About Chris Axon

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

Tales From Number 686

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 12 November 2022.

There was a moment, not too long ago, when I was looking ahead – but not looking forward – to the enforced break during play in November and December, and I commented to some friends that it was possible for us to be tucked in nicely behind the top two or three teams by the time we played at Newcastle United and for us to then solidify our position in the top four on our return to action after Christmas.

It’s quite likely that this was my opinion after the game in Austria. But look what has happened since. A shocking performance and a heavy defeat at Brighton, a narrow win over Dinamo Zagreb at home, another terrible showing at home to Arsenal, and a loss at Manchester City.

The fixture at St. James’ Park was always going to be a tough one, but it now became even more difficult. We were playing against a team that was now enjoying a real surge in performances and self-confidence, while we were limping along, beset with injury problems, floundering under a new coach, square pegs in round holes, desperate to get to the winter break and with “damage limitation” as a new buzz-word around town.

As the game approached, I would have gambled everything on a dour 0-0 draw, just to avoid the inevitable backlash. The last thing we needed was three consecutive league defeats to take us into almost seven weeks of introspection, self-doubt, worry and possibly decay.

A big game? Oh yes.

It was also a landmark game for me. This would be Chelsea game number 1,372. Now there’s nothing special about that number in itself, but it would mark a special moment in my recent “Chelsea history.”

The first game that I wrote up a detailed account of my match-day meanderings in a regular blog format was the Champions League Final on 21 May 2008. This was game number 687. For those who are half-decent at mathematics, hopefully a few numbers will drop into place. The game at St. James’ Park would exactly split the number of total matches that I have seen into two; 686 games without a blog, 686 games with a blog.

And, as luck would have it, a nice bit of symmetry too; my first game was against Newcastle, the last game would be against them. The added dimension of this moment is that it would come right on the start of the enforced winter break this season.

So, some numbers.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974.

Game 686 : Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers, 11 May 2008.

Game 687 : Chelsea vs. Manchester United, 21 May 2008.

Game 1,372 : Newcastle United vs. Chelsea, 12 November 2022.

Let’s get going with match report 686.

I booked flights from Bristol to Newcastle ages ago. I gave myself a little wriggle-room, Friday night to Sunday night. It was a steal; just £60 return. The announcement of a 5.30pm kick-off on the Saturday evening ticked just about every conceivable box available, plus possibly some others that we were not even conscious of.

Three days and two nights in The Loony Toon?

Let’s gan, like.

I worked a 7am to 3pm shift on the Friday and picked up Lord Parky at 3.30pm. Not long into the drive down to Dodge to collect P-Diddy, Lordy realised that he was missing his credit card. I turned my car around and headed back.

We both found it odd that when we called back at his house, his partner Jill looked a little shocked to see us; a full-on marching band with majorettes were parading past, the small close had been decorated with flags and bunting, and there was a street party in full flow.

Jill looked embarrassed.

Parky soon found his credit card.

“Awkward this, Parky. Awkward.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have words with Jill when I get back from Newcastle.”

I collected PD at 4.15pm, and we then got caught up in some slow moving over traffic over The Mendips but pulled into the Long Stay at Bristol Airport at about 5.15pm.

Check in was easy. A coffee to kill some time.

“You can be sure there will be someone we know on the flight.”

Lo and behold, as we walked towards our departure gate, we spotted the two Andys and Zippy from Trowbridge with Steve from Weston in the bar. I reminded Steve that the first time I had met him was on a return flight from Newcastle in 2015 and we then both caught an onward flight over to Porto a few hours later.

A downer was the £24 we had to pay for our hand baggage.

“EasyJet never charged that for Turin. Bollocks.”

My reputation as a logistical expert was in tatters.

The flight to Newcastle left a little late at 7.30pm but we touched down at Newcastle at 8.10pm, on time. We took a sherbet dab to our apartment in Benwell. Initially, PD was all for a couple of quiet pints in a local pub, but I had already completed some reconnaissance and there was nothing near. Some friends were already plotted up at a pub that we knew so, with a little gentle persuasion from Parky and little old me – I am serious – PD agreed that we would hit the town, er toon.

An hour after touching down on Tyneside, we were in a cab into the city.

What followed was one of the great Chelsea nights. We started in “Rosie’s” under the shadow of St. James’ Park, just two hundred yards away, with friends Gillian, Kev, Rich from Edinburgh and Matt from Perth in Australia, I had met his father Ian in Perth for the Chelsea game in 2018. We were then joined by Al and Daryl who had travelled up by train in the morning and also Steve from Salisbury who had taken a very early flight from Heathrow. Paul, Rob, Dave and Glenn, Jason and Cass joined us, then Andy from Trowbridge and Steve from Weston.

“That’s my fault for tagging where we were on Facebook.”

Paul told me that he had lived on Tyneside for a few years thirty years ago, and had visited family in Hexham on this trip. He admitted that it was the passion and euphoria of being in Newcastle when Keegan was manager that actually re-ignited his love for football and Chelsea in particular. I knew exactly what he meant. Keegan was regarded as a veritable Messiah when he played for them between 1982 and 1984, as detailed this season, and he absolutely re-energised the area when he became manager in 1992. I have told the story here how I accompanied my good friend Pete to three Newcastle away games in 1992/93; local games at Bristol City and Swindon plus a game at Brentford when I was in London for the weekend.

We tumbled down into the Bigg Market and enjoyed a pint or two in a surprisingly quiet “Wunder Bar.” We strode further down the gentle slope and into “Pop World” where I had promised to meet up with Donna and Rachel, newly arrived from Heathrow. Dave – “Rees the Fleece” – was there with a few more faces. More drinks, some sing-alongs, some friendly locals handed us shots and some Jaeger Bombs were inevitably downed. PD and I recreated “One Night In Turin” with some “Baileys” and a fine time was had by all. One of us managed to avoid the clutches of a mad local woman, no names, no pack drill. Not that there’s anything wrong with liaisons with local girls in The Bigg Market, cough, cough.

There was even a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant towards the end that the locals ignored without incident. I wondered if this was the modern day equivalent of taking an end in the ‘seventies.

We caught a cab back to our digs at just after 2am.

I think.

It’s a bit shady.

Remarkably, there was no hangover on the Saturday morning. We all had a lie in but we were soon moving again. At about 11am, a later start than usual, we assembled together for a breakfast at the ‘Spoons on the quayside. The usual suspects, from the night before, soon joined us. A couple of pints soon rejuvenated me. We trotted along by the river and its bridges to meet up with Alan and Daryl, plus Nick and Robbie, at Akenside Traders which is always a hubbub of activity at any time of the day. The place was awash with Chelsea – too many to mention – and the beers continued. I wasn’t paying any attention to the Manchester City vs. Brentford game on TV, but just happened to watch as Brentford scored a ridiculously easy and ridiculously late goal to give them a superb 2-1 win.

From there, we strolled up to “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” and the merry-making continued. I bumped into Adam and some of his Eastern Blues.

Next, a cab up to St. James’ Park, and the Geordie driver was good value for money. He chatted about the Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan years; first as both players in 1983/84, then as player and manager in the “second coming” of the ‘nineties. Beardsley was a quality player. I have written before how I loved his trick, the “leg dangle” mid-dribble to put players off. I have never seen any other player do this.

“Have a good time, lads. But diven’t enjoy it too much, like.”

We caught the lift up to the upper level, and we went our separate ways. I had again swapped my ticket with PD so he could watch with Al, Gal, John and Parky. As ever, there were loads of Rangers in the concourse, but I wished that they didn’t sing their songs. At a Chelsea game? Sing our songs. Ta.

I made my way in. Night, of course had fallen by now. Outside the illuminated steel of the stadium, all was dark. The trip, thus far, had been near perfect, but now – alas – it was time for football to spoil it all.

But first, some history.

My “forty years ago” feature focuses on another away game against a team in black and white stripes and black shorts. On Tuesday 9 November 1982, Chelsea travelled to Meadow Lane for a League Cup tie against Notts County, the oldest professional team in the world who were formed in 1862. Unfortunately, Notts – their supporters call the team “Notts” and recoil at the city’s other team being called “Notts Forest” – beat us 2-0 with both goals being scored in the first-half. The gate was 8,852. At the time, Notts were in the First Division after being promoted at the end of the 1980/81 season.

Their one honour was the FA Cup in 1894. Oh, another claim to fame is that a Notts County supporter provided black and white shirts for Juventus way back in 1903. I must say that I love the fact that Juve chose to christen their new stadium in September 2011 with a friendly against Notts County. Amazingly, Notts drew 1-1. Sadly, the team now play in the National League at level five in the football pyramid.  From Turin to Dorking. What a fall from grace.

The usual routine of games at St. James Park took over.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.

“Blaydon Races” and I found it difficult to join in beneath my breath, it takes me back to my parents teaching me the words ahead of that first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

“Hey Jude” was a new addition, but we again hijacked it.

The locals had their own version anyway.

“La, la, la – la, la, la, la – la, la, la, la – Geordies.”

There were flags and banners in the Gallowgate. Amid the noise, it really felt like a whole city had been energised.

But first, a solemn moment. A poppy amid a sea of white mosaics, similar to us last week, appeared in the seats in the stand to my left, and the teams stood silent as “The Last Post” played.

Complete silence. Well done to everyone again.

Our team?

Mendy

Koulibaly – Chalobah – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Kovacic – Hall

Gallagher – Mount

Broja

I had said all along that I doubted that Lewis Hall would maintain his place despite a decent show at Manchester City md-week.

Eddie Howe vs. Graham Potter.

That rarest of match-ups, two young English coaches, both coming from those hot beds of football, Bournemouth and Brighton. Please excuse my cynicism.

The match kicked-off.

The game took a while to get going and there was a verbal war in the stands to take the place of hostilities on the pitch. I was surprised with how quiet it all was in the vast home areas. A lot of my fellow Chelsea fans agreed :

“No noise from the Saudi Boys.”

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

“We’ve won it all, you’ve won fuck all, we’ve won it all.”

Sadly, we had to re-jig our square pegs after just seven minutes when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was injured, to be replaced by Thiago Silva with Dave shifting out wide.

Miguel Almiron, the in-form player, volleyed over after a cross from our right, but chances were very few and far between. As we struggled to get into the game, I had a look around. Next to me were three empty seats. A few empty ones behind me too. This was all the more galling since Gillian and Kev had been unable to secure tickets. All of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. This was a very mild night. One chap to my right was just wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. Maybe he was that rare breed; a Geordie Chelsea fan. I remember I met one once.

A cross from the enterprising Hall found Armando Broja but his turn and shot ended with a simple save for Nick Pope. I bet the Rangers lot hated that.

Newcastle had much of the ball in that first-half but a mixture of poor final balls, dodgy finishing and desperate blocks from us denied them.

This was a poor game. Chelsea chances were at an absolute premium. I would like to say that we eventually grew into the game but we didn’t. At all.

Shite.

At half-time, Christian Pulisic replaced Dave. Did my eyes deceive me? No, Gallagher went to right wing-back. If we all hang around long enough, we’ll all get to play there.

Newcastle continued on the offensive with brave blocks from our defenders, plus a fine save from Mendy from close-in on Chris Wood. A snapshot from Sean Longstaff flew over our bar.

On the hour, a noisy “Carefree” from us. The home crowd were still pretty quiet, the noise levels only increasing when a move developed, the buzz increasing with their players’ penetration of our half. I remember the days when fans used to sing regardless of the action on the pitch.

Then, quite out of nowhere…

“Stand Up If You Love The Toon” and the loudness knocked my socks off.

That was more like it, Newcastle.

On sixty-five minutes, again out of the blue, a strong run from Pulisic ended up with the ball being pushed into the path of Gallagher who took aim and forced a fine flying save from Pope. It was our best chance of the game by a country mile.

With a quarter of the game to go, Almiron ran in from the right-hand touch line and appeared to me to be lining up a shot. The ball, though, fell nicely for Joe Willock, who swept it high past the dive of Mendy and into the goal.

Bollocks.

The home areas exploded.

“E-I-E-I-E-I-O – Up The Premier League we Go.”

We stood, silent, we had no answer.

“One-nil to the Saudi boys.”

Fackinell.

A triple substitution soon followed.

Marc Cucarella for Hall, a decent showing but no more.

Kai Havertz for Mason Mount, I hardly noticed him.

Hakim Ziyech for Armando Broja, another disappointment.

It was a lost cause. In the dying embers of a shocking performance, Mendy was sent into the attacking third to support a corner to no avail. It all got heated and nasty at the end, when a Geordie substitute was booked for interfering when we tried to take a throw-in. Both sets of players had to be separated at the final whistle.

This malicious mood continued after the game when we were exiting the stands, and were met with some posturing home fans underneath the Leazes End. The moment would probably have passed but we then heard the distinctive sound of police horses getting between the two sets of fans, a sight rarely seen these days, and a sound from a darker era.

The immediate post mortem was brutal.

“Fucking shit.”

Three league defeats in a row,

We walked into town amid some baying Geordies, who were quite adamant that they would become champions. I wasn’t so sure, but their euphoria was tangible. “Wunder Bar” was unfeasibly busy now, so we kept walking and walking into the craziness of a Newcastle night. I spotted three local girls, dolled up to the nines, short skirts of course, stop by a street corner and the loudest of the three took a video-selfie.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys. For we are mental. For we are mad. We are the loyalest (sp?) football supporters. The world has eva had.”

I had to admre it.

Parky, PD and I returned to the quietness of “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” – more local ladies, lovely – and we darted into the historic “Crown Posada” and who should be in there but Alan and Daryl.

“Of all the pubs in Newcastle, you had to walk into this one.”

We supped a few more. We were all fed up with our performance but equally philosophical too.

Daryl and I spoke about our huge disinterest in the Qatar World Cup, but both spoke about the seminal book “All Played Out” by Pete Davies that detailed England and the 1990 Finals in Italy. The “all played out” of the title refers to the state of the English game going into those finals; antiquated stadia, the lingering stench of hooliganism and racism, out-dated playing and training methods, disinterest in football by the public at large, football as a niche sport loved only by nutters and – the silent majority to be fair – normal supporters, and a game without much of a future.

The tears from Paul Gascoigne changed all that and the game has not been the same since.

“Now it’s us who are all played out with World Cups, mate.”

We kept drinking.

A late-night kebab and chips and then a cab back to Benwell at about 1am. The night was finished.

On the Sunday, we licked our wounds early on. We caught a bus into the city and then a metro out to Whitley Bay, a first time visit for us all, where we enjoyed some sun, a walk along the seafront and some fish and chips in a friendly restaurant. Then, the train back to the airport and a wait until the 8.10pm flight home. No surcharge on the bags this time, phew. I eventually got in at about 11pm.

It had, of course, been a superb time on Tyneside but…

…fackinell, the football.

Some other stuff.

The game at St. James’ Park, pushed my visits to Newcastle United into the top ten of most visited away venues.

  1. Manchester United 26
  2. Liverpool 25
  3. Arsenal 24.
  4. Tottenham 23
  5. Everton 22.
  6. Manchester City 19
  7. Aston Villa 18
  8. Southampton 18
  9. West Ham 15
  10. Newcastle United and Stoke City 14

And in case anyone is wondering, the “won, drawn, loss” breakdown from those 1,372 games is as follows.

Games 1 to 686.

Won 386

Drew 169

Lost 132

Games 687 to 1,372.

Won 410

Drew 128

Lost 147

And, lastly, with 3,390 words for this one, it brings my total “wordage” to 1,734,583.

However, I’m exhausted. I never thought I’d say it, but I think I need this enforced break. And, to be honest, if the viewing figures of the last three match reports are anything to go by, so do you lot.

Have a great Christmas and see you at Stamford Bridge on 27 December for the Bournemouth game.

Tales From High Noon

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 November 2022.

After we traipsed back to the car on Wednesday after the win against Dinamo Zagreb, soaked with the rain, we were well aware of the tough task ahead of Graham Potter’s side before the break in proceedings. We were to play three tough, tough, tough games.

Arsenal at home in the League, Manchester City away in the League Cup and Newcastle United away in the League.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

To be blunt, the Manchester City game didn’t bother me too much. I had, in reality, already conceded defeat. I just didn’t want us to be embarrassed. As for the two league games, I soon decided that I would be happy with two 0-0 draws. It was all about getting our feet over the line before the season closed down for a break of forty-five long days. If the 2022-23 campaign looked like an assault on Mount Everest, getting to the second weekend of November would be akin to arriving at a pretty significant base camp.

The home game with Arsenal was to kick-off at midday. This was a ridiculous time for a match. It harked back to times in the early to mid-‘eighties when worries about potential hooliganism forced the football authorities to foist such kick-off times on us all. On opening day 1984, for example, our most famous game against Arsenal in that era kicked-off at 11.30am.

But midday in 2022? Oh boy.

My alarm sounded at 4.45am. On a Sunday. A day of rest? Forget it.

My passengers were soon collected; PD and Glenn at 5.45am, Ron at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. As a matter of principle, I never like being late for any pick-ups. And nor does Ron in particular.

“I was only ever late for tackles.”

We were met with yet more horrific weather as we headed towards London. There was so much standing water on the roads that I wondered that if the torrents continued until kick-off, the game might be postponed. Such was our combined fear of getting turned over by Arsenal, a postponement wasn’t looked on as unfavourably as it might have been at another time.

I dropped the others off and then parked the car. The rain had subsided a little, but as I made my way down a deserted North End Road, stopping en route for a rare McBreakfast, my rain jacket was clinging to me, the rain reluctant to stop.

I joined the lads in “The Eight Bells” at just after 10am. We were in there for an hour. There was no talk of the game being called off. Alex – from last Saturday and Wednesday – joined us and was pleased to meet my fellow Chelsea mates at last. He called them “the Three Musketeers” and me “D’Artagnan.” I will not share what I called him. The usual laughs in the pub, the usual characters. It did feel bloody odd, though, to wish a few friends and regulars “Happy Christmas” as we squeezed out of the boozer.

Bollocks to Qatar 2022. It has ruined our season and it has ruined many lives.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. It just seemed all along like a bloody ridiculous time for a game of football, London derby or not.

Forty years ago – to the exact day, Saturday 6 November 1982 – Chelsea had another home derby. We played Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge in front of a relatively decent 15,169, but the game ended up as a dull 0-0 draw. I won’t detail the Chelsea team on this occasion but, for reference and as a comparison, let me list the Crystal Palace players; Paul Barron, Gavin Nebbeling, Jerry Murphy, Steve Lovell, Jim Cannon, Paul Hinshelwood, David Giles, Henry Hughton, Ian Edwards, Kevin Mabbutt and Vince Hilaire. I recognise all of these names forty years on, with the exception of David Giles, and if pressed I could probably write short pen pictures of them all. Of especial note is Kevin Mabbutt, a former Bristol City striker, whose brother Gary had gone from Bristol Rovers to Tottenham in 1982 and would soon be playing for England. Their father Ray used to play for Frome Town. I mention all of this because I know damn well that I would be hard-pressed to name many of the current Arsenal team that would be playing us on the same date in 2022. I don’t feel any pleasure in saying this. I guess it is a sign of my changing relationship with football and modern football in particular. Outside of Chelsea, I just don’t see much football these days. Oh well.

Glenn was using my ticket for this game as I had picked up a spare. For a change, I would be sat in Gate 17 at the Matthew Harding. It’s an odd section. It’s actually along the side of the pitch, an adjunct to the East Stand, and was built a few years after the Matthew Harding, and joined the two stands together. To be honest, it’s a great area to see the game. My seat was in the second row, just splendid. I soon spotted Mark Worrell a few rows behind me alongside Young Dave and Pav from Bath, heroes of Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013. I saw that club historian Rick Glanvill was a few seats away. I also spotted Johnny Twelve and his son in an even better viewing position in one of the middle tiers of the West Stand.

By the side of the pitch, former players Emmanuel Petit and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Oh dear, memories of that 2002 FA Cup Final against you-know-who.

As this would be our nearest home game to Remembrance Day, the Stamford Bridge stadium was set up to honour the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The large letters “Chelsea Remembers” usually occupy the corner of the pitch where I was now located but I was lucky in that this display was now in the opposite corner of the northern end of the stadium. It meant that I was still able to capture it all on camera. Above the Shed End, a banner stated “We Will Remember Them” and the crowd waited for the understated pageantry at kick-off. Two Chelsea pensioners placed wreaths, the players lined up on the centre-circle and “The Last Post” was played by a lone bugler. In The Shed, a sea of white mosaics appeared with a large red poppy in the middle. It didn’t feel right to photograph this, I let the moment pass, and kept my head bowed in silence.

The minute of silence was that. It was unerringly quiet. Well done to all.

Our team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Chalobah – Cucarella

Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek

Sterling – Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

Their team? Who cares.

So, this was it then. A duel at high noon. A shoot-out between London’s two most decorated clubs.

Arsenal : 31 major trophies.

Chelsea : 28 major trophies.

This was my thirty-seventh game against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Additionally, I have seen us play Arsenal at six further venues, the most of any club; Highbury, The Emirates, Wembley, Cardiff, Beijing and Baku.

The game began.

From this new vantage point, Stamford Bridge looked different, though obviously familiar. I didn’t like feeling cramped in with spectators to my front, back, left and right. In my usual seat, I have just bodies to my right and in front; to my left steps, a walkway behind. And I took an immediate dislike to the angry man to my left. He quickly annoyed me, telling a chap who was obviously having difficulty to find his correct seat to “fuck off” and soon labelling one of our players with a term that I thought had died a death in the ‘eighties.

On the pitch, Arsenal had begun much the brighter of the two teams and very soon the anger of one man spread to the anger of others. Attacking at will down below me, the chances started to pile up but the Arsenal finishing was errant and did not really trouble Edouard Mendy. An effort from Gabriel Martinelli – I recognised him – flew just over the bar.

We invited Arsenal on, but there was a horrific piece of goalkeeping from Mendy when he almost made a complete hash of passing the ball out of defence. I was reminded of a moment that took place the previous afternoon during the Frome Town vs. Tavistock game that I had watched with a few friends. We were already 2-0 down but we gifted the visiting team from Devon with a third when our ‘keeper made a mess of clearing and an attacker scored his third of his eventual four goals in a shocking 4-0 rout. It was, undoubtedly, the worst Frome Town performance that I had seen for years.

I kept looking at the clock, willing the time to pass quickly. There is no doubt that we had shown a reluctance to piece too many moves together but we were playing a little better than I had feared.

In the midst of strong Arsenal pressure, we enjoyed a rare break. Raheem Sterling ran at pace down our right before switching it to Kai Havertz on our left.

“Go on Havertz, be strong.”

The pace of the move slowed and Havertz methodically advanced. He spotted the run of Mason Mount but a shot was blocked.

Gabriel Jesus – I sadly recognised him too – headed a cross from Martinelli just wide of Mendy’s goal.

Chances were at a premium.

I wanted our support to roar the players on, but it saddens me to say that I could just hear the three thousand Arsenal fans and not us.

That very distinctive “Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal.”

The left-footed Odegaard reminded me of Mike Fillery, just the way he caressed the ball forward.

A poor finish from Havertz from a nice move down our right.

“That was a bloody back pass” I moaned.

At the break, there was relief that we were still in the game, despite Arsenal having more of the ball. But, I had to admit it to myself, neither ‘keeper was pressed into a save.

Arsenal still enjoyed more of the possession as the second-half began. Gabriel Jesus forced a near post save from Mendy. From the corner that followed, a slow cross towards to the near post. It seemed to be headed on from the view that I had, and the ball continued on unaided through a forest of players in the six-yard box.

I screamed.

“No!”

Then when the ball was pushed over the line :

“Fuck off!”

Sixty-three minutes had passed.

Then that horrible song.

“One nil to The Arsenal.”

A double substitution from Potter.

Conor Gallagher for the woeful Havertz.

Armando Broja for the equally poor Aubameyang.

I heard the jeering, booing, laughter of three-thousand Arsenal fans.

There seemed to be an immediate increase in our intensity, but for all of the energy of the two newcomers, it was all so disjointed. The Arsenal players were suffocating our midfield and the two in front of the back four – Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek – offered little.

The rain came again, damn it; not another soaking on a wet walk back to the car?

More Arsenal chances, our fight disappeared.

Two more changes.

Christian Pulisic for the almost invisible Mount.

Mateo Kovacic for the disappointing Loftus-Cheek.

Chances in the second-half? I can only think of one, a quick break from Sterling but his cross disappeared into the ether.

The angry man to my left early, and a fair few others left early too. It was a deeply disappointing game for us, and one that left us all wondering about our immediate future. Of our players, only Mendy – several decent saves – and Dave – a steady game in difficult circumstances – were exempt of any negative comments. The rest? Poor. Very poor.

Yes, we got drenched on the way back to the car, but maybe not quite so bad as on Wednesday. Everything was doom and gloom in the first few miles of our return journey.

And I don’t really know how to finish this one. In modern football, everyone reacts to the latest result as if that alone will define our season, our future. That can’t be right can it? I don’t know about Graham Potter. I can’t help feeling that he may not be an upgrade on Thomas Tuchel. But this ain’t his team, maybe not for a while.

The old banalities about time can be trotted out.

We’ll see. We’ll see.

In a moment of whimsy, after I had been back at home for an hour or so, I realised that the quintessentially English phrase “pottering” might well have summed up, cynically, our performance against Arsenal.

“to potter” : verb.

From the Oxford Dictionary : “to do things or move without hurrying, especially when you are doing something that you enjoy and that is not important.”

“Occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.”

“I’m quite happy to potter about by myself here.”

Similar :

Do nothing much.

Amuse oneself.

Tinker about.

Do odd jobs.

Mess about.

Piddle about.

Piddle around.

Puddle about.

Puddle around.

Muck about.

Muck around.

Fanny around.

Footle about.

Footle around.

Lollygag.

Move or go in a casual, unhurried way.

So much for a shoot-out at high noon on this wet and weary day at Stamford Bridge. If it was a shoot-out, somebody must have given us a supply of blanks.

However.

Let’s give the new man a bit of time to sort things out. Rome wasn’t built in a day and other clichés. We were bloody excellent at the San Siro a few weeks ago. We are missing two key players. Maybe three.

On we bloody go.

No midweek trip to Manchester City for me so the next one will be another tough game up on Tyneside.

See you there.

Tales From Dynamo In 1945 And Dinamo In 2022

Chelsea vs. Dinamo Zagreb : 2 November 2022.

We were in November now. And after the glorious sun, if not the glorious result, at Brighton, it now felt like the winter had hit with a vengeance. The temperature had dropped and heavy coats and rain jackets were the order of the day. My new Barbour jacket was getting an airing for the first time. I hoped that it would pass the test.

It was about 4.40pm and I was walking along the Fulham Road with one of my fellow passengers. Just a few steps ahead, I am sure I saw Scott Minto edge onto the pavement. I walked ahead, got up alongside and – yes – it was him.

“Scott?”

“Hi mate.”

“Walking just behind us is another chap who played left-back for this club.”

Scott looked back and hands were shaken between the two former Chelsea defenders. As we continued towards the West Stand entrance, I thanked him for the 1997 FA Cup Final.

“That was one of the best days of my life,” I said, “and great celebrations too.”

Scott replied “you have to say we were the first team to rip the arse out of Cup Final celebrations, eh?”

I agreed. No doubt.

Scott continued.

“And the club’s first trophy since Ron’s time.”

“Absolutely.”

I liked Scotty when he played for us and it was quite a surprise when he left for Benfica in the summer after us winning our first trophy in twenty-six years. He was replaced by the returning Graeme Le Saux.

Meeting me outside “Frankie’s” were two friends from the US, a familiar theme in these reports, eh? Alex, from Houston as featured in the last report, was first in my view, but just behind him was David from Nashville. I was reminded that I last bumped into David at the PSG friendly in Charlotte in 2015. I introduced both of them to each other, and also to Chopper. We disappeared upstairs to the Millennium Hotel bar where further photo opportunities took place. New to the match day team is David Lee and I had a quick chat as a current workmate is a mutual friend. Our former defender – “Rodders” – is from Bristol and lives, now, between Bristol and Bath. I think we were all surprised to see Bobby Tambling there again. He spent an engaging five minutes talking to me with great enthusiasm and humour about a recent charity match in Cork, his adopted home city, to raise funds and awareness for those suffering from dementia. Bless him. It was a joy to see him so well.

PD and Parky, the others in the car from Wiltshire to London, were in “The Goose” but Alex and I decamped to “Simmons” after a quick chat with DJ at the “CFCUK” stall. The bar was ridiculously quiet on our arrival. A pint of “Estrella” apiece, we sat at one of the high tables and waited for further friends to join us.

Alex, as I mentioned previously, is originally from Moscow. Don’t worry, he is no fan of Putin, I have checked. He told me that his childhood team in his home city was Dynamo, and this suited me well. I told the story of when I went to the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow I purposefully bought myself a Dynamo Moscow scarf – beautiful blue and white – in honour of the 1945 game at Stamford Bridge. Alex was working in Moscow at the time of the game at the Luzhniki Stadium, and although he had purchased a normal ticket, he bumped into an old friend who invited him into his private suite. After huge amounts of vodka, Alex remembers little of the game. It is probably for the best.

Ah 1945, I have mentioned it before. Of all of our previous matches, it is the one that I wish I had attended, the 1970 and 1971 finals excepted. I flashed up some images of the game on my ‘phone to show Alex; specifically, the team line-ups with Chelsea, in red, clutching the bouquets given to them by the touring Russians. Alas, celery was not a Chelsea “thing” in 1945. I also showed him the photos of spectators perched on the old East Stand roof and surrounding the pitch.

Over 100,000 were at Chelsea that day.

“Small club with money” they say.

Righty-o.

Johnny Twelve and his son John – his first visit to England – settled alongside us. Our friend Rob, who sits a few rows behind me, called in. Next to arrive was Chopper from New York, who I have known since around 2006. We had a lovely little mix at our table.

Greenwich Village, Long Beach, Hersham, Houston and Frome.

The bar was still quiet. I joked with the others when I saw a gaggle of around eight girls – teenagers, I reckon – come in and sit opposite under a sign that said “GIRLS GIRLS.”

“Shouldn’t there be a neon sign behind us that says ‘OLD CNUTS’ lads?”

We weren’t exactly sure how Graham Potter would play this game. He had to play those in the named CL squad. The manager couldn’t flood the team with an influx of young’uns. After the Brighton debacle, I half-expected a decent team to salvage some pride. We, after all, would only have four games left until the dreaded break for the competition that deserves no further comment.

Luckily, the predicted rain held off on the short walk to Stamford Bridge. We were in early, and one section was already fully occupied. I always knew that the Dinamo Zagreb fans would have travelled well. And there they all were, just a few shy of three thousand of them in the two tiers opposite us in The Sleepy Hollow. And virtually all dressed in black.

“Probably just come from Selhurst Park” quipped Alan.

The team was announced.

With Kepa still injured, Mendy came in. We kept a back-four after changing things around at Brighton. Graham Potter handed Juventus loanee Denis Zakaria a Chelsea debut. Upfront, it was all pretty fluid stuff with Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang tending to drift left.

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Chalobah – Koulibaly – Chilwell

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang

I always like it when away teams come to Stamford Bridge and play in a mirror image of our kit. Dinamo were nicely decked out in white / white / blue but I didn’t approve of the “reverse bird shit” effect all over the shirts.

The away fans were making an almighty din, no surprises there, and an early chant sounded awfully like “All Leeds Aren’t We?” Their first chance got them all singing louder and louder still. A cross from the attackers’ right hung in the air and Cesar Azpilicueta’s header did not go where it was intended. The ball came back across the six-yard box for Petkovic to easily head home past Edouard Mendy.

The away fans erupted. Flares were let off in the away end and white smoke drifted around like old-style London fog. Soon after, a fair few showed Leeds-like tendencies by taking off their predominantly black tops.

We reacted well in the Matthew Harding with a loud riposte.

“Carefree” soon boomed around Stamford Bridge.

On seventeen minutes, a fine slide-rule pass from Jorginho hit the forward run from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the striker was just able to back-heal the ball towards Raheem Sterling after a defender initially cut the ball out. He then adjusted himself, took a touch, then another, and calmly slotted the ball low past the Dinamo ‘keeper. We were level.

Shortly after we made a patient advance down the right and Kai Havertz slipped a fine ball in towards Sterling but his first-time effort was high and wasteful.

By now, Alan and I were fully involved in a chat about the upcoming away game on Tyneside; our arrival times, our accommodation, our loose plans, talk of The Toon, everything. The game continued down below us almost as an afterthought.

On the half hour mark, a move developed down the right again, this time Mason Mount racing through to pick out a striker, Havertz. A defender reached the ball before the German, but the ball was played towards the waiting Denis Zakaria in a central position. He looked a little hesitant but he slotted it home, the ball just making it over the line before Dinamo players could intervene.

We were 2-1 up.

But still the Dinamo supporters sung and sung and sung.

It was time for another quip from Alan.

Livakovic, Peric, Misic, Ljubicic, Ivanusec and Petkovic were on the pitch.

“That’s a lot of itches out there. They should be able to get cream for that though.”

We reached half-time. It hadn’t been a festival of football, but it was pretty decent stuff.

In the match day programme, there was an interesting article by club historian Rick Glanvill concerning a friendly that we played against Dinamo in Zagreb on 27 May 1937, although the club was called Gradjanski at that time. Chelsea enjoyed a 1-0 win.

Continuing a look at our history, a quick mention of the latest Chelsea game from forty years ago. On Saturday 30 October 1982, Chelsea travelled way north to Carlisle United for a league game. We lost 2-1 in front of 7,171, with Colin Lee our scorer. We had just signed the former Liverpool full-back Joey Jones from Wrexham for £34,000 and I, for one, was not too impressed. Although he was only twenty-seven at the time, I felt that he was well past his sell-by date. Joey had played under our manager John Neal in his first of his two – eventually to be three – spells at Wrexham. I was certainly not impressed when our new signing was sent off on his debut. It summed up, in my mind, the worrying state of the club at that time.

At the start of the second-half, the Dinamo fans were still singing. They didn’t let up. It was magnificent to behold.

Our chances continued to pile up. Aubameyang cut in from the inside-left position and his whipped shot skimmed the top of the bar. We were treated to some tricky interplay between Aubameyang and Ben Chiwell down below us but a cross was blocked.

Dinamo were not particularly gifted but they did try their best to attack when they could. It was difficult to think that they had inflicted an opening-game defeat in Croatia at the start of this particular Champions League crusade. However, even a point against us in this game would almost certainly not be enough to prolong their campaign in the Europa League.

Or the “George Roper” as Alan called it.

In the away end, more smoke, and many a fire-cracker. The noise did not abate all night long. They were, probably, the loudest and most impressive away fans that we had seen at Chelsea. Ever? For their number, yes.

Our efforts continued from Havertz, Chilwell and Mount.

Potter made some substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

Thiago Silva for Koulibaly.

The debutant Zakaria impressed as the game continued. He looked strong and neat, leggy, with a decent pass distribution.

He was then replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The rain came on stronger now, but it seemed to invigorate us, with Broja looking like he was enjoying the battle with his marker as he twisted and turned out wide and in the channels.

The crowd loudly serenaded Thiago Silva and he is surely our most loved player at the moment. The Chelsea chances continued and in another game it could easily have been 4-1 or 5-1.

In the last of five substitutions, Christian Pulisic replaced Sterling.

Sadly, in virtually the last few seconds of the game, Chilwell pulled up on the touch-line, and it looked like a pulled hamstring. The prognosis looked worrying.

On the walk back to the car, we all got drenched by the incessant rain.

Fackinell.

I caught some much-needed sleep in the back of PD’s car as he battled the wind and the rain.

Next up would be a London derby against Arsenal, the first of three difficult matches, and our last home game until after Christmas.

Tales From One Over The Eight

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 29 October 2022.

So this was it then. The ninth and final game of the month; a trip down to Sussex-by-the-Sea and a match against Graham Potter’s previous team Brighton & Hove Albion. Of the nine fixtures, six would be away from Stamford Bridge but despite this, as far as gathering results, this had been a fine month with six wins and two draws thus far. 

Brighton is a fair old stretch from Somerset.

Or rather, Lewes and Falmer. We wouldn’t be touching the actual city of Brighton.

I set off from my house at 7.45am, and I predicted that I’d be pulling into the car park at Lewes train station at around 11.30am. With me were P-Diddy, Lord Parky and Sir Les. Between the four of us, we have well over two hundred years of Chelsea support.

The weather forecast was decent. I packed a jacket but wasn’t sure that I’d honestly need it. Last season’s trip to the Amex was not a good memory for me. We drew 1-1, no problems with that, but as the game progressed I felt worse and worse. I just wanted to leave. It would transpire that I had caught a stomach bug and would be off work for a week. Grim memories.

1982/83 produced some grim memories too. My fortieth anniversary wallow in our worst ever season continues with a couple of games from that season.

On Saturday 23 October 1982, Chelsea played Charlton Athletic at Stamford Bridge in a Division Two fixture. All the talk leading up to this game focussed on the visitors’ imminent signing of the former European footballer of the year Allan Simonsen. The Danish international was out of favour at Barcelona after the signing of Diego Maradona from Boca Juniors. Spanish clubs at the time were only allowed to field two foreigners and he found himself down the pecking order behind Maradona and the German Bernd Schuster. In a move that I still find bizarre forty years later, he was due to sign for Charlton but the registration was delayed and his debut came a short while after. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the English Second Division in 1982/83 played host to two former European footballers of the year; Allan Simonsen from 1977, Kevin Keegan from 1978 and 1979. Before a crowd of 14,492, Chelsea won 3-1 with goals from John Bumstead, Pop Robson and a screamer from Colin Pates. That evening in Frome, my former love interest Julie made an appearance at a school disco on a brief return to the town and I probably uttered and stuttered less than ten words to her all night. That particular romance was over and I am still hurting now.

During the following midweek, Chelsea won 2-1 at Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup in front of 4,579 with a brace from the veteran Robson giving the club an easy aggregate win and a place in the next round.

Les had been over in Salzburg too, and as I ate up the miles we shared a few tales from Austria. My route took me up the M3, around the M25 and then south on the M23. One sight thrilled me; the road undulating over a series of hills as the South Downs lay ahead. It was just one of those moments that fill me with a sudden and odd burst of pleasure.

Football, travel, the combination of the two and the realisation that this lark is still a joy.

Parky shared a couple of songs from The Jam on his ‘phone as I drove into Lewes from the A27.

“News Of The World.”

“That’s Entertainment.”

As I promised myself, I reached Lewes train station car park bang on 11.30am. Just after, the four of us were drinking in “The Lansdown” pub which had just that minute opened. There were a few Chelsea already there. The first song on the pub’s juke box?

“That’s Entertainment.”

Talk about continuity.

There was a little chat with Cath, Dog and Mark, then another Mark, then Walt. Walt spoke how he wasn’t exactly overcome with enthusiasm for this game and I knew what he meant. Sometimes, you just don’t feel it. Since going away to Austria, I had been getting by on less than sleep than normal. When my alarm sounded at 6.30am – an hour earlier than on workdays, damn it – I just felt tired, so tired. The thought of driving seven hours to-and-from Brighton didn’t exactly have me brimming with excitement.

“But then you see the lads, share some laughs, take the piss out of each other, touch on the game, make plans for the day, reminisce, you’re soon back at it again…”

While the other three stayed inside, I was on my travels. It was glorious outside. From our fleeting glimpses of Lewes on the last few visits, it looked a lovely and historic town. I made my way over the river to a pub called “The John Harvey” where I was meeting up with my Brighton mate Mac and a few of his pals. A chap from Houston in Texas, Alex – a “Facebook” acquaintance – was on his way too, although he was clearly suffering from the same logistical trauma that we experienced between Munich and Nuremburg because he was originally waiting for me in the Lewes Road Inn in Brighton rather than Lewes, the town.

At around 1pm we all met up and we stood outside in the warm sunshine exchanging stories and laughs.

Alex is from Moscow but has worked in other countries for many years. He told a nice story of when he was working in Ireland in around 1992 and a moment that sparked an interest in Chelsea. He was in a bar, Chelsea were on TV, a live game I think, and he recognised someone he knew. It was Dmitri Kharin, our Russian goalkeeper, who he played football with as a teenager. He still had his ‘phone number and they spoke but I don’t think that the two of them ever met, certainly not at a Chelsea game.

We spoke about our first experiences of live football.

My mother and I with a bag of cherries at my first ever match, a Frome Town game in 1970.

Mac with his father at the old Goldstone Ground in 1966 when he was just five, and him being in awe of the whole event. But also a few years later in 1973, when he happened to be at the Brighton ground when newly arrived manager Brian Clough gathered together around thirty young boys outside the entrance and gave them a talk about how he wanted the team to play and, basically, his vision for the future.

Those memories, those feelings for football, these shared stories. Those emotions that get stirred. The friendships. Being among fellow supporters of the game, those that travel to support their team whenever they can. That shared bond.

Ah, football, you beautiful thing.

You beautiful game.

There was a brief mention of the local stadium, the home of Lewes Football Club, which was recently voted the greatest football ground in Britain. Its name is The Dripping Pan, which warrants a medal by itself. Maybe Frome Town will play there in an FA Trophy game one of these days. It looks a cracking venue.

Rush, rush, rush, I know needed to get my arse down to the Amex where I was meeting up with my mates Paul – Benches 1984 – and Andy – Black Bull 1989 – and Andy’s son before the game to sort out tickets. The weather was still warm, so I was able to drop a pullover and a light jacket in my car. A simple T-shirt would suffice.

Alex and I caught the 2.22pm train to Falmer and were soon waking up to the Amex.

I met up with my pals and there was just enough time for a quick photo outside. I had no time to go through the nonsense of yet another tiresome bag search, so I blindsided my way in past two stewards whose gaze was elsewhere.

It was the textbook move of a devious and cunning “false nine.”

Anyway, I was in.

I soon made my way to my seat, tucked to the right-hand side of the goal this year. I half-expected the surroundings of the Amex to rekindle those sickly feelings of last winter, but I was just glad to be healthy, and rejuvenated after a few “diet Cokes” in the two pubs.

Mac – soon spotted by me in the lower tier of the surprisingly large three-tiered stand to my left – had hoped that there would be no booing of Potter by sections of the home fans. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t. In fact, it’s pretty hard to imagine the Brighton fans booing anyone, Crystal Palace apart. They are a gentle bunch.

The team line-ups were shown on the TV screens at either end of the stadium.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Loftus- Cheek – Sterling

Mount – Gallagher

Havertz

Or something like that.

An Italian flag floated over the heads of those in the home end opposite, marking the arrival of their new manager Roberto de Zerbi.

“Sussex By The Sea” on the PA. Some rainbow-coloured flags were waved on another “Rainbow Laces” day.

“Hey Jude” was aired and we hijacked it once again.

We were dressed in the “muted beige” third kit for the first time and you have to wonder why. Brighton were wearing a jersey with very broad stripes, and it just didn’t look right, with an odd yellow trim. Last year they played in blue shorts. This year they were in white shorts. That lack of an adherence to an established kit would annoy me.

The game began.

And how.

Brighton were breezy. They came at us as if their lives depended on it, and perhaps they did. Thiago Silva miraculously headed away two goal-bound efforts from Leandro Trossard and then the wonderfully named Pervis Estupinan right underneath the cross-bar just a few yards away from us.

A couple of minutes later, they came at us again with Silva being pick-pocketed by Trossard. A neat pass inside by Kaoru Mitoma set up Trossard to round Kepa with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have been pleased with and slot the ball home. This was a real hammer blow. The home fans bellowed as I saw the scorer gurn undeniable pleasure.

Fackinell.

It was all Brighton in that torrid first third of the first-half, and they enjoyed a fair few corners to augment their dominance. From one that was whipped in towards the near post, a Brighton player flicked it the ball on. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s unfortunate knee-jerk reaction meant that the ball flew past a stranded Kepa.

The home stands were roaring again.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

We had nowhere to hide.

I said to Gary “this could be a rout, this.”

At last, we enjoyed a spell of steadying the ship, with a little more possession. One fine move developed through the middle with Raheem Sterling setting up Conor Gallagher who shot directly at Robert Sanchez. His reaction save allowed the ball to fall for Christian Pulisic. However, he was unable to adjust and his volleyed effort flew past the near post.

The Chelsea support got it together in an effort to rally behind the team.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

But all was not well on the pitch. Marc Cucarella was having a torrid time, and the raids down the Brighton right were leaving him exposed time and time again. I wondered if he was the modern equivalent of Robert Fleck, playing well against us but not so great for us. But where was the cover? He was continually caught ought, but so too was Trevoh Chalobah by Estupinan down the Brighton left. I hadn’t seen our defence run ragged like this for ages.

But the shape seemed to be shapeless. From my far-from-ideal position in row two, it looked like the two appointed wing backs Sterling and Pulisic were never part of our defensive plan. Where were they?

They were so far forward in that opening spell that they might well have been promenading up and down on the Brighton seafront, and just about to dip into the Royal Pavilion. Or maybe having a flutter at the Brighton racecourse. Or re-enacting a few scenes from “Brighton Rock” or “Quadrophenia.” I can just see Pulisic as a bell-boy.

Had they been told to play so forward or were they too lazy to track back? It was a mystery. Answers on the back of a Donald McGill postcard.

Gallagher then glanced a header goal wards but Sanchez saved Brighton again. Then a Kai Havertz effort was tipped around the post.

Brighton hit a post.

Our play wasn’t worthy of the name at times.

“Is Mount playing” I asked Gary.

Just before half-time, we groaned as we witnessed a trademark break down our right with tons of space for Brighton to exploit. I leant forward to get a better view but wished I hadn’t. A low cross from Estupinan was drilled into the box where Chalobah slide to block but could only divert the ball past the hapless Kepa.

Fackinell.

Absolute gloom at the break.

Gary : “I’ll take 3-0 now.”

Indeed, the real worry was of more goals to follow, a cricket-score. Back in the West Country, Frome Town were losing too, 1-3 down at half-time in a derby at Paulton Rovers.

I had spotted that when Kepa sprinted out for a long ball in the first period, he appeared to pull up as if he had sprained something. He did not appear for the second-half, with Edouard Mendy appearing between the sticks at the other end. We moved to a back four with Loftus-Cheek slotting in at right-back. I was reminded of a line from Eric Morecambe.

“We’ve got all the right players. But not necessarily in the right positions.”

Skippy from Brisbane – last seen on these shores at Middlesbrough, but recently in Salzburg – suddenly appeared behind me and I shook his hand.

Not long after I whispered to Gary “get a goal now and we’re back in this”, Gallagher – possibly the best of a poor lot in the first-half – sent over a teasing cross for Havertz to head home powerfully at the far post.

Bosh.

I turned to Skippy : “You’re not going anywhere. You’re a good luck charm.”

Our form definitely improved, with Mount a lot more involved, pushing the team one. A half-chance for Havertz.

Just after the hour, two changes.

Ben Chilwell for Cucarella.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the utterly woeful Sterling.

The newly-introduced striker ran at the Brighton defence and shot low from the outside of the box but the ‘keeper was equal to it. Shots from Chilwell and Mount were easily dealt with. We kept pushing forward, but I was never convinced of any “Cardiff 1984” style comeback. Brighton were happy to defend and catch us on the break.

A Havertz shot was skied in front of us.

In the last ten minutes, two more changes.

Armando Broja for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Gallagher.

I looked over to my left and spotted my old pal Chopper from Greenwich Village in New York, veteran of many a trip to these shores to see us play. I hadn’t seen him for years.

The minutes clicked past and by now our away end resembled the arse-end of a wedding reception, with seats left empty and guests already on their way home, the best man speech long-forgotten, debris everywhere, people shuffling away with blank stares on their faces.

Up the other end, Mendy made a fine save to thwart Julio Encisco but Pascal Gross was on hand to tuck in the rebound.

Brighton 4 Chelsea 1.

Our ninth game in October had resulted in our first loss, and our first loss under Potter.

One over the eight had been too much for us; one game too many, too many beers at that wedding reception.

We slumped off home.

To complete a miserable afternoon of football, I checked my phone.

Paulton Rovers 3 Frome Town 2.

It was a long old trip home, but a short stop outside Shoreham for some food – “saveloy, chips and curry sauce please” – helped alleviate some of the doom and gloom.

I reached home at about 9.30pm.

Next up, a dead rubber game in the Champions league against Dinamo Zagreb, our position at the top of our group table already determined.

Into November we go.

LEWES

FALMER

Tales From Platform 11 And Platform 25

FC Red Bull Salzburg vs. Chelsea : 25 October 2022.

When we heard the dates for the games in Group E of this season’s Champions League, my first task was focussed on sorting out Milan. I am, after all, used to just attending one away game of this stage in the competition. But after discussion with the Paul and Parky, I then turned my attention to the away match at FC Red Bull Salzburg. It took a while to resolve but I eventually sorted out a trip for us all.

2022 (Milan and Salzburg) would join 2015 (Porto and Haifa) and 2017 (Rome and Baku) as the only years that I would complete two of the three group phase games. I am in awe of those that continually attend all three, and in absolute awe of those who rarely miss any European away games.

Quickly, then, after the home game with Manchester United on the Saturday came a trip out to Austria on the Monday.

I collected my fellow troops late on Monday morning and we headed up to Heathrow where a British Airways flight to Nuremburg in southern Germany would take off at around 3.45pm. There was much traffic in the last section of the trip east and we arrived a little later at Terminal Five than planned, but all was OK. I had hoped for something a little more substantial on the outbound flight than a packet of crisps and a glass of water but “hey ho.” A fortnight after I was looking down on the port of Dover en route to Turin, I was looking down on it again, though from a much higher elevation. We had left a little later than planned but the pilot clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. We touched down at Nuremburg airport at 6.45pm.

We caught a cab to our digs – a really nice apartment in the middle of an industrial estate – and then soon headed for some drinks. We stopped at a little neighbourhood bar en route to a U-Bahn station for the first drink of the trip, and I had to conjure up some German for the first time in ten years. Amazingly, I realised that the very last time that my little tootsies had been on German soil was the day after a certain game in Munich in 2012. Nuremburg city centre was pretty quiet. We had further drinks in three bars and the lagers, of course, went down well.

I was last in this old city in the summer of 1985. I had stopped off on a month-long Inter-Rail trip to primarily visit Zeppelin Field where Hitler held those rallies in the horrific days of the Third Reich. I traipsed all over the southern half of the city on a Sunday afternoon. Eventually I found it all. The Grosse Strasse was still in place, as was the Congress Hall, and the tribune and podium remained. I clambered up on to the very podium where Hitler addressed his followers. It was, I have to admit, a very eerie sensation.

It pains me to report that a Chelsea mate, a Jew, was abused after a recent game by some of our so called supporters.

Words fail me.

I spoke to Paul and Parky about Hitler’s plans to build the biggest stadium of them all, just to the west of the Grosse Strasse – “Deutsches Stadion” – which would have held 400,000 in a huge horse-shoe shape, but this monster was never built. It would have been the biggest stadium ever.

I saw their eyes glaze over before me.

Sadly, my hunt for a German sausage, a crusty bread roll, with some sauerkraut and a dab of mustard did not materialise. We made do with a chicken kebab.

The wurst was still to come.

…more eyes glazing over.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, we took the U-Bahn into town and caught the 8.12am train south to Munich. It was a quick and easy service and only took an hour or so. I tried to snooze a little. Outside there was mist and fog, with limited visibility.

But I was awake to see a gorgeous image that I think will remain in my memory forever. Looking out to my right, in the middle of a field shrouded in mist, a lone white church tower stood, with sunlight crashing against it.

It took my breath away.

I quickly thought about my two previous games in Austria.

1994/95 : Austria Memphis 1 Chelsea 1 and two words – “John Spencer.”

2016/17 : Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0 and another two words – “shite friendly.”

There was a quick turnaround at Munich’s Hauptbanhof, a place that I remembered not only from post-match meanderings in May 2012, but from my wanderlust years of my youth. My most common trip in those days was Milano Centrale to Munich Hauptbanhof, via a change at beautiful Verona. It afforded me a fine sleep between Verona and Munich. I must have travelled that route ten times or so.

Our onward leg left from Platform 11, right on the southern edge of the main section of the station, which – I have to remark – was not as large as I remembered it. Nothing on the scale of Milan’s beauty anyway.

Platform 11 brought back a funny memory or two from late September 1987.

Ian, Trev and I – three college mates, as featured in the Milan episode – had spent the evening at the city’s famous Oktoberfest. We were blitzed. Four had consumed massive steins apiece. We were walloped. I am not sure how, but I walked away with two “Spatenbrau” steins, the others had one apiece.

Fellow travellers were slumped, snoozing, comatose, all over the station, a scene that was repeated after the 2012 game where Glenn and I tip-toed among Bayern fans on the way to the left-luggage lockers.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, in a beer-induced haze, my two companions first lost their left-luggage keys, but eventually found them. Trev was out of money so decided to catch an overnight train to Paris and head back to the UK early. Ian and I would travel to Hamburg. But I then realised that I had lost my wallet and Inter-Rail card and that Trev must have had them both; he was already asleep and far from impressed when I woke him. It was lucky that I had awoken him to be honest. He was on the wrong train so I quickly hooked him off. By sheer luck, I had rescued him just in time. We all then decided to catch an overnight train to Vienna to get some sleep after the Hamburg train never materialised.

We slept like babies.

When we woke, all was still. Ian and I presumed that we had miraculously arrived in Vienna. Trev, bless him, thought that he was newly arrived in Paris.

I looked outside.

We were still stuck on platform 11 at Munich.

Fackinell.

My only explanation for this is that the Germans, bless them, had put on train compartments for revellers to sleep in overnight during Oktoberfest.

But none of us never found out for sure.

Later that day we headed up to Stuttgart and Dortmund to see a football game that had already taken place.

Drink. What a perilous friend.

Back to 2022, we arrived at Salzburg train station at just before 11am. The last few miles of the jurney had been simply magnificent. The Alps to the South were just splendid. What a joy to travel in support of our team.

Salzburg. I was last here with my then girlfriend Judy, en route to a few days in the Alpine resort of Kaprun in late 2010. I had dropped into Salzburg from Vienna once in the ‘eighties by train, I think I never left the train station, but stayed an afternoon in the city on a day trip with my parents in 1977 from Seefeld in the Austrian Tyrol.

We picked up our match tickets at the quaintly named Fanny von Lenhert Strasse – I heard we had sold all 1,500 – and then quickly nabbed a cab to take us to our digs, a one room apartment a mile outside the city centre. Within an hour of arriving in Salzburg, we were sat at a table in a local restaurant drinking a pint of Stiegl, awaiting the arrival of plates of pork schnitzel with parsley potatoes.

The beers went down well. I remembered the beer from 2010.

The food was gorgeous too.

Fantastic.

We walked into town and soon spotted some friendly faces outside a sun-kissed bar in the square next to the train station.  It was about 1pm.

“Corner Am Banhof” was to be our base for around two hours. It was bliss. Although our friends Alan, Gary, Daryl, Nick and Pete were down in the old town, where I had visited with mater and pater forty-five years ago – I remember a castle atop a hill and Mozart’s birthplace and lots of antiquity – we found it hard to move. Leigh and his son Darren invited us over to share a table and their two friends from Norway had brought them a bottle of “Fisk” to consume; a heady drink consisting of eucalyptus, liquorice, menthol and vodka. The bottle was shared.

“It’s like getting pissed on Lysterine.”

A local woman, with a shapeless hat, kept pestering us for cigarettes and money.

Leigh’s son Darren asked me if I knew who she was.

“Badly Drawn Girl.”

Friends of Leigh and Darren from Basingstoke called in, suffering a little from a Stiegl brewery tour on the Monday.

Talk of alcohol, talk of football, talk of alcohol again.

The sun beat down. My face was heating up.

“You love the Limoncello, Leigh.”

“Love it? He bought the T-shirt.”

Leigh, wearing a vivid yellow Stone Island T-shirt, beamed in the autumnal sun.

Many friends drifted in and away. A group of Chelsea supporters were sat across the way. I felt sorry for the lone bartender. She was pulling pints of “Stiegl” at record speed.

It was time to move on. We had heard that some friends were massing at the “Shamrock” in the old town so another cab was hailed. We usually avoid Irish bars, preferring local ones, but the weight of friendship was pulling us. Inside, there were more familiar faces.

Fifteen minutes, we sauntered into the “Shamrock” and yes, faces everywhere.

Cathy and Dog, Josh and Andy from LA, the Gloucester boys, Big Rich, George from Prague, Charlotte, Donna and Paul from Somerset, Skippy from Brisbane, the famous Druce brothers.

The drinks flowed. Smiles and laughter. We stayed around two hours.

Andy led the march to a cab rank and we hopped in. Andy, now a family man, used to be ever present at games at the Chelsea pub in Orange County but can’t attend so many these days.

“I miss the sticky floors.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

It took forever, maybe forty minutes to travel just a few miles. We were dropped off outside the Red Bull Arena to the west of the city centre with about forty-five minutes to go before the game was to begin at 6.45pm. This would be the second Red Bull Arena that I would have visited after the one in Harrison in New Jersey in 2015.

The Red Bull franchise, for the want of a better word, has many enemies in the world of football. Since taking over at Austria Salzburg in 2005, the club changed colours from violet and white to red and white – a sure way to upset existing fans, eh? – and have hoovered up titles ever since; thirteen since 2005.

A breakaway club – SV Austria Salzburg – was soon formed and there are factions within the current sporting landscape of the city.

I was reminded of a conversation that I had in a Viennese bar en route to Bratislava in 1997. I was chatting to an Austria Memphis fan – sponsorship has long been part of this nation’s football scene, this club is now known as Austria Vienna but was temporarily named after a cigarette brand – and he spoke of a pre-season tournament that used to take place between teams in Europe that played in violet, that rarest of football colours. The three teams that I remembered were his own Austria Memphis, Anderlecht and Fiorentina. I suspect that a fourth team was Austria Salzburg.

Reb Bull Salzburg fans hated the way Red Bull Leipzig stole some of their best players since its formation in 2009; seventeen all told. This can’t be how football will be run in future generations, can it? There is no more hated club in Germany than Red Bull Leipzig. The fans of Locomotive Leipzig must loathe the club like no other team.

I guess that Red Bull Salzburg are equally loathed in Austria.

I am sure it wasn’t by design, but we ended up virtually circumnavigating the stadium which was built in 2003. We set off outside the east stand, bumping into fellow Chelsea on the way, before finally ending up outside the away entrance in the south-western corner. A factory was pumping flumes of smoke into the bright blue sky near the stadium, and as we walked underneath the dark stands, walkways above allowed fans, presumably enjoying pre-match festivities in adjacent corporate blocks, to traverse into the seating area. They resembled skywalkers. There was something bleak and futuristic about this, almost dystopian, an odd image that I had to capture on film.

Fritz Lange’s “Metropolis” as a football game? Maybe. He was born in Vienna. Maybe he knew something.

Chelsea played a pre-season game against this team at this stadium in July 2019; a 3-0 win. I am sure nobody I know went.

We were inside with about half-an-hour to go. The Chelsea support was split into two. We were based in the rather dark and dingy lower corner at the southern end. I took many photos of friends as they waited for the game to begin.

I approached Tim, DJ, Neil and Pete.

“Not sure I am ready to do this game on my blog. I am bollocksed.”

The result of around five hours of solid drinking was having an effect.

The three of us spotted space where the Famous Five – Nick the Whip, Pete, Alan, Gary and Daryl – were stood so we joined them. There was rail seating and of course everyone stood. There was netting ahead of us, obscuring the view, with fences to the front and screens to the sides. We are so used to no segregation in the UK that it still comes as a slight shock to see what others in Europe put up with.

Before kick, the dimming of lights, the boom of the PA, then mosaics and a huge “Salzburg” banner at the opposite end.

I had again, as in Milan, opted on my pub camera for this trip. In this dark corner, I was sadly resigned to the fact that my photos wouldn’t be too great for this game.

Chelsea were wearing those poxy navy socks; why? The home team were in a meek and weak grey kit, like something from an Alex Ferguson dystopian nightmare, circa The Dell 1996.

Our team?

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Jorginho – Sterling

Gallagher – Aubameyang – Mount

Or something like that.

It was probably easier to surmise the shape upstairs in the other section. Very soon into the game I mentioned to Pete that we were exhibiting the exact same stance, leaning on the metal barrier in front, but with our fingers smothering our faces in fear of a misadventure.

An early chance for Kai Havertz. Reacting well to collect a miss-timed headed back-pass, he stretched but crunched the Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn who lay on the deck for a while.

Chances at either end were exchanged in the first quarter of an hour and it was an even game. Maybe Pete and I were right to be a little concerned. It had been a lovely trip this far, and although these European forays are never all about the football in itself, the onus was on us to secure a win here and, with it, our passage into the knockout phase in 2023.

The home fans were raucous. But we were in good voice too.

“And it’s Super Chelsea.”

The referee, from Switzerland (um, is that akin to us having a Scottish ref in charge at Chelsea, answers on a postcard…) was wearing a red shirt, black shorts and red socks. This elicited a super bit of trivia from Nick who has been going to Chelsea since the ‘fifties and always, always, has a cupboard full of interesting facts about our wonderful club.

“We wore those colours at Maine Road in 1966, the game when Osgood flicked some V-signs at the City supporters.”

“Love it.”

A Salzburg shot flew over the bar at our end.

A forest of wanker hands to the home areas, thank you very much.

On twenty-three minutes, a move broke down at the other end and the ball fell to Mateo Kovacic. With the quickest of reactions, our Croatian man guided the ball high past the Salzburg ‘keeper from twenty yards out.

What a finish. He gets too few goals, but they are often classy efforts.

Alan, to my right :

“Zey vill have to come at us now.”

Me :

“Come on meine kleine diamonds.”

Chelsea were 1-0 up.

Phew.

“He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

From a Conor Gallagher corner, a glanced header from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang soon followed, but there was a sublime stretch and save from their ‘keeper. After a magnificent flowing move from south to north, Havertz set up Aubameyangr but our whole section groaned when the chance was spurned.

More chances were exchanged but Chelsea were in the ascendency, often with long passing moves aimed to find spaces in the packed Austrian defence.

A save down low from Kepa.

A save from another Gallagher cross and a meek Havertz header, close in.

Just before the break, our best move of the game thus far, with the impressive Havertz dancing in from the left touchline and the ball ending up with Aubameyang, but yet another fine save by their ‘keeper.

At the break, I had a little wander and began watching the second-half at the back of the section for a different perspective. The area next to the home fans to our right afforded such a poor view.

Soon into the second-half, Salzburg equalised when Junior Adamu latched onto a searching ball from out on their left cut out everybody. It was a fine goal and reignited the home fans.

Two quick chances followed for Aubameyang – another fine save – and Jorginho, a header swiped away on the line.

At the half-way stage of the second-half, Christian Pulisic twisted and turned the ball inside to Havertz, who dragged the ball back.

I shouted “Kai – SHOOT!”

He did.

His left foot conjured up some magic, the ball flying into what the Americans call the “upper 90.”

I hugged Daryl – I was now at the other end of our line – and we celebrated a really fine goal.

“It’s still nice to know that after all the years I have known you, and after witnessing so many Chelsea goals, it still elicits the same response.”

We were now 2-1 up.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the excellent Kovacic.

A fine save, now, from Kepa down low. A clearance from Thiago Silva off the line. Phew.

Armando Broja for the frustrating Aubameyang.

A few more chances came and went, with Kepa now the busier of the two ‘keepers.

Two late substitutions.

Hakim Ziyech for Sterling.

Mason Mount for Gallagher.

Thankfully, there were no late scares. With us winning 2-1 and Milan beating Dinamo Zagreb 4-0, our qualification for the next phase, and holiday roulette, was secured. A first-place finish is teasingly close.

Right after the match, we sped outside, over a grass verge and straight onto a waiting bus that took us straight back to the centre of the city. As the bus reached its destination, there was a spontaneous round of applause for the driver. This was just excellent. What great organisation.

Five of us, Team Druce and us Three Chuckle Brothers wandered off into the city. We hoped to get some food, but two places were shut. We caught a cab after a drink in the first restaurant of the day and ended up a few doors down from the “Shamrock” in the old town, or rather right on the very edge of it.

“I saw more of bloody Salzburg in 1977 with my parents.”

More “Steigls”, more laughs. The night continued on. We stayed for two hours. At around 1am, it was time to call it a night. We got a cab back to Ausstrasse and soon fell asleep.

I was awake at around 9am on the Wednesday with not the slightest hint of a hangover. I just love those Austrian and German beers.

We wandered down to the city centre, killed some time with some food, alas no wursts, and caught the train to Munich at midday.

At Munich Hauptbanhof, there was an hour wait. Our pre-printed itinerary said that our return train to Nuremburg would depart at just after 3pm from platform 25, this one on the northern edge of the main station.

At just before 3pm, we saw a train marked up for Nuremburg pull in to platform 22.

We hopped on it.

Easy.

Well, not quite.

After an hour or so, with me trying but failing to nod off, I noticed we were making very slow progress. We were on the wrong train.

This one, instead of arriving at 4.45pm ahead of our 7.50pm flight home, would get in to Nuremburg at 6.16pm.

Bollocks.

We had obviously missed an announcement about our booked train, much faster, leaving from another platform.

From 4pm to 6pm, we sat still and silent, consumed about our plans once we hit Nuremburg. It was the slowest two hours of my life. The train tantalisingly stopped right outside the final destination for ten minutes.

Tick tock, tick tock.

It eventually pulled in at 6.25pm.

I almost expected a German army officer in plain clothes to wish us “good…luck.”

We hurriedly raced out into the evening air and I shouted to the first cab driver.

“Flughafen. Schnell. Schnell. Schnell.”

As I said it, I knew it sounded ridiculous.

Thankfully, the cab only took ten minutes to reach the airport and by 7pm, we were through security and waiting for our – now typically delayed – plane. We were there with an hour to spare.

I heard the theme to “The Great Escape” in my head.

“And relax.”

But still no German sausages. Damn it. Next time.

The flight left a little late, but we were back at Heathrow in good time. We left there at just before 10pm, and I was home just after midnight. It had been the easiest part of the entire trip home.

This had been a lovely trip.

And I have enjoyed writing this one.

Why does its title reference a train station in Germany, though?

Because it’s Munich. I just like talking and writing about Munich.

My friend JD always lists the number of stadia that he has attended seeing Chelsea games outside the UK, and the one in Salzburg was number seventy-six. That’s some number, eh?

While I am in the mood, and everyone knows that I love a list, my current foreign experiences with Chelsea are as follows (and I include games in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland here as these countries are outside of our home league which includes England and Wales) :

Camp Nou, Barcelona, 4.

Stadio Olimpico, Rome 3.

Allianz Stadium, Turin 2.

Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, California 2.

Estadio Dragao, Porto 2.

FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland 2.

Johann Cruyff Arena, Ajax 2.

Mohamed Bin Zayem Stadium, Abu Dhabi 2.

Nissan Stadium, Yokohama 2.

Olympic Stadium, Baku 2.

Parc Des Princes, Paris 2.

Yankee Stadium, New York 2.

Allianz Arena, Munich 1.

Allianz Stadion, Vienna 1.

Bank Of America Stadium, Charlotte 1.

BayArena, Leverkusen 1.

Benito Villamarin, Seville 1.

Birds Nest Stadium, Beijing 1.

Bukit Jalil Stadium, Kuala Lumpur 1.

Cowboys Stadium, Arlington 1.

Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon, 1.

Giants Stadium, Meadowlands, New Jersey 1.

Groupama Arena, Bucharest 1.

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh 1.

Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow 1.

La Romareda, Zaragoza 1.

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 1.

M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore 1.

Mercedes-Benz Arena, Stuttgart 1.

Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor 1.

Nef Stadium, Istanbul 1.

Olympic Stadium, Kiev 1.

Optus Stadium, Perth 1.

Prater Stadium, Vienna 1.

Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok 1.

Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm 1.

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey 1.

Red Bull Arena, Salzburg 1.

Richmond Park, Dublin 1.

Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa 1.

San Siro, Milan 1.

Stade Louis 2, Monaco 1.

Stadion Strelnice, Jablonec 1.

Stadio Olimpico, Turin 1.

Stadio San Paolo, Naples 1.

Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto 1.

Steaua Stadium, Bucharest 1.

Subaru Park, Chester, Pennsylvania 1.

Telhelne Pole, Bratislava 1.

Toyota Park, Chicago 1.

Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo 1.

US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis 1.

Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen 1.

Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid 1.

Weserstadion, Bremen 1.

Windsor Park, Belfast 1.

Total Stadia : 56

Total Games : 71

UEFA Games : 43

FIFA Games : 4

Friendly Games : 24

Tales From The Last Game

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 22 October 2022.

The busy month of October was continuing for Chelsea Football Club. The tea-time kick-off with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge would be match number seven with the two away games at Salzburg and Brighton to follow. On a personal level, this would be my seventy-ninth Chelsea game against Manchester United in total. I have seen Chelsea play against no other team more. It would also be the forty-third time that I would see us play Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. It seems relevant, acknowledging United’s rivalry with Liverpool, that this is the most games that I have seen against one team at home apart from Liverpool who weigh in with forty-seven games. In the grand total league table, Liverpool are right behind United in second place.

  1. Manchester United 79
  2. Liverpool 78
  3. Arsenal 69
  4. Tottenham 67
  5. Newcastle United 53

By the end of this season, there might well be a tie at the top.

This would be Chelsea match 1,367 for me.

Of these, 11.5% will have been against either Manchester United or Liverpool.

One in ten games.

No wonder they say familiarity breeds contempt.

I saw that on the morning of the game, Mark Worrall said on “Facebook” that he rates the visit of Manchester United as his favourite home game. For me, it’s Tottenham, but I can understand why Mark named United. The aura surrounding the club has existed for decades and there is always a special buzz when United are in town. Due to the sheer number of their away support, especially when travelling en masse to away games became more popular in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, there was no club that brought more away fans than Manchester United on their travels around the Football League. Stamford Bridge, surely, must have been a favourite destination for them. In those days, there was no rigid segregation at games and the Bridge was no different. But in those times, with the capacity at around the 60,000 figure, that large north terrace alone could hold fifteen thousand or more with ease. And on the occasions of United’s visit to SW6, let’s not kid ourselves, at times more than 15,000 United fans would flow through the turnstiles on the Fulham Road.

The first time that I remember seeing a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match on TV – on highlights, for those foreign readers, let’s not forget that the first live league football on TV in England only began in 1983 – was the last game of the 1972/73 season. I have written about this game before here – Bobby Charlton’s last-ever game for United, the comical knock-in from Peter Osgood at the Shed End, his shrug of the shoulders on his knees in the goalmouth – but it is worth telling again that at a three-sided Stamford Bridge, the gate was 44,000 (I didn’t have to look that up) and there must have been the best part of 20,000 United supporters inside.

The “Red Army” as they were known in the ‘seventies would flock to all of their away games in a way that no other club has done before or since. In those days of pay-on-the-gate admission and no segregation – certain ends were only suggested for fans to segregate, hence the rather loose adherence to this policy by the hooligan element of many teams – clubs could, and would, flood games depending on the circumstances.

I remember Liverpool flooding Molyneux in 1976 with 20.000 supporters. And it has come to light that in 1977, Chelsea were given the home end at Nottingham Forest by the police simply because enough had congregated there early in the afternoon. That must still hurt the Forest fans; we will find out, perhaps, on New Year’s Eve.

But no team did all this as consistently as United.

Much later, in the ‘nineties, when Wimbledon played at Selhurst Park, they attracted very low crowds, but this ground in south London became the favourite of Manchester United, and no-doubt its much-lampooned Home Counties support, as it was easy for them to access tickets in all areas of the stadium, year on year. It became the ‘nineties equivalent of Stamford Bridge in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies.

For example, in 1993/94 Wimbledon averaged 10,474, but the Manchester United game drew a massive 28,553. The following season, the figures were 13,246 and 25,380. It was a feature of London football at the time. No other London stadium had such a laissez-fare attitude to away support, nor the room anyway. By then, segregation was rife and away “takes” greatly diminished.

Stamford Bridge was still an exception though. And in the first few games of 1993/94, although the gate was 37,000 – ditto – for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game, I would suggest that around 12,000 away fans were present. I can well remember getting into The Shed early and the north terrace was soon packed. I remember many United fans – no colours – being led out of The Shed for their own safety and escorted up to the north stand by the police. I never did find out how this procedure manifested itself. Was it simply a case of handfuls of United fans presenting themselves to stewards and pleading to be let into the north stand? I don’t know.

It was rather ignominious, being a Chelsea fan, seeing our ground swamped with United. In those days, football was about “how many did we take?” just as much as “how did we get on?” or “how did we play?”

I miss those days. You might have guessed.

The north stand probably held around 10,000 in those times. And the United presence that day was huge. There is no doubt that in addition to those United fans in the sweeping north terrace, there must have been a couple of thousand in the home seats and a residual amount in The Shed. I was stood next to one; my mate’s young brother who used to accompany me to a few Chelsea versus United games at the time. However, we will never know since United never scored.

In those days, it always pained me to see hundreds of United fans react to their team scoring in both stands; more so the East Stand to be fair, the nutters at Chelsea tended to go in the West Stand and only a brave away fan would sit there with the risk of getting slapped.

All of this is a very long way from 2022/23 where the police reduced the United away following from 3,000 to 2,400, though I am not sure why. I know that United have received many complaints over recent seasons for “consistent standing” at away games, but their spot in The Shed for this game was a “safe standing” zone anyway. Was it because the London Old Bill were admitting that they were unable to control three thousand? Who knows? It’s all very odd indeed. This move was very poorly received by the United away support, and quite rightly too.

I was in the stadium very early for this game. It had been a typical pre-match; a rush-around at the stadium and then to the pub with friends from near – Parky and Paul, Steve from Salisbury – and far – Ben and Mike from Boston, Bank from Bangkok, Mark from Spain, Luca and Robbie from The Netherlands, Andy and Josh from Orange County.

I was inside as early as 4.40pm. I soon decided to take a smattering of photographs of a virtually empty Stamford Bridge. Only a couple of thousand spectators, at most, were inside. As such, there was no atmosphere building anywhere. At the same comparative time at the 1993 game – effectively 2.10pm – the place would have been packed with the buzz building nicely.

Pre-match tunes, pre-match chants, pre-match songs, the gentle swell in numbers, the jostling for position, the anticipation rising.

I miss those days.

In 2022, there was music playing but elsewhere there was complete silence.

I took some photos from different angles of the same old features. I hope that you like them.

I soon spotted on my approach earlier in the day, out on the forecourt, there were rainbow-themed Chelsea kits welcoming supporters to a game when there was to be a nod towards equality in the game via the “Rainbow Laces” campaign. Out on the pitch, a banner with the Chelsea lion multi-coloured.

I wondered if the United support, vociferous with their “Chelsea Rent Boys” chants the past decade or more, would tone it down. I doubted it.

The minutes ticked-by. I was aware that I wasn’t as “up” for this as I should have been. I was a little wary of United’s recent run of form and of our two recent away, middling at best, performances. I think these thoughts dampened my spirits.

In the pub and elsewhere not only had I predicted a “0-0” but I would have been happy with a “0-0” too.

This was hardly a well-established United team. I wasn’t in awe of it. It was a mere shadow of former sides. And I thought the same of us really; my “tribute act” comment in the last episode, a throw-away line maybe, seemed to hit the spot.

The pre-match had no gravitas. There was no real thrill of what the evening would bring. It had the feel of a “run of the mill” game involving teams on the cusp of something better.

Graham Potter chose this starting eleven.

Kepa

Calobah – Silva – Cucarella

Dave – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

The United team? Who cared. I didn’t. But it looked like the retirement home for former Real Madrid players and that’s without “you-know-who” in the picture.

There was light drizzle just before the pre-match routines kicked in. It seemed to dampen the atmosphere further.

Before the entrance of the teams, a Matthew Harding flag travelled from east to west in the lower tier of the stand named after him. I have scanned the match programme four times now and I am yet to spot a mention of the death of our former director who was killed twenty-six years ago to the very day.

The fans in our stand, and those elsewhere, demand better.

Flames in front of the East Stand started flying up into the air – we had this American-style shite before Todd Boehly arrived and I guess we will have it after too – but at least my camera appreciated the reflections of the amber flames in the now sodden “Rainbow” banner on the centre-circle.

The game began.

I don’t always make notes on my ‘phone at every game, but on this occasion, I decided to. I suspect that the paucity of excitement on the pitch in the first-half and then throughout the game allowed me time to do so.

8 minutes.

Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang –  I conjured up a short-hand of “pea” a few games back then completely forgot what it meant when I studied my notes later – was away but his effort was neither a shot nor a cross.

I wondered if his “peashooter” days were over.

9 minutes.

After Jorginho was beaten to a ball, and he tried to block, his body shape reminded me of the wonderful phrase from an ‘eighties fanzine that was used to illustrate a similarly derided midfielder, Darren Wood. His efforts to block the path of the ball likened him to a “stranded starfish.” It’s one of the great footballing phrases.

10 minutes.

Luke Shaw flashed wide.

11 minutes.

A half-decent “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

17 minutes.

United were in the ascendency now. They were finding extra players with ease. Yet their tendency to over-pass reminded me of us.

19 minutes.

“No foothold yet, Al.”

21 minutes.

I tapped out a phrase that I hate and may I forever reside in hell; “unable to beat the press.”

23 minutes.

Another fine “Amazing Grace.”

25 minutes.

A strong United spell had evolved. We looked second best here.

26 minutes.

The Stamford Bridge crowd clapped in memory of Matthew Harding and our stand sung his name.

31 minutes.

A fine Kepa block from Marcus Rashford.

33 minutes.

Frustration all around.

37 minutes.

A substitution and Mateo Kovacic for Marc Cucarella. There was a change in shape to a 4-3-3. This met with our approval.

38 minutes.

A very messy chance, after United failed to clear, but Peashooter scuffed it wide.

39 minutes.

An Eriksen shot from distance was well wide.

40 minutes.

A cross from the left and a leap from Aubameyang but contact was light and off-target.

42 minutes.

The same player was played in with a ball rolled across the box but he could not quite reach.

44 minutes.

Anthony – a player that I am proud to say I know nothing about – shot from distance and, as it struck a supporting stanchion, my mind played tricks with me and I thought it was in. It certainly was a close one.

I was just pleased to get to the break at 0-0. We had been poor. United had bossed the middle section of the first forty-five minutes. I wasn’t so sure where a goal would originate. Maybe my 0-0 guess wasn’t so far off. A pal who sits behind me commented :

“Get any good photos that half? I suspect not.”

“No. Shite.”

Only two are shared here.

Things were better in the second-half, but I soon commented “we have dragged them down to our level.”

50 minutes.

A scare when Kepa raced out to reach a ball near our left touchline and we then nervously gasped as the ball was eventually passed out of defence. We took forever. The chance of a quick break, exposing space, was lost.

56 minutes.

United, I noted, were not as loud as in the past. I wondered if the missing six-hundred were the singers.

58 minutes.

Sterling elected to pass inside when a shot was probably the best option.

60 minutes.

The noisiest moment of the game, perhaps, helped escort Varane off the pitch.

62 minutes.

“Chalobah playing well, lads.”

64 minutes.

“We have looked tired from the start, really.”

70 minutes.

A header from Clever Trevoh skimmed the top of the bar.

71 minutes.

We were hitting a little spell now, easily the best of the game, and the noise grew with our intensity.

74 minutes.

Christian Pulisic for Aubameyang, not surprisingly.

75 minutes.

The ever-frustrating Ruben Loftus-Cheek lost the ball in a dangerous position but a Bruno Fernandes shot was saved so well by Kepa.

79 minutes.

Armando Broja for Raheem Sterling, not surprisingly.

84 minutes.

I captured the very start of the pushing and shoving by substitute McTominay on our boy Broja. But I was watching the flight of the ball when the man-handling reached silly proportions. I saw the referee point. Oh boy. What drama.

86 minutes.

Just like in Milan, Jorginho walked away with the ball as tempers raged in the United team.

87 minutes.

Goal. Get in you bastard. What a clean penalty.

88 minutes.

CAREFREE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.

89 minutes.

The stadium was a riot of noise now alright. For too long, the noise had been shite.

90 minutes.

AND IT’S SUPER CHELSEA. SUPER CHELSEA FC. WE’RE BY FAR THE GREATEST TEAM THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

94 minutes.

Chelsea unable to clear. A floater from the left. Two United players leap. That gut-wrenching feeling. The ball dropped into the goal. But no, wait, it came back off the post. And Kepa miraculously claimed it.

No.

Goal.

Bloody Casemiro.

Noise now from the two thousand odd in the away end.

95 minutes.

The Bridge was absolutely silent apart from 2,400 voices.

“WHO THE FUCK ARE MAN UNITED?”

At least there was nobody jumping up and being a twat in the home areas.

It was, sadly, a very fair result.

I reached home to see the game’s highlights on “Match of the Day” and it was the last match featured.

Chelsea and United, the last game on “MOTD”? The absolute shame of it.

See you in Salzburg on Tuesday.

Tales From Now And Then

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 19 October 2022.

I took a turn to drive for this Wednesday evening game at Brentford. I had worked another early shift – up at 4.45am, ah the joy – and met PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les in the pub car-park outside work just after 2pm.

It was a stunning afternoon. Oh that autumnal sun. I had booked a car-park space about half-a-mile from the stadium from 5pm so I needed to crack on and get up to London.

Here we all were, two-thirds of-our way through our nine game marathon in the month of October. Five down, this was number six, with three to go.

And, thus far, unbeaten too.

Stopping briefly on the A303 for a re-fuel of myself, the road was kind to me. Only in the very last segment, heading towards Kew Bridge from the south – a new way in – was there congestion. Not to worry, I was parked up a few minutes early.

Outside, a breeze.

The trip up had been a breeze too, but outside the wind was blowing and the trees were being whipped into shape. We set off, not for the stadium, but the “Bell & Crown” pub on the northern bank of the River Thames, just slightly downstream from Kew Bridge. Here, in the same pub where we had enjoyed an hour or so before Christmas in the League Cup, there was to be a gathering of the clans.

We made our way through the pub to the river terrace. Already waiting for us was a face from the past. Clive – or to give him his cherished nickname from his youth “Trotsky” – was waiting for us with his teenage son Frankie. Trotsky first came to my attention when I used to go and watch Frome Town in around 1980. He was at many games. And I knew that he was a Brentford fan. He moved away from Frome around twenty years ago and now lives in Launceston in Cornwall. I have met him at a couple of Frome Town games over the past few seasons. And, inevitably, we became friends on “Facebook” as is often the case. Trotsky and his son are Brentford season ticket holders and we arranged to meet up for a natter.

Soon into the evening, he pulled out a Frome Town scarf and the four Frome lads – himself, Frankie, PD and yours truly – posed for a photo.

I then back-tracked even further. I recently remembered that we must have first met in around 1976 on a caravan site in the shadow of The Mendips. Caravans were never the trendiest thing were they? When my father bought one in 1975, I was rather embarrassed by it all. Nevertheless, during the summer of 1976 we journeyed the short distance to Rodney Stoke and it soon became apparent that a chap that my father knew, a fellow Frome shopkeeper and probably a fellow member of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, was parked close by. Ken Secker would later become Frome mayor. He was Trotsky’s father. And I have some very feint memory of chatting to Trotsky, but it is no further than that; a vague shadow of a memory, nothing more. Even with my shyness at that age, I am sure we must have shared a few words.

Five decades on, we were chatting for sure on a fine autumn evening in West London.

Next to arrive was my pal Ben from Boston in Massachusetts, who arrived with a lad that I had not met before, Mike, who was proudly sporting a New York Yankee cap, and was originally from New York, but now lives on the outskirts of Boston. I had swapped tickets around so that I could sit next to Ben, the lucky beneficiary of a ticket that a friend could not use. Mike, sadly, was without a ticket for this game but at least he had one for the upcoming Manchester United game.

Three New York Blues visited us too, and I am not sure if they all had tickets.

Tickets for away games. It’s a shady subject isn’t it? It often grates among established – local, or at least from the UK – fans that an admittedly miniscule proportion of our away games get shared out among overseas supporters’ clubs. But that’s the way the club decides to allocate tickets, so there is little that can be done. I know there have been lengthy discussions about ticket distribution at fans’ forum meetings over the years.

Emotions often run high. Nothing is perfect. Everyone has an opinion though. How to reward loyalty? What a tough subject.

I remember, so very well, our first away game at Bournemouth in 2016. I know for a fact that not one ticket from the 1,200 that we were allotted went to any overseas club. But I do remember only too well that around ten people in the row behind me fucked off at half-time. I was seething at the sight of those empty seats.

I guess the lure of a couple of pints was too hard to resist.

Sigh.

I often try to help friends from the US obtain home tickets and it was a major struggle when the sanctions were brought in at the end of last season, but I was very happy to help. But away tickets are by definition so difficult to obtain. However, I will assist if I think it is deserved. If someone I don’t know from Badgercrack Nebraska asks me to get them an away ticket, especially if it is a first away game, or worse, a first-ever Chelsea game, I will politely decline.

Next to arrive were Nick and Kimberley from Fresno in California.

By now, Trotsky’s mind was blown.

“Wait. You have come all this way to see Brentford?”

We laughed.

It was true. Nick and Kimberley, who I first met in “The Pensioner” five seasons ago, almost to the day, were over for the football, but obviously Chelsea first and foremost. Sadly, their trip was to be curtailed as Nick’s mother had been taken ill. They would therefore, sadly, miss the United game on Saturday.

Trotsky was generally overwhelmed by our overseas support. I guess it is normal, now, in these modern times for foreign fans to latch on to Europe’s most successful teams. However, I told the story of how several of my US-based Chelsea mates helped support a lower-level team a decade or so ago. A few friends helped Frome Town raise £25,000 for a new stand to enable the club to remain in the Southern League. So, it’s not just top level teams that attract foreign fans. It’s level eight teams too.

Ben and Mike shot off early to try to rustle up a spare.

The pre-match chat continued. This was a very pleasant evening. If anything, the area south of Brentford’s new pad is even more swish than the Kings Road and parts of Chelsea.

It was time to walk the short distance to the snug stadium.

Outside, Paul from Swindon shouted over to me. He was with another long-distance acquaintance, who I quickly introduced to Kimberley and Nick.

“You two think California is a long way from London? Bank is from Bangkok.”

There was no bag search on entering the stadium. Myself and my notorious camera were in.

Last season, I watched from nearer the corner flag, along the side. This time I was further behind the goal and higher up. Excellent. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces before kick-off. We had two thousand seats for this one. Everyone would be used. Sadly, Mike was not one of those in attendance.

Graham Potter chose this side.

Kepa

Dave – Trevoh – Kalidou

Ruben – Jorginho – Conor – Marc

Kai – Mase

Armando

The lights dimmed, the stadium then pulsed with flashing strobes.

The teams entered.

“Hey Jude” was played and we soon hi-jacked it.

Brentford gave us three difficult games last season. We rode our luck in the two away games, then got mullered at Stamford Bridge. This one was a test for us no doubt.

The game began with Chelsea on top, but that soon changed.

Kepa made a fine early save down to our left from the always dangerous Ivan Toney. His central header was thankfully aimed straight at our in-form ‘keeper. The effort was tipped over.

Our chances were few and far between in that first part of the game. The home team, however, were looking to stretch us open with some incisive passing and intelligent running. On more than one occasion, it was our defensive acumen that was exposed.

Conor had begun brighter than most but he was sadly substituted by Mateo on fifteen minutes.

There was a shout from the home areas when Ruben tangled with Mbeumo. No penalty.

Not long after, Ruben got himself caught between two players as he attempted to clear the ball away up the line to safety.

“Ruben got sandwiched.”

Ben groaned.

“Corny, right?”

Not always dominant in the box, it was good to see Kepa come and punch a tantalising cross from the Brentford right. The ‘keeper, a hero in Milan and Witton, was again called into action. A long free-kick that was taken by the Brentford ‘keeper David Raya and the ball was inadvertently headed towards goal by Ruben. Frank Onyeka was lurking, but Kepa palmed his effort over. Rapturous applause again.

“He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

But things weren’t great.

I turned to Ben.

“No threat up our right. No threat up our left. No threat in the middle.”

Kai was at his perplexing best, or worst, failing on a few occasions to be physical enough, nor as determined as he needed to be.

A shot from distance from Dave forced Raya to scramble down to his right.

I did like the look of young Armando on his first start. He kept running channels, chasing lost causes, an irritant to the defenders in the Brentford team. One determined run, with the striker out-chasing a marker and showing grim determination to push forward, ended up with a ball being flashed across the box. Kai was a yard short of reaching it.

“After Porto, I am not saying Kai had the world at his feet, but he hasn’t pushed on, has he?”

On this mild evening in West London, Mason was ridiculously quiet.

Just before the interval, a relatively quick break that was instigated by Armando’s harrying of a defender found Marc loitering on the edge of the box.

I screamed at him :

“Shoot. Shoot! SHOOT. SHOOT!”

He didn’t shoot.

Fackinell.

The ball was played out to Ruben whose shot was high and wide.

Sigh.

At the break, Brentford had enjoyed the better chances. I hoped for an improvement.

Soon into the second period, a tame header from Mbeumo – completely bloody unmarked – was gathered by Kepa.

The game stumbled along.

For some unfathomable reason, the “Dennis Wise” song was aired.

Why? Was he playing?

Seriously, let’s sing this when we are winning 6-0 but not at 0-0. Even worse was to follow. For a few minutes, the “that’s why we love Salomon Kakou” chant was sung, and it was probably the loudest chant all night.

Answers on a postcard.

On the hour, three substitutions.

Carney Chuklebrother for a poor Mason Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Marc Cucarella.

Raheem Sterling for Armando Broja.

I was amazed that Kai was still on the pitch. And a little annoyed that Armando had been replaced. He was one of our plus points.

Carney soon had a pacey run into the box down below us.

As the game continued, the three new players started to inject much-needed urgency. Space was at an absolute premium in the middle but Christian twisted and toiled with skill in search of an opening. A shot from Kai forced a point blank save from Raya.

At the other end, we warmed to intelligent play from Kepa who forced Toney wide and blocked the subsequent shot.

With ten to go, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang replaced Kai Havertz.

This game was wide open now. An optimistic shot from virtually the half-way line thankfully didn’t have the legs to beat Kepa. Brentford then hit the side netting with another shot.

Shots from Pierre-Emerick, Christian and even another blaster from Dave put the pressure on the Brentford ‘keeper. But I wasn’t convinced that we would get a winner, as blatantly undeserved as it would have been.

One last chance fell to Carney but his shot at the near post was saved well by Raya.

It ended 0-0.

Another clean sheet, if nothing else, but a far from “joined up” performance.

With this being a 7.30pm kick-off, I was away just before 10pm and I made very good time to get back to Melksham for midnight. I dropped the lads off and made my way home, getting home at 12.30am. I eventually made it to bed at 1.45am. I can never ever fall asleep as soon as I get home after these midweek flits to London.

4.45am to 1.45am.

Bloody hell.

“What?” I hear you ask, “no mention of 1982/83?”

There is no football to report from forty years ago but I was always going to mention a Stiff Little Fingers gig that I saw with a mate in Bristol on Sunday 17 October 1982, if only for the reason that I saw the same band in Frome on Monday 11 July 2022.

The show took place at the now defunct and demolished “Studio” and was the second time that I had seen the band in 1982. This latter gig was during the “Out Of Our Skulls” tour to promote their final album “Now Then.”

And I wondered how I could shoe-horn it in to this report, without it sticking out like a, er, stiff little finger. Then, after the game had ended, out in the concourse, a Chelsea supporter who I did not recognise approached me.

I looked a bit vague.

“Stiff Little Fingers.”

My mind whirled and it soon clicked. It was Richard, a friend on “Facebook” who I had not previously met. He was a big SLF fan too. And we briefly spoke about the band. It made me chuckle that so often I have bumped into someone and, seeing my look of befuddlement, they have uttered the word “Chelsea.” Yet here I was, at a Chelsea game, yet someone who I was unfamiliar with chose to say a band name rather than a football club name.

Thanks Richard. You helped create a far-more worthy final paragraph.

Well, almost a final paragraph.

Driving home, while the other three intermittently slept, I briefly thought about Stiff Little Fingers and their current line-up. Only two of the original four members remain – Jake Burns and Ali McMordie – but they are certainly still going strong. And I had a little chuckle about them being their own tribute act, maybe in the way that I see this current Chelsea team – not one of my favourites I have to be honest, not one that I feel a strong connection with – being a tribute act to the sides that I still adorn with love and admiration; the 1983/84 team, the 1996/97 team, the 2004/5 team, maybe the 2011/12 team.

Is that what I really feel?

Is this the phase that I am at?

God knows, it had been a long day.

See you against United.

Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

Whereas my 1985 Inter-Rail jaunt around Europe took in many countries, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north, the 1986 version – another solo-trip, another dose of me finding confidence through travel – was focussed on Spain, France, Italy and the Greek Island of Corfu. It was all about exploring the southern parts of Europe and the first fortnight or so encompassed Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona, the Italian Riviera for a week, Pisa and Rome before I then spent around ten relaxing days in three locations on Corfu. After that had all finished, and on the return trip north, I wanted to stop off in Milan. In the three weeks or so that I had been away from Blighty, I had already visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. To miss out on the San Siro – or the Giuseppe Meazza as it is sometimes known – would have been foolhardy.

I caught the long overnight train – fourteen hours, the longest of the whole month – from Brindisi to Milano Centrale, arriving at 9am on a Thursday morning in early August.

Ah, Milano Centrale.

It brought back memories of my very first taste of Italy.

In 1975, on my first European holiday, my parents and I caught a train from London Victoria to Milan, another overnighter, on the way to Diano Marina in the Italian Riviera, and so the immense interior of this incredible station – Mussolini must have liked marble – thus witnessed my first ever steps on Italian soil.

A year later, another Italian holiday – this time to Lido di Jesolo near Venice – and another train to Milano Centrale. On this occasion, our onward leg was by coach and so we walked outside the station to pick up the connection. I was therefore able to witness the three huge halls that made up the station frontage. These were equally as impressive as the three semi-circular roof spans covering all of the train tracks.

By 1976, I had already chosen Juventus as my Italian and my sole European team but was of course aware of the two Milan teams who, in those days, were known in England as AC Milan and Inter Milan.

An Italian family had settled in my home village after the war and although they didn’t seem to be particularly into football, one of the brothers had a son, Adriano, who occasionally visited and he once told me that he favoured Milan. Incidentally, the mother in this family lived to a very grand age of 109. There must be something in that Italian diet.

My parents, on a whistle-stop visit to Milan on an Italian holiday in the ‘fifties had called in to see this family’s relations and my father often told the story of being given a few shots of the infamous grappa.

On a few visits to Italy, back to Diano Marina again and again to see my pal Mario, I became acquainted with more and more aspects of the Italian game. At that time, Inter were bigger than Milan – in terms of fan base – and the two clubs’ support tended to be split along socio-political lines.

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

Oh, and I soon learned that “Inter Milan” was wrong, very wrong…either Inter or Internazionale and nothing else. At the time, Juventus were the dominant team but the two Milanese had sporadic success. Milan won a scudetto in 1978/79 but were then relegated to Serie B in 1979/80 due to a betting scandal and again in 1981/82 due to being, er, shite.

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

As I have mentioned previously, the visit of Leeds United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 9 October 1982 absolutely captivated me. It stirred so much emotion. And it engendered such a sense of anticipation.

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

Growing up, Leeds were a massive name. Just as I was getting into football, the big teams were Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Derby County were champions in 1972 but never really had the same clout as the others. Manchester United? No, a joke of a club on the decline. Manchester City? Off the radar.

With Leeds getting unceremoniously dumped into the old Second Division at the end of the 1981/82 season, throughout that summer I was kept buoyed with the thought that I would be – hopefully – able to see them play my beloved Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

The fixtures were announced. I would not have to wait too long. Unlike the Leicester City game in September when I travelled up by train, for the Leeds game I went up by National Express coach from Bath. This was a tiresome journey and I remember being relatively miserable about the whole experience. I think it was a bit cheaper than the train – my diary mentions the coach costing £5.50 – and it was all about saving money for football in those days.

I remember that some long lost Canadian cousins had recently dropped in on us – my father’s cousin from Vancouver – and I had been gifted an oversized Vancouver Whitecaps shirt as a present. I know I decided to wear it up to the Leeds United game. What do I remember of the day? I remember arriving at Victoria Coach Station and catching a tube to Fulham Broadway.

I distinctly remember this :

I was stood in the central aisle, and I noted a young lad in front of me. Maybe the same age, seventeen. He was smartly dressed. He was wearing some sportswear. Maybe some Adidas trainers. Actually, maybe some desert boots. Maybe a Slazenger pullover. Perhaps an Adidas rain jacket. Definitely some tight jeans. And I certainly remember thinking “mmm, that’s a new look, something different, bit like a mod but with a football twist.” I was certain that he was going to Chelsea. I don’t remember a pin badge though. And I remember him looking at me in my Vancouver Whitecaps shirt, and the thought went through my head that he was trying to suss out who I was, which team.

At that time, living in rural Somerset, I was blissfully unaware of the dress code that had enveloped urban cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and London but which had originated on the football terraces. There were skinheads, punks, headbangers, mods, but that was it as far as I was concerned.

Looking back, I am positive that my first ever sighting of a casual took place on the tube on the way to Chelsea and Leeds that day. I would later learn that on that very day, the warring factions – I am not sure if I had heard of the Leeds Service Crew in 1982 but it is quite possible – were chasing each other around Piccadilly Circus that lunchtime.

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

“Welcome to all Leeds United fans present today. Chelsea FC extend a warm welcome to the supporters of our distinguished visitors Leeds United. We hope you witness an exciting match and have a message for you – don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug – and help your club achieve greatness once again.”

I remember having a chuckle at this. There was no mention of a warning to Chelsea fans here. It would seem that we were an innocent party. I can just imagine Ken Bates mouthing the “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug” to the programme editor.

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

I don’t remember much of the actual game and sadly I didn’t take my camera to games in those days. I absolutely remember the malevolent atmosphere though. I watched from my usual spot in The Shed, under the roof – just – and towards the tea bar. Leeds, I suppose, had around three thousand fans and the size of the gate really warmed me. It was 25,358, much more than I had expected and the third biggest of the day in the Football League. I remember Leeds in two central pens, nobody else on the bleak north terrace. But I remember that the northern segments of The Benches and the East Lower – what I would later learn to be the infamous Gate 13 – were absolutely rammed. It was as if the stadium had been tilted north and everyone had been squashed up against the north terrace. This gave me, an excitable youngster, the impression that the Chelsea fans just wanted to have a go at the Leeds lot.

There was one chant from The Shed that made me grimace :

“Did the Ripper, did the Ripper, did the Ripper get your Mum? Did the Ripper get your Mum?”

This was the Yorkshire version, not Jack of old London town.

The teams that day?

Chelsea : Steve Francis, Gary Locke, Chris Hutchings, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew, Mike Fillery, Pop Robson, David Speedie, Clive Walker.

Leeds United : John Lukic, Trevor Cherry, Eddie Gray, Kenny Burns, Paul Hart, Gwynn Thomas, Kevin Hird, Aiden Butterworth, Frank Worthington, Frank Gray, Arthur Graham.

This would be my first sighting of David Speedie. There are some names in that Leeds team. The Gray brothers. Kenny Burns. I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Frank Worthington but I am glad that I evidently did. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Please Google his goal for Bolton against Ipswich Town in 1979.

Sadly, the game ended 0-0 and was memorable for the outbreaks of fighting in the East Stand than the quality on show on the pitch.

I sloped off and ended up waiting at Victoria for an hour or so to catch a coach home. Some Tottenham fans had been at their game at home to Coventry City and we got talking. Once they heard I was Chelsea, they told me to watch out for Leeds fans as they were “nasty buggers” and I remember one of them eying up what I was wearing.

“Don’t worry, I think that you will be safe with that on.”

Let’s move on four years to 1986 and my short stopover in Milan. I bought a map at the station and walked down past La Scala Opera House to the grand cathedral – Il Duomo – in the city centre before walking to Cairoli and catching a tube to Lotto. The weather was super-hot and the walk to San Siro was tough going. I first thought that I wouldn’t be able to get in, but thankfully I soon found an open gate so sneaked inside. In those days, the stadium was just two-tiered, a huge concrete edifice. Childhood hero Ray Wilkins was playing for Milan at the time. Another couple of tourists were inside too. One of them took a photo of me looking ridiculously tanned after my stay on Corfu. San Siro was undergoing a transformation over the summer; plastic seats were being bolted onto the once bare concrete, at least on the steps of the lower deck. I took photos inside and out. It was a joy to be inside one of the palaces of European football. My diary tells me that I scrawled “Chelsea FC” on one of the green seats at the northern end. That doesn’t surprise me. I had scrawled the same on a fence at the stadium in Rome too.

I didn’t leave Milan that day until I took a train to Paris at around 7pm. There is no doubt that I would have spent a fair few hours at Milano Centrale, an activity that I would repeat many times over the next four years as I repeatedly returned to Italy. My diary noted that Milan was “not a fantastic place really” but I enjoyed being in this famous city, this famous football city, and of course the home of Italian fashion and the birthplace of the “paninari” a few years earlier.

Earlier in 1986, I had bought the Pet Shop Boys’ mini-album “Disco” and absolutely loved the song “Paninaro” :

“Passion and love and sex and money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Food, cars, travel.
Food, cars, travel, travel.
New York, New York, New York.
New York.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

I don’t like country-and-western.
I don’t like rock music.
I don’t like, I don’t like rockabilly or rock & roll particularly.
Don’t like much really, do I?
But what I do like I love passionately.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

You, you’re my lover, you’re my hope, you’re my dreams.
My life, my passion, my love, my sex, my money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Don’t like much really, do I?
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
But what I do like I love passionately.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

What an anthem. In 1986, the paninaro look was definitely assisting the UK’s casual look to evolve. I had bought some deck shoes, a “Best Company” T-shirt and always had one eye on what was happening in Italy and on the terraces at Chelsea and elsewhere. It was a great time to be young and into football, music and clobber; the time of my life.

At San Siro in 1986, just for the record…red Kappa polo shirt, Adidas shorts and a pair of yellow espadrilles.

There is one more thing to add from my holiday in 1986. At Ipsos on Corfu, I shared a tent with a chap called Rob who owned a record shop in Sacramento in California. Every few months, he would visit London and buy up a ton of obscure music posters, T-shirts, and rare CDs and ship them out to the US to sell at hugely-inflated prices. It got me thinking. I cottoned on to the genius of selling rare items at a nice profit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think too long. My post-college future was decided during that Inter-Rail trip of 1986. I would buy English football badges – the small, super small, circular ones – and travel out to Europe flip-flopping between games in Germany and Italy to sell them at games. For all of its problems with hooliganism, or being blunt because of it, I just knew that English badges would sell well in Europe.

I was itching to go. Sadly, I had one more year at college to endure.

Tick tock, tick tock.

1986/87 passed with Chelsea finishing in a lowly fourteenth place but I had fared better; I somehow passed my Geography degree with an Upper Second. However, my immediate future didn’t involve job fairs, interviews or further studies. My future was focussed on football.

Fackinell.

That summer I returned to work in a local dairy, as in 1984, to gather some sheccles together for more foreign travel. In September, I set off with two college mates – Ian and Trev, the same course – for another spin around Europe. On a Saturday evening in Rome in early September, after another visit to Stadio Olimpico, I stumbled across a booklet listing the Serie A fixtures for the season.

A quick scan of the fixtures : Inter vs. Empoli.

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

We were headed up to Venice for an early morning visit, arriving at 6.30am. However, after a whirlwind walking tour, we were away at 9.45am and headed to Milan via a change at Vicenza. I had bought a copy of the famous daily sports paper “La Gazetta Dello Sport” to check some details about the game and tickets were on sale for L.10,000 or about five quid. The fervour being shown by a train full of Brescia fans en route to Padua – a local derby – astonished us. It was a fine pre-curser to our afternoon in Milan. We got in at 1.30pm and the game was to kick-off at 3pm. Perfect. We disappeared underground and took a metro to San Siro which was quite a way out. There was a free bus at Lotto to take us to the stadium. I had time to peruse the various grafters outside.

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

Italian ones were selling for L3,100 or about £1.50.

Our tickets positioned us above a small knot of Empoli fans in the southern end, the “Lions’ Den” section where Milan’s ultras congregated. We had reached our seats by entering near the northern end but the steady slope took us around the outside of the stadium to deposit us in the southern end. To my amazement, we sat on raw concrete. But I was not bothered. I was in football heaven.

The Alps were visible above the Inter fans in the north end. I loved all the banners.

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

Empoli? I knew little about them apart from that they were newly promoted. On the previous weekend, they had won 2-0 at home to Juventus, a huge shock at the time. On this day in sunny Milan, I watched on with great pleasure. This was my first professional football match outside of England, Scotland and Wales.

The San Siro would always have a place in my heart.

The Inter team that day included some stars; Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli plus the two “stranieri” Daniel Pasarella and Enzo Schifo. It was an utter joy to witness Italian football in the flesh.

Aldo Serena and Altobelli gave Inter a 2-0 win in front of 42,672.

My diary notes “I am sure I can make a killing there with badges.”

Later that year, in November, I sold badges at Juventus’ Stadio Communale before an evening game against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Cup. I only sold 31 but it was a start. I was less fortunate in Mannheim and Munich in Germany. I was stopped by the police in Mannheim and also in Munich where I decided to foolishly chance my luck. I had sold 34 at Munich’s Olympic Stadium – going well – but I did not have a street trader’s licence – “reisegewerbekarte” – so was arrested and fined on the spot. However, a cop let me in to watch the last twenty minutes of the Bayern vs. Uerdingen game for free.

In February 1988, I was at it again.

My first game was at San Siro, and a friendly involving Milan and Steaua Bucharest on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, the Serie A games had been cancelled due to an Italy vs. Russia game in Bari on the Saturday but thank goodness Milan had sorted out a friendly. Milan were in full flow at this time with Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten leading the team to glory. I did OK at this game. The gate was only 14,000 but I sold 26 badges and 2 scarves. One bloke swapped his “Fossa Dei Leoni” badge for one of mine. There were a few nervous moments as several police cars drove past but I was not spoken to. I had decided to pitch myself near the to where the Lotto busses stopped. It seemed perfect. I was positioned just outside the San Siro “Trotter” arena; horse racing but with the jockeys in little buggies.

It is a mystery why I did not pay the £4 to attend the game. I guess that I was on a limited budget – I certainly ate frugally and infrequently while away for a month – and the whole point of me being in Italy was, firstly, to make some money. I walked away with £40 in my pockets, and a profit of about £25.

Small acorns and all that.

A week later, I was back at San Siro for the Milan vs. Sampdoria game. Here was the real test. Thankfully this went swimmingly well. Again, I didn’t go inside, but for a valid reason; it was a sell-out. At half-time I was stood outside the stadium with a few thousand others. I went on a wander across the vast car park and returned to hear the clamour as Milan’s second goal went in. They were to win 2-1. The attendance was 72,000 and I walked away with £125 and a profit of about £80. I had sold 80 badges and 7 scarves. Not bad for around four hours’ work. I was in heaven with thoughts of returning again. And again.

Before the game, probably against my better wishes, I had bought the monthly magazine “Forza Milan.” As a Juventus fan, it was a bad move, but I just wanted to immerse myself in Italian football. It really was a heady time to be a Milanista. It felt that their time had come. At the end of the 1987/88 season, they were crowned as champions for the first time since 1979. Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, Arrigo Sacchi and his famous “pressing” was getting the best out of his players. And Gullit and Van Basten were soon to be European Champions with The Netherlands in the summer.

Mamma mia.

Later that week, I did even better at Verona, selling 79 badges from a crowd of just 33,000 before and after a UEFA Cup game with Werder Bremen.

In the summer of 1988, I recorded an episode of “Rough Guide – Milan” with Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha (remember them?) and the travel guide totally encapsulated all that was rattling around my brain at the time. There is no doubt that I was deeply infatuated with all things Italian from the mid-‘eighties onwards.

My next trip to Milan, and San Siro, would be my last for thirty-two years. It came in September 1990, right after the momentous Italia’90 World Cup – when many English folk “rediscovered football”, stop sniggering at the back – and I had returned from an equally momentous ten-month holiday in North America. With English football back with a vengeance after some dark days, the time was right for me to head over with a freshly-acquired stash of English – and Scottish, Celtic in particular always sold well in Italy – badges.

It was a heady time for Italian football. The national team had threatened in the World Cup before falling to a Maradona-inspired Argentina in a semi-final. However, I always thought that it was club over country in Italy, even more so than in England.

The Serie A title was certainly shared around in this period.

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

The second Sunday of the 1990/91 Serie A season saw me return to Milan for the Inter vs. Bologna game.

At the end of the day, I started my daily journal :

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

My sales patter didn’t go on for long, but it certainly did the job. I must have repeated that phrase five hundred times in the six hours before the 4pm kick-off.

My diary reports a “perfect day” and it is certainly one that I look back upon with a great deal of pleasure. It was, simply, one of the best “non-Chelsea” days of my life. I had arrived at Milano Centrale at just before 8am. By 10am I had arrived outside the remodelled San Siro and – oh my goodness – I can well remember the sight of those monstrous red girders floating above the photogenic towers that had been added to the San Siro since my last visit eighteen months earlier.

Within an hour, I had sold 26 badges to a stall-holder, at a slight-knock down price of L.3,500 each. I had decided to up the price to L.4,000 per badge from my L.3,000 price in 1988. I stopped selling at 3.15pm in order to buy a ticket off a tout – I couldn’t miss this game – and I nabbed one for L.25,000 instead of L.20,000.

As it happened, I could afford it.

My one memory of this day is of ascending one of the helix shaped towers behind the South Curv and scrambling to a seat almost at the rear of the very back row of the third level. I stood up and spent what seemed a long time picking L.5,000, L.10,000, L.20,000 notes and even one L.50,000 note out of all four pockets of my jeans and adding them to the pile in my wallet.

That day I sold almost 200 badges. I even sold some on the slow walk back to Lotto without even trying; a lad had remembered me from before the game and stopped me to buy ten. By the time I had pulled the last note from my jeans, I had made £330 which equated to a profit of around £200.

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

The game was half decent. Inter had the three World Cup winners Klinsmann, Matheus and Brehme in their team. I noted that Bologna countered well. In the last minute, Alessandro Bianchi scored with a great volley in front of the “Ultras”, “Boys San” and “Vikings” in the home Curva Nord to give Inter a 1-0 win. The noise was utterly incredible even though the gate was only around 50,000. The other lot, Milan, were the bigger draw by far at the time. They were the “buzz” around the city.

On the following Sunday, I paid another visit to San Siro and another fine afternoon followed. This time it was Milan vs. Fiorentina. I didn’t go inside for this one. Outside, I sold just under one hundred badges. My diary notes that I soon sold out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic – by far the best sellers in 1990 for reasons that might well be obvious – and so I did well to sell so many. I was outside the stadium when Milan scored their first goal – they went on to win 2-1 – but I left for the station well before the end as I had developed a bad headache. One thing of note; I had been chatting to an English guy from Rochdale who had stayed over from the World Cup with England. He was interested in selling badges too; he seemed a bit of a chancer, but I gave him the ‘phone number of the bloke in Blackburn who had provided me with the badges. He disappeared off to “blag” some tickets but I later saw him, crestfallen, having been picked up by plain clothes cops, his tickets nicked too.

What a plum.

Alas, my badge-selling days were over before they had really got going.

There is a sad end to all of this in fact. A few days after the greatest days in Milan, I was robbed while on a train from Zurich to Genoa – I was knocked out using CS gas I think, it was all the rage on Italian trains at the time, luckily my Inter-Rail Card and passport were untouched – and so I had to sheepishly make my way to Turin where my friend Tullio’s father lent me some money to get home.

I remember his father answered the doorbell, so surprised to see me.

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

This story continues on though. In 1995, I met up with Pete, the chap who sold me all those badges at cost price – bless him – before a Chelsea game at Ewood Park. He treated me to a pub lunch and we spoke about our grafting days. He was a Liverpool supporter – he was there in Rome in 1977 and elsewhere too – and when I spoke about Milan, I mentioned the chancer I had met in 1990.

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. From Rochdale. I always wondered how he got my number.”

“Bloody hell, Pete, I gave it to him.”

It turned out that this bloke had stayed on in Milan and was now living with the woman who was running the newsagents on the platform at Milano Centrale. He often bought badges from Pete. To say I was fed-up was another understatement.

“Bloody hell. That could have been me. Could have met an Italian girl. Could have had badges sent out to me. What a bugger.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

In February 1997, Chelsea played Milan in a friendly at San Siro and a few hardy souls went over to watch. We lost 2-0 in front of 8,756. I think both teams just needed a game. A few friends attended but there was no way I could go over.

In October 1999, Chelsea played Milan in the San Siro in the Champions League group phase. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time off work and so, sadly, missed it.

In March 2010, Chelsea played Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Again, work got in the way. I had just changed companies and I knew my new boss would have struggled without me in the office for three days and so I valiantly – stupidly? – decided that I would forego my chance to see us in Milan.

I have seen Chelsea play seven times in Italy – three against Juve, two against Roma, one against Lazio, one against Napoli, and not a single win – but a visit to San Siro with my beloved Chelsea was evading me like Tottenham’s relationship with silverware.

It was gnawing at me.

There were ongoing rumours, which gathered strength over the years, of both Milan teams moving into a new build which would rise in the car park where I had walked in 1988. This news depressed me. I saw the plans for the new place. They looked super-modern yet so bland. The drama of San Siro’s bulk was missing. Sigh.

Thankfully, our names were drawn in the same group this autumn and I could look forward, at bloody last, to a visit.

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

A flight to Turin on the Sunday evening. By the time I had got to looking at flights after returning from Chelsea on a Saturday night, all of the cheap and timely flights to Milan had disappeared. Not to worry, I much prefer Turin to Milan. Three nights in a central apartment with PD and Parky. I would hire a car on the day of the game. A brief spell of sightseeing in central Milan then off to the match. A midnight flit back to Turin and then a flight home from the city’s Caselle airport on Wednesday evening.

I picked up PD at 11am on the Sunday morning and Lord Parky not long after. It was a fine drive to Gatwick. Despite the 4.40pm flight leaving an hour late, the pilot must have known a short cut as he clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. I had a window seat and particularly enjoyed the flight over the English Channel. I pondered how many thousands of articulated lorries I had sent over this small expanse of water since I began at my job in March 2003. From the air, I was able to easily see both coasts; France to the left, England to the right. I thought back to all those solo trips to Europe in my Inter-Railing days. What good times.

We landed at Caselle at 8.10pm. We took a cab to the city. By 9.12pm, I had navigated how to obtain our apartment keys and to enter our pad on Via Fratelli Calandra. Outside, misty rain. But our spirits were lifted when we spotted a small pizza place directly opposite. We sat ourselves inside on some high stools and ordered the first beers of the trip.

“Ichnusa” – from Sardinia – was first spotted by us in Rome in 2017, and here it was again. It was a fine lager. I had a pepperoni pizza – cheap, only eight euros – and all was well with the world. We slept soundly.

Monday was a lovely, lazy day. My two fellow Chuckle Brothers had only visited Italy once before – that Rome trip in 2017 – so Turin was new to them. I took them alongside the River Po, and spoke about the city a little. But I soon found my voice often drifting away to silence when I realised that they weren’t really taking it all in.

I’ll never make a tour guide.

We sat at a few cafes and ordered some cappuccinos. We got the nod that Callum was going to be in town for an hour or so en route to Milan so we caught a cab to Porta Susa train station. This was fine since it enabled me to scope out the Hertz car hire place that I would be utilising on the Tuesday. We all met up in a bar.

We wondered if we had indeed sold all 4,300 tickets. All we knew is that they had gone “off sale” so we hoped so. I spoke to Cal about my Italian pal Tullio who I have known since meeting him in Diano Marina, that town again, in 1981.

“I remember one Saturday morning, ahead of a Napoli game on the Sunday, in 1988…he drove over to meet some school friends after they had gone in to study. They were all labelled-up. Best Company sweatshirts. Timberlands. Sisley coats. Benetton. Lacoste. Jansport duffle bags. Even their school files were adorned with designer labels.”

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

In the afternoon, we slurped a draught Ichnusa apiece in a bar directly opposite one of Turin’s must-see attractions. The National Cinema Museum is housed within the Mole Antonelliana, a building with a domed roof and spear-like tower. Rob and I went up the lift to the viewing gallery in 2009 and I was hoping to do the same this year. Alas, the lift was not working. Not to worry, I visited the film museum while PD and Parky supped on more Ichnusa.

What a joy.

And this was just right for me. During the first nervous months of lockdown in 2020, I really got into Italian films, especially those of the neo-realist school; step forward Rosselini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. I always loved “La Dolce Vita” but also really admired “Bicycle Thieves”, “Rome Open City” and the best of the lot “Two Women.” I also fell in love with Sophia Loren. Again.

The museum was stupendous. It was a visual treat. If you ever find yourself in Turin – I call it Italy’s hidden jewel – go. In fact, go now. Tell them I sent you.

That evening, we dropped into two familiar pubs on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II; “Six Nations” and “The Huntsman.” In the second one, we sat at the exact same table that we used on the night before the Juve game last season. Lo and behold, who should walk past but Andy – from the East Midlands I believe – who I last spent time with in Abu Dhabi. He too had flown into Turin.

As I always say : “Chelsea World is a very small world.”

Tullio popped in to see us for an hour or so. It was a joy to see him again. He was, alas, visibly hurting after Juventus’ continued failings under Massimilliano Allegri. I spoke about my previous visits to Turin.

I worked out this was visit number ten.

“No, wait. Eleven. I forgot your wedding.”

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

1999 : Juve vs. Fiorentina – oh, and the wedding of Tullio and Emanuela.

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

The evening was lovely. We rounded off the night with several shots of “Baileys” and God knows why. It was, as ever, a good night.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, PD woke me at around 6.45am.  We walked to the Porta Nova train station and caught a cab to Porta Susa with blue skies overhead and the city of Turin looking as gorgeous as ever.

Sorting out the car took a few minutes, but I was soon heading east through the rush-hour traffic of Turin. It was slow going during the first half-an-hour. But we were soon on the A4 to Milan. It made me chuckle really. In my childhood, my father used to drive along a section of the A4 – Beckhampton to Hungerford – on numerous trips to Chelsea. On this A4 instead of signs for Fyfield, Marlborough, Savernake, Axford and Hungerford there were signs for Chivasso, Greggio, Vercelli, Novara and Galliate. To our left, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps were stunning.

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

We stopped briefly at a service station near Novara. I stacked up on coffee and snacks.

There was heavy traffic, again, just after a toll on the western outskirts of Milan. A journey that was due to take two hours was nearing one of three hours. But I knew we were closing in on our goal. My work colleague Lorenzo had highlighted the Lampugnano transport hub as the best place to park for San Siro. I was headed there, but first wanted to park up at San Siro because…well, because…it needs no explanation.

At around 11.30am, I briefly parked my black Toyota outside a stadium car park and took a few shots with my camera. The stadium looked even greater than I had remembered it. It was simply stunning. A dormant beast. Those cylindrical towers. Those slopes of concrete. Those roof beams. Spectacular. I was boiling over with emotion.

After six previous visits I was at last going to see us play here.

It was forever a standing joke about Milan that no matter what year you visited it, the roads were always in a state of upheaval due to metro extensions taking place. I am sure my parents mentioned this from their visit in the ‘fifties. Well, ironically, the lines are all fully extended now and completely finished, but on this day of all days there was a bloody tube strike.

At Lampugnano, we were therefore forced to catch a cab into the city. The taxi driver was a Milanista and resembled Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We were driven in past the striking new skyscrapers to the immediate north-west of the centre. We soon collected our match tickets at the Westin Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica. There were familiar faces outside. It was true; we had sold all 4,300 tickets.

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

We met up with fellow Somerset supporters Charlotte and Paul, Donna and Colby. A little sight-seeing was in order. I suggested a short hop north to Milano Centrale. This edifice did not disappoint. It was as stunning today as in 1975. While PD and Parky retired to the station bar, I gave the others a quick tour. I was reminded of the time – after the Milan game in September 1990 I think – when thousands of Inter fans returned from a game just as I had reached the outer hall. They were full of noise and of course the chanting echoed around the vast chamber to superb effect. I was also reminded, after a hot day walking the streets of Milan, how cool it was inside.

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

We walked south then caught a tube, bang on three o’clock when the strike ended, at Turati to Duomo. I had always walked this section, so exiting the metro stop and seeing the myriad towers of the city cathedral for the first time was another stunning moment. I never was a great fan of the city, but its two great cathedrals – Il Duomo and San Siro – are outrageously magnificent.

More photos. A beer in a bar. And a panini. When in Rome.Then a tube down to the area called Navigli, where several canals join and a vibrant bar scene has developed. It was where Chelsea were based on the Monday, and it is where many friends were based pre-match.

The place was mobbed. We didn’t venture too far. Many bars had run dry. Beers were on hold at the first place we queued. This was all a bit of a ball ache. Thankfully, PD and Parky had spotted a quieter bar near the nearest tube station so re-camped there. I waited for some friends – Georg and Petr from Prague, Eliot and Lawson from New York, then Sean from New York – and we had a relaxing natter. One more pint of “Warsteiner.” Just two pints was enough. I had to drive back to Turin after the game after all. Georg and Petr asked of our predictions and a 2-1 Chelsea win was a common response.

We set off for San Siro at around 6.45pm. Plenty of time? Think again.

The tube was rammed. But rather than changing at Cadorna onto the red line – which I was planning to do – everyone didn’t budge. At Cadorna, none of us could leave the compartment. We were therefore forced to stay on to Garibaldi. When a train pulled in, a young woman saw who – or rather what – was waiting to join her carriage and physically ran down the compartment.

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

My route would have been eleven stops. This new route was sixteen stops. What a pain. It got worse. At Domodossola, hundreds of Chelsea fans were singing, chanting, banging the roof, creating havoc. For twenty minutes, we didn’t move. The Milan fans were getting irate.

“Because of you, we miss match.”

Corrective action was needed. It was around 7.45pm. We stepped outside and tried to get a cab. But this was hopeless. Hundreds of Chelsea got off here too. They disappeared into the night. At about eight o’clock, we realised we needed a Plan B.

“Right, back downstairs. Let’s see if the trains are running now.”

Bizarrely, the Milan fan that was so irate with all of us was still on the platform. This was odd. Eventually at around 8pm, a new train arrived. This was full of Milan fans; not a bad sign. They knew the timings. They were absolutely full of song too. And in good spirits. They loved our Cucarella chant and repeated it back to us. Most were wearing Milan colours, as had many that we had seen around the city. The dress-code of the late ‘eighties in Italy of jeans, green bomber jackets, scarves and boots – especially the Inter lot – was clearly no more.

There were many songs lauding the rossoneri and one linking interisti to “vaffanculo.”

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

Just as the train rumbled into the San Siro stop – newly built, or at least since my last visit – I turned to the nearest Milanista and said “good luck” and he smiled. We shook hands.

I had always approached San Siro from Lotto to the north so I was a little discombobulated.

We were marched west, right past where my car had been parked earlier, and we began the slow march in to the away section. Our ticket was cross-referenced with our passport. Further in, there was a predictable altercation with a couple of stewards who wanted me to take my pocket camera – I had left my SLR at home, I am no fool – back to “bus.”

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

There was no bus. My car was half-an-hour away.

I pleaded that it was just a “piccolo machina” and they thankfully let me in.

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

PD and Parky, hobbling, were allowed access to the lift. I tried to join them but was not allowed in. Instead, the slow ascent up the helix. It was fine, thank heavens. The old ticker wasn’t grumbling at all.

Inside, our area – the upper third tier, green zone – was near packed to capacity. I could go left into the centre or right to the end where I guessed there would be more empty seats. I chose right. After just five or six steps up, I spotted PD and Parky right next to the aisle.

4,300 Chelsea in one tier and we were together again.

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

This looked a full house; 75,000? Superb. Chelsea fans kept arriving, some way into the game. The stadium was as I remembered it. I looked over at the southern end and imagined myself there in 1987 and 1990.

What would the 1987 me have made of all this? Or the 1986 me for that matter?

1986 Chris : “Wonder if I will ever see Chelsea play here?”

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

1986 Chris : “2022? I’ll be an old man by then.”

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

1986 Chris : “So, that must mean in European competition? That must mean we will win something?!”

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

1986 Chris: “Tell me! No wait. Don’t. That will spoil the surprise.”

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

Graham Potter, what a journey he is on, chose this team :

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

There was a mosaic…nothing great, just “Let’s Go Milan”; like something an American high school teacher might say to a basketball team. It hardly referenced Milan’s illustrious European pedigree or used words to inspire.

The lights dimmed a little. Then the anthem, the fluttering of the logo on the centre-circle. The teams lined up. Chelsea were to play in all white. I was just pleased that I couldn’t see the insipid jade green / light blue hoops.

To me, it referenced the all-white that we wore in 1966.

On more than one occasion, a thought fluttered inside me :

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

The Milan kit looked virtually all black from row 88. It was a poor kit. I much preferred the 1988 version.

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

Just before kick-off, I couldn’t resist a short burst of venom.

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

The game began and Milan, attacking us in the North Curv – OK, it’s not a curve, but it’s what the Italians call an end – where the strongest over the first ten minutes or so. Leao danced and shuffled his feet a few times. I had a feeling that if we denied him, we would have a chance.

For all of the singing and chanting in Navigli and on the metro, I didn’t think we were in particularly fine voice.

After some exchanges, the game altered direction irrevocably on twenty minutes. Reece James threaded a fine pass into Mason Mount. Inside the box, the midfielder tried his best to get a shot away but his effort was booted clear by Tatarusanu. I was concentrating on his efforts to shoot so wasn’t looking specifically at Tomori’s rough intervention.

To our joy, the referee signalled a penalty. A huge roar from us. There were protestations from Milan, but the referee was unmoved. Jorginho, to his credit, walked away with the ball and stood yards from the melee of Milan players hounding the referee. Eventually, he approached the spot. Again, a long wait. Jorginho took forever. My camera was poised. Our midfielder took so long that I had visions of my lens retracting.

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

My dear friend Alan was unable to travel out for this game but I heard his voice from afar.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Wow. We were 1-0 up at the San Siro.

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

I smirked when I remembered another memory in Italy not so long after this Milan moment. In December 1999, I travelled out for the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Lazio. A certain left-back missed a sitter late on and this – admittedly short-lived – chant was sung :

“Babayaro. Missed a fucking great goal. With one minute to go. In the Olimpico.”

Anyone remember that?

I really don’t know how I missed it, but it soon became apparent that Milan were down to ten men. There was a little ripple of acknowledgement in our area; it seemed that I wasn’t the only one that had missed it. I suppose we were all too busy celebrating the penalty decision.

Superb.

Olivier Giroud headed wide down below us and Milan seemed upset and ill-at-ease.

A really fine move carved open the Milan defence on thirty-four minutes. Mateo Kovacic played a ball in to Mount, who flicked it beautifully wide and into space. We had the glorious sight of both Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Abameyang free and with just the ‘keeper to beat.

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

He ran down into the corner and although I had missed taking a photo of the goal, at least I captured the joyous celebrations.

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

There was a fine chance for Mount in the closing moments of the first-half. His nimble turn allowed him to poke a low shot goal wards, but the Milan ‘keeper got down low to turn it around the post.

On forty minutes, purely planned to the minute, around fifty huge flags behind the opposite goal were waved and their presence lasted for the rest of the game. It was some sight.

It was a wonderful to see the place packed to the rafters. Bizarrely, two central sections in the middle of both upper tiers were unused though. Maybe there was a problem with egress from these lofty locations. The tiers go on forever at San Siro. And the huge roof hovers over everything. There is hardly a more stunning stadium in the whole of Europe. It is certainly supremely photogenic.

I was in heaven.

I was so far up, I might as well have been.

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

Conor Gallagher replaced the really excellent Mason Mount. We guessed he was saving Mason for later games. I had liked the energy of Mateo Kovacic and the calming positional play of Jorginho in that first-half. To be fair, all our players had been magnificent.

An early, seemingly easy enough, chance came to Gallagher who rounded the ‘keeper after a fine forward run from Trevoh Chalobah but his effort went wide, striking the side netting amidst groans from the 4,300.

We were easily the more accomplished team as the half progressed. We had a few half-chances.

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

Positions were moved around. I tried my best to work it all out.

Our possession football – cheered with many an “olé” – must have tired Milan out. We looked relaxed and purposeful in everything we did.

There was a strong run from Loftus-Cheek, at his best, but his pass to Aubameyang resulted in a miss-cue. But our chances greatly out-weighed those of the home team.

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

The Milan fans raised the roof with ten minutes to go with the loudest chant of the night. If I had to choose, I would always go for Inter over Milan, but their fans really impressed me over the two games.

Our fans by now were only chanting sporadically. As far as I can recall, there was not one single moment when the entire tier was singing as one. It was almost as if this was too easy. Especially with Milan playing with only ten men. It was an odd feeling. I thought back to all those great players to have worn the red and black stripes over the past forty years and this current team, despite being the current champions, are surely a pale shadow of the great Milan teams.

Baresi. Costacurta. Baggio. Van Basten. Ronaldinho. Shevchenko. Donadoni. Maldini. Ancelotti. Rijkaard. Papin. Pirlo. Kaka. Nesta. Seedorf. Ibrahimovic. Inzaghi. Gullit.

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

On the drive up to London last week, ahead of the Milan home game, if somebody had said that we would win both games with an aggregate score of Chelsea 5 Milan 0, nobody would have believed it.

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

We were kept in for about forty-five minutes at the end of the game. We popped into the nearby snack bar which was surprisingly still open and I devoured a lemon iced-tea. I was allowed access to the lift this time.

The three of us slowly made our way back to Lampugnano; it was a thirty-five-minute walk. Halfway back, quite a way from San Siro, two trucks were still selling food.

“A burger, an iced tea and a Red Bull.”

The first two were soon demolished. The third would be consumed on the drive back to Turin.

There was a little chat with a Chelsea fan. I commented that there just didn’t seem to be that wanton euphoria that no doubt was in evidence at the 1999 “Dennis Wise” game. That it was all a bit subdued.

We agreed that the two clubs were at different stages in 1999 and 2022.

1999 : Chelsea as European novices, Milan as European royalty.

2022 : Chelsea as seasoned European competitors, Milan as a faded club.

I made relatively good time on my return to Piedmont from Lombardy. I set off at 1am, I was parked up outside the apartment at 3am.

Wednesday was another relaxing day. I was up early, though, at 7am to return the motor at 8am. It had been a magnificent adventure along the Italian A4. We checked out of the apartment after a light breakfast. There was time for a few beers in the city centre and a magnificent meal to boot. Callum joined us and we shared a cab to Caselle in order to catch the evening flight home.

There was even time to nab a couple of bargains at the Robe di Kappa shop at the airport.

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

I thankfully fell asleep for an hour on the flight back to Gatwick.

One young Chelsea fan was full of enthusiasm about the game. There had been a noticeably large contingent of youngsters out there. This is fantastic to see.

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

“No, the first ever. I just can’t get access to tickets for away games.”

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

“My first away game was Bristol Rovers. His is Milan? Mamma mia.”

I eventually got home – the M3 closed, part of the M4 closed – at 1am on Thursday morning.

Next up, Villa away on Sunday. See you there.

1987

1990

2022

Tales From Diego’s Return

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 8 October 2022.

This was undoubtedly a very fine day out in London. I enjoyed every bit of it. This is how it played out.

I had finished work at 5pm on Friday with the realisation that I had a busy few days ahead. I still had to finish the Milan blog. I then needed to drive the usual suspects to London on a day when the roads were likely to be much busier than usual due to the nationwide train strike. There would be the game itself. Then the return trip home. Then a write-up of the day’s blog after selecting and editing some photographs. A night’s sleep. And then some packing ahead of a trip to Gatwick on Sunday morning and then up, up and away to Italy.

It’s a great life as long as I don’t weaken.

By 7.20am I had collected PD, RH and LP. I didn’t stop en route to London. I wanted to crack on and arrive. The morning traffic was much thicker than the norm during the last fifteen miles. However, I was parked up at 10am. So far so good.

It was already a beautiful morning in London. There were cloudless skies overhead. Outside the stadium, I stopped underneath the old retaining wall of The Shed. On a weekend when our own “Italian Job” was dominating all of our thoughts, I stopped under the image of Gianluca Vialli, one of our most loved Italian players, and had a moment of appreciation. On the walk to Stamford Bridge, there had already been a fair few “hello mate” nods and handshakes to friends and acquaintances. There was the marvellous anticipation of a trip to Italy, not to mention the day’s game which was to involve the return of Diego Costa. That pre-match buzz was hitting me hard. And I was absolutely loving it.

I walked down to Putney Bridge in order to blow some cobwebs out of my system. It only took me twenty-five minutes. Saturday morning people, with a Fulham twist, were out-and-about, and I didn’t spot too many football-goers among the pedestrians, shoppers, cyclists and those enjoying the fine autumnal weather.

In “The River Café”, I enjoyed a fine fry-up, and then noticed a faded Juventus team photo from 1985/86 high on a wall. On exiting, I thanked the staff in Italian – a practice for Turin and Milan – and asked the young chap who was behind the counter if he was Juve.

He pulled a face.

“No. Milan.”

“OK. Tomorrow, I go to Turin.”

“Why?”

“Milan versus Chelsea.”

“But why are you going to Turin?”

“Oh, I have friends there.”

“I go on Monday to Milan.”

“For the game?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Buona fortuna.”

I didn’t fucking mean it of course.

I stayed in “The Eight Bells” with PD and LP for two hours. It was superb to see “Munich Mark” – with his son Luca, you can guess why he is called that – who we had not seen since Christmas 2019 on a pub crawl around Fulham. I memorably first met Mark and his mate Paul, who were living in The Netherlands, on the very last U-Bahn away from the stadium in Munich on that famous day in 2012. He now lives in Spain. We had a riot of laughs. It was great fun.

We caught a 414 bus just after two o’clock to Fulham Broadway and were soon inside the stadium.

At first, there were many empty seats dotted around but they were eventually filled despite some very late arrivals. We were to hear of friends experiencing drives that had taken two-and-a-half hours that would normally take forty-five minutes. My heart sank. Just how long would my return trip west take? I needed to be home as early as possible.

Bollocks.

The team that Graham Potter had chosen was clearly one that was formed with the game in Milan in mind. Not exactly a “B Team” but…

Kepa

Dave – Kouilbaly – Chalobah – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

…or something like that.

At ten minutes to three, the usual musical countdown.

“London Calling.”

“Park Life.”

“Liquidator.”

As the teams arrived on the pitch, a sizeable segment of the home crowd serenaded the returning hero.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego.”

The sun was beating down and the Wolves old gold shirts seemed to augment the ambiance. It was a gorgeous afternoon. I did wonder why on Earth the floodlights were on though. Answers on a postcard?

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It still feels odd after all these years. Soon into the game, Conor Gallagher received the ball and my brain had not slipped into gear and I was surprised when the player turned towards us instead of moving towards the Shed End.

After just two minutes, a gentle prod by Gallagher slipped just wide of the far post. It was a bright start from us, especially with the floodlights on, but Wolves had a half-chance with a Daniel Podence header but this thankfully did not worry Kepa. We carved out a steady supply of chances for Kai Havertz, Jorginho and Christian Pulisic without causing their ‘keeper Jose Sa any undue concern down below us.

I, however, was concerned about his lavender uniform with orange boots.

Fackinell.

A brisk break from Wolves was halted with a well-timed tackle by Dave on the edge, but outside, of our penalty area. The resulting free-kick was well-saved at full stretch by Kepa.

I was happy with what I was seeing here. We seemed to be playing with a much greater freedom than during the closing period of Tuchel’s regime and Gallagher’s running and spirit epitomised this new looseness. There was some nice passing between players who seemed to be able to link up in a more colourful way. The interplay at times was excellent.

Down on the Chelsea left, Adama Traore splatted Pulisic to the floor in the absolute definition of a shoulder charge.

“And Traore has got a lot of shoulder to charge with” I said to Alan.

The attempts continued to roll in, or rather wide or over. Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek were off target and I began to wonder if we would ever score. The atmosphere was pretty weak again, despite a nice barrage of noise at the start.

Diego Costa created a little space for himself on the right but nobody in the Wolves team had gambled to reach his cross.

There was ironic cheering from Wolves when the Matthew Harding got it together with a chant for the first time in a while. It wasn’t exactly loud; I am surprised that the away fans heard it at all.

A fine arching effort from Pulisic was adeptly tipped around the far post by Sa.

On forty minutes, a strong cross from Traore was headed over from just under the bar by Matheus Nunes. It was the best chance of the match thus far. Bloody hell.

The half-time break was approaching but Mount was able to send over a deep cross from our right towards the thin frame of Havertz who was positioning himself at the far post. He lept well to meet the ball and dolly-dropped it into a yawning net after Sa had been caught flat-footed.

It was a fine goal.

On Wednesday, this part of SW6 had witnessed an Aubameyang somersault. It now witnessed a Havertz slide.

One-nil at the break but Gary was still moaning.

“I think we are playing well, Gal.”

And so did several around me. I thought it was a refreshing performance with plenty of positives; good movement, clinical passing, a nice fluidity, with some strong defending when needed.

At the start of the second period, Wolves enjoyed much of the possession. But we then gained control again. Gallagher thumped in a hard and deep cross from the right but Havertz’ header looped over.

On fifty-three minutes, a delicious move ripped Wolves apart. Mount passed to Pulisic who then advanced steadily and returned the ball to Mount. With Pulisic continuing his run, Mount adeptly picked out his movement with a delightful slide-rule pass. Pulisic gathered the ball with the finest of touches and despite being forced wide, gently lifted the ball over the ‘keeper into the goal.

What a beauty.

Safe now, surely?

Not long after, with play down below us, the ball went out and Wolves decided to replace Diego Costa. The substitution could not have been better stage-managed. Our former, feared, striker shook Jorginho’s hand and then slowly walked around the touchline, clapping supporters on several occasions, as the Matthew Harding and then the entire stadium sang his name.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

Three seasons. Two league championships. Brilliant.

He was a bastard, but he was our bastard. How we have missed his nigglesome pilfering of defenders’ pockets these past five years. It was a treat to see him in SW6 once again, but I am not sure his stay at Wolverhampton will be for too long. It was just right that we were able to give a decent goodbye to him on this occasion, especially since we were unable to do so in 2017.

A few chances were exchanged as the teams continued a fine battle.

There was a raft of changes in the final twenty-five minutes.

Matteo Kovacic for Loftus-Cheek.

Armando Broja for Mount.

Reece James for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Havertz.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Gallagher.

The last substitute was making his debut and he immediately impressed with a pacey run from deep along the left flank in front of the sun-drenched East Stand.

I had earlier found myself staring at the East Stand, and I was momentarily lost in thought. Should Todd Boehly’s plan to redevelop the stadium gather strength, I am not convinced that it would pay to tear down this huge structure. Indeed, I am not sure how many more seats could be added to a new stand that by law cannot go any higher and whose footprint is limited by the railway line behind it and, thus, the already steep rake cannot change. Maybe I am just being selfish. The stand – that steel, those rivets, that concrete – was there for my very first game in 1974 and, apart from that Shed wall, it is the only thing left from those days. I stared again.

That roof, those balconies, those side screens…I looked all this during my first game…it is a link with that moment…I want it to remain until my last visit whenever that will be.

Sentimental twat aren’t I?

When Broja appeared, I mentioned “he needs a goal.”

In the ninetieth minute, a fine Kovacic pass found the young striker who jinked towards the penalty box.

“Hit it Broja.”

He did.

A lovely drilled shot flew into the goal just inside the far post. The Albanian international ran into Parkyville and the crowd roared again.

Chelsea 3 Wolves 0.

Ah, this was just lovely.

A great performance, some great goals, a nice boost for Tuesday’s game in Milan.

Super.

Outside, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with Andy from Michigan – formerly south-west London – who, way back in around 2010, started to to sew some seeds in my mind about starting my own self-contained blog about my football adventures and anecdotes rather than upload them to a bulletin board.

He is the one to blame for all this shite.

Good to see you, Andy.

In closing, I continue my look back at our worst-ever season forty years on.

My diary entry for Wednesday 6 October mentions a sixth-form football game away at Cannington near Bridgewater in the afternoon. We lost 5-2 and I apparently squandered three good scoring chances. I was “very disappointed.” I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of travelling, nor playing, in this match. My memory is usually pretty decent. Maybe for Chelsea games only, eh? Later on in the day, I was pleased that Chelsea beat Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. I was particularly enthusiastic about “Speedie Gonzalez” – well, that never caught on, did it? – nabbing two more goals. It was six in four games for him. Mike Fillery scored the other goal in front of just 7,982. I was hopeful that this win would bolster the gate for the visit of Leeds United on the following Saturday…”to around 20,000.”

In 1982, I was looking forward to a game involving 20,000.

In 2022, I am looking forward to a game involving 70,000.

Let’s go.

Andiamo.

I will see some of you in Italy.