Tales From A Night With The Magyars

Chelsea vs. Vidi : 4 October 2018.

October had arrived, the leaves had started to change colour, the mornings were getting colder and the evenings were getting darker. It was time for our first home midweek game of the season, and the return to the much-maligned Thursday Night Football with a Europa League match with MOL Vidi, from the town of Székesfehérvár in Hungary.

I had worked an early shift and met up with The Brothers Grim, PD and Parky, at the Milk Churn for a bite to eat at three o’clock. I demolished a bowl of lamb stew, then hopped into the back seat as PD’s Chuckle Bus took the three of us east. What a luxury; I was even able to grab an hour of intermittent sleep as we zoomed up the M4. For a change, we spent almost two hours among old friends in The Goose rather than the usual midweek trot down to Simmons Bar. The two pints of Peroni were sadly served in plastic glasses – an abhorrence – but still went down a treat.

The pub seemed busy, and on the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I commented to the chaps that it felt like there would be a pretty decent turn out for our first-ever UEFA game against a team from Hungary. Of course, the club are to be commended for only charging us £20. There is no doubt that they have learned a lesson from previous campaigns and this seems to be a good pointer that they realise the need to provide competitive pricing for home matches. We all remember the sense of disappointment when just 24,973 saw our Champions League game – Mourinho’s first finale – in 2008. And gates for our last foray into the Europa League were a bit patchy too with games against Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan averaging 30,000 in 2012/13. But although we had purportedly sold virtually all available tickets for the game against Vidi, I was sure that there would be some gaps with fans buying seats just for loyalty points.

Outside the West Stand, the frontage was adorned with Europa League banners.

I am sure a few elitists were thinking “sshh, please don’t advertise the fact”, and there is no doubt that this is undoubtedly UEFA’s secondary competition by some margin, but I am sure that the competition, if we stay in it long enough, will provide a few good trips and a few good stories to accompany them. A return trip to Baku – we half-heartedly watched Arsenal, playing in strange red shorts, win against Qarabag in the pub beforehand – would be a lovely reward at the end of this season, even though the logistics of getting to the game itself might prove both difficult and expensive. Oddly, by the time the “big” (cough, cough) teams drop into the competition in the New Year, it might have lost its allure a little.

Porto. Schalke. Roma.

“You again?”

Last time we played in this competition – a strange jamming together of the old and much missed ECWC and UEFA Cup – the theme colour was red. This time around it is orange. I wondered if FedEx, B&Q, or Terry’s Chocolate Orange were prominent sponsors.

On entering the stadium, there were swathes of empty seats but as kick-off approached, most areas filled up nicely. Behind the Shed goal, I spotted the brand name Hankook, a tyre company that is completely off my radar, and who only enter my consciousness when we dip into the Europa League.

Ah, their corporate colour is orange.

Got it.

The visitors – I remember them as Videoton – had brought a tidy 1,500 or so. We only took around 400 or so to PAOK a fortnight ago, so this was a good show. There were four Hungarian flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. It felt great to be hosting a Hungarian team at last at Stamford Bridge. Hungary are, or maybe were, one of the great football nations of Europe. They handed England the infamous 6-3 defeat at Wembley in 1953 (England’s first ever defeat at home to “foreign opposition”, excluding teams from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and handed out a 7-1 defeat to England at the Nep Stadium a year later.

I can still see that drag back by Ferenc Puskas now.

My first memory of Hungary came in England’s campaign to qualify for the World Cup in 1982. I remember England losing in Switzerland in June 1981, but then watching on TV on the following Saturday as we dug out an unexpected 3-1 win, again at the Nep Stadium. As soon as we were drawn against Vidi, and after I had booked flights to Budapest, I soon found myself immersed in nostalgia, re-watching that very game on YouTube that very evening.

The three words “Trevor Brooking, stanchion” will bring smiles to those of us of a certain generation.

Then, in November of that year, I watched at Frome & District Youth Centre as a Paul Mariner goal took England to the World Cup Finals for the first time that I could experience and savour (I was too young to remember 1966 and 1970), back in the days when I cared.

Budapest in December is sure to be a blast. Do not be surprised if I spend a morning ground-hopping Ferencvaros, Ujpest, MTK and Honved’s stadia, although it is a shame that the famous Nep Stadium has gone the way of many of those imposing oval communist super stadia of yore, razed to the ground and rebuilt as a bland nonentity.

Maurizio Sarri had, not surprisingly, changed the personnel for this game.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Pedro

It was a good enough team, but a team that had obviously not played together before.

The teams entered the pitch. The stadium was pretty full. The advertised gate of 39,925 hid around 4,000 no shows I reckon.

But this was a fine effort.

The match programme mentioned the two friendlies that we played against Hungarian teams Red Banner in 1954 and MTK in 1963.

The 1954 game featured stars of the Hungarian team Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Kovacs. Interestingly, this game took place at 2pm on Wednesday 15 December 1954, and just two days after the more famous visit to Molineux of Honved to play Wolverhampton Wanderers under lights. Odd that the Honved game – so much is made of the game being floodlit – is often cited as a main catalyst for the first European Cup which began the following season (without champions Chelsea damn it), and yet our game against Red Banner is never mentioned.

That Wolverhampton media bias strikes yet again.

Regardless, the 1954 game is a beauty of times past.

Us in our championship season. John Harris. School kids skiving off school. 40,000 on a midweek afternoon. Blokes in ties. Stan Willemse. Cigarette smoke. The North Stand seats packed. The lights for the greyhounds. Frank Blunstone.

Beautiful.

It’s worth a watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrlt86APQG4

The Chelsea vs. Vidi game in 2018, sixty-four years after the Red Banner game, and another crowd of around 40,000, was a strange affair.

The visitors created the first real chance from a corner but Emerson was ably positioned to deflect a header over the bar. But, we were soon creating chances inside the Vidi penalty area, with Emerson and a mesmeric slaloming run in the inside left channel, and Kovacic the first to threaten. Soon after, Willian shot wide from well inside the box. Yet again, an opposing team were looking to defend deep and catch us on rare breaks. The away fans, who were not making a great deal of noise in their corner, only raised their levels when an excursion into our half took place.

Pedro was soon to be seen running centrally at some space at the heart of the Vidi defence in that slightly erratic style of his; like the weird kid at the school disco who dances unlike anyone else, limbs flailing in all directions. But he’ like others, was soon running into massed ranks of Hungarian defenders.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was worked nicely into Morata who had found some space well. The ball fell to his left side, and with the ‘keeper already moving to his left, it seemed obvious to me – I was right in line with the ball and goal – that he should dink it into the net with his left peg. Instead, he chose to touch the ball on to his favoured right foot, and with the ‘keeper having narrowed the angle, the striker was forced to aim at a ridiculously small portion of the goal. He panicked and sliced it wide.

The first of many “fackinells” was heard in the Sleepy Hollow.

Shots and crosses were aimed towards goal with regularity, but their ‘keeper had not really been tested. He came and claimed crosses with ease. There was, as the first-half progressed, the annoying feeling that we were overindulging in too many ostentatious flicks, back heels and feints.

“Just drop your shoulder and hit the fucker” summed up our feelings.

Willian dolly-dropped a free-kick into the path of Morata but he was off balance and fell. I heard The Shed’s moans from one hundred yards away. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, not exactly impressing for most of the first-half, made a storming run into the box, and seemed to be chopped down inside the box. A penalty? Not a bit of it. The crowd were suitably raging. Alan and I spoke, not for the first time, about the goal line officials, or whatever it is they are bloody called. They rarely make a call on anything. I’d like to know how much they get paid for standing next to a pitch for ninety minutes and doing Sweet FA.

Rant over? Not quite.

I have always found it odd that the two goal line assistants – “assistant referees” – always position themselves in the same quadrant of the pitch as the linesmen, rather than the four “off pitch” officials being equally placed around the perimeter. It makes no sense to me, that.

A mix up between Christensen and Arrizabalaga almost allowed Nego to nip in and score, but the shot was poked wide. Vidi again broke into our half on thirty-minutes, with a good move exploiting acres of space in our previously untested defence. Thankfully, the presence of Gary Cahill did just enough to put off Nego who shot meekly at our ‘keeper after easily getting past Emerson. Just after, a poorly timed lunge by Cahill looked to the people sitting close to me – we had a very good view – to be a stonewall penalty. But the moment of concern had passed.

Throughout the first-half, the away fans had not been too involved, which surprised me. Our support was so-so. There was this annoyance that we were over-elaborating in front of goal. And we were certainly taking more touches than usual. But, of course, this team – with Fabregas and Loftus-Cheek involved for the first time together under Sarri – were playing together as a unit for the first time. I suppose it would be wrong to come down too hard. But there was tangible frustration as the first-half ended.

Not long into the second-half, Arrizabalaga managed to palm away a shot from the impressive Nego, and at last the away fans found their collective voices.

I often used to think back to the days when we would tend to put out a “B” team for League Cup games and often Frank Lampard would be rested. And I remembered how many times we would be drawing and so poor Frank was often brought on to provide extra quality. And I thought about our Eden. I thought back to Anfield last week, his substitute appearance changing the game so dramatically. Within a couple of minutes, he appeared on the touchline.

He replaced Pedro.

What an ovation for Eden.

Truly the man of the moment.

The chances still came and went as we tried to pierce the Vidi defence.

Ross Barkley came on for Loftus-Cheek. The jury is still out on our Ruben, from my perspective and that of others I know at Chelsea. I know that body language is not everything but he just looks too languid. Where is the urgency?

As he entered the pitch from under the East Stand, I watched Barkley trot over towards Kovacic, who had been raiding down our left with aplomb, and I observed Barkley make the “switch” gesture with his hands. Kovacic was having none of it, so Ross returned back to the right-hand side. I presume that Sarri had said to the substitute “see if he wants to switch, it is up to you to work it out.” I can’t believe that Kovacic would have blindly refused instructions. I like that; that the manager gives his players a little freedom. I have this fear that football – for so long a free-spirited and spontaneous sport – is getting too similar to gridiron football where every move seems to be choreographed ad infinitum.

Corner after corner, cross after cross. We kept trying. At one stage, it felt like it was like death by a thousand crosses. At one corner, I experienced something new at a Chelsea game. I was almost bored by the thought of another corner drifting aimlessly into the box, to be headed away yet again. The consistency of our misfiring was getting tedious.

But the runs of Kovacic were firing life into us, though, and he was linking well with others. One dribble from Eden was the stuff of pure fantasy. We began pushing more men into forward positions. A fine shot from Barkley raised our spirits. Morata was joined in the box by Hazard, Barkley, Kovacic and Willian. I hadn’t seen so many boys in blue in such a tight area since policemen started sniffing around Fred West’s patio.

Surely a goal would come.

With twenty minutes remaining, Eden – now switched over to the right – moved the ball to Barkley who passed to Fabregas. He lofted a great ball towards the run of Willian, whose careful knock-on set up Morata, arriving perfectly, to smash a volley past the Vidi ‘keeper. What a great goal.

Alan and I then, with the both of us laughing and sniggering uncontrollably, carried out the worst “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now / Come On My Little Diamonds” ever.

We had spoken about how strange the Hungarian language is. What the bloody hell does a Hungarian accent sound like?

Alan’s sounded Germanic. Mine sounded Latin.

Oh boy.

Regardless, we were ahead.

Phew.

Victor Moses – who? he? – came on for Willian.

Ross Barkley, impressing me, flicked a header against the bar from a Hazardous free-kick. But in the final ten minutes, Chelsea almost annoyed me. Vidi had shown the occasional threat. And rather than close the game down, we still attacked and attacked.

“Sarri is not your typical Italian manager, is he?”

One barnstorming run by Emerson petered out and we were left exposed. In the final five minutes, our defence looked tired and prone to catastrophe. Arrizabalaga saved down low, clawing away a shot from Kovacs, but for all of our worry, Vidi failed to exploit the tiredness in our ranks. Our defence, I have to admit, had been pretty ragged when tested throughout the night.

There was still time for Morata to miss when set up by Eden.

The whistle blew.

Our second 1-0 win in the competition was met with sighs of relief rather than whoops of joy.

It had been one of those nights.

On Sunday, we are at Southampton and two of the team are going behind enemy lines. Stay tuned for further adventures of The Chuckle Brothers on this station.

 

Tales From Fulham High Street And Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 29 September 2018.

So, this was it. The big test. The much-anticipated visit of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, with their six league victories out of six. On the train journey up to London, we all spoke about how excited, and yet nervous, we were ahead of the game at 5.30pm. We chatted briefly about our come-from-behind win against the same opposition at Anfield three days previously. We knew we had ridden our luck a little. But that game highlighted two things to me.

One – we are a vastly different team when Eden Hazard plays. He makes us tick.

Two – our support should never be maligned again. Although I did not attend the game on Wednesday, I was absolutely elated to see that we had taken around five thousand up to Liverpool. And it seemed to me that the younger element of our support – for a while, it seemed we had missed out on a generation – made up a large proportion of those travelling. Maybe those that cannot always get tickets for Anfield in the league decided to travel up on a weekday evening, not always the easiest of logistical operations. Top marks to everyone who travelled. You made me proud.

In the first of the six pubs that we visited before the match, I admitted to Andy from Kent that I was actually enjoying the nervousness of the game with Liverpool.

“To be honest, we have enjoyed so much success over the recent ten years or more, that sometimes we take it for granted, all of this, game after game, especially at the Bridge, regardless of the opposition. But because they – Liverpool – have started so well this season, and because we know what they can do to teams, I’m nervous, but I’m enjoying that emotion. It feels good.”

I had meticulously planned another pub crawl a few weeks back, and I had fastidiously reviewed my plans. We were all relishing another Chuckle Bros Pub Crawl.

After a breakfast at Paddington, though, the disruption caused by the closure of the District Line meant that we chose to head down to our designated meeting point by cab. We headed to the most southerly part of Fulham, right where the bend of the Thames is at its flattest, and made it our home for almost five hours.

I have often mused about the geographical reach of “Chelsea pubs” on match days, and in the lead up to the game, I thought again about what constitutes a Chelsea pub and what doesn’t. My very first pub was The Cock back in 1984, and my mind went on a temporal and geographical journey as I remembered previous seasons and previous sessions.

1984 : The Cock, still going strong.

1985 : The George, alas no more, now an Estate Agents at the junction of the North End Road and Fulham Road.

1986 : The Stamford Bridge Arms, aka the Cross-Eyed Newt, originally the Rising Sun, and now The Butcher’s Hook.

1987 : The Black Bull, now The Pensioner.

1988 : The Fox And Pheasant and The King’s Arms, now the Broadway Bar & Grill, previously The Slug & Lettuce.

1991 : Finch’s, way up the Fulham Road, long closed.

1992 : The Stargazy, alas no more, on the Fulham Road.

1994 : The Harwood Arms, our old regular, on Walham Grove.

Since then, our boozing has taken us to new territories.

North : The Finborough, The Ifield – now closed, The Pembroke, The Courtfield – now an away pub – The Blackbird, O’Neils – now renamed – and The King’s Head, The Lillie Langtry, The Imperial, The Atlas and The Prince Of Wales.

South : The White Hart, now a Thai restaurant, Brogan’s, The Black Rose, formerly The Britannia, then the So Bar and now a hideous cocktail bar, The Jam Tree, formerly the Nell Gwynne, The Beer Engine, formerly The Wheatsheaf, The Hand And Flower, no more, The Imperial, The Morrison, formerly the Lord Palmerston – closed – The Rose, The Chelsea Ram, The Tommy Tucker, formerly The Pickled Pelican, Simmon’s Bar and the White Horse on Parson’s Green, aka “The Sloaney Pony.”

East : The Gunter Arms, The World’s End, The Chelsea Potter.

West : The Oyster Rooms, The Fulham Dray – closed – The Barrowboy – closed, The Mitre, The Malt House, formerly the Jolly Maltsters, The Wellington, The Rylston, The Goose, The Elm, The Old Oak, The Clarence, The Seven Stars – closed – The Colton Arms and The Famous Three Kings.

Fifty-two Chelsea pubs, and all bona fide Chelsea pubs too.

On this day, we would be stretching the southern limits. Just off Putney Bridge tube, we first spent a while in the cosy “Eight Bells” which is often used by Chelsea en route to Craven Cottage. We were joined by “the Kent lot” and also Foxy and Drew fae Dundee. We watched as West Ham went 2-0 up against United. Ho ho ho. Next up, “The King’s Arms” – a bit plusher, but actually cheaper rounds – and then the quite unique interior of “The Temperance”, and a few Chelsea were inside. Over the road, we dipped into “The Golden Lion”, where more Chelsea were located, though I doubt if many of the faces on show were off to the game.

As Parky commented “if the devil could cast his net.”

Over the road, the Fulham High Street, to the swanky “King’s Arms” and we were the only football fans there. In fact, we were virtually the only blokes there.

“Nice scenery, lads.”

Lastly, like homing pigeons, we could not resist heading north up the Fulham Road towards Stamford Bridge and we popped into The Durell Arms for one last guzzle.

No football fans in this one either. Rugby fans. Swerve.

So, I’m not convinced that these six additions could really be classed as “Chelsea” pubs; if anything they are Fulham pubs. After walking for a while, we clambered on board a bus which deposited us right outside Fulham Town Hall. It had been a riotous laugh but it was now time to think about the imminent game.

With eight pints of lager sloshing around between my ears, I kept thinking “concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

We all made it inside with around ten minutes to spare. It was still a stunning day. Stamford Bridge was crowned with a cloudless sky. It was a perfect evening for football. Maurizio Sarri’s team selection carried no surprises. Thankfully, Antonio Rudiger’s knock at West Ham was not serious enough to stop him playing. It was the starting eleven, I think, that most people would have chosen.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

For all of our fears concerning the threat of Liverpool, based on their excellent start to the season, I gained a certain amount of solace from the fact that their midfield three consisted of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum; hardly world beaters in my book. However, it was in defence and attack where Liverpool would surely make life difficult for us. Their “fab three” of Firmino, Salah and Mane could, in theory, give our defenders a torrid time. And their defence, much-improved from previous campaigns, look more like a cohesive unit these days.

Over in the far corner were three-thousand away fans; a mixture of scallies from Scotland Road, Koppites from Kirkby, Gobshites from Guildford and half-and-half scarfers from halfway around the world. Just before the two teams entered the pitch, the away fans draped a “Justice For Grenfell” banner over the balcony wall of the Shed.

The two teams entered the pitch.

It would be the forty-fourth time that I would be watching Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.

The classic blue versus red.

Liverpool are sticking with a darker-than-usual shade of red this season. It is almost a blood red, much different than the lighter hues of recent memory.

The game began, and before we had time to catch our collective breaths, Liverpool were on the front foot and creating chances. Two fell to our former bit-part-player Mo Salah, but he must’ve put his boots on the wrong feet. First an easy shot at Kepa and then a ridiculous blast high and very wide. Next up, Mane followed the wildness with a wide effort of his own. It was certainly advantage to the visitors, as I had quietly feared, but Chelsea then started to create some chances of our own. Raiding down the left, wearing the 17 shirt, it is easy for the mind to play tricks; is that Eden Hazard from 2012, or the bustling Mateo Kovacic from 2018? Either way, both players looked lively.

On twenty-five minutes, a fine move – quick passes – saw a ball played by Kovacic out to the feet of Hazard in his trademark inside left position. My initial thoughts were this :

“That’s a pretty tough angle, he has a lot to do there.”

I need not have worried one iota. Rather than come inside and strike across the ball with his right foot, he looked up and aimed a low shot at goal with his left peg. It would be our first real shot on target. But it was enough. The ball, miraculously, sped just past the fingertips of Allison and nestled into the far corner of the Liverpool goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Arms were lifted high into the sky and a guttural roar swallowed Stamford Bridge whole.

We were 1-0 up. Over one hundred yards away, I could just make out Hazard being engulfed by his team mates, and within easy range of the away fans.

It seemed that at that exact moment in time, Eden Hazard was carrying the entire football club. Since his formidable World Cup with Belgium, and his excellent start to the season, his name has been on everyone’s lips. There have been doubts among many at Chelsea over the last few years about his true value, and ultimately his ranking among the very best, but it seems he can do no wrong in these opening games of 2018/2019.

Playmaker, provider, and now goal scorer. It seems that it is all about Eden.

It would not surprise me to see him out on the pitch with ten minutes to go before kick-off with a microphone in hand running through the teams nor after the game taking the goalposts down.

Liverpool immediately countered, and only resolute defending from the central partnership of Luiz and Rudiger stopped the visitors from equalising. We had all expressed doubts about our defence, our weakest link in so many eyes, but I was so pleased to see strength and togetherness, rigidity and power.

We had heard that Manchester City had beaten Brighton before the game, but that seemed to be an irrelevance. Everything was about Chelsea.

Into the second-half, chances were exchanged.

At The Shed End, our goalkeeper – who had not really been called upon to make a save of note – slung himself down to his right to push aside a low shot from Mane. There was thunderous applause from the home faithful.

Our chances were rare, but after a quickly taken free-kick, we were all on our feet to watch as Hazard raced clear of the high line of defenders, but we watched in agony as Allison managed to spread himself and ensure the ball hit a part of his frame before bobbling up and over his goal.

The minutes ticked by.

Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata, but I still sensed that Hazard was our only goal threat. Xherdan Shaqiri replaced the ineffectual Mo Salah for the visitors. Within minutes of coming on, he steered a good chance wide of Kepa’s goal.

Liverpool were applying constant pressure now. We were all clock-watching. We had to thank David Luiz, playing his finest game for us this season and probably since 2016/2017, as he cleared a Firmino header off the line. This was real backs to the wall stuff now.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic, his best game for us.

A Shaqiri free-kick was well saved by Kepa.

With five minutes remaining, Milner was replaced by Daniel Sturridge. I remembered his last appearance at Stamford Bridge as a hapless member of a doomed West Brom team and the almost pitiful injury which forced his early exit from the game.

The clock kept ticking.

“COME ON CHELS. KEEP GOING BOYS.”

In the eighty-ninth minute, the ball broke to Sturridge. Without so much as a single second of thought, he instinctively struck a firm and yet slightly curling laser which flew over our flailing ‘keeper and into the highest portion of the goal.

We were silenced.

Tales From Deep East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.

With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”

The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.

At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.

As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.

Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.

They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.

I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.

As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.

There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.

“No Chelsea colours.”

In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.

“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.

They probably didn’t get the email.

Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.

The team had been announced.

No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.

No complaints. Happy with that.

With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.

PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.

I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :

“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”

It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.

And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.

Ah yes, baseball games.

I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.

It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.

There it was, in broad daylight.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.

My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.

Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.

70,000 in Chicago.

A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.

No thanks.

As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.

I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.

Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?

West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.

If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.

And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.

How times change.

This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.

Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.

As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :

“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”

I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.

A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.

One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.

The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.

I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.

At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.

Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.

In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.

Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.

“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”

“You sold your soul…”

Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.

More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.

Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.

My thoughts :

West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?

Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.

“Fackinelleden.”

Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.

“Bollocks.”

The frustration rose.

An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.

As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.

“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”

Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.

“Fucksakechelsea.”

We then came on strong in the final period.

We begged for a goal.

“Fackinellcomeonchels.”

Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.

Then, the last two chances.

A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.

Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.

At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.

It finished 0-0.

This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.

What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”

That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.

On the M4, I summed up my feelings.

“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”

The lads agreed.

And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.

“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”

Just like in 2013/14.

“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”

Yep.

More questions than answers.

There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.

I will see you there.

 

Eyes On The Ball.

 

A Volleyed Cross.

 

Keeping It Alive. 

 

Working The Space. 

 

Early Ball. 

 

Signs.

 

Face Off.

 

Daisy Cutter.

 

Wide Man.

 

Bend It Like Barkley.

 

Well Wide.

 

My Ball.

Tales From Five From Five

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 15 September 2018

During the recent international break, England played matches against Spain on Saturday 8 September and against Switzerland on Tuesday 11 September. On both of those days, I did not see a single kick of the England games. Instead I chose to attend my local team Frome Town’s FA Cup matches against Winchester City, first at home – a 1-1 draw – and then the subsequent replay – a 1-2 loss – and that just about sums up my feelings about international football in the current climate. I would rather make the effort in supporting my local team, pay the money at the turnstiles, travel to games, feel connected, than gormlessly gawp at the international game in a rowdy pub full of people who would probably annoy me no end.

I feel like I am the footballing equivalent of a music lover with one of those yellow “Keep Music Live” badges on his rucksack.

To me, in 2018, football is all about the live experience.

And it always has been, ever since I was bitten by the bug – I hope there is no cure – in March 1974, at Stamford Bridge.

Or maybe even earlier still.

With help from my fellow Frome Town friend Steve, we worked out recently that my first Frome Town game was in the autumn of 1970, when I was aged just five.

Another game is worth talking about too.

In around 1971 or 1972 – I can’t be certain – my village team Mells and Vobster United won the Mid-Somerset League and I can vaguely remember watching the championship-decider on the Saturday. At school on the Monday or Tuesday, I was to learn that the team were to take part in the “Cup Final” at nearby Stoke St. Michael on a weekday evening. I can vividly remember excitedly pleading with my parents to take me to the game. My mother would undoubtedly have said, in that time honoured fashion, “wait until your father comes home”, as she prepared my tea after school. I can honestly remember saying the phrase “everyone is going to be there” – knowing full well that I was exaggerating somewhat – and then managing to persuade my father to drive the five or six miles towards the Mendip Hills to the nearby village, which was chosen as a neutral venue. There is no doubt that I would have taken my ball with me – I went everywhere with my white plastic football – and I can certainly remember the sense of pride and involvement in seeing my team at an away game. I can’t remember the opposition. But I am sure that Mells won the game, and hence “the double.” It is a memory which has remained with me for decades. It is, I am sure, where my passion of seeing live football, and supporting my team, was born.

Sadly, after a proud history of one-hundred and thirteen years, Mells and Vobster United are no more. Last season was their final tilt at glory. The news really saddened me. My grandfather played for the village team in the 1920’s, and I played a smattering of games for the reserves from 1978 to 1981. I always remember my first game, when I was only thirteen – playing against men more than twice my age – and being full of pride when I told my parents about it when I returned home. I had just shown up at “the rec” with my boots and my ball on a Saturday afternoon just intending to watch from the side-lines. The manager asked me if I fancied coming on as a “sub” during the game. I was not a very confident footballer – I would eventually slide out of the school first team and into the dreaded “B team” later that season – but I jumped at the chance. Fifty years after my grandfather represented the village, I was playing too. It was against Ashwick and Binegar. But there is no fairy-tale ending; I am sure that we lost.

At the end of May, I retraced my steps and stood for a few solitary minutes behind one of the goals at Stoke St. Michael’s football pitch, and my mind cartwheeled back to around forty-seven years earlier when my footballing journey had taken a massive step. It was the first time that I had been back since that evening with my parents – in Dad’s green Vauxhall Viva, and my football – and it was, of course, such a bittersweet moment.

This football life, eh?

Visits of Cardiff City to Stamford Bridge do not come around too frequently. This would only be the fifth time that I would be seeing “The Bluebirds” play at Stamford Bridge. And as the saying goes, you never forget your first time.

On the second day of October in 1976, a Chelsea team which included old hands Peter Bonetti, David Hay and Charlie Cooke, plus a smattering of youngsters including both Ray and Graham Wilkins met the visiting Cardiff City. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth; that position was filled by Brian Bason.  Stalwarts of that promotion-winning campaign Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi – recently assistant manager to Roy Hodgson at England –  didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. I can distinctly remember watching the action from the lower tier of the East Stand, with me peering over at the sizeable following from South Wales. I can definitely recollect punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as they attempted to get at the waiting Chelsea fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

The match highlights – of which there were more than these three minutes – appeared on that evening’s “Match of the Day” with the trainspotter-esque squeals of John Motson accompanying the action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxspfc1NzBY

Since then, our meetings have been rare. I first saw Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt on a windswept and rainy Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge in 1983. There was no TV coverage of that game, so no match action is available, although there are a few grainy images of both sets of fans running at each other outside the North Stand – once again – on the internet – from a news programme – should anyone feel the need to get nostalgic. My next Cardiff game was the notorious 2010 Cup game, when hundreds of hours of film of the various members of the Soul Crew and the CHH – or the 388 as they are now apparently known – bouncing towards each other on the Kings Road and elsewhere resulted in banning orders for many.

The 2013 league game at Stamford Bridge – the season when Vincent Tan became public enemy number one in Cardiff for his desire to kit out the team in red and black rather than blue and white – passed without incident. I am no fan of Cardiff City – why should I be? – but at least their fans have the pleasure of seeing their team in the hallowed top flight wearing the correct colours this season.

In 2018, a sunny day in September welcomed both teams, and supporters, to Stamford Bridge once more.

In the build-up to the game – drinks in the Famous Three Kings and The Goose – I had unfortunately spotted a few people wearing the new third kit. Apparently, this design is meant to pay some sort of – non-ironic – homage to the tangerine and graphite kit from 1994 to 1996.

They have done a great job.

They have referenced the worst fucking Chelsea kit ever with a messy and insipid tribute.

Up close, the images of “Landon Tahn, Fackinell” are out of focus and made my eyes hurt.

It’s bloody shocking.

But Nike have surpassed themselves this season. The even more ridiculous checked warm-up gear featuring blue, red and white squares, is truly horrific. I wonder if it was intended to confuse the opposition by making their eyes twist out of shape.

Modern Football…you know the rest.

Amidst all of these negatives, a word of praise for the match programme this season. It is now £3.50, but seems a lot more stylish. There is a spine – like the European ones of recent memory – and the covers have a certain gleam to them. The cover for the Cardiff game features a stylised photograph of Kepa Arizabalaga, with an image akin to that of a sporting poster from the former Eastern Bloc, all angles and strength.

I approve, anyway.

There was no surprise that the boyos from Cardiff, the valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan took their full three thousand. But there was just one flag; the red, white and green of Wales with the legend Llanishen Bluebirds.

Over on the East Stand, a banner – from the West Ham game in March – remembered Ray Wilkins – RIP – who would have been 62 on Friday. A nice touch.

Maurizio Sarri made the slightest of changes to the team that had defeated Bournemouth; in came Olivier Giroud for Alvaro Morata and Pedro replaced Willian.

Yet more nonsensical flames and fireworks went with the entrance of the teams.

Good fucking grief.

The game began, and the Welsh legions were in good voice. Thankfully, we did not have to wait too long for the home support to get going, even though the noise was hardly stratospheric. We dominated the early moments, and Cardiff were happy to sit back and soak it all up. A Giroud header dropped onto the roof of the net. We kept moving the ball, with much of the play coming down both flanks. For two defenders, both Alonso and Azpilicueta certainly found themselves in high areas on many occasions. Another chance came and it was an Alonso cross which was headed wide by that man Giroud.

A leaping Bamba wasted a good chance from close in, misdirecting a header down rather than on target. Sadly, we did not heed this warning sign. A long cross from a free-kick found Morrison who easily out-jumped the back-peddling Alonso, who was the wrong side of his man. The ball was headed into the six-yard box, and the Chelsea defenders looked startled as the ball dropped. The tall Bamba pounced, nipping in to cause havoc amidst our defence. We looked as ill-equipped to counter the threat of high balls into our box as Amish kids at a gaming show.

The net rippled and the Welsh legions roared.

Bollocks.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers” sang the Cardiff City supporters.

Alan noted, and I agreed, that the shock of a goal conceded woke up both players and supporters alike. There was now a real sense of urgency from both.

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

The stadium woke up.

We struck at Cardiff’s goal via Hazard and Kovacic. Our play improved. When needed, N’Golo Kante would shine. In exact copy of what happened against Bournemouth, he chased an attacker down from his usual right-midfield berth to a position just in front of the left-back Alonso. He accomplished it with such a minimum of effort that it had me purring.

What a player.

A curling effort from Pedro went close. Our chances were piling up. Pedro again, at his best, twisting and turning, leaving defenders in his wake.

My friend Rick, in Iowa, has a great nickname for Pedro.

“El colibri.”

The hummingbird.

It is a perfect description.

Yet another effort from Pedro.

Surely a goal would come.

Twenty minutes after the Cardiff goal, we watched a beautiful move develop. A Rudiger pass was left by Hazard so that Giroud could collect. A divine touch from the centre-forward played in Hazard. A delicious feint – “see you later, a bientot” – gave him space to move away from a marker.

As he broke on goal, my mind leaped into gear.

“Come on Eden. You are a fantastic player. But you are not a great goal scorer. To move on, to improve, to become an even better player, you need to get more goals. Come on. Score this.”

He drilled a low drive into the goal, as perfect a finish as there could ever be.

Chelsea were back in the game.

Just before half-time, we worked an opening down their right, and a subtle touch again by Giroud allowed Hazard to poke a ball home, albeit off a luckless Cardiff defender.

We were in front.

“YYYYYEEEEESSSSS.”

Tidy.

As the second-half began, with Chelsea attacking our end at the Matthew Harding, I fully expected more chances and more goals. After just five minutes, Mateo Kovacic – injured – was replaced by Ross Barkley, who immediately looked keen and involved.

After the constant activity in the last moments of the first-half, the second half took a while to warm up.

Cardiff rarely threatened our goal. But for all of our possession, we struggled to get behind their defence. As the game wore on, I kept thinking “2-1 is not enough.”

We needed that elusive third goal.

David Luiz, on more than one occasion, looked rather lackadaisical. How much better a player would he be with John Terry alongside him?

Pedro created some space and curled one wide. Then another from Pedro squirmed wide.

With twenty minutes remaining, Peds was replaced by Willian, and there was a hearty show of support for our little Spaniard.

The clock-ticked on.

A low shot from Reid narrowly missed the framework of our goal.

We again found it hard to create anything of any substance. Our chances all seemed to come in that first-half. We still bloody needed that third goal.

With ten minutes remaining, Willian charged into the box, but was scythed down by Bamba. A penalty was an easy decision for the referee to make.

Jorginho handed the ball to Eden.

Eden gave the Cardiff ‘keeper the eyes and planted the ball in the corner.

A hat-trick for Hazard.

Glorious.

A minute later, Willian created some space for himself and – despite a bobbling ball – crashed a fantastic curling effort past the hapless ‘keeper and into the goal.

His run towards us was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

There was even an impromptu Brazilian dance-off twixt Willian and Luiz, all under the disbelieving gaze of Rudiger.

Late on, there was a fine full length save from Arizabalaga, but in truth the young lad had not really been troubled during the second-half.

There was more raucous applause as Davide Zappacosta replaced Eden Hazard, who had undoubtedly been the star of the show. His dribbles have always made us dribble, but on this occasion, his goals had been a very welcome addition to his armory.

So, another 4-1 win for Chelsea at home to Cardiff City; the same result as in 2010 and in 2013. They must be sick of us.

With Liverpool winning at Spurs 2-1, we needed that extra goal to prise our way onto the top of the pile.

Perfect.

I looked back on the game. The visitors were a poor team, but we had to persevere to get past them. Five wins out of five is a very fine start to the season, but I am not getting carried away at all with any of it. We still look frail defensively, while we honestly have not been tested by any of the tougher teams yet. I will reserve judgement for a few more matches.

No trip to Greece for me this upcoming week; stay safe those of you who are making the pilgrimage.

Next up for me is our away fixture in Deepest East.

See you there.

 

Tales From Flags, Flames And Four Out Of Four

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 1 September 2018.

Unlike the last home game against Arsenal, I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare. It was a sunny and warm afternoon in London. The team had been announced earlier with just the one change since the match at Newcastle United the previous weekend; Willian was in for Pedro. As I had commented last time, there is little to choose between the two.

In the wraparound of the MHU, I said “hello” to a few good friends and waited for the entrance of the teams. I was pleasantly surprised that Bournemouth had almost brought a full three thousand supporters. It helped make sure of another near capacity gate at Stamford Bridge. There was a wide “no man’s land” between the home and away sections of the Shed Upper, but all other areas were full. Bournemouth were maybe just three-hundred shy of the full allocation. With a capacity at the Vitality Stadium – it will always be Dean Court to me – of just 11,000, but with a large catchment area on which to draw, it is difficult to judge the size of the former Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic Football Club’s current support. But 2,700 away fans from a home gate of 9,000 supporters is a good return in my book.

It had been my turn to drive to London. This was my first drive to Stamford Bridge for a weekend game since the West Ham match in early April, almost five months ago. And it seemed like it. On the approach in to West London, high on the M4, I drove past Griffin Park, where Brentford would soon be playing former European Champions Nottingham Forest in a second tier game. A few hundred yards further on, we spotted their new stadium taking shape with the steel of the main stand now standing firm. Fair play to Brentford for keeping within a goalkeeper’s kick of their current home. I’m just glad I managed to visit Griffin Park with Chelsea five years ago. It would be lovely to see them in the top flight at some stage in the near future.

The pre-match had been very pleasant. First up, a two-hour stay in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, with all the usual suspects. A few of the boys who went on out little pre-match pub crawl against Arsenal, when told of a similar plan against Liverpool, expressed a little concern.

“Blimey. I didn’t remember too much about that Arsenal game.”

“That’s the problem when you drink out of wet glasses.”

Glenn and I moved on to Earl’s Court and popped into a new pub for us, “The King’s Head”, which is tucked away in a quiet side-street behind Earl’s Court Road. In our quest to have a pre-match drink-up in every single pub within a three-mile radius of Stamford Bridge, we are crossing them all off at a fair rate of knots these days. We met up with our friend Russ, who we first met over in Perth in the summer. He was over for a fortnight – he is originally from Wokingham – and it was a pleasure to see him again. He runs the Melbourne Supporters Group and we spoke about the inherent problems in rewarding someone who travels 12,000 miles to see a game via the loyalty points scheme. It is always a toughie. There is no easy answer.

Russ was with a chap who lives, wait for it, in the Melbourne district of Chelsea, home to the Victoria League Division Three team which used to feature in the football pools coupons during the summers of my youth in the ‘seventies, and for whom every Chelsea fan in England used to support, even though they were consistently rubbish. I used to love pouring over those team names though; Chelsea, Dandenong, Geelong, Fitzroy. The memories came flooding back. Starved of football during those long hot summer of my childhood, I would consistently hunt out Chelsea’s latest result in Australia. When my Australian relatives visited in 1980, I was quite stunned when they saw some of the teams’ names – from the Brisbane area – and informed me that they were basically of Sunday League standard. You have to wonder why anyone would bet on such low grade football half a world away. The ‘seventies were odd times.

We also met up with Chelsea fans Jason – from Derbyshire – and Pam – from Staffordshire.

It is always a fine boast that Chelsea supporters from London and the Home Counties always welcome with open arms supporters from other parts of England and the United Kingdom. Speaking as someone from Somerset, I know this to be true. Londoners would often take the piss out of my accent but never my support.

…it is only to the supporters from further afield that some take an irksome view.

“Discuss.”

There was talk of the Europa Cup draw which kept us all occupied on Friday afternoon and evening. I am going to just one of the three away games, against Vidi – the former Videoton – whose game against us will be played at Ferencvaros’ stadium in Budapest. Of all the football cities in Europe that I have not yet visited, the three “Bs” (Berlin, Bilbao and Budapest) are probably top of my list. In December, I will at last be visiting the home of Honved, Ferencvaros, Ujpest Dozsa, MTK, Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and all those magical Magyars of old. It promises to be a fine trip. Time, eventually, I think to buy myself a retro Chelsea scarf from 1972. In the first pub, as if to pay homage to that era – and our trip to Hungary – Daryl had sported a bloody gorgeous Sergio Tachhini polo shirt sporting the three colours.

In front of the East Stand, large flags denoting the eleven starters were being waved frantically by a few of Chelsea’s ground staff. They then reassembled at both ends of the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, flames erupted into the sky from along the East Stand touchline.

The flags I could just about stomach. But flames for Bournemouth? Good grief.

I longed for the days when the Stamford Bridge crowd could be relied upon, without any fuss, to generate enough atmosphere of our own.

Returnees Asmir Begovic, in fluorescent yellow and orange, and Nathan Ake were in the Bournemouth team.

Both teams were unbeaten.

We had watched parts of the Liverpool game at Leicester on TV in the pub at West Ken. A win there for the Mickey Mousers had out them on top with four wins out of four. In the build-up to the game, I had conjectured that we could possibly win against Bournemouth, against Cardiff City, and maybe even at West Ham. We could go into the game at home to Liverpool with six wins out of six, but I worried that Liverpool would be the real test. What a game that promises to be.

The game began.

Without much chance of being accused of over-exaggeration, it was all Chelsea in the first period of the first-half.

Everything was eerily similar to the game at St. James’ Park last Sunday. We dominated possession, and our opposition defended deeply but resolutely. I was really impressed with the away team to be truthful. Eddie Howe is a fine manager, and they are lucky to have him.

Down in Australia, I wondered if my cousin Paul would be conflicted. Chelsea is his team – I am the one to thank for that, see a previous tale – but he was born in Bournemouth and so does admit to keeping a keen eye on their results. I promised myself that I would not send him a Chelsea / AFCB half-and-half scarf. But you knew that.

Morata looked livelier than normal in the opening few salvoes, and a few nice moves were generated, but from an early stage, we knew that Bournemouth were well marshalled. A loose touch by David Luiz, sadly typical, was gobbled up by the lively Callum Wilson, who pushed the ball to Ryan Fraser. Annoyingly, Luiz had another chance to redeem himself, but chose not to tackle, but thankfully N’Golo Kante was on hand to chase the attack away.

A lovely deep pass from Luiz made up for his earlier aberration. Jorginho struck a shot wide.

In the first five, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty minutes of the game, the 2,700 away fans were the only ones making any noise.

Last week, I berated the Geordies for their support as being timid, lukewarm and insipid.

Now it was our turn.

As the kids say : “Hold my beer.”

Not a peep could be heard from the 37,000 Chelsea supporters. And I looked around at the faces in the stadium. Surely not everyone was a tourist, that most lampooned – at best – and disliked – at worst – of all Chelsea supporters in 2018.

“Is this a library?” sang the Bournemouth fans.

“Is this the Emirates?”

There was no retort.

Out sung by Bournemouth.

The cherries were on top.

Fucking hell.

I guess we have been spoiled, right?

When I was a child, before I went to school, and maybe for a few years after, I sometimes used to accompany my father on one specific little journey. My Dad was a shopkeeper – menswear – in our local town of Frome and there used to be half-day closing every Thursday. I used to love Thursdays – I feel the same way to this day, “one day to go to the weekend” – as it meant I would be able to spend time with Dad during the daytime. On occasion, he would announce to me “right, I’m off on my rounds, do you want to come?”

I would always say “yes.”

His “rounds” were visits by car to one or two outlying customers who could not always visit his shop in town. I remember Mrs. Doel in Maiden Bradley was a regular. After lunch, just Dad and I would head off through Frome to visit her in her little village a few miles to the south of Frome. I seem to recall that she might often reward me with a couple of sweets or a bar of chocolate. I would stick my plastic steering wheel with its suction cup on to the dashboard and we would set off. The highlight for me, every time, was the return journey when, on a relatively long and straight section of road, I would urge my father to “do fifty.”

This meant for my usually conservative and safe father – I suppose in those days, he would only hit forty miles per hour to save on fuel – to put his foot on the accelerator and aim for the heady speed of fifty miles per hour. With me used to my father driving at thirty through towns and villages, please believe me when I say that for a five or six-year-old boy to be driven at fifty miles an hour seemed simply exhilarating and almost supersonic. I know my father got a buzz out of it too.

These days, damn it, I drive at fifty miles an hour as a norm.

It feels mundane. It feels slow. There is no thrill.

All things are relative in this world.

In 1971, 50 mph was the most exciting feeling ever.

In 2018, 50 mph seems simply mundane.

I think that, at Chelsea, we need to get back to 1971.

On twenty-three minutes – I was keeping count – the Chelsea support at last responded with a song which was audible and sustained.

Twenty-three fucking minutes.

Every year I say it, but for 90% of our home games, the atmosphere gets worse and worse with each passing campaign. In some ways, though, modern football does not help. Decades ago when the shape and pattern, its physicality, of football was so different, the crowd were more likely to be on edge, involved, and more likely to feel that a song of support would help.

In 2018, much of our football involves watching Chelsea maintain the ball for long periods, and working out how our players can break through a packed defence. Although it is technically superior to the cut and thrust of the ‘seventies, ‘eighties and even ‘nineties, it helps to produce a different type of spectator. There are few crunching midfield tackles – a bona fide noise generator in days of old – and there are few surprise breaks, with a rise in noise at each touch. We watch players pass, pass, pass, we watch players close down space and shuffle positions, all within a thirty-yard band across the pitch. We sit on our hands and discuss tactics. We clap occasionally.

Regardless of the changing demographics in which many are turned off by some of the financial absurdities of football, the dying out of football as a working man’s game, the lack of youngsters going to football and the changing codes of behaviour in society, the patterns of modern football itself are not always conducive to the noise of old.

Anyway, suffice to say, until the twenty-third minute, the atmosphere at the Chelsea vs. Bournemouth game on the first day of September 2018 was the worst I had ever known.

On the half-hour, despite our dominance, a rapid Bournemouth break – cheered on by the away fans, see what I mean? – almost resulted in a goal against the run of play when a Rico cross was touched over by Wilson.

“Should be one down” I muttered.

At the other end, Morata and Kovacic had half-chances. In the closing moments, a fine run by Kante resulted in a cross from Hazard being met by the right foot of Alonso. His shot struck the post.

For all of our possession, it had been a little frustrating, but was my frustration a result of the morgue-like atmosphere in the stadium?

We had enjoyed tons of possession for sure, more than even we are used to, but I noted at times a lack of movement from the forwards, and even though Jorginho must have touched the ball every few seconds, I could not honestly remember him playing a killer ball. If anything, the two most incisive passes came from the defenders Rudiger and Luiz. Hazard and Willian had been involved but had – wonderful football phrase coming up – “flattered to deceive.” Alvaro Morata had not shone. And I am still not sure about us letting Kante roam. I am not convinced we will get the best out of him in a box-to-box role. But Jorginho is Maurizio Sarri’s man. He will choose him constantly I suspect.

Oh, by the way, Sarri in an ill-fitting Nike T-shirt must be the exception that proves the rule that all Italian men have an inherent sense of style that the World envies.

The second-half began with clear blue skies overhead still. It was a perfect afternoon in SW6.

After some majestic fleet-footed wizardry from Hazard in front of us, Alonso belted a strong shot from just outside the box, but former blue Begovic saved. Alonso was having a fine game, more involved offensively than Azpilicueta on the other flank. I don’t think that Marcos has been paying attention to the new system. He thinks he is still a marauding wing-back.

Incredibly, a Bournemouth corner fell at the feet of Nathan Ake but he somehow managed to push it over the bar.

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

Despite his early promise, and a few quarter-chances, it had been quite painful to watch Morata flounder in the second-half. His aerial challenges were not worthy of the name. He was replaced on the hour by the more physical Olivier Giroud. He immediately looked the business, his whole body language – “aggression” for the want of a better word – impressed. When he went up for a ball, it at least looked like he wanted to win the header.

Soon after, Pedro replaced Willian.

We noted an upturn in our fortunes. More pace. More direct. And, damn it, a little more noise too.

Mateo Kovacic was fighting hard to make his presence felt. He engineered a couple of efforts.

With twenty minutes remaining, Alonso played the ball inside to Pedro, who neatly made space to play a one-two with Giroud. The big Frenchman moved the ball back superbly into the path of Pedro, who took a further touch to edge into space past Ake. His low shot hit the corner perfectly. The roar went up and Pedro raced away to the far corner before carrying out a Crystal Palace North Stand 1976 Kung Fu kick at the corner flag.

Chelsea 1 Bournemouth 0.

Phew.

“He can certainly find the corners, Pedro. He is more of a goal threat than Willian.”

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic with just over ten minutes remaining. His big season this, I wish him well.

Another shot from Pedro. Saved.

With around five minutes to go, Alonso – involved again – slipped the ball into the path of Hazard, who easily slipped past challenges to drill the ball low past Begovic.

His little jump and fist pump, then smile with arms outspread, was a joy to watch. The players joined in with the celebration down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. I love to see everyone together.

Team Chelsea.

Antonio Rudiger joined in with the celebrations, but seemed to flick Eden’s ear, and Eden – far from playfully – struck back. Dave was able to be on hand to keep them apart. It was an odd moment. I’m sure it amounted to nothing.

We walked out into the warm evening with “Blue Is The Colour” ringing in our ears.

I liked the way that the substitutions seemed to open things up after the hour. I liked the way we kept going. I loved seeing Eden on form. Pedro was introduced just at the right time. It was, in the end, an impressive win.

So, Chelsea.

Four out of four.

Bloody hell.

On we go.

Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.

 

 

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.