Tales From Under The Christmas Lights

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 19 December 2018.

The final leg of the Budapest, Brighton and Bournemouth trilogy was taking place. PD picked me up from work at 3pm and we were soon on our way.

By an odd quirk of fate, we played Bournemouth at home in the quarter final of the League Cup on Wednesday 20 December 2017. Here we all were, almost a year on, replaying the same game. On the journey up to London, I had trouble remembering last season’s score.

“What was it? 2-0? 2-1?”

PD and LP weren’t sure either.

The three of us were in town again for yet another Chelsea home game (for the record, number 752 for me), but I admitted to my travelling companions that I was hardly very enthusiastic about it all. There was that odd mixture of “duty” for me to attend, and the worry of “guilt” should I have decided not to go.

But I was there, and we met up with one group of friends at “The Goose” – good to see Dave from Brisbane again after meeting him in Perth for the first time in July – and another group in “Simmons” – including Alex from NYC once more. A couple of beers managed to get me into the spirit.

Outside the West Stand, which was adorned with thousands of white Christmas lights again, I stopped by the Peter Osgood statue. The chance to take a selection of photographs of the King of Stamford Bridge at Christmas time against a glittering backdrop was difficult to resist. I had only taken a couple of photographs, when I was aware of two blokes standing close to me. One of them decided to “chat.”

“This your first visit to Stamford Bridge then, mate?”

I detected a definite sarcastic tone to his voice. I was guessing that he had swallowed the hackneyed view of tourists bringing cameras to Stamford Bridge, and as a result, not helping the atmosphere by constantly taking photographs. I looked like a sitting target. But it took me great pleasure to reply, in a deadpan voice.

“I’m a season ticket holder, mate.”

This took him back somewhat. But his friend would not be silenced. In an equally sarcastic tone, he asked if I always brought my camera to games.

“Yep. I take loads of photos.” And smiled.

They were defeated.

“Fair play to you, mate.”

“Cheers.”

Yep. I’m a season ticket holder. I take photos at games. But I also cheer and shout and try to get behind the boys. These activities are not mutually exclusive.

Rant over. As the kids say.

Inside Stamford Bridge, the place looked to be near capacity. A fantastic effort by all, especially in the week before Christmas.

The team was a mixture of first team regulars and those just outside the first choice eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Fabregas – Barkley

Loftus-Cheek – Giroud – Willian

There were more fireworks and flames as the teams entered the pitch; it heightened the atmosphere a little, and seemed to be more fitting than at a midday kick-off.

On the previous night, Burton Albion and Manchester City had reached the semi-finals. I shuddered at the thought of a midweek trip to The Etihad in January; that trip would necessitate at least half a day off work, and would certainly test my support. Burton would be easier and a dream draw; a new stadium at last. I remembered our semi-final against Wycombe Wanderers in 2007 and wondered if there might be some sort of repeat. Over in North London, Arsenal were meeting Tottenham. The semi-finals were calling.

The game began with a nice little buzz in the stands and on the pitch. We began well, with tons of movement and passing. Willian was involved with one or two efforts. Ross Barkley tested the Cherries’ goalkeeper Artur Boruc too. We were certainly on the front foot.

The away support, not many shy of 3,000, were far from loud but were getting behind their team, which had former blue Nathan Ake in their side.

“Come on Bournemouth, come on Bournemouth.”

Some Chelsea supporters chose to repeat this, but with a twist.

“Fuck off Bournemouth, fuck off Bournemouth.”

Blimey. Telling Bournemouth to fuck off is like telling your gran to fuck off. They are the most benign and inoffensive football club. Giroud was often involved in the first period, often as provider in addition to finisher. The away time rarely threatened with just a lone effort from Callum Wilson going wide.

There was a little tendency to overpass, and I longed for an occasional early ball to cause havoc in the Bournemouth half. An effort from Giroud fizzed in. On the half-hour, a lightening break which was a lovely reminder of us at our best under Antonio Conte, resulted in Willian going close, but a Boruc save. At the other end, Mousset threatened our goal.

I am always keen to spot players’ trademarks.

I have often mentioned the John Terry chest pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the David Luiz full body jump dummy to one side, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the Hazard 180 degree turn.

I now realised that the Ross Barkley trademark is the dragging of the ball back while reversing, using the studs to shuffle the ball backwards.

It was goal-less at the break. Meanwhile, over in Holloway, Tottenham were 1-0 up with a goal from Son.

“He always shines on TV” I muttered to Alan and Alan glowered at me in return.

Into the second-half, our dominance continued. A storming run from Loftus-Cheek brought the crowd into the game, and a shot went narrowly wide. Ten minutes into the second forty-five, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Eden Hazard replaced Barkley. We evidently needed to require on the mercurial talents of our Belgian magician. The Bournemouth substitute Ryan Fraser added some pace down the Bournemouth left and on a few occasions the ball fizzed around our penalty area, but luckily there was nobody in the right position to prod home.

At around the seventieth minute, the game became stretched with more space available. At the other end, there was an appeal for a Bournemouth penalty when the ball struck Dave, but from my absolutely perfect position ninety yards away, it was plainly not a penalty.

The Chelsea pressure continued. Hazard set up Loftus-Cheek with an audacious flick, but Ruben’s low cross went begging. A low shot from Hazard was tame and Boruc easily saved.

David Luiz replaced Andreas Christensen with ten minutes to go.

With the clock ticking, and with Spurs now 2-0 up at Arsenal, our domination paid off. Bodies were massing down our left-wing as Pedro advanced before playing the ball to Eden. The ball was returned to Pedro, and the ball somehow found Hazard who smashed at the goal. The ball was deflected, but the pace enabled the ball to crash into the net.

A “whoop” from me as I then snapped away like a fool. I had missed the David Luiz celebration in the same corner against Manchester City, but the players made up for it this time. Emerson had chosen to leave the ball for Eden as the ball was played back by Pedro in the build-up to the goal and the two players spun away together in some sort of mating dance, eyes popping, smiles wide, arms outstretched.

There is nothing like a late winner, even in the League Cup. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

With two minutes remaining, Eddie Howe brought on Jermain Defoe. As he sprinted on to the pitch, I leaned forward and spoke to the lads in front.

“Not that word. Not that word.”

They smiled.

In previous years, the entrance of the former Tottenham player would have elicited a knee-jerk response from sections of the home crowd and the Pavlovian spouting of a word which has been on everyone’s mind since Budapest last week. But, fair’s fair, there was nothing. Nothing at all. After Brighton at the weekend, we had passed another test.

Good stuff, Chelsea.

In the last couple of minutes, Boruc made two fine stops, the second a sublime save from Olivier Giroud, an absolute stunner. The referee had signalled four minutes of extra-time. I packed up my camera and grabbed the match programme, and made my way to the exit on ninety-four minutes. But the game did not want to stop. Into five minutes of added time, we gave away a free-kick on the edge of the box. Everyone who was leaving stopped and we watched, nervously. Boruc raced up from his usual position. The ball was played in, but was not cleared. The ball was sent on a ricocheting journey around the box, like pinball, but thankfully the ball was not slotted home. I was expecting a Bournemouth player to slam it in.

Soon after, the whistle blew.

Phew.

Into the semi-final we went.

I recently mentioned the euphoric scenes which greeted our win against Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup quarter final in 1985, when the Stamford Bridge stadium was bouncing with shouts of “we’re going to Wembley, we’re going to Wembley, you ain’t, you ain’t” aimed at our great rivals from South Yorkshire. Nobody wanted to leave the ground. The place was jumping.

In 2018, we reached our thirtieth semi-final since 1985 – almost one per season – and we slid out, with hardly a sound after the initial roar at the final whistle.

Success, eh?

I slept on the way home. When I awoke, somewhere on Salisbury Plain, probably near Stonehenge, the lads told me that we had drawn Tottenham in the semis.

“Bollocks.”

Let’s all hope it is a repeat of the 1972 semi-final and not a repeat of the 2002 one.

On Saturday, it is back to Stamford Bridge – home game number 753 – for the visit of Leicester City.

I will see you there.

 

 

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star.

Scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.

And Chelsea won, as we all knew they would.

And the star of that great team was Peter Osgood.

Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood.

Born is the King of Stamford Bridge.”

Tales From Brightonia

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 16 December 2018.

On my return from Budapest on Saturday afternoon, I ended up battling almost four hours of treacherous weather on the motorways of south-east and then south-west England. There was no let up to the rain. By the time I reached home at around 6pm, I was exhausted. But the memories of Budapest buoyed me up. There was just time to run through some photographs from the trip and share them on “Facebook”, catch a little “Match of the Day” and then crash out at midnight. At 5.45am, the alarm sounded and the second instalment of “Budapest, Brighton and Bournemouth” began.

“Tiring stuff, this football lark.”

I collected PD at 7am and LP at 7.30am. And we up and running for only my third ever Chelsea away game at Brighton & Hove Albion. Billowing storm clouds appeared to the south over Salisbury Plain, and I feared the worst. Luckily, the weather was fine on the two-and-a-half hour drive down to Sussex-by-the-Sea. I had decided to park the Chuckle Bus at nearby Lewes and then take the train to Falmer, just a ten-minute journey. It seemed that other Chelsea fans had the same idea. We had kept bumping into the “Bristol Lot” – Julie, Tim, Brian, Kev, Sam and Chloe – over in Budapest and to our amusement, both of our cars arrived at the Lewes train station car park at exactly the same time.

“Are you following us?”

It was only £2.15 to park on a Sunday; result.

It seemed that parking at Lewes was a popular choice among the travelling support. In the five minutes it took to sort out payment at the ticket machine, I had said “hi” to fellow Chelsea fans Ian, Zac and Aki. Having a match ticket for the game at the Amex entitled the ticket holder to free travel on the train. What a great idea. This was going well. Even the publicised rain was holding off.

I had a good old walk around the stadium for the first time.

PD and LP popped in to the ground for a few pre-match liveners, while I waited outside the away end to sort out some tickets for fellow fans. There was a small contingent in from New York. It was lovely to see Alex again, who was over for the FA Cup Final in May, and his girlfriend Mariane. I met Dan, his girlfriend Shelly and also Anshu for the first time, even though – Chelsea World Is A Small World Part 814 – he was sat opposite us in the plane returning from Budapest.

I shook hands with a few good friends. Talk was off the song in Budapest. Regardless of anyone else’s thoughts about the right, or otherwise, of fans of our club or fans of Tottenham to sing a certain word, I know for a fact that one person is not pleased about it.

Roman Abramovich.

But this game in the town of Brighton – immoral to some, liberal to others – certainly threw up the potential for problems if some sections of our support were not wary of what they were saying, or singing. We had endured alleged, but unfounded, racism against Manchester City, had been accused of anti-Semitism out in Budapest, and now there was a risk of homophobic chanting (there was an admittedly small amount last season…) now in Sussex.

The media were out to see if we would trip ourselves up again.

It almost overshadowed the football.

But one thought had dominated the thoughts of many; Dan Levene had done himself absolutely no favours in his quickness to report the singing in Budapest. I don’t know the bloke. I have met him only very briefly at a CPO meeting in 2014. But it seemed that in the previous few days, it was evident that he was a journalist first and a Chelsea fan second.

Not good. Not good at all.

As I made my way into the roomy and airy away concourse and then the slight tier of blue seats in the away end, I noted a subdued air among the away support which numbered 2,500. I had swapped tickets around so people could be together. I was sat over to the right hand side of the goal, and was sat right next to Anshu.

Chelsea World Is A Small World Part 815.

I have said before how I like the stadium at Falmer. Quirky angles, different tiers, sloping angles, extra viewing platforms, it is quite different to the much-derided identikit design of Southampton or Derby or Middlesbrough. The West Stand to our left was surprisingly tall.

It was time to suddenly start thinking about the football. The team was a copy of the one that had vanquished the champions Manchester City.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Brighton in broad mid-blue and white stripes. Chelsea in all yellow.

I spotted the “Brightonia” banner in the same far corner as last season, with the “North Stand Kollective” tag added for good measure. The game brought together two different support bases for sure; Brighton with a notable leftfield, if not left-wing, support and Chelsea with a notable right-wing support.

I wondered how things would develop on the terraces as the game began.

In truth, maybe due to the early-afternoon start, everything was pretty quiet in the stands. In fact, as Chelsea completely dominated the play in that opening forty-five minutes, the home support was ridiculously quiet.

A David Luiz free-kick early on did not trouble Ryan in the Brighton goal. We slowly got into the game and began to move the ball well – and early – and were in control. It took a while for Eden Hazard to get into the game, playing between the lines, dropping deep occasionally, not left-wing, nor right-wing, a footballing maverick, but once he found his footing he was unplayable.

Kepa punched a string cross out of the danger area, but was otherwise quiet.

On seventeen minutes, Hazard weaved his magic in the inside-left channel, and turned the ball across the face of the goal, and with the ‘keeper stranded at the near post, the perfectly-timed run of Pedro resulted in the ball being smashed home.

Brightonia 0 Chelsea World 1.

There was a save from Kepa from Solly March, but chances – for all of our possession – were at a premium. Then, on thirty-three minutes, a blunder by a Brighton player was pounced upon by Willian who quickly pushed the ball on to Hazard. He advanced quickly – “damn this counter-attacking football” – and ran deep into the Brighton box. He drew the ‘keeper and slotted home to his right. It was a beautiful run and finish and Hazard leapt high in front of the silent home fans.

The North Stand Kollective 0 The South Stand 2.

The away fans chose a strange song to have a dig at the Brighton support :

“Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

Er, right.

The home fans could take no more of it. They hit us with a low body blow.

“A club full of racists, you know what you are.”

Groan.

But everything else was subdued. It definitely felt like there was an uneasy quietness in the away section.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace” was as loud, and as vindictive, as it got.

A towering Rudiger leap at the far post resulted in a header missing the target. But at half-time, we were 2-0 to the good and all was well in the world. Kovacic was enjoying a good game, Luiz was splaying some lovely passes out of defence, and our forwards were testing the packed Brighton defence. We were in a good place.

Soon after the restart, a fine move and a cross from Dave on the right could not be touched home by Hazard. My viewing position was over by our left-wing, almost in a corner. It’s always a pleasure to see the speed of these top players. Willian and Alonso often combined but the final ball in was often delayed. Without a physical presence in the box, the ball was often played back to the “D.”

There was a moment of hilarity in the ranks when the ball was played back to David Luiz and he had time to touch the ball, but then purposefully took a moment to sweep his hair back from over his eyes – “yeah, you sort yer hair out first.” I can’t imagine Ron Harris doing the same.

Marcos Alonso struck a thunderous shot against the post from twenty yards out. A third goal would have killed the game there and then.

This seemed to breath some life into Brighton, who until that moment were looking a very poor team, not worthy of their creditable mid-table position.

On a couple of occasions, a Brighton attacker was free to jump unhindered at the far post but, thankfully, with little consequence. Then, on sixty-six minutes, a long cross from the Brighton right was met with another towering header at the back stick and March did well to spin and turn to guide the ball in.

Brighton & Hove 1 Hammersmith & Fulham 2.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Pedro and looked to cause a few problems with his directness.

Ross Barkley replaced Mateo Kovacic, but then failed to impress, shooting ridiculously high from distance.

I optimistically opined “that’s just a sighter, he’ll get better.” Sadly, he didn’t. We had heard that Southampton were beating Arsenal a few counties along the South Coast, and things began to get nervy in the away end. Thankfully, unlike in Budapest, nobody left early.

Olivier Giroud replaced Eden Hazard, who had surprisingly stayed on after getting clumped a good fifteen minutes earlier.

The home fans were baying for blood in the final five minutes when Alonso seemed to stop March in his tracks, but he remained on the pitch. We held our breath, but March wasted the free-kick. Brighton certainly had a little late rally but we held on.

Arsenal had lost in Hampshire. We had won in East Sussex.

Phew.

Brighton keep the bar area open after games as they acknowledge that there is a royal scrum down to get on to trains at the nearby station. This is a very wise move. We were able to relax and enjoy a pint of lager. We chatted to a few pals from near and far. Johnny12 and Jenny12, plus Sujin, from California had enjoyed the visit to Sussex by the Sea. There was one young Chelsea fan who – on his own – blurted out “Barcelona, Real Madrid” but was immediately “hushed” by his little band of mates.

Good. We had policed ourselves well all day. I had commented earlier that we can, as a collective, police ourselves. It has happened once or twice before before. Back in around – when? 2007? – when “The Bouncy” first made its appearance on the Chelsea, mainly away, terraces, the version (mirroring the Rangers original), involved the words “if you don’t do the bouncy, you’re a Y-Word.” Over time, and I am not sure if there was any defining reason for the change, this segued into “bounce in a minute, we’re gonna bounce in a minute.”

The infamous Morata song, aired only really at Leicester last season, soon died out too.

So, it can be done. We just need to find another word that rhymes with Madrid.

We were ushered out of the stadium and walked slowly down the ramp to the Falmer Station. There was time, as we waited to catch the 5pm train to Lewes, for the best burger, thus far, of the season.

I had enjoyed Brighton. It had been another fine away day. Sadly, the rain returned on the drive west, and as I eventually reached home at about 9pm, I was again exhausted.

Budapest, done. Brighton, done. Bournemouth, next.

The story continues.

Tales From The Home City Of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Albert And Bozsik

Vidi vs. Chelsea : 13 December 2018.

What with the altered, almost dreamlike, reality caused by the bright neon of the Christmas lights, and the extra-sensory rush of the chilled wintry air, plus the floodlit castles by the river and churches and synagogues and spires of the city, to say nothing of the intoxicating scent of mulled wine and of the tantalising aromas of the hearty food of the Christmas markets, at many times in Budapest it felt like I was in the middle of an Eastern European fairy tale. It truly was a magical time. It was magical enough that I was at last visiting one of the classical European capitals with good friends. That there was football, and Chelsea of course, made it all that much sweeter.

Budapest 2018 was truly wonderful.

The flights and accommodation had been sorted out way back in August. This trip to Hungary, my first-ever visit, was a slow-train coming. It seemed like it would never arrive. As the autumn campaign in the Europa League progressed – a procession for our team – the anticipation rose steadily. I bought a Budapest guide book (a pet peeve of mine; hardly a single mention of football in its two-hundred and seventy pages, and certainly no mention of Ferenc Puskas), and also carried out a little online research. We were lucky in the scrum down of the Virtual Waiting Room, and were sure of match tickets. We knew of many that had not been so fortunate. But many were travelling to Budapest without tickets, lured by the prospects of a proper European city with all of the associated thrills.

Eventually the day came.

The long drive to Stansted began at 3am on the Wednesday, the day before the game. My travelling companions were PD and LP, our third European away game together. Also on the 0830 Ryanair flight out of Stansted were Alan, Gary and Daryl. The flight was bang on two hours in duration. We nabbed a few precious minutes of sleep; we knew it would be a long old day. At the airport, we jumped in a cab and headed towards our apartment on Vorosmarty Utca, about a mile and a half to the north-east of the “Pest” city centre. The skies were clear, with few clouds. Thank heavens there was no rain. As we drove through the roads and streets of this new city, I peered out of the window, eager to take on board all of the new sights.

It looked a quintessential former Eastern bloc city. High rises. Graffiti. Crumbling walls. Old dwellings. But then the brazen modern additions, the hit of capitalism and the gleam of car dealerships, fast food restaurants and roadside billboards. I spotted the four leaning floodlights of Honved, that famous old club, a mile or so to the south. We then zipped past the green tinted steel of the Groupama Arena – the home of Ferencvaros – where the game against Vidi would be played the following day. Over the last few miles, I realised that I had not seen a single shop or bar in the city itself that was open. All had their shutters up. No lights were on in any of the properties.

“Maybe it’s half-day closing.”

It was an odd feeling.

Then, eventually, as we got closer to the centre, a few shops had lights on, and doors were ajar.

I kept looking at the signs, attempting to glean any clue as to what the words meant but there were no familiar Latin or Germanic, or even English, hints. Hungarian is indeed a “stand alone” language.

We had a crash course in famous Hungarians.

Biro and his pen.

Rubik and his cube.

Parky’s mate Laszlo, who I remember wearing the very same blue and white Pringle that I was sporting when I encountered a little gaggle of Chelsea casuals in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the summer of 1984.

Puskas, of course.

We pondered if Chelsea had ever had any Hungarian players. We thought not. Apart from the Hungarian heyday of the ‘fifties – more, much more, of that later – the national team has not produced much quality since. Have there been many famous Hungarian players of late? We thought not. At the airport, Daryl had mentioned the former West Brom player Zoltan Gera. The Hungarians have certainly not set the Premier League alight, unlike – say – some Czechs or Serbs that I can mention.

Oh, a special mention for Andrea Temesvari, the blonde tennis player from the early-eighties. I think my love affair with Hungary began with her.

We located our apartment then had a quick lager – Arany Aszok, just over a pound a pint – in a nearby bar. There followed another beer in another bar. Then another. Dave, Glenn and Liam joined us for one. Then some goulash in a fantastic local restaurant. Then a walk to a couple of ruin bars – “Mazel Tov” and then the iconic “Szimpla Kert” – and the meeting up with Alan, Gary, Daryl, and then Andy and Antony, Johnny12 and Jenny12 – all from California, and freezing – and then some more beers and some more and some more. The talk was all of Chelsea and of our fanaticism, but never of the game the following day. We took the piss out of each other. The beers flowed further. It was a great night.

At about 10.30pm, I received a text from Foxy, newly arrived from Dundee via Copenhagen. The instructions about how to enter the apartment were not working. And our phones were running out of charge. We exchanged a few frantic texts. We left Andy and Antony in a bar, excused ourselves, and hopped into a cab. Meanwhile, Foxy had hopped into a cab to meet us. Our cabs possibly passed each other. I had visions of us being stranded outside in the cold. And my phone was now on zero charge. It was a fraught ten minutes or so. We scrambled out of the cab. I entered the code onto the keypad as I had been instructed by the Russian girl eight hours earlier. No luck. I turned on my phone and, out of nowhere, I had three percent charge left. I quickly dialed the letting agency and spoke to a girl, who informed me that the Russian girl had told me the wrong code.

Oh bloody hell.

“7395 – enter.”

“BUZZZZZ.”

We were in.

YES!

“Bloody hell, we’re in.”

To celebrate, we popped around the corner to the first bar we had visited ten hours earlier and ordered two or three more pints apiece. The smiling barmaid had recognised us from before. The bar stayed open past its usual midnight closing slot. The barmaid brought us a round of apricot schnapps on the house. Some seriously inebriated locals befriended us. Laughter, laughter, laughter. We left there at 1am. I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours, minus a very brief power nap on the plane.

We scoffed down some food from a shop that was thankfully open. LP and PD called it a night but Foxy and I chatted away until 2am. He had recently visited Madrid for the Copa Libertadores and we were in full-on “football raconteur” mode. We spoke about how our generation, sadly, might well be the last bastion of old-school football support; the singers, the drinkers, the dreamers. Remembering the last lingering whiff of the terraces, hanging on desperately to the notion of supporting teams at as many games as possible. We feared the future where the predominant football supporting experience might be via a TV or streaming site.

Maybe we got a bit too self-important. But I don’t think we did.

It was a bloody long day, and night, though. Our ramblings drifted off into the night…

The bed hit us at 2am.

Game day arrived and we had a chilled-out and relaxing start in our top-floor apartment – I hesitate to call it penthouse, but this is exactly what it was, sun terrace and all – as we were in no rush to get moving. After a while, we set out for the Novotel on the main street in Budapest, Rakoczi Ut, where we easily picked-up our match tickets. We saw a few familiar Chelsea faces. We then embarked on a slow walk south-west, taking in a few of the sights along the way. Central Budapest was a little weather-beaten at times, but it certainly kept my eyes occupied. It was not as grand as Vienna, maybe its sister city along the Danube in the days of the Austria-Hungarian empire, but it was a lot tidier and beguiling than Bucharest, the only similar city of the former Eastern-European bloc that I have visited. This would be my thirty-sixth game on continental Europe with Chelsea, and I know of many who are up to a hundred or more. Their fanaticism is to be applauded.

We had heard that many Chelsea were plotted up at “Pointer Pub” near the river. We headed for there, and arrived – with perfect timing – just as Happy Hour between 2pm and 5pm began. There must have been two hundred Chelsea in there. We got stuck into the pints of “Hunter” lager – not bad – and had a lovely and relaxing time. Great to see Mr. & Mrs. Burger once again; I remember being with them in Rome ahead of their very first Chelsea away in Europe at Napoli in 2012. This was a relaxing time to be honest. And we still didn’t talk about the game. After a bite to eat, five of us bundled into a four-seater yellow cab. As we turned a rising corner, the cab grounded out. Sadly, one of the occupants – Andy from Kent – would not even attempt to get in to the stadium; he had a ticket but not in his name. Once he saw the lines of interrogation, he returned to the city centre.

The cab had dropped us off right outside the main entrance and the steel of the Ferencvaros eagle welcomed us. It was a fantastic sculpture. We edged our way past a side stand, clearly full of corporate hospitality bars and suites. We lined up at the south-west corner and waited for the passport check. One song dominated.

“We’re on our way. We’re on our way.

To Baku, we’re on our way.

How we’ll get there, I don’t know.

How we’ll get there, I don’t care.

All I know that Chelsea’s on our way.”

Our passport and match ticket were checked twice by stewards and police standing two feet apart, then the ticket again, then a bag search. Despite gambling with both lenses, there was no issue with my camera.

“Result.”

With Vidi playing at the Groupama Arena rather than their home stadium, they were treated to the exposed steel of the neat stands being lit in red and blue. Once inside the away section, we slowly made our way to the top rows. It is a rule of thumb for European aways that everyone sits where they want. There have only been three exceptions to this rule as far as I can remember; Moscow 2008, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013. I chose to wear my newly-acquired red, green and white retro away scarf, what with the Hungary team of the ‘fifties being the inspiration for the kit in the first place. I was expecting more fellow fans to be wearing the scarf. Out of over 1,200 Chelsea fans, I only saw two others wearing it, and one of them was my usual match day companion Alan.

“Good work, mate.”

The stadium is single-tiered and plain, but perfect for a team like Ferencvaros, whose old Albert Florian Stadium sat on the exact same site until 2013. There were executive boxes at the rear of the steep stand to our immediate left. All the seats were green. It reminded me a lot of Rapid Vienna’s new stadium.

We were in with a quarter of an hour to spare. After missing the rotten show at Wolves and the euphoria, and then media-led meltdown, of the City game due to ill-health, this was my first game since Fulham.

The team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Ampadu – Christensen – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We had already qualified as group winners. Vidi were in with a chance of getting through too. The mist had rolled in from the Danube, and it was cold, but not as cold as at Burnley two seasons ago. The game began; Chelsea in “tangerine and graphite”, Vidi in Genoa-style red and blue halves.

There was a little singing from Chelsea, but nothing too loud. There was nothing at all from the home sections. Vidi only play to about 1,500 fans at their home games, and I suspect that the crowd had been bolstered by a few neutrals from the city’s other teams. The Hungarian flag was visible in several locations. The team’s former name appeared on one. Another said “Team Hungary.” Although not on the same scale as Qarabag playing in Baku last season, here was another example of the locals rallying around another city’s team.

“United Colors Of Videoton” anyone?

Chelsea, as predicted, dominated possession during the first ten and twenty minutes. The home team were quite happy to sit back and defend en masse. We kept trying to work openings, but it was an uneventful opening period. The singing in the away section had declined, and we were stood, hands in pockets awaiting something to cheer. Right on the half-hour, Willian – who had enjoyed a couple of lung-bursting sorties down the left-wing, was chopped down outside the box. He grabbed the ball, and we waited for his free-kick. He curled a fantastic effort over the wall and we were a goal to the good. The players celebrated down below.

Alongside me, PD was happy.

“First European away goal I have seen, Chris.”

Sadly, PD was cursing shortly after. A Vidi corner curled in towards the near post and an attacker headed it on. Ethan Ampadu, attempting to divert it, could only head it past Caballero. Nego, who had already forced a save from Wily earlier, then struck a shot which our ‘keeper turned past the post at full stretch. The mood in the away end was of grumbling frustration. We were not playing particularly well, with most of the players under performing.

After a Chelsea move petered out, Alvaro Morata injured himself and Olivier Giroud replaced him.

It was noticeable that some – not many – Chelsea fans left at half-time, presumably to head back to the bars of the city centre. I just do not get it. I hope they didn’t bump into any Chelsea fans who had not been blessed with match tickets in the first place. I noted that virtually the entire stand to our left emptied at half-time as the match-goers headed back inside for the warmth of the hospitality areas.

Into the second-half, Stopira was left completely unmarked at the back stick, but headed over.

On fifty-six minutes, a fine move from Vidi resulted in a floated cross from Milanov being smashed in – on the volley from an angle, in front of us – by Nego. The crowd roared and even I had to admit “great goal.” The Vidi players celebrated right in front of us, the buggers.

We then dominated possession again, but it a lot of our play fell apart due to poor touches or a lack of concentration. Giroud went close from inside the six-yard box. The Frenchman then peeled away at the far post and his sweet volley, in the style of Nego, rose as it left his foot and ended up clearing the bar.

Pedro, who had been energetically warming up in front of us, replaced Willian and immediately spurred us on.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fabregas was fouled and we were rewarded with a centrally-placed free-kick. Barkley stepped over the ball, but it was Giroud who clipped the ball over the wall and into the goal.

Vidi 2 Chelsea 2

“Phew.”

We had most of the ball in the final period, but as the temperature fell, I just wanted to return to the city and thaw out. The whistle went. It had been an uninspiring game, but contained three super goals. The Chelsea fans slowly tumbled out of the steep away end and into the night.

Almost immediately after the game, I spotted that there had been a reporting of “anti-Semitic” songs during the match.

This startled and confused me. What songs? I had not heard any. What was this all about?

I trawled through a few posts on Facebook and it seemed that Dan Levene, on Twitter Twatter, had reported – soon into the game – that a song about Tottenham had been sung which contained the second part to “Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

Now then. I did not hear that song at the game. If it was sung, it could surely not have been very loud. I usually keep my eyes and ears open for any songs being sung at a given game. At the Pointer Pub in the afternoon, however, I did hear the song, in its entirety, being sung by a group of Chelsea upstairs. I often sing that song – it has been sung at Chelsea for decades – but never finish it. I used to finish it. I used to sing a lot of things. But not those words, now, not any more, no longer. Tottenham can sing it and do sing it. That is their problem.

I stop abruptly at “Barcelona, Real Madrid” just as the Buzzcocks’ “Love You More” ends with the words “razor cuts.”

I had to wonder why this song had suddenly been reported. It did not take long to work out. The media had overblown the Raheem Sterling incident. That Chelsea fan had not said those words. The media still needed to prolong their agenda against us. We were in their crosshairs. The shots were taken.

The world was on our case once more.

Sometimes, I hate football.

We walked a few hundred yards along Albert Florian Ut – a famous player from Ferencvaros’past – and caught a taxi cab in to town. After a couple of beers in a gorgeous curved bar on Kiraly Ut, we returned back to the first bar that we frequented the previous day, but we only had time for a single pint before the place closed at midnight.

We slept well.

On the Friday, I had my own magical mystery tour planned. I left the others to their own devices, and caught a tube into the city centre and then out to the south-eastern suburbs to the area of Kispest, home to the fabled Honved Football Club. There was simply no way that I was going to let a trip to Budapest slip by without an attempt to take a few photographs of the former playground of Ferenc Puskas and his famous team mates.

At Kobanya-Kispest station, I still had a forty-five-minute walk ahead of me. It was a cold morning, with a frost, but I set off with a smile. My little mission reminded me of my youth travelling around Europe, heading off to see a city’s football stadium rather than its art galleries and museums. Kispest is a decidedly grubby and working class suburb, full of graffiti’d houses, towering blocks, small shops, tram lines and churches. After half an hour, I spotted two of Honved’s leaning floodlight pylons and my heart leapt. It was a beautiful sight. I waited at a crossing as a train passed, then approached the Bozsik Jozsef Stadium. I was soon learning that in Hungary, the surname always comes before the “first” name. The stadium was guarded by a gate and a security guard did not allow me in to take photographs.

“Bollocks.”

I noted a nearby plaque in memory of Puskas Ferenc, and a wreath. The turnstiles were dilapidated but they spoke of a million memories. I walked away from the stadium, and took some snaps of its heavily iconic leaning floodlights.

So Eastern European.

I wandered along a very quiet road, and was just pondering my next move when a miracle happened in deepest Kispest.

On the other side of the road, walking along the pavement by the perimeter wall of the stadium was Sam. Sam is a fellow Chelsea supporter. We do not know each other well, but we “nod” every time we see each other. As I crossed the road, we both exclaimed “what are you doing here?”

Sam was with Dan, a Chelsea fan from London, whose father’s family are from Budapest. Sam was staying with Dan’s family. And here is where things got interesting. Dan’s father – Kalman, another fan I “nod” to when I see him – had arranged for the two of them to meet an employee of Honved. So, we walked back to the security guard, and after a phone-call, all three of us were allowed in. My camera was primed.

We met Vince, who is the director of Honved’s youth academy, and we were given a twenty-minute tour of the academy building, where one hundred boys live and study, and then the entrance hall to the main stand and the stadium itself. I was in my element. What luck. What beautiful luck.

Vince explained that Jozsef Bozsik was the first Hungarian player to gain one hundred international caps. I found it endearing that Honved’s stadium was named in honour of him and not the more famous Puskas. Vince told us that Puskas’ house was within spitting distance of the stadium.

Most incredible of all, Vince told us that in January, the club will play its last game at the current stadium before it is demolished and a new stadium is built on the same site. The current one, a very low bowl with a capacity of 15,000, will be replaced by a new one of just 8,000. We gasped when we heard it was going to be that small.

But Hungary does not have a strong league these days. And Budapest is rich in football clubs. I suppose the club knows its support. In the meantime, Honved are going to share with another club in the city. My work colleague Marton, who runs a company in Budapest, detailed his take on the city’s football landscape in an email to me a while back, once he heard I was visiting. He does not support one team, but has had spells supporting a few of the teams, mainly due to friendships along the way. He even helped form a team which plays in the lower leagues. He admitted that Ferencvaros has the aura and history.

He then summed things up.

“But Ferencvaros are supported by Nazis. Honved are supported by communists. MTK by Jews.”

He did not mention the support base of Ujpest Dosza. Nor Vasas Budapest.

The visit to Honved over, I said my goodbyes to Sam.

“Amazing, Chris. See you in Brighton.”

With that, I hopped into a cab which had just stopped a few feet away.

“MTK Stadium please.”

I was on my way again.

Within twenty minutes, I was stood outside the utilitarian and ultra-modern Hidegkuti Nandor Stadion. This was hugely different to the archaic charm of Honved. The old MTK stadium stood on the same site – it is where that God-awful “Escape To Victory” was filmed – but this new structure was rebuilt in 2016. Sadly, I could not enter, but I took a few photographs as the cold wind chilled me. If I had stepped inside, I would not have liked what I would have seen. The new stadium only holds 5,500 and there are only concrete walls behind both goals. If this is post-modern football, then count me out. Hidegkuti was a team mate of Puskas and part of the fabled Hungarian team that humbled England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a year later. I believe that MTK were known as Red Banner when they played Chelsea in a midweek friendly at Stamford Bridge in 1954. Hidegkuti certainly played in that match.

Alongside the brutal angles of the MTK stadium, I recognised the older and more ornate sandy coloured brickwork of the day’s third stadium.

BKV Elore play in the national third division, and do not have any famous players. But they surely have one of the most beautiful stands left in Europe. I had read about its charms on a fellow WordPress site last summer and was now able to see it in person. I made my way past the entrance – open to the public – and fell in love with the dark brown of the wooden roof, the angled staircases, the viewing platforms, the innate beauty of it all. On the other three sides of the pitch, there is nothing, just a yellow and blue perimeter fence. There seemed to be a bar tagged on to the stadium, and I ventured in from the street side. Down below at the bottom of some stairs, ten plates of biscuits were laid out on a table. I wondered what on earth was going on. This didn’t look like a bar to me. Maybe it was part of a fundraising event. I stepped outside again.

Originally, I had plans to travel north to visit Ujpest’s stadium too, but time was against me now. I walked back in to town so that I could waltz past the Puskas Ferenc Stadium – formerly the Nep Stadion – which is being rebuilt, but access was impossible. The photographs I took of that stadium are not worthy of sharing. If I ever return to Budapest, I’ll need to visit this new national stadium, plus maybe Ujpest and Vasas too.

But I did OK on this trip to Budapest.

Four stadia in two days.

I met up with the boys at the Pointer Pub again and we laughed our way through five more pints.

In the morning, Budapest was covered in snow as a cab picked us up one final time and took us from our digs on Vorosmarty Utca to the airport.

With a heavy heart, we left this quite stunning city, rich in history and rich in football.

I would love to return.

 

Tales From The Pride Of London

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. In those minutes before kick-off, with “Park Life” by Blur initiating the pre-game activities, the Fulham fans in the far corner were already voicing their dislike of us.

“We are Fulham. We are Fulham. We are Fulham. FFC. We are Fulham. Super Fulham. We are Fulham. Fuck Chelsea.”

So much for brotherly-love, eh?

This was Fulham’s first appearance at Stamford Bridge since the 2013/14 season. I personally like the idea of them being back in the top flight. An away game at Craven Cottage is always a treat. It’s good to have them back. But when I was growing up, I only ever really envisaged a Chelsea vs. Fulham league encounter taking place in the second tier. They were a club that wobbled between the old Second and Third Divisions. As recently as 1997, they were in the basement of the Football League. They have enjoyed a resurgence, then, in recent seasons, but when they disappeared from the Premier League in 2014, I did wonder if we would ever see them again in the league.

So they have done well to bounce back after just four seasons beneath us.

Ironically, ex-Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic was recently sacked as their manager, and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri a week or so ago. In his first season as Chelsea manager, Jokanovic was the bete noire of Ranieri’s team, a one-paced misfit, who drew nothing but ire from the Chelsea fans at games all over England. He was seen as Ranieri’s man. His totem. His man. Jokanovic was known as “the Joker” and Ranieri was similarly mocked by many. In that first season, it took ages for the Chelsea support to warm to the Italian.

With large flags being waved on the pitch, each one indicating the numbers of the starting eleven, the Chelsea PA welcomed back Claudio Ranieri – dear, dear Claudio – to Stamford Bridge, and an image of him appeared on the large TV screen hovering over the away support.

It then got a little nasty.

“He comes from Italy. He fucking hates Chelsea.”

That was out of order.

It is, of course – nothing new here – a fact of life within SW6 that Chelsea fans have historically nurtured a distinct soft spot for Fulham. What is there to hate about Fulham after all? In years gone by, in the days when the terraced streets between Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage housed a solidly working class population, people would alternate between the two grounds each week. It was a distinct “Fulham thing”, this sharing of the borough’s two clubs. But not QPR, further north. Never QPR.

Fulham had brought three thousand, of course, as would be expected. As the teams entered the pitch, we were treated again to flames and fireworks. But this was a midday kick-off, and it seemed even more preposterous.

Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.

We had spoken about the potential line-up on the drive to London and we naturally presumed that Alvaro Morata would be playing up front. But what did we know? Instead, manager Maurizio chose Olivier Giroud. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian and Mateo Kovacic still kept Ross Barkley out of the starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

Former blue Andre Schurrle did not feature in the Fulham team, out with an injury. We all remembered the second-half hat-trick the German scored at the Cottage in 2014, our last game against them.

Around the stadium on signage, on the captain’s armband, on the match programme and on bootlaces were the seven colours of the rainbow, mirroring the pastel shades of the various Nike, Puma and Adidas footwear.

The game began with a few songs emanating from the Matthew Harding.

It was a very mild Winter’s day.

We started magnificently. Jean Michael Seri was pick-pocketed by N’Golo Kante, and the French midfielder advanced before setting up Pedro in the inside-right channel. Our little Spaniard – “the hummingbird” as my mate Rick in Iowa suitably calls him – cut back on to his left foot and poked the ball past Sergio Rico.

Pedro raced away past the supporters in the Shed Lower and celebrated with a hop and a skip and a jump. His smile lit up the stadium. It was a typically lovely nimble finish from Pedro.

Perfect.

SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0

The sun was breaking through some cloud as the first-half developed and there were some strong shadows forming on the pitch. I kept looking over at the two managers, both former Napoli men, managers separated by more than twenty years; Ranieri, impeccably dressed, Sarri looking like a bloke on his way to a Wetherspoons.

Alan and I briefly discussed the famous game between the two teams at Christmas in 1976. We were on our way to promotion that season – a beguiling mix of mainly home-grown youngsters with a few steadying influences too – and Fulham boasted George Best and Rodney Marsh. A ridiculous crowd of 55,003 attended that game. I was not at the game but I asked Alan of his recollections of the day. He replied that it was ridiculously packed in the forecourt, and he was genuinely concerned about getting crushed. He was sure that many were locked out. I can remember seeing the gate in the following day’s newspaper and it made me gulp.

55,003.

In the Second Division nonetheless.

What a club we were. Or rather, what a potentially huge club we could become.

I was warm and fuzzy at the age of eleven and I don’t think that feeling has ever really left me.

On the pitch, we dominated play, but without many clear scoring chances. Olivier Giroud threatened and forced a save from the Fulham ‘keeper. A poor David Luiz free-kick was struck against the wall. Pedro looked full of drive and energy, and Kante was covering lots of ground. But there were a few patchy performances. Eden Hazard struggled to get involved. And Marcos Alonso was having his own personal hell. There were misplaced passes, and poor control. He was often released on the left, but his final ball was usually substandard.

It was a generally scrappy affair. The sun was getting brighter still, but the play was grey.

It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.

There were occasional chants from the away fans.

“Haven’t you got a boat race to go to?” bellowed Alan.

There were two chances for Giroud, close in on goal, but the tight angles and conflux of opposing players worked against him.

There seemed to be an unwillingness to put a tackle in from our players. In these days, the buzz word in football is the word “press”. You can’t walk two yards or read more than five words about football without hearing or seeing the word “press.”

I remember the closing of space being called “pressing” by Arrigo Sacchi in his Milan years around thirty years ago. It was one of those words of English origin that the Italians often shoehorn into their language. I think at the time the English version was known, loosely, as “getting stuck in” but it has become the word of the season, or possibly the decade.

And the gentlemen of the press and fans alike love it.

The printing press. The trouser press. The cider press. And now the football press. There is no fucking escaping it.

What it means for much of the time is a lot of closing of space but tackling – that black art – being condemned to the pages of history.

Oh well.

I just wanted to see a well won tackle.

It would at least stir the fans.

Modern football, eh?

However, we were by far the better of the two SW6 combatants. There had only been very rare attacks on our goal. Kepa had enjoyed a very quiet game. I am sure there was one moment when I saw him hunting down by his right-hand post for one of Thibaut Courtois’ old word search books.

The half-time whistle blew.

It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.

I wondered what a few friends from afar had reckoned to the game thus far. We had welcomed the visitors from Toronto and Atlanta again to our pre-match. We met up in The Goose. In addition to Prahlad and his wife Nisha, and Brenda and Ryan, there was another Atlantan too; Emily, who I last saw in Vienna for our friendly in 2016, was visiting from Austria for one game only. Memorably, as we walked past the entrance to Fulham Broadway, Emily bumped into another Chelsea fan from Vienna, over for one game only himself.

As I have so often said, the Chelsea World is indeed a very small world.

We began pretty poorly in the second-half. Fulham forced an attack but Antonio Rudiger was able to block a shot. Then, from the ensuing corner Arrizabalaga reacted so well to thwart a Calum Chambers. To my liking, the whole ground replied with a roaring with a defiant “Carefree”. It had taken almost an hour for Stamford Bridge to raise a song, but at last we were back to our best, supporting the team as we should. And I loved this. We knew the team were struggling collectively and we rallied behind the team. Eric, from Toronto, and Emily were watching from the front row of the Matthew Lower, but from different sides of the goal. The Atlantans were up in the Shed Upper. I hope they appreciated the sudden burst of noise.

Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.

In the stadium, the fans grew restless. Our play was slow, ponderous, tedious. Nobody shone in my mind apart from Pedro and Kante. And Kepa was certainly keeping us in the game. But we were passing to oblivion and the Chelsea fans were getting more and more frustrated. It was a very odd half of football. We were begging for a second goal. But there were more misplaced passes, and mistimed tackles.

Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?

We all did.

There were moans aimed at Jorginho and Kovacic, neither of whom were playing well.

Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.

Within a few seconds of each other, Big John and I independently bawled the same thing.

“Get yer boots on Zola.”

How we missed a little of his creativity.

The manager, thankfully, looked to bring in fresh ideas and fresh legs into our midfield by replacing Kovacic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was given a hero’s welcome.

He was very soon running at the heart of the Fulham defence. He was warmly applauded. Just after, Giroud – no service in the second-half – was replaced by Alvaro Morata. A shot from Hazard was parried by the Fulham ‘keeper but from only six yards out, Morata shinned the ball way over the bar. There were groans and Chelsea eyes looked heavenwards. Emily would have got a good view of that. I wondered what her thoughts were.

A Hazard free-kick was hit straight at Sergio Rico.

The mood inside Stamford Bridge was becoming stiflingly nervous. We just needed a win to get our season back on track, to stay tucked in, on a day when three of our main rivals were playing too.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.

I wondered if Jorginho – Sarri’s kingpin – would ever be substituted. I wondered if he would be known in some quarters as the modern multi-million-pound equivalent of Ranieri’s Jokanovic.

With the nerves still jangling, the ball was worked adeptly between Hazard, Pedro and Loftus-Cheek. The ball stood up nicely for Ruben to strike purposefully past the Fulham ‘keeper. It had easily been our most effective move of the half.

Get in.

Emily would have loved her view of that.

I watched as Ruben ran over to the far corner and as was mobbed by his team mates.

SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.

So this was certainly a strange game. We absolutely struggled in that poor second-half. And all of us admitted that we had rarely felt more underwhelmed – possibly even deflated – after a win. Feelings seemed confused, messy. I think that in the back of our minds the horror of Wembley the previous week would not subside, and we knew that Manchester City, to say nothing of a potential banana skin at Molineux, were looming in the distance.

It was such an odd game. And we had a quiet and reflective drive home. I battled the rain and the traffic of the M4. We were quiet. I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first league game as Chelsea manager, way back in the August of 2004 when a 1-0 win against the might of Manchester United could not disguise our sense of bewilderment that a team so rich in attacking verve could kill the game at 1-0.

“Fucking hell. We’re not going to win the league playing like this, are we?”

It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.

But, in 2018, are we unnecessarily tough on Sarri and his new system? Quite possibly. This is a learning curve for all of us. As fans, we have been given the task of adapting to a new modus operandi too. It might not be easy. As I said to Glenn, regardless of the merits of a new style, we have won the league two out of the past four seasons. I’m not sure if that makes us spoiled or ultra-critical. But I know the sense of frustration from the stands for our underperforming players was no illusion. In the end the history books will say that we won 2-0 but it was almost in spite of ourselves.

I’m still working Sarri out. It might take a while yet.

We have a testing week ahead. Let’s hope we can regroup for the two games. Maybe we, as fans, need to show a little more patience, but that is easier said than done. At least the next game is away, when the fans are usually a little more supportive, and certainly a whole lot noisier.

Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Long Road To Baku

Chelsea vs. PAOK : 29 November 2018.

As we set off for the game, with PD driving alongside Lord Parky, and yours truly in the backseat, I spoke to my travelling companions.

“You have to wonder why we’re going tonight, don’t you? We’re already through. It’s hardly an important game.”

PD soon took the bait.

“Yeah, but we love our football, Chrissy.”

Indeed we do.

Indeed we do love our football.

Guilty as charged.

PD battled the evening traffic and some appalling weather as I relaxed in the rear seats. I drifted off to sleep on a couple of occasions. I had been awake since 5.30pm. By the time we reached our usual parking spot at around 6.30pm – three hours after we had left – I was suitably refreshed.

In the busy “Simmons Bar” at the southern end of the North End Road, I met up with some friends from near and far. It was good to see Neil from Guernsey again for the first time in a while. He was with his brother Daryl, alongside Gary, Alan, Duncan, Lol and Ed and all seemed to be making good use of the two bottles of “Staropramen” for a fiver deal. On the exact anniversary of his first ever game at Stamford Bridge, Eric from Toronto soon appeared and we bought each other a bottle of “Peroni.” He is over for a few games. His enthusiasm was boiling over and he was met with handshakes and hugs from my little gaggle of mates. Prahlad, now living temporarily in Dusseldorf, but originally from Atlanta, was present too, and it was fantastic to see him once more. The Chuckle Brothers first met him for a good old pre-match in Swansea two seasons ago. He was with his wife; her first game, I am sure. Brenda, who runs the Atlanta Blues, was in the pub too, with another Atlantan, Ryan; his first game at Stamford Bridge for sure.

Everyone together.

Chelsea fans from England; South London, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire. From Guernsey. Chelsea fans from Canada. Chelsea fans from the US.

These foreign visitors are not tourists in my book. They are Chelsea supporters. Tourists – that most derided of all at Chelsea and other football clubs in this day and age – happen to find themselves in London and decide to go to a game at Chelsea as part of the London experience. Another box ticked. Buckingham Palace. The Houses of Parliament. Oxford Street. The Tower of London. The Fullers Brewery. Harry fucking Potter. An “EPL” game. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

Eric joked with me; “See I am assimilating nicely. Not wearing a Chelsea shirt this time.”

We laughed.

Prahlad was assimilating nicely too. As he said his goodbyes, I tapped him on the shoulder –

“Nice Moncler jacket, mate. You thought I didn’t notice, didn’t you?”

It was his time to laugh.

Off we trotted to the game. We had heard warnings of many away fans travelling over without tickets – something that Chelsea will be doing when we visit Budapest in a fortnight – but I didn’t see any Greeks outside Stamford Bridge. As I walked with Eric past the touts and the souvenir stalls and the general hubbub of a match day, I heard voices from almost a century ago; my grandfather walking the exact same steps –

“Shall we get a rosette, Ted?”

“I’d rather have a pint of beer, Ted.”

There was a quick bag check and we were in. Eric had a ticket in the West Lower. I’d see him at the Fulham game and the one at Wolves too.

Inside the stadium, the three thousand visitors were stood, and were hoisting banners and flags ahead of the game. There were yawning gaps in the top corners of the East Upper, and similar gaps in the West Upper too. After 39,000 gates against BATE and Vidi, this one might not reach those heights.

But these tickets were only twenty quid. Here was a good chance for our local fans to attend a match at Stamford Bridge; to be bitten by the bug, for peoples’ support to be raised a few notches.

But I was sure that there would be moans about “tourists” the following morning…

For a few moments before the teams entered the pitch, I moved over to the seats to my right, which look down on the West Lower, and which give a slightly different perspective. In my desire to photograph every square foot of Stamford Bridge, it allowed me a few new shots.

The teams took to the pitch and I returned to my usual seat in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team was basically a “B Team.”

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Barkley – Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek

Pedro – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

This was a chance to see how a couple of our youngsters might shape up. In the first-half, our Callum was right over in the opposite corner to me; in the second-half, he would be closer. After seeing him play in Australia, and then again at Wembley in the Community Shield, here was a rare start.

We began with all the ball, and on just seven minutes, our position improved further still. With Olivier Giroud chasing a loose ball, a PAOK defender lunged awkwardly at the ball. Giroud tumbled and the referee from Estonia flashed a red. Off went Yevhen Khacheridi. Sadly, Cesc Fabregas shot meekly from the resulting free-kick.

There were attempts on goal from Hudson-Odoi and Giroud. Very soon into the match, Fabregas began sending a few lovely balls from deep towards our forwards. Of course, Jorginho and Fabregas – although both playing right in the middle – are wildly different players, but it was a real pleasure to see Cesc pinging a few beauties to Giroud and Pedro. Pedro took one down immaculately and forced a fine save from their ‘keeper Paschalakis.

A chance fell for Loftus-Cheek and his effort was tipped wide.

The away fans, dressed predominantly in black, and overwhelmingly male and under the age of thirty-five, made a constant din throughout the opening period of the half. They were not the loudest away fans that I had ever heard at Chelsea – I seem to remember Olympiakos, their countrymen, making more noise – but this lot were non-stop. It was stirring stuff.

On twenty-seven minutes, another magnificent ball from Fabregas found Pedro, who controlled magnificently. He spotted Giroud outside him, and he rolled the ball to his right. The finish from Giroud, struck with instinct with his left foot, was perfectly placed into the PAOK goal.

Stavros #1 : “They’ll have to come at us now, peeps.”

Stavros #2 : “Come on my little diamonds, innit.”

Hudson-Odoi went close just after, his curler from distance dropping into the bar with the ‘keeper beaten. There had been a solid effort from Ross Barkley too. Ten minutes after his opener, Giroud doubled our lead. Another Fabregas ball dropped at Giroud’s feet, but his finish was made to look easier than it must have been. Another first-time finish, volleyed home at the far post, the ball squeezed in between the frame of the goal and the luckless ‘keeper.

Amid some fine quality, there was time for a wild shot from Davide Zappacosta which went off for a throw-in.

PAOK’s attacks were rare. A sublime block from Gary Cahill nulled the best chance of their half.

The half-time whistle blew and we were well worth the 2-0 lead. On every seat back, a sticker advertising “The Fifth Stand” had been applied. It seemed that a private game had been taking place in the row behind me; our mate Rousey – he was oblivious – had been “stickered” by many. He even had one sticker stuck on his ski hat. The back of his coat was covered.

I whispered to Alan :

“Not the first time Rousey is going to end up with a lot of sticky residue on his jacket.”

“I dare to think about it” replied Alan.

The match programme, a better read this season I think, produced a few interesting morsels. The news of our game in the summer in Japan was detailed. I won’t be going; Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was a pristine, sublime and wonderful memory. I won’t be going back. It would only pale, I think, in comparison. But I am keen to see where else we are headed in the summer. This was our one-hundredth and seventeenth home game at Stamford Bridge in all European competitions, and we have lost just eight. I always remember the sadness of our unbeaten record going against Lazio in 2000. But eight out of one hundred and sixteen is phenomenal. I have – sadly? Is that the correct word? – been at all of the defeats. Throughout all the defeats, though, nothing hurts more than the Iniesta goal in 2009 and the resulting draw. There were nice profiles of Tommy Baldwin and Peter Houseman, players from my childhood, and who played in the first two games that I saw way back in 1974.

Into the second-half, and our dominance continued. The away team, so obviously lacking the class to combat us, would have found it hard to prise open a vacuum-packed packet of feta cheese, let alone our defence. But their fans were still making tons of noise.

A fine run from Loftus-Cheek – looking loose and confident – forced another good save from the PAOK ‘keeper. Then, the ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi by Fabregas. He took a quick touch and then shimmied a little before striking, the ball being whipped in at the near post with Paschalakis beaten. I just missed “shooting” his shot, but I caught his joyful celebratory run into our corner.

This was just lovely to see. The players swarmed around him. I have to pinch myself to think that our Callum is just eighteen years of age.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Zappacosta and took his place in front of Maurizio Sarri and the towering East Stand.

Willian replaced Pedro.

The away fans still sung.

Olivier Giroud – a great performance – was replaced by Alvaro Morata.

After only three minutes, Cahill pushed the ball towards Hudson-Odoi. He soon spotted the presence of Morata in the box, and his cross was simply faultless. Morata jumped and timed his leap to perfection, even though he was sandwiched between two defenders. It was a classic header – why does his heading ability remind me of Peter Osgood? – and the net was soon rippling.

Chelsea 4 PAOK 0.

Perfect.

Against the bubbles, we hardly squeaked it.

The away supporters among the 33,000 crowd were still singing. Their performance throughout the night was very commendable. As a comparison, I have to sadly report that this was the first Chelsea game that I can ever remember in which I did not sing a single note. However, I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad sign of the times.

With a midday kick-off coming up on Sunday, I am not overly hopeful that the atmosphere will be much better, London derby or not.

But I’ll be there.

I’ll see you in the pub.

Tales From Black Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2018.

There was a moment, soon into the second-half I think, when a Chelsea move broke down in a particularly pathetic and unsurprising way. A voice behind me in the lower tier at Wembley loudly bellowed in frustration :

“Come on you cunts!”

I knew that I had to say something, I knew that I could not let the moment pass. I calmly turned around and realised that the voice belonged to a lad in his early ‘twenties. In a quiet voice I spoke.

“They’re not cunts, mate, are they? They’re our players. They’re not cunts.”

There was not much of a reaction from the lad. I think my calmness shocked him a little. Maybe he was expecting a louder or more strident tone. However, a few moments later, the lad was uttering the same phrase.

I turned around again, and repeated virtually the same words all over again.

“I won’t say it again, mate. They’re not cunts.”

At that particular moment in time, with Chelsea losing 2-0 to our arch rivals, but in a stadium which was only two-thirds full, and with the Chelsea fans not exactly rallying behind the team, it all seemed to be rather bleak and grey, if not black. It had been a strange atmosphere from the off. There were yawning gaps in the top tier at Wembley, and despite the home team racing to an early lead, and peppering our goal throughout the first-half, the atmosphere was surprisingly tepid. Where was the red-hot buzz of a London derby? It was hardly in evidence. As the game continued, with very rare moments of the intensity from Chelsea players and fans that we are familiar with, the evening became quieter and quieter. There were only sporadic outbreaks of song. It was a most listless performance from the terraces, but which mirrored that of the team.

But fans calling our players “cunts”? I didn’t get it, and I never have. And I have to say I have heard the same name calling uttered by many Chelsea fans, some too close for comfort. It always makes me squirm. I suspect that my own personal view is not shared by everyone, but I still regard Chelsea players as heroes, as our heroes, as my heroes. We need to support them in their battles against our foes.

Our performance against Tottenham was poor, it was collectively poor, and whose fault that was is hard for me, as an outsider, to fathom. But it has always been my view – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – that we can run down our players outside of the ninety minutes, in private, but at the game there needs to be encouragement.

It’s all about supporting the team, right?

Maybe it isn’t.

These days, nothing seems straightforward to me. Or am I over-analysing it all?

I don’t know.

The day had begun as early as 6.30am with an alarm call. My initial thoughts were of concern.

“Hope we don’t get mullered.”

PD, Glenn and I assembled at Frome train station at 7.50am, but soon spotted that our connecting service to Westbury was delayed. Outside, a stranger spotted us looking troubled and asked if we needed a lift to the neighbouring town.

“My husband will be here soon. I am sure we can fit you in the back seat.”

“Oh that is great, thanks” uttered Glenn.

“He’s not a Spurs fan, is he?” I wondered.

We made it in time to Westbury, then waited for Parky to join us at Melksham. He has had a testing time since we last all met up a fortnight ago. After his fall at half-time against Everton, he was diagnosed with having a fractured eye socket, and was quite bruised. Then, last weekend he lost his father at the grand age of ninety. But nothing keeps Parky down. He is as resilient as they come.

On the train to Paddington, we were sat opposite a woman in her sixties who was from Bristol, and a Spurs supporter. The look on her face when we told her that we were a) going to Wembley and b) Chelsea fans was priceless. We had a good old chat as we headed east. I had to confine my thoughts to myself when she admitted that she followed Manchester United when she was younger. Originally from Ireland – the north, I believe, her accent was very feint, only hinting at its origin – she admitted that it was almost expected of you to be a United fan if you came from Ireland. I blame George Best.

She feared for Tottenham against us.

“We haven’t been playing well and we’ve got players out.”

This made me a little more optimistic.

We had all said that we would settle for a point among ourselves.

There was talk of Roman Abramovich – she spoke with a rather bitter tone, what a surprise – and also talk of Tottenham finding it hard to compete against teams with “sugar daddies.”

We arrived in Paddington, under the impressive curves of the station roof, with an expectant air.

There is something about arriving in London by train.

Maybe my grandfather and Ted Knapton walked on that exact same platform in the ‘twenties on their way to Stamford Bridge.

I had planned another pre-match pub-crawl, centered on The Strand, and which I had been looking forward to, possibly even more than the football, for ages.

Since the last Chelsea match, England have taken centre stage, but not in my life. I have to admit that I have still not seen a single second of the games against the US and Croatia. Last Monday, I did not even know England were playing Croatia until someone in the US mentioned it on Facebook. Instead, as with the previous international break, I took in two Frome Town games. On the Saturday, I drove up to London to see the game against the Metropolitan Police – we lost 2-1 – and on the subsequent Tuesday, I watched as Frome lost 2-1 at home to the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine.

My travels around the south of England with Frome occasionally involve a Chelsea connection – Nick Crittenden and Dorchester Town as an example – but my visit to Imber Court in East Molesey last weekend reunited me with three Chelsea stalwarts, and nobody was more surprised than me. As soon as I arrived at the home of the Met Police, I took a photograph of the two imposing floodlights at the covered end of the stadium. I posted the photograph on “Facebook.” Quick as a flash – the wonders of modern communication – my friend Neil, from nearby Walton On Thames but watching England play cricket in Sri Lanka, commented that the floodlights previously belonged to Chelsea.

I quickly gazed up at them and my mind did summersaults and cartwheels back through time to picture them standing proud at Stamford Bridge. These three ladies of the night – legs splayed, how brazen – were, I guessed, from the West Stand side, the last three to exist. The fourth one at Imber Court was a poor relation, a single spindle. I joked with some Frome pals that this last insipid one was from Loftus Road.

While Frome laboured on the pitch, often my gaze wandered to my left and I spent more than a few moments lost in thought as I imagined the sights that the two “ladies” had witnessed over the years at Stamford Bridge. I could so easily have been unaware of the link with Chelsea.

Yet there was more. Behind the goal to my right were a few football pitches. And I recognised the houses in the background from Chelsea magazines and programmes in the ‘seventies. I knew that we had trained at East Molesey – after Hendon, after Mitcham, before Harlington – and here it was. I wondered if the Chelsea players used the changing facilities in the Imber Court clubhouse. Just like Everton at Bellfield and Liverpool at Melwood, I always thought it odd that normal houses overlooked the players of Chelsea Football Club as they trained at Mitcham and East Molesey in the ‘seventies. Everything is under lock and key these days, behind security gates and put of reach.

After a bite to eat at Paddington, we began our march through London with a pint on the River Thames, on the Tattershall Castle, moored on the north bank of the river near Charing Cross.

“The only other time I have been here was with my Italian mate Mario before we saw Leverkusen win against Tottenham at Wembley two years ago. What a night that was.”

I was clearly looking for good luck omens.

We then walked to “The Ship & Shovel”, even closer to Charing Cross. This was the best pub of the day and quite unique; it straddles a narrow passageway, so looks like two separate pubs. We settled in the smallest of the two bars, and awaited the appearance of our good mate Dave, who we had not seen at Chelsea for the best part of two years. Dave now lives in France, and was back on a rare weekend to see friends and family. It was a joy – to use his lovely turn of phrase – to see him once more. He is now a father, and there is a magnificent Chelsea story here. Jared was born an hour or so before our Championship-winning game at The Hawthorns in 2017.

What a great sense of timing.

We had a blast in that little bar. It was fantastic to see him again. Dave was really pleased to see me; I owed him thirty quid. From  there, we walked up to the Coal Hole – a favourite of ours.

“Last time we were here? Before the 2-1 win against Tottenham two years ago.”

“You and your omens.”

Outside, there were Christmas shoppers, and a distinct chill to the air. It was a magical few hours.

From there, “The Lyceum”, “The Wellington”, “The Coach & Horses” and “The Marquis Of Anglesey.”

All of the pubs were full, and we were having a blast.

Seven pubs and another gallon of lager.

Happy daze.

Throughout all of this, we were sadly aware that Glenn and Dave did not have match tickets, such is the clamour for away tickets, and for Tottenham away tickets especially. But the day was all about meeting up and having a giggle. And a giggle we certainly had.

While we left Dave and Glenn to find a pub to watch the game on TV, PD, Parky and I nipped into a cab which took us to Marylebone and, from there to Wembley.

It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest.

Then a little tale of bad luck, maybe another omen. On the train to Wembley, I learned that a friend had two spare tickets, but time was moving on and there was no way to sort it all out. Glenn and Dave had been left stranded in the West End. There was no way they could reach Wembley in time. I received a text from another friend – a Chelsea fan visiting from LA, match ticket in hand – who had missed out on getting a train to London because someone had plunged in front of a train.

Another – hideous – omen.

We reached the away section at Wembley on a cold and dark evening in good time for once. There were handshakes with many in the concourse.

Parky and I met up with Alan and Gary near the corner flag, only a few rows from the front. To our immediate right was the aisle where we had rigorously and feverishly celebrated Marcos Alonso’s late winner – “oh look, there’s Parky’s crutch” – last August.

The teams soon appeared and Chelsea were oddly dressed in yellow.

The size of the gaps in the upper tiers shocked me. Red seats everywhere. It seems that the “thrill” of playing at Wembley has lost its appeal for Tottenham, but of course there must be a great deal of frustration felt about the lingering problems with their new stadium.

I shudder to think how our support might haemorrhage if we have to move to Wembley for three, four, five years.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

Being only four or five rows from the front, my viewing position was poor. With the fumes of alcohol wafting around me, I knew that I was in for a tough time watching, and appreciating the finer points of what could turn out to be a fast paced game.

I need not have worried.

The football soon sobered me up.

Within just over a quarter of an hour, we were 2-0 down and we were fully expecting more goals to follow. After just eight minutes, Eriksen zipped in a free-kick which was headed in by Dele Alli. We watched silently as he celebrated in our corner. But I watched the fans in the home section, around twenty yards away; they didn’t seem ecstatic, and it shocked me. There were a few fist pumps, but it was all pretty tame.

Spurs were on fire to be honest – it hurts me to say – and were causing us all sorts of problems. A shot over, then a great save from Kepa.

“COME ON CHELSEA. GET IN THE FACKIN GAME.”

On sixteen minutes, the ball broke to Harry Kane, outside our box. With what seemed like virtually no back lift, he drilled a shot into the corner of our goal, low and purposeful. Kepa appeared unsighted and was motionless. Only at half-time – with Alan alongside me incandescent – would it become apparent that David Luiz moved to get out of the path of the ball.

The Spurs fans roared again, but there was not an almighty din befitting a 55,000 or 60,000 crowd.

We had a couple of chances, and I noted a slightly improved attitude. The Chelsea fans in the lower tier tried to get behind the team. There were small signs of recovery.

But we had to rely on Kepa to keep us in it. Another fine save – a quick reflex palm away – was roundly applauded.

Up the other end, at last a shot worthy of the name.

Hazard forced a save from Loris.

There were penalty claims, but the action was so far away…

There were long faces at the break.

Time for a few more photographs.

The second-half began and a shot from Willian was deflected over. We looked a little livelier and the away fans responded. But any thoughts of a Chelsea reaction to such a poor first-half were extinguished just ten minutes into the second period.

To my utter bewilderment / frustration / disbelief, Son was able to waltz through our defence like a hot knife through butter. His low shot was destined to go in.

Tottenham Hotspur 3 Chelsea 0

Oh bloody hell.

This was turning into a very dark day.

I thought back to our set up last season at Wembley against them. An extra shield in the middle with Kante, Bakayoko and Luiz, all superb on the day.

This season, we looked so lightweight.

The manager decided to change things a little. Ross Barkley replaced the ineffective Mateo Kovacic and Pedro replaced Morata. We were now playing without a spearhead, with the three diminutive attackers asked to swarm in and around the Spurs box. But Barkley impressed me straight away. His physical presence alone seemed to stiffen our midfield. Kante tried his best to win tackles and get things moving. But we then drifted a little and the game seemed lost.

With half an hour still to go, I looked around and saw many empty red seats in our section.

Respect to those who stayed to the end.

Funny how we take the piss out of Tottenham – especially – when they leave early and yet we do exactly the same.

Here we go again – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – but that isn’t what being a Chelsea fan is all about is it?

Is it?

The game continued.

Apart from the occasional song of defiance from myself and a few others, the noise dwindled in our end. But I have to say the home end was pretty quiet too. It was such a strange atmosphere.

Tottenham had a couple of chances to extend their lead. Thankfully no goals followed. With fifteen minutes to go, Sarri replaced Willian with Olivier Giroud.

With five minutes remaining, a cross from Dave was met with a high leap by the Frenchman and the ball was headed down and into the Tottenham goal. I didn’t even bother celebrating. Nobody did.

From memory, it was a little similar to the very first Chelsea goal I saw scored; an Ian Hutchinson header against Newcastle United in 1974; “up and downer” as it was described in the following game’s programme.

A Pedro goal – alas not, he blazed it over – would have made things a little interesting, but not for the hundreds of fans who had decided to head home before the final whistle.

Any ridiculous fantasies about the most improbable and unwarranted comeback in living memory amounted to nothing. At the final whistle – “see you Thursday” – we knew we were lucky that it had been kept to 3-1.

In the concourse, I met up with my good mate Andy from Nuneaton, who was at the game with his daughter Sophie. The frustration was there. We exchanged words. We weren’t happy. It had been a truly pitiful performance. Without heart. Without fight. It was so reminiscent of the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal in 2016.

“I’m a big Conte fan, Andy. He’s a winner. We won the league, we won the Cup. Not good enough. Sacked.”

“I’m not convinced about this bloke, Chris. What has he won?”

“I keep hearing that the players are all very happy in training. All well and good. We play nice football. But sometimes you have to have players who can mix it.”

“He’ll be gone, mate. Even if someone like Allegri came in and won the league his first season, but then finished third the next, he’d be off too.”

We smiled and shook hands.

“Take care, mate.”

The only plus point was that there was hardly a line at the train station. We were soon on the over ground train back to Marylebone, back to Paddington, back to Bath, back to Westbury, back to Frome, eventually at 12.45am.

Of course, the words that Andy and I shared in the eastern concourse at Wembley on Saturday evening were emotive and no doubt reactionary. But they summed up our immediate post-game frustrations. And I have witnessed the reactions of many supporters since the game finished. My thoughts are still being formed as I write.

There are those who say that Sarri is another Scolari.

There are those who say that our football this season is akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

There are those who say he needs time to shape a team in his own style.

Many bemoan the use of N’Golo Kante in his current role.

For the first real time this season, the tide of opinion is turning on Jorginho.

I will be honest. I still haven’t warmed to Maurizio Sarri and I can’t even really explain why that is.

I am sure he is a decent man, but I am still trying to work him out.

There just seems to be too many square pegs in too many round holes at the moment. Parts of our play this year have been excellent, but mainly against weaker teams. I am still trying to work out if our generally good run of results is due to the largely fine players that we have at our disposal or the result of this new methodology. To me, and a few others, there have been times when our play hasn’t been too dissimilar to the last campaign.

My thoughts on this season are rather confused and incomplete.

Like Sarri, I need time to work it all out.

 

 

In Memorium

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Richard Garry Parkins 1929 to 2018

 

Tales From The Home Of Our Delight

Chelsea vs. Everton : 11 November 2018.

The Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month.

No matter where I am on the eleventh of November, I always stop and have a reflective two minutes in silence, away from anyone, to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of future generations. I am usually at work. I usually walk over to the quietness of the company car park and stand alone with my thoughts. It was with a great deal of anger – plus frustration and sadness – that I let myself get wrapped up with work last November, it pains me to say it, thus missing the two minutes of silence. I vowed to myself to never let it happen again.

One Hundred Years.

Fate transpired for 2018. And I am careful to use the right words here. There is no reason to blithely thank our participation in the Europa League, but it just seemed right that our game against Everton should take place on Sunday 11 November, a date which would mark the end of the First World War in 1918. For whatever reason, and I can list a few, I have always linked the early history of Chelsea Football Club with the First World War. If I was not to mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of the very first armistice day in my home village, Stamford Bridge would be as good a place as any.

Our First Decade.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in 1905. The First World War commenced on 28 July 1914. At the end of the 1914/15 season – in which Everton were the Division One Champions – it was decided to halt professional football in England and Wales, although not in Scotland. The FA Cup was also stopped after that season as the war gathered speed throughout Europe. However, not before Chelsea took place in our first ever FA Cup Final on Saturday 24 April 1915, against Sheffield United at Old Trafford. We lost 3-0 and, due to the large number of servicemen in the crowd it will be forever known as the “Khaki Cup Final.” By the time football recommenced after the hostilities, Chelsea had not played competitive football in four of its first fourteen seasons. The link with the armed forces took several forms. From the earliest moments of our existence, the team were known as “The Pensioners”, named after the inhabitants – former servicemen – of the Royal Hospital. Many of the country’s new recruits would have travelled to the battlegrounds of Belgium and France via the nation’s capital and then to the channel ports. In my mind, at least, the First World War, London, the soldiers, and Chelsea Football Club will always be indelibly linked.

A Somerset Village.

Just as I always link Chelsea Football Club with the First World War, I have always sensed that the conflict has played an important part in how I feel about my home village. My mother was born in the same house, right in the centre of the village of Mells, just opposite the Talbot Inn, that my grandfather was born in 1895. And the First World War has wrapped itself around my village for decades.

Edwin Meredith Draper.

I called my mother’s father “Grandad Ted.”

He served in the British Army during the “Great War” in the ambulance service, ferrying the injured from the trenches to field hospitals as a driver. After the war, he returned to his home village to be a gardener in the manor house now owned by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, where he would meet my grandmother who served as a cook in the same house. My grandfather rarely spoke of his life as a soldier in the Great War. I still have his medals. I remember him speaking of how he stayed at a French family’s house for a while after the end of the war. He spoke highly of the German soldiers that he met. He did not seem to be blighted too much by his experience. I remember his only physical scars were from the marks left on his skin by the leeches which inhabited the water-ridden trenches. I have no doubt that there were mental scars, but my grandfather was a quiet, private, and occasionally stern, man and I do not doubt that he chose not to air too many really personal feelings.

My dear grandfather is pictured in the series of three black and white photographs below.

Dulce Et Decorum Est.

I never studied the war poets at school, but I have become familiar with the writings of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon over recent years. The reason for this is simple. I have been inspired by my village. Mells was often visited by Sassoon over many decades – the Manor House would often host a variety of bohemian characters from London – and I have tried to read a little about him. So much was his love of the village of Mells that in a quiet corner of St. Andrew’s churchyard, a simple gravestone marks Sassoon’s final resting place.

As an aside, I always remember that in a Chelsea magazine from around 2004, the editor chose to illustrate a story about the Chelsea players and club staff who are buried in Brompton Cemetery with a stock photograph of a gravestone. Imagine my surprise when I spotted that the photograph chosen was of Siegfried Sassoon’s headstone. I have featured a poem by Sassoon in these match reports before (Remembrance Day 2012, Chelsea vs. Liverpool), but a poem by Wilfred Owen was brought to my attention recently. It is so honest in its grim commentary of the trenches that it always makes me smart when I read it.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Edwin Lutyens.

There is a further link between my village and the First World War. Edwin Lutyens, the great architect who left his mark on the world with buildings from England to India, often stayed at the Manor House. In addition to designing the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the war memorial in Mells was also designed by Lutyens. It is a stunning piece of work. And it includes a piece of writing which always makes me misty-eyed and reflective.

“We died in a strange land facing the dark cloud of war and this stone is raised to us in the home of our delight.”

Images of men, young boys too, breathing heavy, gasping at air, calling out to friends, calling for “mother”, imagining views of childhood, the stony path to the village school, the cobbles on the pavement in front of the village shop, the church bells of St. Andrew’s, the hay in the fields, the sunset over the woods on the hills, the cry of the cuckoo. One last breath. One last image.

“The home of our delight.”

There was one last personal gift from Lutyens to the people of Mells. In the village church, a wonderful statue of Edward Horner stands proud, featuring the only child of the Horner family, killed in action during the First World War. The statue was designed by Alfred Munnings, but the plinth is by Lutyens and it has many similarities to the large block of slightly-angled marble of The Cenotaph.

Thomas Frederick Axon.

Dad called his father “Pop” so I called him “Grandad Pop.” From memory, he would have enlisted in his home town of Wareham in Dorset and he experienced army life in India – for sure – but I also remember the exotic sounding city of Baghdad being mentioned. He passed away in 1971 so my memory of his war tales are very scant. Thankfully, there were no injuries from the conflict. I have strong memories to this day of the time I spent with “Grandad Pop.” After the First World War, he would later marry and move to Frome, and then to Mells. Growing up, both sets of my grandparents were only a bare minute away. We all lived under the shadow of St. Andrew’s church tower.

Silence.

I had left Mells, past the pub, past my grandparents’ old home, the churchyard, the gravestones and the war memorial at 6.20am. By 7am I had collected PD, Glenn and Parky. Just before 10am, we were inside “The Eight Bells” near Putney Bridge, sipping clandestine beers ahead of the official opening time. We had planned the day’s activities around the service of remembrance which was due to take place at the nearby Fulham War Memorial at 11am. Soon, friends Peter, Liz and Charlie called in to the pub; unknown to us, they had the same plan. Alan soon joined us. Then the Kent lads. Then Diana and Ian – from Chicago – dropped in. We walked over to the churchyard of All Saints Church just as the parade, which had started at Parson’s Green, arrived. It was perfect timing.

There were representatives from the army, local dignitaries, a band, even some Mods on scooters bringing up the rear with Union Jacks flying.

Alongside us all was Parky, wearing medals from his stay in the army in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

As we neared eleven o’clock, we stood in complete silence. The crowd numbered maybe four hundred. Above were clear blue skies. The orange and yellow and russet of autumn hemmed us all in. It was a perfect Sunday morning in London. But thoughts drifted. To foreign fields. To a distant land.

I thought of my two grandfathers.

Abide With Me.

After the two minutes of complete silence, the introduction to “Abide With Me” was played by the brass band. I began strongly but began to fail, the words were obviously not as entrenched in my mind as I had perhaps envisioned. A gentleman to my left handed me the order of service and I shared it with Alan. We sang along. Under the words was a depiction of the famous game of football played between enemy lines at a war time Christmas. With the hymn being the “Cup Final” hymn, this was a very nice touch.

There were two further hymns. The first one was unfamiliar. The second one was a favourite.

“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

Shudder.

I felt privileged to be present.

Friends First, Football Later.

We returned to the pub. Josh and Chad and a few of their fellow Chelsea fans from Minnesota had arrived. There was talk of the game, briefly, in Belarus, but the Everton game was hardly mentioned. We wolfed down Sunday Roasts, and just enjoyed the chance to be with each other again. Diana and Ian were last featured in these reports for our game with Manchester City last season. They were wisely combining the two staples of British life – football and music – on their trip. There were ska festivals, Trojan nights, and a UK Subs gig. Wise choices all. Chad had followed up his trip to Belarus with a trip to see his “other” team York City play at Swindon Town the previous day.

I set off early with Diana and Ian to sort out tickets. Although married, they would be watching at opposite ends of the Stamford Bridge stadium; Diana in the upper tier of The Shed among fellow Evertonians, Ian in the front row of the Matthew Harding Lower alongside my friend Pam.

Stamford Bridge.

Once inside the stadium, early for once, I was able to relax a little and put everything into some sort of perspective. Although I was hoping for a Chelsea win against Everton – although far from “expecting” it – there seemed that other weightier matters were surely important. This indeed was an important day, an important occasion. And I thought again of my grandfather, Ted Draper.

My grandfather was a good sportsman. He played football for Mells and Vobster United and cricket for Mells. I remembered the black and white photographs of both sides, taken in around 1925, on show in his bedroom when I was a child. He was, apparently, the star of the cricket team, and after studying the scorebooks from that era – priceless items – I can vouch for this. However, a family friend would not be afraid to tell me that he had a mean temper on a cricket pitch. Quiet off the pitch, a bit of a demon on it. A familiar story for many I suppose.

For all of his adventures on both football and cricket pitches, though, there is one sporting story involving my grandfather that I have been enchanted about for decades. Once I chose Chelsea as my team in 1970, I can remember Grandad Ted telling me that he once visited Stamford Bridge with his great friend – and fellow Mells sportsman – Ted Knapton. It was, I am pretty convinced, the only football stadium that he ever visited.

My grandfather, however many times I pressed him, could not remember the teams involved though. But I know that he said he favoured Aston Villa – possibly a first love – as a child, and then latterly Newcastle United – through a friend. And I have often wondered if the two Teds, because of their association with Mells football, were gifted tickets for the 1920 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge between Villa and Huddersfield Town.

I am no detective, but that might be the answer.

Heaven knows, I have visualised his visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties so many times.

The train trip from Frome railway station to Paddington. A bite to eat in a nearby café. The underground to Walham Green Station. The crowds of people along the Fulham Road. The closeness of everything. The colours of the rosettes. The clamour for attention of the programme sellers, official and otherwise. The sellers of iced lemonade, of ginger beer, of cigarette salesmen. The shouts of the crowd. The Birmingham accents. The Yorkshire dialect. The smoke. The Londoners and the spivs, the touts, the brashness of the city. The lines at the turnstiles. The musty aroma of overcoats. Caps, bonnets and hats. The swell of the crowd. The bands marching before the game. The huge advertisements adorning every spare inch of space, on hoardings at the back of the huge curve of the terrace, and on the backs of the houses on the Fulham Road. The appearance of the teams. The surge of those on the terrace as a chance goes close. The unstable nature of the terrace beneath the feet, of wooden risers and of mud and cinders. The clouds of dust. Pockets of cigarette smoke drifting over the spectators. The trees in Brompton Cemetery. The smoke rising from chimneys. The wounded Chelsea pensioners – that vivid splash of red – watching from the side of the pitch in antiquated wheelchairs, some without limbs, some without sight. My grandfather, wistful, lost for a moment, a flashback to Amiens or Ypres or Valenciennes.

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

In later years, whenever I stood on The Shed, as part of that unhindered mass of terrace that originally swept all around the stadium, including the small paddock in front of the old East Stand, I had a wonderful feeling of being a physical part of the history of the club. Of a link with the past. I miss that terrace. It was immense, in more ways than one.

“I wonder if my grandad stood here.”

The Colour Red.

We knew what was coming. There has been a new appetite to honour the fallen in recent years. Possibly since the relatively recent war in Afghanistan, maybe even from 9/11; a resurgence to remember those injured or killed in battle and to acknowledge those who serve. Was there such a show of remembrance, say, when we played Everton on Remembrance Sunday in 2007? My diary entry from that day would suggest not.

The red poppy is the omnipresent symbol of Remembrance Day. But for this Chelsea fan, the scarlet tunic of the Chelsea Pensioner – with tricorn hat, black boots, medals – is the image that makes me tingle.

Before the kick-off, members of the armed forces carried a huge banner with the image of the poppy to the centre circle.

In the north-east corner, not far from Ian, stood the white letters “CHELSEA REMEMBERS.”

With the spectators naturally quieting now, two Chelsea pensioners strode onto the pitch and placed two poppy wreaths on to the centre circle.

The two teams stood in silence.

We all stood in silence.

And again my mind wandered.

Uncle Fred.

Although my two grandfathers lived through the Great War, and I have told their stories here, the last relative who completes my own First World War story, was sadly not so lucky.

My gran’s young brother, Francis “Fred” Hibberd served in the Somerset Light Infantry in the 1914-1918 war. He was killed, tragically, in the last few days of conflict. His face, in a large photograph, loomed over my grandparents’ living room for as long as I can remember. It upset my gran, Blanche, terribly. He was the only “close” relative of mine who was killed in the First World War. In the past few years, I happened to find a letter – written while he was recuperating from an illness – posted to my great-grandmother from a hospital in Hollywood, Northern Ireland in October 1918. It was, probably, the last letter he ever wrote. When I realised what I had stumbled upon, my heart wept. Yet I felt so privileged to be able to hold it and read it. He would soon be posted abroad one last fateful time…

In November 2014, I attended a service at the nearby village of Buckland Dinham – his home, my gran’s home, just three miles from where I sit – in which hornbeam trees were planted to commemorate the men from the village who did not return from the front.

It was a humbling experience.

“It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.”

I am not so sure, and I am not so sure if my gran and her sister Laura and brother Geoff were ever sure, either.

Rest In Peace.

Red, White, Blue.

Chelsea in blue. Everton in white. And the Chelsea Pensioners in red.

Ross Barkley, our former Toffee, did not make the cut.

There had been negative comments about Ruben and Ross against BATE on Thursday. But both are runners, if nothing else, and there was simply nowhere to run on Thursday. It was a poor game, eh?

Eden returned.

The game began.

It looked like Everton had taken more than the usual three-thousand as their support stretched further along The Shed than usual. But I have noticed the emergence of some new executive boxes in the last few rows of The Shed Lower in recent weeks (not unlike the boxes which were there in 2001) so I imagine that this has resulted in fewer seats available for the away fans in that part of the tier. It is my only explanation.

I thought that Richarlison might prove to be a bit of a handful, but Everton never really bothered us much in the first-half. The diminutive Bernard went close for the visitors but the first part of the game struggled to whet the appetite. It was a messy start with mistakes and errors everywhere. For once, the Evertonians were making a fair old din, though not on the same scale as others. They have never been the loudest.

A free-kick to us just outside the box, and although David Luiz was standing close by, and Willian looked set to strike, we watched as the left-foot of Marcos Alonso swept the ball narrowly wide.

It continued to be a messy game.

On the half-hour, with the ball having been played out of the Chelsea half, and the crowd so quiet, Luiz turned cheerleader and waved his hands in the air to the Matthew Harding. The crowd replied with the loudest noise thus far. A nod from Luiz shortly after showed his approval.

On forty minutes, Willian spotted another good run from Alonso and chipped the ball over to him. It looked an impossible task, but Alonso not only reached the ball, but his volley was on target, stinging the hands of the England international Jordan Pickford.

“Great football.”

I did not see the “coming together” of Toni Rudiger and Bernard. The reaction of others lead me to believe that our defender had been dealt a bad blow by the referee; both players were booked.

At half-time, I chatted with John from California, his first visit in the Matthew Harding after a lifetime of tickets in The Shed. He too had been tempted by lower level football on the Saturday. He had watched QPR take on Brentford in the cosy confines of Loftus Road. He commented that the pre-match ceremony had included the listing of every QPR and Brentford player killed in the First World War.

A nice touch.

The second-half began with a little more quality. Luiz – rather hot and cold in the first forty-five minutes – allowed Hazard to set up a chance for Morata. Pickford was able to scramble it away. Then the visitors came into the game. Kepa Arrizabalaga was at full stretch to tip over a Gylfi Sigurdsson effort. Bernard then stumbled and missed an easy chance from close in. Eden had been quite quiet in the first-half but as players tired, he seemed to get stronger. Willian went close with an angled shot. Hazard tested Pickford from distance.

In the stands, things were pretty quiet.

Fabregas for Jorginho.

Pedro for Willian.

I had a vision.

“Barkley to come on and score the winner in the last minute” I said to Alan.

Down below us, Hazard set up Alonso whose low drive just clipped the far post. Ian must have had a great view of that one; it must have been straight at him.

Out on the other flank, Dave sent in a low cross and Morata poked it home.

“GET IN.”

I was up celebrating, but soon realised that he was offside.

“Bollocks.”

Into the last ten minutes, Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Very soon, there were misplaced passes and cheers from the Evertonians. His shot from a ridiculous angle and distance drew groans from everyone. He had a ‘mare to be honest.

Everton had defended well. But they had not troubled us. We played within ourselves, and were lacking quality in the box.

It ended 0-0.

Injury Time.

Just after the break, I received a message from my friend Luke, who sits and stands near Parky in the Shed Lower. Parky had stumbled and had grazed his head, and was being tended to in the medical centre. Glenn shot off to find him, thus missing the rest of the match. After realising that Parky needed to take it easy, Glenn walked slowly with him back to the car.

The old soldier had fallen, but there were friends to stand alongside him.