Tales From A Good Excuse

St. Patrick’s Athletic vs. Chelsea : 13 July 2019.

Back in the summer of 2003, just after Roman Abramovich took over the reins at Chelsea Football Club, I really wanted it to be like this.

All those summers ago, it felt rather odd to me – if nobody else – that our club suddenly had huge spending power. To put it bluntly, it didn’t feel quite right. There were noticeable feelings of guilt at the way we splashed cash, at times indiscriminately and without purpose, in those first crazy months. It didn’t seem – to use a much-used phrase in football these days – “proper.” Whereas some supporters loved every minute of every million-pound purchase, I can sincerely remember that I hoped that some of the obscure Russian’s monies would go towards a top level academy where we could grow our own in the footballing equivalent of The Good Life. I distinctly remember an interview with my biggest Chelsea hero of all, Pat Nevin, in which he hoped too that funds would be diverted to some long term vision of the club nurturing its own. It seemed a lone voice at the time. Others saw no harm in flashing cash on anything that moved. But it is what we did in those first few years, and with fearsome results. But now, in the summer of 2019 – some sixteen years later – we are presented with the sudden chance, through an imposed transfer ban, to turn away from purchases and instead look inwards, promoting from our cast of thousands. And here we are with Frank Lampard as manager.

Here we are.

I am sure our path to this point in our history was not planned. But it would be foolish not to embrace the situation that we find ourselves in. Maurizio Sarri’s short, sweet and sour period as Chelsea manager is over. In the circumstances, a transfer ban would probably prove detrimental in luring a top-level coach to our club. Yes, of course Frank Lampard’s arrival as Chelsea manager is probably a few seasons too soon, but in some ways it is the perfect fit.

Frank knows the club. He respects the club. He is adored by all. He will be given time.

It does, to be frank, seem to be all about him at the moment.

As the world knows, there are many aspects of modern football that are gently eroding my love of the game. There are the unstoppable ways that commercialism have taken hold over the past couple of decades, but that is accepted with a long deep sigh these days, as irreversible as ever. Other particular grievances seem to irritate me more and more. Shall I name a few? Kick-off times changing to the detriment of match going fans. Games on Monday nights up North. Matches at 6pm on Sundays. The omnipresent threat of the thirty-ninth game. The perceived notion by many fellow fans that our club have a negligent attitude to match-going fans. The farce of Baku, and the lack of any desire at all by the club to engage with its fans in attempting to help with the costs of match tickets or travel options. The first half in Baku, which was the most surreal atmosphere that I have ever witnessed. The farce of VAR – loathed by many of my friends – and the solemn realisation that we are in for a very tough season ahead as it eats away at our enjoyment of every single goal celebration. More than anything else, VAR could tip me over the edge.

There was a key moment during the summer. I genuinely felt more excited that my local team Frome Town had re-signed two former favourites Matt Smith – a complete midfielder – and Jon Davies – a very skilful forward – than I was when I heard that Petr Cech had resigned with Chelsea. Of course, the Cech return was no surprise. The return of Matty and Jonno were big surprises. I guess everything is relative. But it is worth noting for sure.

So, against all these horrible negatives, I regard the arrival of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager as my one beacon hope.

Only you can save me, Frank.

No pressure.

There will be talk of Frank Lampard aplenty in these match reports over the next few months. But I will say one thing now. I was bowled over by his first press-conference as manager. He simply looked the part. He looked in control, he spoke intelligently and with purpose, emphasising all of the things that I hoped he would. He down-played the emotion of the return, and that was a masterstroke. He just impressed me so much. It reminded me of the times when Jose Mourinho spoke in that first season with us, before he disappeared into a bizarre vortex of torment.

I hung on every word.

It was just magical – a real thrill – to see him as our manager.

I shouldn’t get warm and fuzzy about such things. I have just turned fifty-four for fuck sake. But I felt a very real connection with the club once more.

Bravo, Frank, bravo.

The announcement of our two games in Dublin a few weeks ago proved difficult for me to resist. There was no way that I could afford to take three days away from work to see both, so I plumped for the Saturday game against St. Patrick’s Athletic instead of the Bohemians game on the Wednesday. I soon bought plane tickets – reasonable – and a night in a hotel – not so reasonable. For only the third time in my life – apart from layovers en route to the US in 2015 and 2016 – I was heading off to the Republic of Ireland.

And it would be my first ever Chelsea game on the Emerald Isle to boot.

I couldn’t wait.

I was up early – 4.30am – on the day of the game. I soon made my way over to Bristol Airport and the 8am Ryanair flight to Dublin left on time. In order to recoup some of the extra money that I was forced to pay the airline for my carry-on bag, I warned the air hostess and nearby passengers that I would be charging for small talk.

With time the essence – I would only be in Dublin for thirty hours all told – I caught a cab into the city. I chatted away to the cab driver and told him that the 2pm kick-off time was odd, and might throw out my pre-match pub-crawl timings. We can’t even seem to hit a three o’clock kick-off time for a friendly these days, damn it. But the cabbie suggested that the Dublin vs. Cork Gaelic football game at Croke Park at 7pm might have forced the early start for our game.

…mmm, now I was tempted. This game was only thirty-five minutes each way. I could easily zip over to Dublin’s north side for the evening game at Croke Park, but in doing so, would miss some long-anticipated Dublin nightlife. I had some decisions to make. I expected that the lure of a Dublin evening session would outweigh the second sporting fixture of the day.

I spoke to the cabbie of my two previous visits to Dublin in 1991 and in 1995, both for stag weekends for college friends Pete and Jim. Both visits had a slight sporting nature. In 1991, four of us decided to combat our hangovers on the Sunday afternoon with a visit to Dublin’s famous old footballing stadium Dalymount Park where St. Pat’s were to meet visiting Swedish team Malmo in a friendly. We stood on a sizeable side terrace and watched as the two teams huffed and puffed to a 1-1 draw. It was a horrific game of football. I wondered about my sanity at the end of it. My non-Chelsea photographs on this website are very rare, but here are four from that day to illustrate this piece. It appeared from the match footage from the Bohemians game on the previous Wednesday that much of Dalymount Park has stagnated since 1991. It is hard to fathom how it once held almost fifty-thousand.

In 1995, staying in a guest house in Drumcondra, two of us walked the ten minutes to Croke Park and took in an official tour. At that time, the first of the three huge stands had just been built. It was a snapshot in time; the lovely old wooden main stand, the towering new three-tiered stand opposite, the historic Hill 16 to the left, the Canal End to the right. Having heard the tour guide talk of Croke Park’s history, I never ever thought that it would one day host the English sport of association football.

My journey into Dublin continued. The steel of Croke Park was spotted just a few hundred yards to my left. We crossed the River Liffey. The cabbie spoke how it is often the case these days how people use the appearance of their favourite bands in far off and exotic places as an excuse – his word, not mine, but I soon agreed – to visit cities that they would never usually reach. That very weekend, the star of the 1991 weekend Pete was visiting the Italian city of Lucca to see New Order, with his wife Maxine. Last summer, they visited Turin to see New Order. On the Thursday after the Chelsea game in Dublin, I would be seeing New Order in Bristol with Pete and Max.

And indeed, this Chelsea game in Inchicore against St. Pat’s was a bloody good excuse to visit Dublin once more.

My last visit was twenty-four years ago, but as we drove south it felt like only five minutes had passed. Those feelings that I had for Dublin then – uniquely so similar but so vastly different to the UK – were being rekindled. We looked on at the riverside developments, where many trailers office furniture that I help plan have ended up over the years. Dublin, after a lull in 2008, is again a thriving city.

I dropped my bag off at the hotel.

At 10.10am – just an hour and fifteen minutes after touching down at Dublin International Airport – I was ordering a full Irish Breakfast at a bar on nearby Baggot Street Upper.

I thought about the past four seasons.

In 2015, it was at Bello’s Pub and Grill in Newark, New Jersey, with a smattering of Chelsea friends from the US.

In 2016, it was in a smoky Viennese bar, just myself and some locals.

In 2017, it was in the bar of the Capital Hotel in Beijing with Glenn and Cathy.

In 2018, it was at a pop-up bar overlooking Sydney Harbour with Glenn, newly arrived that day.

And now in 2019, my first pint – typically a Peroni – of Chelsea’s season was at “Searson’s” in Dublin.

I toasted us all.

“Cheers.”

The breakfast hit the spot and set me up nicely. It is worth noting, I think, that in the subsequent Facebook album of 116 photographs from this trip to Dublin, no photograph received more likes than the one of my Full Irish. You lot are easily bloody pleased, aren’t you?

Outside, there were clouds, but the sun was bursting to shine through. I knew that my whistle-stop visit to Dublin would simply be too short to see much sightseeing, and so I chose the line of least resistance. From 10am to 2pm, I would meander through Dublin’s city centre and stop off at a few choice pubs. For those who know this Chelsea blog, in fact at times it is a travelogue, this will come as no surprise.

I do love a good pub crawl.

I had visited the General Post Office on O’Connell Street and I had seen Trinity College in 1991. I had seen the Molly Malone statue and I had spent time close to the River Liffey in 1991. I had visited Dalymount Park in 1991. I had visited Croke Park in 1995. I had walked through the city centre around Grafton Street in 1995. In 2019, it would all be about the pubs of Dublin, with a little football thrown in for good measure.

“Any excuse.”

From “Searson’s” – a large and welcoming sports bar in the mould of so many in the US – I turned north. Without realising it, I walked right past a Bank of Ireland building on Baggot Plaza where some of our office furniture is still waiting to make its arrival – “delays at site” a typical operational problem – and then over the Grand Canal. Passing the grandness of the wide Georgian splendour of Fitzwilliam Street Upper to my left, I by-passed a few bars (although, if I am truthful, I wanted to find repose in every single one of them), I enjoyed a second pint of lager in the historic “O’Donoghue’s” on Baggot Street Lower. This was a small, dark bar, heavy on atmosphere, and an obvious hotspot for US tourists if all the dollar bills pinned everywhere were anything to go by. This is where The Dubliners were formed. I am not sure if I was being paranoid, but as soon as I ordered my pint, “The Fields of Athenry” was played on the juke box, a song heavily-linked to the national team, to Celtic, Irish nationalism and now to Liverpool too. I had a wry smirk to myself.

Time was moving on. I passed St. Stephen’s Green, and folk meeting for a morning coffee. In 1995, I remembered that Dublin was overflowing with coffee houses. There seemed to be a “Bewley’s” on every street. The rotunda at St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre reminded me so much of the entrance to Ebbets Field, the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I turned into Grafton Street, located the Phil Lynott statue on Harry Street – and immediately started humming “there’s whisky in the jar-o” to myself – before disappearing into “McDaids”. This pub was our base camp in 1991 and I raised a pint of Guinness to Max and Pete. This was another splendid pub. Memories flew through my mind. In truth, in 1991 I was in a far from happy place. I was on the dole, eking by, not going to many Chelsea games, at a low ebb. Soon though, I would pass my driving test, get a car, a job, and some semblance of order would return to my life. I raised the pint to myself this time.

A lad that I first met out in Baku – “M” – texted me to see where I was. I replied that I was on my way to “Grogan’s” and I would soon see him there. This was good fortune, because this pub was on his list too. At around midday, I spotted him outside and we trotted over the road into the fourth pub of the morning. A good mate Kev, who lived in Dublin, not far from St. Pat’s Richmond Park stadium in Inchicore in 1999, had heavily recommended this central pub. It was another beauty. Scandinavian style wooden panels, artwork on the walls, a fridge full of ham and cheese toasties. And another sublime pint of Guinness. “M” is originally from Thailand, and now lives in England. He goes to games with a couple of mutual friends. It was good to chat with a fellow Chelsea fan, and we rambled away about Baku, about the pre-season, about the immediate future.

We caught a cab over to Inchicore at about 12.45pm.

In “McDowell’s Pub” right outside the ground, there were a few familiar Chelsea faces. There was time for one last pint of Guinness before the game and a photo with Cathy, Dog, Nick, James, M and Dave and the famous “Rising Sun” flag. In the beer garden, if you peeked over the wall, the stadium could be seen below. It was all very cramped, the feel of a lower league ground in England. It looked lovely.

It was time to walk around the corner and go to the game. I had purchased a general admission ticket since the blurb on the CFC website mentioned that there was no allocation. Imagine my surprise when I heard of a Chelsea area (rather than an allocation, I guess) behind the far goal. The game kicked-off just before I was able to take position along the side terrace opposite the main stand. The TV cameras were just a few yards above my head. It felt excellent to be able to stand on a genuine terrace at a Chelsea game for the first time in years.

Just as it should be.

There was a mix of supporters all around the stadium. I’d edge the number of supporters in Chelsea’s favour. And I did notice one thing; there were no other team shirts present. Just of the two teams. That felt right. There were Irish Chelsea fans crowded in around me on that thin terrace. There wasn’t much banter, nor noisy support from any section throughout the game, and the Chelsea section to my left never really pulled off many noisy songs.

But it was a very pleasant experience.

I checked our team.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Tomori – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kovacic

Barkley

Abraham – Batshuayi

It took me a while to get used to seeing two up front.

Chelsea absolutely dominated the first-period and if it was not for some heroic saves from the St. Pat’s ‘keeper Barry Murphy, we would have been well clear at the break. Obviously it was lovely to see Mason Mount – not an inch of fat on his body – for the first time in Chelsea colours, albeit in the horrendous new kit. I was so close to Davide Zappocosta at times that it felt like I could reach out and tell him how much he still reminds me of Grouch Marx. He is certainly not the most gifted nor admired of players, but Zappa was up and down that right wing as if his life depended on it.

Michy was the first to impress in front of goal, soon forcing a low save from Murphy. Soon after, a thunderous shot from our Belgian striker from outside the box smashed against the home crossbar. On a quarter of an hour, a lovely incisive pass from Mateo Kovacic found the run of Mount and the young midfielder did his best Lampardesque impersonation to flick it past Murphy. We continued to attack and the home team offered little resistance. Shots increased on the goal to my right. Ross Barkley smacked a fine shot against a post with Murphy beaten. On the half-hour mark, Emerson found a little space outside the box and, optimistically, left fly with a low shot. It surprised me that it nestled inside the far corner, and I suspect that the ‘keeper may have been unsighted.

The Chelsea section serenaded “Super Frank” and he waved back. He was the study of concentration all game long.

With us winning 2-0, I was sorely tempted to enquire of the home supporters “are you Arsenal in disguise?” but felt better of it. Their exact copy of the Arsenal kit gave the game an even more surreal feel. There were “oohs and ahs” around me when David Luiz tackled, lifted the ball up over his head, juggled it once then laid it off to a team mate.

It was again the turn of Murphy to take over centre-stage when he made a series of fine saves, including a high leap to deny Michy once more, and another from a Barkley free-kick.

The sun was beating down now and my forehead was starting to tingle.

At the break, Frank and the management team came onto the pitch and watched as some players – those who were down to take part in the second period – went through some drills. As with the game on Wednesday, there were wholesale changes before the game restarted. We lined up as follows.

Cumming.

Alonso – Zouma – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Bakayoko – Gilmour

Kenedy – Palmer – Pedro

Giroud

The second-half was more subdued. With the sun still beating down on me, I was beginning to rue not bringing a baseball cap along. It was great to see Billy Gilmour. What with Happy Gilmour and Happy Zouma on the pitch, it was perhaps time for the Chuckle Brothers to move aside. I was surprised how deep Gilmour often played, but he kept possession well and had a couple of neat runs. The pace of the game dipped, but at times our fitness levels put the home team to shame. There were occasional breaks, and a few shots on goal although that man Murphy was again the star. Pedro looked neat and precise. I thought we might never see Kenedy again at Chelsea, but what with the appearance of Lucas Piazon on Wednesday (Piazon has almost been on as many pre-season tours as me) I guess anything is possible. It was Kenedy’s precise cross out on the left that found a blatantly unmarked Olivier Giroud, who calmly volleyed home to make it 3-0.

Excellent.

It was still a scorcher.

I turned to the bloke behind me and said “who thought I’d come to Dublin for a sun tan?”

The home team made plenty of substitutes as the game wore on. Eric Molloy, who had scored a fine equaliser against us for Bohs on Wednesday, showed up in this game too, a second-half substitute. There was a “wag” standing alongside some fellow St. Pat’s supporters in the front row just down from me. A large man, and full of banter, he played up to his audience. When a rough tackle was carried out by Kurt Zouma, he pleaded “leave him alone, he’s only fourteen” which brought a few smiles, alluding to young Evan Ferguson who played so well against us on Wednesday.

In the closing moments, Giroud chased down a pass, and set off towards goal from a central position. He was forced wide, but aimed at goal from the corner of the box. It was a laser, and crept into the net past the despairing dive of Murphy and into the bottom corner.

St. Patrick’s Athletic 0 Chelsea 4.

Franktastic.

At the end of the game, the crowd cheered our new manager as he walked towards the centre of the pitch and applauded all four sides. It did feel that the whole game, the whole day, was about him. It is understandable, but I am sure that he would agree that it is now all about the players.

Outside, I was so glad to bump into brothers Tim and Declan, who I often see on my travels at Chelsea games. This was their home city. I would have felt bad not seeing them. I met up by chance with M and we agreed to share another cab back to the city. Cabs were a rare commodity, though, and the sun was still beating down. We spotted a pub – Pub Number Six – and popped inside the cool interior for another Guinness apiece. It took a while, but M spotted the “Rising Sun” flag out in the patio area.

Out we went, joining Nick and James, plus two German lads. Both were Chelsea, but one was Chemie Halle and one was TSV1860. The chat continued on. It was pleasing to meet the 1860 supporter since he soon confirmed that he was one of the 1860 fans who followed us around Europe in our 1994/95 ECWC campaign.

Respect.

So, there was no Croke Park visit on that Saturday night. However, I did watch twenty minutes of second-half action in the hotel bar at around 8pm. There was a sparse crowd present. I think that I had made the correct choice. Later, at various locations in the city centre, I would frequent Pub Seven, Pub Eight and Pub Nine. Dublin had done me proud. It really was a friendly city for this friendly game.

I have a feeling that Reading, the venue for my next match, will not be so perfect.

I’ll see you there.

 

Tales From An End Of Season Lapse

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 9 May 2018.

Memories Of Dick Kryzwicki.

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

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

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

Bury and Burnley.

Southport and Stockport County.

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

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

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

We have come a long way since Dick Kryzwicki.

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

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

1922 And All That.

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

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

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

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

Pie, Mash And Liquor.

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

Typical Chelsea.

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

Wednesday Night In London Town.

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

Changes.

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

Roy And Ray RIP.

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

One Way Traffic.

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

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

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

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

That Man N’Golo.

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

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

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

“What a fucking work horse that Kante.”

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

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

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

“England are the masters at crossing the ball.”

The crowd were growing a bit restless.

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

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

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

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

The Morris Minors.

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

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

After You, Claude.

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

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

I turned to Alan.

“At least we have forty minutes to reply.”

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

Ha. What luck.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

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

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

Who’s Your Father, Referee?

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

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

Pinball Wizards.

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

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

Bloody Nora.

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

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

Morata went close.

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

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

Balls.

There was huge disappointment at the final whistle.

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

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

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

The Long Road Home.

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

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

Life is good.

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Tales From Selhurst Park

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2016.

Our game at Selhurst Park would be our third game in just seven days; by the time I would return home from South London, I would have driven over 1,100 miles in support of the boys in blue. No complaints from me though; what else are you going to do on a Sunday lunchtime, a Wednesday evening or a Saturday lunchtime? For the second year in a row, I had decided to use one of those pre-paid parking spaces outside a private address. Last year, it worked a treat, despite the severe soaking we suffered walking to and from the stadium, and our win at Selhurst was an enjoyable day out. It was our first game of 2016, and it felt like we had turned the corner after the malaise of the autumn slump.

What a difference a year makes, eh? A year ago we had just lost at Leicester City and Jose Mourinho had been sacked. We were mired in the bottom five. Twelve months on, there is a beautiful and uplifting vibe in SW6. We were chasing our eleventh win on the trot, and with it, a ridiculous pre-Christmas lead of a massive nine points.

Just before I left home, I posted on Facebook.

“Let’s Go To Work, Antonio.”

“VINCI PER NO11.”

The roads were thick with fog as I collected PD, Parky and Young Jake. Over Salisbury Plain, I was forced to keep my speed down due to poor visibility. On the drive to London, although the driving conditions gradually improved, the fog never really lifted.

My GPS sent me through the backroads of South London, along unfamiliar streets and roads. This was a route right through the Chelsea heartlands of Tolworth, New Malden, Mitcham, and then south to Wallington to catch the A23 Purley Way up to Thornton Heath. It seemed to be a rather circuitous course, and as we finally parked up on Kynaston Avenue, I joked that I bloody well hoped that our route to the Palace goal would not be so messy.

We were parked-up at 11.45am. We were there. There was no time for a pre-match pint, unlike last year, when we dried out in front of a roaring fire at the “Prince George” pub.

The fog was hanging in the South London air. As we shook hands with a few mates outside the red-brick of the turnstiles to the Arthur Wait Stand, and knowing how “old school” Selhurst Park remains, there was a definite old-time feel to this. The floodlights were on, of course, and they only seemed to increase my awareness of how foggy it all was. I loved it to be honest. Love it or loathe it – and most people tend to belong to the latter camp – there is no doubt that Selhurst Park, representing football stadia in their natural settings, alongside terraced streets, local pubs, cafes and shops, strikes a chord with me. There was a large souvenir Chelsea only stall selling favours plotted-up right outside the away end. Two hi-vis jacketed policemen on horseback watched over us as we milled around outside. It’s terribly cramped at Selhurst. Once inside, you wait your turn until you have the chance to slowly sidle through the crowded concourse before entering the Arthur Waite Stand at its rear, its roof so cavernous and dark above, a mess of ugly steel supports, and the pitch can only be glimpsed, a thin line at the bottom of the steps.

Parky, Alan, Gal and myself were low down in row four, with PD just in front of us. The fog made visibility difficult. As the teams entered from the far corner – I have this image of the dressing rooms at Selhurst being temporary Portakabins to this day, I am sure I am wrong – I took a few photographs and soon realised that my haul on this footballing Saturday would be grainy and lacking the usual crispness.

If you squinted, Crystal Palace in their blue and red, and Chelsea in our all-white, resembled an ersatz El Classico homage : Palace as FCB, Chelsea as the Real deal.

As for the team, there were changes. Thankfully Eden Hazard was back in, with Willian keeping his place in the attacking trio with Pedro missing out. Nemanja Matic returned to take the place of Wednesday’s match-winner Cesc Fabregas.

The little knot of self-styled Holmesdale Ultras were doing their bit in the opening formalities, fervently waving their flags, and trying to get the rest of the home areas involved. The game began with Diego Costa playing the ball back to a team mate, and we were away.

I thought Wilfrid Zaha, running with intent, in front of us on the Palace right looked threatening in the first few moments. And Johan Cabaye looked at ease, picking up passes in front of the home defence, before playing intelligent balls through for the runners. A David Luiz free-kick, following a foul on Eden Hazard, was our first real attempt on goal; the ball bounced up off the wall and went for a corner. Soon after a ball was fizzed in from the Palace right and we gasped as Jason Puncheon stabbed the ball wide. Most of our attacking intent seemed to come down our left flank with the industrious Alonso linking up well with Nemanja Matic and Hazard. There was a little frustration with Matic and his inherent slowness. Alongside him, Kante was a lot more economic, releasing the ball with minimum fuss. One of the highlights of the first period was the incredible jump from Eden to control a high ball with consummate ease. He brought the ball down and moved on. All within twenty yards of me. I’m so lucky to see such skill week in, week out.

Diego Costa gave away a silly foul. After living life on the edge for what seems an eternity, his fifth booking eventually came.

Palace were causing us a few moments of concern. It clearly wasn’t all about us.

There didn’t seem to be the usual barrage of noise emanating from the away section this time. There were occasional songs and chants, but the team was causing moments of mild concern rather than reasons to celebrate.

The home team had a couple of chances. James McArthur headed wide, Puncheon wasted a free-kick.

Just as it looked like the half would end in a stalemate and hardly a real Chelsea chance on goal, Eden Hazard turned and kept the ball close as he cut inside. He played the ball out to Cesar Azpilicueta, who sent over a hanging cross into the box. Diego, a thin wedge of white sandwiched between two defenders, was first to the ball and met it squarely.

We watched, open-mouthed and expectant, as the ball dropped into the goal.

It was almost in slow-motion.

There was a split-second of delay before we celebrated.

Two immediate thoughts entered my mind.

Was it offside?

Bloody hell, a headed goal.

Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1 and thank you very much Diego Costa.

There was a little bubble of sunshine in the gloom and murk of a wintry South London at half-time. All was well with the world.

Was that it then?

With minimal effort, we had taken the lead against a troublesome Crystal Palace team. At that moment in time, we were on our way to our eleventh consecutive win, and we were nine points clear at the top.

It seemed – almost – too easy.

Well, we were soon to learn that nothing is easy. For the first period of play in the second-half, the home team put us under pressure, and it suddenly felt that we were in for a good old-fashioned battle. The Chelsea support had boomed with celebratory support after Diego’s goal, but we now realised the team needed a different tune. Whereas before there had been “we’re top of the league”, there was now a more supportive “come on Chelsea.” This was music to my ears. I love it when our support recognises that the team needs us and we respond accordingly.

The home support responded too, invoking the same chant that I noted the Bayer Leverkusen fans using at Wembley a month or so back.

“Tra La La La La La La – Crystal Palace.”

They’re so European, these Holmesdale Fanatics, the buggers.

Cabaye forced a smart save from Thibaut Courtois. The one defensive trademark of the second-half would be the towering Belgian rising high in a packed six-yard box to claim cross after cross. We rode a little home pressure, and then were back to our best, and the game opened up further. A blistering shot from N’Golo Kante forced a save from the Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Willian, not at his best, was replaced by Cesc Fabregas. Soon into his game, we serenaded him with his own song; he looked over to the Chelsea hordes and applauded.

The chances continued. It was a different game than in the first-half. Victor Moses zipped past a few challenges and caused Palace a few moments of discomfort. Alonso, from an angle, volleyed low but wide. It rustled the net and a few in our ranks thought it was a second. I spotted a Palace fan, sitting behind the goal, stand to his feet and mock our errant cheering. His only problem was that he was wearing a full-on green elf costume.

“Sit down, you prick.”

A weak Fabregas shot, and then a Benteke turn and shot was well-saved by Thibaut.

Ivanovic for Moses.

There were a few classic Chelsea masterclasses at Selhurst.

Kante snapping at the heels of various Palace players, and showing ridiculous energy levels.

The refreshed Hazard back to his best, running at speed, stopping on a sixpence, bringing others into the game.

The absolutely dependable Azpilicueta, the quickest of the back three, covering ground well, and blocking many Palace moves.

Alonso, up and down the left-flank, always involved.

Cesc Fabregas, only on the pitch for twenty-five minutes, but showing what an intelligent passer he can be.

And lastly, but not least, the relentless Diego Costa, in his current form as complete an attacker that we have seen at Chelsea; foraging, battling, fighting, shielding, thrusting.

Scoring.

The bloody referee Jon Moss – booed by us throughout for some odd decisions – had reckoned to an additional five minutes. It got a little nervy. Thankfully Andros Townsend skied a very late free-kick.

We had done it.

Eleven in a row.

Fackinell.

It was time for a festive celebration :

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Very soon, the Chelsea players walked towards us and clapped. And very soon the focus was our Italian manager. As we serenaded him – “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” – he beamed a huge and endearing smile, before doing a little hand-jive, and then turning to say that the applause should really be for his players. It was just a lovely moment.

 

We waited for a while before we exited. There were many handshakes – “Happy Christmas” – to those stood close by. We made the point of shaking hands with the line of stewards who had been lining the segregation area between our noisy section and the docile home support. Chelsea fans in friendly behaviour shock. The walk back to the car was triumphant. I made the point of telling anyone who would listen that these three narrow 1-0 wins would surely frustrate and annoy the hell out of our title rivals. But it had revealed a great tenacity to our play.

3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

1-0, 1-0, 1-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

I weaved my way south, and out onto the M25 before heading home. It had been a triumphant week. Over one thousand miles, entailing twenty-five hours of driving, just three goals, but nine magnificent points.

What a week. What a team.

In my match report for our game at Selhurst Park in the Spring of 2014, I weaved the lyrics to Sarf London boys Squeeze’s most loved song “Up The Junction” as an ode to that particular part of our nation’s capital. In Frome, after I had dropped the boys off, later in the evening, I combined a trip to see Chelsea in deepest South London with a gig by Squeeze front man Glen Tilbrook in the town’s concert hall.

It seemed right.

We now have a rest. It’s Christmas. A week off. We reassemble at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 2016 for the visit of Bournemouth.

“Eleven in a row” just doesn’t scan, so let’s make it twelve.

On we go.

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Tales From The Madness

Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 January 2016.

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THE FIRST HALF : pallid, boring, slow, inert, lethargic, quiet, lukewarm, tedious, frustrating, dull.

THE SECOND HALF : dynamic, rousing, intense, dramatic, noisy, warming, entertaining, heartening, emotional, breathless.

The third home game of the week paired us with Everton, in a game which certainly made me nervous. Although Roberto Martinez’ team often flatter to deceive – what a lovely football only phrase – we all knew too well that on their day, they can be a tough nut to crack. We only have to recall our away game in September and Steven Naismith’s finest hour.

Looking back though, our home record against the Evertonians is very healthy. Our last league defeat to them occurred way back in the late autumn of 1994, with a Paul Rideout goal giving Everton a win on a day when the then North Stand officially opened. Although we lost on penalties to Everton in an F.A. Cup replay in 2011, we were looking for our twenty-first league game in a row without defeat at Stamford Bridge against them. I had been present at all previous twenty games. They are familiar visitors.

It was a quick and easy commute to our place of pilgrimage, with myself back behind the wheel once again, and I was joined by Andy from Trowbridge in addition to Parky and PD. It was a perfect winter day. The fields touched by early morning frost, but blue skies overhead. A proper blue and white day in fact. The others dropped in to “The Oak” on the North End Road – one of the few remaining old school pubs left – while I headed down to meet up with Charles from Dallas, still in England and knee deep in the delights of London town. On the walk back up to “The Goose”, I made sure he called in to the “CFCUK” stall, where he picked up a copy of Mark Worrall’s book from 2013 “Making History Not Reliving It.”

It was a cold lunchtime in London, but not unbearably so. There was no bitter wind.

It was, again, a perfect day for football.

“The Goose” was as packed as I have ever seen it. It was crazy. The cricket was on the TV, and garnering a fair bit of attention. I introduced Charles to a few close friends, and wondered if he needed a crash course in the basics of our summer sport. A few quick wickets in Johannesburg in South Africa were met with raucous cheering in the pub. Meanwhile, Charles got stuck in to a plate of fish, chips and mushy peas. Another box ticked for him on his whirlwind tour.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was rather astounded that Everton had brought a full three thousand. It doesn’t always happen. Last season, the number was around two-thousand. In that midweek game, almost a year ago, a very late Willian goal gave us three points. It is strange to think that at that stage Willian’s attributes were widely unrecognised by the majority of the match-going faithful, despite a loudly sang ditty in his name. I can remember thinking throughout the season that never had there been such a miss-match between Chelsea supporters’ love of a song and love of a player.

Guus Hiddink had fine-tuned from Wednesday. In came Nemanja Matic to sit alongside Jon Obi Mikel, allowing Cesc Fabregas to move alongside Pedro and that man Willian. Pedro’s presence in our team seemed to leave many cold. He reminds me of Florent Malouda, to be honest, in that he is ostensibly a wide man, yet seems to dislike running past his marker.

To my pleasant surprise, there were few empty seats in the stadium. Before the game, in “The Oak”, the lads had been approached by six Swedish tourists, nervously concerned about the validity of the tickets that they had bought off the internet. The tickets, for the West Lower, normally sell for around £50, yet these lads had paid £150 apiece for them. It annoyed me so much that they had paid out £600 extra between the six of them for these tickets.

Regardless, Stamford Bridge was full.

The game started slowly. Very slowly. It was not until the fifteenth minute that a well-worked move found Willian scampering down the right wing, but his shot was well saved by Tim Howard. Ross Barkley is one of the few bright hopes in the English game that I admire from afar, and his shot was well-blocked by Kurt Zouma, with Bryan Oviedo flashing the rebound wide.

This was pretty dire stuff in the main. Charles, for his second game at Stamford Bridge, had swapped ends and was watching in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding. With the atmosphere eerily quiet, I was desperate for the game and the atmosphere to improve. It took a full thirty-five minutes for the first significantly loud song to permeate the cold Stamford Bridge air.

Out of nowhere, “Amazing Grace.”

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

On the pitch, Chelsea were dominating possession no doubt, but movement off the ball was virtually non-existent. It was painful to watch. I lost count of the number of times Pedro played it back to Dave, or Brana played it back to Willian, only to push the ball further back. It really was dire. A lovely sliding tackle by Kurt Zouma – sure to become his trademark, in addition to a no-nonsense hoofed clearance – was almost a highlight for us. I was expecting a little more from Romelu Lukaku, but he was well-marshalled by Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

Just before half-time, an impressive turn by Kevin Mirallas took him past Kurt Zouma and his low shot was well struck, but equally well-saved by Thibaut Courtois.

At the break, I was pleasantly surprised that there were so few boos from the Chelsea stands. Booing is something I abhor. I just can’t stomach it. Although Chelsea had dominated, Everton seemed a little more dynamic in possession. But really, this was a tedious game of football. I was glad that my pre-match drinking had been kept to two coffees and a “Coke.” Sleep was not an option.

Soon in to the second-half, a strong run from Lukaku and I immediately sensed danger. We seem to cope poorly when balls are switched quickly to our flanks. Barkley moved the ball on to Baines. I muttered the words “low cross” to PD, and – ugh – the ball was whipped in. There was a blur of bodies and the ball ended up in the net.

“That had a goal written all over it” I mumbled.

Soon after, Barkley rattled the post after being set up by Mirallas. Things were looking shaky.

Oscar replaced the disappointing Matic. Again, I was surprised that there were no boos. At least that was pleasing.

However, a well-worked move from our visitors across our box resulted in a cross towards Mirallas, who swivelled and connected well. We were 2-0 down and the Evertonians in the far corner were bouncing and buoyant.

Chelsea 0 Everton 2.

I turned to PD.

“Well, we’ll never score two.”

“Nah.”

The away fans were now full of noise.

“Martinez said he’s not for sale and I was satisfied.

Chelsea want those kind of things that money just can’t buy.

I don’t care too much for money.

Money can’t buy me Stones, can’t buy you Stones.

Money can’t buy you Stones.”

Never known for their volume, I think it was the loudest that they have ever been at Chelsea. However, Chelsea then reacted. The stands reverberated to the sound of the supporters rallying and getting behind the team.

As it should be.

If we are winning, sing and cheer.

If we are losing, sing and cheer louder.

I was so proud. Fabregas attempted a very audacious flick with his back heel, which looped up towards goal, but Howard tapped it over. Soon after, a long ball from Cesc was aimed, hopefully, towards Diego Costa. A calamitous mix-up between Phil Jagielka and Howard allowed the ball to roll free. Diego swooped and slotted the ball in to an empty net.

Game on. The crowd erupted and Diego pumped his fist towards the MHL.

Barely two minutes later, the ball was worked between Fabregas and Costa, with the former taking a speculative shot at goal. A deflection took it the despairing dive of Howard.

2-2.

The Bridge roared again.

Kenedy replaced the poor Pedro.

We were attacking at will now, with the crowd fully involved, and fully supporting the team. Diego stretched at a cross from Dave, but was too far away to connect. Sadly, our number nineteen was hurt in a challenge and was replaced by Loic Remy with ten minutes remaining.

Still the noise echoed around The Bridge.

“And its super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

Mikel, another fine game from him, blasted wide. This was a pulsating game and we watched nervously as that man Mirallas broke through on goal, but Courtois blocked well. In the last minute of normal time, an Everton corner was cleared, but as substitute Deulofue swung a ball in, the Chelsea players appeared to be ball-watching. At the far post, another substitute Ramiro Funes Mori stretched to hook the ball in.

2-3.

“Fuck.”

The Everton players again ran over to their fans in the far corner.

I turned to Alan and said “this season doesn’t want to go away, does it?”

We had played well for so much of the second-half, but how typical of our season that our efforts would go unrewarded. I felt unsurprisingly low. To my annoyance, a notable number of Chelsea supporters upped and left, despite the PA announcing a hefty seven minutes of extra time.

Insert comment right here :________________________________________

However, the noise continued and we urged the boys on. Willian struck a shot which flashed wide. We never ever gave up. As the clock-ticked by, the crowd were on tenterhooks.

With surely not long left, a long ball was pumped forward. I spotted that John Terry was up, supporting the attack. I snapped as Ivanovic headed on. I missed the most delicate of touches from Oscar, but as the ball fell towards John Terry, an unlikely recipient, I snapped as he attempted the most ridiculous of flicks with his heel. I watched, mesmerized, as the ball was touched by Howard, but the momentum could not stop the ball flying up and in to the goal.

The stadium gulped and then quickly roared.

I remained remarkably calm and snapped away as John Terry, boiling over with emotion, ran towards the supporters in the MHL. I watched as he stepped in to the crowd, then snapped further as he became engulfed by fans and team mates alike.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea, we did it.”

My photos complete, I looked over and saw Alan, his face contorted with joy.

I had a little moment to myself, crouching, breathing it all in. It was hardly a Munich moment, but I was just acknowledging how utterly amazing this wonderful game of football can be. What heights of emotion it can bring. I was in awe of the game itself – football, you beauty – as much as the goal.

It was a stunning end to a ridiculous game of football.

As a few friends chatted to me as we breathlessly spoke about the match, I had one recurring thought :

“And that is for the knobheads who left at 3-2.”

After a mundane and tedious first-half, the second-half was simply exceptional. There was a lovely mix of surprise, joy and relief on the Fulham Road as I walked back to the car. It certainly felt like a win. And although we gained only one point, I was hopeful that it would represent so much more. It might just give our team and club a little more belief and, that elusive commodity, a little more confidence. 3-3 draws in the top division seem all the rage of late, and this one will live long in the memory banks.

I exchanged messages with Charles, who I would later learn that night was right in line with John Terry’s leap into the Matthew Harding Lower, and who was able to catch the madness on film. I was so pleased that his four thousand mile journey to London had been worth it.

To complete a fine day of football, I soon learned that my local team, mired in a relegation place in the Southern League, had won a tough away game with a goal in the ninetieth minute.

It was one of those days.

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Tales From 2015/2016

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

What were my expectations for this game? It would be easy to simply say “a win.” But in this most ridiculous of football seasons, where north is south and where black is white, it seems that I am constantly having to re-calibrate my hopes on a match by match basis. Here was another game that illustrated how this campaign has been turned 180 degrees. Watford, newly arrived in the top flight after an eight year hiatus and with a new manager to boot, were enjoying a recent burst in form, taking them up to the heady heights of seventh place in the table.

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

Up is down. Big is small. Wet is dry. Bill Gates is Apple. Coke is blue. Puma has three stripes. The Confederates are from the North. The Pope is agnostic. A bear shits in a bathroom.

It is as difficult to unravel as an Agatha Christie whodunit with half the pages missing.

I had traveled up to London on a very mild but also a very grey and nondescript Boxing Day morning with Lord Parky and P-Diddy. My Christmas Day had come and gone with little cheer. Having lost my mother in February, the first Christmas without her warm smile was always going to be a tough one. My Christmas Day was somewhat of an emotional wasteland for me. As I drove towards London, its grey shadow lingered long in my thoughts. To be honest, I was struggling to conjure up too much enthusiasm for the game at Stamford Bridge against Watford. My thoughts were more focused on Monday’s away game at Old Trafford – always one of “the” trips each season – what with the current malaise affecting that particular club too. Add all of the conjecture about Mourinho joining United in to the mix, and you have a highly intriguing scenario.

Monday will be a cracking day out.

Prior to the game with Watford, I spent a couple of hours in the company of Peter, a pal now living in the United States. I last met him on his own turf, in Washington DC, for the game with Barcelona during the summer. We were joined by two Stamford Bridge game day virgins Chris and Kate – also from the US – all giddy with excitement about seeing the boys in the flesh in SW6 for the first time. I gave them a few insights into our club as we set off to meet up with the usual suspects in The Goose.

The pub seemed quieter than usual. As soon as we had settled, there was a roar as Stoke City went a goal up against Manchester United. A second soon followed. After United’s poor run of form, a trip to the Potteries is the last place that they would have wanted to visit. The stakes for Monday were raised further.

I met up with Jeff from Texas, who had just flown in that very morning. It was lovely to see him again. This was a similar scenario to our game at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day in 2008 when Jeff and two friends had driven straight from Heathrow to Birmingham. This time, Jeff was with his wife, another Stamford Bridge game day virgin. In order to save money for this trip, Jeff – who is a school teacher – took on a second job throughout the summer, mowing lawns, possibly with a dog called spot. I heartily approved of this. It annoys me at times how so many of our US fans moan about not being able to travel to England to see us play – hell, some even moan about Chelsea not playing in their part of the country during US pre-season tours – so “fair play” to Jeff for working a second job to see us in England. It immediately reminded me of the story that my good friend Andy told about his schooldays. Andy would often go without school meals during the week in order to save money for the train fare down to London from his Midlands home to see Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge.

Top work from Andy in 1979 and top work from Jeff in 2015.

Outside the West Stand, and underneath Peter Osgood’s boots, I met up with three or four more acquaintances from the US, those that I have befriended through Facebook or met on pre-season tours, but these were only part of a bigger “Chelsea In America” ensemble – those who have been saving their lunch money over the past few years – and I was very happy to take a group photo of them all. There were a good few Stamford Bridge virgins among this little group too, although some were on a repeat visit.

Peter, Chris, Kate, Su, Tim and Dan posed with Howard, Marion, Ralph, Richie, Arnold, Al, Fonzie, Joanie, Chachi, Potsie and Pinkie. Laverne and Shirley were still in the pub.

Happy days.

After taking the photo, I repeated something that I always say to first-time visitors –

“And if we lose today, you’re not fucking coming back.”

Some would be at Old Trafford on Monday too, the lucky bleeders.

Inside Stamford Bridge – I was in early – both sets of players were going through their re-match drills. Unsurprisingly, Watford brought their full three thousand.

Neil Barnett introduced Guus Hiddink to the Stamford Bridge crowd and he drew a fine reception. Hiddink seems a good man, a steadying influence after the storm which accompanied Mourinho’s closing months, and if memory serves he was well-liked by all of the players during his tenure in 2008/2009.

I whispered to Alan : “When we sang ‘we want you to stay’ to Guus at Wembley in 2009, who would honestly have thought that we would be welcoming him back almost seven years later. And that he would be replacing Mourinho.”

The team was virtually unchanged from the win against that very poor Sunderland team. Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma.

Chelsea dominated the first quarter of an hour with the opposition, in all black, hardly crossing the halfway line. An early chance for Diego Costa from inside the six yard box was headed over. I wondered if the watching guests from the US – in the Shed Lower, Parkyville – would be rewarded with a first-half goal. We came close with a couple of efforts and the mood inside The Bridge was good, although the atmosphere was not great. Watford then seemed to awake from their slumber. They perhaps subconsciously remembered that they were, statistically, the better team. They came to life with Ighalo looking dangerous on two occasions.

Watford, famously sticking two fingers to the football world, and playing a traditional 4-4-2, had originally seemed content to hump long balls forward towards Ighalo and Deeney. It had been a nod towards their own particular footballing heritage under Graham Taylor in the ‘eighties when their rudimentary long ball game was a particular component of that footballing era. In those days, the two strikers were Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett. Even in the more traditional ‘eighties – before we had heard of “false nines”, “double pivots”, “transition phases”, “attacking mids” and “tiki taka” – Watford’s style of play was the most basic of all. I always thought that it contrasted, ironically, so well with the more pleasing football played by their great rivals Luton Town under David Pleat. Both teams romped to promotion from the Second Division in 1981/1982, when we were still trying to harness the very unique talents of Alan Mayes in our own 4-4-2 variant.

Watford were indeed posing us problems, and our midfield – Fabregas in particular – was finding it hard to shackle their movement. However, rather against the run of play, a corner from in front of the US guests found the high leap of John Terry at the far post. The ball bounced down, not specifically goal wards, but towards where Diego Costa was lurking. A quick instinctive spin and the orange ball flew high in to the net past Gomez.

The crowd roared as Diego reeled away, accepting the acclaim from the crowd, and especially those in Parkyville. Throughout the game, there had been no significant boos for any player to be honest. Perhaps there was just the slightest murmurs of disdain for Costa when the teams were announced. But nothing on the scale of the previous game, which the media took great pleasure in highlighting. Maybe the protest at the Sunderland match was well and truly behind us now. I am pleased, if this is the case. Under Hiddink, we need to move on.

Oscar came close, but then Watford attacked us again. A free-kick was deflected over and from the resultant corner, Matic was correctly adjudged to have hand-balled inside the box. Deeney converted, low past Courtois.

“Here we go again.”

Just before the half-time whistle, a fine run by Pedro down the Chelsea left was followed by a low cross which just evaded the late run of Diego Costa.

It had been a frustrating half. Our early dominance had subsided and we were back to questioning various aspects of our play.

There was a surprising substitution at the break, with Hiddink replacing the admittedly lackluster (aka “shite”) Fabregas with none other than Jon Obi Mikel.

Soon into the second period, Watford peppered our goal with two shots in quick succession. Capoue was foiled by Courtois and then a follow-up was bravely blocked. I thought to myself “under Mourinho, one of those would have gone in.” Sadly, just after I was to rue my thoughts. The ball found Ighalo on the left, but hardly in a particularly dangerous position. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he had decided to shoot. I looked on in horror as his shot deflected off a defender and into the empty net, with Courtois off balance and falling to his left.

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

To be fair, we upped our play and began to look livelier. A key move began in inauspicious circumstances, though. Watford played a long ball out to their left and Ivanovic had appeared to have lost his man. However, with grim determination and resilience – the Brana of old – he recovered remarkably well. A sturdy tackle halted the Watford attack. Brana played the ball simply to Oscar. Oscar passed to Willian. Our little Brazilian livewire played – probably – the pass of the season into the box, and into the path of Diego Costa, who was thankfully central. He met the ball and adeptly cut it past the despairing dive of Gomez.

2-2.

The crowd roared again. Diego Costa ran towards the sidelines. My photographs captured the joy on the faces of the fans in the East Lower, but also the look of – what? Disdain? Annoyance? Umbrage? – on Costa’s face as he turned towards the Matthew Harding and remembered the boos against Sunderland.

Regardless of the politics of booing, we were back in the game.

After capturing both of Diego’s goals on film, I clasped my camera and wondered if I might be able to photograph a possible third.

We went close on a couple of occasions, and it honestly felt as if a winner was on the cards. Watford were offering little now. It was all Chelsea. Hiddink brought on Hazard for Pedro. Thankfully there were no boos. We need to move on. Dancing and moving in that mesmeric way of his, Hazard soon got the bit between his teeth with a couple of dribbles down below me. He was clattered by Behrami, and referee Marriner quickly pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

Alas, Oscar decided to take the kick and his dramatic slip resulted in the ball being ballooned high over the Watford bar.

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

Then it was Watford’s turn to go close at the other end. It was a pulsating game of football, if not the most technically brilliant. Apilicueta was maliciously scythed down but the Watford miscreant was not red carded. Then, so stupid, a wild tackle by Diego Costa – also on the half way line – resulted in a yellow. I half-expected a red. It would mean that Costa would not be joining us at Old Trafford on Monday. It undoubtedly took the shine off a much better performance from Diego Costa, who was back to – almost – his best. Mikel, by the way, was exceptional in the second-half. It was his shot, late on and from a good thirty yards out, which whizzed past Watford’s post in the last meaningful moment of the game.

I had to be honest.

As a game of football, I had enjoyed it. It was a decent game.

As a Chelsea fan, however, there are still questions to be asked of our troubled team.

Back in the car, my views were shared by my two mates.

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

Before I knew it, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were soon fast asleep. I drove on, eating up the miles. Thankfully I made good time and I was back home by 7.30pm, with my mind now realigned towards Old Trafford.

Oh, and Southampton, where Arsenal were being dicked 4-0.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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Tales From The Dock Of Tiger Bay

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2014.

One final game, one final trip, one final tale.

For all intents and purposes, it had felt like season 2013-2014 had already ended. Our home campaign had concluded in a rather meek fashion. The loss against Atletico Madrid and the draw against Norwich City had meant that there would be no silverware for only the third time in ten seasons.

So, whereas our season-ending foray across the Severn Estuary was, until only recently, viewed as a potential championship-deciding occasion, it was now of little real relevance. Not to worry; it would be one last chance to support the team up close and personal in this season of meandering intent interspersed with odd moments of blinding excitement.

I called for Parky at around 10am. Not long into the trip, he realised that the all-important match ticket was not on his person. Back at his house, there was the sudden rush of panic when he couldn’t remember the ticket arriving by post. This was turning out to be a fated season. I missed the first game and now Parky was about to miss the last one. After a few minutes of silence from within, Parky emerged holding a white envelope.

“Get in.”

We both beamed. I punched the air. We were on our way to Wales.

This would be my forty-seventh game of the season; considerably down on the last two campaigns. Looking back, it’s difficult to see where the shortfall came from. I’ve only missed one home game in the league; that home opener against Hull City. I’ve only missed two away; Sunderland and West Brom. Oh well, I do what I can do. I’m happy with 35/38 league games. I’ve been rather obsessed with numbers of late. I recently celebrated the fortieth anniversary of my very first Chelsea match. As I reviewed the games, the years, the dates of my active support, it dawned on me that good – significant – things happen every ten years.

1974 : This was the year of my first Chelsea game. As I have said before, my life would never be the same – ever – again.  I don’t think that my parents could ever imagine how grateful I would be for that first magical journey from Somerset to London. I was overwhelmingly smitten by Stamford Bridge on match day. Everything became real. Everything made sense. I wanted to be part of it. The journey had begun.

1984 : This was the time of my life. We were the boys in blue from Division Two. A year in which my love for Chelsea helped me defeat some personal demons in my life and when several long-standing friendships were formed. It was a year of geographical landmarks too. My first away game in the north – Newcastle – and my first game outside England – Cardiff – and my first away game in the top flight – Arsenal.

1994 : This was the year that dear old Chelsea changed. There was the sheer disbelief of our first F.A. Cup Final in twenty-three long years and, with it, the utter excitement of European football returning to Stamford Bridge. There was my first game outside the United Kingdom – the away game in Jablonec in the Czech Republic. My attendance rocketed from fifteen games in 1993-1994 to twenty-nine games the next season.

2004 : This time, it’s all very personal. My Aunt Julie, bless her, passed away and left me a few thousand pounds in her will. This enabled me to take my Chelsea story to the next level. That summer, I saw Chelsea play outside Europe for the first time – Pittsburgh. It would be the starting point for a succession of incredible experiences, following Chelsea worldwide, but making new friends from thousands of miles away too.

2014 : Maybe Chelsea will announce a pre-season tour of Saturn, Mars and Venus. I’d best book some holiday.

Both Parky and myself were rather miffed that Cardiff City had managed to get themselves relegated in this their first season in the top flight for five decades; I’ve always liked visiting Cardiff and – of course – it is only an hour and a half away by car or train. This was another reason why the day was set up to be rather bittersweet.

“Ah, Cardiff – we hardly know you.”

We drove over the brown muddied waters of the River Severn.

“Second largest tidal range in the world, Parky. Second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.”

Oh dear. I had turned into the Severn bore.

We were soon in Wales. There were immediate memories of our recent visit to Swansea, but also of previous soirees to the Welsh Capital with Chelsea. From 2002 to 2006, Chelsea played five matches at the city’s fine Millennium Stadium. We won three (the 2005 and 2007 League Cup Finals against Liverpool and Arsenal, the 2005 Community Shield versus Arsenal) and lost two (the 2002 F.A. Cup Final versus Arsenal and the 2006 Community Shield against Liverpool). The over-riding memory is of a magnificent stadium, right next to the city centre, tons of noise, proper support, a great laugh. I would vote for Cardiff and Old Trafford to host F.A. Cup semi-finals ad infinitum, leaving the mystique of Wembley for the final itself.

As I drove in to the city on a long bridge over the recently rejuvenated dock area, with the high land of Penarth behind me, I was able to take in the full sweep of the city. The city centre – a few tower blocks, the roof supports of the Millennium Stadium – seemed distant. Beyond, there were the brooding Brecon Beacons and the valleys to the north. I was quite taken aback at the considerable amount of bay side redevelopment. I parked-up in a multi-storey and we walked over to Mermaid Quay.

Cardiff was once a hugely busy port. The coal from the mines of the valleys was shipped around the globe from the Cardiff Docks, or Tiger Bay as it was colloquially known. As we walked past shining steel buildings, high-rise offices and headed towards a lively oasis of pubs, restaurants and cafes, I tried to imagine the docks in their hey-day. Due to international trade back in the nineteenth century, Cardiff was one of Britain’s earliest and most cosmopolitan cities. It had a similar immigrant mix to Liverpool.

Of course, I am always reminded of an Ian Dury song…

“In the dock of Tiger Bay.

On the road to Mandalay.

From Bombay to Santa Fa.

Over hills and far away.”

As we neared a pub on the quay called “Terra Nova” (how appropriate – there would soon be a new ground for me to experience), the sense of the area’s sea-faring past was enhanced by the sight of a brass rendering of a poem from my schooldays.

“Cargoes” by John Masefield.

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”

In football terms, the dirty British coaster need not worry. It is well-loved by others. This game would be attended in person by visitors to these shores and would be watched the whole world over by lovers of the British game.

We ordered pints of “Sagres” and waited for Dave and Lawson (visiting from NYC) to join us; newly-arrived by train from London. They were joined by Robert, last seen in Paris on one of the great away trips of the season. With the weather fine and the beer tasting finer, we enjoyed a lovely hour or so overlooking the waters of good old Tiger Bay. Here was an away game I could quite easily repeat again and again. Damn you Cardiff City, why did you have to get relegated?

I parked up about ten minutes to the south of Cardiff City’s spanking new stadium, just across from the former site of Ninian Park on Sloper Road, last visited by Chelsea some thirty years ago.

Ah, back we go to 1984 again.

I remember the trip to Cardiff so well. We were travelling by train from Frome and I had arranged to meet Glenn at the Wallbridge Café opposite the station. As I walked in, I scanned the busy scene. Glenn was there with Winnie, a Leeds fan from my year at school, but so too were three of the town’s known ne’er-do-wells…two of them weren’t even Chelsea…they had obviously come along for a bundle.

“Oh great.”

I remember that I had purchased my very first first casual garment, a Gallini sweatshirt, around that time – a yellow, grey and navy number from “Olympus” in Bath. However, it wasn’t really a known name…although I had seen a few Gallini items at Chelsea, it wasn’t on the same scale as the other names of the time. At least it was a start.

I met a mate from Frome at the station in Cardiff – he was a Pompey fan who was at college in the “delightful” valley town of Pontypridd. He was lured into Cardiff for the game, but for some reason chose to watch from the Bob Bank, the large home terrace. We avoided going into any pubs as we were sitting targets. We made a bee-line for the ground. As I remember it, I was the first Chelsea fan who went through the turnstiles onto the uncovered away terrace…I was with Winnie and Glenn. The other chaps from Frome had splintered away from us by then. Good luck to them, I thought.

Well – believe it or not, we played awfully. Cardiff were no great shakes, but they raced to a 3-0 lead. This was not on the cards at all. This was going to be our worse defeat of the season by a mile. There must have been around 5,000 Chelsea in the 13,000 crowd and during the last quarter of the game, the lads in the front were pulling the fences down. I was watching from the rear in the middle. There had been outbreaks of trouble in the main stand too.

With six minutes to go, we pulled a goal back to make the score a bit more respectable. Then Kerry scored a second…game on! The Chelsea support urged the team on and in the last minute of the game we were awarded a penalty.

Nigel Spackman slotted it home and our end went mental…hugs, kisses, shouts, screams, arms thrusting heavenwards, our voices shouting and singing roars of triumph.

As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

What a team. My team. Nothing could stop us.

On the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Glyn had been arrested for something or other. It had to happen. They were dressed in boots and jeans – sitting ducks for the Welsh OB…me and Glenn were a bit more street-wise. On that train home, I met Paul ( aka “PD” ) for the first time and he was a fearsome sight…real Old School Chelsea…and I remember him looking into our small compartment as the Frome lads serenaded him –

“Daniels is our leader, Daniels is our leader.”

Despite the well-publicised trouble at the 2010 F.A. Cup game against Cardiff, we saw no hint of trouble throughout the day. We bumped into a few of those international visitors from afar outside the away end; Joe and Michelle from Chicago, Beth and BJ from Texas. I was inside just before kick-off. I soon bumped into five lads from Trowbridge; it is very likely that they were on the same train home from Cardiff as me in 1984.

The Cardiff City Stadium is not one of the worst new stadia, but it has no unique feature to enamour itself to visitors. It is a little similar, inside, to Reading’s stadium. There are single tiers behind the goal, two tiers to one side, but with an extension already going up opposite. However, I find it hard to believe that it will host August’s UEFA Super Cup.

Cardiff City, the bluebirds, in a stadium of blue and white, with blue seats, now play in red and black. The jarring sight of their kit is difficult to take in. Vincent Tan, their idiot chairman, needs to find a buyer for Cardiff City and go elsewhere. The sight of hundreds of home fans holding up blue and white bar scarves was a triumphant “fuck off” to Tan and his cronies. I felt for the home fans. This must have been, undoubtedly, a difficult season for them. Relegation – I suspect – was easier to stomach than the sickening rebranding carried out by the club’s demonic chairman.

If they don’t get promoted quickly, there is a chance that Cardiff City will stay half-blue, half-red, marooned forever.

However, proving that football fans are able to poke fun at the most unfortunate of circumstances, Chelsea then proceeded to taunt the City fans with many songs about their new club colours. Oh, and a song about the Welsh being sheepshaggers.

I bet Cardiff never heard that one before.

With JT and Lamps out, Ashley Cole wore the captain’s armband. We wondered if this might be his last game. I wondered if it might be Fernando Torres’ last game.

We squandered chance after chance in the first-half, with Torres, Oscar and Salah the main culprits. The Chelsea fans, in good voice at the start, were silenced when a Craig Bellamy shot was deflected by Cesar Azpilicueta past the stranded Mark Schwarzer.

“1-0 to The Championship.”

We groaned.

At least Liverpool were losing. There had been – I didn’t want to think too hard about this – the horrid thought of City losing and Liverpool…well, you know. As it turned out, we had no reason to worry. In fact, the afternoon turned into quite a Demba Ba / Steven Gerrard / Brendan Rodgers songfest.

Midway through the half, I remembered that Eden Hazard was playing; his involvement had been minimal. Our chances came and went.

There were only mocking songs to bring smiles to the Chelsea away support.

“You sold your soul and you’re going down.”

Jose Mourinho decided to bring on Andre Schurrle for Mikel after yet more Chelsea possession had yielded nothing more than shots without precision. Schurrle was immediately in the game, running effectively at the Cardiff defence. Thankfully, with less than twenty minutes remaining, a cross from Oscar was met by a stooping header from Dave. Marshall saved and Dave spun to fire the rebound against the bar. As it fell, Schurrle struck.

1-1.

Very soon after, Azpilicueta – one of my favourites this season – pushed a ball in from the right. The ball bobbled about, but Torres calmly struck home. It was his easiest Chelsea goal by some margin; he looked embarrassed and hardly celebrated.

2-1.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, emeralds, amythysts, topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.”

Youngsters Nathan Ake (I’m disappointed that Mourinho has not played him this season) and John Swift – the debutant – appeared in the closing segment. The points were won and the game dwindled on.

It was now time to serenade Ashley Cole. We begged him to take a last minute free-kick. At the end of the game, all of our attention was on him. He walked over to us and clapped the three thousand. I guess this is the last we will see of our Ashley. He has been, surely, our greatest ever left-back. I looked too, at Torres, taking a back seat in what could have been his final match in Chelsea blue.

It had been a rather flat afternoon. No surprises, I suppose. With Liverpool and City winning, we stayed third, ahead – as always – of Arsenal…and Tottenham…always Tottenham.

I was thankful to be able to say “have a great summer” to many of my match-going accomplices at half-time and after the final whistle.

We stopped off for two final pints on the way home – one in Caldicot, Wales, one in Bath, England – and the final day of 2013-2014 was over.

With a pint of Peroni in each of our hands we shared a toast :

“To next season.”

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Tales From An Alcoholic Afternoon

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 4 May 2014.

The Gang of Three was on the road again, aboard “The Chuckle Bus” for the last home match of season 2013-2014. With Parky sitting in the rear of Glenn’s VW camper, and yours truly alongside the driver in the front, we were all looking forward to seeing how the day’s events would unfold.

For once, chat between Glenn and I was all about football. This might seem a strange statement, but it is of course one of the great contradictions about our football life that although Chelsea is the reason why we have all found each other, very often it is all of the other things in our lives which dominate our conversations on match days.

Maybe it was our exit out of the Champions League on the previous Wednesday which stimulated our desire for footy chat; defeats and losses always seem to generate debate rather than victories and triumphs.

Glenn posed the question : “Looking back over the season, what is your main memory?”

I thought for a few minutes and answered.

“Apart from the wins at Manchester City and Liverpool, plus the wins against Arsenal and Tottenham, I think it was trying to fathom out Jose Mourinho throughout the season, trying to see where he is taking the club, trying to analyse his comments, trying to get inside his head.”

Although we admire the current batch of Chelsea players and although Roman controls the purse strings, this season it has felt that this is Jose’s club once again. From his initial “happy one” statements in the summer to his controlled reticence in the autumn, downplaying our chances throughout, to his occasional barbs at foes in the media, to his sudden outbreaks of surliness, to his comments about his players, his presence has been the overwhelming feature of this season. Sometimes he makes me cringe, sometimes he makes me smile. He is the master of the scripted sound bite, the whimsical aside, but also of the petrifying stare at those who have crossed him. He is fascinating character to have at the epicentre of our club.

Parky commented too.

“Just glad to be back, after missing so much of last season.”

Indeed. It seems like ages ago, but Parky hardly accompanied me on any away trips last season. It has been lovely to have him back in the fold.

It was Glenn’s turn.

“It’s our club again…after last season. There was fighting in the stands. Unrest. Jose has created unity.”

There is no denying that. Although the football hasn’t always been exciting to watch, there has been a genuine feeling of some sort of linear growth in 2013-2014.

So, we were back in SW6 yet again. With Glenn taking care of driving duties, I was able to relax and enjoy a few bevvies. In essence, I was Parky for one day. Shudder. Our first port of call was the bar in the Copthorne Hotel. Dennis, living life to the full during his week in England, joined us for a pint. The bar area was relatively quiet. I tut-tutted at the sight of a couple of Chelsea supporters wearing Star Wars face masks…well, no, I was rather more forthright.

“What the fcuk is that all about?”

Dennis quickly explained…”today is May the Fourth.”

I shook my head…”oh bloody hell.”

As we left the hotel, Glenn spotted Roy Bentley being ushered out in to the sunny May afternoon. He was with his family, celebrating his 90th. birthday a week or so early as a guest of the club. As Roy is originally from Bristol, I briefly mentioned the sad news about the relegation of Bristol Rovers from the Football League. A photograph of Roy with Dennis, Parky and Glenn was taken and we wished him well. I love the fact that Chelsea plays host to many of our ex-players each week.

Our next destination was “The Pelican”, but we were shocked at how quiet the place was. It was about 1.30pm, but the large bar only had around twenty customers. It is so strange how pubs wax and wane in popularity.

Next up “The Malt House” (aka “The Jolly Malster”) and this was dead, too. This established Chelsea boozer underwent a makeover – like many more in the immediate hinterland of Stamford Bridge – a few years ago, but now seemed to be full of diners rather than drinkers.

“The Goose” was a completely different story. The large bar and beer garden were crammed full of Chelsea supporters. Outside, the usual suspects were mid-session. The drinking continued under blue skies. A round of amaretto brought the inevitable “Alouette”

“Amaretto – Chelsea Amaretto.”

On the walk down to the ground, Parky, Dennis and I popped into “The Barrow Boy” (previously “The Hobgoblin” and “The Victualler” and “The Fulham Tap” – where the inaugural start-up meeting of the CST was held last season) for another shot of the almond-scented liquor.

As we walked past the entrance to the Fulham Broadway tube station, I happened to spot another Chelsea old-boy. It was Paul Canoville. The three of us have an evening with Canners – plus Pat Nevin and Doug Rougvie – lined-up in a couple of weeks down in Raynes Park and so it was lovely to see him ahead of that, to tell him how much we are relishing that night. We may not have a European final this season, but that will be a wonderful evening to see off season 2013-2014.

Inside Stamford Bridge, there seemed to be a post-Champions League hangover among the assembled masses. Even before the game began, there was a soporific air to the afternoon. The apparent fall-out between Mourinho and Hazard had resulted in our number seventeen being relegated to the bench. Demba Ba got the nod in attack.

Schwarzer, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Cole, Lampard, Matic, Schurrle, Willian, Salah, Ba.

This was an altogether tedious affair; at least what I remember of it.

In the first-half, Andre Schurrle struck a firm effort against the far post, but all other chances are lost in the mists of time and fumes of alcohol. I remember being dismayed about the lack of support for the team in a game which we had to win to stand any chance of winning the league should both Liverpool and Manchester City falter in the final run in.

At the break, Mourinho replaced Frank Lampard and Mohamed Salah with David Luiz and Eden Hazard. Soon into the second-half, Brana tee’d up Luiz, who took aim at Ruddy’s goal. The Brazilian’s shot dipped and swerved, only for the ball to come crashing back into play off the bar. Soon after, Hazard appeared to be taken out of the game inside the Norwich box, but an offside decision was given instead. With each passing minute, there was growing concern that we wouldn’t be able to break Norwich down.  The frustration among the fans must have filtered down on to the pitch. Despite overwhelming possession, we found it difficult to get behind the Norwich defence. At the other end, on a very rare break, a sublime block from Gary Cahill came to the rescue as Snodgrass shot.

Mourinho added Fernando Torres in to the mix; he replaced Matic. A few late chances were exchanged in the final few minutes, but almost out of sympathy for the watching thousands. It had been a very flat afternoon of football.

There had been a few boos as the teams left the pitch at the interval and, sadly, there were more at the final whistle too. Worse was to come. After a pause of around ten minutes, the Chelsea players returned for the usual “lap of appreciation.” I had stood and watched, with sadness, as thousands upon thousands of supporters decided to leave; as the players emerged, I felt so sad. I wanted to apologise. It was a horrible sight. There were row upon row of empty seats. The players, with their replica-kitted children following on, clapped us and although I returned the favour, I felt disjointed, apart, unsettled, and adrift.

Sigh.

Outside, Glenn and I met up with Parky and Dennis.

We dipped into “The Harwood” – where we used to do our drinking from 1995 to 2000 – and the game was soon forgotten. Dennis was in line for more Chelsea history.

“After the F.A. Cup Final in 1997, we all came back to Fulham Broadway for a celebratory drink, but the police had closed virtually every pub. This place was one of the very few open. Thankfully, we were served. There’s a photo of us – exhausted, euphoric, blissful – right where we are stood now. Fantastic memories.”

We joined up with the others for one last hurrah at “The Lillee Langtry.” One final beer, one final laugh, one final moan…

For some, this would be the final get-together of 2013-2014.

For a few, one game remains.

Over the bridge to Cardiff.

See you there.

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