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 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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Tales From The Home Of Four European Trophies

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 30 April 2014.

How frequently did I think about the Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid second leg during the day at work? Maybe once every five minutes. Maybe once every three minutes. Maybe once every two minutes. Several work colleagues asked me how I was feeling about the evening’s game. To my surprise, I tended to reply that I was “quietly confident” that we would progress. This is unlike me, especially when it comes to Champions League semi-finals. I don’t think that I have ever been “quietly confident” ever before.

This would be Chelsea’s seventh Champions League semi-final in only eleven seasons.

Time for some numbers.

This would be the fourth time that the second-leg would be at home –

2004 : Monaco – drew 2-2, but lost on aggregate.

2008 : Liverpool – won 3-2, and won on aggregate.

2009 : Barcelona – drew 1-1, but lost on away goals.

In the other years, the results were –

2005 : Liverpool – drew 0-0, but went out on aggregate at Anfield.

2007 : Liverpool – won 1-0, but went out on penalties at Anfield.

2012 : Barcelona – won 1-0, and went through on aggregate at Camp Nou.

For a football club that were deprived of European football from the autumn of 1971 until the autumn of 1994, these represent an amazing treasure trove of memories and emotions.

Jesper Gronkjaer, Fernando Morientes, Luis Garcia, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Joe Cole, Jan Arne Riise, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Andres Iniesta, Didier Drogba, Ramires, Fernando Torres.

More heartache than joy.

In truth, the heartbreak of 2005, 2007 and 2009 are surely some of our most awful memories as Chelsea supporters. Somehow the loss in 2004 – our club’s first semi – seemed quite tame by comparison. After a tough away leg in Monaco, the return was always going to be difficult. We raced into a 2-0 lead, but then…well, you know the story.

As for 2005, 2007 and 2009; well you know those stories too.

After the sublime afterglow of Anfield, I gathered together two of the three troops who accompanied me to Liverpool on the previous Sunday. Lord Parky was collected from the pub opposite where I work in Chippenham and Dennis was collected from the town’s train station.

Let’s go.

I had watched the previous night’s semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Bayern’s capitulation had surprised me; despite odd successes, their recent Champions League story has predominantly featured misery and not joy.

So, Real Madrid – with our former manager Carlo Ancelotti at the helm – awaited the winner in Lisbon on Saturday 24 May. This pleased me, for numerous reasons. Should we be successful against Atletico, the stage would be set for a simply classic confrontation at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz.

Real Madrid vs. Chelsea.

White vs. Blue.

Carlo Ancelotti vs. Jose Mourinho.

1971 all over again.

I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter to let their mind run away with the notion of this. I had gambled on us reaching the final after our win against Paris St. Germain; I had booked flights from Bristol to Lisbon. After the creditable 0-0 at the Vicente Calderon, a hotel room on The Algarve was booked, too.

Personally, there was an extra dimension to all of this.

Should we reach the 2014 Champions League Final, it would be my one thousandth Chelsea game.

In all honesty, this was all too surreal for me to comprehend at times. After the shocking defeat in Moscow, I was convinced that we would never win the European Cup. And yet, just six years later, here we were, with one trophy tucked in our back pockets and another one just 180 minutes away.

Dennis, Parky and I met up with some mates in the beer garden of The Goose. A couple of Atletico fans were inside. There was no hint of bother. Dave – the last of the Anfield Four – was in good spirits; he would be sitting next to me for the game. For once, talk was dominated by the game itself. Simon was “quietly confident” too. This was all very worrying.

News of the team broke and the big surprise was the appearance of Ashley Cole at left-back, presumably forcing Cesar into a midfield role, strikingly reminiscent of Ryan Bertrand’s role in Munich. The absence of Oscar was noted. Fernando Torres was given the start.

As Dennis remarked, it was turning into quite a week for him with visits to his two former homes.

I wanted to get inside the stadium earlier than usual, so I left at around 7pm. It was a perfect evening in London. I was in shirtsleeves and stayed the same the entire evening. At 7.15pm, I was inside. I was initially shocked to see how few fellow supporters were inside. Maybe, on this day of tube strikes, people were forced into a late arrival.

Over in the far corner, a sea of red and white striped shirts.

We waited for the kick-off.

Although the scene before me represented a familiar one; sunny skies, a boisterous away contingent, Champions League logos, familiar names on the advertisements, there seemed to be a lack of anticipation within the home ranks. For a while, all was still. Maybe it was the collective nerves among the home support which made for the quieter-than-expected ambiance.

The TV cameras picked out Diego Maradona and then Claudio Ranieri in the executive areas of the West Stand.

A card had been placed on every seat in the MHU; on it were instructions to hold these cards aloft just before the teams were due to enter the pitch. The overall effect would be of a blue-white-blue-white bar scarf. This was met with unsurprising cynicism from the chaps in the row in front, but I approved. I remember the CISA arranging for the 17,000 Chelsea fans at the 1994 F.A. Cup Final to hold 17,000 blue cards aloft as the players strode across Wembley’s finely manicured lawn, only for the TV cameras to ignore it completely. With around five minutes to go, the hideously embarrassing opera singer wheeled out by the club on European nights sang “Blue Is The Colour” and the usual blue and white scarves, derided by the Scousers at Anfield on Sunday, were waved in the West Lower and the Matthew Harding Lower.

As the teams entered the field, it was our moment. Some 3,000 blue and white cards were held aloft. From the MH balcony, four flags were unfurled.

The European Cup Winners’ Cup : 1971 and 1998.

The Super Cup 1998.

The European Cup : 2012.

The Europa Cup : 2013.

The only British club to win all four. It was a fantastic sight. I noted that, over in the East Middle, the inhabitants had been given 3,000 bar scarves.

Flags, mosaics, scarves.

I know that this kind of “forced-participation” is often frowned upon, but Stamford Bridge looked a picture.

As Dave arrived in time for the kick-off, there was a brief interchange.

Dave : “Great seats, mate.”

Chris : “This is where the magic happens.”

At 7.44pm, Stamford Bridge fell silent momentarily as two of football’s family were remembered.

Tito Villanova RIP.

Vujadin Boskov RIP.

I wasn’t happy that Chelsea were kicking “the wrong way” in the first-half. There are not many times that we attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half these days. Of course, prior to 1994 and the demise of The Shed, this was the norm.

At last, some semblance of noise boomed around the stadium as the few attacks from both sides began. Atletico brought the first heart tremor when a dangerously looping cross out on their left caused panic in our defence. It wasn’t readily apparent what had happened after Koke’s cross bounced off the bar. How could it go off for a corner? There was confusion in our defence and in my head too.

Next up, came a Chelsea chance. Ramires was fouled and we prayed for a goal from the free-kick. I caught a Willian’s effort on film, but it flew wide. Atletico were in this game and we tended to stand off as their mobile players raided. There was nervous tension on the pitch and off it. An overhead kick from David Luiz narrowly missed Courtois’ far post, bouncing safely away.

This was a tight game. Fernando Torres, prone to an indulgent dribble – maybe too eager to impress – was not ably supported by Azpilicueta, Willian and Hazard. For too long in the first half, he foraged alone. I noted a lack of intensity all round; from players and supporters alike. Was it the nerves? On several occasions when Atletico cleared, the ball boys threw balls back quickly, yet Chelsea players were often not paying attention and were unable to unsettle Atletico with a quick break. It was a metaphor for our half. We were just too lackadaisical. Jose would not approve.

The crowd tried to generate some noise.

“Champions Of Europe – We’ve Done it Before.”

With ten minutes to go before the break, a strong run from Willian into the Atletico box stirred us all. He held off two strong challenges – and did well to stay on his feet – and the ball ran free. Dave was supporting our Brazilian dynamo and he picked up the loose ball, and played it back into the path of Torres.

The former Atletico captain swept it into the goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

I jumped up and looked over to Nando. He held his hands up, indicating his reluctance to celebrate fully. Elsewhere, we more than made up for it.

We were on our way to Lisbon.

“GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

Alan : “They’ll hath to come at uth na-ohhhh.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonth.”

Atletic seized the gauntlet and probed away. Mark Schwarzer, after his fine performance at Anfield, seemed to be coping ably.

Then, on forty-four minutes, misery.

Tiago, our former champion from 2005, swept a ball over to the far post to an unmarked attacker. The ball was knocked back…clenching of muscles…and Lopez struck home.

They had the advantage; that dreaded away goal.

It had been a first-half of few chances; six to us, five to them. At half-time, we presumed that Atletico would sit and protect their narrow advantage. They would, surely, do to us what we did to Liverpool on Sunday.

After the opening few minutes of the second period, Simeone’s game plan was evidently more adventurous. They attacked from the whistle. A Schwarzer save from Turan saved us. At the other end, we gasped in amazement as Courtois dropped to save a John Terry header. Samuel Eto’o replaced Ashley Cole, with Azpilicueta filling in at left-back. He joined up with Torres, with the midfield realigning themselves behind. Then, more calamity.

I was momentarily looking away, so missed Eto’o’s clip which resulted in the Italian referee pointing towards the spot.

Costa struck home.

Game, surely, over.

We now had to score three times to progress.

The away fans were in triumphant mood.

“Leti. Leti. Leti. Leti.”

Chelsea offered moments of hope. David Luiz, strong in tackle, but prone to awful finishing all night, struck a post. Atletico broke away down our right and Turan saw his header crash against the bar. We watched in horror as he easily followed up with a tap in from the rebound.

Stamford Bridge fell flat. It was time to reflect. At least there was no sense of horrendous injustice this time. At least there was no Iniesta-style dagger to the heart. I’d rather take a 3-1 loss than a last minute 1-1 exit. We had met our match, no excuses. Maybe the efforts of the game on Sunday had taken everything. Our one hope, Hazard, had been on the periphery all night. The game fizzled out. Mourinho made some late changes, but an unforgettable recovery was never on the cards. It had been a horrible second-half. We looked second-best. I longed for the whistle to blow.

The Atletico contingent, who had been relatively quiet until their first goal, were now rejoicing. There were songs for their former hero Fernando Torres and for their hated rival Jose Mourinho.

Some home fans had left by the time of the final whistle, but I was heartened by the many Chelsea supporters who stayed to not only thank our players for their efforts throughout the campaign but to applaud the victors.

Top marks.

Rob walked past and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Not tonight, Chris.”

“We’ve lost five out of seven semi-finals, but we’d give it all up for Munich.”

Rob agreed.

At least we have Munich. We’ll always have Munich. And Munich made defeat against Atletico Madrid on a night of harsh reality almost…ALMOST…bearable.

Outside, I waited silently with Dave for Dennis to arrive underneath the statue of Peter Osgood. I looked at his name etched in stone and I looked up at his image. It was a moment for me to give thanks to Ossie, possibly the determining factor in my decision to not only choose Chelsea in 1970 but to stick with the club ever since. After a while, a clearly saddened and emotional Dennis arrived. He was sad we had lost – of course – but was more disgusted by the “fans” around him in the West Lower who had hardly uttered words or songs of support to the team all night.

Then, Dennis spoke and his emotive words made me smile.

“I just need a few moments with The King.”

Outside on the Fulham Road there was an air of quiet reflection of the better team having won as the Chelsea faithful made their way home. Back in The Goose, Dennis – the visitor from over six thousand miles away – was philosophical and humbly grateful. He stood with a pint of lager in his hand and said –

“I’m just happy to be at this latitude and this longitude, right here, right now.”

We all knew what he meant.

As for me, there will be no grand finale in Lisbon. That landmark will have to wait.

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Tales From The Storm Chasers

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 27 April 2014.

Here was a match that I had been dreading for some time. As our league campaign has spluttered and faltered over recent weeks – defeats against the combined talents of Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland perhaps convincing all of us to believe the manager’s comments of us being likely championship bystanders – the Liverpool juggernaut continued at a heady pace. How grateful I was that a Manchester City win last week meant that a defeat for us at Anfield would not hand the title to them.

We are not friends.

The mild dislike of ten years ago seems like a distant era; another time and two different clubs. Since then, the increasing animosity between Liverpool and Chelsea has grown. I was once ambivalent to Liverpool to be honest. Their glory years were in the past. As our stock gradually rose, theirs appeared to stagnate. Then came Mourinho, the ghost goal in 2005, a chant about “history” and one of modern football’s newest and most bitter rivalries.

Liverpool, confidence high after a stretch of winning games, were now championship favourites. To some in the media, the title was already won. As I prepared for the trip to Merseyside – sandwiched between the high drama of Champions League dates with Atletico Madrid – my whole body was filled with dread. Our team would be weakened. Liverpool were on fire. The momentum was with them. In addition to concerns about the football side of things, there was also the worry of going into the cauldron of red noise of Anfield and the jibes between both sets of fans. I wondered if the atmosphere would be blighted by the “H” words of Hillsborough, History, Hooligans, Heysel and Hate. I missed the game at Anfield last season; I wasn’t sorry.

On this occasion, though, I was drawn in like a moth to a flame. This was a game I had to attend; despite my concerns about a possible mauling and the horrendous mocking that would accompany it, there was an unquenchable desire to attend. Regardless of the outcome, I had to be there. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted the buzz, the thrill, the risk of danger, the chance of sweet success. I likened my desire to attend the game at Anfield to mirror that of storm chasers in the United States; lured by the awesome strength and power of a tornado, regardless of the threat to human life, like sailors swept up against rocks answering the song of a siren.

We were the storm chasers.

The Scousers sing about walking through a storm.

On the morning of Sunday 27 April 2014, as I left my sleeping Somerset village at 7.45am, I wondered if it was our turn to walk through a storm.

I collected Oscar Parksorius just after 8am, then diverted back to Bristol to collect Dennis from his hotel in Clifton. Dennis is one of the many fine American Chelsea fans who I have made friends with over the past ten years. He was in Bristol with work for a week but, what luck, was able to attend three Chelsea games during his spell in the south-west. As I drove north, we chatted about all sorts. I was, however, keen to give him a couple of facts about Liverpool Football Club which, I am sure, he was not familiar.

“Dennis…let me tell you this. Liverpool fans, along with many others, always harp on about us having no history, no past…that we are a small club with money. Well, let’s talk about attendances. If Liverpool’s highest ever gate at Anfield was ranked among Chelsea’s highest ever gates at Stamford Bridge, where would it come?”

Dennis : “I have no idea.”

Parky : “Eleventh?”

Chris : “At number sixty-seven.”

Dennis : “Wow.”

Yes, it’s true.

Stamford Bridge – 82,905.

Anfield – 61,905.

And sixty-six gates at The Bridge between the two figures.

“And here’s another one, Dennis. All-time averages. These figures are from 2004. Chelsea’s all-time average home gate in the league, dating back to 1905, was around 31,000. In that time…1905 to 2004…one league championship. Liverpool’s average all time…with a mighty eighteen championships, was around 34,000. That is just three thousand more. So tell me – doesn’t that suggest to you that it is our fans that are more loyal? In ninety-nine years, one title. Yet in in 2004, we were the club with the fifth-highest lifetime home attendance. I know we were blessed with a big ground, but we still had to fill it.”

We stopped at Strensham for a McBreakfast and then headed north through Birmingham. We dipped into Stafford to collect Dave The Hat, newly arrived on a train from The Smoke.

“The train was full of Scousers. Ugh.”

We drove on, the weather brightening with each mile. The laughs were roaring. The others supped on lagers, ales and ciders while I concentrated on the road.

“Dennis – this will be my nineteenth trip to Anfield with Chelsea. In all that time, just three wins. The 2-1 in 1992, the 3-1 in 2009 and the 2-0 in 2010. Hardly rich pickings.”

This would be both Dennis’ and Dave’s first visit.

Lacoste Watch –

Dennis – Brown.

We spoke briefly about the game. Dave and I both foresaw an early goal and a potential gubbing. We were, of course, going to be without key personnel. I inwardly groaned. In the back of mind was another piece of trivia. Our last really heavy league defeat against any team was the 5-1 loss at Anfield in 1996. By itself, that is a rather astounding statistic; in almost eighteen years, we haven’t conceded a heavier loss. In that period we have beaten other teams by mightier scores; Tottenham (6-1), Arsenal (6-0) and Manchester United (5-0) to name just three.

As we drove over the Manchester Ship canal, we were diverted by a barrage of Madonna / food puns and it took our mind off the game.

“Hollandaise.”

“Poppadom Preach.”

“Like A Pear.”

“La Isla Fajita.”

“Like A Gherkin.”

As I slowed at traffic lights before sweeping north on Queens Drive, Dennis exclaimed –

“Oh look at that.”

Over on the side of the road, just by the pavement, was a hubcap, welcoming us into the city.

Too funny.

On previous visits to Merseyside – and certainly in the hooligan era of the mid-‘eighties – trips to either Goodison or Anfield could be tense affairs. On one occasion I was chased by a few Liverpool scallies around Lime Street. On other occasions, the threat of physical harm was never too far away. Although I didn’t expect the same level of danger in 2014, I did warn the others that a visit to a pub would be silly in light of the animosity twixt Liverpool and Chelsea. There is no love lost. The idea, once I had parked up a mile to the south of Anfield, was for us to keep our heads down, avoid the locals and then let our hair down in the bar in the away end.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Dave – who is a man of Kent – bounced towards two locals, leaning back, arms all over the show, doing his best Micky Flanagan impersonation, and enquired –

“Owright mate – gotta liiiiiight?”

Dave couldn’t have given the game away more easily if he was wearing hob-nail boots, a Pearly-King suit, eating jellied eels, singing a Tommy Steele number and doing a Cockney knees-up.

Good grief.

We walked up Utting Avenue towards the grey steel of Anfield at the top of the hill. The streets were full of red favours. A gaggle of local women in onesies walked past; surely the perfect item of clothing for the city of Liverpool. There were three police vans outside “The Arkles.” Once inside the away end on Anfield Road, we could relax.

A pint of lager for the driver.

My mood was still sombre, though. I still had visions of a defeat. And possibly a heavy one.

5-1, 1996.

We chatted to four lads from Trowbridge who had been involved in a head-on collision at some lights at 8am. Thankfully, despite the car being written-off, they were OK.

The storm chasers were in town.

I pulled a face as Big John walked past.

“It’s all about Lisbon, mate.”

And I guess it was.

The general mood among my friends in the crowded bar was that we would be very grateful for a 0-0 draw. The team flashed up on the TV screen.

Schwarzer, Dave, Brana, Kalas, Cole, Mikel, Matic, Lamps, Schurrle, Ba, Salah.

I didn’t flinch. It was as I thought it might be. It was hardly a team of youth players.

For a change, I was watching the game alongside Lord Parky. Our seats were in row two. As I edged in to seat 80, I looked down at a carrier bag in front of a middle-aged chap; in it was a Manchester United logo’d match ball.

…mmm.

I didn’t recognise the people immediately around me, except Cathy who was sitting five seats along to my right. Like me, her camera was at the ready. I was hoping for some nice photographs in this game. Thankfully, my large lens was not garnering too much attention from the match day stewards. Behind me – five rows back – was Dennis. Dave was sitting – OK standing – with Alan and Gal, further towards the rear. Our end was packed. There wasn’t a spare seat in the house. There was an over-riding feeling of nervous tension.

The flags and banners were being waved with gusto in The Kop. Ah, The Kop. On one memorable occasion, I watched Chelsea from the old, vast, unruly and unregulated old Kop; the 1992 game, the 2-1 win. I have in fact, watched Chelsea from all four sides at Anfield. I’d guess not many Chelsea fans can claim that.

The stadium then sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and I took it all in. The benchmark for me was the infamous Champions League Semi-Final in 2005. Anfield was electric that night. In 2014, it was loud, but not as loud as in 2005. I remember the European-style whistling in 2005, too. It was one of the noisiest atmospheres I have ever experienced. By contrast, when we went to Anfield four years ago and virtually set up the championship with a 2-0 victory, I have never known Liverpool’s stadium to be so subdued.

The game began and after one minute, I was already watching the clock high up between the Centenary stand and The Kop. It always gets my attention. I have become obsessed by the clock at Anfield.

Let’s keep them out. One minute, five minutes, ten.

The stadium was rocking during the first twenty minutes as Liverpool dominated possession. An early shot from Ashley Cole was not followed up with any other real Chelsea chances and we dug in. Coutinho blasted over right in front of me. This was torrid stuff. Cole cleared off the line and Sakho shot over. I watched him as he shouted in despair. Being so close to the pitch was wonderful, though. I was able to marvel at the speed and skill of both sets of players. Liverpool kept finding players out wide, but cross after cross was either blocked or headed away. I was unhappy with our time-wasting and was worried that it would end up with bookings or worse.

As the minutes edged past – twenty, twenty-five – the noise quietened and I was more hopeful. Chelsea began to cause the home team problems, especially from set pieces. On more than one occasion, corners were whipped in. Our presence was increasing. The Chelsea choir responded. In the home areas, a new song –

“We Are Liverpool – Tra La La la La.”

We responded –

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

Thirty minutes.

A third of the way there.

“Come on Chels.”

Ba was toiling well, and we began to enjoy periods of possession, moving the ball around, making Liverpool chase. The noise was definitely lessening. I don’t often sit/stand with Parky and his fervour was astounding. It seemed that every time a Liverpool player had possession for more than two touches, Parky would bark out :

“Hit him, stab him, hit him with a brick.”

My eyes picked out Luis Suarez – I’ll admit it, my eyes hurt each time I saw him, such was his prowling presence and threat of danger. His one real chance was spurned though; his shot flashed over.

In front of The Kop, another corner flashed in and the leaping Tomas Kalas – the debutant – headed wide when he really should have tested Mignolet.

Thirty five minutes, forty minutes.

Then, a miracle. A slip from a Liverpool player and Ba pounced. He ran untroubled from just inside the Liverpool half. What a daunting sight if he dared look; twelve thousand steely eyes on The Kop praying for him to fail. Ba kept his composure and shot. The ball was struck low. I kept my composure and snapped just as the ball crossed the line. Twelve thousand Liverpudlians in The Kop looked on aghast. Three thousand Chelsea fans in the away corner erupted.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

I turned to my left in order to hug someone, anyone, but was met by four stony faces. There had been warnings of Scousers somehow – how??? – getting tickets in our area, and here was proof. I smiled at one chap, and pointed  –

“Sussed.”

He looked worried, but I was in no mood to grass anyone up. The mother and daughter next to me…mmm, half-and-half scarves, surely a telling sign…were quiet too. I just smiled at them.

“Get in Chelsea!”

A song swept our end –

“Steven Gerrard – You’ve Done It Again.”

Oh boy…so it was his slip. I simply hadn’t noticed who was involved, being so low. After his back-pass to Didier Drogba in 2010 on the same ground – and the same end, too – he had done it again. I may be hung, drawn and quartered for saying it, but Gerrard is a great player; I love the way he pings long passes around, knee over the ball, textbook. On this occasion, though – with thoughts of the premature celebrations and his protestations in the Liverpool huddle a few games back – I could only laugh.

There was a sense of huge bewilderment in our end at the break; we had weathered the storm. We had defended heroically. We just might do this.

We just might do this!

The second-half followed along similar lines. There was much possession from Liverpool, but simply magnificent and resolute defending from the entire Chelsea team. The second-half of Chelsea at Anfield in 2014 will be remembered by these few motifs…

The sight of Steven Gerrard, alone, in acres of space at the centre of every Liverpool move. I was surprised how much room we gave him, but I think it was decided that we would simply defend deep and repel all of his prods into the runners ahead. He resembled an NFL quarterback, but whose wide receivers kept running into blocks.

The Liverpool finishing; so poor. On not one occasion did I feel that our goal was under threat. There was not one single expectant hush from The Kop, as so often happens before a goal is scored. Even the “oohs” and “aahs” after each wayward shot were quiet.

The performance from Mark Schwarzer was magnificent. He kept on coming and claiming cross after cross, then scrambled down on a few occasions to foil Allen and others. Seeking extra confidence ahead of the return leg with Atletico, this game was a Godsend.

Willian replaced Salah. As the sun beat down on us in the away end, it was our turn to play. Runs from Willian and Schurrle caused panic in the home support and Mignolet reacted well to deny Schurrle. A Matic shot skidded wide. Ba held the ball up so well and proved to be quite a handful for the Liverpool defence. Behind him, everyone had run their proverbial socks off.

Gary Cahill replaced Schurrle, and Jose went with three – no, five – at the back. I am not a fan of changes to shape late on, but – there again – I know fcuk all about football. The Chelsea fans seemed too nervous to sing. It was excruciating. The minutes ticked by.

That bloody clock.

More wayward shots from Liverpool.

With the end in sight, Mourinho acted as chief cheerleader, beating his chest, pointing at the watch, scowling at us, demanding more support. It was an incredible sight.

To be honest, I felt myself bracing for an equaliser in the last fifteen minutes. This was my game plan. I remembered my pre-game thoughts; an equaliser, though tough, would be “OK.”

Into four or five minutes of added time, we were tested at a corner but Schwarzer saved from Suarez. Thankfully, space had been at a premium all day long in our box and those intricate through balls from Gerrard into Suarez had been noticeably missing.

Space, however, took on an extra dimension in the last minute. Chelsea won the ball just inside our own half and the ball was played to Fernando Torres.

“Oh my God, son – go on…do it.”

I had time to raise my camera and photograph his run at Mignolet, his pass to Willian and the walking in of the ball into the empty net.

Game. Set. Match.

The Chelsea end exploded once more.

It was time for a few crazy, magical photographs of the players celebrating just yards from me. I probably heard their voices, but it is a beautiful royal blue blur. I scrambled up on to the seat in front. Arms outstretched. I yelled until I could yell no more.

At the final whistle, complete bliss.

From behind, came a raucous chant –

“We’re Gonna Win The League…”

I joined in, but I was far from convinced, despite our magnificent performance at the home of the champions-elect. Another song brought me greater cheer :

“Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.”

I shook hands with Cathy, our smiles wide. Parky was going mad, as per normal. Dennis, the Anfield virgin, was beaming. I could only begin to imagine his emotions. Then, Dave, arms wide, lapping it up.

I was now 4 wins in 19, but Dennis and Dave were 1/1.

There had been a storm and the storm was caused by us.

Walk on now, Liverpool.

As we sidled out into the evening sun, we roared once more. I looked at the reactions of a couple of grizzled Liverpool stewards, maybe veterans of Rome 1977, Wembley 1978, Paris 1981, Rome 1984 and Istanbul 2005. I think I caught one of them smiling as we sung once more. England’s new European specialists were taking centre stage now –

“Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal – I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

We kept quiet on the steady walk back to the car, save for a few knowing winks with some Chelsea faces. Once inside the sanctity of my car, we roared. We were soon met with a dilemma of the game taking place at Selhurst Park, though. Really, we should have wanted City to drop points, but we just wanted the whole day to be remembered as the day that Liverpool were knocked out of the title-race.

“They won’t come back from this. I think its City’s now.”

“Unless Everton can beat them…”

“Nah. We’ll probably finish third.”

“Just like Jose says.”

“And who can argue with him?”

It was a gorgeous drive south. Dennis, especially, was just so happy. We smiled as we heard Brendan Rodgers and then a few Liverpool fans on “606” blaming Mourinho and Chelsea for their defeat. It was just like old times…Liverpool blaming Chelsea…

Jog on.

I had whispered to Dennis, walking back to the car in Liverpool –

“This could be the best week of your life.”

On Wednesday, let’s make sure it is.

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Tales From Typical Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 April 2014.

This was a match that I just couldn’t wait to attend. In this bewildering football season, a rather forgotten striker by the name of Connor Wickham had effectively opened the fight for the title right up. His two goals at The Etihad during the week had taken the edge away from Manchester City. Suddenly, miraculously, Chelsea were back into contention. Although the media love-fest with Liverpool had shown no sign of abating, the tantalising truth was this –

If we rolled off four league wins in a row, Chelsea Football Club would be league champions for the fifth time in our history and for the fourth time in just ten seasons.

I was up early – too early, 6.45am – and began the day with a few errands. At 11.45am I had collected Young Jake from Trowbridge, at midday Lord Parky joined us and Bournemouth Steve was picked up at Amesbury Services, close to Stonehenge, at 1pm. The sense of anticipation was palpable. Talk was now of the league, whereas en route to Swansea the Champions League had taken precedence. Of the two, I found it hard to choose. But, to be honest, why did I have to choose? Whatever will be will surely be. After a few miles, I gulped down a can of Starbucks double-espresso (my second of the trip) while Parky and Jake were on the lager.

On the way up, Young Jake asked Parky and I about our favourite Chelsea goals that I had seen live. My stock answer to this question has always been the same. Had I been present at the Chelsea vs. Norwich City cup replay in 2002, I might have chosen Gianfranco Zola’s impudent flick. My answer came from a few years earlier.

What was my favourite ever Chelsea goal? It was Gus Poyet’s scissor-kick volley from Gianfranco Zola’s sublime lob in our league opener against Sunderland on Saturday 7 August 1999. As I reminisced, I easily remembered the complete joy that I had experienced on that sunny Saturday almost fifteen years previously. Although the shot from Poyet was magnificent enough, it was the other-worldly lob from our Sicilian maestro which made it so wonderful. Zola’s vision and intelligence, plus his perfect application, still makes warms me after all these years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_lkik83PMc

I love the way that Zola controls the ball and touches it – caresses it – into the correct position in order for his audacious assist. It was pure artistic brilliance. The goal sent the Stamford Bridge stadium into a blue frenzy. Immediately after, I recollect that my friend Glenn and I clambered up to the walkway immediately behind our seats and, there and then, recreated the high-kick from Poyet. We were already calling it the goal of the season. What wonderful and happy memories.

The irony of Poyet (who has had a love-hate relationship with us Chelsea supporters since his departure in 2001) returning to Stamford Bridge with Sunderland was not lost on me.

So, Connor Wickham. I pondered what role his two goals at Manchester City might play in the final outcome of the league title. In truth, the goals may not mean much at all. The championship is decided after each participant has played thirty-eight games. The two goals at City may be a minor detail. However, with just four games to go, it meant that City’s final position was not, now, in their hands. It pushed the advantage back towards firstly Liverpool, but also us. I was bristling with excitement throughout the last few miles of the journey. It was a fine day in London. Let the fun begin.

It was a typical pre-match in The Goose. Talk was of other things – not really the Sunderland game – and a few lads were full of Madrid and, whisper it, Lisbon. As I lined up in the queue for the turnstiles underneath the blue sky above the Matthew Harding stand, it dawned on me that a win against the bottom team in the division was perceived by many to be a foregone conclusion.

Did I? Well, maybe yes. Guilty.

I checked the team.

In came Mark Schwarzer to replace Petr Cech. The back-four picked itself. Matic and Ramires holding. The attacking three were Willian, Oscar and Salah. Upfront, alone, Samuel Eto’o.

Sunderland only brought around eight hundred fans.

We were a little laboured at the start and I commented to Alan that there was a lack of a spring in our step. Was this the result of our number of games this season? Debateable.  A shot from our former striker Borini flashed wide, but soon after a Chelsea move led to a corner, from where we struck. A nicely played delivery from Willian, with just the correct amount of pace and dip, found Samuel Eto’o, with held off a half-hearted challenge to volley home from the six-yard box.

Eto’o wheeled away to celebrate in front of the Chelsea match.

Alan : “They’ll have come at us naaaa, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Pressure off? Not a bit of it.

Sunderland worked a corner well, though our collective lapse in concentration was culpable, with the ball being played back to the unmarked Alonso. He volley flew through a pack of players and Schwarzer was unable to gather. The ball spilled away from him and Connor Wickham, yes him, neatly flicked home.

1-1.

The game opened up, and Oscar had shots on goal. On thirty-five minutes, another Willian corner produced more uncertainty in the Sunderland box. On this occasion, a thundering Ivanovic header was forced up on to the underside of the bar by Manone. Matic  fancied a dig from outside the box, but Manone saved. Sala, playing well on our right, reacted well but Manone just reached the cross before Eto’o could pounce.

There was frustration at the break, despite some good work from Salah, Matic, Oscar and Willian. Eto’o had shown good control, eager to go and find the ball, but I sensed the need for an extra presence in the box. I suggested that Ramires should be replaced by Demba Ba, with us playing 4-1-3-2. Did we need two defensive midfielders at home against lowly Sunderland?

“I won’t worry. Mourinho will sort it out.”

The second-half began and we began well. Willian, from deep, ran with the ball for what seemed an eternity. With the Sunderland defenders back-peddling and seemingly over-stretched, Eto’o was played in. His deliberate shot curled tantalisingly past the post. I was already up and celebrating. I howled in agony. On the hour, Jose replaced the fitful Oscar with Demba Ba. I was very pleased to hear the home support rallying behind the team in their half-hour of need. This was good stuff. I felt encouraged and hoped that the players could feed off the positivity. Willian teed up Ba, but our striker was off balance and his shot was screwed off target.

Mourinho replaced the tiring Salah with Schurrle and I implored him to stay wide and hug the line. Some half-chances came and went. A shot from Schurrle drew a save from Manone. We were on top, but lacked a finish. The cutting edge, the cliché of our season, was nowhere to be seen.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fernando Torres replaced Eto’o. A spectacular bicycle-kick from one of many Willian corners flew over. A Torres header was saved. The clock ticked. The atmosphere grew more nervous.

With less than ten minutes remaining, the usually steady and reliable Azpilicueta slipped calamitously as he brought the ball out of defence, with Altidore lurking. I sensed danger immediately.

“Oh no.”

Altidore galloped away, but Azpilicueta lunged at him just before the American was able to pull the trigger. Dave’s challenge – to my eyes, some hundred and twenty yards away – looked like a definite penalty. Mike Dean – “the Scouser in the black” was never more apt – had already ignited a great deal of animosity within our ranks all afternoon and he added to his role as a figure of hate by pointing to the spot.

Two things hit me.

If they score this, we will probably be right out of the league title race.

If they score this, the Mourinho league run could be over.

Borini – on loan from Liverpool, ugh – calmly slotted home.

Chelsea 1 Sunderland 2.

Schurrle broke in from the left and Mannone flew himself into the air to dramatically tip over. For all of our possession – and chances – the Sunderland ‘keeper had few saves to make all game. Torres’ claim for a penalty was waved away by Dean, now the devil incarnate, and the derisory boos grew louder. Five minutes of extra time was signalled, but our attacking spirit had dwindled to a memory.

I was in agony during those final minutes. I looked away. I stared at the floor. My mind was full of defeat. It was such an alien feeling after our dominance at Stamford Bridge over the past ten years.

At the final whistle, hideous and hateful boos behind me.

Yes, it’s true. Some of our “fans” are spoiled fools.

What is the saying…”if you can’t support us when we are bad, don’t support us when we are good.”

Versus Sunderland, I don’t think we were bad. Several players did themselves proud. But our finishing was bad.

It has become the story of our 2013-2014 season.

Young Jake, Steve, Lord Parky and I met up at the Fox & Pheasant after walking past a few ridiculously upbeat Mackems. I spotted an American wearing a Philadelphia Phillies cap and I blurted out “Let’s Go Phillies” to which his friend, wearing a Chelsea tracksuit top, replied, with a pitiful smirk on his face –

“Yeah. And they suck too.”

I just glowered at him.

Back at my favourite Italian restaurant, we tried to lighten the mood a little. Pizzas hit the spot, but conversation was difficult. The rug had been pulled from underneath us and our hope of a title had been seemingly extinguished. I can cope with near misses and missing out on silverware – of course – but it was just the sudden shock of defeat, when we appeared to be hitting some form, which made this defeat seem so tough. It was, as the phrase goes, just typical Chelsea.

Beat the strong teams, lose to the weak ones. It was our way for years.

However, after Villa and Palace, it was also the third game where we had prefaced a Champions League game with a meek league defeat.

Ah, the Champions League.

I looked ahead briefly and quickly to a potentially riotous second-leg against Atletico Madrid in around ten days’ time and experienced a flutter in my heart.

Maybe. Just maybe.

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