Tales From Fool’s Gold

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 1 April 2023.

April Fools Day In Fulham

There are three games to detail in this edition; two from 1983 and one from forty years later. Let’s do things chronologically.

On Saturday 19 March 1983, Chelsea played a London Derby against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. With Chelsea eager to pick up as many points as possible from the remaining games of the Second Division season to stave off relegation to the Third Division we could only eke out a 0-0 draw.

The Palace team included on-loan full-back Gary Locke who had played over three-hundred games for Chelsea after his debut in 1972. Locke played more games for Chelsea than Gianfranco Zola, Graeme Le Saux, David Webb, Micky Droy and Gary Cahill, but I fully expect there are folk reading this who have never heard of him. I guess this is normal, if not a little sad. I spoke with Bill from Toronto before the Everton game about this. He confirmed that many of the newer Chelsea supporters that he encounters simply have no care in the world to learn about parts of our history.

Gary Locke played in the very first Chelsea game that I ever saw in March 1974 and his performance is the only one that I can honestly remember much about; in the second-half he was playing right in front of me in the West Stand Benches and I recollect a succession of well-timed sliding tackles to thwart Newcastle United’s attacks down their flank.

Also playing for Palace was Jerry Murphy, who would make a move in the opposite direction in 1985. I was getting good at the “guess the gate” sideshow. I predicted 14,000. It was actually 13,427.

A week later, on Saturday 26 March 1983, Chelsea played Barnsley who were managed by the former Leeds United defender Norman Hunter. In the “Forward Line” section – it took the place of “The Talk Of Stamford Bridge” for programme aficionados – there was a desire for the club to finish in a better final placing than the twelfth spot of 1982. The club was currently in thirteenth place, but just six points above a relegation spot. There was news that our star player Mike Fillery was seeking a move to a team in the top flight and was therefore recently placed on the transfer list.

In the 1981/82 and 1982/83 seasons I subscribed to the home programmes and I eagerly awaited their arrival right after games. These days we are bombarded with official club information via the internet and endless social media offerings. In those days, the programme was everything. It was our only link to the club. I devoured those small match day magazines with an absolute passion.

In the Barnsley edition, there is a two-page spread featuring Paul Canoville who had recently scored two against Carlisle United. Needless to say, these were the first goals scored by a black player for Chelsea. Until then, Canners was our only black player. Sadly, the letters page contained two pieces from supporters complaining about racist abuse aimed towards Canoville at recent games.

On this day, Barnsley went in 1-0 up at the break and went on to win 3-0. My diary doesn’t detail any great shock nor surprise at this reverse. The gate was just 7,223. It was getting easy, so easy, to guess our home attendances. The most recent five home fixtures produced depressing figures.

Cambridge United : 7,808

Derby County : 8,661

Blackburn Rovers : 6.982

Carlisle United : 6,677

Barnsley : 7,223

Our substitute was debutant Keith Jones who replaced Clive Walker. Not only was Jones our second -ever black player, but he was the first player to reach the Chelsea first team who was actually younger than me. He was born on 14 October 1965, three months after me.

I was seventeen, coming up to eighteen in July. I remember that this game provided a particularly sobering moment for me; that someone younger than me was now playing for my beloved Chelsea. I found it hard to cope with the thought  that I would be supporting and cheering on a lad who was younger than me.

At that moment, I may well have uttered my first-ever Chelsea “fackinell.”

As an aside, I had played football for my school teams from 1976 to 1982, but had drifted away from playing in 1982/83. There may have been occasional games within the school, but I think my competitive football came to an end in 1981/82. Regardless, the presence of Keith Jones in the Chelsea team had undoubtedly meant that I had missed the boat to become a professional footballer or a footballer of any standing whatsoever. That a lad younger than me was infinitely better than me at the tender age of seventeen had left me somewhat deflated. I still find it hard to forgive him.

Forty years later, our underwhelming season was starting up again after a fortnight break with another 5.30pm kick off at Stamford Bridge.

Aston Villa, who have won only twice in twenty years at Stamford Bridge, were to be the visitors.

There was no great sense of enthusiastic anticipation as I made my way up to London in the morning. The driving was tough going – “hello rain, hello spray” – but I made good time and dropped PD and Parky outside “The Eight Bells” at around 11.45am. All of us were not expecting much of a spectacle. In fact, the mood was pretty sombre. Sigh.

“Just can’t see us scoring” was a familiar lament as the day developed.

I was parked up on Bramber Road at around midday and the first three hours of my day at Chelsea would be spent meeting up with friends from Edinburgh, New Orleans and Dallas. But first, I wanted to involve my third passenger in a photo that I had been planning in my head for a month or so.

I have written about the Clem Attlee Estate before and how it has undoubtedly housed thousands of local Chelsea fans since its inception in the late ‘fifties. The tower block that overlooks the Lillee Road, consisting of three wings, dominates the first few minutes of my walk down to Stamford Bridge. I’ve taken a few photos of it in the past. On this occasion I wanted to pay homage to our gritty past and so I arranged for Ron Harris to stand in front of two of the building’s wings.

I hope you like it.

For the next few hours, I chatted with some pals.

First up, Rich from Edinburgh, visiting Chelsea again, this time with his uncle’s son Matt, on an extended holiday from his home in Perth in Western Australia.

A few former players were milling around.

There were plenty of laughs as Bobby Tambling told a lovely story about Terry Venables scaring Eddie McCreadie to death at a hotel in the Black Forest while on tour in West Germany. McCreadie was apparently scared of ghosts, so Venables borrowed a pair of Bobby’s black pyjamas and hung them outside McCreadie’s window as a storm was raging outside. A window was rattled, and McCreadie pulled the curtains back and screamed in horror much to the amusement of those in adjacent rooms.

Next up, Jonathan from Dallas, a chap that I was meeting for the first time, but who has been reading these ramblings for a while, and whose daughter was to be one of the team of mascots for the day’s game. The wait was long; eleven years. Initially his son was on the list, but COVID got in the way of his turn and was now, sadly, too old for mascot duties. The baton was therefore passed to his sister. I enjoyed chatting with Jonathan about a few topics. We briefly touched on the recent rumours, unproven, about Chelsea re-igniting the option of moving to Earls Court. Although a stadium upgrade is likely, and needed if I am honest, I’d prefer the current regime to sort the bloody team out first.

Lastly, my good friend Stephen – visiting from New Orleans with his wife Elicia and her friend Makeda – arrived at about 1pm and I handed over tickets that I had been keeping warm. I last saw Stephen in his home town of Belfast ahead of the Super Cup game. It would be Madeka’s first-ever Chelsea game.

As ever, Ron gave the same welcome that he gives to all Chelsea virgins : “if we lose, you’re not coming back.”

It was a pleasure for me to have the briefest chats with Ken Monkou. I first saw him play in August 1989. He would go on to become our player of the year that season.

At about 2.30pm, I sped off down to Putney Bridge tube to meet up with the lads – and lasses – again. There was subdued talk of the game. Bill from Toronto was back for another match, this time with his wife Beth Ann, her first one too.

I chatted mainly to Andy and Sophie. We centred on the current state of affairs at Chelsea, but also yakked about Vincent Van Gogh, my relatives’ migration to Philadelphia in the nineteenth century, visiting Canada and our combined love of Bournemouth. It’s not all about football.

Despite the desperate state of our play at the moment, I loved Sophie’s reaction to the news that she had been sorted with an Arsenal ticket. It is surely a mess of a club right now, but nothing beats going to a game. She punched the air and smiled wide.

I had earlier said to Andy that “I can’t understand people who say they want the season to end. I bloody don’t. It’s what I live for, this.”

Andy was surprisingly upbeat. Sophie and I questioned his sanity.

There were a few Villa fans on the tube back to Fulham Broadway. They were full of song and were singing praises of Unai Emery and John McGinn on the train and as they alighted at our destination. I inwardly sniggered. Well, you would wouldn’t you?

I was in at 5pm. The troops slowly appeared. My chat with Oxford Frank was predictably down beat.

“Just can’t see us scoring.”

The team?

Don’t ask.

Kepa

James – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Enzo – Chilwell

Felix – Havertz – Mudryk

The appearance of not only Reece James but Marc Cucarella in a back three while both Benoit Badiashile and Trevoh Chalobah were on the bench was unfathomable. This forced Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a far from convincing right wing-back on us yet again. Oh my life. I was hoping for a better performance from Mykhailo Mudryk in this game than in recent others. I wanted to see more of the Anfield Mudryk than the post-Anfield Mudryk. At least Enzo and Felix, two bright points surely, were playing. I prepared myself to be frustrated by Kai bloody Havertz yet again.

Before the teams appeared, a brief chat pitchside with John Terry and Roberto di Matteo, chatting about a “Legends” match versus Bayern Munich to raise money for the Royal Marsden Hospital, where Gianluca Vialli received treatment in his battle against cancer. John Terry joked he would play in his full kit.

There was a decent crowd; less empty seats than against Everton a fortnight earlier. Of course Villa had the standard three thousand. I was eerily aware that this was all happening on April Fools’ Day. I wondered what sort of headlines were waiting to be written. Our last game on this day of the year was the achingly depressing defeat to Tottenham in 2018.

The game began.

We were back to normal, attacking The Shed in the first-half. Without knowing it at the time, a wild effort from Mateo Kovacic after just two minutes set the tone for the rest of the evening. I can barely remember a shot from relatively close to goal that ended up so high in the upper tier. Soon after a shot from Mudruk inside the box was blocked by Emiliano Martinez. We were dominating the early exchanges but with some irritating early evidence that things might not go our way. Kai Havertz took an extra touch inside the box, as he often does, and invited an easy block. There was a scissor kick from Kovacic, similar to his fine goal against Liverpool last season, but on this occasion the effort almost went out for a throw-in.

Off the pitch, this game began quietly and continued the same way.

On the quarter of an hour, Ollie Watkins slid a shot wide in the visitors’ first attack. Just after, John McGinn slammed a shot from outside the box that hit the bar. A minute later, a ball was lofted towards Watkins, but two Chelsea defenders were drawn to the ball. It was my opinion that Kalidou Koulibaly, seeing the whole of the play, should have shouted down Marc Cucarella’s hurried chase to head the ball. Instead, the Spaniard’s touch just set the ball up nicely for Watkins, who had run from deep, to lob Kepa.

A voice nearby blamed Kepa, but it was hardly his fault.

So here we were again, dominating possession, finding it hard to finish, and a goal down.

The rest of the half continued in much the same way. If I am honest, our approach play was quite decent at times. Two players took my eyes as always; Enzo showed an eagerness on the ball and an ability to spray passes into space. And Felix exhibited fine skill at times, his happy feet taking him away from markers in tight areas. On the flanks, there were two different stories. Although he was away in the distance, Ben Chilwell looked to be doing all the right things at the right times, yet Ruben Loftus-Cheek forever looked a square peg in a round hole. His inability to cross the ball was annoying everyone.

The chances mounted up. The fleet-footed Felix forced a save. Then there was a lofted ball to Havertz that he chested down and volleyed, but the shot was straight at the ‘keeper. After a fine pass from Kovacic, a weak shot from the disappointing Mudryk. Loftus-Cheek continued to frustrate on his unconvincing forays down our right. He kept doing the simple things badly.

With half-an-hour played, Stamford Bridge was yet to warm up. I hadn’t joined in with a single song, nor had the majority of others.

We were ghosts again.

Kovacic as playmaker once more, this time a fine lofted ball towards Chilwell who advanced inside the box but slammed an effort against the woodwork. Half-chances came and went as the first-half continued. Chelsea’s approach play continued to hit some nice notes but we had no hint of a cutting edge.

Another Havertz effort was saved by Martinez. Late on, a dink into space from Enzo – becoming his trademark – set up Chilwell to head the ball in.

YES!

Sadly, our joy was short-lived when a tug on Ashley Young – who used to be a footballer – had been spotted.

There were muted boos at the end of the first period.

That a dirge from the hum drum Coldplay was aired at half-time just about summed it all up.

Our finishing had certainly been lukewarm.

I was waiting for a freshen-up – the footballing equivalent of a wet wipe to tidy up our grubby finishing – in the form of substitutions at half-time but there was nothing.

Attacking our end, the Matthew Harding, I was to appreciate the fine play of Chilwell at closer quarters. Soon into the half, he turned beautifully but shot weakly.

Just after, the Matthew Harding woke up, and me too.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

I am ashamed to admit that this must be the latest in a game that I have ever got involved.

Fackinell.

On fifty-six minutes, we failed to clear a corner and the ball was worked back to the onrushing McGinn, galloping in at pace. I caught his shot, sadly, on film. It flew into the net, with Kepa well beaten. This was only their fourth or fifth effort on goal yet they were 2-0 up.

Another “fackinell.”

And I was mocking their “we’ve got McGinn, super John McGinn” chant at the tube station.

More fool me.

With that, at last some substitutions.

N’Golo Kante for Loftus-Cheek.

Noni Madueke for Mudryk.

“Off you go, Ruben.”

But, but, but…what of the shape now?

Madueke at wing-back, Reece still inside, but Kante appeared to be playing off Havertz and alongside Felix in a front three.

Oh my fucking N’God.

Our play actually deteriorated.

Madueke cut inside but curled one over. Kante shimmied nicely but pushed a low drive wide. This was desperate stuff. The mood inside Stamford Bridge was horrible. It wasn’t top level toxicity, but the natives were not happy.

Our play and chances continued to frustrate us.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” rung out.

It got worse.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

I thought to myself…”why wait until then?”

And I was only half-joking.

Two more substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Christian Pulisic for Cucarella.

In the last few minutes, the setting sun behind the West Stand produced a ridiculously warm glow to the metalwork on top of the towering East Stand and the bricks of the hotel and flats behind the Shed End. It gave the whole place a strange feel, almost ethereal.

Fool’s Gold anyone?

At the end of the match, the boos descended down from those who were still in their seats. Many had left.

I met up with Elicia and Madeka underneath Peter Osgood’s boots and put the borrowed season tickets safely away.

“Sorry that we lost. Sorry it was so quiet.”

“Oh my. There were some angry people near us.”

“I can imagine. I bet you heard some bad words, right.”

“We did.”

It was a grim walk back to the car.

Surely there are not many Chelsea supporters left who would be saddened if Chelsea pulled the plug on Graham Potter?

Next up, a terrifying game with Liverpool at home.

See you there.

Heroes And Villains

Tales From A Rough One

Chelsea vs. Everton : 18 March 2023.

One of the markers that I use to gauge the progress of the year lies in the hedgerow opposite my house. A month or so ago, snowdrops appeared, blossomed and then slowly vanished. Recently, they shared the space with some newly-arrived daffodils which are now in full bloom. A few days ago, there were no more snowdrops left – only the stunning yellow blossoms remained – and in my eyes, winter had ended and spring was here.

Spring has been a winning season for us in fifteen of the past twenty-five years. It’s the business end of the football campaign. It’s when we, with amazing regularity, have gone to work.

But this one might be a little different. With domestic honours an impossibility in 2022/23, our only hope for silverware lies in Europe, but we were given a hideously difficult path to the final in Istanbul. First up, a tie with Real Madrid for the third season in a row. Unfortunately, I will only be able to attend the home leg as others in the office have already booked that Easter week as holiday. The same thing happened last year. It is grimly ironic that we chased a trip to the Bernabeu for years and have now drawn Real Madrid three times in a row, yet on all three occasions, I won’t be in attendance.

Bernabeu has become my new San Siro. One day I’ll get there.

Should we defeat Real Madrid, we then have to play Manchester City or Bayern Munich.

Yeah, I know.

With the kick-off for our home game with Everton at 5.30pm there was a relatively late start to the day. However, by 9.30am all of my fellow passengers had been collected and I then set off on our latest pilgrimage to London. At midday PD and Parky were settling down for an afternoon of lager and large laughs in “The Eight Bells” and I joined them at around 1.45pm. I had met up with my friend Bill from just outside Toronto at Stamford Bridge and by the time we arrived, our friends Diana and Ian, from Chicago, were already sat alongside PD, Parky and Salisbury Steve. Rene from Chicago, who I had not previously met, joined us too.

A table for eight at the Eight Bells.

We chatted about all sorts.

Bill told me that he felt that he already knew PD and Parky, through reading these rambles over the years, and was actually quite excited to be eventually meeting them for the first time. You can imagine my response.

I was amazed how easy it was for Diana – an Everton fan – to get a ticket for the away section. Her husband Ian and Bill would be sat together in the West Lower after I managed to secure tickets for them both via a reliable source.

Rene would be sat in the West Lower too.

The chat continued. I hadn’t been feeling great, though, for a few days. I had been suffering with a cold. As I chatted away to the friends from near and far I could feel my sore throat beginning again. I felt a bit groggy too. I hoped the players were in better nick than me.

I was able to personally thank Bill, at last, for helping me to obtain a ticket for the incredible Racing vs. Independiente derby that I witnessed over in Buenos Aires in February 2020. This feat of kindness came about when a friend of his, Victor – as featured a few weeks back – who he played football with in West Virginia a decade or so ago, was contacted and within an hour, I was sorted. I sent a photo of us to Victor, who lives just a few blocks from Enzo’s former home El Monumental, and eagerly await the opportunity to be able to return the flavour when Victor comes over to London in hopefully the near future.

Ironically, the bloke who I secured the two tickets from for Bill and Ian is currently in Buenos Aires himself on a football jolly.

It had been raining on the drive to London. Now, leaving the pub, the sun was out. However, walking up the steps to the platform at Putney Bridge, I suddenly felt knackered. At least the weather was mild. I was rough, but if it had been a freezing day, I would have felt even worse.

I reached my seat and still felt below par. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be strongly participating in this one.

The team?

Kepa

Fofana – Kouilbaly – Badiashile

James – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell

Felix – Havertz – Pulisic

The presence of Christian Pulisic surprised me. Surely Mykhailo Mudryk needed games more.

So, the McNally Derby.

Chelsea in blue / blue / white.

Ian in the West Lower.

Everton in pink / grey / pink.

Diana in the Shed Upper.

The game began with us fizzing the ball around nicely. I must admit it did feel odd for us to be attacking the Matthew Harding in the first-half. A half volley from Enzo was blocked. Not long after, a Ben Chilwell free-kick was worked to Mateo Kovacic who unleashed a volley that everyone in our section of the stand thought was goal bound. It whizzed just past the far post.

We dominated the first ten minutes almost completely.

But the atmosphere wasn’t particularly loud, nor even above average.

There was a “if you know your history” from the Evertonians every few minutes but that was about it.

Kalidou Koulibaly over hit a diagonal out to Pulisic to such an extent that I wondered if he had put his boots on the wrong feet. At least Pulisic looked full of running. Enzo looks a proper footballer doesn’t he?

There was a swift break that flew through the Everton defence but we were unable to finish. Kai Havertz was starting to come to life. On twenty minutes, undoubtedly the best move of the match took place down below me with great passing involving Reece James, Enzo, Havertz and Joao Felix but a lunging Pulisic was just unable to toe-poke a finish past Jordan Pickford.

Within quick succession, we purred at two pieces of sublime skill from Felix. Firstly, he showed complete calm and unerring presence of mind to contort his body to keep the ball from going out for an Everton throw-in down to my right. Next, a phenomenal spin into space after a remarkable first touch that left his marker consulting a “London A to Z” for his current whereabouts.

It was Zola-esque.

Magnificent stuff.

On the half-hour, I heard The Shed for the first real time.

Next up, a nice move but a weak effort from Felix right at the ‘keeper. On forty minutes, a terrible waste of a cross from Pulisic. His star had faded already.

Things were a bit edgier now, and although Everton had hardly mustered more than a couple of attacks on our goal in the entire length of the first-half, the support around me definitely became more nervous. There was desperate defending at times – much of the defending involving Koulibaly by definition looks desperate – and we were grateful, I think, that the first-half was nearing completion. In the last few minutes of the half, the only sound to be heard in the Matthew Harding Upper was that of plastic seats being flipped back.

One last free-kick, well-worked, a dummy, something from the training ground, but the eventual shot from Enzo did not bother Pickford one iota.

At the break, I grimly predicted a 0-0 draw at full-time. It’s not that we had played badly – far from it – but our lack of firepower in and around the box was haunting us yet again. I was still feeling rough and had not really joined in too many songs and chants in support of the boys.

I sat myself down alongside PD – Alan was unable to make it, Clive had shifted over to sit with Gary – and prepared myself for another half of attrition against a bleak but regimented Sean Dyche team.

Straight away we were on the attack. A couple of crosses were zipped over from our left with Chilwell having a fine game, and Havertz should have buried the second one with a virtually free header.

Eight minutes into the second-period, Enzo floated the ball perfectly out to our left wing-back. A first-time cross from Chilwell was not cleared and the ball reached Felix slightly to the left of the penalty spot. I looked on and hoped for the best as he dug a shot out. Miraculously, the ball was struck with such accuracy that it slowly crept just inside the far post.

The Toffees were becoming unstuck, as was my recent score prediction.

Chelsea 1 Everton 0.

The players cuddled underneath the TV screen and in front of the away fans in the far corner of The Shed.

At last some noise.

“He came from Portugal.”

And then a rousing “Carefree” – seemingly – from all four stands.

I joined in, coughed and spluttered, and soon stopped.

Arguably the best move of the game soon followed when a cute back-heeled pass from Felix set up Pulisic in a nice little pocket of space. He lifted a fine shot into the goal – similar to the Havertz disallowed goal against Dortmund – but the flag was raised for an offside. Ian and Bill must have got a good view of that decision.

“We need a second, Paul.”

“Yep.”

“A goal there would have killed them off.”

The prize for this win, with Fulham playing in the FA Cup this weekend, would be a step up to ninth position.

In the pub, Bill and I had laughed about the varying expectations of us Chelsea fans over the years.

“Back in 1983, we would have craved a safe ninth spot in the top division.”

Ah 1983.

Forty years ago, my mind was full of school discos and terrible “Mock A Level” results but it was also full of Chelsea’s nosedive down the Second Division table. The next game to be featured in my look back on the dreadful 1983/83 season, which took place on Saturday 12 March 1983, paired us against Carlisle United at Stamford Bridge. In the pre-amble in the match programme the game was described as a “six pointer as we skirt with the relegation zone.” I had predicted a bare 6,000 to show up at The Bridge. Both teams were mired in the bottom nine positions of the table with Chelsea just two points above the visitors. These were grave times.

The team’s two managers were both from the North-East; John Neal from Seaham in County Durham and Bob Stokoe from Hartlepool. Their two teams were now embroiled in a fight to avoid the drop. I mention these two fine fellows because, at the time, I was only seventeen and yet Stokoe and Neal, gentleman managers in every sense of the word, seemed decidedly ancient at fifty-two and fifty years of age.

And yet here I am, pushing fifty-eight.

There is no punchline here. And if there was, it wouldn’t be very funny.

At the time, Chelsea’s home record wasn’t too bad – 7 – 5 – 2, promotion form – but it was our away record – 2 – 3 – 11, relegation form – that was the root cause of our troubles.

A notable change saw our regular ‘keeper, the eighteen-year-old Steve Francis, being replaced by Bob Iles, a signing from non-league Weymouth a few years earlier. Despite going a goal down, Chelsea lead 2-1 at the break and we went on to win 4-2 The goal scorers were Paul Canoville with two, John Bumstead and Clive Walker. The gate was 6,667.

On the same day, Everton played at Old Trafford against Manchester United in front of a huge 58,198 gate in the FA Cup quarter finals with a Frank Stapleton goal giving the home team a narrow 1-0 win.

Back to 2023, and – I could hardly believe my ears – there was a strange sound emanating from the very upper echelons of the West Stand.

“Oh when the Blues…oh when the Blues…go steaming in…go steaming in.”

Fackinell.

Just after the hour, Conor Gallagher replaced Pulisic.

There was another scooped ball from Enzo. He is quickly becoming my favourite in this new assortment of players that we now find ourselves supporting.

Everton attacked. There was a free-kick from their right that caused nervousness. Then from a corner on the far side, a ball was floated in and James Tarlowski rose above Wesley Fofana, otherwise enjoying a fine game, and headed the ball down towards Kepa. Abdoulaye Doucore nipped in to flick the ball in. Havertz hooked the ball away but it was a clear goal. The buggers were level and they celebrated wildly down below me.

We got going again. There was a clean break down our right and Fofana found James. His ball inside enabled Felix to continue the move. The ball was played back to James, entering the danger zone for Everton, and as he galloped on, he came crashing down after a coming together of bodies.

Penalty.

I felt so rough that I just sat in my seat.

PD was up celebrating and he looked down on me with a look of disbelief.

More hesitancy on the run up from Havertz.

…oh bloody hell man.

Thankfully the soft shoe shuffle sent Pickford to the left and the ball was struck high to the right.

Chelsea 2 Everton 1.

Safe?

You would hope so, eh?

There was a loud and passionate chant for Gianluca Vialli and despite my sore throat, I had to show some respect and join in.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

With around ten minutes to go, our manager could not resist some typical pottering.

Kovacic, forging a decent partnership with Enzo of late, was hoiked off in favour of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and I felt a little murmur of concern.

Everton came at us again. A mistake from Koulibaly thankfully went unpunished.

With five minutes to go, two more substitutions and my head struggled to fathom it all out.

Trevoh Chalobah for Forfana.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Felix.

PD, his hip hurting, and needing a long time to walk back to the car, set off.

“See you soon mate. Here are the car keys.”

The game was very almost over.

Then, an Everton break down our right and Doucoure played in Ellis Simms, who still had a lot to do. Sadly, he breezed past a sadly immobile Koulibaly and slotted home with far too much ease.

Oh Kepa.

It was a terrible sucker punch.

The buggers celebrated in our faces again.

When Havertz had scored what we thought was our deserved winner, flags of many colours were waved enthusiastically in front of the West Lower and “equality” was observed on a few of them. Maybe our players had taken the word far too literally.

Five minutes of extra time were announced.

I shouted out : “Come on Chels, keep going.”

Almost immediately after, a bloke behind me repeated the exact same words.

“Come on Chels, keep going.”

It wasn’t to be. This was an evening when we flattered to deceive yet again. We will have to make it our new slogan.

Next up, a kick-off at the same time and in the same place, but not for a while.

In a fortnight we play Aston Villa at home.

See you there.

Tales From The Counting House

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 11 March 2023.

We stepped into “The Counting House” at 11.30am. This pub, formerly part of an old cattle market, is equidistant between Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road stadium and the Leicester City Foxes’ King Power Stadium. It must do a great trade during these two sporting seasons. We only heard about this pub being the designated “away” pub before our game, just before COVID struck, in 2020. It’s a great boozer, modernised well with a long bar, and plenty of room for an overspill outside where beers are poured at a “pop-up” facility. We – the four of us, PD, Parky, Salisbury Steve and little old me – soon settled at one of the last remaining high tables. We had timed it just right.

This was another relatively long day following The Great Unpredictables.

I had set my alarm for 6.30am and I picked up PD and Steve at 8am, his Lordship just after. The drive up the Fosse Way was as picturesque and as pleasurable as ever. We breakfasted at Moreton-In-Marsh, then zipped around Coventry and headed towards Leicester. We used the last disabled parking space right outside the pub. As trips go, it had been nigh-perfect.

I have known Steve for a couple of years. He watches games near Parky in the Shed Lower and now drinks with us down “The Eight Bells”. It was good to have him on board. He added a little sanity to the day.

When we reached the pub only fifty or so other Chelsea supporters were present. I didn’t recognise any of them, not one. There is a rumour flying around at the moment that there is a way to “beat the system” of the VWR by using an app that opens up hundreds of browsers at one time. It is no wonder that many established old-school regulars at Chelsea, not au fait with such nefarious processes, never seem to get hold of away tickets these days.

The place soon filled up and at just after 12.15pm the first “Carefree” echoed around the bar. Two games were being shown on the bar’s large TV screens; Bournemouth vs. Liverpool and Bristol City vs. Blackpool. I didn’t really bother too much with either of them, though we loved to see Bournemouth take the lead against Liverpool and Mo Salah strike a penalty well-wide of the goal towards the end of the game.

How we laughed.

I wasn’t sure if I’d be laughing later. It would be “typical Chelsea” to follow up that fine win against Borussia Dortmund with a draw or, gasp, even a defeat against Leicester City. My prediction was a draw. To win three games in eight days might, I thought, be pushing it just a bit.

This would be my eighth visit to the King Power Stadium; I have missed three due to a holiday, being snowed in and “not being arsed” for a midweek League Cup game.

We walked the short distance to the ground just after 2pm.

I had swapped my ticket with PD’s so I could get a different perspective. Previous visits have always plotted me down the front; I fancied a change. I was well-rewarded with a seat right in the middle of the upper reaches of our away corner. Steve was ten yards away to my left, a row in front. PD was way down in row three alongside Al, Gal, John and Parky.

King Power Stadium slowly filled up and eventually came to life.

Our team?

Kepa

Fofana – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell

Mudryk – Havertz – Felix

We have certainly raided Leicester City in recent years; Kante, Drinkwater, Chilwell, Fofana. I suppose their revenge was the 2021 FA Cup win, a fair trade-off, though I am sure they will never admit it.

The teams appeared.

The home team were dressed completely in royal blue while the away team were kitted out in garments based on foundation cream.

At the other end of the stadium, a rather pathetic “tifo” display took place involving a few white flags – presumably not of surrender – and a banner depicting the club’s trophies. The stadium is as bland as bland can be, quite different from Filbert Street with its four lop-sided stands.

Modern football, eh?

Around the ground, tucked under the roof at the rear of the home seated areas, Leicester City parade hundreds of small flags – not sure what they depict – but this looks messy, as if they have hung out all of their laundry to air.

The game kicked-off.

The badinage between both sets of supporters began early.

“Wesley Fofana. He left ‘cus your shit.”

“Potter and Boehly are fucking shit.”

“Ben Chilwell’s won the European Cup.”

A shot from James Maddison was easily saved by Kepa.

Ben Chilwell took a corner over in the far corner and as the ball dropped into the six-yard box, I experienced an immediate flashback to last season when I photographed a similar delivery onto the head of Antonio Rudiger and a goal followed. He loved playing at Leicester did Rudi. This year, Wesley Fofana headed the ball on and Kalidou Koulibaly kept the ball alive despite it ending well past the framework of the goal on our left. His cross went way deep. Chilwell, out on the right still, was the recipient and he was shaping up to make a direct hit, which I thought was being optimistic in the extreme. The angle was so tight. To my joy, he kept the ball low and it scudded into the net.

GET IN.

How he enjoyed that, running over to the crowd in the main stand, cupping his ears, and loving it all. My former work colleague Sally, watching with her young daughter Lily, was only a few yards away in her season ticket seat in the corner. Ouch.

Despite my pre-game reservations, we were 1-0 up.

The Chelsea crowd, buoyant before the goal, turned the volume up further.

“We’ve got Enzo in the middle. He knows exactly what we need.”

The front three were fluid, with Mykhailo Mudryk often in the middle with Kai Havetz on the right. Mudryk’s first touch was excellent in that first part of the game. I wanted him desperately to succeed. In the bar and at the game, his song was sung loudly.

“Mudryk said to me…”

Maddison zipped a free-kick over from the left but Daniel Amartey headed wide from very close in. This was developing into a fine game of football.

The songs continued.

“Oh Roman, do you know what that’s worth, Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.”

I had said to Steve in the pub that I liked this one, since it was born out of the 2021 Champions League Final in Porto, yet also mentions, and honours, Roman.

It was mid-way through the half, and the songs still rattled along nicely.

“Vialli” Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

“Kovacic our Croatian man…”

A fine cross from Havertz from the right found Felix who was one on one with the Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward. He advanced and dinked the ball over him. Surely this was going in. We waited for the net to ripple. To our amazement and dismay, the ball struck the right-hand post.

“He’s gotta score those.”

On twenty-five minutes, the whole away end combined for a thunderous “Ten Men.”

Just after, Keirnan Dewsbury-Hall (not just a footballer but the site of temperance movement meetings in West Yorkshire), let fly from outside the box and his shot took a deflection off the considerable bulk of Koulibaly. To our relief, the ball crashed against the bar.

The barrage of songs continued.

“From Stamford Bridge to Wembley…”

“Hello, hello we are the Chelsea boys.”

“His hair is fucking massive.”

Marc Cucarella was, again, having a decent game. When he man-marks closely, he is decent. When he gets pulled all over the place, his sat nav throws a wobbly and he gets shown up. But on this occasion, fine.

“Oh when the blues go steaming in…”

“Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”

Another fine move followed. Mudryk cut in from the left with pace and set up an advanced Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the right, who then played a delightful low ball towards that man Felix. His tap in made us roar again, and the players raced over to Sally’s Corner.

YES!

And then.

VAR reared its ugly head.

No goal.

Not long after, Felix lost possession, trying to be too fancy in our defensive third, and Leicester won the ball. It was touched on to Patson Daka, whoever he is, and his shot fizzed past Kepa at the near post. It was a decent strike to be fair.

The quiet home fans to my left were now chirpy.

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Next, two fine saves from Kepa in very quick succession from Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho. The game kept providing thrills and spills.

Some folk around me were losing their patience with Mudryk whose ball retention was lessening with each pass.

With half-time approaching, Enzo found himself with a little space and spotted the central run from Havertz. He scooped the ball up with deft precision – Zola to Poyet in 1999, anyone? – and over the defence right into the path of Havertz who beautifully lobbed the ball over Ward. Magnificent. One of the great goals.

But nobody celebrated.

Not Havertz. My gaze centered on him. Was he sure he was offside?

Not any of the players. Were they sure too?

The stadium seemed still, frozen in time.

Leicester fans – football fans always fear the worst – were stony silent as they presumed a goal had been conceded.

Not us.

We were quiet too. And mightily confused. There were, maybe, a few yelps of pleasure. But the majority of us were predominantly numbed into silence.  I twice looked around to check the reaction of the bloke behind me, and neither of us knew what was going on. With the players idly walking back to our half and with the referee on the centre-circle, we all came to the slow realisation that the goal stood.

But the fear of VAR had ruined that goal celebration – once bitten twice shy – and, although we were laughing and joking at the time, we all knew that VAR had insidiously buggered-up that moment, our moment.

Fuck VAR.

Incidentally, I have to mention it; this goal was eerily similar to one that I witnessed in deepest Devon in August when Owen Humphries scooped a ball over the Buckland Athletic defence for Jon Davies to score for Frome Town in an FA Cup tie. No fucking VAR at that level, though.

We were happy at half-time. I popped down to see the lads in the third row. All of them were bemused by the second goal too.

A change at the break.

Conor Gallagher for Felix.

We enjoyed a couple of early corners with Fofana forcing a fine save from Ward at his near post.

“Oooh Wesley Fofana.”

A new one this, I think.

Then Leicester enjoyed a little spell. The challenges were crashing in and Kepa went down injured after a save. This was an open game now. Leicester dominated for ten minutes or so. We held firm.

“Super, super Frank…”

“That’s why we love Salomon Kalou…”

I’d prefer songs about current players to be honest. Can we not serenade former players when we are winning 4-0 and 5-0?

On the hour, spaces opening up as we countered and there was an effort from Havertz, off balance, that flew wide. Gallagher had to awkwardly block off the line on sixty-five minutes as Leicester attacked at a corner.

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

There was a header from Havertz on the penalty spot but it was right at the ‘keeper

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea…”

The boke behind me was in a quandary.

“I like Gallagher, I really do, but I struggle with what he does apart from basically run around a lot.”

I knew what he meant.

A fine move, but our man Conor shot right at the ‘keeper.

Kepa tipped a shot over. There were surely no complaints about entertainment value here. After Tuesday, here we all were enjoying another thoroughly enjoyable game of football. Throughout it, we were the team that showed a little more quality in all areas.

Up the other end, the ball came loose and Dewsbury-Hall missed a sitter. Phew.

On seventy-three minutes, Graham Potter made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Chilwell.

Trevoh Chalobah for Loftus-Cheek.

With fifteen minutes to go, the ball was played to Mudryk who raced on and calmly slotted but we were all able to sadly spot the lineswoman’s flag raised for offside. His joyous slide was in vain.

Bollocks.

A Leicester substitute became the latest victim of the away choir.

“Jamie Vardy, your wife is a grass.”

Songs still roared on in memory of Gianluca.

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

On seventy-eight minutes, I watched the movement of Havertz just as Enzo brilliantly played a ball into space.

“That’s on.”

Havertz outpaced his marker and kept possession well. He then crossed, deeply, towards Mudryk who was back-peddling somewhat but still managed to keep the ball alive by heading it back into the six-yard box.

Enter Kovacic who blissfully volleyed home from close quarters.

We celebrated wildly now.

The scorer, surrounded by team mates, sprinted down to our corner while fists and arms pumped into the air. These were superb scenes.

And then.

VAR.

I silently groaned.

FOR FUCK SAKE.

But I had seen Havertz break. He had to race past his marker. I was confident.

Goal.

I turned to bloke beside me :

“Six goals in eight days!”

The away end was now the loudest it would be for the entire day.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.

He left Madrid and he left Milan.

He signed for Frank. Said fuck off Zidane.

He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

Magical times.

It seemed, at last, that things were looking up.

Some very late tweaks, and God knows who was playing where but I did not care one jot.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Mudryk and Benoit Badiashile for Fofana.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea…”

Empty seats appeared. I was so proud to see Sally and Lily still staying until the very end.

“Is there a fire drill?”

“You’ve had your day out…”

“We’re gonna bounce in a minute.”

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

There were seven minutes of extra time and, in it, Wout Faes – whoever he is – got sent off for a second yellow.

I loved seeing the players – and the manager, great stuff – celebrate a fine win with smiles in front of our section at the end of the game. Let’s hope the corner has been turned.

This was a bloody excellent day of football, the away support was back to its best after the no-show at Tottenham, the colour was back in our beautifully toned cheeks, and I even got to see Kev Thomas smile.

We met up back at the car and all was good with our world. I slowly navigated myself away, the route taking my car right past the old away entrance to their old Filbert Street ground at the end of those tightly-packed houses on Burnmoor Street.

I reached home at about 9.30pm.

It had been a fine day.

Next up, Everton at home and let’s win again.

See you in the pub.

Tales From A Masterpiece

Chelsea vs. Borussia Dortmund : 7 March 2023.

On a night of high drama at a wonderfully noisy Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea undoubtedly produced the finest performance of a deeply frustrating season, we defeated Borussia Dortmund 2-0 with goals in each half from the boots of Raheem Sterling and Kai Havertz, this from a twice-taken penalty, to secure our passage into the Champions League quarter finals once again.

It was always going to be a long day for me, this one. I had set the alarm for 4.30am so I could do an irregular 6am to 2pm shift. Thankfully, traffic was light on the way into London and at 4.30pm, I was parked up at Bramber Road between the North End Road and Queens Club. Heaven knows what time I’d be reaching my Somerset village after the game.

Throughout the day I had been quietly confident of us progressing against Dortmund. I felt sure that their 1-0 lead from the first leg could be overturned. I just felt it in my water. I had to smile when my fellow Frome Town supporter Steve, who would be watching the home game against Bashley – another team that plays in yellow shirts and black shorts – commented that he hoped both Yellow Walls would come tumbling down. Quite.

Pre-match was spent flitting between Stamford Bridge to chat to a couple of friends, a chip shop on Fulham Broadway for sustenance and “Simmons” to meet up with the usual suspects.

Just outside the Shed End, I chatted briefly to Mark M.

“I think we’ll do it. I think those buggers will raise their game and we’ll go through.”

And this was one of the main reasons why I was predicting a win and a safe passage into the next round. Myself and many others could not help but think that the Chelsea players, with just this one remaining trophy left to win in this dullest of seasons, were very likely indeed to go all out for a win against Dortmund. And yes, that would raise questions about desire and commitment to the cause in more mundane fixtures, but Mark smiled when he replied.

“Rather have us go through with that the case, rather than the alternative though.”

On the approach to the West Stand, supporters were being confronted by our very own yellow wall of hi-vis wearing stewards, a long line of them, who were asking for punters to show match tickets. It was calling out for a photograph and I duly snapped away. I was more than optimistic that the night would be supremely photogenic.

As I began to wolf down a saveloy and chips inside the busy chippy, I made room alongside me for a Dortmund fan. I had walked past “McGettigans” just as he had been in a discussion with a bouncer about being admitted into the pub. It didn’t surprise me that he had been turned away. We began chatting and I explained that I had attended the first leg. I also bravely retold the story of my “phantom trip” to see Borussia in 1987, hoping that he – Klaus, with his daughter alongside him – would understand my English. He was originally from Dortmund but now lives in Bonn. It was his first ever visit to London for a Champions League game. I again remained confident about a passage into the quarters and I told them so. As I sidled past them on leaving, I shook Klaus’ hand and said “when we beat you later tonight, you’ll remember this conversation.”

I then bumped into Mark W.

“Just walked up from Putney. There’s loads of them down there. In loads of pubs.”

It was no surprise that the Germans had travelled over in numbers. We had heard ridiculous stories of how many Eintracht Frankfurt supporters had descended on the capital in previous years and it was now the turn of the yellow and black hordes from Westphalia.

In the bar, my confidence was still surprisingly high. Jason and Gina from Dallas, remaining in London from the Leeds game, met up for a quick chat before disappearing off for a pre-match meal in one of the banqueting suites. I could sense that the mood in the small bar was buoyant. You could taste it in the air.

“Just need to avoid conceding an early goal.”

I walked up the Fulham Road with Parky. I was aware that the younger element in our support had planned a Liverpool-style welcome for the Dortmund coach outside the main gates between 5.30pm and 6pm – flares, noise – but I had not heard how well that had gone.

I was soon inside.

The three-thousand away fans were already occupying their allotted zone, though the section was configured slightly differently than the away area for a domestic league game; more in the lower, less in the upper, I know not why.

At 7.30pm, news filtered through that the kick-off had been delayed until 8.10pm. I wondered if the fans’ “welcome” had caused this.

We heard the team, a trusted 3-4-3.

Kepa

Koulibaly – Fofana – Cucarella

James – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell

Sterling – Havertz – Felix

For some reason, Chelsea had decided to position two blowers at either end of the West Stand, pitch-side, and for a few minutes before the pre-game ceremony really got going, these blew dry-ice into the air. I must admit that it added to the atmosphere and the sense of drama despite me preferring fan-led initiatives.

Clive : “Gary Numan is on the pitch next.”

Indeed, how very 1980.

Next up, a laser light show. Again dramatic, but it was as if we were being spoon-fed our atmosphere rather than being able to create our own.

Then the entrance of the teams. I’ll say it once again; I much preferred the dramatic walk across the pitch and the line-ups in front of the West Stand.

The game was almost upon us.

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

But first, it was time for the away fans, seemingly all bedecked in yellow and black scarves, to give us all a show. It was, I have to say, stunning. Just as the teams stood for the anthem, scarves were held aloft. Then, a first for me, the Borussia players sprinted over to the away corner to show their appreciation. By now, the mosaic depicting many of our players was draped over both tiers of The Shed.

And then.

And then the yellow flares took over the away section, then the whole Shed End, then that part of the pitch. Alan likened it to a scene from the trenches of Picardy when mustard gas floated terrifyingly across battle lines. The scene reminded me of a Turner painting of the River Thames that I had recently seen at the art gallery in Liverpool; a yellow wash with broad brush strokes.

I wondered what masterpiece was going to unfold on the canvas before me.

This was it then. A massive game. Up until now, our season had been decidedly patchy, like one of those hideous denim jackets – “Kutte” – that many German football fans love to wear to games, but here was one easy path to redemption. Win this one boys and most – not all – will be forgotten.

Into them Chelsea.

We began so well, with some deep penetration – especially down the Chilwell and Felix flank – bringing us immediate joy, despite us watching the action through a cadmium yellow haze.

I was so pleased to see Julian Brandt, one of their best players in Germany three weeks ago, being substituted after just five minutes. The man mountain of Niklas Sule still stood in our way, though.

Our fine start – a header from Kalidou Koulibaly, a shot from Kai Havertz – helped to stir up a noisy reaction from us.

But the sight of all that yellow smoke drifting into the cold evening air, plus those sulphurous notes hitting our senses too, had set the tone. We were up for the vocal battle.

The atmosphere was bloody fantastic.

Even though I had seen many obvious tourist-types during my wanderings pre-match, wearing far too many friendship scarves for my liking, the old-school support had reacted so well in those early minutes. Again there had been a collective decision to ignore doubts about Graham Potter and to simply support.

And how.

The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge.

After having the best of the first fifteen minutes, the away team then had a little spell. Fearing danger, Alan had begun to share his packet of “Maynard Wine Gums”, our European good-luck charm for many a season – I have a ‘photo of Alan with a packet before the Vicenza game twenty-five years ago – and we managed to ride the storm.

There was, however, one moment of high drama. There was a foul in “Ward-Prowse” territory and Marco Reus – who did not play in the first-game – struck a fine free kick towards goal. Kepa flung himself across the goal to save well.

Phew.

A goal then would have been catastrophic.

Despite our keen start, the away team were now bossing the possession but we looked confident when we broke. As the minutes passed, it became an even game. At times we struggled a little to win the ball.

But the noise still gratifyingly rose out of the stands.

On twenty-seven minutes, a wicked cross from Reece James was whipped into the six-yard box but without anyone arriving to meet it. The ball rebounded out to Havertz who unleashed a thunderous strike goal wards goal. The effort slammed against one post and then seemed to spin slowly across the face of the goal, again with nobody close, and off it went for a goal kick.

Fackinell.

Next up, more drama. Chelsea on top again. The noise booming. A Raheem Sterling shot – after a run from deep – was saved but the ball reached Havertz. Cool as you like, the German curled an exquisite effort up and into the far top corner. I celebrated wildly but soon saw an off-side flag.

“Yeah, to be fair, Sterling did look offside.”

This was good stuff.

“Bellingham is quiet, in’ee?”

The whole stadium was now one huge unit.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Next, a chance for Koulibaly was fluffed but the ball ran on to Felix but his shot was straight at Alexander Meyer in the Borussia goal. Then a shot from Chilwell, attacking space so well, but his effort went wide.

“Be brilliant to get a goal just before the break.”

Throughout the first-half, it was reassuring to see Marc Cucarella playing so well. His game was full of incisive tackles and intelligent passing. A huge plus.

With forty-three minutes on the clock, a move developed on our strong left flank. Often in this half Havertz was to be found in a slightly deeper role with Sterling in the middle up top. On this occasion, the ball was moved out of defence by Cucarella. The ball found Havertz who wriggled away down the left – liquid gold – and he then back-heeled to Mateo Kovacic who kept the ball moving. A cross from Chilwell was zipped in to the waiting Sterling. He stabbed at the ball but completely missed it. He did well to get to the ball again, take a touch and blast the ball goal wards. In the blink of an eye, the ball rose to hit the net high.

The Bridge shook.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Euphoria? You bet. Perfect timing. Perfect.

The players celebrated in front of the away fans. Snigger. Snigger.

At half-time, everything was good in my world, your world, our world.

In 1983, things were…different.

After the win at home to Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea travelled over to The Valley to play Charlton Athletic. The date was Saturday 5 March 1983. The result was horrific. We were 2-0 down at half-time and we went on to lose 5-2. Our scorers were Colin Lee and Pop Robson. The attendance was 11,211. I remember seeing highlights from this game on YouTube a couple of years ago. I saw half-baked football with the stadium at quarter capacity. I would advise against anyone doing the same. The former European footballer of the year in 1977 Allan Simonsen scored one of the five Charlton goals. Things were at a low ebb again.

Never mind, help was on hand. My diary noted that Bob Latchford, then at Swansea City, was going to join us on Saturday.

He didn’t.

Let’s get back to 2023 sharpish.

The second-half began and we were attacking the Matthew Harding as is our wont. We began the half in the same way that we had finished the first.

Again, this was good stuff.

After five minutes, there was an attack, developed well from right to left, that ended up with a cross from Chilwell that eventually resulted in a shot, saved, from Kovacic. But there had been a shout for handball, strangely not by myself, as the cross was whipped in.

Some of the crowd shouted “VAR”.

Fuck that.

We went to VAR.

The usual delay.

Then the referee was asked to check the TV monitor.

I chatted to Alan : “The longer these take, the better likelihood of a penalty. If they look at the TV, even more so.”

Penalty.

I didn’t cheer, I just can’t.

Havertz had the ball, carrying it, waiting for the protestations to pass.

A slow run up, a halt, a wait, a strike.

It hit the post.

The ball was cleared.

Fackinell Chels.

But, salvation.

Unbeknown to me, there had been encroachment.

The TV screen told the story.

“Straftsossausfuhrung Unerfrufung” gave way to “Betreten Des Strafraums. Wiederholung Des Strafstosses.”

Anyway, the whatever, the kick was to be retaken.

“Havertz again. Not convinced. Think he’ll miss again.”

A few fellow sufferers in the Sleepy Hollow were looking away. They could not dare to see it. I watched.

The same, lame, run up. The same side. In.

YES!

Pandemonium in the Sleepy Hollow, pandemonium at Stamford Bridge, pandemonium everywhere.

On aggregate, Chelsea 2 Borussia Dortmund 1.

Deep breaths, deep breaths.

On the hour, Stamford Bridge was again as one.

“We all follow the Chelsea.”

There was a clear chance for Jude Bellingham, but remarkably he volleyed wide.

Conor Gallagher replaced Joao Felix. The substitute provided fresh legs and kept our momentum going. But as the night grew older, and as the remaining wine gums were eked out between Alan, Clive and little old me, the nerves began to be tested.

A save by Kepa from Marius Wolf as the ball flew in.

On seventy-five minutes, Sterling raced through but I thought he was offside. He advanced, passed to Gallagher, goal. The flag was raised for the initial offside.

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

On eighty-three minutes, Potter changed personnel.

Christian Pulisic – who? – for Sterling.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic.

On eight-seven minutes, one final change.

Denis Zakaria for Enzo.

An extra six minutes of extra-time were signalled so Alan turned his stopwatch on.

I lived every tackle, every pass. The stopwatch passed six minutes, it entered the seventh. I watched the moment that the referee blew up.

Phew.

We were there.

Superb.

“One Step Beyond” boomed and I hurriedly put away my camera before turning to leave. All around me were smiling faces.

“See you at Leicester, Al.”

I needed to put something up on “Facebook” and it soon came to me.

“We Are Chelsea. We Do Europe.”

This has clearly been a difficult season and the football has, by our high standards, been very poor for more than this current campaign. But this game was so gorgeous to be part of. It was a complete joy to, at last, witness a proper game of football – “just like we used to” – with the added bonus of an active and energised crowd adding support and noise.

A masterpiece? It felt like it. Absolutely. It was one of those great Chelsea nights.

Walking along the Fulham Road, everyone seemed to be smiling. There were chants and songs. Along the North End Road, a car played “Blue Is The Colour” while one of the song’s original singers walked alongside me. It was a lovely moment.

“Cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

The car continued on, now “toot-tooting” its horn as it disappeared into the night.

Everyone was super-happy on the drive home.

I eventually reached my house at 1.30am, just as snow started to fall, but I knew that I would not be able to crash straight away. My mind was still flying around – “Benfica next round please” – and I was able to upload a photo or two onto the internet. At just after 2.30am, I must have fallen asleep.

4.30am to 2.30am, mission accomplished.

See you at Leicester.

Tales From A Winning Team

Chelsea vs. Leeds United : 4 March 2023.

Chelsea versus Leeds United. It sets off something in the brain doesn’t it? It triggers, for me anyway, a deep link to my childhood and beyond. It’s a classic football rivalry, forged almost sixty years ago.

The memories of the 1967 FA Cup semi-final, the epic FA Cup final and replay in 1970, the battles on the grass and mud of that era, the idolised hard men in both teams, but then the hostilities off the pitch in 1982/83 and 1983/84 when both firms rejuvenated the rivalry along different lines, and then the new era of rivalry in the mid to late ‘nineties when games still engendered deep feelings of dislike between the clubs’ hoolifans and supporters alike.

It seems ridiculous that in light of the stature of Leeds United and with a nod to this ancient rivalry that still exists between us and our foes from West Yorkshire that this would only be our third league game against them at Stamford Bridge since 2004.

“Where have you been?”

Yet this fixture caught all of us at Chelsea Football Club at a low ebb. We were undoubtedly struggling on the pitch – shape, desire, creativity, leadership, confidence – and many of us in the stands, the pubs, the bars, the cars and many social media and internet chat sites were struggling too.

In the parlance of modern day living, I declared myself “Potter Neutral” and I explained this to a few friends around Fulham on the day of the game.

“I want what’s best for Chelsea. No doubt. Deep down I want him to succeed, of course, but as for the bloke himself, I am neither for nor against.”

If the truth be known, I cared a lot less about him than I ought to. The manager simply doesn’t inspire me. I don’t feel engaged by him. I am not stirred when I hear him speak. To be truthful, the sad fact is that I have rarely heard him speak. Our form has been so poor that I rarely watch our highlights on “MOTD” these days, and if I do, I usually avoid his post-game utterings.

The new owners – I am still finding it hard to figure them out too – seem to want to keep Graham Potter in charge for the foreseeable future, however, so I do feel duty bound to support him – or at least his team in the wider context – at matches as best as I can.

We are supporters after all, right?

I have never really understood the booing, or the planned absences from games, but that’s just me. Hundreds of other teams throughout this nation have endured greater disasters than us and many clubs’ supporters still show up week in week out.

Besides. It’s the weekend. What else are you going to fucking do?

Shopping? Get excited about a new kitchen? Wash the car? TV gaze?

Nah.

The new owners? There are undoubted reservations. My main worry is – to my eyes – this desire to colour a European football club with shades of red, white and blue, to somehow take the methodology of running a US sporting franchise – no promotion, no relegation, time to build over many years, farm teams, a different sports model completely – and jam it into the modus operandi and ultimately the psyche of our club.

Baseball, Clearlake’s forte, is a sport that I used to love with a passion, but as I have devoted more and more hours to football, my interest and working knowledge has dwindled. But baseball is a sport much loved by statisticians, nerds and geeks – God knows, I have met enough of them – and it makes me chuckle to think that a stat-based process of defining talent can work for football.

“This right-handed knuckleball pitcher has an awesome record in night games in the month of August against right-handed batters when the count is in his favour in late innings when there is a runner in scoring positions when he has had eggs over easy, bacon and hash browns – with grits on the side – for breakfast and when the batter has a Sagittarius birth sign and who is chewing Juicy Fruit flavoured gum.”

We’ll see.

Additionally, after the euphoria in many parts of our Chelsea-supporting community about the new owner’s brash spend-up in January, I can’t be the only one, surely, who now looks back on it with a little embarrassment?

All that money, so little cutting edge.

Again, we’ll see.

Ultimately, we all want a winning team on and off the pitch.

It had been a fine pre-match spent with friends from my home area, plus some from further afield. I have known Ollie for a few years and he had travelled over on Friday from his home in Normandy. I last saw him at an away game at Watford a few years ago. Ollie works on a toll-bridge and I love the story of him spotting Frank Leboeuf approaching his little booth. He quickly showed Frank his Chelsea tattoo. He comes over once or twice a season. I would imagine that COVID hit him so hard.

I also spent time with Jason and Gina from Dallas. I last saw Jason in 2016/17, the Manchester City home game, but this was to be Gina’s first game at Chelsea. There were photos with the captains Ron Harris and Colin Pates. We flitted between Stamford Bridge and “The Eight Bells” in deepest Fulham. Tickets were sorted, plans for upcoming games were made, the others got some drinking in.

Andy and his daughter Sophie arrived and I joined them in “Chit Chat Corner” for a lovely walk down memory lane.

Jablonec 1994.

Stockholm 1998.

Rome 1999.

Baku 2019.

I shared something that I had recently seen on “Facebook.”

It would appear that Chelsea, and none other than Manchester United, are in talks about setting up friendlies against Wrexham in the US in the summer, though these are just rumours at this stage. When I read this a few days ago, I was gobsmacked.

Wrexham? It would appear that Chelsea are no longer just a football club, but are now contemplating being a bit-part player in a reality TV series. Fackinell. What next? Chelsea versus the Kardashians?

Modern football, eh?

I had shared all this in a WhatsApp group and my pal Steve in South Philly commented: “Hollywood, baby.”

I remember tipping off Andy and Sophie about venues for a potential US tour back in 2020 – they were both very enthused about Nashville being heavily touted as a venue – but obviously COVID put a kibosh on those plans. With a season without a UEFA campaign looking quite likely in 2023/24, there is a part of me that has been quietly contemplating a trip to the US should our summer tour plans send us west once more.

“When the three of us are sat in a roadside diner in North Carolina this summer surrounded by families wearing Wrexham shirts and scarves, yelling “way to go” every ten seconds, we’ll look back and laugh about this moment.”

The mood in “The Eight Bells” was mixed. Everyone seemed to be full of laughs, but I have rarely witnessed a pre-match where there was such little optimism. Everyone was joking about where the next goal, let alone a win, would come from.

“If you gave me £1,000 and asked me to pick the score today, I’d definitely go for 0-0.”

At 2pm, we set off for the quick journey from Putney Bridge to Fulham Broadway. There was a little band of Leeds lads exiting onto the Fulham Road – all the gear, Aquascutum scarves, CP and SI, dark jackets – and chants were exchanged, but on this occasion there was no hint of physical “afters”. This was clearly post-modern football hooliganism.

During the past week, a holiday for me, I had spent time on a magical mystery tour of the North of England and Scotland – Newcastle, Edinburgh, Liverpool – and my last port of call was at The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, just off Lime Street. “The Art Of The Terraces” was an excellent graphic review of the times of our collective lives when the wedge haircut, rare clothing imports, rain jackets, trainers and all associated finery took over our working class lives and football terraces to such a huge extent that the mainstream media chose to completely overlook it. I laughed when I saw the exact same edition of “The Face” from the summer of 1983 that I still possess to this day on display in a cabinet.

Talking of 1983…

After the surprisingly fine 3-3 draw against Leeds United – who? – the next opponents were Blackburn Rovers on Saturday 26 February. We found ourselves in fifteenth place on thirty-two points, just four points above a relegation place. The visitors were in eighth place on thirty-nine points, but a full twelve points off a promotion berth. To my surprise, we won 2-0 with goals from Clive Walker and Peter Rhoades-Brown. In my diary on the Friday – my week had been crammed full of the agony of mock A-Levels – I guessed that the gate would be around 7,000. I wasn’t far off. It was 6,982. I wished that “guessing football attendances” was an A-Level subject. I might have done OK at that.

Incidentally, Colin Pates was featured in the Blackburn programme – “the first priority is to steer clear of relegation” – and I love it that his team mates John Bumstead and Paul Canoville, from 1982/83, all work for the club on match days to this day.

I was inside Stamford Bridge early. I spoke to Oxford Frank behind me. Neither of us were enthralled nor optimistic. There was a dull, grey vibe pre-match, certainly not befitting a tussle between such two fine rivals. I was tasked with taking a few photographs of the match mascots as my dear friend Gill’s grandson Elliott was one of the eleven taking part. There had been a nine-year wait. I found that staggering. We had a mascot in 1983 and I am sure there wasn’t a nine year wait in those troubled times.

I spotted that, at last, attendance figures had found their way into the current season’s programme, though not against each match as detailed in the fixture list but in a separate panel. Very odd.

The team? Still no out-and-out striker.

Kepa

Koulibaly – Badiashile – Fofana

Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell

Sterling – Havertz – Felix

“Blimey. Ruben at wing back. He’s got the turning circle of the QE2. Any winger just needs to dink it past him and beat him for speed.”

“Potter must really hate Aubameyang.”

“Despite our January madness, Enzo and Felix definitely look good additions, decent players.”

Chelsea in blue, blue, white and Leeds in white, white, navy.

The game began.

It certainly seemed that there had been a collective decision among our support to put any personal grievances against the under-fire manager to one side and to wholeheartedly get behind the team. Within the first five minutes, a few of the old standards were aired, primarily by the MHL.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

“Carefree, wherever you may be.”

“And its super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

There was a brightness to our start, with plenty of diagonals out to Ben Chilwell from various players. We were undoubtedly fired up and we soon tested Ilian Meslier down at the Shed End. There was a high-flying leap from Wesley Fofana but his header was high and wide. Our best chance came on fourteen minutes with a break from Kai Havertz, played in by Raheem Sterling, and we watched expectantly. Sadly, his attempted dink over the ‘keeper was clawed away.

Cue the usual moans.

Just after, a reassuringly loud “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace” boomed around Stamford Bridge. Lovely stuff.

It was virtually all Chelsea with very few Leeds forays into our half.

On twenty-one minutes, the best move of the match thus far. We won the ball inside our half and Joao Felix pushed ahead before playing in Sterling on our right. The ball was then played back and into the path of Felix, who had supported the move well. His first-time effort from twenty-five yards crashed against the bar. The crowd were purring with appreciation, but in the back of all of our minds we began to wonder if we were in for another of “those” days.

On twenty-four minutes, a clean shot from Enzo, but straight at Meslier.

“He can strike a good ball can Enzo.”

On the half-hour mark, we had enjoyed virtually total domination. The away support seemed subdued, probably with reason, and were only able to be heard a few times.

“We are Leeds, we are Leeds, we are Leeds.”

Next up, a great chipped ball from Havertz found Chilwell out on the left-hand side of the box but his effort on goal was hit first time and went well wide of the far post.

On thirty-four minutes, a terrible tackle by Fofana, with limbs everywhere, was punished with a yellow card.

In the final portion of the first-half, a couple of dicey moments took place down below us as the visitors finally found confidence to attack in greater numbers. The ball was loose inside the box but Ruben Loftus-Cheek was on hand to thump the ball away in the six-yard box. Just after, a low cross into our box was also hacked away.

At half-time, there seemed to be a familiar story being played out on the pitch; tons of possession, but the lack of a finish.

The second period began. There was an immediate attack but after some neat passing, Sterling was unable to keep the ball down after a pull-back from Loftus-Cheek.

On fifty-three minutes, a corner was swung in – but out, away from the ‘keeper – by Chilwell down below us. Fofana met the ball with a perfect leap and the net rippled.

Get in you bastard.

I roared my approval but was still able to capture the scorer’s wild celebrations as he raced away; shame his leap is too fuzzy to share though.

The stadium was alive now.

Soon after, a song of self-deprecation.

“We scored a goal. We scored a goal. We scored a goal, we scored a goal, we scored a goal.”

Altogether now…phew.

A loud and proud “Carefree.”

I liked the way that all three defenders were playing, Kalidou Koulibaly especially, not always everyone’s favourite. There was a fine show, too from Mateo Kovacic, who chased and ran all afternoon.

However, the visitors showed some life. A shot from Tyler Adams flew over the bar. Then, a stab at the ball was luckily picked up by Kepa. For us, Sterling went close.

On sixty-eight minutes, Potter replaced Felix with Denis Zakaria and Sterling with Conor Gallagher.

On seventy-five minutes, Kovacic was replaced by Carney Chukwuemeka.

Not long after, just after a Leeds United move broke down, Chelsea had spare players in midfield but chose to move the ball slowly, almost at walking pace, rather than counter with pace and the Stamford Bridge faithful vented their displeasure. There were boos.

With the clock ticking away, the game became rather tense, and it really was no surprise.

On eighty-four minutes, Nino Madueke replaced Enzo.

With two minutes to go, Gallagher showed magnificent energy and desire to keep an attack live on the goal line in the far corner and send over a cross.

Late on, very nervy now, a cross flashed right across the face of the goal but thankfully there was nobody on hand to finish. Just after, Kepa dropped to save an effort from Mateo Joseph. In the very last minute, Meslier deserted his posts and came up for a corner. His header, thank the high heavens, was easily caught by Kepa.

At the final whistle, relief, huge relief.

At last a goal, at last a win.

On the last few steps of my descent of the stairs in the Matthew Harding, I overheard a fellow fan say “I can watch ‘Match Of the Day’ again” and I turned around to reply.

“And I can hear what Graham Potter sounds like.”

Next up, a potentially epic encounter with Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday evening.

I’ll see you in the bar.

Colin Pates : 1983 & 2023.

Tales From The Two Old Enemies

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2023.

In 2023, there aren’t many bigger away games for us Chelsea supporters than Tottenham Hotspur. In my book, it’s a toss-up between a trip to their stadium and to Old Trafford. There’s not much in it.

In 1983, the biggest away game in our fixture list was undoubtedly Leeds United.

I continue my look at the current season of 2022/23 with a backwards look at one from forty-years ago, 1982/83, with some memories of our trip to Elland Road on Saturday 19 February 1983. The previous Chelsea four matches, detailed here recently, were horrific; four defeats.

Outside of Chelsea, I was in the process of applying for degree courses at various polytechnics, at Sheffield, at Kingston, at Middlesex and at North London.  I had already attended an interview at Sheffield on a blisteringly cold day after my father took a day off work to drive me up to South Yorkshire. It was my first-ever interview for anything, anywhere, and it went reasonably well. In the week leading up to the game at Leeds United, Sheffield Poly offered me a place on their Geography course for the autumn of 1983 if I could achieve a C and a D grade in two of my three “A Levels” in June. On the day before the Leeds United game, I received a similar offer from Middlesex Poly. However, my spirits were not high and these grades were looking beyond me. Both Chelsea Football Club and little old me were experiencing a tough winter. Additionally, the “mock” A-Levels were approaching fast, another reason to become depressed about my immediate future.

Going in to the game at Elland Road, Chelsea were lodged in fifteenth position, well away from Wolves, QPR and Fulham who appeared to be romping their way to the three automatic places. Fulham, in third place were a huge twelve points ahead of the team in fourth position, Grimsby Town. Chelsea, my beloved Chelsea, however were just three points ahead of a relegation place, on thirty-one points, ahead of Cambridge United on twenty-eight.

Between me and my “A Levels” and Chelsea in the Second Division, it was a bloody toss-up to see who would fare the better.

My diary entry on the Friday mentions “hope no trouble at the Leeds v Chelsea match”. I spent the day at home in Somerset, no doubt eagerly awaiting updates from Elland Road on “Radio Two” on the BBC. My radio was always tuned to 909 kHz on the Medium Wave on Saturday afternoons.

The teams lined up as below :

Leeds United.

  1. John Lukic.
  2. Neil Aspin.
  3. Eddie Gray.
  4. John Sheridan.
  5. Paul Hart.
  6. Martin Dickinson.
  7. Gwynn Thomas (Kevin Hird).
  8. Terry Connor.
  9. Aiden Butterworth.
  10. Frank Gray.
  11. Arthur Graham.

Chelsea.

  1. Steve Francis.
  2. Colin Lee.
  3. Joey Jones.
  4. Phil Driver (Gary Chivers).
  5. Chris Hutchings.
  6. Colin Pates.
  7. Mike Fillery.
  8. Clive Walker.
  9. David Speedie.
  10. Alan Mayes.
  11. Peter Rhoades-Brown.

I can remember all of those Leeds United players from forty years ago with the exception of Martin Dickenson. A remnant from the 1970 FA Cup Final, Eddie Gray, was the Leeds player-manager who started down the left flank behind his younger brother Frank. I had first seen Paul Hart playing for Blackpool against us at Stamford Bridge in 1975, and I remember reaching out by the player’s tunnel before the game to obtain his autograph.

Just writing these words takes me right back to my childhood. After my first game in the West Stand benches, we always watched in the East Lower in the ensuing games from 1974 to 1980 and I specifically asked my parents to try to get match tickets as near to the tunnel as possible. I used to boil over with excitement when I called over to various Chelsea players, and a few opponents, to get them to sign my little autograph book. To be so close, touching distance, so close that I could smell their Hai Karate, was utterly amazing for me as a youngster.

Leeds had three internationals in that team – the two Grays plus Arthur Graham, all for Scotland – while our only international player was Joey Jones of Wales. With former striker Colin Lee deployed at right-back, our forward three of Walker, Speedie and Mayes is pretty diminutive, especially for the ‘eighties.

The goals rattled in at Elland Road that afternoon. It was 1-1 at half-time with us going ahead via a Mike Fillery penalty before Aiden Butterworth equalised. In the second-half, goals from Clive Walker and a Frank Gray penalty were traded before Arthur Graham gave the home team a 3-2 lead. In the closing moments, an Alan Mayes shot was deflected in by the player-manager Eddie Gray.

Leeds United 3 Chelsea 3.

Fackinell.

My diary on the evening of the game guessed at a gate of 21,000. I wasn’t far off. In fact, the attendance was a still healthy 19,365, just narrowly behind the division’s highest gate of 20,689 that saw Newcastle United play Oldham Athletic. Despite a promotion place, our neighbours Queens Park Rangers drew just 10,271 for their home game with Barnsley that day.

There is no doubt that around 6,000 Chelsea fans made the trip to West Yorkshire, all positioned along the side of the ground in the Lowfields.

Once the third goal went in, I no doubt wished that I was among the away support. However, apart from five very local away games in Bristol – Rovers four times, City once – from 1976 to 1981, my visits to other away venues with my beloved Chelsea were still over a year away.

These days, thankfully, they are a very regular occurrence.

It was a stunning Sunday morning for my drive to London for the away game at Tottenham. There were no clouds to be seen, just a pristine blue sky. There were just three of us this week, Parky, PD and little old me. None of us were relishing the game.

“Damage limitation, innit?”

It certainly seemed like it.

On all of my three previous visits to the new spanking Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, I had witnessed three Chelsea wins with no goals conceded. This time, I surmised, might be a little different.

On the Saturday, we received some sad news. We had known that Sam George – aka “Lovejoy” – had been ill for a while, and we were to learn that he had indeed passed away the previous weekend. I first got to know Lovejoy, named after the Ian McShane TV character, back in the late 1990’s and he became a part of my extended Chelsea family for quite a few years. He was such a character, and played a large role in the first few of these match reports in the 2008/9 season. I can well remember Lovejoy sorting out a ticket alongside him in the East Lower for Farmer John from Ohio, the Stoke City game in 2009, the last-minute Lampard screamer. However, weary with red wine, Lovejoy soon managed to fall asleep, thus missing the entire game.

The perma-tan, the hair, the dazzling white teeth, the chewing gum, the leather trousers, the ladies on tow in various European cities.

What a character.

RIP Lovejoy.

There was another beautiful breakfast at the “Half-Moon Café” in Hammersmith – more Old Bill this week, but this time they were off to the League Cup Final – before I parked up at Barons Court to catch the tube to Liverpool Street. From there, we caught the midday overland train up to White Hart Lane. We were all subdued. I was trying my best to rationalise where we were in terms of team development but it was such a difficult position in which we found ourselves. The remnants of Frank Lampard’s team had been joined by a mixture of signings by Tuchel in the summer, and were now augmented by our “Supermarket Sweep” of players from January. It almost felt that the past few weeks had been an extra “pre-season” and now the league campaign was to begin again.

During the week, I had flitted around the internet to check out a potted history of our man Graham. Was he really as big a nonentity as it seemed? I was aware of his managerial history, or lack of it, but what about before then? Well, I discovered one thing.

He was playing for Stoke City when they won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the League Cup in the autumn of 1995. I was there, I remember it well. A lone Paul Peschisolido goal gave the visitors the win, the goal being scored in front of their “Delilah” singing hordes in the temporary Shed end.  

Due to my Stoke past – I lived there for three years – I was well aware of a Potter playing for the Potters at the time, but the penny never dropped until the past week.

Yep, Graham bloody Potter. It was him.

Fackinell.

The train pulled into the swish new White Hart lane station and, unlike PD and Parky, I went south and not north. I had not yet walked down to the southern part of the redeveloped area so, camera in hand, I walked down the High Road to soak it all in and to take some photos. Over the course of time, I always like to walk 360 degrees around every away stadium. I stood opposite the “Corner Pin” pub. This still stands on the corner of the High Road and Park Lane, and of course the area is all-changed now. Before, at the old stadium, coins used to be thrown at us as aggressive home fans tried to get close. I don’t miss all that.

Unlike at the northern end, where there is a tightness by the away steps, they have really opened up the area outside their huge home end. This towering stand sits on the site of the old White Hart Lane pitch. I walked on, past a couple on their ‘seventies, perched on a low wall, bedecked in their navy blue and white Tottenham bar scarves, eating sandwiches.

I turned left and headed towards the away turnstiles. I noted a line of newly planted trees at the base of all of the steel and glass. There were now grey skies overhead. The wind chilled me. It was time to go in.

Again, for the third visit in four, I was down low along the side. There was a subdued atmosphere throughout the concourse and in the Chelsea section. We were a crowd full of long faces. It seemed to take forever to fill. With a quarter of an hour to go, the whole stadium wasn’t even half-full.

I miss the old days. In the ‘eighties, a London Derby would be full with half-an-hour to kick-off, with terrace chants bubbling away for ages.

Our team?

Kepa

James – Silva – Koulibaly – Chilwell

Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Felix

Ziyech – Havertz – Sterling

We were subjected to flashing graphics and a booming voice blathering on about glory and history that gave the impression that the home club were the epitome of success and greatness, rather than a club that has won just one piece of silverware in twenty-four years.

I still don’t like to see us in Tottenham navy socks.

Why? Just why?

I detected the Tottenham shirts looking quite grubby, far from lilywhite, as if the colour had run in the wash.

Pre-match, I had heard not a single shout, chant or song from the home support.

The game began and we had just as much of it as they did. There were a few forays, especially down our left where Sterling seemed to be gifted extra space. There had already been a piece of sublime defending from Thiago Silva, but after a strong tackle on Harry Kane, our vaunted Brazilian went down in pain. He tried to run it off but, alas, was replaced by Wesley Fofana. Until then, we had definitely had the upper hand. There was a shot from Joao Felix. And another.

It was at around this time that Gary realised that Hakim Ziyech was on the pitch.

It was lovely to hear more “Vialli” chants. These became, as the game continued, our stock response to their tiresome “Y*d Army!” chants.

There was a lovely lofted pass out to Ben Chilwell from Enzo Fernandez and I quipped “it would appear that we have a playmaker in our midst.”

The bloke behind me was irritating me. I couldn’t criticise his support, but his voice sounded like he had been gargling with gravel. It got rather tiresome when he kept moaning about our lack of support for the boys.

Sigh.

“Turn it in mate” I muttered to myself.

Tottenham were nothing special, but Pierre-Emile Hojberg thumped a shot against the base of a post before being whacked away for a corner.

Before half-time, a sizzling effort from Sterling forced a low save from Fraser Forster, who used to be a goalkeeper.

In the stands, all was quiet.

In the closing moments of the first period, a VAR farce. Being so low down, I couldn’t really see what had happened but one minute Ziyech was sent off after a VAR review, but then after a second review, he was allowed to continue.

Pathetic. I hate modern football.

The mood in the away quadrant was “we haven’t been great but neither have they.”

Pre-match, I would have taken a 0-0.

“Halfway to paradise, lads.”

The second-half began preposterously. Within a few seconds of the re-start, Kepa was able to make a low save at the near post from Emerson Royal and Enzo hacked the ball out. Sadly, Skipp robbed Felix and unleashed a powerful shot on goal.

My mind was calm though.

“That’s a long way out. It is at Kepa. He should save that easily.”

How wrong I was.

The ball seemed to go through his arms as he back-peddled slightly.

Bollocks.

The mood in the away end worsened and our support dwindled further. With their team now in front, the home support decided to sing up.

I heard four songs and four songs only, three of which were all about being Jewish.

Our game fell apart despite the promptings of Enzo, who at least tried to knit things together. But everything was so slow and predictable, and most fifty-fifty challenges didn’t go our way.

Changes.

Mason Mount for Ziyech.

Denis Zakaria for Loftus-Cheek.

I was surprised how deep Kane was playing for that lot. He was their main playmaker on many occasions.

Our play didn’t improve. There was a half-chance for Kai Havertz.

Next up was the disappearance of the referee Stuart Atwell. I suspected a problem with his technical gizmos but the home end had either ideas. He came back on after a minute or so away.

This was a shocking game of football.

Sadly, poor marking at a corner gifted Kane with a tap in on eighty-two minutes.

Sigh.

Body after body vacated the away end, including Mister Gravel and his mate behind me.

There was no way back from this, despite Potter making two late substitutions.

Mykhailo Mudryk for Joao Felix.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Sterling.

Mudryk showed a bit of endeavour at the death, but by now the home fans were heaping it on us.

“Chelsea get battered, everywhere they go…”

The only surprise was that Son didn’t score when he came on as a late substitute.

This was a truly horrible game of football, a truly horrible experience. There were no positives to come from this match. And taken as a whole, the atmosphere was decidedly muted for a London Derby.

61,000 and we still don’t sing?

So, what of the future? I don’t know. Relegation? No, surely not. But yet we are in a truly awful run of form. Two wins out of fourteen in all competitions. Our remaining away games make me shudder.

However, there really can’t be many Chelsea fans left who think that Graham Potter is the man to lead us on…

Next up, Leeds United at home, 1983 and all that.

See you there.

RIP Lovejoy

Tales From Tenth Place

Chelsea vs.Southampton : 18 February 2023.

With our trip to Dortmund seemingly just hours behind us, the home game against bottom-placed Southampton soon arrived. On the drive up to London, the Famous Four were augmented by the appearance of Glenn who was taking Clive’s ticket and there were mainly positive thoughts from Germany. As for the game with the Saints, I was of the opinion that while we often talk about “must win games” this surely was going to be a match that Chelsea would win.

And a phrase that I saw more than a few times on social media was one that mentioned us eventually “clicking.”

Against Southampton, I too was hoping that we would finally click.

There were no ifs and buts. No perhaps. No maybe.

We would win this game.

Admittedly, our spending spree in the January transfer window had increasingly resembled a footballing version of “Supermarket Sweep” with players being flung into a shopping trolley by anyone remotely connected to Chelsea Football Club. At the final buzzer – “where do you think you are going Ziyech?” – there was a final reckoning.

“Who bought this bloke? Who is he?”

However, all of our monies and vouchers had been exchanged. We now hoped that Graham Potter would be able to concoct a palatable recipe after being presented with his new ingredients in a mystery bag of treats that reminded me of a football edition of “Ready Steady Cook.”

There had certainly been hints of things simmering along nicely, of a brighter future after a slight upturn against Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, if not against Fulham and West Ham. We were certainly stirred by the very recent return of our trusty full-backs Chilwell and James and the burgeoning relationship between Silva and Badiashile, and our hopes were increased by the presence of the new playmaker Fernandez, the speed merchants Mudryk and Madueke and the light-footed attacker Felix.

Southampton, who had beaten us on a horrible night in late August, would surely be put to the sword?

Surely?

“Fuck me, we have to win this one, lads.”

The pre-match routine – home to café to pub to stadium – had been disrupted by the sad, if not surprising, news that the body of Christian Atsu had eventually been located in Turkey. Our former player was one of thousands who had perished in the series of earthquakes that recently hit that country. I tried to remember if I had ever seen him play for us. I am sure I that I hadn’t. I had, of course, seen him play against us for Newcastle United on a few occasions.

I was in the stadium early and couldn’t resist a few pre-game photos as the spectators slowly arrived.

I spotted three young lads appear down to my right in the West Lower, all wearing distinctive River Plate jerseys – white with a red sash – and one of them had draped an Argentina flag over his shoulders. I sent my two friends in Buenos Aires – both River supporters – a message and they were impressed. The three lads made their way down towards the Shed End but I eventually lost sight of them. In the ‘eighties, when it was so rare to be able to get hold of authentic foreign club jerseys, it was de rigueur to wear them at domestic football. My cotton Robe di Kappa Juventus shirt from 1985 made it to Stamford Bridge once or twice. It’s very rare to see foreign jerseys at Stamford Bridge today; I am sure these three lads would be given a free pass on this occasion.

Graham Potter’s team selection was a little surprising.

Kepa

Azpilicueta – Koulibaly – Badiashile – Chilwell

Madueke – Kovacic – Fernandez

Felix – Fofana – Mount

Blur’s “Song 2” and Harry James All-Stars “The Liquidator.”

The players entered the Stamford Bridge pitch and then stood at the centre circle as we remembered Christian Atsu.

The game began with us attacking the Shed End, or rather with Saints attacking the Matthew Harding; they easily had the better of the first fifteen minutes. Benoit Badiashile made a mess of a clearance but thankfully Kepa Arrizabalaga was on hand to block a low shot by Kamaldeen Sulemana. They followed this up with an effort that Kalidou Koulibaly blocked. Paul Onuachu, whose limbs reached Crouch-like proportions, was causing us problems with his physicality and determination. He went close with a header.

On eleven minutes, Noni Madueke enjoyed a run into the box but his low shot zipped across the face of the goal and the Southampton ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu saved. Soon after, there was a spritely spin and shot from David Datro Fofana but he could only ripple the outside of the side netting.

I was surprised that Fofana was seemingly deployed out on the left for parts of the first period.

With half of the first-half gone, the atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was absolutely shocking.

We were very disjointed and struggled to piece anything together. The good performance in Dortmund just three days earlier seemed light years away but of course this was a pretty different team with five new starters in Potter’s team selection.

On the drive to London, I had quipped “who are our main rivals playing today?” and I then added “Brentford and Fulham” and it very much seemed that we were only in a battle to finish as West London’s top team. Even at this stage of the season, we don’t appear to be able to rise too much further up the table. Are we really destined for a tenth place finish, mirroring that of the anti-climactic 2015/16 one?

The Southampton players, without a permanent manager, were helping to add to the ugly nature of this game by going down injured with a dull regularity. However, when they had the ball, they appeared to have belief in what they were doing. In contrast, we looked bereft of ideas.

“Oh When The Saints…”

On the half-hour mark, there was a fine zipped cross into the danger area from Ben Chilwell, but Fofana arrived too late to apply the final stab at goal.

Dave was the next Chelsea player to ripple the side netting.

At last, we enjoyed our best, brief, spell of the game. A decent move, a shot from Enzo, a cross from Dave but again just out of reach for Fofana. There was a daisy-cutter from Fofana but this was hit straight at Bazunu.

Sigh.

Then, alas, a clumsy tackle from Dave on Stuart Armstrong in a dangerous position. Step forward James Ward-Prowse, and his Exocet-launcher of a right foot. I took a ‘photo of our defensive wall, with Mateo Kovacic lying on the pitch to block a low drive. Ward-Prowse must have laughed at such a suggestion. His perfect delivery flew high past everyone and lodged inside the net.

The away fans roared and the scorer raced down towards the far corner of The Shed as if he had scored a last minute winner in a Cup Final.

Fackinell.

There were audible boos at the half-time whistle.

I was just silent and sad, and wondered if we could ever get back into the game. It was a very poor half from us. There was little fight and no real pattern to our play. An altogether rotten show. I didn’t glance over at the side-lines to often but the manager always seemed so passive. There seemed to be no fire inside him.

Fackinell.

“All our players are threes and fours, nothing more. Kovacic is especially poor, eh?”

At the break, Raheem Sterling – almost a forgotten man of late – replaced one Fofana while Koulibaly made way for the other.

Welcome back Wesley.

Sterling began the half on the left, right down in front of us in The Sleepy Hollow, and looked immediately dangerous. With the refiguring of our attack, though, Mount played more centrally and an early cross from Sterling just evaded Mount’s leap.

Five minutes into the second half, fifty minutes into the game, I noted the first stadium-wide chant of the entire match.

“Carefree.”

Just not good enough everyone. We are hardly carefree when it takes us fifty minutes to support the lads on the pitch. Must do better.

Soon after, a swivel and a shot from Dave, but wide.

Thankfully, the atmosphere improved on the hour, but this was hardly a wall of noise. There were more substitutions a little later.

Kai Havertz for Mount.

Mykhailo Mudryk for Madueke.

With that, Mudryk appeared down below us, forcing Sterling over to the right. Not long after, Sterling dribbled past two defenders and slipped the ball to Havertz, who returned the ball to Sterling. Sadly, his shot was blocked, rather fortuitously, by Ainsley Maitland-Niles. This was the chance that we needed but we fluffed it.

The whole stadium groaned.

Just moments after, the ball was pushed up towards Havertz on our left and the German did well to hold off a challenge. His perfect cross was met by Sterling’s header after he drifted away from a defender. This effort was miraculously blocked on the line and the same player stabbed the rebound goal wards but another defender forced the ball to blaze over. Another golden chance, fluffed.

Fackinell.

The visitors worked a fine move down their right and Theo Walcott, who used to be a footballer, whipped in a cross that Armstrong really should have eaten up. Kepa blocked well.

From the corner, with the ball bobbling around our box, Selou Mara attempted an audacious side volley but slammed his right foot right into Dave’s face. There was immediate concern for our captain’s health. I had visions of the toe of a boot hitting him in the eye. After a very long wait, he was stretchered off to loud applause. The whole stadium stood.

“We’ll just call you Dave.”

Bless him.

He was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah, another forgotten man.

At the same time, Conor Gallagher replaced Ben Chilwell, our sixth substitute of the day.

Twelve minutes of extra time were signalled.

A shot from Gallagher was saved by a hand from Bazunu after Chelsea pressure from a Felix free-kick. A one-on-one break from Southampton was thankfully snubbed out by a last-ditch tackle from Kovacic. A last minute whipped volley from Mudryk zipped past the post.

It was not to be.

Southampton had done the double over us.

There were more boos, louder now, as the referee blew.

A pet hate, booming music at the final whistle. When we lose, we don’t want that. We just want silence.

For fuck sake.

As I left The Sleepy Hollow, I glanced over at the away end, and remnants of red smoke were drifting over the away supporters.

I wondered what the three River Plate supporters made of the match. With Southampton playing in a white shirt with one broad red stripe, I suspect that they acknowledged the irony of it.

As I walked back to the car, everyone was bubbling with frustration, bewilderment and anger. Whereas many had been previously prepared to give Graham Potter time, this meek defeat to a lowly Southampton team might well have changed many opinions. I sensed this as I left Stamford Bridge.

I have never been one to want managers to be ousted after relatively short tenures. I was never a fan of our slash and burn methodology under Roman Abramovich despite the ridiculous success that it brought. But those days are gone and there are new owners in control of our club.

Where now Chelsea Football Club? What now Graham Potter?

Is this season a write-off? Are we going to be treading water until May? Is tenth place our lot? Or are there even darker days ahead? I sense that this will all get a little worse before it gets better, but that is just a gut feeling.

Next up, a derby at Tottenham and I, among many, are fucking dreading it.

See you up the High Road on Sunday.

Tales From Section 61

Borussia Dortmund vs. Chelsea : 15 February 2023.

There is no doubt at all that the Footballing Gods – Stadia Division – have been very kind to me in this season’s Champions League trail around Europe. Back in August, I craved a first-ever trip with Chelsea to the San Siro. I was granted my wish. In December, Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park – I prefer Westfalenstadion – was my first choice in the first knock-out phase. Again, my wish was granted.

Happy days.

I would get to see the famous Yellow Wall in a stadium with a huge capacity.

Additionally, a trip to The Ruhr, that industrial heartland of Germany, would help to tie together a theme running through this season’s European match reports. I had best get explaining, or at least reminding everyone, of where I left it last time.

In the autumn of 1987, my two college mates Ian – Rotherham United – and Trev – Leeds United – and I visited a few countries on a three-week Inter-Rail trip.

On Sunday 27 September, the three of us travelled up from Rome on the overnight train to Venice. From there, we zipped across the Po flood plain to Milan to see Inter vs. Empoli in the San Siro. It ended 2-0 to Inter and it was my first-ever game in Europe of any description.

On Monday 28 September, we spent some time in Switzerland and then caught an evening train to Munich Hauptbanhof where, without accommodation, we just slept outside a waiting room; it was Oktoberfest, fellow travellers and revellers were sleeping everywhere.

On Tuesday 29 September, we spent all day in Munich, visited the Olympic Stadium to the north of the city centre, then spent around five hours at Oktoberfest to the south of the city centre. That night, the three of us inadvertently slept all night on a train at Munich Hauptbanhof, thinking that we would be waking up in Vienna; undoubtedly the train was supplied by the German authorities to provide extra sleeping accommodation for the revellers, a fine idea.

On Wednesday 30 September, we needed more sleep in the morning and so caught a train up to Stuttgart, arriving at 9.45am. We had a mooch around, and back at the city’s train station I picked up a copy of the renowned West German football magazine “Kicker”. We caught a midday train up to Frankfurt. In “Kicker” I spotted the week’s football fixtures, and I soon honed in on the Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic game that was taking place that night. I asked the chaps if they fancied travelling further north to Dortmund to see the game. I was a little wary about asking Trev – he is from Northern Ireland, his brother Gary was a big Rangers fan – but the both of them were up for it.

Excellent.

Two impromptu European games in four days.

I was falling in love with European travel all over again.

It is worth stating that this would be a rare treat for anyone from England at the time since English clubs were banned from Europe for five seasons after the Heysel Disaster two years previously. I was certainly no fan of Celtic, I just craved football at the top level. My thought of attending my first-ever UEFA game – this game was in the UEFA Cup – was thrilling me to the core. I was well aware that former Celtic midfielder Murdo MacLeod was now playing for Dortmund. I remember thinking that it would be a cracking game with a crackling atmosphere. Fantastic.

So, we stayed on the train at Frankfurt and ended-up going to Hagen before our delayed train finally arrived at Dortmund Hauptbanhof at 7.15pm.

The game was due to start at 8pm. It was a frantic rush to locate some left-luggage lockers at the station and then to try to work out how to get to the stadium. I recollect myself barking out “fussball” to passing strangers while looking puzzled with arms pointing in all directions, while Ian took to miming the act of kicking a ball to illustrate our need for help. We must have looked ridiculous.

Anyway, with the clock-ticking, we scrambled on to a subway train and got off at Westfallenhallen around ten minutes later. We were running so late that there were no other football fans anywhere to be seen. On a dark night, we alighted at Westfallenhallen, and I was flummoxed that I could not see any stadium floodlights. We rushed around in all directions at once.

Finally, I spotted two old dears and – my only hope – I approached them.

“Wo ist der stadion?”

They typically replied in perfect English.

“The football match? It was yesterday.”

The three of us fell silent.

Yesterday? Oh bloody hell. We had been rushing around like fools to attend a game that had already taken place twenty-four hours earlier. Snot.

We sloped back to the city centre on a tram, tails between our legs, beaten. We collected our ruc-sacs and I grabbed the “Kicker” magazine to look again at the fixtures, furious that I had been misinformed.

For Wednesday 30 September, it listed Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di.) and I then immediately realised the error of my ways.

Di. Dienstag. Tuesday.

“Fackinell. Sorry lads.”

I still believe to this day that Trev wasn’t too bothered about not seeing Celtic play.

We had a giggle and wandered around Dortmund in search of food. Back at the station, a forlorn and inebriated Celtic fan from Glasgow spotted us and shared his tale of woe in an accent so thick that it needed subtitles. He had missed his bus and only had 2 DM to his name. I advised him to hitchhike to Zeebrugge. He approached a policewoman for guidance, and she looked at us and said :

“This man does not speak English.”

We had to interpret for him.

His passport was on all full view, poking out of his back pocket. I warned him to look after it. Ian and me gave him a few Deutschmarks, and he went on his merry way. We wondered if he ever made it home. Later that night, we boarded a train to Hamburg to continue our tour of European cities and German train stations in the dead of night.

My little tour from 1987 – Milan, Munich, Dortmund –  was now being replicated in 2022 and 2023, but over four months instead of just four days.

It was time to go to Dortmund again.

When the date of the away game was confirmed, I was busy at work and so missed out on all of the cheap flights. I also found it difficult to get flights with good timings. I therefore decided to go about this European trip a little differently. PD, Parky and I would be going by train.

The only problem was that PD was unable to obtain a match ticket. He decided to travel along for the ride anyway. I booked an apartment in the Hafen – “harbour”, Dortmund has inland docks, a little like Salford – district near the city centre.

The days clicked down. West Ham United away on the Saturday, a middling performance at best, was followed by a busy day on the Sunday as I wrote up the match report and fine-tuned the packing and planning for our four days away. I enjoyed a good night’s sleep. I presumed that I would need it.

Monday 13 February 2023.

I was up at 6am and collected PD at 7.30am and Parky at 8am. We made our way up to London on the M4, stopping at Reading Services for a Greggsfast. I dropped the boys off at Hatton Cross tube station and then drove a further mile or so to my allotted JustPark bay outside a block of flats. Both PD and Parky walk with sticks these days; their mobility is always an issue on trips to football. I am in awe of how they cope with the pain that they endure on these football trips, bless them. Parky, however, in his rush to get in my waiting car, had forgotten his trusty stick. He would have to share PD’s.

The tube from Hatton Cross to St. Pancras was as easy as you like; twenty-three stations on the Piccadilly Line, no changes, within the hour, bosh.

Our Eurostar train left St. Pancras at just after 1pm. This was only my second-ever trip on the Eurostar; Paris St. Germain in 2004 was the first. The journey to Brussels took just two hours. We changed trains at Brussels Midi, a train station that has undergone a metamorphosis since I last visited it in the ‘eighties. The slower Thalys train left Brussels at 5.37pm and stopped at various stations en route to Dortmund. Both trains were decent. It was certainly a relaxing way to travel. I bought a couple of bottles of 8.5% Duval beer for the three of us. I had not had a single alcoholic drink since my weekend in Glasgow in early December, but I enjoyed every drop of this new beer. We arrived on time, of course, at Dortmund Hauptbanhoff at 8.38pm.

We hopped into a waiting cab and made our way to our digs on Gneisenaustrasse. I entered the numbers on the front door keypad but soon noticed the door was ajar anyway. We scrambled up two flights of stairs to our apartment, number four. I entered the number time and time again, but the lock wouldn’t release. While we were struggling to contact the owner by text message, six fellow-Chelsea fans that Parky recognised from The Shed came down the stairs from their apartment eight. What a small world. I then realised that our apartment was number ten – not four, the ghost of Dortmund 1987 haunting me again – and we had to mount another three flights of stairs. Bloody hell. At last we were in.

It was about 9.30pm, time for a drink. I had highlighted a bar that was a few minutes away – “Bar Wikinger”- and had passed this info on to some friends from Northampton. On the way there, we stopped at a small bar for a single beer, but the place was full of cigarette smoke and we sensed a bit of an atmosphere from some locals. PD chatted to a Serbian who was a fan of Partizan Belgrade and, of course, I mentioned Petar Borota. Further down Schutzenstrasse, we dived into the far more appealing “Bar Wikinger” and were given a far warmer welcome.

Pete, Brian and Dale – the friends from Northampton – were at a table, drinking glasses of “Kronen”, the local brew.

“Found it then?”

“Easy. Our apartment isn’t far away.”

“Oh right. Number 93?”

“That’s it.”

“That’s where we are.”

Yes, Chelsea World is a very small world indeed.

“Took us ages to get in. Problems with the key pad.”

“Us too. Mind you, we were trying to get into apartment one. Ours was actually four.”

“Four?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck me, I’ve just spent ten minutes trying to get into your flat.”

We all howled.

We spent around two hours in this cosy bar and it was a lovely relaxing start to the trip. It seemed that the Chelsea support was going to be split between Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Bochum. I had tried my best over the previous few months to see if there was anything of note in Dortmund but it looked to be a rather dull city. Our view was always this though: “we’ll find a bar, we’ll be alright.”

We were at the eastern edge of The Ruhr, the huge urban area of over five million people that formed the epicentre of Germany’s industrial growth in the last century. Some cities are more famous than others – Dortmund is probably the most famous – but they bleed into each other from west to east.

Duisberg, Oberhausen, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Bochum, Dortmund, plus other smaller cities such as Mulheim, Recklinghausen and Hagen.

I had only visited this area once before for a Chelsea game, a tedious 0-0 draw in Gelsenkirchen against Schalke in October 2007. For that trip, the five of us – Alan, Gal, Daryl, Rob and I – stayed in the fine city of Cologne and travelled up by train, free with match tickets, to the odd city of Gelsenkirchen. I remember that the main street in Gelsenkirchen resembled that of a small provincial town in England. We were then bussed up to the impressive Veltins Arena which lies just south of their old stadium. The game was nothing special but we would end that season’s trail in Moscow for the final. Gelsenkirchen was an enigma really. Schalke were a massive club in their prime, but the city itself seemed to be of no consequence. At the time, I likened it to Wolverhampton; its football club was and is still massive but the city itself is a nondescript part of a larger urban sprawl. We later drew Schalke in the Champions League campaigns of 2013/14 and 2014/15. I did not rush to return.

All five of us would be in Dortmund sixteen years later.

Chelsea also played Besiktas of Istanbul in Gelsenkirchen in December 2003. These are our only appearances in The Ruhr in recent memory.

I was itching to tick off this famous new ground.

The trouble with all the German stadia though, just like many modern stadia, is that they all tend to look the same these days, especially after the refits for the 2006 World Cup. I remember the huge variety of stadia on show for the World Cup in West Germany in 1974; the massive banks of terracing at the old stadium in Gelsenkirchen, the Bedouin-tented roofs of Munich, the huge curved terraces at Hamburg, the cramped Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, the oval stadia in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, the massive and historic Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

These days, everything seems two tiered and uniform.

But if I think of The Ruhr, and its cities, I always think of their football teams. Doesn’t everyone?

MSV Duisburg.

Rot-Weiss Essen.

Schalke 04.

Vfl Bochum.

Borussia Dortmund.

It felt like we were right in the heart of a football-mad region with local rivalries intertwining throughout the decades. I was certainly well aware of the intensity of the Borussia and Schalke derby, the most intense in Germany. This was a football heartland and we were balls deep inside it. The day had been fine. I slept well.

Tuesday 14 February 2023.

There was a gentle start to the day, which had only been loosely planned by myself. We all knew that we would be ensconced in a bar, or bars, for large parts of it.

Outside there were stunning blue skies. Tall dockside cranes were visible in the distance from our balcony ad the morning sun reflected off the painted walls of nearby buildings. We set out at just before 10am, and walked a few hundred yards to Hafen U-Bahn station. We bought day tickets for eight euros, but I couldn’t seem to operate the validation stamper next to the vending machine. One station along, a guard asked for our tickets and questioned why there was no date. Thankfully, he realised that we were visitors and asked us to exit at Leopoldstrasse to validate our passes. We narrowly missed out on a sixty euro fine apiece. Phew.

We alighted at Kampstrasse, right in the middle of Dortmund. A quick bite to eat and a much-needed coffee set me up for my next two hours. While PD and Parky had a mooch around the city centre, I flew down to the stadium, recreating the infamous “phantom match” visit of 1987.

The journey south only took eight minutes. I again alighted at Westfallenhallen, but now much modernised from the little halt of years ago.

I chuckled “wo is der stadion?” to myself.

Still blue skies, the air warming with each minute, I was in my element. I quickly spotted the yellow roof supports of the Signal Iduna Stadium and headed over. I turned a corner and gulped. Just in front of me was an ornamental garden, with a handful of gardeners tending some plants. But my eyes were set on an array of trimmed trees whose branches resembled, very much to my eyes, those of the Joshua Tree National Park in California, named after the prophet Joshua’s outstretched arms guiding his followers on their journey.

It seemed, quite honestly, too ridiculous to be true, especially after my aborted trip in 1987. Had I found my sacred ground? It certainly fucking felt like it.

In the back ground, a radio station played “Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin and I just wondered at the synchronicity of it all. Mary was my first-ever girlfriend when I was three; she just didn’t know it. And that song is my earliest favourite pop song.

It was just a nice moment in time.

With the words of my Welsh princess fading as I ventured south-west, I centered my attention on the stadium. It’s very photogenic from the outside; inside, I was sure of it, even more so.

I loved the old stone entrance building of Borussia’s old stadium, the Rote Erde, just to the east of the modern stadium. They switched in 1974. The Rota Erde still hosts Borussia’s second team. I was only really able to take photos of three sides of the new stadium as the South Stand, home of the Yellow Wall, was difficult to access. I snapped away, loving it all. I chatted to two Chelsea fans – familiar but names unknown – from Lyme Regis and to another fan, a young lad who was on our train from Brussels to Dortmund. Stickers were everywhere. I spent many a minute outside the North Stand, the one where almost four thousand Chelsea fans would be positioned the following evening. I had a quick look inside the club shop. It was impressive. The Borussia font is striking, bold and solid. It works well on many of their product lines. I spent an hour or so at the stadium. It had whetted my appetite for the game in Wednesday. It was now time to wet my whistle in the centre of Dortmund with Parky, PD and a cast of thousands.

I was back in Dortmund city centre at just before 12.30pm and I met up with PD and Parky. We soon bumped into Brian and he told us that he had just left a bar called “Wenker’s Brauhaus” in a square a few hundred yards away. We soon found it, nestled in a quiet corner of Markt Platz, right next to a BVB Fan Shop, and across the way from two other bars that seemed to be mainly serving food.

As I walked into the bar, I spotted a poster on the door that advertised the upcoming game. I photographed it and followed PD and Parky in. I did not come out until ten hours later.

“Once upon a time there was a tavern.

Where we used to raise a glass or two.

Remember how we laughed away the hours.

Think of all the great things we would do.”

We had a ball.

And with a cast that seemed like thousands.

Brian, Pete, Dale, Martin, Noel and Mrs. Noel, Andy, Maureen, Chad and Danny from Minneapolis, Yorkshire Mick, Julie, Burger, Rob, Leigh and Darren, Rob and Paul, Steve, Paul from New Jersey – last seen in Baku – Gareth, Shari and Chris from Australia, Ben and Kyle from Louisiana, Steve, Thomas from Vienna, Dessie.

Chelsea songs boomed out with greater frequency as the day, evening and night progressed. It was honestly lovely to hear “Vialli – Vialli – Vialli – Vialli” sung throughout the night.

Luca will not be forgotten.

We won the ECWC in Stockholm in 1998 with Luca at the helm.

To win another European trophy twenty-five years on would be a fine tribute, but I honestly tried not to think too much about the game on Wednesday.

“Think we might get dicked tomorrow.”

Songs for Tuchel too. This was his town for a while, after all.

At around 11pm we left. The ending is a little vague and I can’t honestly remember if this was the official closing time, if they had run out of beer or if they had decided enough was enough, but out into the streets we poured.

We found a late night café – “Zoros Tacos” – and I voraciously consumed a kebab and fries, with a side order of currywurst. We caught a cab back to our digs. I was adamant that after getting PD and Parky safely up to our apartment I would head over to “Bar Wikinger” for one last tipple. Thankfully, I saw sense and retired to bed.

We were all tucked up before midnight.

How very sensible.

Wednesday 15 February 2023.

I woke with no hangover, not for the first time after a night on the ale in Germany. It was a lazy start to the day, another sunny day, even if slightly cooler than on the Tuesday. Our first priority was to head into the city centre and for Parky and little old me to pick up our match tickets. We headed to the Hauptbanhof, then to the German Football Museum, and said tickets were collected with the minimum of fuss. Here we bumped into a few friends from near and far; Steve-O, Andy, Josh and Anthony from Los Angeles, Andy and Zippy from Trowbridge.

We returned to “Wenker’s Brauhaus” and stayed for another four or five hours. I had decided to stay off the beer this time though; a decision I would not regret. As the day developed, Markt Platz grew busier and busier. There was sulphurous blue smoke from flares and song after song. Paul from Reading bounded in and was happy that after standing equidistant between the three pubs in the little square, he initiated a Chelsea song that took over the whole area. The bar staff were so busy, serving beer after beer.

Duncan had arrived early with his “Weald Of Kent Elite” flag that was draped over the staircase. Ray and Gabi appeared. Fresh faces joined those from the previous day. There was a fine buzz in the bar. Mike from New York arrived, always a pleasure.

Face after face after face.

Alas, there was no lucky last minute ticket for PD, so Parky and I returned him to the digs and then set off again down to the stadium. On the last few miles we got talking to a family of four that were bedecked in the yellow and black of Borussia, but – like us – this was a first-time visit. They were from Brittany in France, and about to help the eldest son realise his dream to stand in the Yellow Wall for the very first time. I said in broken French that Borussia would win 3-0. Others were more confident, but not me.

My old friend Mario, from Italy but now living near Bergisch-Gladbach, has three sons. The eldest, Ruben, is a Borussia fan but was unable to obtain a match ticket. Mario – a childhood Juventus fan – has two season tickets to Bayer Leverkusen which he shares around with his other sons Nelson – on the Leverkusen books – and Valentin. Mario’s mother Hildegard was originally from Oberhausen, a woman of The Ruhr.

We reached a special station – “Stadion” – that was only open on match days and slowly made our way towards the away turnstiles. I noticed that the stadium was served by four stations, all within a ten-minute walk away. Additionally, there were many car parks close to the stadium. Just right.

It was around 7pm. There were two hours to go. I continued my photographic homage to European football nights and to the Westfalenstadion in particular.

We decided to head in. I only had my smaller “pub camera” with me as I certainly did not want to risk my SLR getting confiscated. The steward waved me by. Our £16.50 tickets were scanned. In we went. I found it odd that home and away fans were able to mix on entry and in the wide concourse of the North Stand, so different to home.

It was time to say “hello” to a few folk that we had not yet met on the trip; Alan, Gary, Daryl, Pete, The Youth and Seb, Jonesy, Scott, Luke, the “South Gloucestershire Brotherhood & Sisterhood”, the two Robs plus a few others.

For some reason I was expecting our standing tickets to consist of safe standing. I was rather taken aback when Parky and I climbed the steps of the lower tier terrace to be met with old-style terracing with just an occasional crush barrier thrown in for good measure. We shuffled into a position a third of the way down, in line with the East Stand touch line. It was about 8pm. At the other end, the huge Yellow Wall of the South Stand, already packed to the rafters, looked ridiculously huge. Someone told us that it was packed at 7pm.

There were spasmodic chants from that home end, but nobody else really joined in.

Our terrace filled. I was a little concerned with how steep it all was. Whereas in the move from standing terraces to seated stands in the UK, very often seats were simply bolted onto terraces with a slight rake – and poor sightlines – on this occasion it was the opposite. Steeply-angled stands intended to house seats were now hosting standing areas. The tread of the terrace below me was rather narrow too. I had the feeling that should we score – or go close – we would start toppling over each other. I was a little concerned for Parky and his unstable pins.

But it certainly felt good to be on effectively a free-range terrace, without being hemmed in to one position. I knew that I would be able to shuffle a few feet to my left or right to gain a more advantageous viewing position as moves developed on the pitch. It was odd to see fences in front us though, missing in England since 1989.

At 8.20pm, the PA started to play the triumphal march from Aida and this signalled the start of the pre-match build up proper from the home areas. The noise boomed around the stadium.

Fans were allowed to bring their 2% beers onto the terrace. Our section filled further. We had around 3,800 tickets for this game, maybe split half and half between lower tier standing and upper tier seats. I had heard that many Chelsea were in various parts of the home areas. I think the feeling for many was that this might well turn out to be our last European away for a while, so we were going to show up in numbers and enjoy it.

The team was announced.

Kepa

James – Silva – Koulibaly – Chilwell

Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Felix

Ziyech – Havertz – Mudryk

No Mason Mount, relegated to the bench. I had to blink to realise that three of these starters were not even Chelsea players a month ago.

The ground swelled and swelled but I managed to spot a few empty seats dotted around.

Next, a rather unpleasant echo from home. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was played on the PA and was met with the home fans singing along, with thousands upon thousands of scarves being held aloft, and this was met with a torrent of abuse from us, not that the home fans heard any of it.

Then the “tifo” display.

Cameras were poised.

Thousands of yellow and black mosaics were held up in the Yellow Wall; impressive enough. At the base of the terrace, a huge banner :

“And jedes Mal war es wert au Deiner Seite zu steh’u. Die Reise wird fur immer Weitergeh’ni.”

Which translates as :

“And every time it was worth standing by your side. The journey will go on forever.”

Then, a vast topographical map of Eurasia and Northern Africa was pulled up the stand by the spectators. Next up, a vertical lift of an image of an unknown supporter with a “Sud Tribune Dortmund” back-pack and baseball cap, pockets holding beers and fire-crackers.

All pretty impressive stuff.

Fackninell.

The teams strode across the pitch, very Stamford Bridge until this season – I wish we still did that – and the anthem.

We all live for nights like this, eh?

What with my reluctance to be bothered with any international football these days, this would be the first time that I would be seeing Jude Bellingham play football. I had to gulp when I saw him go up for the coin toss, a captain at nineteen. Blimey.

I had spotted yellow and black striped shirts in the club shop the day before, but now Borussia were wearing a different shirt. I was struggling to keep up with it all.

There was a solemn moment of silence for those who lost lives in Turkey and Syria.

The game began.

We must have won the toss because Borussia were attacking the Yellow Wall in the first-half.

My eyes were on Bellingham at the start and he immediately impressed with an audacious flick and then a storming run from deep that had Chelsea defenders at sixes and sevens. But we began well, often threatening on the break, with Mykhailo Mudryk involved in a couple of energetic forays down the left. In fact, much of our play in the first-half involved passes into space down our left. There was space to exploit, but much of it was taken up by the colossal bulk of Niklas Sule. On the right, Hakim Ziyech began quietly.

Our counter attacks were a highlight of the early part of the game.

From a Reece James free-kick just outside the penalty box on fifteen minutes, Thiago Silva lept inside the six-yard box and everyone gasped as he connected. I was right in line with the trajectory of the ball as it bounced down and in.

Mayhem.

Beers were thrown wildly without care, bodies sparked into life, arms were thrust in the air, bodies jumped, we were soaked in “Kronen” and we were one-up in front of the Yellow Wall.

Or were we?

No, the goal was cancelled and we knew not why.

Answers on a postcard.

Fackinell.

I liked the look of the energetic Julian Brandt, the number nineteen for Borussia, whose blonde hair and endless running reminded me of our Conor.

Silva snuffed out a Dortmund attack with effortless magnificence. It was an absolute joy to see him glide over to the far side of the penalty box and calmly tidy up.

The home team managed a couple of shots, but could only hit the side netting.

If anything, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was having the better of a great little contest with the boy Bellingham.

I am still concerned about the amount of times I call him “Rubes” though.

The ball was played out to Ziyech in front of us in Section 61 and I was bloody convinced he would waste time by cutting back onto his left foot, but he surprised and shocked me by cutting the ball back with his right foot – his right foot, I tell ya – into the path of the on-rushing Joao Felix but we all groaned as his first-time effort missed the target.

It was the best chance of the game thus far.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The dangerous Karim Adeyemi lazily shot over from a well-worked corner, but Chelsea came again. Kai Havertz, running well into space, set up Joao Felix, who advanced neatly but clipped the ball against the bar.

The best two chances of the game to us now.

“COME ON CHELS.”

One last chance before the break saw Marius Wolf’s effort fly wide.

This was a very decent game. We were playing much better than I had ever hoped. Even Kalidou Koulibaly was playing a blinder. There would good vibes at half-time, no doubt.

Off the pitch, the Yellow Wall were in fine voice, but the other three sides of home support were pretty quiet. As I looked around, yellow and black favours were everywhere. They love their scarves in Dortmund, the little darlings.

In contrast, our section was a zone of defiance to shirters and scarfers.

The second-half began and we were treated to a fine strong run from James from deep that resulted in a foul and a free-kick on our right back by Emre Can, who used to be a footballer. From the resulting free-kick – on film – James forced a great save from Gregor Kobel, flinging himself to his left in the Dortmund goal.

A rampaging Adeyemi down their left set up Brandt but Kepa was equal to it, saving low. Soon after, the darting Mudryk set up James whose snatched shot was saved well again by Kobel.

This remained a good game. I was involved with every kick.

On sixty-two minutes, a corner from our right was met full-on with a header from Havertz, but his effort was way off target and Felix headed it back, but Dortmund cleared. From here, the home team broke with the speedy Adeyemi collecting the rugged clearance inside his half. We all feared danger. He teased the last man, Enzo, for what seemed a lifetime, and clipped it past him. I immediately thought that Kepa would get to it, but no. Another touch took the ball past Kepa and the attacker brushed it in from an angle.

Bollocks.

On seventy minutes, two substitutions.

Mason Mount for Mudryk.

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell.

Although we had played well, there were still murmurings of discontent and frustration in our section as we lacked that elusive cutting edge.

Koulibaly capped a decent performance with a barnstorming run up field, and would see a shot cleared off the line by Can, who I wished Couldn’t. Later, a typically finicky run by Havertz into their box ended when he was cleanly tackled. One last chance fell to Enzo, centrally, but his rising shot was well saved again by Kobel.

It ended 0-1, but we all agreed that the tie was absolutely still alive.

The gate was 81,000 and it seemed implausible that it was so huge.

Parky and I quickly moved to the back of the terrace, and were soon out. We joined the end of a short queue at the U-Bahn and were soon heading back into town. We were the sole Chelsea supporters in a carriage full of young Borussia fans. They were making a racket, but were pleasant enough. We shook hands with a couple as we left. We grabbed some late night sustenance at the Hauptbanhof, inadvertently bumped into Foxy for the first time, then caught the U-Bahn back to Hafen. We were back at around 12.30am.

Thursday 16 February 2023.

I was awake before the alarm was planned to sound at 5am. This would be a long old day. We caught the U-Bahn at Hafen at 5.30am and were soon tucking into a coffee and a breakfast roll at the city’s train station. Unlike in 1987, this time it was an inebriated Chelsea fan to seek my assistance at the Hauptbanhof as I directed him onto the next train to Dusseldorf.

Our train left at 6.50am.

“A decent trip but you wouldn’t come back to Dortmund in a hurry would you?”

It was a relaxing three-and-a-half-hour trip to Brussels – the cathedral at Cologne never disappoints – and we then enjoyed a quick meal in a restaurant opposite the Midi train station. In the gents’ toilets, I spotted a “Weald Of Kent Elite” sticker.

Chelsea here, Chelsea there.

We reached St. Pancras at about 2.30pm, and we were back in sleepy Somerset at about 6.30pm.

Another Chelsea European away completed, thoughts now focussed on a much more run-of-the-mill day out at Stamford Bridge for the visit of bottom-placed Southampton.

Saturday 12 February 1983.

This particular tale concludes with a mention of a game from forty-years ago. After three consecutive losses to Derby County – twice – and Wolverhampton Wanderers, we played at Blundell Park against Grimsby Town. Sadly, our fourth loss in a row followed. Kevin Drinkell scored twice for the Mariners with Alan Mayes scoring for us, all goals coming in the first-half. The gate was just 6,711. Things were getting desperate. Whisper it, but relegation was looking a ridiculous possibility.

Who knows, maybe if we had the much-maligned Alan Mayes playing upfront for us in Dortmund in 1983 we might have nabbed a point. Mind you, he’s sixty-nine now.

Onwards.

Tales From A Grey Day

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 11 February 2023.

You know what it’s like when the alarm sounds and there is a day of football that lies ahead, but you just don’t feel the love?

That’s what it was like on the morning of our game at West Ham United.

I had set the alarm for 5.30am and it took me a few minutes to summon the energy to get up and at’em. West Ham is probably my least favourite away venue. It’s a terrible stadium to watch football, eh? Additionally, in four previous visits for me there was still no win against my name.

But Chelsea were calling and so I picked up PD at 7am and Parky at 7.30am. As I approached PD’s house, a song by Yazoo from 1983, how appropriate, was airing, the suitably titled “Mr. Blue.”

“I’m Mr. Blue.

I’m here to stay with you.

And no matter what you do.

When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too.”

There was talk of Dortmund on the drive to London. The three of us leave early on Monday morning and are travelling over to the Ruhr by train.

A year ago to the day, PD and I were in Abu Dhabi, nervously awaiting our game against Palmeiras on the Saturday.

A year on, Saturday 11 February 2023 would be our last day of being rightfully termed World Champions.

It’s been the maddest of years since.

By 9.45am, we were settled into “The Half-Moon Café” on the Fulham Palace Road, enjoying a fine full English and a strong mug of tea. Before the end of our fully enjoyable breakfast, a squadron of the Met’s finest had arrived and were getting into various plates of unequally unhealthy food. We wondered if they were soon to be deployed at Craven Cottage for the visit of Forest or at Loftus Road for the visit of Millwall.

On the drive up to London, I had asked PD about the FA Cup game at Derby County that I had featured in last week’s edition.

“You were there, right?”

“I was.”

“Is that right that some seats ended up on Chelsea fans in the terrace?”

“Yeah. The ones that didn’t reach the pitch.”

Forty years ago, as fate would have it, the very next game in Chelsea’s increasingly troubled season was at home to Derby County. Going into the game on Saturday 5 February, Chelsea were in fourteenth place with a 8-7-10 record. The visitors, however, were experiencing an even more disastrous season than Chelsea and were rock bottom of the twenty-two team division with a 3-11-11 record.

Here was a tussle that we could win surely? The previous game was a surprising 6-0 win against Cambridge United. I was hopeful that we could win this one and put our season back on track. Promotion was looking out of the question but there were still points to be won, and I prayed that subsequent Mondays in the sixth form common room would not follow the recent pattern of me having to take all sorts of flak that had been flying my way.

In the programme for the game, the tone was set by the editorial which had moved on from being called “The Talk Of Stamford Bridge” to “Forward Line.”

The subject was of the hooliganism the previous week.

“Thirty seconds can be a long time in football. With the score 1-1 at Derby last Saturday, with the Osmaston Stand clock reading 4.40pm and the ball safely in the hands of our goalkeeper, we looked certain to force a replay with County. The mood was optimistic as the team had fought back from being a goal behind and the fans had behaved well, out singing the home supporters to the extent that a plea was made at half-time over the public address in an effort to coax more noise from the locals.

Then, barely a minute later, we were out of the Cup, the hooligans we despise were out of their seats and throwing them onto the pitch and onto innocent Chelsea supporters standing below. January 29th will enter the history books as a Black Day for Chelsea Football Club; we aim to make it one too for those criminals by studying all the evidence available including photographs and video tapes. We are determined to bring to justice the perpetrators of Saturday’s violence.

The thousands of regular, law-abiding Chelsea fans at the Baseball Ground last week no doubt felt disgusted and ashamed at the scenes played out before them by followers of this club as the match drew to a close. For those excellent supporters, many of whom will be present today to watch the football peacefully and enthusiastically, we shall leave the subject of last week’s vandalism and concentrate on today’s match.

Anyone guilty of being involved in the Derby violence can stop reading this page as we are now going to talk about the football.”

Four contributors to the programme continued with the same subject.

John Neal.

“Last week’s result and the events at Derby have left a cloud over the club all week that we must try and remove with a good performance this afternoon.”

Ken Bates.

“Now that the dust has settled, I think we are agreed that last weekend was a disaster, in more ways than one. To be knocked out of the Cup in the last minute, after having more scoring chances than the England cricket team, was a particularly bitter blow but certainly no justification for the behaviour that followed.

We have asked for copies of all press photographs taken last Saturday and we are also seeking to obtain a copy of the video recording of the match, and intend to compare these with our own video recordings which we now take of Stamford Bridge to try and trace the culprits. I am not too hopeful that we will be successful as I have my doubts that the hooligans that caused the trouble are true Chelsea supporters – evidence of this is that I too had obscenities, rude signs and coins directed at me when I went on the pitch to try and calm things down.”

Micky Greenaway.

“The atmosphere prior to the final goal was tremendous and I realise and understand more than most the supreme frustration felt by all when Derby’s final goal was scored, but the actions of some supporters only hurt fellow Chelsea fans and this should not happen. So shape up Blues Fans, cheer on and support forever more, but avoid unsavoury incidents like that wherever possible.”

Seb Coe.

“A friend of mine from Sheffield once wryly commented to me after watching Chelsea in his area, how great it must be to watch your team at home every week. Long may that level of support last. The only sadness is that amongst the thousands of travelling loyalists, there are still a handful of trouble makers that embarrass the club and sicken the well behaved following.”

Forty years ago, looking back with gritted teeth, the events at the Baseball Ground was a perfect storm.

A huge away following. A crushing last-minute defeat. FA Cup dreams extinguished yet again. For many within the six thousand, there was only one response. If hand-to-hand hooliganism was impossible due to the lack of home fans in close proximity, thoughts turned to vandalism.

It was all sadly predictable.

And even though many to this day take pride in our performances off the pitch in games like this, at the time I was becoming just sick of it all despite the warped kudos of supporting a team with a violent hard core that I mentioned in the last edition. I just wanted to support a team in the top flight. And for our support to be loud and boisterous.

In the end, Chelsea succumbed to a woeful 1-3 home defeat against Derby County in front of a miserly 8,661. Colin Pates scored the only goal for us, and we even had the misfortune to score two own goals for our visitors, via ‘keeper Steve Francis and midfielder John Bumstead, in addition to the one Derby goal claimed by old warhorse Archie Gemmill.

These were becoming desperate times at Chelsea.

I’m getting depressed just remembering it all.

I include a piece that was aired on the “Nationwide” programme on the following Monday as the headline story. It mentions just fifty Derby fans on the wide North terrace at the game; a pitifully low number, and no doubt the result of their poor season but also the fear of retribution. Leaving the away end at Stamford Bridge in the early ‘eighties must have been a pretty terrifying experience.

Our breakfast consumed, I zipped over to park up at Barons Court and we then embarked on an hour-long train journey east. Via a couple of train changes, we pulled into Pudding Mill Lane – how Dickensian – bang on 11.30am, bang on plan. I looked over at the steel structure of the London Stadium, under a Tupperware sky, and my heart sunk.

I was back at this grim venue once again.

Just outside the station, we spotted a police van parked nearby, with the officers that had been sat next to us in the Hammersmith café stretching their legs outside.

There were two security checks and we were in, sharing views with many that we would probably struggle on this day in a grey London.

We soon heard that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was starting alongside Enzo Fernandez and it caught us all by surprise.

I could not believe how slowly the stadium filled.

The match day announcer spoke with Bobby Moore’s daughter on the pitch before the game, and there was another presentation involving West Ham “legends” Sir Trevor Brooking and, ahem – wait for it – Carlton Cole.

Our team?

Kepa.

James – Silva – Badiashile – Cucarella

Fernandez – Felix – Loftus-Cheek

Madueke – Havertz – Mudryk

At 12.20pm, with just ten minutes to go, I estimated that just 25% of the crowd were inside. At kick-off, bar a few thousand late arrivals, the place was full.

I had heard about a new screen that had been set up to block the view – and any subsequent “pointing and shouting” – between home and away fans between the away fans in the lower reaches of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand and the home support in the lower tier of the West Stand.

And there it was; a ridiculous addition, really.

West Ham were wearing their light blue shorts and it still didn’t look right; it was if there was an away game colour clash and they were forced to change. Their kit is a real dog’s dinner this season. We were wearing the thousand island dressing change kit.

“We’ve worn that before this season, right, John?”

“Brighton.”

“Fuck sake.”

But we began ever so brightly.

Despite the home team defending deep – please note how I try to avoid the wanky buzzwords like “low block” – we were able to find spaces with runners being hit via some cute passing from Enzo Fernandez and Joao Felix in particular.

On ten minutes, with Chelsea in the ascendency, a pass from deep from Reece James was played into space for Felix. It seemed to catch the West Ham defence off guard – to be honest there was a hint of offside – but our new loan-signing advanced and saw his shot come back off the far post but he tapped in the rebound.

A quick celebration was quelled by the linesman’s yellow flag on the far side, out near Essex.

“Fair enough. It did look offside, John.”

There was nice movement and intensity in these early stages. On seventeen minutes, the ball was well won with a tough tackle from Mykhailo Mudryk and there was a one-two- between Marc Cucarella and Enzo. I caught the Argentinian’s cross into the box and also, miraculously, the exact moment that Felix tapped the ball in.

The celebrations in front of the West Ham fans were a lot easier to capture.

Alan : “Thay’ll ‘ave ta cam at us na.”

Chris : “Cam on me li’le dimonds.”

Just after, another offside denied Kai Havertz a goal.

There was a lovely wriggle away from defenders from Noni Madueke, breaking in from the right. There were flashes of some decent football. The noise wasn’t great though. The two sections in the away end work against any united front.

It was all Chelsea in the opening twenty-five minutes.

The Chelsea choir summed it all up eloquently.

“How shit must you be? We’re winning away.”

There was a rare West Ham attack featuring the always dangerous Michail Antonio but Kepa blocked well. Sadly, poor defensive marking allowed a cross down below us from Vladimir Coufal and this was flicked on by Jarrod Bowen and we immediately sensed danger.

I whispered “here we go” under my breath.

At the far post, former Chelsea defenders Emerson, Lake & Palmieri scuffed the ball in.

Fackinell.

He did not celebrate.

We didn’t hit earlier peaks during the rest of the half, with Enzo showing less inclination to pass forward. Was he wearing Jorginho’s number five shirt a little too tightly? Was he being unnecessarily passive? We went into our shell a little.

At the other end, the under-fire Cucarella lost Bowen a few times.

However, there were chances. Fabianski saved well from Madueke. A free-kick from Enzo went close.

In the half that we were defending, seven or eight pigeons strutted around with little hindrance. As the first period came to an end, many Chelsea supporters drifted out for half-time drinks and visits to the boys’ and girls’ rooms. We – Parky, John, Gal, Al, Eck and I – were positioned in the very front row of the top section. It allowed me the chance to nod “hellos” to many friends as they walked out to the spacious concourses below. I took some photographs. It’s what I do.

It was especially pleasant to see Shari once again, over from Brisbane, and Ray, back from a year-long placement in Miami.

“Yeah, see you in Dortmund.”

I had to laugh when the highlights of the first-half were shown on the screens at the break but our goal was not shown.

“Righty-o.”

I turned to John and muttered “well, I don’t think many of us will be saying ‘we miss Mount’ will they?”

Sadly, the second-half was a very poor show and I won’t dwell too much on those second, woeful, forty-five minutes.

Twice in quick succession, we were all seething that Madueke stood next to Felix at corners, but the ball was not played to him, he just stood vacantly alongside. On both occasions, the ball was played way back by Cucarella to Kepa.

“Fuck sake. What is the bloody point of that? Get Madueke in the box, an extra body, an extra head, or get him to wait outside the box for a second ball.”

We were raging.

Nothing happened until half-way through the half when Graham Potter made three substitutions.

Ben Chilwell for Cucarella.

Hakim Ziyech for Mudryk.

Mason Mount for Madueke.

Ziyech then stood next to Felx as another corner was swung in, and we all wondered about the collective IQ of our first team squad.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe we just possess thick footballers at this moment in time. They can seem to negotiate their way into a “TikTok” video but sadly come up short on the football pitch.

Fackinell.

Conor Gallagher for Loftus-Cheek.

I thought Ruben was perhaps our only half-decent player during the game thus far, but only by the thinnest of margins.

The atmosphere was horrific. So quiet. Absolutely abysmal. It went well with the football on show.

I turned to John.

“God, we could get walloped in Dortmund on Wednesday. They’ll have the Yellow Wall. We’ll have the Wailing Wall.”

A header for Havertz, wide.

Late on, I was pondering why the top balcony on their West Stand mentions “1964 FA Cup Winners”, “1975 FA Cup Winners” and “1980 FA Cup Winners”, but just “1965 European Cup Winners Cup” and if they ran out of letters for “winners.”

“Just no demand for it down these parts these days, governor.”

With that, my eyes returned to the pitch to see a West Ham leg prod the ball in.

Another late goal at this bloody place? Oh God.

Thankfully, after a delay – as always – it went to VAR.

John : “as long as it goes on, the more likely it is to go in our favour.”

Me, willing it to take forever : “keep going, keep going, keep going.”

No goal.

The game continued half-heartedly, but a flashpoint was just around the corner.

In the last few minutes, I snapped as Gallagher hit a low drive at goal. My photo shows Tomas Soucek going to ground. I did not see the handball, for that is what it was, but the five or six Chelsea players nearest the ball certainly did and raced towards the referee.

No penalty. No VAR.

I must not let myself believe that dark forces are at hand amid the Premier League’s power brokers but at times it seems that a narrative is at work.

Was it just an appalling – APPALLING! – decision?

Maybe.

If not, football is dead.

I will see some of you in Dortmund.

Pre-Match

First-Half

Half-Time

Second-Half