Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

This was it, then. The long-awaited trip to Elland Road. My last visit was towards the tail end of the 2000/1 season, although the club’s last League visit was in 2003/4. I didn’t go to the League Cup game in December 2012; it came too soon after the jaunt to Japan. Of course, last season the game was behind closed doors, a phrase that I hope that we never have to hear ever again.

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

As soon as the weekend had finished and the collapse against Wolves was behind me, I could not wait to be pounding the tarmac once more. I had booked two half days for this one. I left work at midday and deviated south to collect Parky and then PD. We set off from Frome at just before 1pm. It was a 7.30pm kick-off in West Yorkshire. Plenty of time.

It was mainly a decent enough trip north. There were rain showers to start but these cleared soon enough. The rest of the journey was spent with me gazing at a Simpsons sky and hoping that any ominous billowing and darkening clouds on the horizon would not ruin our trip. We stopped at Strensham, just south of Worcester, on the M5 at around 2.30pm and then at Woolley Edge, just north of Barnsley, at around 5pm. We then hit a fair bit of slow-moving traffic which meant that our arrival time at “The Drysalters” pub by Elland Road took place at 6pm rather than the envisaged 5.30pm. I dropped the boys off in the pub car park and soon found a cheap place to park nearby.

As I locked my car, a Leeds fan called out.

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

“The Drysalters” pub is well known to me. I have parked in the car park on two occasions before. We soon spotted Deano, and his son-in-law Steve – a PNE fan – and also three lads from Wiltshire. The three amigos from Northampton were drinking outside in the sun too. There were Chelsea fans everywhere. This sort of scenario would not have happened in the ‘eighties or even ‘nineties when survival was the key pre-game buzzword. Next, Josh appeared with a pint of Diet Coke for me, along with his two mates from Minnesota, Chad and Danny.

A younger set of Chelsea fans were loudly singing the praises of Thomas Tuchel, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Edouard Mendy.

“He comes from Senegal.”

After just one drink apiece to quench our thirsts, we walked over to Elland Road.

Previous visits came to mind.

The first one came in early May 1987. One of my mates at college, Bob, was a Leeds United supporter and had visited Stamford Bridge with me to see a couple of games in 1985/86 and 1986/87. It was time for me to repay the honour. We travelled up by train from Stoke, had a couple of pints near the central station and watched Leeds beat West Brom 3-2 in their final home game of a Second Division season. The gate of 24,688 was their highest that season. What do I remember? The day began with an excellent pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in the pub beforehand. We watched with all the Leeds loons in the infamous South Stand. I remember a pitch invasion at the end and John Sheridan being carried on fans’ shoulders. And of course I remember them singing about us.

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

That season would end disappointingly for Leeds. They had already lost to Coventry City in an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough and they would go on to lose in the play-offs to Charlton Athletic.

My first visit with Chelsea was in September 1988 when both clubs found themselves in the Second Division again. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy and as was the case with my other long trips north by train that season – Stoke City and Manchester City too – I was coming off a night-shift. I remember struggling to stay awake on both legs of the journey to Leeds. We were yet to win a match after five games in the league and the match at Elland Road – with me watching in the South Stand, now given to away fans much to the consternation of the locals – would be a tough test. Thankfully, an early John Bumstead goal – off his ‘arris – and one from Gordon Durie gave us a surprising but deeply enjoyable win. I don’t remember any trouble at that game despite hundreds of Leeds fans milling around as we caught buses back to the station from right outside the away end.

Next up was a game in November 1995 in which I drove up from Somerset, met up with my mate Ian – Rotherham United – at Stafford and watched from the main stand using tickets that Bob, I think, had bought for us. It was a pretty decent performance and I believe I am correct in saying that it was the first time that Glenn Hoddle had switched to us playing with wing backs – Dan Petrescu and Gareth Hall – outside a back three – Erland Johnsen, David Lee and Michael Duberry – only for us to succumb to a late sucker punch from the boot of Tony Yeboah. I can’t recollect moving a muscle when Leeds scored that goal. Having a mate from South Yorkshire next to me probably disguised my allegiances.

A year later, in December 1996, a Sunday game – live on the TV – and a meek 0-2 loss to a Leeds United team that included Ian Rush. He even scored against us. We were pushed up into the quadrant of yellow seats by the South Stand for this and I can remember our away following was awful, maybe only around 1,000. It was a long old drive home that Sunday evening with work in the morning.

My final visit took place in April 2001. I had driven up with Glenn and had collected Alan at Stafford en route to save the boy some money. I often did that in those days. Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with at that time. We were back in the South Stand, played decently enough but lost 0-2 to two very late Leeds goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka, with the goals coming in the final five minutes. A tidy roast at Brighouse after the game almost made up for our defeat.

With relegation threatening Leeds, I decided to make the most of my visit to Elland Road and sped off to take some shots of the stadium. If relegation follows in a few weeks, who knows when I would return. It really was hard to believe I was last outside the South Stand over twenty-one years ago.

Many home fans were wearing the iconic bar scarf from the ‘seventies. I have to say – and my pal Gary agreed with me at the game – that it still looks class. Those tri-colour bar scarves of Leeds United – white, yellow, blue – and Manchester United – red, white, black – and even us – red, green white – were fantastic. I remember the “smiley” badge too, a real ‘seventies classic. Gary and I would mention the Admiral kits. They defined the mid-‘seventies. And the numbered tie-ups on the socks. They were unique. I remembered the “Leeds United AFC” frontage to the West Stand. Bob and I were photographed outside there in 1987, me with a jade Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, one of my favourites, and of course it brought back memories of that classic scene from “Porridge” too.

I spotted a few columns of ‘seventies concrete as the South Stand disappeared around a corner. That a few pillars of brutalist architecture should please me so much is something that I don’t really want to dwell on too much, but it is a sure sign that on these away trips to altered stadia there is no doubt that I love seeing hints of a past.

“The Old Peacock” pub – as iconic a Leeds United sight if ever there was – is now temporarily renamed “The Bielsa” and I remembered walking down the hill towards it from Beeston for the 1995 game, deposited there in a taxi with Ian after a drink in the city centre. There’s a statue of Billy Bremner on the corner, with floral tributes all around. The East Stand is huge. It was built in 1993 on the site of the Lowfields Stand. For a short time, it was the largest stand in the United Kingdom, holding some 17,000, before being overtaken by Celtic and then Manchester United. I can remember the whole of Elland Road being shunted twenty yards to the north in around 1972 with the South Stand being built.

It was time to get inside.

There was a bag check outside the away turnstiles and my SLR was waved through. The old main stand, the West Stand, is now named the John Charles after the Leeds United – and Juventus, among others – centre-forward. I made my way upstairs…the steps were carpeted, as was the away bar area.

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

I had a cracking seat. Parky, Gary, Alan and I were in the very front row of the upper section. Sadly, the shunting of the pitch in the early ‘seventies meant that those to my far right – geographically, not politically – were left with a shocking view of the pitch, way past the goal line. I had a great view and even I was behind it.

I spotted many familiar faces. It was lovely to see so many mates.

The sun was still out, catching the East Stand and making it come alive. I looked around. The Kop is now the Don Revie Stand. The East Stand is now the Jack Charlton Stand. The South Stand is now the Norman Hunter Stand. They still dote on that ‘seventies era. It is as if Howard Wilkinson’s League Championship in 1992 never happened. Oh wait, the away bar at Elland Road is called “Howard’s Bar” and that seems a mite disrespectful.

I would talk to Gary about that team during the game.

“Great midfield. Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan. Had it all.”

“Fanfare For A Common Man” was played on the PA, just like at Wolves. Then came the Leeds anthem “Marching On Together.” Despite my dislike of Leeds throughout my life, my friendship with Bob and Trev – mentioned in a Brentford game this season – means that I am afraid to admit that I knew the words to a few of the songs I would hear during the evening.

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

Pre-match, I feared the worst. I need not have worried. We began so brightly and, with memories of Johnny B’s early goal in 1988, we were soon jumping around like fools. A fine move down our right and the ball was played in sweetly by Reece James for Mason Mount, shades of Frank Lampard at his peak, arriving at just the right time to strike the ball firmly past the Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier, aged twelve and three-quarters. Mase raced over to wind up the Leeds fans in the far corner.

Ha.

Alan and I resurrected our “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine.

We were playing some lovely expansive stuff and were finding lots of space out wide. We were playing one-touch football where we could, and I had to ask Alan for some smelling salts. To their credit, all of the Leeds fans in The Kop, the stand opposite and the South Stand – old habits die hard – were standing throughout, and contrasted wildly to the Everton fans in the Park End a couple of weeks ago.

“Marching On Together.”

We were purring, and Lukaku was much improved. His movement, his work rate, his involvement. It was good to see.

On around twenty-five minutes, Daniel James – a scorer in that horrible 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in 2019 – scythed down Mateo Kovacic, who up until that point was arguably our best player, and I told Gary “I reckon that’s a red.”

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

Kovacic, full of running, could run no more. After trying to run off his injury, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

But again I need not have worried. A super run from the sub soon after looked so graceful and it certainly cheered us.

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

There was a glancer from Lukaku on thirty-three minutes that narrowly missed the far post. This was heart-warming stuff indeed. The cross had come from the trusted boot of Reece out on the right, who was finding even more space to exploit. The exact same could be said of Marcos Alonso on the left.

In our packed section, we were at our Dambustering best.

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

Kalvin Phillips then hacked down Christian Pulisic. This game was living up to the hype, an old-fashioned affair with pulsing runs from deep, mis-timed tackles, battles in key areas.

I turned to Alan : “remember that game at Chelsea in 1997 when they had two sent-off?”

When the home team was rewarded with a rare corner in front of me, I was surprised that the home fans didn’t respond with their old “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” with associated chest beating. That must have fallen from grace since my last visit.

They had, instead, turned into a crowd of scarf-twirlers.

The game was halted for a good few minutes when it became apparent that there had been a medical emergency in the lower section of the away support to my left. Sadly, the home fans sung throughout and even dirtied their name further with a couple of offensive comments about “soft southern bastards.”

On a day that marked the anniversary of the Bradford Fire, this sadly reminded me of a typically shocking moment involving Leeds supporters in the autumn of 1986. Sixteen months after the fire at Valley Parade in May 1985, and with Bradford City hosting Leeds at the Odsal Stadium, some Leeds fans set fire to a chip-van high on the terracing at one end of the stadium.

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

Just at the end of the half, Trevoh Chalobah sent in a scuffler that went wide of the Leeds goal.

It was a fine first-half performance, but was I the only one who was a little worried that we hadn’t created more chances?

The second-half began with Chelsea even more on top and full of running against a Leeds team that were looking like they had already given up on the game, on survival, on life itself. But the home fans were still singing. To be fair, we couldn’t hear the other stands, but from the evidence from The Kop – no gesticulating, no clapping in unison, nowt – it as just the rabble to our right that were making the noise.

“The Yorkshire Republican Army. We’re barmy. Wherever we go. We fear no foe.”

Two chances showed our intent. A header from Lukaku was high, a volley from Loftus-Cheek went wide.

Then, on fifty-five minutes, a beautiful move involving Jorginho and Mount set up Pulisic on the edge of the box. He took a touch…I said out loud “he can find the corners” and my pulse quickened…

The low shot was perfectly struck, down low, to the left, “corners.”

GET IN.

The scorer almost grabbed a second, curling one just wide and as I found myself looking up at the TV screen to my right, both he and myself were pulling the same pained expression.

Next up, Lukaku – full of spirit – took on his marker and rifled just wide too. His play was getting better and better. Yet only as recently as just before the Wolves game had kicked-off, Oxford Frank and I had binned him off.

There were wildly loud renditions of “Que Sera Sera” – the “Wembley” version by us and not the “Father’s Gun” version by them – and then “Carefree.”

Carl from Stoke, down below me, turned up towards us and yelled :

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

I turned to Al : “To be fair, the South Stand haven’t stopped singing all night.”

We continued.

“We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum.”

Though this was tame stuff compared to the “witty” interchange about one of Leeds’ sons, but that’s not for here.

On seventy-eight minutes, a double substitution from Thomas Tuchel, who was now flavour of the month again.

Hakim Ziyech for Pulisic. The American had certainly enjoyed a fine game.

Dave for Reece. Saving our star man for the next game no doubt.

On eighty-three minutes, Mount robbed the ball and passed to Ziyech. He then found Lukaku inside the box. What followed was doggedness personified. Surrounded by Leeds defenders, he turned and tried to create an opening for himself. He moved the ball, eventually, onto his left peg and smashed the ball in.

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

His euphoria after was matched by all of us in the John Charles Stand.

I took about twenty-five photos of the move, the goal, the celebrations. I was exhausted as he was by the end of it all.

Fackinell.

Leeds were still singing at the end, but so were we.

“You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down.”

I remember only one Leeds effort on our goal in the entirety of that one-sided second-half, a header that was rising high before it left the bloke’s head. It was a deeply satisfying performance. And yet a little voice in my head kept saying –

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

For the first time that I can remember at a domestic game in decades, we were penned in after the match had ended. After twenty minutes we were let out onto the streets of Beeston. On the walk back to the car, there was time for a tasty cheese burger with onions. It rounded off a wonderful night out in West Yorkshire.

I said to PD : “Makes it all worthwhile, nights like this. We travel some miles, we don’t always get the results, or sometimes it’s all a bit flat. This was bloody superb. A great night out.”

It also meant that I had accomplished a full set of league aways for only the third time in my life.

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

I eventually reached my home a few minutes after three o’clock.

Next up, the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From The Last Days Of Roman’s Empire

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 7 May 2022.

After the defeat at Goodison Park, the end-of-season run-in stared us in the face. Five games to go. Four league games and the FA Cup Final. Of the league games, three were at home with one away. It was all about finishing in the top four.

Over the past ten seasons, it is a goal that has been reached with a grinding regularity.

2012/13                Third

2013/14                Third

2014/15                First

2015/16                Tenth

2016/17                First

2017/18                Fifth

2018/19                Third

2019/20                Fourth

2020/21                Fourth

The two seasons of us not hitting a Champions League place stick out like two huge sore thumbs. It has been a pretty decent decade. And yet, the previous ten seasons were even more successful.

2002/3                  Fourth

2003/4                  Second

2004/5                  First

2005/6                  First

2006/7                  Second

2007/8                  Second

2008/9                  Third

2009/10                First

2010/11                Second

2011/12               Sixth

The past twenty years has clearly brought an incredible and sustained period of success for us all. But with the Roman Abramovich era coming to an end, there will be continued question marks about Chelsea Football Club’s ability to remain in the lofty positions that we have become accustomed. When questioned about all this by a few non-believers, my response was always the same :

“Ah, it won’t really matter. I’ll still go.”

The next step in our fight to remain at the top table was a home match with the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In SW6, there were developments.

Late on Friday, a photograph of Todd Boehly outside Stamford Bridge, smiling contentedly, appeared on the internet. Early on the Saturday morning – the day of the Wolves match – the club issued an official statement.

“Chelsea Football Club can confirm that terms have been agreed for a new ownership group, led by Todd Boehly, Clearlake Capital, Mark Walter and Hansjoerg Wyss, to acquire the club.”

So this was it, then. The last days of the Roman Empire were here.

Ever since Roman decided to sell up on the evening of the Luton away game and after the introduction of sanctions were imposed on the club on the morning of our game at Norwich, I have of course been concerned about the immediate and long-term future of the club. Yet I have not had the time nor the patience to delve too deeply into all of the options that may or may not be available for the club.

I implicitly trusted the club to make the best decision.

In the meantime, there were games to attend. Players to support. Noise to be made. The home game against Wolves was no different.

Pre-match was pretty typical. I stopped for a breakfast at a lovely old-fashioned café opposite Putney Bridge station. There was a heady mix of laughter and banter with old and new friends from near and far in “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham. Andy and his daughter Sophie – or Sophie and her father Andy, take your pick – joined us for the first time. It really pleased me to see them walk into the already crowded pub. There was plenty of dialogue about the past, present and future. Sharing our table were three lads from Minnesota – Chad, Josh, Danny – and my old pal Rich from St. Albans. Five or six of the Kent lads sat at the bar. Steve from Salisbury was with us again.

We made plans for next Saturday’s Cup Final.

It was a fine and sunny day in SW6. Jackets were not required. We made our way to the stadium. At Fulham Broadway, I spoke to Steve about the Chelsea supporter who had so sadly committed suicide in front of a train in the evening after the West Ham game two weeks’ earlier.

What a sad, sad tale.

Up at street level, I stopped for a chat with a few Chelsea characters outside the “CFCUK Stall” which is a required pit-stop for many on match days. On the walk to the West Stand forecourt, I spotted Steve and PD scoffing a quick burger to soak up some of the pre-match ales.

This would be another gate of around 32,000. I had managed to sort out three spares for a few people. Our match day companions Gary, Alan and Clive arrived.

Clive, without knowing it I am sure, sported the colours of the long-time rivals of Todd Boehly’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He was wearing a black and orange Fred Perry polo-shirt, the colours of the San Francisco Giants. Rob, who sits behind me, and has a passive interest in the Dodgers, suggested he should bring his Los Angeles cap to a game.

Let’s hope that this US / UK tie-up – if approved by the powers that be – proves to be fruitful. I have a baseball past and my comment at this stage – there will be more, no doubt, stay tuned – is this.

In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first ever World Series.

In 1955, Chelsea won our first ever League Championship.

I like that fit. I have often said that if the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn, I would be a fan.

Let’s just hope that Boehly and his chums don’t decide to relocate us to the west coast. The town of Aberystwyth, despite it hosting our pre-season training camps there in the ‘eighties doesn’t really need a Premier League club does it?

I hadn’t clocked the teams on the TV screens, so as the players assembled down below it was time to work it all out.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Dave

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – James

Pulisic

Werner – Lukaku

I liked the idea of us playing two up front.

How ‘eighties.

Albert from the row in front spotted Petr Cech, all alone, in the underused executive tier. I snapped him. Soon into the game, Dave – at home – somehow knew that Todd Boehly was a few seats along. I snapped him too. Like Roman, a proper scruffy get.

It was all Chelsea, attacking the Shed, in the first ten minutes with the visitors hardly getting the ball over the halfway line.

There were two half-chances in that opening flurry. A shot from an angle by Werner but saved by Jose Sa. Next up was a shot by Romelu Lukaku at the near post but he didn’t get enough on it. There was a little weave from Christian Pulisic and a curler that drifted wide. We were utterly dominant.

On twenty-three minutes, we applauded the memory of Kyle Sekhon.

Rest In Peace.

By the time of the half-hour mark, Wolves were slowly getting a foothold in the game. Their fans were doing their best too.

“Fight, fight – wherever you may be. We are the boys from the Black Country.”

Our play had deteriorated.

A Werner goal was called back for a push. I heard the whistle so didn’t celebrate. Just after, we were up and celebrating a goal and doing the whole “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine. After the ball seemingly missed everyone, the lone figure of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the far post nimbly slotted the ball in from a difficult angle.

GETINYOU BASTARD.

After a good few seconds – thirty seconds? – the ref signalled a VAR check.

“Ah bollocks. These things always result in a disallowed goal, Al.”

The review took forever. God almighty, how is that possible? It should be done and dusted within a few seconds.

No goal.

Pantomime boos.

The play deteriorated further. If the first-half against West Ham was a shocker, this was worse. With a minute of play remaining, the best chance of the game went to Wolves. There was a super save from Edouard Mendy from Pedro Neto and then Leander Dendoncker followed up by thrashing the ball over the bar.

Then, at the other end, the ball was played into Lukaku and he did well to spin and shoot low but Sa saved. Then, another Wolves break and another shot blazed over.

There were moans from me with Oxford Frank at the break.

“Not sure if any of those players out there today could even be classed as mediocre.”

The second-half began with us attacking the Matthew Harding.

Werner went close in the opening minute and then Reece James went even closer with a direct free-kick when everyone was expecting a curling cross.

On fifty-one minutes, Lukaku did ever so well to hunt down a ball and win it from a defender. He appeared to be tripped right where the penalty area meets the goal line. Play carried on and I was bemused. Thankfully the dreaded VAR worked in our favour.

Penalty.

Lukaku, with a small break in his run, slotted home.

GET IN.

Another “THTCAUN / COMLD.”

There was a fine run from Werner down below me but with Lukaku screaming for the ball AND IN SPACE, Timo lazily misfired elsewhere.

We were suddenly on fire. Just two minutes after our goal, a lovely ball into space from Pulisic FOR LUKAKU TO RUN ONTO and a sweet and easy finish. Just bloody lovely. Lukaku sprinted away. I caught his jump. Happy with that. We were purring.

Chelsea Dodgers 2 Wolverhampton Midgets 0.

The MHL chanted to the West Stand.

“Boehly give us a wave. Boehly, Boehly – give us a wave.”

There was no wave.

Chances were exchanged. This was a much better half than the first. But it truthfully could not have been much worse. Thankfully the noise levels from our support rose too. With twenty minutes or so to go, there was indecision from Antonio Rudiger but Mendy saved well. A Chelsea break, but Sa saved well from Kovacic. A cheeky lob from Lukaku dropped onto the top of the net with Sa back peddling. We sung his name and he clapped back. If Chelsea is a conundrum this season, then our purchase of Lukaku is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

By now, we ought to have been clear and with three points in the bag. But that elusive pass still eluded us. In the pub, with Andy and Rich, I had said that we were a team of runners – Pulisic, Werner, Kovacic, Ziyech, even Kante and Mount to an extent – but we missed someone that could hit those runners with a pass.

Come back Cesc Fabregas.

On seventy-nine minutes, we lost possession and Wolves – who had been improving steadily – broke with pace. Francisco Trincao dribbled and cut inside.

I uttered the immortal words “don’t let him shoot.”

He shot.

The flight of the ball seemed to befuddle Mendy. It didn’t befuddle me; I was right in line with its bloody flight.

2-1, fackinell.

They continued to run at us. I fully expected a goal a few minutes later but Trincao saw his shot deflected just wide of the goal. A toe-poke from Raul Jiminez went wide. We were hanging on here.

Two late substitutions.

Sarr for Dave.

Havertz for Lukaku.

Odd choices in hindsight. Should we not have packed the midfield?

A massive seven minutes of extra-time were signalled. The substitute Havertz shimmied and slid a shot just wide of the near post. We were apparently chasing a third goal when three points were all.

For a team not known for its attacking devil-may-care attitude, this was odd, it was out of control. Who was leading the team out there? Who were the talkers? Who was taking charge?

Sadly, nobody.

In the ninety-seventh minute…

Inside my head : “Why didn’t we clear it? Worried now. Has to be a goal. Cross. Header. Simple.”

We were crushed.

At the final whistle, boos.

Yes, it felt like a loss, of course it did.

Moans. Rants. Grumbles. Annoyance. Disbelief.

On my slow trudge through the crowds, behind the Megastore and onto the West Stand forecourt, I walked with one of my passengers to our car. Over the course of just five minutes, around ten fans said the same thing :

“We could have done with you out there today, Ron.”

It was a quiet drive home, but we soon put the result behind us, kinda. It was a gorgeous evening with the countryside as I headed west looking beautiful during the first blush of spring. That Manchester United were getting gubbed at Brighton certainly helped. Coming up in a seismic week, we have Leeds United away on Wednesday and Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday.

Odd times, but still good times. And don’t be told anything else.

Postscript :

On the Sunday morning, it was a typical time for me. A cuppa, some tunes, and the task of choosing and editing some of the one-hundred plus photos from the match to share on social media. I spotted the figure of Saul, late in the game, going up for a header.

What?

Was he playing?

Maybe I missed this late substitution.

I checked the match details. He had come on as a replacement for Marcos Alonso at half-time. Bloody hell. How is that possible for me to miss that? I hadn’t even been drinking. I honestly felt like I should head off for a lie-down in a quiet corner and ponder my very existence. Thankfully, two friends hadn’t noticed him either. I didn’t feel quite so foolish.

This match report is dedicated to Saul : Mister Invisible.

With just four games left now, every game is huge.

I will see some of you at Elland Road on Wednesday.

Come on Chelsea.

Tales From The Burger Van

Everton vs. Chelsea : 1 May 2022.

Well, that was a bloody long way to go for a curry.

I had always thought that our match at Goodison Park would be a very tough fixture. In fact, leading up to it, I was telling everyone that was interested to know my opinion, and maybe some who weren’t, that I thought that we would lose at Everton. It was set up for it. A notoriously difficult place for us to get results of late, the Frank Lampard thing, an absolutely red-hot atmosphere, the fact that it would be “typical Chelsea”, the entire works. Coming out of Old Trafford on the Thursday, I said to the boys :

“Yeah, we’ve done really well tonight, but it will be much harder at Everton on Sunday.”

Everton harder than Manchester United? An away game against a team in the bottom three would be harder than one chasing a European place?

Oh yeah. Oh definitely.

There was a very early start to my Sunday. The alarm rang at 5am and I picked up PD at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. I planned in a little more slack than usual because, damn it, I was flashed on the way home from Old Trafford on Thursday evening. After years and years of no speeding offences, I was now looking at six points in around four months.

Three after Villa on Boxing Day.

Three – I presumed – after United.

Six points. Ugh. I would need to slow things down for a long time now.

At just after 9am, I navigated my way through the streets of Stafford to make an additional stop. Through my network of mates at Chelsea, an extra ticket in the Chelsea section had become available. It belonged to Alex, a Londoner who I often see in “The Eight Bells” but who has been residing in Stafford for around thirty years. When I heard about the spare, I quickly put two and two together. My pal Burger – aka Glenn – has himself been living in Stafford for almost twelve years since his arrival, with his wife Julie, from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I got to know the two of them on the US tours in 2007 and 2009 and we have become good friends over the years. A couple of texts were exchanged and, yes, Burger was in. I left it to Alex and Burger to sort out the ticket in due course.

I collected passenger number three and immediately called “The Chuckle Bus” an alternative name.

For one day only it was “The Burger Van.”

Lo and behold, there was quite a tale involved in the extra ticket. Burger and Alex had chatted and had arranged to meet up in a local pub. For years I have told Burger about Alex and Alex about Burger.

“You must know him. There can’t be too many Chelsea in Stafford.”

Well, it became apparent that the two of them used to drink – and probably still do – in another Stafford pub. After European aways, Burger would always bring home a friendship scarf from his travels at the behest of the barman. And Alex would always spot that a new scarf had appeared behind the bar and would ask the barman where it came from.

“Oh, from that bloke I told you about. You sure you don’t know him?”

They must have missed each other drinking in that pub on many occasions. They were like shadows haunting the pubs of Stafford. They even lived in the same area for a while. And all along, I had pestered both of them with tales of each other’s existence. Well, at last they had met, and I took a little pride that it had eventually been through me. They were only going to meet up to pass over the ticket over a single drink but they stayed for four.

Proper Chelsea.

On the drive north, we chatted how you never see club colours on show in cars on match days – or any other days for that matter – in England anymore. Tensions have generally cooled since the mad old days and yet you don’t even see a mini-kit on display. Those were all the rage thirty years ago. On this trip, covering almost five hours, I didn’t see one Chelsea nor Everton favour.

PD : “My old car used to be a shrine. By the rear window. Scarves. Cushions. Rosettes.”

It’s an odd one alright.

I was parked up in Stanley Park at around 10.30am with memories of the last league game of 2010/11 at Goodison when I had travelled up with Parky, Burger and Julie. That ended terribly, with Carlo Ancelotti getting the “Spanish fiddler” in the tunnel after the game. I wonder whatever happened to him?

While the three of them headed off to “The Thomas Frost” I began a little wander of my own. My friend Chris – the brother of Chelsea fan Tommie – is an Evertonian from North Wales who now lives near Newcastle. We had been talking about meeting up for a pint before the game in a pub called “St. Hilda’s” which is just a couple of hundred yards from “Thomas Frost”. Chris – and Tommie – gave me invaluable advice for my Buenos Aires trip in early 2020, and we owed each other a meet up. During the week, it dawned on me that this could be my last ever visit to Goodison Park, what with the threat of relegation and a new stadium by the river, and so I was determined to wring every ounce of football out of it. I asked Chris if the church that abuts the ground, St. Luke the Evangelist, was open on match days. I was told that the church hall next to it has an upstairs room devoted to Everton memorabilia. That would be perfect. I even had a working title for the blog worked out.

“Tales From St. Luke’s, St, Hilda’s And The School Of Science.”

The trouble was that Chris was currently waylaid on his cross-Pennine trek, courtesy of inefficiencies of the British rail network. Not to worry, I walked along Goodison Road, underneath the towering blue of the main stand, a path that my dear father may well have chosen on his visit to Goodison for a war-time friendly in around 1942 or so. It would be his only football game before Chelsea in 1974. I reached St’ Luke’s at around 11am and approached a couple of ladies that were seemingly guarding the entrance to the church hall, but were actually pedalling match programmes from a small table. It soon transpired that I had caught the both of them at a bad moment.

“You’ve got a bad mental attitude.”

“No, you have.”

“Let’s go outside.”

I could hardly believe my ears. These frail women were having a proper go at each other. It made me chuckle.

With hindsight, it set the tone of aggression that would mark the entire afternoon in and around Goodison Park.

After the dust settled, I was told that the room upstairs would only be open at 11.30am. I had twenty minutes to kill and so set off for Kirkdale train station? Why? My good friend Alan – another aficionado of Archibald Leitch, the architect of so many iconic football stands and stadia – had noticed a little homage to Leitch’s cross-hatch balcony walls at that station when he caught a train to Southport a few years ago after a game in Liverpool. I owed it to myself to go and take a visit myself.

The only problem was that there was a little drizzle in the air. I zipped up my Paul & Shark rain jacket, flipped the hood and set off. My mind wandered too.

In November 1986, on my second visit to Goodison – my second visit of 1986 in fact – at around that exact same spot where I crossed Goodison Road, a gang of around four scallies – early teens, no more – had begun talking to me well before the game began. They had soon sussed I was Chelsea and started to ask me a few questions. I was, it is true to say, a little wary. However, I must have a non-aggressive demeanour because the lads – after my initial reluctance to engage in a conversation – just seemed football-daft and chatted to me for a while. Thankfully they posed no threat. These weren’t spotters leading me to danger and a confrontation with older lads. We chatted about the game and all other associated topics.

“Where you from mate?”

“Is Nevin playing today?”

“What’s Chelsea’s firm called?”

“You going in the seats at the Park End?”

I remembered that they were from Kirkdale, just a twenty-minute walk from Goodison. I also remembered that these lads were on the prowl for free tickets which, a surprise to me, were sometimes handed out to local lads by Everton officials. A nice gesture.

Yes, I thought of those young lads. They’d be in their late ‘forties by now.

Bizarrely, we played at Anfield in December 1986 and, walking along the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop before the game, the same lads spotted me again and we had a little catch up. I never did find out if they were red or blue, or maybe a mixture of both.

I crossed County Road. This wide road inspired the name of one of Everton’s earliest gangs – “The County Road Cutters” – and the rain got worse as I crossed it. Would I regret this little pilgrimage to Kirkdale in the rain this Sunday morning? I wondered if my father had taken the train to Kirkdale all those years ago and if I was treading on hallowed ground.

I reached the station and headed down to the platform where “The Blue Garden” – sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover – was placed. The rain still fell. I took a few photographs.

I retraced my steps. I passed “The Melrose Abbey” pub, itself sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover. I was tempted to dive in – I saw a huge pile of sandwich rolls stacked on the bar ahead of the football rush – but decided against it. I was lucky in 1986 with some lads from Kirkdale and although time has moved on, I didn’t want to push my luck thirty-six years later.

On the walk back to Goodson the hulk of the main stand at Anfield could easily be seen despite the misty rain over Stanley Park. I approached Goodison again, a fantastic spectacle, wedged in among the tightly terraced streets of Walton. Ahead, things were getting noisy and getting busy. In the forty-five minutes that I had been away, the area beneath the main stand had become packed full of noisy Evertonians. Some were letting off blue flares. We had heard how some fireworks had been let off outside the Chelsea hotel. And now this. The natives were gearing up for a loud and confrontational day. I guessed that they were lying in wait for the Chelsea coach. I sent an image of the blue flares outside The Holy Trinity statue to Chris, still battling away in Rochdale. His reply suggested he wasn’t impressed.

“Kopite behaviour.”

Pungent sulphurous fumes filled my nostrils. Ex-player Alan Stubbs walked through to the main entrance. The atmosphere was electric blue. I hadn’t experienced anything like this at a game in the UK before apart from a European night or two at the top of Stanley Park. I was hearing Everton songs that I had never ever heard before. The home support was going for broke.

I must admit that it felt so surreal to hear Scousers singing “Super Frank.”

I entered the football exhibition at St’ Luke’s and was met by a black and white photo of Tommy Lawton. He would sign for us after the Second World War. It still baffles me that we bought two of the greatest strikers of the immediate pre and post-war era in Hughie Gallacher and Tommy Lawton yet didn’t challenge in the First Division at all.

Typical Chelsea.

Of course, the greatest of all was William Dean, or simply Dixie. He must have been some player. I snapped a few items featuring him. His statue welcomes visitors to Goodison on match days. I always used to love that he scored sixty goals in the 1927/28 season, just after the other sporting hero of that era Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees in 1927. That Dixie Dean should die at Goodison Park during a Merseyside derby just seems, in some ways – as odd as it sounds – just right.

Proper Everton.

I could – and should – have stayed longer in that attic at St. Luke’s but I needed to move on. I sadly realised that I wouldn’t be meeting Chris, not even for a pre-match handshake, so I headed away from the ground again. I battled the crowds outside. There was a line of police – Bizzies – guarding the main stand and it took me forever to squeeze through. I may or may not have said “scuse me mate” with a slight Scouse twang a few times. The songs boomed in my ears.

“The boys from the royal blue Mersey.”

Eventually I was free and raced over to “The Thomas Frost”, one of my least favourite football pubs. There was, according to the steward, no room at the main entrance. I simply walked over to a corner door, chatted to Darren from Crewe, and went in there. I eventually met up with PD, Parky, Burger but also Deano and Dave. The Old Firm match was on. There were plenty of Scottish accents in the crowd and I supposed they were ‘Gers fans down for the game.

Shouts above the noise of a frantically busy pub, pints being consumed, everything so boisterous.

This football life.

Chelsea songs too. To be fair, both sets of fans – Everton and Chelsea – were drinking cheek by jowl with no nastiness. Chelsea tend to side with Rangers. Everton tend to side with Celtic. I had noticed a box of Celtic programmes at St. Luke’s – but no Rangers ones – as if no further proof were needed. A potential tinderbox – Everton, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic – was passing with no trouble at all.

We left for the ground. I remembered seeing Burger with his father outside Goodison for the away game in early 2015/16, another loss. I had travelled up with just Deano for that one. All these lives intertwined.

I was inside in good time. Yet again our viewing position was awful, shunted way behind the goal line. Since our last visit in December 2019 – guess what, we lost – a mesh had been erected between the two sets of fans between the Bullens Road and the Park End. Everton certainly missed a trick in around 1994 when the simple single tier of the Park End replaced the older two-tiered stand. There is a lot of space behind that stand. It could have been much grander. But I bloody love Goodison and I will be so sad when it is no more.

It’s the antithesis of the old Stamford Bridge, the first ground I fell in love with. Our home was wild and rambling, spread-out, away from the road, a land of its own, a land of undulating terraces, inside and out, of shrubs and trees, of turnstiles, of forecourts, of differing stands, of corrugated iron, of floodlight pylons, of vast stretches of green, of views of Brompton Cemetery, of Earls Court, of London.

Goodison was – and is – cramped, rectangular, uniform, encased and with only St. Luke’s church of the outside world visible from inside.

I loved and love both.

We were at the very front of the top tier.

We waited.

The noise increased.

“And if you know your history.”

It seemed that the whole day was about Everton. Yes, we were chasing a third place but it was all about them. And that was what scared me. I envisioned them fighting for everything, the dogs of war of the Joe Royle team of around 995 revisited.

“Z-Cars.”

Spine-chilling stuff. I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

As the teams entered the pitch from different entrances, flags and banners took over, and the heavy smell of the flares hit my senses once again. I spotted a flag in the Gwladys.

“We Are The Goodison Gang.”

What on earth was that? It sounded like a ‘seventies children’s TV programme.

Thomas Tuchel had chosen an eleven against Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Mount

Werner – Havertz

Alan : “Not the most mobile of midfield twos.”

There was a mixture of new and old names for Everton. I had heard good stuff about Anthony Gordon.

As for Seamus Coleman, wasn’t it time he retired and fucked off to run a pub in Cork?

Borussia Chelsea in yellow and black. Everton in old-style white socks, la.

I would later learn that Chris got in with five minutes to spare. He works in logistics too.

It was fifty-fifty for much of the first-half and although the Everton fans seemed noisy as hell in the first segment of the game, the noise fell away as the game progressed. I noticed that for virtually the entire first period, the denizens of the Park End to our left were seated.

“Just not good enough. Must do better.”

A save from Edouard Mendy from Demarai Gray was followed by a dipping shot from Mason Mount and this indicated a bright start. But thrills were rare. On eighteen minutes we witnessed an amazing piece of skill from Mount, juggling on the run, flipping the ball up, and bringing it out of defence. Sublime stuff. Just after, sublime play of a different kind when Antonio Rudiger recovered well to make a magnificent run to cover the right-wing thrusts from Everton with a great tackle.

I could not understand the chants from our end for Frank Lampard. We love the bloke, of course, but I thought all that was silly and miss-guided. We were struggling on the pitch. I was not sure how a song about Dennis Wise in Milan was helping the cause either.

Parky was annoyed too : “Is he playing?”

Another shot from Gordon, just wide.

This was dreary stuff.

Only a lovely run from deep from Ruben Loftus-Cheek enlivened the team and the fans. With each stride, he seemed to grow in confidence. It was a graceful piece of play, but one that begged the question “why doesn’t he do it more fucking often?”

There was a fine block from Thiago Silva late on in the half, but – honestly – was that it?

It was.

For the second-half, Tuchel replaced Jorginho with Mateo Kovacic and we hoped for better things.

Alas, we imploded after just two bloody minutes.

Oh Dave.

Our captain dithered and Richarlison pounced.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

A little voice inside my head : “yep.”

Howls from the Chelsea sections of the Bullens Road. Yet again a moment of huge indecision in our defence had cost us dearly. When Tuchel came in last season, our defensive errors seemed to magically disappear. The current trend is so worrying.

Just after, Everton really should have been two goals to the good but Vitalii Mykolenko shot high and wide at the Gwladys Street.

We tried to get back into the game but the movement upfront was negligible. But, to be honest, there was more room on the Goodison Road at 12.30pm than there was in the Everton final third. We were met with block after block, tackle after tackle. They harried and chased like their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

There seemed to be more than normal amounts of time-wasting. Richarlison went down for cramp twice, as did others. The away fans howled some more.

On the hour, we howled again as a Marcos Alonso cross picked out Havertz who did well to head on to Mount. His shot not only hit both posts but the follow up from Dave was saved – magnificently, I cannot lie – by Pickford.

From the resulting corner, a header was knocked on and Rudiger raced in to smash the ball goal wards but the ball hit Pickford’s face.

Fucksake.

The Evertonians seemed to relish a new-found love of England.

“England’s Number One, England’s, England’s Number One.”

We kept going, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d break them down. Two headers in quick succession from Kai and Timo amounted to nothing.

Tuchel made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Dave.

Hakim Ziyech for Werner.

There was a little injection of skill from Pulisic, wriggling away and getting past a few challenges but there was no end product. We enjoyed another barnstorming run from Ruben, even better than the one in the first, but we lacked invention. Everton appeared to take time-wasting to a new level. A scally in the paddock on the far side simply shoved a ball up his jumper rather than give it back.

A hopeful but hapless blooter from Rudiger.

A rising shot from Ruben after a neat run again.

A shot from Gray was smashed just over the bar up the other end. I envisioned seeing the net bulge on that one.

The noise was loud now alright.

Seven minutes of extra time were played but we could have played all night long without getting a goal.

A scuffler from Kovacic proved to be our last effort but Pickford collapsed easily at the near post to smother.

The home crowd erupted at the final whistle and we shuffled out along the wooden floorboards.

Everton are still not safe.

I wonder if I will ever return to Goodison Park?

We met up outside and I summed up the game and the season.

“No cutting edge.”

I overheard an Evertonian from South Wales talking, rather exuberantly, to a friend as we walked back to the car.

“Best game I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a few.”

He was about the same age as me too, maybe a tad younger.

Bloody hell, mate.

I made good time getting out of Stanley Park, Queens Drive, then onto the motorways. I dropped Burger home and then headed, once more, to “The Vine” at West Bromwich. We were joined by Michelle, Dane, Frances and Steve, Chelsea supporters all.

I had honey and chilli chicken, chilli chips and a peswari naan.

It was indeed a bloody long way to go for a curry.

Next up, Wolves at home.

See you there.

This Is Goodison.

The Blue Garden.

Flags And Flares.

History, La.

Pre-Match.

The Game.

Tales From Yahnited

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.

Manchester United was going to be our last regular season away game in 2021/22. However, our appearance in the FA Cup Final brought it forward just over two weeks.

Chelsea : “What are you doing Thursday 28 April?”

United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”

Chelsea : “Well, we have a problem with Saturday 14 May.”

United : “Go on.”

Chelsea : “Well, we reached the Cup Final.”

United : “Shut it.”

Our last three domestic away games, then, were to be Manchester United, Everton and Leeds United. Three trips up north to three football giants. Three trips to the former warring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Three colours : red.

Three colours : blue.

Three colours : white.

These days, the cities and teams reside in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I would be attending all three. I have not fared too well with home games this season, but by the end of 2021/22, I will have hopefully chalked up a full set of away games in the league, mirroring that of 2008/9 and 2015/16.

I booked a half-day holiday at work for the day of the game and also a half-day holiday on the Friday. I collected Sir Les in a pub car park opposite work at midday, then Parky, then eventually PD at just before 1pm. My route to Manchester then needed to take me home. The reason for this needs explaining. Two tickets for two friends up north had been sent to me on Monday but had not yet materialised. I was hoping that they would be waiting for me in my front porch. Alas it was not to be. I had already warned them that the tickets were unlikely to arrive in time for my departure up north at 1pm as our post usually arrives mid-afternoon. My text to them was still a horrible thing to have to do.

The Royal Mail 1.

The Ticket Man 0.

Bollocks.

Undeterred, I set off.

There was a different route to get up onto the motorway network; Writhlington, Bath, Saltford, Keynsham, Bristol. I was soon onto the M32, then the M4, the M5…

By the way, It has occurred to me that during my match report for the recent West Ham United game, I missed an open goal. Surely, somehow, I could have referred to myself as the ticket man on Fulham Broadway Station?

What a waste.

The trip north was filled with football talk.

On the Tuesday, I had attended the Frome Town vs. Bristol Manor Farm game at Badgers Hill. This was the Southern League Southern Division play-off semi-final over just one leg. I aimed to drag as many people along as possible in order to boost the gate. In the end, just one was able to make it. I watched in the seats of the main stand as Joe O’Loughlin, the raiding left-back, unleashed a right-footed bullet to put us 1-0 up. How we all celebrated that one. I was just messaging some friends with the words “WHAT A FUCKING GOAL” when Manor Farm equalised within a minute of our goal. Sadly, the away team scored two further second-half goals to win it 3-1. Well done to them. They now travel to Winchester City in the final. I was predictably saddened with this loss. “Gutted” to use the football equivalent. Frome had been flying high in the two COVID seasons which were then sadly abandoned, and had led from the front this season until March. I rue two tame derby draws against Larkhall. The gate on Tuesday was a quite remarkable 1,158. It showed how the club has grown over the last three years.

I will be there again, when I can, next season. I attended eighteen Frome Town games this season – seven away – and each one has been so enjoyable. The club has been revitalised and – yes – I am still hurting that we didn’t reach the play-off final. Ironically, the final will be between the teams that finished fourth and fifth this season. Our second place finish – with a league best four defeats all season – meant nothing.

I hated the play-offs in 1988 with Chelsea and I hate them now in 2022 with Frome Town.

My good mate Kev, Chelsea, bumped into me before the game as he is a board member of Manor Farm. He enjoyed chatting to the one person I had brought along, a certain Mr. Harris, and he gave me a mix-tape – with a slight football flavour – to take to Manchester.

So that got an airing.

I loved it.

I did, though, wonder if I was upsetting the Chelsea Gods by playing it. There were songs from Manchester-based The Stone Roses and The Fall within the twenty-odd tunes involved.

At least Mr. Harris got a mention in Laurel Aitkens’ “The Zigger Zagger Song.”

We stopped at “The Windmill” pub, just off the M6, for about the fourth time. It’s our base before getting to Manchester. The boys enjoyed a couple of pints.

It was soon time to leave the pub for the final approach to Old Trafford.

The “sat nav” changed its mind four times in about five minutes as I looked at the best way to reach our usual parking spot near Gorse Hill Park, which is around a fifteen-minute walk from Old Trafford. In the end, it dragged me in a wide arc to the west, through some ridiculously quiet country lanes, sending me close to United’s training ground at Carrington, before pushing me through Urmston. Before I knew it, I was joining the slow-moving match-going traffic heading north along the Chester Road. I crept past the abandoned sky blue art deco cinema – it annoys me every time I see it, I would love to see it saved – past those red brick houses, signs for parking – the match day buzz growing now – and then the light grey of the Old Trafford stands in the distance. I parked up and paid £10 to the usual people. There was a nip in the air. Jackets were fastened.

This was my twenty-sixth visit to Old Trafford to see us play United. There were two FA Cup semi-finals too.

The last was in August 2019; the 0-4 shellacking with Frank at the helm.

Since my first time of walking along the Chester Road to Old Trafford around twenty years ago, a few things have changed. Nearer the ground, there are a couple of new car dealerships and a large modern supermarket. But past The Bishop Blaize pub, I was glad to see the small knot of fast food outlets still going strong. Old Trafford itself has undergone monstrous redevelopment itself in the past twenty-five years – it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of stadia – and so it always gives me a warm glow to see these six or seven cafes still eking out a living. A link to the past. A link to our youth. It’s silly, but I hope they continue to thrive. The match day experience at Old Trafford would suffer if they were to disappear.

The Lou Macari chip shop is still there. After the work that Macari has done for the homeless in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of respect for that man. Talking of Macari, if you call yourself a football fan and haven’t seen “Marvellous” you need to have a word with yourself.

We reached the forecourt, the famous forecourt – another link to the past, the Munich clock et al – at around 7.15pm. The ticket man handed over tickets to Deano.

There was just time for a photo to share on Facebook, with me outside the away turnstiles. There are certain games that require a little attention in the sartorial stakes and this was one of them.

United away : Vivienne Westwood shirt, Hugo Boss jeans, Hugo Boss top, Paul & Shark jacket and Adidas gazelles.

The caption?

“Tonight is my seventy-eighth Chelsea vs. Manchester United game across all competitions and venues. It takes them top just past Liverpool in my all-time list.

It is the only competition they will win this season.”

Without much fuss, I made my way in. The away segment of East Stand, formerly K Stand, is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium now. It reeks of ‘sixties concrete and pillars.

I simply could not have asked for a better viewing position. The much-enlarged disabled section at Old Trafford – very laudable – is at the front of the away corner, and so it means that our seats in “row two” were a third of the way back. Not only that, to my left was a clear view of the rest of the stadium; there was an abyss immediately next to me and then a gap before the home areas of the main stand, the South Stand. I had an even better than usual view of one of Old Trafford’s nicest features; the pitch is raised, as if indeed a stage, and the drop-off to the pitch surrounds always looks dangerously steep.

Old Trafford was quiet and not particularly full. Certainly in those areas to my left there were easily visible red seats. But our section had gaps too. Clearly this Thursday night fixture had proved to be problematic. We had heard rumours of “Glazers Out” protests but I had witnessed nothing before the game. The ground tried its best to fill up.

Just before the entrance of the teams, billowing sulphurous smoke emerged from the bowels of the South Stand. We presumed that a flare had been let off in protest.

The teams appeared from the tunnel in the south-east corner, below a “Glazers Out” sign held aloft by supporters.

Right. The game. The teams.

Chelsea lined up as below :

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

The “fluid” system rather than the one with Lukaku in it. Right, kids?

Long gone are the days when I could reel off a United team.

This United team weren’t :

Schmeichel

Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin

Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs

Cantona – Hughes

Some bloke called Telles and some bloke called Elanga were playing for United, whoever they were. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, started.

The game – roll on drums – began.

What a start from us. We absolutely penned United into their own half and the home crowd, quiet before the game, were soon making negative noise.

The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s got a coffee blender.”

…or something, I’m not sure.

I spoke to Parky :

“There’s some grass over there, left-hand side of the box, that marks the point where Ron Harris took out Eddie Gray in 1970.”

Unlike the first-half against West Ham on Sunday, we managed two efforts on target in the first seven minutes. A shot from Reece James and another from Timo Werner were saved well by De Gea.

It was all us. The action on the pitch and the noise off it.

Then, some scares came in quick succession. Bruno Fernandes, buzzing around from deep, looked to be their main threat and they had a little of the ball. A free-header from Fernandes was easily saved by Edouard Mendy, then an attempted bicycle kick from that man Ronaldo thankfully ballooned over.

But after this little blip, it was business as usual.

N’Golo Kante quickly shot at De Gea. We were playing so well. United were nowhere, nowhere at all. With Kante eating up space with two majestic and energetic runs from deep, he twice set up Kai Havertz with fine balls into space. The first resulted in a shot that was slashed against the side netting and the second was hit at an angle. The second move was undoubtedly the best of the game thus far.

There was a chant in honour of our Russian owner…the last days of the Roman Empire…but the United fans were so lethargic and apathetic that there was none of the usual boos that would normally accompany this.

We were especially dominant down our right with James making an absolutely marvellous return to the team. His cross was headed towards goal by Havertz, but this was again right at De Gea.

On thirty-eight minutes, an absolutely thunderous “Chelsea” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” –  galvanised the entire away support.

Thinking to myself : “they must have heard that on the TV in London, Paris, New York, Munich.”

Did you?

It was almost total domination from Chelsea. The half-time talks and chats were all positive.

The second-half began and I was aware that both police and stewards had positioned themselves in front of the main stand and in the far corner where the “Glazers Out” sign had made a reappearance. The club were presumably expecting further rumblings of discontent.

The dominance continued on. A fine cross from Mason Mount just evaded Timo.

Ten minutes in, I honestly heard the first “Yahnited” chant of the night.

On the hour, a cross into the box from that man James was flicked on by Havertz. I saw two blue shirts unmarked at the far post. I gulped some Mancunian air. The slight wait. The trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso sent the ball low past De Gea and into the net.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

The away end boomed.

You probably heard that in London, Paris, New York and Munich too.

Sadly, just like with Frome Town on Tuesday night, a goal was conceded just after we scored. We conceded possession and United pounced. A fine scoop up by Matic – one of their better players, I thought – found Ronaldo inside the box and grotesquely unmarked.

It had goal written all over it and other clichés. He brought the ball under control superbly and smashed it past Mendy.

Old Trafford woke up.

Ugh.

“Viva Ronaldo. Running down the wing. Hear United sing. Viva Ronaldo.”

What a disappointment.

“They’ve only had three attempts on goal, Gal.”

With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.

Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for Werner.

Lukaku, to his credit, again repeated Sunday’s entrance by trying to sprint into spaces but was cruelly ignored by all.

I noted that Matic was booed off by us whereas Juan Mata – lovely player, lovely man, I sound like Alan Partridge – was warmly applauded.

We seemed to have corner after corner in that second-half.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

We conjured one last real chance. With ten minutes to go, Kante broke in the inside left position and played a fine ball into Mount. With a lovely understanding of his positioning and of others, he back-heeled to James.

There was a wait for the ball to reach him and for him to reach the ball.

We inhaled again.

The ball was crashed goal wards and it clipped the left-hand post.

We howled.

In the back of my mind, now, was the Football Gods completely fucking us over and allowing United an absolutely unmerited winner. There was indeed a late chance for Garnacho – who? – but Mendy saved well.

The draw felt like a loss.

Definitely.

Throughout thhis excellent game, Kante, Alonso and Silva had been magnificent but the real star was Reece James. Some of his close control was mesmerising, and his positional play superb. He really will be one of our very greats.

On Sir Matt Busby Way, Sir Les and PD indulged in a polystyrene tray of chips and curry sauce while I had a burger with onions. The food of the footballing Gods.

We made our way back to the car. Out on the Chester Road, the everything was moving quicker than usual. It was a tough old drive home but I eventually reached my house at 2.45am on Friday morning. The two tickets had still not arrived.

On Sunday, we’ll be heading up the same roads all over again.

I love a trip to Goodison. Who knows, it could – sadly – be my last.

I hope to see some of you there.

Tales From The Ticket Man

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 24 April 2022.

After our third consecutive home loss against Arsenal on the Wednesday, the phrase “our worst-ever home run” was heard a few times. With eleven goals conceded in just those three games, it certainly felt like it. Alas, there was no confirmation from anywhere if this was true, but I thought I’d take a look at the games that I, at least, had seen in the flesh. I brought up my “games attended spreadsheet” and ran a couple of filters.

Yes, there it was in all its damning glory.

I found it hard to believe, but I it became apparent that I had never before witnessed three consecutive home defeats at Stamford Bridge. And to be doubly clear, on this occasion the three losses against Brentford, Real Madrid and Arsenal were not only the sole three consecutive losses I had ever seen, but the only three consecutive losses that I had ever seen regardless of if the actual games were consecutive in “real time” too, not just games I had seen. A double whammy, if you will.

Bloody hell. It amazed me that I had never seen three in a row before. That I had been so lucky.

I didn’t attend many games in the truly abysmal seasons of 1978/79 and 1982/83 – two and four respectfully – but it truly shocked me that I had never personally witnessed three home defeats on the spin.

A grand total of eight-hundred and fourteen games at Stamford Bridge and only one run of three consecutive home losses.

Altogether now :

“Fackinell.”

Next up was another home game, this time against another London rival; West Ham United. This would be no easy fixture, nor any semblance of one. A defeat at the hands of David Moyes’ Irons in the autumn still smarts.

But before all that on the Sunday, I had a bonus game on the Saturday. Frome Town’s regular league season was to end with an away game at Lymington Town. I drove down to Hampshire and the last segment took me through the ethereal beauty of the New Forest – it’s unique scenery of yellow gorse, mossy shrub land and gnarled and ancient trees, and of course the wandering and unattended sheep and ponies – and then enjoyed a very entertaining 5-0 win for the visiting team. It was a glorious day out.

Early on the Sunday, I set off for London and the District Line Derby.

Very soon into the trip, with Mr. Daniels and Mr. Harris already on board, non-league football entered my head again. Our route took us past the current home of Trowbridge Town Football Club, now toiling in the Wiltshire League, a few levels below Frome Town who are at level eight in the football pyramid. Yet in 1981, Trowbridge Town played at level five – in the old conference – and were light years ahead of Frome who were entrenched in the Western League. In those days, Trowbridge were managed by former Chelsea player Alan Birchenall – “good lad, Birch, quite a character” chirped Mr. Harris – but since then the fortunes of the two teams have taken different trajectories. Such is life in our amazing football pyramid.

The football pyramid had recently witnessed a shocking fall from grace. Oldham Athletic – Chelsea’s first opponents in the newly-carved Premier League in August 1992, they did the double over us in 1993/94 – had just been relegated from the Football League.  The Latics had thus fallen from level one to level five in just under thirty years. There have been quicker descents – Bristol City in four years from one to four, Northampton Town rising those levels in five seasons and then falling those levels in five seasons too – but this one seemed particularly grotesque.

But we must cherish the fluidity of the pyramid. It is what makes English football.

With Mr. Parkins joining us soon after a drive through the town of Trowbridge, we were on our way.

The weather looked half-decent and the day lay stretched out in front of us.

The back-story to this game concerns a quest to get hold of five match tickets. I found out a while back that some good friends from Jacksonville in Florida were on their way over for the West Ham game. However, as their trip drew closer, things took a nosedive. Even though they had paid the club for tickets, the club were not releasing them.

No, I don’t understand it either.

So, from about two weeks out, I began searching some channels. Luckily, just in time, I was able to get hold of all five. Thanks to Gary, Ian, Calvin and Dan, the job was done.

For our personal merriment, Jennifer, Cindy, Brian, Anel and Eugene would be called The Axon Five for the duration of this trip.

In truth, it was as frantic a pre-match as I have had for a while. The plan was to meet up at Stamford Bridge at ten o’clock. Jennifer and Brian were able to meet a few of the players who take care of the corporate work at Chelsea on a match day. We met up just as Sir Bobby Tambling arrived. This was a lovely moment for the two visitors since they had first met Bobby in Charlotte for our friendly with PSG in 2015 and had subsequently bumped into him on a previous visit to SW6 too. In North Carolina, Bobby was persuaded to partake in what the Americans call “jello shots”, much to the amusement of the two Floridians.

With a Chelsea tour to the US – sanctions permitting – being spoken about, it was a good time for me to host a few Chelsea fans from across the pond. Of course, Jennifer and Brian will be attending the friendly against Arsenal in Orlando, but I am not tempted. The other two rumoured cities are Las Vegas and Charlotte, again, ironically. As it stands, I shan’t be bothering to travel over for this tour. After experiencing Buenos Aires in 2020, my sights are focussed on slightly more exotic climes.

Well, South America and where ever Frome Town are playing to be precise.

While Jennifer and Brian set off to meet up with PD and Parky in “The Eight Bells”, I set off for “The Blackbird” at Earl’s Court to collect a ticket. I walked past “The Courtfield” – the one away pub at Chelsea these days, a good mile away from the ground, how we like it – but there didn’t seem to be too many West Ham inside. It was around 11.15am. As luck would have it, I bumped into another little knot of Chelsea supporters from the US; this time, the left coast, California. I had met Tom and Brad a few times before. This time they were with their wives and two friends too. It seemed that another couple of mates – Steve and Ian – were hosting some Chelsea tourists too. It was great to catch up with them once again.

I then set off for the bottom end of Fulham. At around 12.15pm, I eventually made it to “The Eight Bells” where another ticket was collected. Things were dropping into place nicely.

Yet Cindy, Anel and Eugene were yet to appear.

Tick tock.

We stayed about an hour or so. At last all of the five Floridians were together and we could relax. Brian spoke about how their local Chelsea pub on Jacksonville Beach – I must have cycled past it on my Virginia to Florida cycle trip in 1989 – was at last bursting to the seams for our Champions League Final in Porto. Such is life, eh? Everyone shows up for the big ones. We sat outside “Eight Bells” as it was heaving inside. I think the girls got a kick out of the “Home Fans Only” signs in the boozer’s windows.

After lots of laughs, we – reluctantly? – set off for the game. Outside the Peter Osgood statue, at about 1.40pm, the last ticket was gathered.

Cindy – her first Chelsea game – and Jennifer joined me in the MHU while the three lads took position in the MHL.

Phew.

The kick-off at 2pm soon arrived.

I had hardly had time to think about the game itself.

We heard that Andreas Christensen was injured pre-match and so Dave took a new position, in the left of a back three. Trevoh Chalobah returned.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount

Werner – Havertz

There were, of course, the same spaces as for the Arsenal game and this elicited the same song from the away fans.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

At least Chelsea conjured up a quick response this time.

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

That made me chuckle.

Three FA Cups and one European trophy.

Is that it West Ham?

There was a Ukranian flag on The Shed balcony wall; maybe a nod to their player Andriy Yarmolenko.

“Glory To Ukraine.”

Let’s hope so.

Further along, a much more light-hearted flag.

“East End Girls. Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Ooh, matron.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t. What a shocking first-half, eh? It had to be one of the worst forty-five minutes I have endured for a while.

Alan nailed it.

“They have a big game Thursday. They don’t want to risk anything.”

Indeed. Declan Rice, Michael Antonio and Jarrod Bowen were all rested ahead of their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt, shades of us in 2019.

The visitors in claret and light blue sat behind the ball, closed space, and rarely threatened our goal. We looked half-paced and still tired from Wednesday. Our play was turgid, lethargic and without flair and imagination. We looked unable to think outside the box, nor to play inside the penalty box.

It was all so fucking dull.

And it was as if Wednesday hadn’t happened. There seemed no desire to win back our approval after the shocking defending against Arsenal.

Chalobah made an error in our half, allowing a rare West Ham attack, but soon recovered and enjoyed a good first period. Kante was full of running, but there was nobody moving to create anything. I lost count of the number of times we were in good positions to shoot but didn’t. The frustration in the stands was overpowering.

The game was so dull that I resorted to wondering why the floodlights were turned on during an early afternoon game in April.

The first forty-five minutes ended with neither side having a single shot on target. Surprisingly, knowing our support these days, there were no boos at all at half-time. Does that mean that season ticket holders tend not to boo?

Answers on a postcard.

I wondered what Cindy was making of it all, just a few yards away in row two of the MHU alongside Jennifer.

The pour souls.

Sigh.

The second-half got going and there seemed to be an immediate improvement. At long last, there were shots on goal. One from Timo Werner, a volley, was blocked but the actual sight of a player willing to take a chance – “buy a raffle ticket” – was ridiculously applauded. A blooter from Kante was similarly blocked. This was better, much better. The crowd responded. I looked over to see the two girls joining in with a very loud “Carefree.”

A fine strike from Chalobah – such great body shape – caused Lukasz Fabianski to make a fine save to his left.

The game had definitely improved. On seventy minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek set up Mason Mount but Fabianski was saved by another defensive block.

With fifteen minutes to go, wholesale changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Romelu Lukaku for a quiet Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for the energetic Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for the steady Loftus-Cheek.

We looked livelier. Lukaku looked eager to impress, but – for fuck’s sake – his sprints – sprints I tell ya! – into space were not spotted by those with the ball. That was about to change, thankfully. With about five minutes to go, a move found that man Lukaku breaking into the box. An arm from a West Ham defender seemed to pull him back. The referee Michael Oliver quickly pointed to the spot.

Then…blah blah blah…VAR…blah blah blah…a delay…the referee went to the TV screen…the yellow card became red.

There seemed to be a long delay.

Jorginho.

Alan : “skip?”

Chris : “yes, skip.”

He skipped.

The shot was tamely hit too close to Fabianski.

Groans, groans, groans.

I can’t really explain it, but I still had a strong notion – a sixth sense – that we would still grab a late winner.

Ziyech let fly from his usual inside-left position but the shot flew over.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On eighty-nine minutes, the ball was played beautifully out to Marcos Alonso on the left. He played the ball perfectly in to the box, right towards Pulisic and the substitute sweep it in to a corner.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Absolute pandemonium in the North-West corner.

I looked over to Cindy and Jennifer.

The American had scored in front of the Americans.

Superb. Magic. Fantastic. Magnificent. Stupendous.

Alan : “They’ll have ta cam at us nah.”

Chris : “Cam on moi li’ul doimuns.”

The final whistle blew.

A huge roar, smiles all around, absolutely bloody lovely. That was a hugely enjoyable end to a mainly mediocre game of football.

Altogether now : “phew.”

And the song remained the same :

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

Outside, I was the ticket man again, sorting tickets for Manchester United away, gathering tickets for Everton away…

It had been a good day.

…see you at Old Trafford.

Pre-Game Blue

A Late Late Show

From Jacksonville To Axonville

Tales From A Tough One

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 20 April 2022.

After the away game at Southampton, there was football everywhere. Sadly, however, I was not involved in all of it.

On the Tuesday came our away match at Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. I watched this one at home, alone. I hate watching us in pubs. What a performance. I can rarely remember a more spirited show from us in recent years. It was a game for the ages, a high-energy tactical joy. And we almost pulled it off.

A couple of things to say.

I could not but help notice that there seemed to be a definite difference in the reactions – OK on Facebook, my main reference point – between those commenting on our performance between those in the UK and those elsewhere. In the UK, there was an immense sense of pride in the team and management, stated by virtually everyone. Outside the UK there seemed to be a different story. I often spotted fingers being strongly pointed at certain players and it made me gasp. This seemed particularly mean-spirited.

Massive kudos to two friends – from outside the UK, but I am sure they were full of pride too – who travelled vast distances to attend the game in Madrid. Well done to Shari from Australia’s Gold Coast and well done to Bob from Northern California. They both travelled over to Spain for just that one game. Respect.

On the Saturday, I travelled to South Gloucestershire to see Frome Town play – and win 2-0 – against Slimbridge. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the sun. This was a fine performance after a few patchy results and one that really pleased me. The team solidified its place in the play-off positions now that Plymouth Parkway have edged into pole position for automatic promotion.

On the Sunday, I travelled with Glenn, PD and Parky to London for the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace. Alas, I was not allowed into Wembley because I was carrying my usual SLR camera and lenses. I pleaded with security that the self-same camera had been allowed in on well over twenty previous occasions but this fell on deaf ears. I trudged back to the train station and made my way back to where Glenn’s van was parked at Barons Court. I was pretty demoralised. Sigh.

On the Bank Holiday Monday, there came salvation in the guise of Frome Town. For the game against local rivals Paulton Rovers, a few friends and I were sponsoring the match. Glenn was a guest of mine too. Ironically, the club’s official photographer had hurt his back and was unable to attend and so I was asked to slip into his shoes, and gleefully accepted. It was another fine day at Badgers’ Hill. Frome won 2-1 in front of a massive 731 gate and I was happy with my photographs. I snapped all three goals and, after “camera gate” at Wembley, this proved to be a really cathartic experience.

Good old Frome.

Next up was Arsenal at home.

At work, I mentioned to a colleague “I fancy us to win 4-0.”

Again, PD drove up with Parky and little old me. Just as we approached “The Goose” I spotted Raymondo and it was a joy to see him. He is well-loved at Chelsea and this was his first game since before lock-down in the Spring of 2020. Superb. Down at “Simmons” I met up with Johnny Twelve Teams from LA and also Ben and Christina from Louisiana in addition to all the usual suspects.

We all agreed that it would be so weird to see The Bridge well below capacity against the Gooners. We expected a gate of around 28,000. Team news filtered through. We weren’t too enamoured with the defensive set up.

In Tuchel we trust.

Before the game, Stamford Bridge was bathed in the glow of a pink and orange sunset beyond the West Stand. The yellow brickwork of The Shed End was warm with colour. The steel of the East Stand roof was a delicate pink. What with the empty seats – though not as many as I had expected – there seemed to be a surreal feel to the evening. Stamford Bridge – those familiar stands, the spectators, the flags and banners – often feels the same at most games, especially during the dull winter days. On this evening, I sensed a different vibe, one that is difficult to describe. Sometimes the old place can feel different and I often sense this during the first evening game in the light of Spring. This was one of those occasions.

Alongside Alan, PD and myself was Simon, a work colleague. There were three thousand away fans. One of them, Noah, was a guy I met up with on the long haul to Baku in 2019. We don’t often chat, but he told me that he’d be in attendance.

Arsenal, eh? It seemed that they have enjoyed the upper hand a little recently, but this isn’t really true. Sure, there had been the FA Cup losses in 2017 and 2020, but we had beaten them heavily in Azerbaijan and our last loss that I had witnessed at Stamford Bridge was the 3-5 reverse in 2012. The 0-1 defeat last May is only vaguely remembered. There were a few good wins at their place too.

Over on the balcony wall in their section of The Shed, there were a few Arsenal flags on show.

The “E.I.E.” one raised a smile. There is a possibly apocryphal story about that and how it all started involving an enthusiastic member of The Herd and a meat pie.

So, our team?

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – James

Alonso – Kante – Loftus-Cheek – Azpilicueta

Mount

Lukaku – Werner

Very soon into the evening, the away fans seized the moment.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

One-nil to The Arsenal. Sigh.

Chelsea responded with the same tune :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

…thinking to myself :

“…mmm, how can a chant be constructed that describes Arsenal’s published attendances always showing 60,000 yet with often a third of the seats being empty?”

That’s a tough one.

I looked around. Despite the limited ticket sales – season tickets, corporate sales and away fans, right? – the stadium looked pretty decently filled. The Matthew Harding looked full. The Shed too. Yes, there were empty seats in the upper wings of the East and West Stands, and large gaps in the family sections of the East Lower, but it looked more than the expected 28,000. I couldn’t work it out.

Chelsea in our awful kit, Arsenal in their homage to Ajax or something.

The game began and it was off to a hectic start. Chances came and went in that opening ten minutes or so, with Chelsea dominating. A rare Arsenal attack saw a half-chance from Granit Xhaka saved by Edouard Mendy. There was an effort from Romelu Lukaku at The Shed End that flew past a post.

Sadly, on an unlucky thirteen minutes, there was a case of déjà vu down below. A boot up field from Nuno Tavares – “he looked like more than a woman to me” – was looking to be gobbled up by Andreas Christensen, drifting right. In a scene sadly reminiscent of the defensive howler against Real Madrid, his intended back pass to Mendy fell short and Eddie Nketiah intercepted and tidily finished.

Fackinell.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the away fans.

Only four minutes later, Ruben Loftus-Cheek won a ball and played it out to Timo Werner. His little run at the Arsenal defence resulted in a shot that appeared to be quite scuffed from over one hundred yards away, but his shot bobbled in.

The goal surprised me so much that I hardly celebrated and that worried me. But I then saw that Timo’s reaction was equally muted and my worries subsided. Football is a funny old beast, right?

Anyway, we were back in it. The replay on the TV screen showed a slight scuff, but a deflection and a bobble as it passed Aaron Ramsdale.

We had a little spell with a few lively attacks, but seemed obsessed with hitting them down our left. On more than one occasion, Dave was full of space on the right but unused. Maybe we had been told not to use him too much as his engine isn’t what it was and we were trying not to get him caught out high up the pitch. With Reece James inside, it seemed the two of them were in the wrong positions.

But who knows, I am no expert.

A riser from Mason Mount was off the target.

“Come on Chels.”

On twenty-seven minutes, the ball was worked in by Arsenal from their right and our defenders seemed shy in making a challenge; were they waiting for a fucking written invitation to tackle? A cool finish from the accountant Emile Smith-Rowe nestled in a corner. I resisted to waste any photographs of the fuckers celebrating down below me.

This goal was against the run of play.

Yet just five minutes later, a lovely cross from Mount on the left was played into a danger zone and Dave – “fuck this standing around, I’m going in” – magnificently swept the ball in past the Gooner goalie.

His celebrations in front of the away fans made my heart sing.

Good old Dave.

This was a messy first-half, but breathless too. Arsenal grew stronger as the first period neared its conclusion, and Marcos Alonso – outwitted far too often in defence – was unable to keep a trademark volley down after excellent work by Werner and Mount.

It was quite a half.

Phew.

So much for my 4-0 prediction.

So far it was a Bishop Desmond, with more goals very likely.

We saw Thiago Silva arrive pitch-side and we presumed that Chistensen was off. We were correct. Reece and Dave switched positions.

The second-half began.

We enjoyed a sudden burst of energy and spirit at the start of the second period. But then, all of a sudden, instead of being invigorated by the pep-talk at the interval, we suddenly looked tired and leggy.

On fifty-seven minutes, another Chelsea calamity.

Arsenal broke and attacked. A Silva tackle was to no avail. Inside our packed box, we had the chance to clear, but a hapless series of miss-timed challenges and horrible deflections allowed Nketiah to poke it past Mendy.

Fackinell.

On came Kai Havertz for the quite hopeless Lukaku. His body language was terrible all night long. I remember one header that he bothered to win. On several occasions, he just couldn’t be arsed.

We were still looking leggy, with Ruben never once going on a trademark dribble. Even the once indomitable Kante looked to be running on ether.

Miraculously, we did conjure up a couple of half-chances, but that elusive equaliser never really looked like materialising as the evening grew a little colder.

I heard Cath do a spirited “Zigger Zagger” down below me but it drew a lukewarm response from those around her.

With ten to go, Hakim Ziyech replaced Alonso and I couldn’t even be bothered to see how he fitted into the team. He hardly got a touch anyway.

The home support was drifting out into the London night.

I looked over to PD.

“Arsenal have done a job on us here. They’ve been the better team.”

They had chased us down, had put us under pressure, had stopped us.

Of all people, the once lampooned Timo Werner was the only player that could honestly escape criticism.

In extra-time, a final twist of the knife. Dave and Bukayo Saka tussled and tumbled inside the box. From my vantage point, it looked a penalty. With that, thousands left.

“Thanks, then.”

Sako converted and the Arsenal lot celebrated like they had won the World Club Championship.

As fucking if.

The whistle blew.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 4.

The Chelsea conundrum was continuing still.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, and after three decent performances and three wins, the knives were out for our manager in many parts of cyberspace, and from undoubtedly within the UK this time too. Additionally, some players were being called the most horrific names.

This admittedly shambolic show was indeed all very difficult to comprehend.

And yet, and yet.

Just five league defeats all season. Third place almost guaranteed in my eyes. Two domestic Cup Finals. A manager that was being vaunted as one of the very best in the world after the game at the Bernabeu. An obviously tired squad. Out of a maximum of sixty-six games that we could possibly play this season, we will be playing sixty-three.

As I have said all season long…we have a team just starting out, a team that needs to develop, a team that needs to grow, a team that needs to find the right blend. Let’s get Gallagher and Broja back next season and see what that does.

I am hopeful that a few of the perpetrators of the bile that was aimed at some of our squad on Wednesday evening woke up on Thursday morning with the dull pain of regret.

Next up, Lymington away on Saturday and West Ham at home on Sunday.

I will see the lucky ones there.

Tales From A Spring Cruise

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2022.

Chelsea Football Club was hurting. Two consecutive home defeats, to the disparate talents of Brentford and Real Madrid and with conceding seven goals in the process, had surprised us and had made us smart. Were we that bad in both games?

Yes, sadly. We had created many chances during the second-half of Wednesday’s game, but our finishing had been poor.

The Chelsea conundrum was continuing. We were in third place in the league; admittedly no mean achievement.  And it was quite likely that we would finish the season in that placing. But for much of the campaign our performances had been unconvincing. We hadn’t pushed on from last season. But the talent was there. It just needed to be harnessed correctly.

However, after a bleak few days following The Great Unpredictables, I was thoroughly looking forward to a little spin down to Hampshire, to Southampton, to St. Mary’s. It was nice to have a game so close to my home; it was barely a ninety-minute drive. And our record down there has been pretty decent. In my twelve previous visits to this stadium, there was just one defeat.

There were five in my blue Chuckle Bus on Saturday morning. I collected PD, his son Scott, Parky and Glenn at 8am and we made excellent time.

With blue skies overhead, the road south from Warminster hugged the River Wyle to my west with the chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain to my east. The magnificence of Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, resplendent in the early morning sun, took my breath away as it always does. I hugged the eastern edge of the New Forest as I continued south. Entering into Southampton, I am always reminded of two moments.

The first came in 1981. On a sunny Saturday in April of that year I attended a game at The Dell, their old shoe-box stadium, between Southampton and Nottingham Forest, the then European Champions. One of my father’s customers had kindly gifted us two of their season tickets and I was very happy to be able to see one of my non-Chelsea heroes, Kevin Keegan, play at last. It was my second non-Chelsea professional game. The first also involved Nottingham Forest, the 1978 League Cup Final, again a gift from one of my father’s work associates. There haven’t been many over the years. This was Chelsea game number 1,344. In the UK, I have seen maybe thirty professional club games not involving Chelsea, of which around ten were in Scotland.

The second came in 2003. We were heading to “The Victory” pub outside the train station – alas no more – and on the last approach as the road rises into the city centre we were listening to the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup Final on the car radio. We heard “Jonny Wilkinson kicks for glory” and had the briefest of “whoops” before turning the radio off and getting back to supporting a sport that mattered.

It was the same approach into the city this year.

To my right, the horizon was pierced by the towers of the cranes that load and offload thousands of sea containers every day. Then, a gasp, a massive cruise ship – ugly, grotesque, hideous, an eye-sore – appeared. I am sure I have seen the same one berthed at Southampton before. Southampton as always is the embarkation point of many cruise ships. In my childhood, a very early memory, I am sure my parents drove down by the quayside to see the QE2 before it set off. I personally hate the idea of cruises. Fuck that. I like to self-govern my holidays, not leave my sightseeing plans to others.

I was parked up outside the train station at 9.30am. Sadly the usual café where we have enjoyed breakfasts and pints for a few years had closed. We ended up doing a little tour of three of the city centre’s pubs.

“Yates” : already mobbing up with Chelsea, a few familiar faces. We ordered some breakfasts. This is the main Chelsea pub in the town centre. It’s OK at the start but gets too busy. And uses plastic glasses. I met up with Mark from Westbury, Paul from Swindon and Bank from Bangkok.

“The Standing Order” : we spotted a little pocket of Chelsea so joined them for a drink. This is a home pub, but as nobody tends to wear colours at away games, we glided in easily.

“Stein Garten” : we met up with Alan and Gary in this German-style bar. We were joined by Kathryn and Tim, still smarting from the two losses on their trip. Before they headed back to Virginia, they – we – were all hoping for a win to put the run of poor form to a close.

Time was moving on and we still had a twenty-minute walk, at least, to reach the stadium. Our route would take us serendipitously through the churchyard of St. Mary’s. The first incarnation of Southampton Football Club was as St. Mary’s Young Men Association. The church certainly has its history. This is the church that inspired the Southampton’s nickname and also their current stadium name. When the new stadium opened in 2001 – we were the first league visitors – it was known as the Friends Provident Stadium, and I am glad that has now changed.

I silently said a little prayer for our chances later as I walked past the church’s grey stone walls.

I was in the right place for a prayer.

Beyond the church’s steeple, I spotted a tower block that was clad in red and white.

Perfect.

I marched Kathryn and Tim towards the main entrance, past the Ted Bates statue, and we joined the throng of away supporters at the turnstiles.

“Bollocks, it’s ten to three. I can’t see us getting in on time.”

Lo and behold, the Footballing Gods were on my side. I got in with ten seconds to go.

Have I ever mentioned, perchance, that my line of work just happens to be in the world of logistics? I think it may have passed my lips once or twice.

For a change, we were out of the sun in the front rows and half-way back by the corner flag. Sadly, this stadium is quite possibly the dullest of all of the new builds that have infested the United Kingdom in the past two or three decades. The only remotely interesting features are the red and white panels under the roof at the rear of the stand and the red astroturf around the perimeter of the pitch. At least there are no executive boxes. Despite the bland feel of this stadium, over the years I have managed to tease a few decent photos out of my camera at St. Mary’s. The shadows on a sunny day, like this one, have helped add something to my photographs of the players as they confront each other on the pitch. I hoped for more of the same on this occasion.

I quickly scanned the players on the pitch – I much prefer us in all yellow than with black shorts – and tried to piece it all together.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

No Broja for the home team, but Livramento was at right-back for them.

Mase with a new haircut, shades of Johnny Spencer in Vienna. Ruben as a wing-back again, but we had heard that Dave had tested positive for COVID. Pleased to see Kovacic playing. A chance for Werner. So many had painfully admitted that they had given upon him, myself included.

The game began.

We attacked the other end in the first-half.

Very soon into the game, with me still getting my bearings – “where the fuck is Parky?” – and trying to work out the team’s shape, that man Timo Werner saw a low shot ricochet back off the far post. Soon after, Kai Havertz slammed one over the bar. We were dominating this one, despite a couple of rare Southampton attacks, and we could hardly believe it when a Loftus-Cheek cross from the right found Werner’s head, but he had the misfortune to hit the bar this time.

“He has generally been poor for us, but he has also been so unlucky.”

On eight minutes, Loftus-Cheek played the ball in to Mount with his back to the goal. He controlled the ball so well and deftly spooned the ball out to his right, our left, where Marcos Alonso was raiding.

Bosh.

Goal.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We tended to prefer our left flank as an attacking avenue – “listen to me, attacking avenue, for fuck sake man” – but on sixteen minutes the ball was played into Mount from the right and after setting himself up nicely, he swept a perfectly-struck shot into the goal, just inside the far post.

2-0 and coasting on the South Coast.

Werner went close again, but then on twenty minutes a rapid break from us, with Werner the spearhead, had us all willing him on. He rounded the ‘keeper, shades of a Torres at his peak – er for Liverpool – and the lively calmly slotted the ball in from what looked like a pretty slim angle.

Superb.

Well done that man. Well deserved.

On the half-hour mark, after another searching ball down our left, Werner wriggled into the box and let fly with a shot that rattled the other post – “oh no” – but luckily the ball rebounded nicely to Havertz who, to his credit, was supporting the attack well.

On the half-hour, we were 4-0 up.

But what bad luck for Timo, who had hit a “hat-trick” of sorts thus far; left post, cross-bar, right post.

Alan summed it all up rather succinctly :

“Timo has hit the woodwork more times than Pinocchio does when he has a wank.”

With the goals flying in, I surely wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who was suddenly becoming fixated with the number nine. In 2019, Saints lost 0-9 at home to Leicester City. In 2021, Southampton lost 0-9 at Old Trafford.

Next to me, Dave remembered the time, in early 2015, when we went 4-0 up at Swansea City within the first forty-five minutes.

What was my biggest away win? I recollected a 6-0 at Wigan in 2010, the week after we beat West Brom 6-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Goals, goals, goals.

We were on fire.

We attacked and attacked. We spotted more than a few home fans disappearing down exit tunnels well before the half-time whistle.

“You’ve had your day out, now fuck off home.”

Meanwhile, where was Parky?

At the half-time break, the always crowded concourse at Southampton was a pretty joyful place. I was so pleased that Kathryn and Tim, not to mention Bank from Thailand, were finally witnessing a win.

We saw Christian Pulisic warming up.

Alan : ”Who’s coming off?”

Chris : “Havertz, I reckon, give him a rest.”

For once I was right.

The second-half began and it was the same old story.

Just four minutes into the second forty-five minutes, Alonso played the ball in to N’Golo Kante. He advanced and attempted a little dink over Forster. This was palmed away but only into the path of Werner who shot just as I shot but at the same time that a chap in front threw his hand up. A ‘photo ruined but I did not care one jot.

Five.

Wow.

There was a rare save from Mendy – a belter actually, a fine save – but this was the home team’s only real chance all game.

To be fair, most home fans remained and urged their beleaguered team on.

“Oh when the Saints go marching in.”

Our reply was obvious.

“Oh when the Saints go marching out.”

On fifty-four minutes, a ball stretched them out down their right and Alonso pushed the ball square to Pulisic. His effort was stopped by Forster but Mount was on hand to tuck it in.

The joy of six.

Lovely.

The game, even more so now, was over. Southampton were dead and buried. At last Parky showed up. He had been doing a tour of the away end.

Reece James replaced Thiago Silva.

Hakim Ziyech replaced Mount.

I liked it that Livramento was applauded by us when he was substituted.

The home team looked shell-shocked, well beaten. To be fair, more stayed to watch the last half-an-hour than Dave and I expected. Fair play to them. There was time for a few songs.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.

He left Madrid and he left Milan.

He signed for Frank and said “fuck off” Zidane.

He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

I urged the team on. We all wanted more. We wanted tons of optimism ahead of the trip to Madrid. Although no more goals came, the away end was a fine place to be on this particular Spring afternoon. The best effort was from Alonso but it flew low past the far post.

Southampton 0 Chelsea 6.

Superb.

In the city of ships, this was a real cruise.

On the slow walk back to my car, I took the chance to get my camera out and take a few photographs of some features and buildings that took my eye. We stopped off for a curry just before the Civic Centre with its imposing clock tower. As I sat down, I realised that I had previously been on my feet for around eight hours. The curry hit the spot, and the trip home – the roads clear of traffic now – was quick and easy.

It had been a superb day out.

Good old Chelsea.

Tales From The Chelsea Conundrum

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 6 April 2022.

So, here we were then. The first visit by Real Madrid to Stamford Bridge in a UEFA competition where spectators were allowed in. Our paths have crossed, very infrequently, in the past and in a variety of locations. Officially there have been five contests under the UEFA umbrella. In 1971, we battled in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final over two games in Athens. In 1998, we met in the Super Cup in Monaco. And then, infuriatingly, we met last season in the semi-finals of the Champions League at a time when no spectators were allowed.

So far so good. Five games and not a single defeat.

There have been other games too. There was a charity game at Stamford Bridge in 1966 and there have been two relatively recent friendlies in the US; one in Miami in 2013 and another in Ann Arbor in 2016.

But this one was the one we had all been waiting for.

Real Madrid.

At home.

…shudder, just writing those words.

This was the real deal.

But this would be it for me. Unfortunately, I am unable to get time off from our beleaguered office for the equally eagerly anticipated away game. And, should we progress, I am still thwarted in my attempt to see a potential away game in a semi-final against Atletico Madrid due to others being away and others being off sick.

I was pretty ambivalent about it all though. With the Bernabeu getting a refit, it will be around for a long time yet. And let’s hope Chelsea get another stab at the Spanish giants. And I have already visited the stadium on two occasions already. In 1987, two college mates and I paid a ridiculously small fee to have a wander around the stadium. There was no tour, no guide. We were simply let loose on the mainly-terraced stadium. We even made it to the top of that famously high terraced section, even though I am sure we were not meant to. There was simply nobody around to chase us off. In 2009, myself and a few Chelsea mates went on a far more civilised tour of a modernised Bernabeu on a trip that saw us visit Atletico. This time, everything was a lot more swish. The difference between the stadium on the two visits could not have been greater.

This was a typical Champions League pre-match. There was a pint of Peroni in “The Goose” – revamped, refurbished, re-painted and pretty decent – and then the standard two bottles of Staropramen for a fiver in a packed “Simmons”. This bar had also benefited from a slight refit since my last visit in the group phase stage before Christmas. The lights had dimmed, music was playing. In the far corner, the chaps were fully assembled; Nick, Al, Gal, Ed, Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon and Milo. And me.

Thousands upon thousands of Chelsea games between us all.

Real Chelsea.

Gary made the point that, with music blaring and the beers going down well – laughter booming – it actually felt like a European Away. The eleven of us plotted up in a small bar, enjoying each other’s company, not a care, not a care.

“All Night Long” by Lionel Richie was playing.

With a wink and a snigger, Gal said “ah, they’re playing my song.”

I replied “the only bloody thing you do all night long these days, Gal, is the evening buffet.”

It was time to set off to Stamford Bridge. Sadly, I got drenched on the fifteen-minute walk to the Matthew Harding turnstiles. The rain in Spain was falling mainly in London SW6.

Fackinell.

But I was in with plenty of time before the match was to begin at eight o’clock. Over in the opposite corner, the away fans were massing up. It looked like Los Merengues would be cheered on by around two thousand supporters. I spotted a line of about thirty in the front rows dressed in white tops.

How cute.

Back in the ‘eighties, the Ultras Sur were their hooligan element. Banned in 2014, I glanced over and wondered if any former members had made it over. The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely. This had all the feelings of a top European night. Flickering squares of blue and silver were spotted in our section of The Shed and it was obvious that a pre-match mosaic had been planned.

With the teams appearing from the tunnel, it was time for me to juggle phone camera and SLR at the same time. I spotted Real wearing blue socks. Deep down I was hoping for them to appear in all white but knew this would never happen. At least they showed up in white shirts and socks.

Our team? Back to the more trusted 3-4-3.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Azpiicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Still no Lukaku, no complaints from me.

Right from the off, and from some moments before, the atmosphere was simply excellent. This was more like it. This is what I signed-up for. I never wanted spectators to become experts and critics at games. I simply wanted supporters to stay as, er, supporters. So far my fellow fans were not letting me down.

This was the business.

Compared to Saturday, this was a different ball game.

The contest began, a vibrant start, Real on the front foot, but the first chance came to us, a Mason Mount cross pumped low into the box. I clocked a few of their famous players; Kroos and Modric, Casemiro, Vinicius, Benzema. Oh, the ogre Courtois. The unloved Courtois. We would have a few songs lined up for him later.

In the opening flurry, one song dominated.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

There was a shot from Kai Havertz that flew over at our end. Yes, much to my annoyance, we were attacking the Matthew Harding in the first-half.

The rain lashed down.

A slip from Christensen let in the raiding, and instantly impressive, Vinicius who slammed a shot against the top of the crossbar at The Shed End. A free-kick from Reece James was kept out by Courtois.

The MHL entered stage left :

“Courtois – you’re a cnut, Courtois, Courtois – you’re a cnut.”

On twenty minutes, I needed to go to the loo. I made my way out of the seats. While in the gents, I heard a roar, a load roar. My immediate reaction was :

“Too quiet for a Chelsea goal.”

“Too loud for a Real goal.”

What was it? A penalty shout for us?

I was soon to find out.

Real had scored via Benzema.

Bollocks.

Just a couple of minutes later, at the exact moment that Modric played a cross into the box, I said to Al “we need to shape up.” With that, we watched as Benzema rose, without any real hindrance, and headed the ball back across the goal, well past Mendy. Talk about a perfect header.

Shocking defending.

“Free header, Al. How is that possible?”

Real then dominated and hit a purple period. We struggled to get close to them. They cut through us. Carvajal forced a save from Mendy and Christensen was available to hack the ball away. We then seemed to improve – I know not how – and on thirty-seven minutes, Thiago Silva headed over from a corner.

Alan and I were discussing our plans for Southampton as Jorginho sent in a lovely cross that dropped in to the six-yard box at the exact location for Havertz to plant a strong header past Courtois.

Out of the blue, bosh. We were back in it.

I picked up my camera to capture the post-goal celebrations, screaming into my camera all of the time.

Thinking to myself : “well, I’ve never done that before.”

The Bridge was absolutely rocking again. Yet just before the break, Benzema was put through by Vinicius inside the box and we absolutely expected to go further behind.

Inexcusably, the low shot was scuffed wide.

The first-half ended with renewed hope among the fans close to me. There were moments when, in that middle period of that first-half, when I had visions of a repeat of that 0-3 reverse at home to Bayern in 2020.

There were cheers when we saw Mateo Kovacic taking off his top on the touchline. He replaced Christensen as the shape changed to 4-3-3. Hakim Ziyech replaced Kante. Mount was withdrawn into the midfield three. I was inwardly annoyed that Jorginho stayed on. He just seemed to slow stuff down.

Alas, alas, alas.

The absolute horror show that occurred in front of our eyes in the very first minute shocked us all into stunned silence.

A weak pass from Mendy – so far out – to Rudiger was intercepted, Benzema pounced.

Fucksake.

The game died a little, unsurprisingly. We kept plugging away, and actually enjoyed most of the ball in that second-half. Madrid had no reason to go on the offensive. They had already done a job on us. Their job was to contain us. But they never stopped nibbling at us in possession.

Dave let fly with a firmly hit riser that forced a fine save from Courtois.

The singing continued.

“We all follow the Chelsea.”

On the hour I was pleased to hear a massive “Carefree” envelope the whole stadium. We were all pleading for one goal.

Tuchel made further changes.

Romelu Lukaku for the awful Pulisic.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

On sixty-eight minutes, there were two headers from Lukaku in quick succession. The first one almost went off for a corner but was from a difficult chance. The second one brought huge groans; a leap with no defenders close from a central position just outside the six-yard box and the ball whizzed past the right hand post.

Swearing erupted all around Stamford Bridge.

Just after, Mount let fly and his shot sadly whizzed over. We enjoyed a decent spell. Havertz danced into the box and pushed a shot at Courtois. The chances – half-chances – were mounting up.

On the scoreboard, 18 to 8 attempts in our favour.

There was just time for – almost – another Mendy cock-up, but we kept going.

I spoke to Alan : “well, we haven’t played it into Lukaku’s feet once.”

A drive from Mount forced Courtois to make a fine shot down low. The last attempt of the game was another riser, this time from Ziyech, but this one went both high and wide.

Obviously the Mendy mistake killed us. We were showing signs of getting back into the game. The second-half could have been so different. But Real were a fine team. Of our players, only Havertz and James could really hold their heads up.

The Chelsea conundrum continues.

Tales From All The World In One Place

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 2 April 2022.

This was a game that, if I am honest, I wasn’t particularly excited about. Work had been busy since our previous game up at Middlesbrough – a cracking day out, a classic away trip – and with everything else in the world dragging us down, this match at home to Brentford just wasn’t doing it for me. Nonetheless, as always, the pre-match was excellent. I spent it with friends from California, Oregon, Virginia and Vietnam – the returning Steve, last seen in Perth, Australia – and also from Edinburgh, Kent and, nearer home, Salisbury and Bristol.

At “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, it seemed all of the world was in one place.

Even though I was in the ground early enough, I didn’t make a note of the team line-ups when they were announced by the PA and shown on the screen. So when the game began my mind went into “scurrying around mode” trying to put a plan of attack – and defence – together with the players that I saw lining up on the pitch below me.

I tried to piece it all together.

“Mendy in goal. Now then, was that a back four with Alonso and Dave the full backs with Silva and Rudiger in the middle? Surely Ziyech out wide isn’t a wing-back in a 3-4-3? Nah, that’s a four. Right, the midfield. That’s easy; Kante, Loftus-Cheek and Mason. But Ruben seems to be starting quite deep, almost as an anchor. His tour of the ten outfield starting positions continues, eh? Upfront, a recalled Werner on the left with Havertz in the central role and that man Ziyech out wide on the right. Is that it? Is that ten outfield players? Check.

My first assignment of the game was concluded with only a minute or so gone. It was a good job that I hadn’t been drinking.

No room for Rom. Again. We have all made up our own conclusions about our miss-firing and miss-fitting (is that a word?) Belgian and these have tended to converge. Indeed, all of the evidence honestly suggests that Thomas Tuchel agrees with us.

Bugger. It wasn’t meant to be like this was it?

Brentford were in all yellow. Why? Who knows.

The game got going and after an early Chelsea attack down our left, Brentford quickly got into their groove. In the first two minutes, Christian Eriksen fancied his chances with a free-kick from distance but Mendy was untroubled. The Danish international’s return to the game is both magnificent and yet shocking at the same time. I remember watching in stunned silence as his fate appeared to be in the balance during the Denmark vs. Finland game last summer, one of the few games that I bothered with in the whole of the 2020 European Championships. Yet here he was playing professional football once again.

I turned to Alan.

“Fuck that. If I had almost died on a football pitch, it would be pipe and slippers for me.”

When the former Tottenham midfielder appeared below us to take a corner, I joined in with the hundreds of Chelsea fans around me who showered some warm applause upon him. But we only did it the once. We knew our limits.

There were mainly blue skies overhead. It was a decent day in SW6. It wasn’t warm, but the sunshine gave the afternoon a Spring-like feel.

On the pitch, the visitors were warming up quicker than us.

We love Edouard Mendy but oh! His distribution at times is catastrophic. Ivan Toney – when he first appeared on the scene, and without seeing him play, I wondered if he was a relative of Luca Toni – intercepted an errant pass from Mendy but his lob was high. The same Brentford player then made space for himself inside our box but Mendy fell to his right to push the ball nervously past his near post. Toney’s third effort in quick succession was a header but thankfully it did not trouble us.

So, in the first ten minutes it was Brentford who were setting the pace. On another day, we could easily have been 1-0 down or worse. We, meanwhile, were struggling to get out of first gear.

In the first quarter of an hour, our sole attack of note resulted in Werner collecting the ball thirty yards out and dribbling the ball forward, but forgetting to stop dribbling past the goal line.

Fackinell.

A much more refined feint and dribble from Ziyech on the right was easier on the eye, but that was again full of false promise.

Chelsea’s attacks were rogue at this point; not wholly convincing, not well planned.

In fact, it took a whole twenty minutes – count’em – for our first real strike on goal. Mount took the ball, advanced and struck a curler that flew narrowly past David Raya’s right-hand post.

All was quiet.

It took until the twenty-eighth minute – again, count’em – for me to hear a credible chant from the home support; the Matthew Harding Lower rumbled a half-hearted “Come on Chelsea” and I, and a few others in the Upper, joined in. But the game was being played out in front of a thoroughly tepid atmosphere. Not even the away fans could be bothered.

Another fackinell.

Suffice to say, there were no “Roman Abramovich” chants, but there were hardly any other chants either.

I heard a pigeon coo in Brompton Cemetery.

On the half-hour mark, there was a nice dribble, centrally, from Ruben but his shot was hit straight at their keeper’s midriff. Next up was a beautiful lofted pass from Kante into Mount but his volley was aimed at the ‘keeper again. We were slowly getting the upper hand but it was hardly stirring stuff.

“Wednesday on their minds?” offered Alan.

Our best effort of the first-half came from the boot of Ziyech but his fearsome shot was tipped over by the Brentford ‘keeper.

Down in front of us, I purred at the way Thiago Silva calmly brought a ball down and delicately tapped a ball over the limbs of an onrushing Brentford player to Dave in a few yards of space. The man makes everything look so easy. Utter class.

The first-half apologetically ended.

Brentford had enjoyed the best of the first quarter of the game while we slowly engineered some sort of reaction in the second quarter.

But, really, this was lukewarm stuff.

As the second-half began, nobody within Stamford Bridge could possibly have predicted the events of the ensuing forty-five minutes.

Chelsea were now attacking us in the Matthew Harding and after three minutes of play, the ball was pushed square towards Antonio Rudiger. He must have been thirty-five yards out. With one touch to set himself up, he swiped at the ball and we watched as the missile flew goal wards. It looked on target. So often his efforts are wild. But on this occasion the ball hit the left-hand post before glancing in.

Delirium.

And not just from the fans, but from the goal scorer too. After my initial scream of joy, I quickly harnessed the camera that was hanging around my neck at the time – I don’t always have it “up and ready” – and snapped away at the scorer’s uninhibited and ecstatic run of celebration. From my vantage point – behind him – it looked like he was losing it, and possibly gesticulating and gurning in a way that he might later regret. He ran, maniacally, towards the Chelsea bench and flung himself into the arms of the manager.

“Get a room, lads.”

It was some strike. Because of where it was on the pitch, it immediately reminded me of a Frank Leboeuf screamer against Leicester City in 1997. That late goal gave us a1-0 win. This goal, almost twenty-five years later, sadly signalled the start of a crazy period in the game.

After our goal, I left my seat and sauntered off to turn my bike around. Just as I was about to disappear into the North Stand concourse, I heard a roar and looked around to see a Brentford player reeling away in front of The Shed with the Brentford fans celebrating wildly behind him.

Bollocks.

I got back to my seat and Alan filled me in with the details; a sweet strike from Vitaly Janelt. This had come after barely a minute of play since our goal.

We immediately attacked but a Werner effort was blocked easily. Sadly, Brentford broke with pace as they attacked The Shed again, and three Chelsea defenders sprinted towards the ball-carrier Bryan Mbeumo. This left two yellow perils unmarked inside the box – spotted by myself with an impending sense of doom – and it was no surprise when one of them, Eriksen, slotted the ball in.

Oh crap. What terrible defending.

Our fine recent form was now facing a rude awakening.

Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso and the defence was shuffled.

But only a few minutes later, a quick and concise move down the inside-left channel by Brentford caused us more pain. They cut through us so easily – “after you Claude” – and Janelt nabbed his second of the game with a strike high past Mendy. Brentford had scored three times in just over ten minutes.

Ugh.

The away fans could finally be heard.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

Two more substitutions followed.

Romelu Lukaku for Werner.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Werner had been so poor. I am pretty fair with most players and heaven knows I have wanted the German to finally hit some form but – oh my – the bloke seems to be getting worse. I’m getting pretty fed up with people saying, and quoting Porto as an example, that his moves off the ball allow space for others. If I was a footballer, an attacking player, I would be pretty ashamed to have to write that in bold at the top of my curriculum vitae.

All of a sudden, Kai Havertz became the centre of attention. Firstly, he tucked the ball in from a cross, but the goal was disallowed for handball, although it also looked offside to us. Then, he closed down on a clearance from Raya and the ball spun just wide. Then, and again in quick succession, an effort from the same player drifted just wide of the far post after good work from Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic.

A goal or two then might have turned it our way a little.

After scoring one goal, Rudiger tried his best to get his shooting boots into action again with a succession of increasingly extravagant efforts on goal. None came close unfortunately.

As the game continued, many of the home support set off for home, or maybe some nearby bars. I have rarely seen Stamford Bridge so empty in the last ten minutes. In the dying embers of the game, there was more Keystone Cops defending in The Shed penalty area as we failed to clear the ball and Youane Wissa smacked home a loose ball.

Chelsea 1 Brentford 4.

Good God, bloody hell.

At least there were no boos at the final whistle.

Those more likely to boo had already fucked-off home by then.

As I walked down to the Peter Osgood statue to pick up some tickets for next Saturday’s game at Southampton, I was just bewildered and not mad. I had mentioned to Walts at half-time that we hadn’t really pushed on since last season, and this game was evidence enough. But we’re decent enough to finish third this season and, cup glories aside, that has to be our goal. We’re a team slowly growing, nothing more. Give us time.

I soon bumped into four of my overseas guests, and Kathryn – from Vienna, Virginia – was almost in tears as she told how there just wasn’t any noise at all in her part of The Shed Lower.

“We tried to get everyone singing but nobody knew the words.”

Sigh.

Welcome to Chelsea 2022.

Walking towards the car, I passed the wine bar on Vanston Place, and at last, as I peered in, I spotted Dutch Mick on his first trip to Chelsea in over two years. I had seen him to talk to Abu Dhabi but I told him then that I missed seeing him and his mates in that bar every time I walked by. I pointed to him and he came out for a hug. It was a nice end to a far from nice afternoon at the home of the World Champions.

Next up, Real Madrid at home and they surely don’t come any bigger.

I’ll be up for that alright.

See you there.

Tales From The 677

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 19 March 2022.

Our FA Cup quarter final tie at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium would necessitate our first visit to Teesside in over five years. PD and I had enjoyed the last one; we stayed the Saturday night and got to witness the joys of a night out in Middlesbrough before our narrow 1-0 win on the Sunday evening in late 2016. PD liked it so much that he has been using the photo of him in the first row of the away section as his cover photo on Facebook ever since.

This time, Parky was joining us. Although I swore blind that I’d never drive up and back to Middlesbrough ever again, after doing this for a match in 2008, due to a variety of reasons that are just too dull to explain here, I was damn well doing it again.

In the build up to this game, it still felt that we were at the centre of a massive storm. However, we did not help ourselves. The club’s pathetic request for the game to be played behind closed doors drew warranted disdain from all quarters. At a time when we should have been quietly going about our business, on and off the park, this just gave others the chance to label us negatively. It was a massive PR own-goal. Sometimes the actions of those at our club defy description.

After a tough few days at work – our office was hit with COVID and sickness – at last the weekend arrived. Parky and I are away season ticket holders but PD’s presence was in doubt. Thankfully, a spare became available from a usual source and the three of us were headed to Middlesbrough. We would be part of, surely, our smallest domestic away following in decades. There were games at Luton Town in the mid-‘eighties when away fans were effectively banned, but a few Chelsea – OK more than a few – still attended via a variety of means. I am unsure how many got in.

I also remember a game at Anfield in the autumn of 1994 when The Kop was closed and I believe our official away allowance was ridiculously small. I watched that game with a Liverpool mate in the main stand that night. From memory we only had about four hundred.

Around seven hundred were due to get in at Middlesbrough. Not for the first time did I feel blessed to be able to attend.

I am a lucky man.

Middlesbrough, eh?

Smoggy Land. The Smog Monsters. The Smoggies. Ironopolis. The huge ICI plant. The ‘Boro. Pak Doo-ik of North Korea scoring against the Italians in 1966. George Camsell and Wilf Mannion. Don Revie and Brian Clough growing up mere streets away from each other. The Ironsides. The 1973/74 promotion team of Jack Charlton. The white bar on the chest of their jerseys. The players Frank Spraggon, Alan Foggon and John Craggs. An industrial wasteland in the ‘eighties. John Neal and Tony McAndrew. The locking of the Ayresome Park gates in 1986. The team of Gary Pallister, Bernie Slaven, Stuart Ripley and Tony Mowbray. The play-offs in 1988. Juninho and Ravanelli. The Wembley games. The Zenith Data, the FA Cup, the League Cup. The Riverside. Roy Chubby Brown. Their League Cup win and the Europa Cup journey under Steve McClaren. The Transporter Bridge. Bob Mortimer. Chris fucking Rea. Club Bongo. The chicken parmo.

I called for PD at eight o’clock and LP just after. A journey of exactly three-hundred miles was ahead. My fellow travellers came armed with a few tins of cider for the trip north. I thoroughly enjoyed this drive. The weather was magnificent; clear blue skies to start, hardly a cloud appeared all day, dry roads, a great feeling of freedom. We stopped for some breakfast bagels at Strensham on the M5 at 9.30am and I was soon hurtling around Birmingham on the M42. The half-way point was reached as I neared the M1 just south of Nottingham. I stopped to refuel at Woodall Services, then headed straight up the A1. The road into Middlesbrough, with the North York Moors visible past Thirsk, and then the approach into Smoggy Land.

We chatted away. But there were the inevitable periods of silence when I was left alone with my thoughts.

The very first time that I saw us play Middlesbrough was that infamous play-off game at Stamford Bridge in 1988. I have detailed that game at legth previously.

My first sighting, though, was a little nearer home.

In 1986, Bristol Rovers were turfed out of their Eastville stadium, never to return, and began playing at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City. Before I returned to college in Stoke in that September, my school friend Steve coerced me to attend a Rovers game against Middlesbrough in the then Third Division. It was a midweek match and I believe less than 4,000 attended. ‘Boro themselves were going through a very rough time, the worst in their history, and were limping along financially from one game to another. I watched from a side terrace as ‘Boro won a decent game 2-1. The one thing that I remember from that night was that Graeme Souness – himself ex-Middlesbrough – and the new Rangers manager had been spotted in the seats above. That he had travelled down from Glasgow – probably by car in those days – on a scouting mission blew my mind. He was no doubt keeping an eye on Gary Pallister.

I hated Middlesbrough in 1988. They spoiled my life, or at least that summer. While many football fans were getting all loved up on ecstasy, I was depressed, so depressed, and fearing life in Division Two. Again.

I have only ever met three Middlesbrough fans outside of match days in my entire life.

My college mate Chris is from nearby Thornaby and I shared digs with him from 1984 to 1987. A distant branch of his family – “Dickens” – sponsored the ‘Boro shirt in those tough times of 1986. Keith was a work mate in Trowbridge at the time of the 1997 and 1998 Wembley games who got undue stick from me. Then, weirdly, there was a lad called Andy from Saltburn, who I first bumped into at a youth hostel in Washington DC in 1989, only for him to come strolling into a bar in Orlando a month later. This football world is a very small world indeed.

I was parked up at around 1.15pm. Not only was my spot equidistant between pub and ground, but also free. After a couple of text messages, we met up with two Chelsea mates in “The Resolution” – which we visited in 2016 – and formed a little Chelsea enclave in a solidly home crowd. It felt like the whole town was buzzing. ‘Boro were enjoying a decent season and were undoubtedly “up for the Cup” on this sunny day. Many ‘Boro lads were in their finery; the boozer was awash with Adidas trainers, Armani jeans, Paul & Shark tops, CP sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Stone Island patch was everywhere. But despite all this, the locals were welcoming.

We chatted to Matty – a dead friendly local from Darlington, er Darlo – and a few of his mates. Pride of place went to Robbie, yet to miss a ‘Boro game in forty-two years. That meant that he was at Twerton Park in 1986. Respect.

With an hour and a half to go, we set off for the stadium. It was only a twenty-minute walk. While the others headed inside for a bevvy, I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time. Statues of Camsell and Mannion proudly stand next to those very same gates from Ayresome Park that were locked by bailiffs in 1986 with the club’s future on a precipice.

I especially wanted a photo of the blue steel of the famous Transporter Bridge over the Tees. I was able to frame this impressive structure within the circles of a couple of public art installations that resembled dream catchers.

The ‘Boro faithful were dreaming of Wembley again as they rushed past me.

The waters of the river lapped the banks as the stadium was bathed in sun ahead of me. I slowly made my way to the away turnstiles. I passed a photo of old Ayresome Park on a section of the perimeter wall with a row of seats from the old stadium in front. Sadly, I never made it to Ayresome Park, nor Roker, and friends tell me it was a fearsome place in other decades; the play-off game in 1988 especially. With hindsight, the two stadia of Sunderland and Middlesbrough – despite being the two lesser clubs of the north-east behind Newcastle United – were far more impressive than St. James’ Park.

I made my way in and soon chatted to some of the 677.

DJ outside.

Al, Gal, Andy, Tim in the concourse.

Others inside the seats.

Waves and thumbs up to a few.

This was my fifth visit to the Riverside. It’s OK, but oh so bland. Five visits and three different sections for us away fans, being pushed east each time. Our small section was above a corner flag.

The other four games were easy wins. I hoped for one more.

Oh yeah, the game. Other matters had dominated my thoughts until then. The sun shone brightly before eventually falling behind the west stand roof. It was a warm evening on Teeside.

The PA was ridiculously excitable.

“The Chelsea team are now in the tunnel.”

Shocker.

“The ‘Boro team are now in the tunnel.”

Bloody hell. You need to get out more, mate.

As the teams entered, red and white shiny mosaics to my left. Lots of noise.

“Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.”

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Silva – Sarr

Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Mount

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

There was applause for Ukraine. There was no silliness from the 677. Phew. Matty had told us all about the ‘Boro right back Isaiah Jones, who was evidently one to watch. Funnily enough, I remembered him from a Queen of the South vs. Hearts game I watched on BBC Scotland last season. Don’t ask.

So, Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea and 30,000 vs.677.

I was pleased to see ‘Boro still employing the white band on their jersey. It’s their thing.

The game began. It was warm enough for me to take off my coat and top; just a T-shirt would suffice until the second-half. I was stood next to PD and Parky. From getting out of my car at 1.15pm, I would be standing until well after the game, gone 7pm.

We began brightly. We used space well as we attacked and the mood inside the away section was positive. There were songs from the start though none immediately, for Roman Abramovich. Matty had told us that their weak link was their goalkeeper Joe Lumley and he was getting tested early on. The home team responded with a few corners.

On the quarter of an hour, the ball broke to Hakim Ziyech down our right. I saw Mason Mount itching to be found.

“There’s the pass. Mason wants” I yelled and I am positive that my voice was heard.

Ziyech pushed the ball into space perfectly. Mount advanced and spotted the fine run of Romelu Lukaku. The cross was perfect, low and fast, right on the money. Lukaku swept it in.

Get in.

We were one-up early on and the 677 roared. I leant forward and shared some positive stuff with Eck.

“Perfect move that. A ball into space. A great run from Lukaku. We don’t do that enough.”

Of course Middlesbrough were guilty of leaving their defence exposed but it was so good to see us executing a classic counter-attacking move. Beautiful.

The home team did not lie down. They almost constantly attacked us down the right via that man Thomas. A few more corners, with Lukaku going all Drogba and heading away on one occasion.

There was a good election of songs emanating from the 677. We were holding our own.

On the half-an-hour mark, we watched as Mateo Kovavic broke purposefully in that urgent way of his. He spotted Mount, breaking square, and the ball was then pushed out to Ziyech. The winger came inside.

A shout from Eck.

“Hit it Hakim.”

He did. And how. The shot dipped and swerved and away from Clumsy Lumley and into the net.

GET IN.

Were we safe? It absolutely felt like it. Time for more celebrations and the continuation of more songs.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank, said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

Lukaku almost made it three from close-in, but was denied after a ‘Boro defender cleared his goal bound shot off the line.

“How did that not go in?”

It had been a class first-half. Thiago Silva was calmness personified. Rudiger attacked every ball, and sometimes every defender, as if his life depended on it. Eck and I agreed that Mason hasn’t really pushed on this season in quite the way we had expected but was enjoying a fine game. The home fans were occasionally quiet and when these moments happened, we seized our chance to be heard.

It was a pleasure to see Shari and Skippy from Queensland in Australia around the half-time break.

“Bonzer.”

As the second-half began, my Lacoste top was zipped up. The night was getting a little cooler now. The second period promised much but delivered little. I fancied more goals from us, but we rarely hit the free-flowing stuff of the first forty-five minutes.

To be fair to the home fans, they dug in and absolutely sang their hearts out as the second-half got going. I think we were all impressed.

For a while, they sang a song and we did our version. They were our cheerleaders. Minus the pom poms.

But there were also reminders of 1997.

“When Wise Went Up.”

“One Di Matteo.”

And then a new one.

“We’re on our way, we’re on our way.
To Paris, we’re on our way.
Seven seater, car or train.
Tommy’s gonna fly the plane.
All I know is Chelsea’s on our way.”

And then as an answer to “Pigbag.”

“Fucking Useless.”

I remember little of the second-half apart from the banter between away fans and home fans, with the occupants of the BBC studio to our left getting a few hefty helpings too. I could hardly believe it when 677Steve in South Philly texted me to say that he couldn’t hear us on the TV broadcast.

Luke was leading a new chant :

“Chelsea’s got no money, we’re gonna win the Cup.”

Four substitutions from Tuchel.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Kenedy for Ziyech.

Harvey Vale for Lukaku.

Only in the last ten minutes were there audible chants for and against Roman.

Chelsea : “Roman Abramovich.”

Middlesbrough : “Fuck off Abramovich.”

Timo had a couple of late chances and as the game petered out, Mendy made his first real save of the night. The home team had been poor, but we had shown commendable spirit throughout.

The pounding that the club has received from outside of late has undoubtedly engineered a magnificent team spirit with Tuchel now a much loved, much admired and respected leader.

After a period of me struggling to warm to him, I am now resolutely a paid up member of Team Tuchel.

We are privileged to have him.

We slowly walked back to the car as the night grew colder still. The car park was grid-locked so we spent a while in a local “Pizza Hut” where we bumped into Roy – Brighton, Palace – and Margaret yet again. After almost six hours on my feet, I could relax. When I eventually set off at 9pm, the traffic was clear. While PD and Parky slept, I drove south. I was diverted on the M1 into the outer reaches of Leeds.

Ah, 1970.

I refueled my car at Tamworth Services. A couple of Red Bulls got me home.

I reached my house at around 2am.

It had been another good day.