Tales From A Lilywhite Christmas Present

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2019.

On the drive to London, PD and I were not confident at all about our chances of drawing, let alone winning, at Tottenham Hotspur’s glistening new stadium, that they have decided to name – showing amazing intuition and originality – the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. We were on a dismal little run of games and “that lot” had – heaven knows how – managed to score goals for fun under their new manager Jose Mourinho, picking up wins in most of the games under his tutelage.

The signs did not look good.

I had spent the previous afternoon at Badgers Hill watching a Betvictor Southern League Division One South game between Frome Town and Thatcham Town. I had met up with a pal in the town centre, bustling with Christmas shoppers, for a pre-match drink and had assembled at the Frome ground with close on four hundred others for a top of the table clash, pitting my local team against the team in second place. Despite blustery and difficult conditions, Frome Town flew into a deserved 2-0 lead at the break, but the recent rain had left areas of mud all over the pitch. With around twenty minutes remaining, a crunching tackle took place in a particularly sticky and dangerous patch of mud, for which the word quagmire could well have been invented, and the referee brandished a yellow card, and had no real option but to abandon the game.

It was the first game in my match-going life that had been abandoned during play.

My mind had whirred into gear :

“…mmm, I wonder if I will be wishing for an abandonment at Tottenham tomorrow?”

Deep down, I wondered if the abandonment was a foretaste of gloomier things on the Sunday.

Some more bad news; Parky was unable to come with us. Not only was he unwell, his village was unreachable, isolated by flooded country lanes. So, a double whammy.

As I drove towards Stonehenge I saw a tailback and wondered if my finely-tuned journey to London was about to be disrupted and that the gloom would continue. There were police cars ahead.

“What’s this PD? Hunt saboteurs?”

No, I was quickly reminded of the date. The Winter Solstice. Within a minute or so, we were flagged through by the police as they then returned to their task of funneling the revellers away from their designated car park.

I continued on.

At least the weather was fine. The roads were clear. There was a hint of winter sun. I was grasping at positives.

“Should be a clear drive in, mate.”

PD and I chatted about the Champions League draw, and our plans for getting to Munich. I won’t bore everyone this far out, but it will be a carbon copy of 2012; flights from Bristol to Prague, a night in Prague, coach to and from Prague to Munich, a night in Munich. That’s still three months away. It will take ages to finally arrive. But it is a lovely “gift” at the end of a potentially cold winter spell.

At around 10.45am, we stopped for a bite to eat at a “Greggs” on the A303, and then I drove straight in to London, the roads ridiculously clear of traffic. At midday – exactly as I had planned – we were parked-up outside Barons Court tube station.

Inside my head : “at least this was a perfect start to the day.”

We made our way in to town. Throughout all the years of going to Tottenham, there has never been a set routine. I know that a lot mob up at Liverpool Street at “The Hamilton Hall” or “Railway Tavern” but on the one occasion that I did that, it did not look an awful lot of fun; packed pubs, loons chanting, the OB filming everyone. Not for me.

I had other plans.

We had a few hours to kill.

Leading up to my planning for this game, I remembered a pub crawl that I had sorted for the lads for our home game with Manchester City last season; it was centered on Whitehall. Sadly, I was too ill to attend, so the pub crawl never happened. Bearing in mind that we won – against all odds – that day, the superstitious part of me decided to have another stab at it.

So, from 12.30pm to around 2.45pm, PD and I visited “The Clarence”, “The Old Shades”, “The Silver Cross” and “Walkers of Whitehall”, all of which are within one hundred yards of each other. It was a lovely and relaxing time, away from the madness of Liverpool Street.

We toasted absent friends – not just Parky, there were friends that had missed out on tickets for this, the most sought-after away game in years and years – and chatted about European games past, European games present and European games future.

One thing struck me.

“Still not seen any Tottenham fans, nor Chelsea fans for that matter.”

London would be full of 61,000 match-goers, but we had seen not one of them the entire day, or at least nobody sporting club favours, more to the point.

As we walked from one glorious boozer to the next, pub two to pub three – a full six yards – PD moaned.

“I do wish you wouldn’t make me walk so far between pubs, Chris.”

Our drinking over – I was mixing my drinks, lagers and cokes, the designated driver – we moved on. We walked to Charing Cross station and then caught the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road. From there, the Central Line to Liverpool Street.

“Still no Tottenham. Still no Chelsea.”

At Liverpool Street, up on the concourse, I looked around and saw a familiar face.

Les from Melksham, but no club colours of course.

We hopped onto the 3.30pm train with only a few seconds to spare.

Perfect timing.

On the train – at last a few Tottenham scarves – we sat with Les and some Chelsea mates, no colours. We ran through the team.

“Three at the back, then.”

“Alonso.”

“Mason.”

This train seemed to take forever.

At just before 4pm, it slowed and we pulled into White Hart Lane station, which – in order to cope with an extra 25,000 match-goers every fortnight – had undergone a fine upgrade.

In the distance, high above the shop fronts on the High Road, a first glimpse of the steel and glass of their new gaff.

We approached the stadium, time moving on now, ten past four, but realised that there was no noticeable signage for away fans. We were shooed north, through a supermarket car park – ambush anyone? – and out on to Northumberland Park. Another glimpse of the outer shell of the stadium, and then the approach to the away section. But here, it seemed that the planners had realised way too late that the away turnstiles were several feet higher than pavement level, resulting in some short steep steps being required to lift fans the final few yards.

An odd arrangement. I have no doubt that the Tottenham stadium is better than the Arsenal one, but it certainly seems cramped. There is not the space nor sense of space that you encounter at The Emirates.

Amid all of this rush to get in, I needed to collect tickets for future games.

Twenty past four.

Thankfully, I spotted one friend – “three for Southampton” – right at the top of the steps from the pavement.

Perfect.

I spotted lines of stewards all lined up, patting people down, and with tables for bag searches too. I had no time for that. I gazed into the distance, avoided eye-contact and shimmied past about eight stewards, with body swerves that JPR Williams would have been proud. Not one single search. Get in. I flashed my ticket against the sensor and I was inside.

The first person that I saw in our cramped concourse was the other friend – “Brighton away” – and I was sorted.

A double dose of “perfect.”

Twenty-five minutes past four.

Chelsea were banging on the metallic panels of the concourse, kicking up a mighty fine racket. I needed to use the little boys’ room. Rush, rush, rush.

Phew.

As I entered the seating bowl, I saw the Chelsea players break from the line-up and race over to us.

Chelsea in all blue. Love those red, white and blue socks.

We had made it.

Two minutes to go.

Perfect.

More positivity.

Initial thoughts about the stadium?

Impressive.

They have obviously learned from Arsenal’s mistakes (seats too far from the pitch, a shallow rake in the lower tier, corporate tiers that get in the way of a continuous wall of noise) and – bloody hell – that single tier at the South End reaches high into the sky. It is very impressive.

(A note to the fools who still blather on about a similar single tiered Shed End at a revamped Stamford Bridge – where are we going to get the room to do that, then?)

I really do not know why the place isn’t still called White Hart Lane though. If anything, the new stadium is nearer the street by the same name by a good fifty yards.

Naming rights, I guess.

I Hate Modern Football Part 519.

Everyone – apart from Parky – was in, and the 3,000 away fans in our section around the north-east corner flag seemed more.

We were ready.

But first, a moment to remember a hero from 1966, Martin Peters, who sadly passed away the previous day. I am not old enough to remember Peters as a West Ham player, but I certainly remember him as a Tottenham player alongside Chivers, Gilzean, England, Jennings and all. He is a strong link to my childhood, so he is another one will who be sadly missed.

There was warm applause from both sets of fans.

RIP.

The game began, and how.

In the first two minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first five minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first ten minutes it was all Chelsea.

It was as if we were the home team.

And I’ll say this. I was expecting great things from the wall of support from the opposite end – after all, they hate us right? – but the lack of noise from the Tottenham fans really surprised me. They had been right on it at Wembley in 2008, and at virtually every game at the old White Hart Lane around that era, but this was a very poor show.

On the pitch, everyone shone, confidently passing to each other, with the wide full-backs stretching play nicely. There were a couple of half-chances from us and yet nothing from Tottenham. From my lowly position – row seven – I did not have a great view of our attacks down the left, but it was from this area that provided some early cheer.

A corner played short by Willian to Kovacic was returned to him. The Brazilian received the ball, fleet-footed it into space and in prime territory, curled a shot (I was right behind the course of the ball once again) past Paulo Gazzaniga into the goal in front of seventeen thousand of the fuckers.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just before the goal, a fan had tapped me on the back to tell me that Andy from Trowbridge had spotted me; he had prime seats above the exit to my right. I seized the moment and snapped Andy’s euphoric celebrations.

And then it was time for me to smile, to scream, to celebrate.

Good on you, Willian.

Braziliant.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

This was a dream start.

We continued on in the same vein for the next portion of the game; always in control, always looking to puncture the Tottenham defence with incisive passing, always determined to halt any approach by the home team. We had chances throughout that first-half, with Tammy looking vibrant, but they had to wait for their first one.

On the half-hour, Harry Kane skied a chance from close in, and not long after Son Hueng Min walloped a shot high too, though from a tighter angle.

The three defenders looked in control and relaxed. This might not be our standard formation for much of the remainder of this season but here it worked a treat.

Tomori. Zouma. Rudiger.

“Young, gifted and at the back.” (…thanks for the inspiration John Drewitt, the cheque is in the post.)

Tottenham – damn, another cliché – really were chasing shadows.

They were simply not in it.

At all.

Chelsea were in fine voice. One song dominated.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

And it repeated and repeated. I am sure the watching millions heard it on TV because it was deathly silent in all of the 58,000 seats of the home areas.

Another tried an tested chant was aired :

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

On the balcony walls between the tiers, electronic messages flashed.

“THE GAME IS ABOUT GLORY.”

Snigger snigger.

“THIS IS MY CLUB, MY ONE AND ONLY CLUB.”

Yes, and you are fucking welcome to it.

“COME ON YOU SPURS.”

Fuck off you Spurs.

There was a worrying moment when Kepa hesitated to reach a ball into the box and he was clattered by Moussa Sissoko. Just after, there was a kerfuffle involving Kovacic, Kane, Rudiger, Zouma and Delle Ali. It was clear that tensions were rising.

Over on the far touchline, Frank Lampard was the more animated of the two managers by far, constantly cajoling and encouraging his players whereas Jose Mourinho looked unresponsive.

Some in the Chelsea end roared “Fuck off Mourinho” but that chant was not for me.

Forty-five minutes were up, but the first-half was far from finished. Willian lobbed the ball in to the box but the Tottenham ‘keeper bizarrely, and dangerously, chose to claim the ball with a ridiculously high challenge (reminiscent of Schumacher versus Battiston in 1982) and almost decapitated Alonso. For reasons known only to the referee Anthony Taylor, he awarded a free-kick to Tottenham.

We were rightly incandescent with anger.

“His legs were up before Alonso even got close. For fuck sake.”

Then, VAR.

I made a pact with myself – as did Alan, two seats along – not to cheer if the decision went our way.

VAR – penalty.

All eyes on Willian. A halt in his run, but his shot was to the ‘keeper’s left as was the first goal.

GET IN.

What a half of football.

The referee blew up and the Chelsea faithful roared. It had been, make no mistake, a beautiful half of football. At half-time, as I gleefully trotted through the away seats and out to the concourse, shaking hands with a few, and hugging a few more, and I can rarely remember such a joyous bunch at half-time anywhere. And it was great to see a few old stagers present – you know who you are – who had managed to beg, steal or borrow to get in.

Good times.

On the way up in the car, we had highlighted Son as probably Tottenham’s most influential player, but Christian Eriksen was surely not far behind. It was a surprise that Mourinho had not picked him to start, but he replaced Eric Dier as the second-half began.

There were two early attempts on goal from Tammy, and as the game continued it was the away team who still dominated.

Inside my head : “bloody hell, we can do this.”

Willian was bundled off the pitch, and found himself way below the pitch behind the goal. Just like at Old Trafford, there is a marked “fall-off” from the pitch to the surrounds of the stands. I was reminded that there was a retractable NFL – another reason to hate the twats – pitch under the grass pitch for football at this new stadium.

Inside my head : “and below that, a fucking full size circus ring.”

At around the hour mark, my visibility not great, I was vaguely aware of the “coming together” of Son and Rudiger down on the Spurs left. I honestly did not see anything, and perhaps my mind was elsewhere.

Out of nowhere, VAR became involved. Nobody around me really knew what was going on. The TV screen displayed “possible violent conduct” but we were clueless. After a good minute or so, probably more, came the message :

“Decision Red Card. Violent Conduct.”

And Taylor brandished the red to Son.

Oh my days.

Could life get any better?

In the aftermath of this incident, we spotted a few Tottenham fans getting up from their seats and it appeared that they were doing one of three things :

Heading off to try one of the craft ales on sale at the “Moustachioed & Bearded Hipster” bar.

Heading off to buy some Christmas presents at one of the ninety-seven retail outlets at the new stadium.

Heading home.

I suspect the latter, don’t you?

There were a couple of long announcements about “racist chanting” on the PA, but I did not think that this was in any way related to any one incident that had just taken place. I only learned about this while heading back in to London long after the game had finished. For the record, there was only a barely audible “Y” word at the end of the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant from the Chelsea contingent, most people deciding not to join in, and many deciding to “sssshhhhh.”

The game continued. It was eleven against ten, we were 2-0 up at the home of our bitterest rivals on our first-ever visit to their new gaff.

Oh, and our Frank was having the best of it against a formerly-loved, but now derided, manager.

“We used to love you Jose, but you’re a bit of a twat really aren’t you?”

Although there was not the high quality of the first-half, everywhere I looked there were sublime performances. Kante was his usual self, winning virtually all the 50/50 battles. One strong run was the stuff of legend. Mount ran and ran and ran, his energy just fantastic. Willian was sublime, the man of the match by far. One piece of control on the far side was worth the admission money alone. Special praise for Marcos Alonso too, a game that reminded me of his special role in 2016/17. I loved the spirited Azpilicueta too. I admired how he stretched – and reached – for a high ball that was going off for a throw-in, thus keeping the ball “live.”

Inside my head : “if I had tried that, I would have sprained seven different muscles, two of which weren’t even mine.”

Jorginho for Kovacic.

A Kante swipe from distance went close.

Reece James for Azpilicueta.

Michy Batshuayi for Abraham.

Fresh legs.

We dominated still. Tottenham were now launching balls high from deep.

“Hoof.”

Or “Huth” to be more precise. Remember Mourinho playing him upfront a few times? I think we should have seen that as a warning sign way back in 2005.

Eight minutes of added time were signalled.

Oh boy.

There was still time for a couple of lightning breaks – Willian usually involved – and Michy went close with a left-footed strike from outside the box. At the other end, the stadium now full of empty seats, Kane – who? – forced Kepa to make his very first save of the entire game.

I watched as the referee blew up and a forest of Chelsea arms flew into the air.

There was a little lull…a feeling of “I can’t believe this” permeated the mild North London air, and then the players and managers walked over towards us. I clambered up on to my seat (I noted that there are horizontal retaining bars above the back of each seat, almost paving the way – I suppose – for safe standing…well done Tottenham) and waited. I then photographed the frenzy of smiles, laughs, hugs and fist punches.

Then, ridiculously, the Tottenham PA chose to play the de facto Christmas song from my childhood (I can vividly remember sitting around the lunch table at my primary school in December 1973 when Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” took over the number one slot).

“Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?
It’s the time that every Santa has a ball.
Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?
Does a ton-up on his sleigh?
Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?

So here it is, Merry Xmas.
Everybody’s having fun.
Look to the future now.
It’s only just begun.”

It wasn’t quite ten thousand Jocks singing “Rocking All Over The World” at half-time at Wembley in 1996, but it felt good enough.

What a giggle.

Frank was a picture. Look at the evidence below.

No words.

Outside, PD and I darted into “Sam’s Chicken” on the High Road to let the crowds subside. The food warmed us, and the dead man’s stare of many a Tottenham fan made me giggle some more.

We had not let them play, and they had been oh-so poor. It was a lovely Christmas present from them on our first-ever visit to their new home.

We caught a train back to Liverpool Street at about 7.30pm. Who should scuttle past me on the platform but Dan Levene? I would soon learn about the “racist chanting” and I wondered what spin he would put on it all.

Inside the train compartment, I spotted the actor Matthew Horne who plays Gavin in the excellent “Gavin & Stacey” comedy series on the BBC. He is a Tottenham fan in the show and I knew that he was a Tottenham fan in real life too. He was with his girlfriend so I left him alone. He was, oddly, combining a white and navy bar scarf with a Stone Island jacket.

Inside my head : “typical Tottenham.”

I overheard him say :

“We just didn’t show up today.”

That raised a giggle too.

After changing tube lines a few times, we eventually reached Barons Court at 9pm. It was a quiet but peaceful ride home and we reached Frome at 11pm.

It was, after all the initial worry, a bloody perfect day out.

Next up, Southampton at home on Boxing Day.

See you in the pub. Don’t be late.

Tales From Frank, Incensed

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 14 December 2019.

A Figure In Black And White.

Our home game with AFC Bournemouth, to give them their full name, would be my twenty-fifth match of the current season. I was in London, in Fulham, early and I had a little time to kill. I had dropped the lads off at West Brompton tube station at around 10am, and had then parked the car outside the mews on Bramber Road where James Hunt, the former Formula One champion, had lived for a while. I needed to be in The Goose to collect a ticket for a mate at 11am, and had about an hour to kill. I decided to head down to Stamford Bridge and pop in to the Copthorne Hotel for a coffee and to see who else was around and about.

Everything was pretty quiet. It was a bitterly cold morning. It felt like it was yet to become a match day in these familiar streets. As I neared the site of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station, I was surprised how still and silent it all was. The long expanse of pavement outside the Broadway Bar & Grill, which then lead on past the former entrance hall of the station, was totally devoid of people. I was touched by the serenity of the scene. I decided to take a photograph with my ‘phone as a scene-setter for my day at Chelsea. I had decided to mention that I loved the fact that my grandfather had probably exited that very same station in the early part of the twentieth century as he made his way to Stamford Bridge, the only stadium he would ever visit apart from a midweek trip with my parents and I to see Chelsea at Bristol Rovers in 1976. I love that on every trip to our home stadium, I walk in his steps.

I steadied myself and was just about to “shoot” when I noticed the figure of a man, cigarette in hand, white silk scarf around his neck, like a figure from the inter-war years. I then realised that it was no ghost from the distant past. It was none other than Tommy Baldwin who I had seen play just once, my second-ever game against Tottenham in 1974, but who was a huge part of our famous team of the ‘seventies.

He was the leader of the team, after all.

I approached him, shook his hand, and he seemed surprised that anyone would recognise him.

It was a lovely little moment.

I continued my advance to Stamford Bridge. It was so early that the fellows on the “CFCUK” stall were only just setting up shop. I walked on, into the forecourt, underneath the old Shed Wall. Past images of our former stars; Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Peter Osgood, Frank Lampard, Ron Harris and all. And one of Gianluca Vialli – the first one if the walk begins outside the hotel – who is still battling cancer. I took some photographs.

So many memories.

I have said before that I can often walk around the centre of my local town for thirty minutes and recognise nobody, but already on this morning in SW6 I had spoken to Mick and Pauline, Tom, Raymondo and the leader of the team.

At Chelsea, I feel like I am at home and I love that feeling.

In the hotel, I chatted to some others, then picked up the ticket at The Goose.

I was then on my way to Putney Bridge, to The Eight Bells, to my “local” some one hundred miles away from my house.

The Chelsea Social.

I arrived at about midday and my travelling companions – Simon, PD and Parks – were already on their fourth pint. Guests of honour were Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh – their second home game in a fortnight – but we were also joined by Gary and John from Edinburgh too. I chatted to Gary and how his local team, Hearts, have instigated – along with many other league teams north of the border – a “keep fit” campaign based at their Tynecastle stadium. I love the fact that Gary is able to use the stadium as a backdrop to his efforts to lose weight; up and down the terraces, stretches against the seats, press-ups in the tunnel. It is inspired. As an adjunct to this, Gary took part in a half-time shootout at Hampden Park during the Scottish League Cup tie with Rangers. He played in goal – in front of 52,000 – and saved three out of five shots on goal. What a great story.

Later, Mike and Courtney from Chicago joined us, and I spent an unusually long time talking to them both about baseball. I admitted to them that part of my fading love of that sport is the simple fact that my team – and Mike’s, definitely not Courtney’s – the Yankees moved out of their historic home in 2008 – dramatic, fearsome, cramped – and into an anaemic and watered down version in 2009.  I am always aware of the role that stadia play in our appreciation of sport. Too many resemble shopping malls these days. Balls to shopping malls. Give me stands that drip history, ooze memories and reverberate to the sound of honest fans and not consumers and wannabees. At old Yankee Stadium in 2008, I struggled to squeeze past fans in the claustrophobic concourses which reeked of sweet popcorn, salted pretzels and beer. In 2009, at the new pad, I was able to watch as a butcher took great delight as he went to work on rare cuts of beef behind a glass screen, as some sort of entertainment, and – fuck me sideways – I know what version I preferred.

And it is getting worse.

My good friend Steve in South Philly – while we were talking about the new riverside stand at the wonderful Craven Cottage – sent me notice that in his part of that great city, there are plans for a $50M e-Sports venue where – let me get this right – people go to watch people gaming.

I am glad I’ll be dead in thirty years.

The Game.

We made our way to the stadium. Mike and Courtney were in the Shed Upper – using the same season ticket seats belonging to a friend that Mike met while living in Richmond upon Thames for a year in around 2008 – and I promised that I’d try to spot them with my zoom lens. I did. The four from Edinburgh were dotted around the Matthew Harding. I took my place alongside PD and Simon in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team? Mason Mount in for Mateo Kovacic.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

As a contrast to our league of nations, Bournemouth fielded a team consisting of solid, and relatively unknown, Anglo-Saxons

Ramsdale, Stacey, Francis, Mepham, Billing, Cooke, Gosling, Fraser and King. It all sounded like a school register from my childhood.

“Yes miss.”

Bournemouth only average 10,000 home fans so it was perhaps no surprise that there was a section of their three-thousand unfilled.

We attacked The Shed End as the game began.

Fraser on the Bournemouth left immediately made an impression and looked the liveliest of the away team. But we were soon on the attack, and a sublime ball from deep from Jorginho found the advanced run of Mount. From an angle, it was always going to be a tough ask, and his shot drew a save from Ramsdale in the Bournemouth goal.

Little did we know that this effort inside the first ten minutes or so would be our main effort on goal during the entirety of the first half.

The atmosphere was morgue like, and the away fans made more noise.

“Red Army.”

A lone voice in the Matthew Harding Upper was heard to mutter :

“Fuck off back to your care homes.”

Guilty.

Chelsea were faced with a packed final third as players took it in turns to pass their way around the danger zones as if there was a force field centered on the penalty spot. There were shades of last season – pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – and the home fans sat in sombre silence. On too many occasions players failed to take ownership to make a killing ball. Yet there was poor movement off the ball too. A shot from Tammy midway through the contest narrowly missed the target.

It was all very humdrum.

And, to reiterate, the away team were unwilling to attack and open the game up, more’s the pity.

We were forced to trudge slowly over quicksand.

It was dull stuff.

I willed the boys on, but chances of any real quality were rare. Eddie Howe’s team, on a very poor run of form, seemed to grow more resolute as the tedious half progressed. On their rare forays up field though, such is our fragility these days, it always seemed that they might score.

Sadly, I have to report that there was not one single “stadium wide” song of support and encouragement throughout the first forty-five minutes.

We’re all getting older, we’re all getting quieter, we’re all fighting a losing battle.

The most repeated ball of the half was a long diagonal from Rudiger to Emerson or Pulisic on the left, but I wished that there was the occasional quick ball over the top for Tammy to eat up. On one occasion, nearing the end of the half, a gap was yawning to Tammy’s left, but the ball was played elsewhere and our young striker flung his arms up in frustration. He had a point. In the last dying embers of the first period, a corner from the boot of Willian found the leap of Tammy but the striker could not get over it and it flew over the crossbar.

It had been, definitely, a tough watch.

At least there were no boos at half-time.

Inside my head : “we tend to play better in the second-half, Frank will sort them out, we often make amends for a lacklustre first period with a more determined second-half show. Come on Chels.”

To a pal : “the last time we went in 0-0 at half-time against this lot, we let in four in the second-half.”

The second-half began and, alas, there was no noticeable improvement. If anything, we had deteriorated further, and the away team were more involved in attacking play.

Inside my head : “that will help us, draw them in then counter-attack them with pace.”

But this never really happened.

Rejoice – on fifty-one minutes, at last a Chelsea song joined us all together. It was hardly deafening, but it was a start. Willian struck the red and black wall from a far-too-central free-kick and then Pulisic broke through with a trademark burst but seemed to lose his footing as a shot skidded wide.

But the mood in the Stamford Bridge stands was not good at all.

I kept silent – lips pursed, hands in pockets, the occasional scowl, the look of a worried man – but elsewhere others were happy to howl and swear and yell obscenities. That upset me a bit. I hate that a misdirected pass – of which there were an increasing number – drew five times as much noise as a fine touch.

To hear someone close by call our players “fucking wankers” was one of the low points of my year.

Aren’t supporters meant to rally behind our team when players need encouragement? I get the frustration, but at times it was too much, too audible, and I am adamant that it affected the players’ collective confidence. It reminded me of the “you don’t know what you’re doing” phases of the Scolari, Villas-Boas and Sarri eras when it was possible to see players undergo some sort of meltdown with misplaced passes and poor control as they fell apart.

But that’s my standard view. It hasn’t fucking changed in years.

Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.

It took a fantastic last-gasp tackle from Kurt Zouma to get the crowd in a positive mood. But elsewhere, everything seemed to be falling apart. We over-passed, and at times the passing was so poor. Misplaced balls from Rudiger and Zouma from deep, misplaced passes from Jorginho, and even from Kante who was – a tell-tale sign – being dragged down to the level of others after a strong start to the game. Rudiger, actually – everyone’s favourite when he was side-lined – had a ‘mare and to see his form deteriorate over the second forty-five minutes was equally surprising and shocking in equal measure. In fact, nobody played well.

On sixty-five minutes, a double substitution.

Mateo Kovacic for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

After a ridiculous bout of pinball in the penalty area below me, Emerson headed straight at Ramsdale. From the angle where I was watching, it looked like it hit the bar. The crowd groaned.

Fackinell.

Abraham stretched but saw a header go wide. But we barely created anything of note.

Frank went for two upfront as Michy Batshuayi replaced Jorginho.

With ten minutes to go, a Bournemouth attack and the ball was lofted up into the box.

An offside flag.

But the ball was lobbed goal wards.

Dave seemed to clear it.

The Bournemouth fans celebrated.

I did not react.

“Offside, you wankers.”

Oh no.

A delay.

Oh bollocks.

VAR.

A wait.

A bad sign.

Goal.

And nobody that I was sat with really knew what was going on. We presumed the bloke wasn’t offside, but there was no real clear explanation.

Great.

CFC 0 AFCB 1.

Only in the fading moments of this dire game did we seem to want to go at their defence. A couple of thrusting runs from Hudson-Odoi hinted at the kind of football that we should have been producing all afternoon but it was too little and too late.

At the final whistle there were boos.

Really?

I know – I am not stupid – this was a bloody poor performance, but are people so mean spirited that the “give our kids a chance, we’ll be happy with tenth this season, Frank knows the club” mantra has been so easily jettisoned?

For many, it would appear so, eh?

But there again, the league table doesn’t lie, and we are fourth from bottom and out of the Champions League. And we have spent £200M on new players since the end of last season.

Frankly.

As I drove home, I was relieved – so relieved – that my ‘phone was off and I was not able to see the reaction – over reaction? – of so many on social media. Again, I get the passion, and I get a lot of constructive analysis, but some comments I would later discover were just excruciating.

I trust Frank. He knows football. He knows more about football than you and I. I’ve never wanted a Chelsea manager to succeed more than Frank.

In his post-game interviews, he was clearly rattled, as he should be, and – again – I loved his honesty and intelligence, and how we need to improve all over the pitch for the game at Tottenham. Despite his annoyance, his desire to get it right shone through. And unlike last season under Sarri, at least Frank understands what it means when we play at Tottenham.

I will see some of you – the lucky ones – there.

Tales From A Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Lille : 10 December 2019.

Twenty-Two Hours.

The fact that PD takes a turn driving to Stamford Bridge for weekday games is a real Godsend. It means that I can have a very welcome snooze if I need it on the way to London, and – most definitely – on the return journey west. On this particular journey to SW6, I managed to crash out for over an hour as P-Diddy battled the rain and traffic. At about 5pm, I emerged from my slumber at around Twickenham. There was a little message from Jaro, now back in the US after his “work” trip last week, waiting for me. He must have been bored because he had worked out that in the previous seven days, the three of us – P-Diddy, Lord Parsnips and little old me – had spent twenty-two hours in cars en route to and from Chelsea games. I must admit it startled me.

Wednesday : Villa at home – six hours.

Saturday : Everton away – ten hours.

Tuesday : Lille at home – six hours.

It all added-up. And I am not honestly sure how I felt. Was it some sort of pride that we had evidently devoted so much of our time to the support of our club, or was there an inkling that we might well take some perverse pleasure out of all of this, or – worse – that this was all too obsessive, and not natural, not healthy, not normal?

Answers on a postcard.

Two Pubs.

At about 6pm, we eventually made it in to “The Goose.” I made my way to the bar to get the first round in. To my right, quietly standing at the bar, were three lads in their late twenties, evidently Lille supporters, one with a “LOSC” logo on his tracksuit, and another with a scarf hidden from view. There were signs on the pub windows proclaiming “Chelsea fans only” and I had presumed that they had slipped through the net. I whispered “bon chance” to the one standing close to me and ordered some drinks. I had no intention of wanting to drop them in it. My drinks arrived, but just as the last of the three drinks were being handed to the Lille supporters, the landlady caught a glimpse of the red Lille scarf (I suspect that the “LOSC” logo on the other supporter’s top meant nothing to her) and they were politely asked to leave. Damn. I felt for them. I was sure that they were not going to cause one bit of trouble. The place seemed quiet. We chatted to a few friends from our local area – “don’t get caught in the lift this week, Les” – and then headed off to “Simmons”. This little bar seemed quiet too. More beers were ordered, a few more chats with mates, a few more laughs.

Eleven Men.

I made it inside the stadium with just a couple of minutes to spare, and missed the entrance of the teams and the usual pre-match Champions League rituals. I quickly scanned our team. The big news was that Toni Rudiger was returning.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Three Teams.

We knew that we just – “just” – had to win to secure our safe passage into the first knock-out phase of this season’s Champions League. I think most of us presumed that there would be home wins for Chelsea and Ajax. But Valencia, who beat us on match day one, were no mugs, and were in with a shout of qualifying too. Of course I wanted progression to the final sixteen – it would undoubtedly provide a timely fillip for the players and managers, a lovely confidence boost going into the new year – but if we were to fail, then a potentially longer and arguably more enjoyable tour of fresh cities in the Europa League was not a bad second prize. So; Ajax, Chelsea or Valencia. Who from this little list of three teams would miss out?

Eight O’Clock.

The game began and for a few minutes I was mesmerized by the shifting patterns created by the cascading rain against the back-drop of the East Stand. It was a foul night in SW6 alright. I had rarely seen such atrocious conditions at Stamford Bridge. I felt sorry for those in the first few rows. They were going to get soaked. We began well and soon started to slither our way through the Lille defence with Christian Pulisic looking at home on the left-side of our attack. I admitted to Al that he had been surprisingly poor at Everton and it was good to see him showing signs of improvement. Within a few minutes, Rudiger was making strong and sturdy challenges and we were instantly reminded of what we had missed for many weeks.

Nineteen Minutes.

There was a break in play and I needed to shoot off to see a man about a dog. I was alone with my thoughts in the nearby gents when I heard an increase in noise emanating from inside the stadium. A split second later, a roar and it was clear that we had scored. Over the years, I don’t miss many, though I am sure I missed one earlier this season at home too. I quickly wrote “1-0” on the steamed-up mirror and re-joined Alan and PD in The Sleepy Hollow. Alan explained how Tammy had scored. I was so pleased that our young striker had nabbed another. Excellent. I will be honest, the pressure was off – or so it seemed – and we looked in control for much of the first period. On only rare occasions did the opposing team pose any danger.

The midfield three of Jorginho at the base, and with Kovacic and Kante to the left and right, worked well, and provided the motor for more luxurious play further ahead. I loved how N’Golo Kante sized up his options as a ball became loose and a gullible Lille player looked to lunge in. It seemed that Kante was one, or maybe two or three steps ahead, as he decided to let the other player attempt to win the ball, but then struggle to control it, allowing Kante to pick up the pieces with the minimum of effort. At the same time as all this was happening, he was probably aware of all Chelsea players within a 360-degree sweep of the pitch, of their individual directions of travel, their nearest foe, each of their chances of ably controlling the ball should he decided to pass to them, the wind direction in all parts of the stadium, taking into account localised eddies caused by the juxtaposition of the stands, and he also was thinking ahead to half-time and if he fancied a sports drink, a simple sip of water, or a hot cup of tea, and there were probable thoughts too about how he really needs to master that latest piece of music that his piano teacher has detailed, how he needs to come up with a suitable twist to the end of the first chapter of his first novel and then, of course, there are always Christmas presents which need to be sorted. In the blink of an eye, he passed to Willian, simplicity itself.

I commented to Alan.

“You simply can’t teach that.”

N’Golo is a rare footballing talent, and it is an honour to be able to watch him play every few days. He is already one of our greatest ever players.

Thirty-Five Minutes.

It was all Chelsea, and Kepa had rarely touched the ball. We won a corner and Emerson, way down the other end of the pitch, struck a firm ball into the box. It landed right into a juicy few yards of emptiness and Dave arrived with impeccable timing to head it home past a poorly protected Maignan in the Lille goal.

Superb.

We were 2-0 up.

I caught Dave’s gleeful little trot in front of Parky and Parky’s People in The Shed Lower. We had struck twice in the first-half, had dominated the game, and Lille had not mustered a single shot on goal.

Easy.

Rousey was quick to chime in :

“See you in Barcelona.”

However, only after this second goal was there a rousing stadium-wide chant from the Chelsea supporters.

Over in The Netherlands, Valencia were – surprisingly – winning one-nought. If it stayed like this, Ajax would be playing in the Europa League in 2020. But it would mean that Chelsea would finish second in the group. We hoped for an Ajax equaliser.

The Second Forty-Five.

The rain had relented, but it was still a wet night. We continued to control the game and a few chances came our way. Pulisic looked lively, a slippery customer on this wet night in London, and his presence in our attack drew applause as he dribbled into the box with ease. A free-kick from Willian was on target but was saved. We kept attacking. At times, Dave’s bursts into the Lille box were astonishing. I think his goal must have possessed him to grab more.

Frank chose to replace the impressive Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi.

“At least the pressure is off him. Often when he comes on as sub, he is expected to change things. Let’s see what he can do.”

Lille replaced their injured ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy.

Our play stagnated.

Lille had – just – began to show a few signs of life in the latter part of the game and they produced a fine move which cut into our right flank, resulting in a pull-back for our former striker Loic Remy to blast high into the net.

It was still 1-0 in Amsterdam.

It was 2-1 in London.

An equaliser for Lille would mean that we would be knocked out of the competition. And so things started to get tense. Mason Mount replaced Kovacic, another great performance from him. There was another rare chance for the visitors, but it did not cause Kepa any worry. At the other end, Michy controlled well, but blazed over. A wild shot from Callum was worse, much worse. In the dying embers of the game, Remy shot meekly at Kepa.

It was over.

Phew.

The Final Sixteen.

Walking out of the ground, everyone was just relieved. A mate galloped past me.

“Seen who we got?”

Our opponents in the New Year had already been decided; Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris St. Germain or Red Bull Leipzig.

It’s a horrible, hated, club but Leipzig please.

Walking down the Fulham Road, I shared a thought on Facebook.

“When we lost our first match at home to Valencia, it seemed that we were in a real group of death. But we are still breathing. We are still living. Let European adventures at the top table continue.”

 Twenty-Four Photographs.

Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

Not long in to the long drive north for our game at Everton, I admitted to PD and Parky about my thoughts :

“Of course, we can’t really be sure how this one is going to go.”

Despite Chelsea sitting in a pretty decent fourth place, and with Everton having just sacked their manager Marco Silva, Goodison Park has been a tough place for us over the last decade. Additionally, we have been limping along of late and have struggled to find consistency. Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, would be fired up. It was, in my mind anyway, a difficult result to predict.

The journey from rural Somerset to urban Merseyside was completed in a very good time; a little under four-and-a-half hours. At just after 10.30am, I was at the large car-park in Stanley Park, a quarter of a mile from the towering main stand at Anfield, where the league title looks increasingly like residing in May. We walked through the park, and I found it difficult to believe that we were last in this particular part of the world almost two years ago, just before Christmas, when we ended-up walking back to my car in the same car-park after a dismal 0-0 draw. Last season – last March, St. Patrick’s Day, a 0-2 loss – we had travelled to and from our hotel near Lime Street via cabs.

It would be my twentieth visit to Goodison Park, and as many know, this particular stadium at the northern end of Stanley Park is easily my favourite away venue in domestic football. While PD – Bullens Road, Lower – and LP – Bullens Road, Upper – made the short walk to the away turnstiles, I had a little time to kill before kick-off, so had a customary wander. For certain, I was in no need of alcohol since I wanted to remain fresh for the return journey later that day. I had been awake well before the 5am alarm. The day, for me anyway, was all about staying alert for the demands of the road.

I soon found myself at the Dixie Dean statue. It is a formidable structure and depicts the legendary Evertonian as a strong and determined individual, his eyes focussed and with a fist clenched. His record of 349 league goals in just 399 league games for Everton is one of the greatest records in English football. Growing up as a boy, my father – who was not a football fan at all, really – would often talk of Dixie Dean. He was the superstar of the inter-war years. I always liked the fact that his haul of 60 league goals in 1927/28 was matched by Babe Ruth’s haul of 60 home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees. Both were the superstars of their eras. And I thought that both records would never ever be beaten. The Ruth record has been surpassed, but Dixie Dean’s sixty will surely stand forever. I took a few photographs of the area, which is backed by plaques commemorating the seven Everton players who were killed in the two World Wars. There were bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue, and it was the focus for many of the match-going fans.

I disappeared off, past the Everton club shop, and headed over to Walton Road where I hoped to meet up with a Chelsea mate of mine and his Everton-supporting brother, but they were delayed en route. Instead, I made my way back to Goodison, passing the Everton Community School, which has enjoyed much success in the local area in recent years. I spotted a long-haired lad knocking a ball against an end of terrace brick wall, the outline of a goal white-washed against it. These sort of scenes are rare in England these days. Ball games are usually not allowed. It was a pleasing sight. I almost wanted to join in. It brought back memories of me endlessly kicking a tennis ball against the large expanse of wall opposite my house in my home village, honing my timing, my technique – and my silent commentary.

“Hollins, outside to Cooke. To Osgood. Goal!”

As always, I circumnavigated Goodison Park, and was very pleased to spot a new addition since my last visit. On a wide pavement outside the famous church of St. Luke The Evangelist stood statues of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, Everton’s “Holy Trinity.” It is sensational. I love that it might resemble three fans heading along Goodison Road from a distance, but once close, it becomes apparent that the figures are footballers.

I took some photographs. It was again the focus of much attention from Evertonians.

I remembered how, on my second visit to Goodison Park in the winter of 1986/87, I had walked not more than ten yards away, along the pavement, alone, and had immediately regretted my choice of jacket. A little group of scallies had scuttled past me and one hissed :

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

I thought I was in for some grief, but nothing came of it. Just a little later, some younger lads started talking to me – much to my annoyance, I thought they were spotters – but I managed to avoid any trouble. I remember they spoke about getting in at Everton under the turnstiles, or by often using some free tickets that someone at the club gave them. They were at first an irritating gaggle of kids – they must have been around fourteen or fifteen – but as I chatted to them, they were just keen to talk to me about football, despite me being on guard.

“What’s your firm called?” I remember one kid asking me.

I pleaded ignorance. I didn’t fancy getting slapped by his elder brother, possibly lurking around a corner.

Later that season, a month or so later, I bumped into the very same group of four or five kids at Anfield for the away game against Liverpool. One of them recognised me.

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

A chap in his ‘sixties moved so I could take a photograph of Alan Ball. I thanked him and said “great statue, that.”

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

I had timed my ritualistic pre-amble to perfection and was inside the historic Bullens Road stand with about a quarter of an hour to spare. I could not resist some photographs of the blue and white interior. Once up in the Upper Tier, the wooden floorboards hint at its antiquity. It is a magical place, a great perch from which the full glory of Goodison Park is visible down below.

Those Chelsea supporters who boorishly talk about Goodison Park being a “shit hole” can never, ever, be true friends of mine.

Opposite, the main stand, a double-decked behemoth, acted as a quick reminder of my childhood when its towering presence used to enthral me as I watched the Everton players on TV. In those days – “oh bollocks, here he goes again” – I used to love the idiosyncratic nature of many football grounds. Each one imbued its own personality on the clubs. In fact, the two were one of the same.

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

I thought back on the variety of stands opposite the TV gantries.

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

The trim art deco stylings of the East Stand on Avenell Road at Highbury.

The low pitched roof of the Kemlyn Road Stand, with its line of floodlights above, at Anfield.

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

The huge and brooding Kippax terrace – a rarity in itself – along the side of the pitch at Manchester City.

The structured modernity at Old Trafford; terrace at front, seats in the middle, executive boxes at the rear.

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

It is such a shame that these individualistic beauties have, by and large, been replaced by tiers of seating in lookalike rebuilds. Thankfully, Goodison Park remains (but not for too much longer) and its two Archibald Leitch stands became the early focus of my attention as the game progressed.

Kick-off time approached. Time for one of the highlights of modern day Chelsea away days.

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

Chelsea were unchanged from the Aston Villa game on the previous Wednesday.

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

There were more than a few empty seats in the Upper Tier. Everyone was stood.

The game began.

In the very first few minutes, a couple of loose passes from Dave had a few supporters mumbling and grumbling. But Mason Mount looked busy and involved, running into pockets of space. As a ball was worked out to our right and a pull-back followed, I imagined an Ivanovic or a Costa thumping the ball in for an early lead. It was a promising start. But then, a full scale calamity. We gave up possession way too easily and Everton were all over us like a rash. They moved the ball quickly and purposefully, and we were – cliché warning – chasing shadows. The ball reached their right wing, under the towering double-decker, and Djibril Sidibe punched a fine cross into our box and it was met by the free leap of Richarlison. Our centre-backs were absent without leave.

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

Chelsea tended to dominate possession, but with little danger to Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Everton seemed a little more dangerous on the rare occasions they had the chance to hurt us. There was more space in our defensive third than theirs. A cross from Walcott just evaded Richarlison and there was a save from Kepa from an Everton shot on goal. But we had moments when we looked half-decent. In the middle of the first-half – if not mirroring the purple patch against Villa, perhaps a lavender or violet patch – we started to build a little momentum. Willian managed a few forceful dribbles out of our half, and there was some reasonable linking together of passes. One textbook breakaway down our right came to nothing, and on more than one occasion it felt that we were too frightened to pull the trigger on goal.

Pulisic was on the periphery. I heard a million voices in the US shout the exact same thing :

“Shoot the ball!”

The highlights of the first-half involved our two best players.

N’Golo Kante stretching, but able to cushion a ball into the path of a team mate with just the correct amount of weight. Just perfection.

Mateo Kovacic fighting like a demon for the ball as he kept possession during an extended dribble, even after running into defenders, showing great spirit and determination. It was like something from another era.

As the second-half began, I admitted to Gary “it’s strange not seeing Hazard down below us at this ground, twisting and turning.”

After just two minutes of the half, further catastrophe. I had commented to Gary that it was good to hear the Evertonians applaud Kurt Zouma’s defensive clearance in the first few seconds of the half. He was well-liked at Goodison last season. And yet it was his far-from-convincing hoof into the air which caused panic in the heart of our defence. Christensen and Zouma took it in turns to fall over themselves as the ball fortuitously fell at the feet of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (more a bespectacled member of the clergy than a footballer) and we watched, horrified, as he thumped the ball in from close range.

It felt like we had shot ourselves in the foot yet again. Two goals in the first five minutes of each half.

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

And yet just a short period of time followed – three minutes – and we were miraculously back in it. A raiding Kante touched the ball to Azpilicueta. His intended pass to Willian was cleared, but it reached Kovacic some twenty-five yards out. His low shot was supremely well-placed. It nestled in the bottom corner with Pickford well beaten.

Game on.

There had been a VAR check for both second-half goals, but both stood.

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

We continued to dominate the game, and I think it would be safe to say that most of us expected an equaliser at some stage. But we just lacked the final touch. And the noise in our section wasn’t great to be honest. Theo Walcott’s pace had the beating of Kante on one occasion, but then our little prince fared better in a second duel.

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

“Walcott’s had more dribbles than Stephen Hawking.”

There were efforts from Kovacic, from Mount, a drive from outside the box from Christensen. As the game continued, our exasperation increased. Another shot from Mount, a flash from Azpilicueta that was finger tipped over by Pickford.

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

On eighty-two minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced Reece James.

Frank played with two up top.

Sadly, the game was decided with eighty-four minutes on the clock. Kepa tried to find Zouma but his long pass was poor. Theo Walcott collected it, and found Calvert-Lewin. I immediately growled. This looked dangerous. A back-heel from him found Tom Davies, a substitute, and as he stumbled Calvert-Lewin pounced to stab home the loose ball.

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Despite a day of rainbow flags, rainbow armbands and rainbow laces, the Park End then sang about rent boys.

Original, eh?

The game ended.

The home crowd roared “Duncan, Duncan Ferguson” and I thought back to the “dogs of war” team of his era when players like Barry Horne, Dave Watson and Paul Rideout showed no mercy in every game they played. It was a similar performance from the home team on this occasion.

There was the shaking of heads and the pursing of lips in the Bullens Road. It was another strange one. A game of defensive lapses, and a game of goal-shy forwards. Pulisic was lightweight and had a shocker. The defensive four were individually poor and collectively worse. Kante and Kovacic shone like beacons. The game passed Tammy by. And our support wasn’t great.

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

And it didn’t. We weren’t too far away from a draw, but a loss was sadly predictable. We have now lost three of the last four league games. And we play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game that might well affect our self-confidence over the next three months.

We walked back to the car, a little downbeat, but a little pragmatic too.

“Frank is still testing his ideas, testing his thoughts on the best formations, the best mix of players. It’s still a work in progress.”

The escape route out of Stanley Park, down Utting Avenue, past the Liverpool pennants on the lamp posts, and onto Queens Drive was the quickest ever. Maybe the Evertonians were still ensconced in Goodison celebrating their surprising win.

I made good time on the way home, yet I missed a turning from the M6 and down onto the M5. I found myself driving past Villa Park – on the day that their former boss Ron Saunders passed away – but still had time to head over to “The Vine” at West Bromwich which is one of the most famous football pubs in the UK.

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

I reached home at about 8.30pm, but found myself falling asleep during the “MOTD” coverage of our game. It was probably just as well.

Later, I looked at the record of my twenty visits to Goodison Park. It made for sobering viewing.

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

It has become, ridiculously, a huge bogey ground for us.

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.

Tales From Work And Play

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 4 December 2019.

In this edition.

More logistical woes.

More US visitors.

More “Peroni.”

More photographs of goal celebrations.

More “fackinells.”

More “THTCAUNs.”

More “COMLDs.”

Interested?

Read on.

I was in work early, at 6am, as I wanted to cram in as much into the Chelsea segment of my day as possible. I managed to coerce my boss into letting me work a 0600-1400 shift, and it was easily OK’d. I had planned to take two days off work, the Thursday and Friday, and be able to look forward to wonderful visits to my two favourite stadia in England – Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park – with no hindrance of work. But these plans took a battering. We are short-staffed at the moment, and down to the bare minimum. I said I’d work the Friday. No worries. My managers are always very helpful in giving me as much “Chelsea time” as I need.

And I need a lot.

I met up with the other two Chucklers, PD and Parky, and we quickly demolished a meal at a pub in Melksham before PD set off for London at 3pm.

Sadly, the last twenty miles took ages. With rising frustration – PD’s F count reached triple figures as did his C count – we slowly manoeuvered our way into London, through the dismal traffic, and the last two miles took over half-an-hour.

Some friends were waiting on our arrival in The Goose from earlier on in the afternoon.

Cesar, looking to enjoy a different emotion after the disappointment of West Ham, was waiting for us with his wife and children, as was Johnny Twelve Teams – he has more clubs than Tiger Woods – and his wife Jenni. And also waiting for us was Jaro, who – if the loyal readers of this tripe can remember – saw his first ever game with his son Alex around six weeks ago. He had enjoyed it so much – SO MUCH – that he managed to wangle a work trip from his home in Washington DC to his company’s office in Chiswick to tie in with this game against Aston Villa. Over the past few weeks, we have been messaging each other, and trying to sort out the match day plans. He had, intelligently, managed to buy a ticket on the official exchange just a few seats away from us in the Matthew Harding Upper.

My – our – late arrival at 6.30pm was all rather frustrating.

So – yeah – three and a half hours to drive just over a hundred miles.

Fackinell.

There was just time for one pint of “Peroni” but it was magical for Jaro to be able to meet, in person, LP and PD. Jaro is, by some margin, the person who interacts with me most, and has done since 2009, with these reports. He would later tell me that it was like meeting characters from his favourite novel.

“More like a fucking tragedy” I replied.

There was rushed chats with everyone. Not perfect at all. But Jaro announced that Tammy was back.

“Good.”

And we hoped that the return of John Terry would not be too “OTT.” We already had banners and all at his last ever game in 2017 when – remember? – he was carried off the pitch during the game.

Looking back. What were the players thinking?

Fackinell.

Jaro just loved the walk, in the cold winter air, along the Fulham Road. I introduced him to a few friends on the way, and he bought a “CFCUK” to read on the flight home. He would be heading back to DC on Friday. We joked that Jaro needs to work on his managers – “am I needed in the London office again between now and May” – in the same way that I have done with my managers since 2003 (thanks Stu, thanks Clive, thanks Paul, thanks John, thanks Mike, thanks Matt…).

There has to be a balance between work and play, right?

Neither of us could have imagined for one minute that, after his first game against Newcastle United in October he would be back again for his second so quickly.

Good work, Jaro.

As we headed in to the forecourt – my body swerve past the security guards was textbook and saved getting my camera bag checked – Jaro mentioned to me that the black and white photograph that sits on this website reminds him constantly of the Peter Osgood statue, what with my right arm cradling a ball just as Ossie does. I really had not made the connection – unlike me, I thought – but he was right. That I am wearing the same kit – even the hand-sewn “9” on my shorts – makes it even more uncanny.

Inside the stadium, it was a pleasure to welcome Jaro to The Sleepy Hollow where he finally met Alan too.

Lovely stuff.

After the “rent boy” songs by West Ham on Saturday, we now had rainbows around the large CFC crest on the pitch and a rainbow flag in front of the teams as they lined up.

Ah, the teams.

We lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Banners for John Terry were presented in The Shed Upper and the Matthew Harding Lower. But there were no noticeable chants for our returning hero before the game. I took a few early shots of JT and Frank, then concentrated on the action being played out in front of me.

Alan and myself chatted away about all sorts during the first part of the game. Alongside us was Bournemouth Steve, his first game of the season. Jaro was only fifteen feet away. The three thousand Villa fans really were in food voice, and were loudly bellowing “Holte Enders in the skoi.”

There were two Villa flags, one of which was worth repeating.

“You can get another wife. You can’t get another club.”

Five minutes into the game, I received a call from Les who I had seen earlier in The Goose. He was in trouble. He, and a few others, were stuck in the lift which takes supporters up to the MHU. He had already been embroiled in the traffic congestion on the M4, but was still struggling to reach his seat. I alerted the stewards. I hoped to see him soon. He sits in the same general area.

We began well, and drove through the Villa defence. Both wingers were working the space, and crosses reached targets. A Willian blast was kept out by Tom Heaton. A Mason Mount header was straight at the same player. The Villa ‘keeper was in the heat of the action, scooping up another effort. Tammy misfired on a couple of chances. Current media “flavour of the month” Jack Grealish was chosen to be the one player that would infuriate the home supporters.

There had been a couple of “sighters” from Reece James, but on twenty-three minutes his fine cross was inch perfect and Tammy was on hand to steer it past the ‘keeper with a firm header.

Simple.

GET IN.

I felt Tammy’s relief from one hundred yards away.

Lovely.

Was there a moment of doubt, was VAR lurking? We didn’t think so.

Alan : “They’ull ‘ave to cum at uz nowww.”

Chris : “Cum on moi little di’munz.”

However, still no Les.

Fackinell.

I called him to reassure him that an engineer was on his way.

It was all Chelsea, really, but our chances dried up a little.

The atmosphere wasn’t brilliant but was certainly better than against West Ham. There had been a “Double, double, double” chant midway through the half but the home fans had set the right tone I think. It was all quite understated. The last thing I wanted was wall-to-wall John Terry adulation.

Eventually Les arrived.

Phew.

Alan and I spoke about the disbelief of hearing that there was not one Chelsea foul against the previous opponents. In this game, the harrying and tackling was much better. There was more energy. No more so than from Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount. Top stuff.

A song for Grealish :

“You’re just a shit Mason Mount.”

…mmm, 7/10…needs another syllable slotted in there somewhere.

However, there was a poor back-pass from Reece James (file under Kamikaze Defending Part 413) but we were lucky. Sadly, with the first-half coming to an end, Grealish combined with El Mohamady and his fine cross was headed home, off his leg, by Trezeguet. Annoyingly, our defenders in the six-yard block did not attack the ball. They were flat-footed. The showed the same amount of inertia as tectonic plates.

Fackinell.

Purple flares were visible in the claret and blue half of The Shed. It reminded me of the same colour flares in the same end against Wolves in 1994.

At the half-time confab between Jaro and I, our combined thinking was along the lines of “let’s hope for a little more precision in the second-half…a late winner would be perfect.”

Two minutes into the second-half, the game changed. I was able to capture the studied skills and delicate dink from Willian, the fantastic chest pass from Tammy – how John Terry, right? – and the ferocious volley into the roof of the net by Mason Mount.

WHAT. A. GOAL.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Chelsea 2 Aston Villa 1.

Especially for Jaro, the players raced down to the corner flag below.

Click, click, click, click, click.

A screamer from Mason and a scream from Mason.

Beautiful.

For the next twenty minutes, we hit a purple patch. We played some great football.

Pulisic running at defenders, twisting and turning.

The energy of Kovacic. Arkright, on this day, had sold a can of peas, a copy of the evening paper, some fire lighters and a quarter pound of peardrops. Ching ching went his cash register.

Mount winning 50/50s against Grealish – the battle of the night.

Kurt Zouma more confident now.

The technical ability of Reece James.

The tigerish spirit of Dave.

The whiplash of Willian.

And Kante. The relentless Kante.

Alan came up with a good metaphor for him. For opponents he is like that annoying itch that just can’t be reached. He is always there. Always beyond reach.

Good work, Al.

Crosses were whipped in, shots were blocked, the movement off the ball was superb. Mount went close from way out, then Tammy held his head in his hands as his shot was touched past the far post.

“Still need a third, though boys.”

Heaton was in the thick of it now and his goal lived a charmed life. A free-kick from Willian, again from distance, was tipped on to the bar and the ‘keeper then fell on the loose ball.

Fackinell.

The funniest part of the night?

Grealish’s attempt at a Mason Mount-esque volley. He missed the ball completely.

His song was repeated.

How we laughed.

(Good player though, on his day. That’s why we didn’t take to him, right? If he was shite, we would have ignored him.)

Some late changes.

Michy for Tammy.

Callum for Christian.

Jorginho for Willian.

Good applause for all.

The Chelsea shots still came, but Villa were not giving up.

“They’re far from the worst team we have played this season.”

There was a moment when a wide player received the ball in roughly the same area as Cresswell on Saturday – ugh – and I was deja vu’ing but the move broke down. One last chance for Villa and Kepa threw himself low to his right to avert the danger.

Phew.

We held on.

A good win, a great second-half, it felt like that we were back on track.

It was not the time to dwell too much on the niggling doubt that we have picked up points against average teams yet have struggled against the better teams.

A win and three points was all that mattered on this night in SW6.

Of course, John Terry took to the pitch at the end after the usual hugs and handshakes had taken place between the victors and losers, the heroes and villains, former team mates everywhere. I stayed until the end and took a few photographs, as is my wont.

I marched out onto the Fulham Road just as some Villa fans were walking past, but there was no trouble. I devoured a cheeseburger at “Chubby’s” and Jaro and I walked up the North End Road, chatting away like fools.

Back at PD’s car, we admitted what a fine second-half it had been.

PD had better luck on the return journey and, despite lots of fog en route, he reached Parky’s house at just after midnight. I clambered into my car and I was at home just before 1am.

It had been a fine night out in SW6.

Next up, a very poor Everton at a very fine Goodison.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Long Game

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 30 November 2019.

I was awake at 5am – yes as early as that – and I just knew that I would not be able to get back to sleep. Once I had checked my phone for any important social media occurrences – there weren’t – I was resigned to the fact that I had best get up well before my planned alarm call at 6.15am. This was not due to a ridiculously giddy, juvenile excitement induced by the thought of the West Ham home game. No, those days are – sadly? – gone. I’m fifty-four years old. I see Chelsea games every week. The simple fact was that I just couldn’t get back to sleep.

The reason for myself waking up, though, might be worth mentioning. I was in the middle of a dream, possibly one which was turning into a nightmare, with me on the way to meet a mate on our way to an airport ahead of a trip abroad, but one in which I had totally messed-up the timings. I was out by a couple of hours. I got an earful from my pal.

No wonder I woke up.

I spend my working day making sure that transport collections and deliveries are done on time and I devote much of my leisure time driving to and from cities, and a sizeable chunk of the remainder planning ahead for future trips, away days, holidays. For someone who fell in love with maps at an early age, has a degree in Human Geography and works in logistics, the notion of me missing a flight by a large margin was reason enough for me to wake in a cold sweat.

Fackinell.

I put the kettle on, and drank a leisurely coffee.

Eventually, the time came to leave my sleeping Somerset village.

On the way in to Frome to collect Simon and PD, the sky was still dark; black all but for a small slither of burnt orange above the Longleat estate to my west.

There was no Lord Parky for this trip; he was otherwise engaged.

Within the first five minutes of the two-and-a-half hour drive to London, we had vented about the game on Wednesday in Valencia. The penalty decision. The ridiculous booking for Kante. VAR. Always VAR. The air turned blue.

The air turned royal blue later on, at various stages in the journey, when we chatted briefly about the upcoming game.

“With no Tammy, Frank will obviously play Michy. Giroud has not got a look in this season. He obviously rates Michy over him.”

“Looks like Pedro is well out of it at the moment. Our two wide men, now – and for the foreseeable – are Pulisic and Willian.”

“At least we won’t be playing a false nine.”

I reached London at 10am.

On the short walk to West Brompton tube, I spotted a distant Stamford Bridge, or at least the roof supports of the Matthew Harding, enveloped in a wintry mist. It looked quite beguiling. Five hours later, I would be sat right underneath that very same section of roof. While I waited for the District Line train to take me down to meet up with Simon and PD (I had parked the car while they shot off to get the drinks in), I looked down the track, again a misty view and again very atmospheric, and saw it bend slightly to go through the tunnel. That same track would have taken me to Fulham Broadway on my very first game in 1974. I had a little moment to myself and remembered the joy of that very first visit.

The pre-match was totally spent within the very cosy confines of “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge as is so often the case these days. And as so often happens – to the point of cliché, right? – we were joined by pals from near and far; London, Stafford, Lancashire, Edinburgh, Toronto, Minneapolis, Los Angeles.

Before I knew it, Simon was swapping phone numbers with the Minneapolis contingent ahead of a possible trip to the US next summer with a mate who loves Prince. I told him the story of when Chelsea opened-up the glass and steel superstructure of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in 2016 against Milan, and that when we scored the first goal of the game, “Let’s Go Crazy” was played. A nice touch.

As we were in the pub so early – 10.30am – I decided to allow myself some “Birra Moretti” before moving on to the standard “Cokes.” They were a nice treat. It was lovely to see everyone getting on famously, despite many having never met previously. Cesar from Los Angeles laughing with PD. Simon chatting to Eric from Toronto. Dean chatting with Ralph from Los Angeles. Cesar chatting to Kev from Edinburgh.

Around this time last year, Cesar and his son Sebastian flew over for the 0-0 draw at home with Everton but due to the complexities of that trip, we were not able to meet up. He was making up for it this time. Cesar just wanted to spend time in an authentic London boozer and “The Eight Bells” fitted this requirement perfectly well. He was knocking back pints of “London Pride” and ordered some fish and chips too. On this visit, he was with his wife and daughter too, but this is where the story travels along a strange tangent. His wife Lucy and daughter Kira are Manchester United supporters – a split family – and were keen to head up to the game at Old Trafford on the Sunday of this footballing weekend. After a few messages across the Atlantic, my good friend Rick, a United season ticket holder, was able to sort out two tickets for them, sitting together, just a few seats away from him via a mate who would not be attending the game.

That, everyone, is what football should be all about.

While Cesar – I’ll just call him Dave – was chatting to myself, his wife and the two children were outside, sitting at the pub’s bench seats on the pavement, along with some friends. Cesar and Lucy had travelled over with a couple, with their two boys, who are not Chelsea but who were with them for the holiday’s duration. Ralph and his wife and their two boys were going to the game too. They were enjoying the London sun. But I felt for them. From Southern California sun to an English winter. But they were wrapped up well.

In the pub, some lads were constantly singing a new song.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

A solid 7/10 from me.

On the CFC website, there had been warnings about Chelsea supporters singing about “Pikeys.”

I’ll be honest; the first time that I had ever heard this word, which references the travelling community, was when we played Gillingham at home in the FA Cup in 2000. In my part of the world – there is a Gypsy camp just outside Frome, on Gyspy Lane no less – we used other words. And to be quite honest, they were always used in an equally derogatory manner. So perhaps it is right that the club has made this statement.

Times change, eh?

The team line up was announced and there were a few gulps.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Giroud – Pulisic

Our collective comments about players on the drive to London were evidently off the mark.

“What Do We Know Part 862.”

Inside the stadium, there was not too much of a London Derby vibe. There were the usual three thousand away fans, but the only public display of club colours that I could spot were on the two West Ham flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. There was the usual predominance of dark coats and navy jackets, with only occasional hints of claret and blue on rare scarves and jackets. And a decidedly similar story in all the home areas but with maybe a few more scarves.

I spotted a new banner on the hotel wall above The Shed. It was of the old Shed, maybe from the mid’- eighties or just after, and a better photo than the blurred image of spectators in The Shed from a similar date that was present until recently.

Flames and fireworks. The teams entered the pitch.

West Ham have a pretty decent home shirt this season, a reference to their 1976/77 shirt which I first remember seeing when they reached the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a 2-4 loss to Anderlecht. But I think that the kit would have been improved with crisp white shorts. Anyway, it is better than ours, which hurts me to admit.

The game?

Do I have to?

Hold on to your hats. This won’t be enjoyable.

Admittedly, we began the game in reasonably fine fettle. We dominated the ball. West Ham rarely threatened. There had been an early cross from the left but a stretching Antonio skied his chance well over. Mason Mount, we think, probably shot a little too soon when presented with the ball in a good position on the edge of the box. His effort was tame and debutant David Martin easily saved. Within a few seconds of play we conjured up two efforts on the West Ham goal. Firstly, a cross from Reece James on the right deflected up and struck the near post and then a header from a leaping Kurt Zouma skidded down and wide from the header that followed.

After twenty minutes, Alan commented that West Ham had hardly entered our half, let alone offer a chance to test Kepa in the goal down below us at the Matthew Harding. However, a fine cross from the West Ham right from Fredericks evaded everyone and found the head of that man Antonio. His close header was right at Kepa but our often maligned ‘keeper reacted well to palm it away.

Throughout the first-half, the West Ham fans were constantly yelling about “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

Rent Boys. Pikeys.

I didn’t know whether to be outraged by it all or bored by it all.

At the other end, at The Shed, a hopeful shot from Kovacic bouncing bombed its way through to the West Ham ‘keeper who saved the initial shot and then kept out follow-ups from both Giroud and Pedro.

The first-half sputtered on.

It had decreased in quality as the forty-five minutes progressed. And the atmosphere was just rotten. Kovacic looked busy, but in the way that Arkwright is busy; dusting his shop counter, rearranging his tins of soup, re-writing shop signs and getting Granville to fetch his cloth, but without actually fucking selling anything.

There was an excellent cross from James that was right on the money but it evaded both Giroud and Pulisic. At that moment in time I found myself thinking “the Chelsea of old would have scored that” whether it be via the head of Drogba or the boot of Costa.

Ah, Olivier Giroud – yes I know he did not have much service – but the man hardly moved the entire half. He didn’t seem too keen to test his marker, to create space for others, to give himself to the team. Perhaps he expected it all to be gift-wrapped for him. It was a deeply frustrating performance from him and most of the others. Only James on the right looked up to the task of stretching play.

There was a feeling of “ho hum” at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, a West Ham move developed. I happened to mention “how is Robert Snodgrass still playing for a Premier League team?” when the player moved the ball from wide right into the middle, with West Ham gifted all the space they needed. The ball was pushed out to a raiding Aaron Creswell on their left. I immediately sensed danger.

“Here we go.”

With that, he turned past James way too easily, and slotted a low shot in at the far post.

Chelsea 0 West Ham United 1.

Fackinell.

It seemed impossible that we were behind. It had been a poor game but we had edged the chances, slim that they were. We kept huffing and puffing but did not look at ease in our own skin. From a corner, Kepa had to stretch and keep out a Fabian Balbuena header. It was another excellent save.

For the first time of the entire match, the Matthew Harding got our act together and sang as one. I looked up at the clock.

59 minutes.

Not fucking good enough. We are meant to be supporting Frank this season. But this does mean that we just defend him in discussions at work, among colleagues, with strangers, on the internet, in fucking cyber-space, but it also means that we are meant to support him at games too.

I repeat. Not fucking good enough.

On sixty-three minutes, Frank pulled the strings.

N’Golo Kante for Jorginho.

Willan for Pedro.

There was, however, another catastrophe at The Shed End. A cross from the West Ham right from Snodgrass evaded Zouma and Antonio bundled it home.

Oh bloody hell.

But then we learned that VAR was being used.

A good time for me to use the facilities. Off I trotted.

I heard a loud roar.

No goal.

I did not react.

On returning to my seat, I heard from Alan that there had been a handball.

Fair enough.

With twenty minutes to go, off came Giroud, but instead of Michy Batshuayi, on came Callum Hudson-Odoi.

A definite head scratcher that one, eh?

We were playing a “kinda” false-nine.

Our pre-match chat in the car on the way up had proved fucking worthless.

“What Do We Know Part 863.”

The away fans were still going.

“Come on you Irons.”

The mood around me was getting tetchy, at best, angry at worst. I was saddened to hear a few calling our players by the “C” word.

Sigh.

In truth, we did improve in the last twenty minutes and the industry of Kante was the main catalyst. What a player he is.

But never in the last portion of the game did I feel that we would grab an equaliser. A shot from Callum was hit high. We seemed to be over-stacked with options on the right but Willian and James spent too much time passing to each other rather than launching missiles into danger areas. When balls were played across, false nines and invisible targets were not hit. With each poor pass, the moans increased in volume.

“That helps, eh?”

The last chance of the ninety minutes fell to Pulisic who was set up by Kante, and his first touch seemed to give just the right amount of space to smash the ball in. We got our celebrations tee’d up. Alas his shot mirrored the mood of the afternoon. He slashed it wide.

Five minutes of extra time was signalled. A few people had begun drifting away before then. The extra minutes did not treat us well. We kept going but were met by a resolute wall of claret.

I thought to myself “we have not lost to these at home for ages” and my mind back-peddled. The last time was in fact in September 2002, but I was not present; I was on holiday in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I can remember logging on to a friend’s computer to hear that we had lost 3-2. The last game in which I had witnessed a defeat in person against West Ham was the infamous 1-0 “Paul Kitson” game in 1998/99 which was our third and final loss of the season and seemed to feel like the end of our title challenge. In truth, we rallied again but an equally catastrophic 2-2 with Leicester City – “Steve Guppy” – put an end to our title challenge. However, if we had won both of those games, we would still not have been champions, as an inferior goal difference to Manchester United would have proved our undoing.

But 1998/99. Just three losses but no title. It seemed we would never get closer.

I digress.

With over four minutes of the five minutes played, and the ball in our half – and with my camera tucked away in its bag already – Alan, Simon, PD and I edged our way out. For the first time in hundreds of home games, I left before the final whistle, albeit no more than three seconds.

There were grumbles-a-plenty on the descent down to ground level.

Outside, I overheard a young bloke wail “I took a day off for that shit.”

Fucking diddums.

We trotted back to the car; the extra few minutes meant that we were ahead of the curve on getting out of the packed West London streets. I pulled out of Barons Court onto the A4 and I cleared the Chiswick roundabout by 6pm.

The drive home took two hours and was mainly in silence.

Simon and PD periodically snoozed. There was an occasional traffic-jam but I made good time. The M3 was OK despite the partial closure of the M4 – it’s sister road – and it was a relatively clean escape.

All really was quiet.

We knew that we had not played well. There was no need for a huge post mortem.

But my head churned things over as I drove. I searched for some positives.

The aim this season has always been one of sustained growth. And we really should not judge everything on one game, nor possibly even a handful.

I thought some more.

One of the “in” phrases of late is “game management”; the killing of the game in its final period once ahead, or “seeing teams off” as it was known in the days of old.  Frank’s brief all along has been geared to “season management.” I see this as the management of all resources throughout the season to the best of his abilities.

“The long game.”

That was our brief too, right? As fans, to be supportive, to give him time, to lay off the heavy criticism. How often did I see the phrase “I don’t care if we finish tenth this season.”

And yet some fans are throwing the “C” word around in November with us in the top four, comfortably the top six? Do me a favour.

It’s not a one game show this. It has to be about managing the whole season, bringing in players at various times, looking at options, weighing up strengths and weaknesses, assessing each player’s abilities and attributes. It’s simply not about playing the same eleven players every game.

As I drove on, I knew full well that the internet would be full of supporters over-reacting, as is the way of the world these days, and airing self-inflated opinions. Once home, I did not bother delving too deeply into such tripe. It had been a long day. I didn’t need all that.  I simply uploaded some photos of the day – my camerawork was off too, it was one of those days – and then fell asleep, probably just as well, before our game was aired on “MOTD.”

There is a short video which was released by Chelsea Football Club just after the game, pitch side, and in it Frank Lampard spoke about the game.

This was my brief comment :

“For all those having a bit of a moan, listen to the man speak. Valid comments throughout. He will learn from his mistakes. Frank is intelligent and focused, rarely have I been more impressed listening to a football man talk about the game…”

I am already looking forward to the game on Wednesday at home to Aston Villa.

I trust that the club won’t go overboard with the return of John Terry. And I hope that the fans’ reactions strike the right tone.

On we go, on this franktastic journey.

See you there.

 

Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

At around 1pm – bang on target, just as I had predicted, have I mentioned I work in logistics? – I pulled into the car park of The Windmill pub just off the roundabout on the M6 which crosses with the A556.

Exit 19.

It did not seem five minutes since we were last there. It was, in fact, three months ago that we stopped for an hour or so as we met my old college mate Rick before the league opener against Manchester United. On this occasion, ahead of our enticing game with Manchester’s other team, we were stopping for considerably longer. I had enjoyed the trip north; grey skies, but no rain, a clear run. The usual three – PD, Parky and little old me – were joined by PD’s son Scott. This would be his first visit to Manchester, for football or for anything else for that matter. The drive was four hours in length, and we chatted intermittently about all sorts of shite. The game itself was touched upon but only fleetingly. We mentioned that it was likely that Frank Lampard would go for a little more robust midfield three than against other teams; Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante. But other topics of conversation were wide, and wild, and various. This is often the case. I have mentioned before that on match days we often treat the game itself as a discussion topic as if it was the eye of a storm – tranquil, peaceful, calm – while other games are voraciously discussed, with whirlwinds of memories cascading around of past matches and past battles, with the future games discussed at length too, with plans and itineraries debated ad nauseam.

We ordered drinks – three ciders and a diet Coke, no point in guessing which was mine – and studied the varied menu. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the various “non-football” chats en route to the north-west was of types of food, maybe from our childhood, I can’t remember. I had mentioned steak and kidney pudding – home-made, with suet – and lo-and-behold, a steak and ale pudding was on the menu. PD and I ordered it. Parky chose lasagne. Scott chose ham, eggs and chips.

Is everyone still awake?

The suet pudding was crammed full of steak, the chips were authentic chip-shop style, the garden peas were sweet and juicy, and in typical Northern fashion, everything was set off with thick gravy.

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

Although the City stadium was twenty miles away, and we didn’t think that we would see anyone we knew, after an hour or so Mark from Slough spotted me and came over to sit nearby with two fellow Chelsea mates. I bump into Mark occasionally, but our paths do not cross too often. The most memorable occasion was in China when he was a late addition to the coach trip to the Great Wall of China that I had booked in 2017. Mark, like me, follows his local non-league team. For a few moments we bored the others rigid with stupefyingly dull talk of the two Towns, Frome and Slough, respectively.

After three diet Cokes and a large cappuccino, I was raring to go to the game.

We left there at just after 3.30pm. It was an oh-so familiar drive to the Etihad, and it took us right past the site of Maine Road. Now then, dear reader, I have already detailed two of my three visits to this much-loved old stadium in these reports before so it is appropriate that I complete the story with some notes from the away game in 1985/86.

I am nothing if not consistent.

In fact, on this occasion I am lifting some words straight out of my 1985 diary.

“Caught the 8.32am to Manchester. A pleasant journey through the usual South Cheshire towns. Arrived at Piccadilly at 9.30am. Saw football coaches pull up at the station, so hopped on one. A chap from Stafford had a natter; definitely remember him from the Chelsea vs. Sunderland train. Let inside at 10.30am. A 60p hot dog and up on to the small corner terrace. I suppose we had 2,000, maybe 2,500. A pretty poor turn out really. Chelsea had seats behind the goal. Didn’t see any of the lads. Chelsea began well, causing City’s defence many problems. In about the tenth minute, Speedie flicked the ball to Dixon who, by the penalty spot, calmly lobbed the ball over the ‘keeper. A super little goal really. Chelsea had a good spell, then City put in some long crosses but didn’t cause Eddie much of a problem. The game deteriorated in the last fifteen minutes of the half. I can’t honestly say the second-half improved at all. Only Canoville – on for Hazard – seemed to want to take the play to the home team. We were made to look very plain by a team that were not exactly high on confidence. The highlights were three great blocks by Eddie which saved us from a boring draw. I think he was our best player, always a bad sign. He didn’t put a foot wrong. We were kept in for a while. Spotted our firm waiting to my left as I boarded the bus back to the station. Spotted Winkle. Eventually back to the station for 2pm. A quarter-pounder. Caught the 2.42pm back to Stoke, getting back at 3.45pm. Many flared cords today. Even Chelsea.”

Some notes to add.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent at the time. Far be it for me to suggest that its location slap-dab between the football “awayday” cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester might have, perhaps, influenced my decision to live there for three years.

My proclivity to record fine detail of train times, and timings in general,  continues to this day. Did I mention I work in logistics?

The early kick-off? Probably, no undoubtedly, a result of our reputation at the time of being Public Enemy Number One, and on the back of the previous visit, in late 1983/84, which resulted in seven thousand Chelsea roaming Moss Side and taking unbelievable liberties.

I travelled alone and did not chat to any close friends. Sometimes it was like that.

Winkle. A young lad, a bit of a face, who was pointed out to me by Alan – probably – and who was in and around the firm at the time. I learned quite recently that he had passed away some time ago; a relatively young death, a heart attack I believe. He is often mentioned on a few chat sites.

Flared cords. After the bright sportswear of 1983/84, it all went a little undercover and muted in 1984/85, and even more so in 1985/86. I have recently seen reference to this period in terrace subculture as the “anti-suss” era. After the skinhead and boots era passed, and as casualdom took hold, it eventually dawned on the police that those lads in smart sportswear with expensive trainers and the wedge cuts were hooligans. Lads needed to divert further. Out came plain pullovers, darker trainers, black leather jackets, darker jeans. Less gregariousness, and still one step ahead of the authorities. In the north-west, and Leeds – always Leeds – this manifested itself in slightly flared cords and jeans, a new trend after tight and faded jeans of the early ‘eighties. In fact, it all looked – hugely ironically – quite mainstream. But the devil was in the details. Heavy Armani pullovers, Hard Core jeans, Aquascutum and Burberry, Berghaus and Boss.

Hot dogs and hamburgers. The fodder of football. Nobody asked for a salad at games in 1985, and nor do they do now.

The gate on that Saturday morning was just 20,104, but this was especially low because – I do not doubt – it was at such an early time. In addition, I have a feeling our allocation was all-ticket, a rarity for those days. That season was eventually won by Liverpool despite Manchester United going on a nine or ten game winning streak at the start. As if it needs stating again, no leagues are won in October nor November. Low gates predominated in our football at this period, a time when football hooliganism had scared many away. Those that went were often treated shamefully. Out of interest, the top ten average gates from that season are featured below.

  1. Manchester United – 46,322 (4)
  2. Liverpool – 35,319 (1)
  3. Everton – 32,388 (2)
  4. Manchester City – 24,229 (15)
  5. Arsenal – 23,813 (7)
  6. Newcastle United – 23,184 (11)
  7. Sheffield Wednesday – 23,101 (5)
  8. Chelsea – 21,986 (6)
  9. West Ham United – 21,289 (3)
  10. Tottenham Hotspur – 20,862 (10)

It always makes me giggle to see that West Ham’s highest ever league placing still resulted in a lower gate than ours.

“Where were you when you were shit?” they ask us.

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

I made my way through the city. The traffic flowed surprisingly well.

I always find it odd that Manchester is often abbreviated to “M’cr” on many road signs.

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

I dropped the lads off outside The Etihad at about 4.15pm and then drove on to park up. For the first time ever, my away ticket had failed to materialise and so I had needed to call Chelsea the previous day for a reprint to be arranged. I soon collected it at the away end ticket office. We bumped into others; Deano from Yorkshire, the Bristol lot, Scott and Paul. Everyone excited about the game.

PD and LP were in the middle tier. Scott and I were up in the third tier. This added a little frisson of excitement for me; my first time in the lofty heights of Level Three since the stadium was expanded in 2015. Others were sampling the top tier too, and were equally looking forward to it.

My seat – as if I’d be seated, none of us were – was in row W, but this was only halfway back. The tier goes on forever. But due to the layering of tiers, and the steepness of the rake, the pitch honestly does not seem too distant.

We had heard horrible news from elsewhere; a Tottenham win, a Liverpool win, and my local team Frome Town had let a 2-0 lead in Portsmouth evaporate against Moneyfields, who themselves were down to ten men, conceding an equaliser in the final minute. It is not known how Slough Town did.

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

I’d be more than happy with a 2-2 in Manchester.

The team had been announced. No real, huge, surprises.

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Barkley and Pedro are way down in the pecking order now, eh? It is clear that Frank loves Willian. He is enjoying a fine season, again, after an indifferent start.

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

I waited as the minutes ticked by. Scott ascended the stairs after squeezing in a final lager. There were a surprising number of people that I knew settling down alongside me.  I had incorrectly presumed that most ASTs would have been located in the other levels. With no cameras allowed at The Etihad, I was planning to utilise my ‘phone and I therefore knew that my match photographs would be limited to broad panoramas. There was the usual audio visual countdown to kick-off, but how many times can the world hear Martin Tyler scream the word “Aguero!” without feeling slightly jaundiced by it all. Yeah, I know, even if that goal was a kick in the solar plexus for Manchester United and its millions of fans.

I am surprised, actually – knowing how City like to “one step beyond” wind us up – that Frank Lampard’s goal against us in 2014 was not part of the countdown on the TV screens.

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

At last, the final minutes. A huge City banner – “125 years” – welcomed the teams onto the pitch. To the side, an equally large banner declaring “This is our city.”

Blue Moon boomed.

As at many stadia, banners covered every inch of balcony wall. I am always bemused by the small flag to the left on the Colin Bell Stand that simply says “Reddish Blues.”

For the geographically-challenged, Reddish is a part of the Manchester conurbation.

In another universe, it might represent a small band of Mancunians who like United and City.

And it would be a very small band, marooned in Reddish for eternity.

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

I looked over at Frank Lampard, track suited, and wondered if he ever gave his bizarre stint as a City player much thought. Guardiola in the other technical area was casually dressed as always.

City in blue (with an odd hint of purple on the sleeves) shirts, white shorts and white socks. They seem to change that blending every year. I prefer them in the blue socks of my youth.

Chelsea in royal blue shirts, royal blue shorts, royal blue socks out of necessity.

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

I had mentioned in the pub, or the car, how City often start peppering our goal at The Etihad from the off. And it invariably involves Sergio Aguero. On this occasion, soon into the game, it was Kevin De Bruyne who flashed a low shot from an angle just inches past Kepa’s far post. I looked to the skies, or at least the towering stand roof above my head.

“Here we go again.”

But as the game developed, we showed no cowardice in taking the game to City. The last two league games at the same stadium had produced different game plans, but still the same result.

In 2017/18, Antonio Conte played ultra-defensively, lost 1-0, and lost many friends, despite it almost paying off.

In 2018/19, Maurizio Sarri attempted to play City at their own game and lost 6-0, one of the worst days out of my life, so thank you for that.

In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team played with great spirit, good movement, a fast tempo, and for a while it looked like we could pull off a wonderful victory.

A Willian shot from the inside the box in the inside-right channel missed Ederson’s far post by the same margin as the De Bruyne effort a few minutes earlier. Tackle for tackle, pass for pass, punch for punch we were matching them.

I focused on Tammy Abraham for a while. There always seems to be an element of doubt about how successful Tammy will be when he receives a ball. I am never sure of his intentions, and I am not sure if he is either. Did he really mean to keep possession or did he really intend to control it quickly and then distribute it to a team mate? Did he mean that flick? However, one scintillating feint and a quick turn into a sudden patch of space left his marker questioning his career choice. This was just wonderful.

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

Willian was full of intelligent running, sometimes the overlap option and often the underlap option, and saw much of the early ball. Christian Pulisic looked in fine form on the opposing flank. A shot from Fikayo Tomori went close.

A rare City foray into our box was met by not one but four Chelsea defenders lining up to block a goal bound shot. Magnificent.

With twenty minutes or so gone, Mateo Kovacic released a magnificent ball right into the heart of the City defence. It dropped majestically into the path of N’Golo Kante, who touched it on. I felt myself relax, as if I knew a goal was coming. I sensed that he only needed to poke it past a manically exposed Ederson.

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

This place has not been a happy hunting ground for us of late. We usually lose. Could we repeat those – magnificent – rare wins in 2013/14 and 2016/17?

Scott hoped so; he had bet £50 on us at 13/2.

City had been quiet all game, and were silent now.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

We looked imperious. City’s defence looked porous. We prodded and teased all over the pitch. This was a great game. I was loving it.

Out of nowhere there was a ridiculous “Fuck Off Mourinho” and I was pleased that very few joined in.

We were playing with skill, speed, purpose and pleasure.

But then.

We lost possession poorly and the ball was quickly threaded through to De Bruyne. A shot from outside the box drew the attention of three or four defenders willing to throw their bodies towards the ball, but on this occasion luck was not with us. A shot was cruelly deflected off a limb and Kepa was beaten.

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

The home team was roused and we gulped as a De Bruyne shot was slashed narrowly over. Just eight minutes after the first goal, Mahrez cut inside – past Pulisic and Emerson, both dumbfounded by the trickery – and we watched as his low shot nestled inside the far post.

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

Our play grew nervous. Kamikaze back-passes, nervy touches. A shocking clearance from Kepa went straight towards that man Aguero – “here we fucking go” – but to our relief (not pleasure, this was not pleasurable) his shot struck the bar full on.

At the break I muttered some usual phrases from the earlier part of this season.

“Naïve defending. We need to know when to clear our lines, we are just inviting them on. Silly mistakes.”

The first quarter of the game, with us playing so well, had seemed like a cruel false dawn, a fib, a lie.

I bumped into some good pals at half-time and their smiles cheered me. It was great to see Dave from Brisbane, over for this and Valencia, again. In the toilets, I involuntarily began smoking for the first time since my schooldays.

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Sadly, the second-half was a poor shadow of the high-tempo attack and counter-attack of the first period.

N’Golo – a real force of nature in our purple patch – struck at goal down below us but his shot was blocked. It would be our only goal bound effort for ages.

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

City came close at the other end. We were riding our luck. We found it hard to repel City, who were growing stronger with each passing minute.

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

A dipping effort from Willian caused a fingertip save from Ederson, but it seemed that we would never score. Mason Mount took responsibility for a very central free-kick in the dying minutes but the effort drifted well wide.

Sigh.

Just after, Raheem Sterling slotted home, but VAR ruled it offside. Nobody in the away end celebrated it, nor should they.

Fuck VAR.

It ended at approaching 7.30pm with our first league loss since the home game with Liverpool.

As I slowly began the slow walk down many flights of stairs, I muttered “no complaints” to many.

And there really were no real complaints.

In the grand scheme of things, we played OK, but no more. At times we were fantastic, at times not so. But City – “Stating The Bleeding Obvious Part 859” – are a very fine team. They are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but when they do…

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

“At least we have pissed off ninety-five billion Liverpool fans this evening.”

We walked along Ashton New Road in the rain, in Raintown, as is so often the case.

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

I made good time as I headed south, stopping off at Stafford Services where we feasted on a ridiculous amount of junk food. Jason Cundy was spotted in the adjacent “Costa” though I did not have the energy to say hello.

The rain continued for hours. But I was cocooned in my car. I had no concerns, of the game nor my long drive home. We had seen worse, eh? I eventually arrived back home – no rain, now – at 12.30am, the day’s total mileage hitting 420 miles.

It had been a good day out.

I am not going to Valencia – safe travels to all – so the next instalment will feature the home match with West Ham United.

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…