadium station at just after 2.45pm.

“Be a miracle if we see kick-off.”

There seems to be more and more construction at Wembley with each visit. Hotels are going up at a fair rate of knots. There is already a designer outlet nearby. If, as seems likely, we will be residing at Wembley in the near future – a subject worthy of a wholly separate piece in itself, maybe even a separate website – then maybe we will eventually decide to drink at the hotel bars nearby. Wembley was festooned with huge advertising. I still loathe the new national stadium. It is as charming as an aircraft hangar.

I took a photograph of Kev with the curve of the arch behind him.

“Enjoy Wembley mate. And don’t break the crossbar.”

We made it inside the upper tier with about five minutes gone, thus missing out on the pre-match presentations. That Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had done us again. Just outside the seating area, in the concourse, there was an “oooooh” as Chelsea went close.

We had seats halfway back in the top tier, above the south-east corner. Southampton had our usual western end. Bloody hell, there were swathes of empty seats in their top tier. And bizarrely, these were the cheapest seats, at just thirty quid. How very odd. There were hundreds and hundreds of empty seats dotted around our two tiers. I looked around and spotted familiar faces in our section; Dutch Mick and Gary, the two Bobs, Scott, Mark, The Youth and Seb.

A quick check of our team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

A quick check of the supporters.

In the lower tier of the western end, it looked to me that every single Southampton supporter was standing.

In the opposite end, down to my right, only the supporters in the sections behind the corner posts were standing.

This, in simple terms, suggested to me that they were more “up for it” than us.

There certainly seemed to me more noise being generated by their red and white bedecked supporters.

Sitting next to me was a young family, parents with two children under the age of seven. The two kids soon looked bored. Over the course of the game, the mother hardly spoke to the kids. I wondered why they were there. Elsewhere, despite the first part of the game being dominated by Chelsea, there was little noise.

I tried to join in when any semblance of a chant tried to get going, but all around me people were sat on their hands.

Watching not supporting.

Fucking hell.

The stadium is so huge, so impersonal, with few – if any – unique features, that it just deadens any enjoyment for me. The Club Wembley level was only half-full at best. Down on the pitch, Chelsea were still dominating, with tons of possession and pretty patterns, moving the ball this way and that, and with Kante the metronome in the middle, keeping the rhythm, and with Willian and Hazard stretching Southampton, we looked like the only team that would score.

Willian, in Willian territory, dipped a free-kick just over the bar.

The Saints fans were still making more noise. Their song reminded me of Tottenham, shudder. Although I live only sixty or so miles from Southampton, I have only known three friends/workmates/acquaintances that have been Southampton fans. One of them, Duncan – a workmate from twenty years ago, who I see once every few years – was not at the game, but he posted a lovely photograph on Facebook of his mother at the game, smiling, flag in hand, Saints scarf around her neck. Her beaming smile was wonderful. She was certainly “up for the cup.”

A rare chance for Southampton came on twenty-five minutes, but Caballero saved from Lemina.

We only created a few half-chances though. Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, in the same way that we had run out of songs.

Olivier Giroud teed up a chance for himself with a deft flick from a Fabregas cross but his follow-up volley was wide.

At the break, all was quiet in Wembley Stadium.

There had been so much swearing emanating from the mouth of one of the Chuckle Brothers throughout the first-half, that when I got back to my seat midway through the halftime break, and saw the family of four to my left were missing, I did wonder if they had left early, never to be seen again. Imagine my surprise when they returned with hot dogs and crisps costing half a weekly wage. These people were in it for the duration and I was somehow soothed.

The game restarted, and I spoke to Glenn about the huge section of empty seats behind the dugouts – the “Club Wanker” section – and bemoaned, for the fifty seventh thousand time, the state of modern football.

“Twats.”

A Chelsea move built and then a foul. Cesc Fabregas sent over a lovely cross towards Hazard, who did ever so well to pass the ball onto Giroud. My next thought was purely personal.

“Bollocks, I haven’t got my camera at the ready and this looks like a goal to me.”

With that, Giroud seemed to stumble and yet maintain possession. Everything happened in slow motion as he fended off a few challenges, and stabbed a leg out to send the ball home.

Camera or no camera, I roared and we all roared.

GET IN.

Giroud spun away and celebrated with team mates and then the manager.

Almost immediately, there was the usual text exchange with Alan.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Perfect.

There was a salvo of song from the Chelsea end – about bloody time – but we were quietened when Shane Long took a very heavy touch with only Caballero to beat. The ball raced away for a goal-kick and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The first change took place on the hour, and Conte – the pragmatic Italian – went for safety first in an attempt to shore up our shape, replacing the effervescent Willian with the boo boys’ favourite Tiemoue Bakayoko. The boos rang around Wembley. I wasn’t surprised.

Hazard moved forward alongside Giroud, with the midfield bolstered by an extra man. Only the second Southampton chance of the entire game resulted in a Caballero save – somehow, I am not sure how, or with which body part – from Redmond. The game was opening up and, surely, this would be to our advantage. A Hazard thunderbolt was tipped over by McCarthy. The little Belgian then sent over a perfect rabona which Victor Moses just failed to reach. Hazard was at his teasing best, the certain star. Two more substitutions took place.

Pedro for Fabregas.

Morata for Giroud.

After being on the pitch for just three minutes, Morata was able to wiggle between two defenders and head home from another sublime Azpilicueta cross. I managed to capture this on film. The ball seemed to take forever to drop, and it looked like it would eventually go wide from our view high up in section 521. At last the net rippled and the goal was wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Southampton 0.

We felt safe now, but Austin hit the base of the far post from an acute angle. Morata then went close on two occasions at the other end.

At last, the referee Martin Atkinson whistled the end of the game.

Phew.

It was hardly comparable to the semi-final against Spurs exactly 365 days previously, but we had done it. It was the worst atmosphere I have ever experienced at a semi-final and that definitely detracted from the day. But we had reached our sixth FA Cup Final in twelve seasons. What a record. Quite phenomenal. One more win would put us at joint-third in the all-time list of winners – alongside Tottenham of all teams – and only behind Arsenal and Manchester United.

In the queue for the trains back to Marylebone, Pat Nevin waltzed past and it made my day. As the line slowly zig-zagged along, I spotted my friend Duncan’s mother only a few yards away. I had never previously met his Mum, although both Duncan and I grew up just a couple of miles apart, but I was sure it was her. Duncan had told me that his mother had recently been bitten by the football bug and was now a season ticket holder at their home games. The line shuffled along, and eventually I was able to catch up with her and say “hi.” I took a selfie of us and sent it to Duncan. Lovely.

We eventually took the train south, and things felt very familiar indeed.

And here’s a well-used sign-off.

“See you at Wembley.”

For John’s mother : RIP.

Tales From Saints And Singers

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2018.

We were back at St. Mary’s for another Southampton vs. Chelsea match. An easy away game for most Chelsea fans, I haven’t missed a game at their new stadium, going all of the way back to the first match in August 2001. It seems like Southampton have always been in the top division, but they were out of it from 2005/2006 to 2012/2013. Our opponents, under new manager Mark Hughes, were entrenched in the relegation mire. Going into the game, we all agreed that this was a match that we surely had to win. Of course, we were in an awful run of form too. But we had to win it. We just had to. On the following Sunday, at Wembley, there would be an F. A. Cup semi-final against Southampton too. Wins in both games were so important, for reasons that are too obvious to spend too much time talking about.

The 12.30pm kick-off meant that there was little time for any lengthy pre-match drink. There were five of us in the Chuckle Bus, and it was Young Jake’s first visit to St. Mary’s with Chelsea. On the short drive down to Southampton, he asked a few questions about Southampton’s old ground The Dell. Over the past few weeks, I have added a new feature to this website in which I have posted seventy photographs – so far – of the changing face of Stamford Bridge.

https://caxonblog.com/chelsea-land/

As a way of explaining how unique The Dell was, I include a few photographs here – two from 1994/1995, one from 1995/1996 and three from 1996/1997 – and it certainly brings back some memories.

It is perhaps hard to believe, but these are the only away games that I saw at The Dell. Tickets always seemed to be difficult to get hold off in the days before I became a season-ticket holder, and a few of us only managed to get tickets for the latter two games via Matthew Le Tissier, who went to school in Guernsey with my pal Neil. The Dell was intimate alright. And it was nestled in among leafy streets and semi-detached houses, with no floodlight pylons to indicate a football stadium was in the vicinity. It would have been quite possible to have walked within twenty yards of The Dell and not realise that it was there. As an old romantic who dotes on stadia which are no longer with us, I miss The Dell.

St. Mary’s – a mile or so further east – is one of many bland and boring football stadia that have appeared over the past twenty years. I am sure many of Southampton’s supporters are annoyed that the close and intimate feel to The Dell has not at least been attempted at their new stadium. A more spacious stadium with a larger footprint equates to more income though.

I battled my way through the massed ranks of the Chelsea supporters in the dark concourse beneath the Northam Stand and headed up the steps into the seats.

“World In Motion” was on the PA, a fine choice.

It was soon apparent that I needed to take my coat off. It was already a warm afternoon, and we were not far from the front. It was fantastic to see Alan at a game, his arm still in a sling after his broken shoulder caused him to miss a few games. As Parky arrived on the scene, he noted one of his favourites from a few decades ago.

“The Saints Are Coming” by The Skids.

Kick-off approached.

The PA announcer urged the home crowd to “wave your flags” and “make some noise.”

I looked around and was pleased to see that hardly a seat in our section was unoccupied. Despite a dip in form since Christmas, the loyal three thousand had continued to attend each and every away game. This was reassuring to see.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

As ever, Saints had two from “Munich” – Ryan Bertrand (their captain, in fact) and Oriel Romeu.

The first-half was a pretty depressing affair. We controlled much of the game but without seriously testing the Southampton ‘keeper Alex McCarthy. Southampton’s attacks were rare. We poked a few balls into their penalty box, but there was no dynamism and little threat. Again there was a tendency to over-elaborate. On more than one occasion I was heard to yell “shoot” to Willian, Kante and Hazard, amongst others. I didn’t remember hearing it against Tottenham nor West Ham, but there was a rousing rendition of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” not long into the game, and our manager responded briefly with a clap towards us. I looked over at him, aware that many fans have commented that he has not seemed anywhere as involved as last season. I spotted him, and he did show some level of engagement, urging the players on. But what a difference a year makers. Last year he was our leader, our charismatic manager, full of calmness and charm, and he became only our fourth championship-winning manager. I suspect we will never know the full extent of what has happened in the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and Cobham in the intervening twelve months, but I can never forget his role last season. It ultimately saddens me to read and hear what some sections of our fans think of Antonio Conte now.

On around twenty minutes, a rapid break down our right flank which involved Ryan Bertrand caught us unawares. Our former left-back managed to race past Cesar Azpilicueta and clip a perfect pass back to Dusan Tadic from just inside the penalty box. Tadic was on his own, with Marcos Alonso trailing, and the Serbian rolled the ball in. The home crowd found their voice at last, and our heads in the away end dropped.

A typical piece of nonsense from Courtois annoyed us all. Instead of hoofing a ball clear, he ludicrously played it square to Dave, who was soon charged down right on the edge of the box. It was lucky that nothing more came of it. There had been similar foolishness from our lofty Belgian earlier; suffice to say he is not flavour of the month at the moment. However, he made amends with a double-save just before the break.

I remember saying to Gal :

“If a person who had never seen this sport was here today, they would think that the main objective of the game was to give the fellows in blue shirts out on the edge of the pitch the ball as often as possible.”

Alonso and Zappacosta must have had more touches than anyone.

A couple of Chelsea long-shots were deflected high and over the Southampton cross-bar as the half ended.

At half-time, with the sun beating down on the front section of the away terrace, there was a noticeable melancholy and lethargy as I looked around at my fellow supporters. It looked to me that we were almost resigned to yet another league defeat.

It seemed that we were at a low ebb.

Whether or not a few hundred half-time pints helped loosen inhibitions, but the second-half began with a fantastic barrage of noise cascading towards our players from the away section. One song dominated. It was a chant that I have always looked on as an away game speciality, and during the second-half of away games too. To the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

And we repeated it over and over and over.

I joined in, we kept it going, and I realised that I had not really sung too much up until then. My throat was so sore, so painful, but I kept going, just like in days of yore. All around me, others kept it going. It was life-affirming stuff. The chant went on and on. And it made me proud. Call me old-fashioned, but this is a mark of a true supporter. We might be supported, or followed, by millions around the world, but they’re worth nothing to me if they ever attend a Chelsea match and don’t sing and shout with all their might in games when the team needs it. Years ago, I often used to sing until I was hoarse. It used to happen to me all the time. Very often, perhaps following an evening game, I would appear at work the next day with my voice shot to pieces.

“Go to Chelsea last night, Chris?”

And I would nod.

The singing continued.

“YOU ARE MY CHELSEA.

MY ONLY CHELSEA.

YOU MAKE ME HAPPY WHEN SKIES ARE GREY.”

How this pleased me. I was hoping that my pals watching at home would hear us. The Chelsea of old. Underperforming but singing on.

Chelsea Fundamentalism.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

I had a second wind now, and my throat wasn’t hurting quite so much. A couple of shots from Hazard and Willian hinted at better things.

And then it all went Pete Tong.

On an hour, a long free-kick from James Ward-Prowse looked like missing everyone, but it landed past the far post and was remarkably volleyed home by Jan Bednarek, whoever he is.

“Oh bollocks.”

The crowd roared again and the Southampton players raced over to the far corner. I looked around and spotted a few empty seats in our section. Maybe they had disappeared off to turn their bikes around, but I suspected that the lure of Southampton’s city centre pubs was too much for some. Almost immediately, my admiration of my fellow fan took a battering. Several began singing “we’re fucking shit” and I just turned around and gave the perpetrators a Premium Class A Glower.

I was inwardly fuming.

How pathetic.

The manager made some changes.

Pedro for Zappacosta.

Giroud for Morata.

There was, apparently, a change in shape but I was too busy in supporting the team to notice. There seemed to be an immediate reaction. On seventy minutes, Alonso delivered an early ball into the Saints’ box from a relatively deep position. Giroud used all of his physical strength to get to the ball before his marker and he headed the ball firmly down and past McCarthy.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

GET IN.

The away crowd roared, and we were – unbelievably – back in it. A clenched fist from Giroud signalled his intent.

Just four minutes later, Willian jinked into the box from the Chelsea left. His low bouncing ball across the box found the unmarked Hazard. His first touch killed the ball dead, and there was a beautiful moment of anticipation – I always call it a Platini moment after his touch in the 1984 European Championships set up a slight delay in the eventual shot – before he slammed it home.

Now we really celebrated.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 2.

“A Bishop Desmond.”

All eyes were on Eden as he raced back. He turned and pointed towards the badge. A little moment that made me think a million things at once.

“That might shut the people up who think you are off.”

“But a lot of fans want you to “Quote-unquote” fuck-off to Madrid anyway.”

“Easy to point at the badge, wonder what you really think.”

“Don’t you dare disappear off to Madrid after pointing at the badge.”

“Just crack on, less of the nonsense, and work hard for a winner.”

After just another three more minutes, we were awarded a free-kick in prime Willian territory. Rather than play the ball in towards the players assembling in the box, he played it out to Hazard. A dink into the box was headed up by Alonso under pressure, then it was Christensen’s’s turn to keep the ball alive with another header. The ball fell towards none other than Giroud.

We inhaled and prepared to yell.

He slammed it home.

I brought my camera down momentarily and yelled along with three thousand others.

I then caught the slide from Giroud just as a photographer at the other end did the same, and – not for the first time this season – the photograph would later find its way onto the official Chelsea website. And there I am, still and focused among the lunacy, next to Gary and Parky, who ended up with a bump on his head after the bloke behind him landed on top of him. Look at the joy on our faces.

Ecstasy in the away end.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 3.

What a comeback.

“Two nil and you fucked it up” echoed around the stadium. I was amazed how a few of our players kept a straight face.

There was still time for a couple of fine Courtois saves – making amends for his earlier brain dead indiscretions – but we held on. With four minutes remaining, Victor Moses replaced Eden Hazard. Many fans in the away end serenaded Eden with his own song.

“EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN HAZARD.”

I turned around and barked “you two-faced bastards.”

I was half-serious.

Gary laughed anyway.

We bounced out of the ground, just happy to see Chelsea win an unlikely game of football. We tried to remember the last time that we had come back from a 0-2 deficit in the league. The five of us struggled but news came through that it was, evidently, away to Charlton Athletic on the opening day of 2002/2003. We were bouncing that day too.

We stopped off for a few pints on the drive home, extending the day, going over the game, chatting about our immediate future and the matches ahead.

It had been a fine day out.

No midweek jaunt to Turf Moor for me on Thursday so my next one is Southampton at Wembley on Sunday.

See you there.