Tales From Stamford Bridge To Wembley

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 May 2022.

I am sure that I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who wasn’t a little fearful going into the 2022 FA Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley. On the early morning drive into London – I collected PD as early as 6am – the feeling was of worry and impending doom. As has been proven by the league table – “the league table does not lie, it just sits down occasionally” – we are a fair distance behind both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, as we were last season and the season before it. Additionally, a defeat at the hands of the Scousers would mean a record-breaking third consecutive FA Cup Final loss. And that thought was just horrible too.

But, bollocks to all that, we were off to Wembley again and we kept ourselves contented with the usual badinage of wisecracks as I ate up the miles. I was hopeful that one of the great FA Cup Final weekends was upon us. We all live in hope, right?

But first, a walk down memory lane.

1972.

The first FA Cup final that I can ever remember watching took place in 1972. It was between Arsenal and Leeds United. My best friend Andy was an Arsenal fan, though I can’t honestly remember wanting them to win. I was a neutral. I can still remember a few bits about the day. I was six, coming up to seven, and already a mad-keen Chelsea supporter. I remember that it was the centenary of the first competition that took place in 1872, though of course not the actual one-hundredth final due to the wartime interruptions. I remember representatives of all of the previous winners parading around the perimeter of the old Wembley pitch with flags. I was proud to see the Chelsea flag. Leading up to the final, Esso were running a promotion celebrating the game. Collectible coins – to go in an album – were rewarded for petrol purchases. Suffice to say, I must have pleaded with my father to only fuel up at Esso for a few weeks. I still have the album, completed, to this day.

I remember Allan Clarke, from around the penalty spot, scoring with a diving header and David Coleman exploding “one-nil” as if the game was over at that exact moment. I can recall Mick Jones dislocating his shoulder as he fell awkwardly attempting a cross and hobbling up the steps to the royal box, bandaged like a mummy. Fifty years ago. Bloody hell. Looking back, this is the very first club game I can remember seeing live, though I am pretty sure the England vs. West Germany game just one week before it is the first full game I saw live on TV. Or at least the first I can remember seeing.

I think.

1973.

The FA Cup Final was huge in those days. It was the only club game shown live on TV – both channels – and would remain that way until 1983 apart from rare one-offs. On a trip to London in the autumn of 1973 we called in to see Uncle Willie, my grandfather’s brother, at either his house in Southall or at a nursing home at Park Royal (where my father would park for my first Chelsea game in 1974, but that is – and has been – another story.) After the visit, my father granted my wish to drive up to see Wembley Stadium. That I had not asked to see Stamford Bridge is surprising from fifty years away, but I am sure that my father would have been intimidated by the thought of traffic in those more central areas.

Wembley it was.

I can vividly remember sitting in his car as we wended our way up to Wembley. On that fateful cab trip to Wembley for the “aborted” FA Cup semi-final recently, I half-recognised the journey. I have always had a heightened sense of place and a recollection and memory of places visited in other times.

I remember Dad parking off Olympic Way and me setting eyes on the magnificence of the historic stadium. It sat on top of an incline, and the twin towers immediately brought a lump to the throat of the eight-year-old me. I remember walking up to the stadium, the steps rising to the arched entrances, the dirty-cream colour of the walls, the grass embankments. I veered left and possibly tried to peer down the tunnel at the East End, an end that would become known as the “lucky tunnel end” for FA Cup Finals over the next few decades. The stadium was huge. However, it needed a bit of a clean-up. It looked a bit grimy. But I loved the way it dominated that particular part of North London. The visit has stayed etched in my mind ever since even though I was only there for maybe twenty minutes.

“Come on Chris, we need to head home.”

I can almost picture my father’s worried look on his face, chivvying me on.

1997.

Our appearance in the 2022 FA Cup Final provided a perfect time to recollect our appearance in the much-loved 1997 FA Cup Final; the quarter of a century anniversary.

Here are my recollections.

The 1996/97 season was a beautiful one, but also a sad one. The death of Matthew Harding in October 1996 hit all of us hard, and the immediate aftermath was tough on us all. Remarkably, our spirits rose not so long after Matthew’s tragic death when we signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma. It felt like, in the same way that getting Mickey Thomas in 1984 completed that wonderful team, the signing of the Italian magician helped complete the team being assembled by Ruud Gullit.

The FA Cup run was the stuff of legends. I went to most games.

West Brom at home : an easy win, 3-0.

Liverpool at home : the greatest of games, losing 0-2 at half-time, we turned it round to triumph 4-2.

Leicester City away : a 2-2 draw, I watched on TV.

Leicester City at home : Erland Johnsen’s finest moment and a Frank Leboeuf penalty gave us a 1-0 win in extra-time.

Pompey away : a 4-0 win in the mist, I watched on TV.

Wimbledon at Highbury : 3-0, a breeze, Zola’s twist to score in front of us in the North Bank.

On the Thursday before the Cup Final itself, we watched Suggs perform “Blue Day” on “TOTP” and the pleasure it gave us all is unquantifiable. Everything was well in the world, or in my world anyway. In the January of 1997, I was given a managerial job in my place of employment, a bit more dosh to follow the boys over land and sea, and maybe even Leicester next time.

On the Saturday of the final, a beautiful sun-filled morning, Glenn drove to London with two passengers; our friend Russel, eighteen, about to sit his “A Levels”, and little old me. I was thirty-one with no silverware to show for years and years of devotion to the cause. We parked-up at Al’s flat in Crystal Palace, caught the train at the local station, changed at Beckenham Junction and made our way to “The Globe” at Baker Street via London Bridge. We bumped into a few familiar faces from our part of the world – can you spot PD? – and enjoyed a sing-song before heading up to Wembley Park.

Funny the things I remember.

Lots and lots of singing on the way to Wembley. We felt unbeatable, truly. Ben Shermans for Daryl and myself. Lots of Chelsea colours elsewhere. I had just bought a pair of Nike trainers and I had not worn the bastards in. They pinched my feet all day long. We posed for my “VPN” banner underneath the twin towers. However, I tried to hoist it once inside, using small sticks, but was immediately told to hand it all in at a “left luggage” section in the concourse. Our seats were low-down, corner flag. Unfortunately, I had a killer headache all bloody game.

The Roberto di Matteo goal after just forty-three seconds was insane. Limbs were flailing everywhere. Oh my fucking head.

The dismal 1994 FA Cup Final was recollected, briefly. For that game, we only had about 17,000 tickets and it seemed that all neutral areas were United. In 1997, all the neutral tickets seemed to be hoovered up by us. Not sure how that worked to this day. I remember virtually nothing about the game except for Eddie Newton’s prod home at our end to make it safe at 2-0.

When Wisey lifted the famous silver pot, twenty-six years of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting were evaporated.

It was always going to be “Matthew’s Cup” and so it proved. At the time, it was the best day of my life. Since, I have had two better ones; Bolton in 2005 and then Munich in 2012. But for anyone that was supporting the club on Saturday 17 May 1997, it was a feeling that was pretty indescribable.

So I won’t even try. Just look at the fucking pictures.

After the game, I remembered to collect my banner but I don’t remember how we reached Fulham Broadway. It seemed that all of the bars around the stadium had closed. We weren’t sure if this was because there was no beer left or if the police had said “enough.” One image stays in my mind. The Fulham Road was still closed for traffic and a sofa was sat in the middle of the road. Thankfully, we de-camped to our pub of choice that season, The Harwood Arms, and Pat and his three “Sisters of Murphy” let us in.

If there is a more blissful photo of Chelsea fans from that day – Neil, me, Daryl, Alan, Glenn outside the pub – then I would like to see it. We made it back to South London via Earls Court and God knows where else. We watched the game, taped, when we reached Alan’s flat late that night. We fell asleep happy.

On the Sunday morning, the big man made us breakfasts. We all hopped into Glenn’s car and made our way back to Fulham with “Blue Day” playing on a loop the entire day. Both Alan and I took our camcorders for the parade. The film I have of us driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, Chelsea bunting everywhere, is a wonderful memory of another time, another place, lost in time.

We plotted up outside the old tube station. The double-decker with Chelsea players stopped right in front of us. Photographs. Film. Everyone so happy. Fans wedged on shop roofs. Almost hysteria. Chelsea shirts everywhere. A wonderful weekend.

2022.

I made good time heading East. The roads were clear. As I was lifted over the Chiswick flyover, we all spotted the Wembley Arch a few miles to the north. Maybe it thrills the current generation in the same way the Twin Towers used to thrill others…

In the pub against Wolves, some friends from the US – step forward Chad, Josh and Danny – said we could kip in their AirB’n’B for the Saturday night. The plan was, originally, for me to drive up and back and therefore be unable to partake in a few bevvies. This kind offer solved that problem. But this wasn’t just any AirB’n’B…this was a little studio flat right underneath the old Shed Wall at Stamford Bridge.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.

But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.

Sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, mushrooms, two rounds of toast and a mug of Rosie Lea.

I looked over at PD.

“I say this so often. Hope this ain’t the high spot of the fucking day.”

We weren’t sure.

I drove to Baron’s Court, parked up, then we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We soon bumped into the Minnesota Triplets. We left our bags in the apartment and set off. The Americans were waiting, nervously, for their tickets to arrive via royal mail post.

Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”

I had planned a little pub-crawl that mirrored the one in 2018 that we had enjoyed before our win against Manchester United. We made our way to London Bridge. “The Mudlark” next to Southwark Cathedral was closed, so at just after 11am we made our way to one of London’s glorious pubs “The Old Thameside Inn” where we met up with Russ from Melbourne, the Kent boys, Steve from Salisbury, Dan from Devon and the three Americans. The weather was red hot. There were the usual laughs. After an hour or so, we sought shade in “The Anchor At Bankside”, another riverside favourite.

Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.

But we were still all loathe to talk about the game.

Thankfully, I had seen very few Liverpool supporters at this point; just one in fact.

At around 2.15pm, we set off for Wembley. A Jubilee Line train from London Bridge took us straight up to Wembley Park, a repeat of 1997.

I lost PD and Parky, and walked with Steve up towards Wembley for a while. Whether it was because of the abhorrent abundance of half-and-half scarves being worn by many, or the fact that the famous vista of Wembley from distance is no longer as spine-chilling as in decades gone by, or just…well, “modern football”; I was having a bit of a downer to be honest.

Wembley is now absolutely hemmed in by flats, hotels, restaurants. There is no sense of place about the new gaff at all.

After my issues with getting in against Palace, this one was easy. No searches, straight in. I took the elevators up to the fifth level, with no bloody Scouser sliding in behind me like at the League Cup Final.

We were in ridiculously early, at about 3.30pm or so.

I was so pleased to Les from nearby Melksham. He had ‘phoned us, distraught, at 6.30am and asked us to keep an eye out for a spare. His ticket had gone ten rounds with his Hotpoint washing machine the previous evening and was much the worse for wear. Thankfully, he kept the stub – there’s a stub? – and Wembley were able to reprint it.

As the seats filled up around us, a surprising number of friends were spotted close by.

The two Bobs, Rachel and Rob, Kev, Rob Chelsea, Dave and Colin.

I was, in fact, in a Wembley section that was new to me; the north-east corner of the top tier. This would be my twenty-fourth visit to Wembley with Chelsea apart from the Tottenham away games. Of the previous twenty-three, I had only been seated in the lower deck on five occasions. And the East/West split has provided vastly differing fortunes.

The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3

The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5

So much for the lucky “tunnel” end. The West End at new Wembley was clearly our luckier-end.

Pah.

The seats – the ones in our end, or at least the ones in the lower tier, would be baking, with no respite from the sun – took ages to fill up. It annoyed the fuck out of me that every spare foot of balcony wall in the Liverpool end was festooned with red flags and banners. Our end was sparsely populated.

Chelsea tend to go for geographical locations on our flags honouring fan groups in various parts of the UK and beyond.  Liverpool tend to go with white text on red honouring players and managers. Obviously, you never see St. George flags at Anfield, nor at Old Trafford for that matter.

The kick-off approached.

With about half an hour to go, we were introduced to a spell of deafening dance music from DJ Pete Tong, who was visible on the giant TV screens, seemingly having a whale of a time. The noise boomed around Wembley. This annoyed me. Rather than let fans generate our own atmosphere in that final build-up to the game, we were forced to listen to music that wasn’t football specific, nor relevant to anything.

It was utter shite.

“Pete Tong” infact.

With minutes to go, the Liverpool end was packed while our end had many pockets of empty red seats. Surely not the biggest ignominy of all? Surely we would sell all our Cup Final tickets? I had a worried few minutes.

The pre-match, the final moments, got under way.

The pitch was covered in a massive red carpet. Ugh. More bloody red.

I joined in with “Abide With Me” though many didn’t.

“In life. In death. Oh Lord. Abide with me.”

The only surprise was that said DJ didn’t mix it with a Balearic Anthem from the ‘eighties.

With the teams on the pitch, and Chelsea in all yellow – why? – it was now time for the national anthem. Again, I sang heartily along to this even though I am no fervent royalist. I wanted to be respectful and to add to the occasion.

With my awful voice booming out, I did not hear the Liverpool end booing it. But I was soon reliably informed by many that they were.

There was a time in the ‘seventies, at the height of the era of football fans revelling in being anti-social, that supporters often sang club songs over “God Save The Queen” but no team actually booed the national anthem at Cup Finals.

Liverpool seem to love doing it. It’s their “thing.” And while I can understand that some sections of the United Kingdom feel unloved and disenfranchised, it is this feeling among Liverpool Football Club supporters of them being “special cases” that grates with me and many. Do supporters of clubs from other currently and previously impoverished cities throughout England take such great pleasure in such “anti-Royal / anti-establishment” behaviour?

Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.

Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.

As Tracey Thorn once sang “narrow streets breed narrow minds” and there must be some awfully narrow streets around Anfield.

There were flames as the pre-match nonsense continued. It meant the opening minutes of the game was watched through a haze.

Those seats were still empty in our end.

FUCK.

We lined up as below :

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic

A big game for Trevoh. A big game for Christian. A massive game for Romelu. Happy to see Mateo starting after his gruesome injury at Leeds United.

Liverpool began very brightly, attacking us in the east, and at the end of the first ten minutes I was supremely grateful that they were not one, or more, in front. They peppered our goal. We were chasing shadows and other clichés. However, Chalobah did well to recover and thump a goal-bound shot from Luis Diaz away from inside the six-yard box after Edouard Mandy had initially blocked the shot. A rebound was flashed wide. At the end of this opening flurry, I counted five decent attacks from the men in red.

We were hanging on.

Thankfully, ten minutes later, all of our seats were now occupied.

That temptation of “one last pint” at Marylebone is always a tough one.

I have often thought that our current team lacks a little personality, undoubtedly compared to certain teams that we have known and loved over the years. It often feels the current crop are missing charisma – even Quaresma would be half-way there – and I really wanted the team to show some mettle and get back into this game. The Liverpool fans were by far the loudest in the opening quarter and I wanted us, the fans, to show some charisma too.

We improved, both on and off the pitch.

A decent move down the right, probably the best of the match thus far, involving James and Mount set up Pulisic but his delicate shot rolled just wide of the far post. Next up, Pulisic set up Alonso but Alisson blocked after a heavy first touch from our raiding wing-back,

Chelsea were now much louder while Liverpool had quietened down considerably. It became a cagier game in the last part of the first-half, but I thought it a good game. This is however based on the fact that we weren’t getting pummelled, that we were in it.

My worst, worst, nightmare was for us to lose…pick a number…3-0? 4-0? 5-0?

But this was fine. Silva was looking as dominant as ever. With him in the team, we had a chance right?

More of the same please, Chelsea.

Into the second-half, we blitzed Liverpool in the opening few minutes, mirroring what had had happened in the first-half, though with roles reversed.

A smart move allowed Alonso, always a threat to opposing teams in the opposition box, but so often a threat to us in our own box, drilled one wide. Pulisic then wriggled and weaved but Alisson again foiled him. The scorer against Arsenal in 2020 – a game I often forget about for obvious reasons – was getting into good positions but needed to find the corners.

The third of three decent chances in the first five minutes of the second-half came from a free-kick from a tight angle, with Alonso slamming a direct hit against the crossbar.

“Fucksakechels.”

The wing-backs were often the focal points, and we were finding space in wide areas. This was good stuff.

Diaz screwed one just wide.

“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.

A young lad standing behind me initiated a loud “Zigger Zagger”; good work, mate.

We were in this game. All along, I had toyed with the Football Gods by silently wishing for a penalty shoot-out win as revenge for this season’s League Cup Final defeat.

The game continued, but we couldn’t quite keep the attacks going. There were only half-chances. But I still thought it a decent tight game.

On sixty-six minutes, N’Golo Kante replaced Kovacic.

Diaz, again a threat, bent one wide of the far post.

A few players were looking tired now, as was I. My feet were killing me. With less than ten minutes to go, Diaz cut in on our left and slammed a shot against Mendy’s near post.

A largely ineffectual Lukaku was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to go.

A deep cross from the horrible Milner, on as a substitute, evaded everyone and David Robertson hot the back post. Another curler from Diaz always looked like going wide. It is so weird that even from one-hundred yards away, the trajectory of shots can be surmised.

I guess I watch a lot of live games, eh?

The referee blew up for full-time.

My wish for penalties – down our end please – looked a strong possibility.

The red end sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the first-period of extra-time and we prepared for an extra thirty-minutes of terror.

Football, eh?

More tired bodies on the pitch and up in The Gods. The two periods of fifteen minutes were not of high quality. Were both teams hanging on for penalties? Were we all?

We went close from a cross on the right but a Liverpool defender hacked it away before Pulisic could make contact. I loved how Kante chased down a Liverpool attack out on their right. What a player.

I painfully watched as Alonso just didn’t have the legs, try as he might, to match the pace of his marker as a ball was pushed past him.

Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.

The players were now dead on their feet and so was I.

Then, a bizarre substitution in the last minute of the game.

Ross Barkley for Ruben.

I think that I last saw him at Bournemouth, pre-season.

The referee blew up.

Another 0-0.

I got my penalties, and – thankfully – at our end too. I hoped that Liverpool would lose in the most tragic way possible.

Alas, alas…

We began OK with Alonso striking home. Then Thiago scored. Dave hit the post and our world caved in. I was dumbstruck as I saw more than a few Chelsea fans walk out. Wankers. We then exchanged goals – James, Barkley, Jorginho – with Liverpool but with their last kick, Sadio Mane’s strike was saved low by Mendy.

Hugs with the stranger next to me.

He beamed : “That’s for those that walked out.”

Sudden-death now.

Ziyech : in.

Jota : in.

Mount : saved.

Tsimikas : in.

We were silent. The Liverpool end roared. Red flares cascaded down onto the pitch. We trudged silently out, up to Wembley Park, a horrendous wait in a warm train, oh my bloody feet, and back – trying to rely on gallows humour to get us through – eventually to Earl’s Court for a few drinks and some food. It was our year in 1997 but not in 2022.

Nor 2021.

Nor 2020.

Three FA Cup Final defeats in a row. We have now played in sixteen of them, winning eight and losing eight. After our dominance from 2007 to 2012 – four wins – we need our fucking lucky West end back.

The three of us eventually got back to Fulham Broadway at about 10.30pm and met up with Josh, Chad and Danny.

From Wembley to Stamford Bridge, the return journey over, we fell asleep under The Shed Wall.

1997

2022

Tales From Under A Blue And Yellow Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 February 2022.

My alarm sounded at 5.45am on the day of the League Cup Final. With all of the recent news from Ukraine that had sadly dominated everyone’s thoughts, I think it is safe to say that I was not wholly ready for the game at Wembley against Liverpool. I wasn’t particularly focussed. Far from it. The horrific scenes from Ukraine – and the national capital of Kiev specifically, a city that I had visited only three years ago with Chelsea – had dominated my thoughts for the previous few days. Football seemed a frivolous pursuit. In fact, my thoughts about the game were quite similar to those that I had felt for the 2015 League Cup Final against Tottenham. Just three days previously, I had lost my dear mother.

On both occasions, my mind was elsewhere, way elsewhere.

On that Sunday seven years ago, we travelled up to London by train. In 2022, we travelled up by car. I collected PD at 7am and Parky not long after. It would be our third drive to London in nine days, but only the second to involve a game.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had arrived in London at our usual parking space on Normand Road at around 5.45pm for the Champions League game against Lille, but PD – who had been feeling ropey during the last thirty-minutes of his drive to London – suddenly felt very ill indeed. He felt sick, experienced hot sweats but was also shaking with the cold too. Without too much thought, I knew we had to get him home. I jumped into the driving seat of his car and drove us back west. Our stay in London had lasted five minutes. Thankfully, PD improved a little on the drive home. By the time I eventually reached my house, the game at Stamford Bridge was approaching half-time. Our eventual two-nil win was met with a little indifference from me. I was more concerned about PD.

Bizarrely, this followed on from my “ghost” trip to London for the Plymouth Argyle game in which I didn’t go in. Two trips to SW6 but no football. My next game at Chelsea is against Newcastle United in a couple of weeks. I hope I make it to my seat.

We had decided to stay over in London. The Premier Inn near Putney Bridge would be our home for the Sunday night. From 10am until about 3pm, we knocked back some ciders and lagers in three local boozers; “The Eight Bells”, “The King’s Arms” and “The Golden Lion”. In the last pub, we bumped into the former Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, himself a participant in a League Cup final for Chelsea against Stoke City, almost fifty years ago to the day.

We were adamant that we would arrive on time for this match at Wembley. However, the tube line between Putney Bridge and Earl’s Court wasn’t operating. Instead, we bit the bullet and cabbed it – past Stamford Bridge – to Marylebone Station. It was no surprise to see a few stragglers, a few familiar faces, outside the sports bar as we exited the taxi. We soon squeezed onto the 3.45pm train to Wembley Park. What should have been a twelve-minute journey, took nearer thirty. Our carriage was full of Chelsea, including a couple of lads from home. All eyes were on the clock. Suffice to say, we again struggled to get into Wembley on time.

The game was due to start at 4.30pm.

We made our way around to the eastern end. At least there was no queue and a minimal security check. On the way in, a Scouser in his twenties squeezed-in behind Parky as he scanned his ticket. Old habits die hard, I guess. I uttered two choice words to him as we all ascended the escalator.

Time was against me.

Race, race, race.

I managed to reach my seat while the players of both teams were taking the knee.

Despite my alarm waking me at 5.45am, I was in with just five seconds to spare.

Bloody hell.

We had heard that Romelu Lukaku wasn’t chosen in the starting eleven while we were on the train. No surprise really. It would have been my choice too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

I had consistently said to Chelsea mates, old school friends, work colleagues and the like that I expected us to lose this. Although our two league meetings were even games and hotly contested, it felt like we have gone off the boil of late. In fact, in Abu Dhabi I had prioritised the FIFA World Club Cup over this one. The Chelsea fans that I shared this with agreed with me.

The match began. Chelsea attacked the Scousers who were located in our usual end, an end that tends to be a “lucky” one for us.

The game was a cracker, eh?

On so many occasions, our recent Cup Final appearances at Wembley have tended to be dull affairs. But here was a contest that was at last an open and entertaining match for one and all.

It was a wild start to the game. Christian Pulisic was fed in by Dave. His snap shot was too close to the Liverpool ‘keeper with the unpronounceable first name. The chance went begging.

Liverpool then attacked at will. On one occasion, Mo Salah was closely marked by four Chelsea defenders. All eyes were on him, but elsewhere Liverpool were a threat.

It can be a sobering experience to watch Chelsea at Wembley. At home games, I have managed to get acclimatised to periods of quiet in The Sleepy Hollow. It’s not an ideal scenario but I’m used to it by now. Not many of the fifty or so spectators who sit near me get too involved. They have their moments, but these seem more fleeting as the years go by. At away games, it’s a different story. A far more uplifting experience. There’s nothing like cheering the team on in a packed and exuberant away section. At Wembley – and this has happened on far too many occasions for my liking – I soon get exasperated by those nearby who don’t support the team. Two lads in their early thirties alongside Parky were a case in point. No singing, no encouragement, no clapping. It was the same story with a couple in front. Nothing.

I couldn’t resist a loud “song sheets are available.”

Thankfully, a good group of singers to my left restored my faith in humanity.

Down below me, Mane headed well-wide from Alexander-Arnold. It felt like Liverpool were dominating much of the first twenty minutes, thirty minutes, but we managed the occasional counter-thrust. At no stage did I feel we would buckle to their attacks.

On the half-hour, we witnessed an amazing double-save from Edouard Mendy. First, a low shot from Keita was parried by a dive, and our ‘keeper then managed to reconfigure the neutrons, protons and electrons in his body to readjust his limbs and deflect Mane’s close-range effort over the bar. There were immediate memories of Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final.

It was a breath-taking piece of football.

The atmosphere, despite some good quality fare being played out on the Wembley pitch, was a little underwhelming. The Liverpool anthems “You’ll never walk alone” and “The fields of Anfield Road” occasionally boomed from the western end. “Carefree” was our main reply. In the big spaces of Wembley, it’s difficult to generate anything more intricate. The Mendy song, as an example, didn’t stand a chance.

Kai Havertz played in Pulisic, but his finish was again too close to Kelleher. A rising shot from Dave didn’t threaten the Irish ‘keeper either.

Chelsea were breaking nicely, with good mobility and a sense of freedom, and Havertz played in Mount just as the first-half was closing. His prod at goal was rather poor and the ball was sent wide. From a central position near the penalty spot, he really should have done better.

No goals at the break.

“Happy with that. Playing much better than I had predicted.”

The second-half began with Chelsea playing towards us in the eastern end of Wembley. A fantastic ball from Pulisic found the equally excellent run from Mount. The whole world seemed to stop. From inside the box, one on one with the ‘keeper, Mount struck.

The ball rebounded off the near post.

Fackinell.

Dave was injured, but on came Reece James to huge applause.

Another injury occurred when Keita and Trevoh Chalobah clashed in the middle of the pitch. From my vantage point high in the top tier, I had no real view of the incident. But Chalobah stayed down the longest.

The atmosphere was better now. Our end was showing some kind of unity.

“And it’s super Chelsea.”

A terrible clearance from Mendy allowed Liverpool to break in acres of space. The ball was worked to Salah who clipped the ball past the onrushing ‘keeper, trying to atone for his mistake. Thankfully, the reassuring figure of Thiago Silva appeared and hacked the ball away.

Not long after, a quickly-taken free-kick was pumped towards the area past our far post. A Liverpool header back across goal was headed in.

Ugh.

The Liverpool end roared.

There were red flares. They had scored the all-important first goal.

Our end was silent.

But then, after what seemed like an age, we saw that VAR was being called upon.

No goal.

Why? Was the first header from an offside position? Who knows.

A double substitution on seventy-three minutes.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Romelu Lukaku for Mount.

At around this time, the announcer at Wembley did something that I have never witnessed at a game in the UK before; he effectively did an in-game commercial for Carabao. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

Fackinell.

A cracking save by Mendy from Diaz drew more applause from our end. This was a really open game. Kante and Kovacic covered so much ground in our midfield. Alonso was always looking to stretch Liverpool’s right flank. Our defensive three rarely looked troubled. A ball was lobbed into the inside-left channel for Werner to attack. His fine cross was headed in by Havertz but – after a nano-second – we realised that an offside flag was raised.

Another magnificent save from Mendy kept us in it; a towering leap from Van Dijk was followed by a downward header but a stretching save kept it out.

Inside my head : “Mendy man of the match so far.”

Right at the death, Alonso did so well to shake off attention and rifle in a cross towards the near post but a shake of the leg from Lukaku and a flick was parried by Kelleher.

We had been standing for an hour and three quarters. We would be standing for thirty minutes more.

Extra time.

A magnificent ball in the channel from the excellent Chalobah found Lukaku, who advanced, stopped, settled himself and tucked the ball home.

We screamed. But then, the grim realisation that a flag had been waved.

Bollocks.

For Lukaku to score right in front of the Scousers would have been utterly perfect.

The night had fallen now, and the underside of the Wembley roof was picked out in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The arch was yellow and blue too.

The game entered its final fifteen minutes.

My legs were aching and my throat was parched.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

A precise move involving Lukaku and Alonso in a tight area on our left allowed our much-maligned Spaniard to drill a pass to Havertz. His neat finish was soon flagged for offside too.

“God. Three times.”

Late on, Kepa replaced Mendy, a repeat of Belfast in August.

The game continued to its conclusion.

0-0.

The dreaded penalties. I didn’t like it that they were to be taken at their end.

“Munich was the other end though. And Belfast.”

“I fancy our chances here, Paul.”

There then ensued the best part of fifteen minutes of more drama. Pure drama? Maybe. They were all fantastic penalties to be honest. The agony continued after no misses in ten attempts. We went to sudden death. Kick after kick.

It went to 10-10.

Time for the two ‘keepers.

Alas, it was not to be.

Kelleher : hit.

Kepa : miss.

We fell silent once again.

The arch turned red.

We returned to Marylebone, then back to Fulham. Our last four domestic Cup Finals have ended in defeat now. I can hardly believe it.

Next up, Luton away in the cup that matters. I’ll see some of you there.


Tales From Us And That Lot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 5 January 2022.

I have to say that I was a lot more confident going into the first of three games against Tottenham Hotspur in just eighteen days after the Liverpool match than I was before it. That tussle on the second day of the year really helped to settle my nerves; we were good weren’t we?

This would be our fourth League Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

I have no recollection of the one in 1971/72. I would have been six years old. We went through after a Chris Garland inspired second-leg at Chelsea.

I can easily remember the one in 2001/2. Shudder. We won the first-leg 2-1 at The Bridge but I was working a late shift on the day of the return leg. I remember bringing in a portable TV to watch the game while I was at work in our portacabin outside the main warehouse of a company in Trowbridge. We lost 1-5 and I have never been more miserable after watching a Chelsea game on TV. The thought of having to come face to face with my Tottenham-supporting manager the next day was the stuff of nightmares.

In 2018/19, there was a much a nicer memory as we went through on penalties, David Luiz scoring the winner, in the second leg at Chelsea.

Three previous ties. Two wins with the second leg at home. One loss with the second leg away. Well, you can imagine my thought process.

There was just the three of us in The Chuckle Bus for this game. PD collected me outside work and we were parked-up in SW6 bang on two hours later. While my co-passengers visited “The Goose” I popped to the Italian restaurant two doors down on the North End Road.

I had only been sat at my table for a minute when the door opened and my good friend Andy walked in. What a nice surprise. He had visited it recently and fancied a return. Andy often features in these march reports; most memorably mentioned during the Porto trip last May. We both ordered pizzas and had a cracking natter for an hour or so. Andy is going to Abu Dhabi, and of course I hope to join him. Andy mentioned the pre-season game at Bournemouth that we both attended in the summer. Andy brought up the team on his ‘phone. We could hardly believe that Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta played, to say nothing of Baba Rahman. We briefly spoke about Romelu Lukaku. I personally wanted a line to be drawn under the whole shebang. Time to move on.

It was a cold old night on the border of Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea. PD had gone into the ground early and I joined him at around 7.15pm. Parky, ousted from the Shed Lower, would be watching in the West View.

I looked over at The Shed. There they were. Tottenham. There’s just something about them. And I am sure they feel the same way about us. Probably more so these days.

Our home record against “that lot” is still bloody magnificent, and of course I am not letting the moment pass without mentioning it once again.

Since December 1990, it goes something like this.

Won fucking loads, drew some others, lost just once.

The magic numbers were in fact 23-13-1.

I suppose that in the circumstances, I should not have been too worried. The weight of all that history, and misery – “misstory” – must be a heavy yoke for Tottenham to carry on their trips to Stamford Bridge.

The lights were dimmed at around 7.40pm just as I shot off for a last minute visit to turn my bike around. When I came back, and peered out through the exits, the lights were being slowly turned back on. I settled down next to PD, Clive and Alan and readied myself for the evening’s entertainment.

Lukaku was on the pitch. As his name was mentioned in a run-through of the team, there were no boos at all, just a hint of applause. I was happy with that.

As the game began, it took me a good few minutes to work out if my first thoughts on the shape changing to an old-fashioned 4-4-2 were correct, or was Hakim Ziyech really a very very very pushed-on wing back?

No, I was right the first time.

Kepa Arriabalaga in goal.

A back four of Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rudiger, Malang Saar and Cesar Azpilicueta.

The wide players in midfield were Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech, with Jorginho and Saul in the middle.

Up front were Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz.

For all of the advantages of other formations, there is something about a 4-4-2. It’s the system I grew up with – although 4-3-3 was the first system I ever played, way back in 1975 – but there is a nice solidity about it.

There was an unsurprisingly loud and unwelcoming noise aimed at the 4,500 away fans in The Shed.

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

They were soon up and running with their couple of songs which hark at their Jewish identity but now seem to be a little out of place.

Fuck’em.

Well.

This is what we did alright.

In the first five minutes, too.

Signor Alonso has his detractors, but he magnificently nipped in to steal the ball before it reached a Tottenham defender on our left. He played a perfect pass in to Herr Havertz who slammed the ball goal wards. His effort took a deflection off a Tottenham defender – I cared not who – and the ball ended up inside the goal, to be followed not so long after after by the scorer and his team mates.

Get in you bastard.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds. Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit, yap, yap, bunny, bunny.”

It seemed perfect that the Chelsea celebrations involved the blue-clad players celebrating inside the goalmouth with the away fans looking closely on in misery.

Chelsea in front, and in front of their fans too.

On the balcony wall of The Shed, the simple words : “Pride Of London.”

Gertcha.

Well, this was a cracking start to the game. In the myriad of Chelsea victories at Stamford Bridge against “that lot” I always have a little chuckle to myself about “how will we beat them this time?” and this match was off to a perfect start.

However, Havertz appeared to injure himself in the process of scoring and was off the pitch for a while.

We purred in that first-half and they hardly threatened at all.

I must admit it looked odd to see our former manager patrolling the opposition technical area, and looking pretty fed-up too, from the first few minutes.

A shot from Havertz was easily saved by the Tottenham ‘keeper.

Next up were blocked shots from Mount and Saul, who was enjoying a very fine half, and then Ziyech set himself up nicely but his left-footed curler was off target.

The opposition rarely got out of their half.

There was a lovely piece of recovery after a Tottenham attacker broke and avoided an offside trap. Ziyech was able to nibble and pinch the ball away. The threat was over.

On the half-hour, Alan and I couldn’t believe how Rudiger wasn’t able to pounce after a Ziyech corner was helped on its way by a Tottenham defender. From our perspective, it looked like a goal waiting to be struck. His eventual effort was blocked.

Soon after, a strong run from Lukaku – who indeed had been warmly encouraged thus far – resulted in a free-kick out on the right. Ziyech, right in the action again, punched a ball towards the six-yard box. Fortuitously I snapped just as one Tottenham defender headed the ball against another, and the ball flew into the net.

Get in.

At that point in the proceedings we wondered if the first goal had been credited as an own goal too.

Two OGs?

“Oh, let’s beat them like this.”

How Spursy.

I turned to “the bloke behind me” (copyright “When Saturday Comes” 1986) :

“He never misses from there.”

Oh my aching sides.

The players, almost embarrassingly, ran over to congratulate Ziyech. Well, they had to run somewhere. They could hardly run to the Tottenham player, whoever he was.

Next came, the ultimate piss-take.

“Tottenham, give us a song. Tottenham, Tottenham, give us a song.”

Not sure I have heard that before, or at least not in the way it was intended, enticing them to join in our fun. Top marks.

We tried to stifle a little laughter when Lukaku had an awful first touch on the centre circle and resembled an out-of-control express train as he sprinted to retrieve the ball before it went out for a throw-in. He failed. The terrace wags were soon on his case.

“He can control it further than I can fucking kick it.”

“His second touch is a tackle.”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But then, a golden chance. A beautifully flighted ball from that man Ziyech dropped right on the head of Lukaku but his purposeful downward header guided the ball just past the far post.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

A goal there, three at the break, would have killed the game, killed the tie, helped to evacuate The Shed and would have led to forty-five minutes of arsenic-laced mickey-taking and tom foolery, and maybe even Micky Fillery.

But it had been a most excellent first-half. We were neat and purposeful, and seemed to over-run them in all areas of the pitch. Did they have a shot on goal? Hardly. Did Kepa make a real save? I think not. Stars of the half were Ziyech, Saul, Havertz and maybe even Alonso too.

As the second-half began, I settled in my seat but had missed the substitution announcement. It took me a few seconds to realise that Timo Werner had replaced Havertz.

The opposition were all over us in the first minute, then the second, third and fourth. Their manager had obviously fired some fine words into their shell-likes in the break. But we never really looked too troubled in this period. If anything, I hoped it would create chances for us to counter-attack at will.

On fifty minutes, a shot from them at a free-kick, but Kepa was able.

It annoyed me – saddened me even – to see three Italian flags being waved among the away fans. That was us. That was Zola, Vialli, di Matteo, that was Ranieri, that was Ancelotti, that is Jorginho. Damn you.

This game was more of a contest now. But our chances still dominated. Ziyech should have done better after a very fine move linking Werner and then Lukaku. I have to say the thought of a Lukaku and Werner partnership started to thrill me a little.

Saul was enjoying this game and we were enjoying seeing him play so well. There was a cheeky back-heeled volley, but I turned to Al and said :

“He’s no Zola.”

On the hour, I watched Werner as he collected the ball, opened his body up and attacked his marker. His pace took him past and he let loose a powerful strike that oh-so narrowly missed the far post.

“Three-nil and it’s all over, mate.”

There was a very rare outing of the “William song”; because, well, that lot, eh?

Lukaku set up Ziyech and he zipped the pass of the night towards Werner on the edge of the box. He chose to lift the ball over the ‘keeper but an outstretched arm defeated him. It was a fine save. Not long after, Ziyech blasted over from an angle.

“He could’ve brought that down, Al.”

We begged our heroes for one more goal. Just one.

I must say that I thought it was a little premature to be singing “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again” so let’s save that for White Hart Lane. Fingers crossed, eh?

Some late substitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Saul.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Ziyech.

Down in the far corner, a Tottenham substitute tied Christian Pulisic up in knots and his shot was, thankfully, well-saved by Kepa at full stretch on the floor. The ball was unceremoniously hacked clear. This was followed immediately by a much-desired counter-attack, involving Ruben, but a pass to Lukaku only resulted in a corner.

A free-kick in prime Alonso territory. Alas not. His shot only troubled the wall.

One last change.

Harvey Vale for Dave.

It was Vale who helped to combine neatly with others to set up the last chance of the match for that man Lukaku, but his shot was tame and hit centrally.

It’s finely balanced at 2-0.

One more goal would have meant that our trip to White Hart Lane next week would be one of lick-lipping eagerness. As it stands, it will be a little more difficult.

But we are suddenly in a good place again. The doom mongers have quietened down. We’ve got Lukaku back in the fold. Players are returning. We are on the march.

Next up, Chesterfield in the FA Cup and my first-ever visit to “The West View.”

For further updates, stay tuned to this channel.

Tales From Two Shades Of Blue

Chelsea vs. Malmo : 21 February 2019.

We were back in town again for the second time of the working week. After the disappointment of the United game on the Monday, Malmo offered a different test on a Thursday evening Europa League tie. The games were starting to ramp up now. And we were in the middle of an odd sequence of matches which were following this pattern :

Sunday / Thursday / Monday / Thursday / Sunday / Wednesday / Sunday.

Maybe in the near future a child will ask of their parents : “they used to play on Saturday, didn’t they?”

We were also continuing our ridiculously Jekyll & Hyde sequence of a win, a loss, a win, a loss. I wonder what Chelsea would show up on this occasion. What shade of blue?

All was quiet when we walked into “Simmons” at about 6pm. Unlike Monday there was room to breathe, and room to chat in a more relaxed way with a few good friends. Gillian and Kev were down from Edinburgh again. Special mention for Chris from Guernsey who was in the middle of three trips to London in a week, all for Chelsea; the second of a Holy Trinity of cup games in three different competitions. There was an inevitable revisiting of the game on Monday. It had been a totally depressing evening. We briefly rummaged through the debris of a pretty shambolic performance. There were more questions than answers. To sum up our state of bewilderment at the manager’s modus operandi, I made a comment which I think holds water.

“There can’t be a single Chelsea supporter anywhere – anywhere in the world – who thought that the Zappacosta for Azplicueta substitution was laudable and fine.”

The boys agreed.

“Not one.”

We heard on the grapevine that the visiting Swedes were enjoying themselves up at The Courtfield at Earl’s Court. We were not surprised. This was a cheap trip for them after all. The lads that visited Malmo last week reported high drink prices; the boot was on the opposite foot now.

And their boots were being filled.

Fair play.

There was a predictable – and hilarious, cough, cough – punfest in the bar as we quoted football-relevant Abba songs.

I shan’t bore you.

Malmo first came into our common consciousness in the UK back in 1979 when they reached – I know not how – the European Cup Final. They were the underdogs against Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest and they fell to a John Robertson shimmy and cross and a Trevor Francis lunge at the far post in the final in Munich. I remembered their Manchester City-style light blue kit. They have been on my radar ever since. AIK Stockholm, Gothenberg and Malmo are the three names in Swedish football that resonate for me. I saw Malmo play once before, in odd circumstances. I was over in Dublin on a mate’s Stag Weekend in March 1991 and after a heavy night on the ale, we woke on the Sunday to discover that the local team St. Patrick’s Athletic were playing a friendly against Malmo at the nearby Dalymount Park. Some of the party decided not to go and I think they were probably wise. But four of us watched, sitting on a crumbling terrace which was overgrown with weeds, but were far from enamoured by the experience. The crowd was of about five-hundred and the game ended 1-1.

We made plans for Sunday and walked to Stamford Bridge.

I was only slightly interested in the reaction of the crowd to the manager and players after Monday. I hoped for not too much negativity. I had, if I am honest, not the stomach for any of that. I just wanted us to get behind the team.

Ah, the team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic

Kante – Barkley

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Willian

No complaints with that.

Inside the stadium, there were gaps but these soon filled. I was very pleased indeed with the resultant attendance. Yes, the tickets were only £25, but people still had to make the effort to get off collective arses and travel. Of course, the away half of The Shed was full of light-blue. They had made a right old din in Sweden and London was a dream trip for them. They would undoubtedly be “up for it.”

This would be another game, the second in a week, when we would be undoubtedly out-sung by the away contingent.

It was good to see Mark – a foot soldier from the days of when we used to meet up at the old “Black Bull” in the promotion campaign of 1988/89 – who was with his son and sitting close by. It was half-term in London and elsewhere and a lot more children were in attendance than normal.

Flags were waved, the teams came on, the crowd was almost at capacity, no negativity thus far. Over on The Shed balcony wall, the invading Swedes had draped many flags and banners between the two tiers.

For the first time that I can remember since our kit-change back in 1991, we wore an all blue kit at home. It just did not look right. We presumed that the Malmo kit man had neglected to do his research. They were in a Manchester City copy of light blue, white and light blue. One of their players resembled Kevin de Bruyne. The football Gods were not letting us forget the 6-0 loss at the Etihad easily.

The game began.

It was a bright start from the visitors. The Chelsea support had raised a few songs at the start in a genuine attempt to provide a positive vibe, but as our play stumbled and fumbled, the noise fell away. The visiting supporters kept their noise levels high. Pre-match there had been en masse bouncing. It had been impressive. And they must have been warmed by their players who looked a yard quicker than our players. There was a cross and a header early on which hinted at a worrying evening. Malmo definitely had the best of the first quarter. We looked lacking in confidence, a team of disjointed players. A university thesis could be written on why Mateo Kovacic was playing the deep-lying role and not N’Golo Kante. It was a puzzle to most of us. The manager’s golden child Jorginho was on the bench, and his personal toils throughout this season could spawn a bookshelf of theories about modern day football.

The football nerds call him a regista.

Regista?

Fucking hell, Arkwright’s cash register had more bite.

On the pitch there was little urgency, little shape, no clue.

There was, shamefully, not a great deal of running off the ball, which is surely an integral part of Sarriball (…oh dear, I feel dirty – ugh – this is the first time that I have used it in these reports I think, it won’t happen again, sorry). And I found it odd that, bearing in mind we were so nervy, we were continuing to pass the ball out from defence, almost inviting an error as Malmo were putting us under a high press (ditto, it’s the buzz word of the season, eh?).

On twenty-five minutes, the Malmo support got going with a loud chant. The second part of it seemed like “Fuck off Chelsea” but I am not sure that it was. Regardless, this got the Matthew Harding riled and there was a “Fuck off Malmo” response. This was followed by a loud and resonant “Carefree”, the loudest of the night. Good stuff. Well, I am not totally sure if the relationship between a noisy support and an upturn in a team’s play has ever been proven, but there definitely seemed like a ten minute or so of improved Chelsea play. At last Callum Hudson-Odoi was given the ball, and there was room ahead of him in which to run. He was the catalyst for our improvement I think. He looked the business, a rare spark of light in what had been a grey game thus far.

But then it seemed to die again. And the play worsened.

In that dire first-half, I can only remember occasional efforts on goal. A Barkley drive. A chance for Giroud close in. Not worth talking about.

At the break, I chatted to a few friends.

“That was awful.”

And it was. Bloody awful.

“It’s a bloody concern when our least adept central defender on the night has touched the ball more than any other Chelsea player.”

Every Chelsea move seemed to go through Toni Rudiger.

“Atvidaberg were Swedish, weren’t they?”

If you don’t know, “Google” it. 1971 and all that. Shudder.

Just as the Chelsea players came back on to the Stamford Bridge pitch, the away fans lit up The Shed with some white, and one red – he didn’t get the memo – flare. I’ll be honest, it looked bloody magnificent. The most flares ever seen at Chelsea? European football is meant to be like this.

Take a bow, Malmo.

As the first-half began, the clouds of smoke billowed around the southern end of the stadium and up under the lights of the East Stand. It was quite a sight. It brought back memories of a London before the clean air act when Stamford Bridge often became enveloped in a low fog on match days.

I could not resist an easy line :

“Put your fags out, Sarri.”

There was an odd, one-man, pitch invasion soon into the second period.

“Well, that’s one way to avoid seeing us play. A five-year ban, bosh. Idiot.”

Thankfully, after fifty-five minutes of tedium, the game came to life. Malmo were stretched after a move broke down. Our little prince N’Golo carried the ball at speed right through the heart of the Malmo defence, then easily spotted the run of Willian to his left, and the resulting cross was pushed home by Giroud from close in.

GET IN.

Bjorn : “De måste komma till oss nu.”

Benny : ” Kom på mina små diamanter.”

I had a gleeful smirk to myself. ”Damn that counter-attacking football.”

We were now 3-1 up on aggregate, and I hoped for no more scares. Our play, now a lot more confident, certainly improved. Barkley had an effort ruled offside. We were well on top. The away fans would not be dulled though, and their noise continued, and we were given a rare sight in The Shed – it was more common in the ’seventies – of hundreds of scarves being held aloft, but thankfully no accompanying Rodgers and Hammerstein dirge. It reminded me of Napoli at Juventus in 1988, and certainly Napoli away in 2012 (a game that took place seven years ago to the exact day and time, any bloody excuse to mention the Champions League run of 2012).

Malmo were visibly tiring and our wing play was causing them the jitters. This was more like it Chelsea. Emerson was fouled and the miscreant Bengtsson was given a second yellow. From the free-kick, Ross Barkley struck a so-sweet curler past the Malmo goalkeeper, who obviously failed to react to the advice given to him by a Chelsea supporters in the MHL.

”Move over, Dahlin.”

Ross enjoyed that goal and his run towards us in The Sleepy Hollow was one of joy. Phew. Five minutes later, the manager made two subsitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for N’Golo Kante.

Jorginho for Ross Barkley.

There were audible boos for Joginho.

How utterly utterly pathetic.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Cesar Azpilicueta.

It would have been funnier if Dave had been replaced by Gonzalo Higuain. That would have raised an ironic giggle, right?

We were assured of another fixture in this season’s competition. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Baku last season, and I certainly thought that it would be a one-off ”once in a lifetime” experience. We might – just might – be returning. But as I said to Big John at half-time, Baku is not Munich or Amsterdam, or even Moscow. It is bloody miles away. Would we sell fifteen or twenty thousand tickets for the final? Answers on a postcard.

As the game continued I dreamed of where Chelsea Football Club would take me next. We were hopeful of rejoining the Europa League trail in the next round, just over a fortnight away.

In the last five minutes, Hudson-Odoi did well to drift past his man on the right and drill a low shot past the ’keeper to make it 3-0.

Phew.

I had hated the first-half, but the second-half was a lot better.

It had been a good night.

Our sequence was now –

Won 3-0

Lost 0-4

Won 5-0

Lost 0-6

Won 2-1

Lost 0-2

Won 3-0

What of Sunday and the League Cup Final? In the car on the drive home – happier than on Monday – I simply told LP and PD that we tended not to lose finals. I did some arithmetic. Since 1994, but including that game, we had reached nineteen finals – I have discounted the 2012 World Club Championships and the three Super Cups – and our record in that time span is quite excellent. We have won fourteen and lost just five. That’s a fine batting average.

See you at Wembley.

 

Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

This season has, thus far, been quite the mixed bag hasn’t it? Our last three games perfectly exemplify this; an encouragingly optimistic performance, but a loss against Tottenham at Wembley, a very dull home win against Newcastle United and then a limp and depressing defeat at Arsenal. Overall, in these three games, we would be scored as “must do better – much better” and the mood of the Chelsea support was in negative territory. How would we perform against Tottenham in the League Cup semi second leg? Would our play take us back into the positive for the first time in a while?

When we realised that we had been drawn against “that lot” – it seems ages ago now – my thoughts were this.

“At home, a one-off tie, we could beat them. But over two legs, I don’t fancy our chances.”

But things change. Our spirited first game a fortnight ago swung the balance our way. I sensed we’d beat them. When we heard that our bitter rivals had lost Kane and Ali to injury and Son to the Asia Cup, our spirits were lifted further.

As I left work at 3pm, my mood was worryingly optimistic.

It was a typical midweek pre-match. PD had driven Parky and little old me to London, and we had enjoyed the North End Walk, which links The Goose and Simmons Bar. There were tons of familiar faces in both and even the same faces in both; it seems a common choice on match days to combine drinks at the two hostelries. There was a noticeably buoyant and expectant air in both pubs. It felt fine. It felt good. Guest of honour was Pete, originally from North London, but now living in San Diego, and lucky enough to get his hands on a ticket at the last minute for the game. I last saw him in DC for the Barcelona friendly in 2015. I am sure Pete will not mind me mentioning that he is Jewish, and he soon showed me – rather coyly – his Chelsea kippah, which he produced from his breast pocket.

We both laughed.

“…mmm, best not wear that tonight mate, might get the wrong reaction.”

We laughed again.

I reminded him of the flight I took to Tel Aviv in 2015.

“I looked up and saw that the chap sitting in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. Fucksake. Then I spotted a woman to my left, across the aisle, one row ahead, was breastfeeding her infant. So I had a tit in front of me and a tit to my left too.”

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

There was just a little team talk.  I wasn’t confident that Maurizio Sarri would begin with Olivier Giroud, and neither was Simon but Daryl thought that he would.

In the build up to the semi-final against Tottenham, I was well aware of our two previous encounters with them at the same stage of the competition.

Our 1971/1972 semi-final was just before my time, not as a Chelsea fan per se, but I certainly can’t recall the build-up nor the two games themselves at all. After all, I was only six. I since learned that we overcame Tottenham, and that the first-leg was quite a game. A poke-in from Ossie followed by The King giving the away fans a “V”, a first-ever goal in our colours from Chris Garland and a Johnny Hollins penalty. We drew the second-leg 2-2 and progressed to the final. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m68Fvvlyk

In 2001/2002, we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with a brace from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the first one a prod past Kasey Keller down below me, the second an absolute screamer at The Shed, and I certainly remembered that match. We then reconvened at White Hart Lane two weeks later and I was able to hook up a portable TV to watch while I worked the evening shift at a portakabin in Trowbridge. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2drkUtSCj4

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

In 1990/1991, this time at the quarter final stage, we again drew Tottenham in the League Cup. This was a classic game, but only insomuch that it is, without doubt, the most one-sided 0-0 that I have ever seen. I watched from the West Stand seats, a bit of a treat really since I was on the dole that season, but towards the Spurs fans in the curving North Stand. Graeme Le Saux was absolutely on fire that night, and I had a prime position to see him roast the Spurs defence time after time. It was one of those games when you thought “we’ve got a real talent here”. Even though I travelled back by train that night, and therefore would not have seen the TV highlights anyway, this game has gone down in Chelsea history because the scheduled TV programme was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Gulf War and action from the game was never aired. That night, Baghdad came under a horrendous attack, but it paled into comparison to the blitzkrieg we had rammed into Tottenham a few hours earlier. It’s likely very few have seen these rare highlights, recently unearthed by a chap on a Facebook group that I am in. I love the involvement of the crowd and the noise from this game. Just 34,000 were officially present, but it was a common view that Ken Bates massaged the crowd figures in those days. Just what we needed, really. From a period that opposing fans refer to when lambasting our historical attendances, the bloody Chelsea chairman was making out we had less fans at games than we actually did. Nice one, Ken, you silly old duffer. Anyway, fill yer boots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqOjP2s58c

One more Chelsea / Tottenham midweek memory. With the signing of Gonzalo Higuain – never saw that one coming, cough, cough – and the thought of him possibly starting the game, many of us remembered the signing of George Weah in the 1999/2000 season. On a memorable evening, he had jumped off a plane at Heathrow and then appeared a few hours later to score the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the league. It was very much a case of “mmm, how shall we beat Tottenham this time?” It was fantastic. George Weah and his white boots, what an impact player for us in those last few months of that season. In 2019, we have witnessed another Milan to Chelsea loan signing, but alas there was no chance of another “Hig-Whea-in” winning goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egOgvkpHgF4

For this game, Tottenham had around four thousand in The Shed. This meant Parky was forced to buy a seat elsewhere. I decided to swap with him so he could watch alongside Alan and PD, while I took his seat in a central area of the same tier. As I took position, I realised that it was the first time that I had watched a game from behind the goal in the MHU since Bruges at home in 1995. It cunningly gave me a new vantage point for my photographic endevours.

And it was some view.

I loved the team that Sarri had chosen. In came Emerson, Barkley and Giroud.

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

I got chatting to Vince, a season ticket holder for decades, who was with two friends, sitting to my immediate right. I warned him of my habit of taking photographs and hoped it would not spoil his enjoyment of the night. Surprisingly, the seat to my left was empty. It looked a full house, but if you looked hard enough there were odd seats not being used.

More dimmed lights and firework and flames. At night games, it adds to the drama, but what next I wonder? Thank God the club hasn’t implored us to turn our phone torches on prior to the entrance of the teams. You heard it here first, sigh.

The teams came on. I love the sense of drama as they walk across the pitch to the West Side. No Premier League flag getting in the way this time. A straight and purposeful walk to the other side of the pitch. And I was staring down the four thousand Tottenham fans. They were, awfully, in our Shed, but somehow the sight of a solid block of away fans – flanked by several hundred empty seats on each side – gave the evening a proper “Us Versus Them” feel.

Whisper it, but it gave the game an added drama. Three stands us, one stand them, just like the old days, but swung around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Spurs were weakened on paper, and they began weakly on the grass too. We began well, bossing it, and got better. A divine full body shimmy from David Luiz suggested that he was full of confidence, and I only hoped that the others shared his positivism. We absolutely dominated the first five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. We moved the ball quickly, but into danger areas with more urgency than recent memory. For once, I noted that Jorginho was not hogging the ball. For once, it was not solely about him. We moved the ball long and short, and runners were hit. Once or twice, Eden played deep-seated playmaker and propelled lasers to the feet of a wide man. This was good stuff indeed, and the crowd – that vital component – were involved from the off.

I was enjoying my little chats with Vince. We delved into a few previous games. Bruges in 1971 and in 1995. That Le Saux game in 1991. The flat semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday – which followed the Spurs tie that year – at noon on a Sunday when we were undone by the same bloody free-kick routine – John Sheridan? – on two occasions. Another infamous game. Fackinell Chelsea.

Throughout the first-half, there were no end of rugged and miss-timed challenges on our players, which the referee Martin Atkinson shrugged off, and the home crowd bellowed and roared our disapproval. Each time the referee chose not to card a Spurs player, the otherwise quiet and bespectacled lad to my left exploded with a tirade of abuse; top notch swearing in fact. It was the sole time he seemed to get involved. There was no roaring of support for any of our players from him. He seemed an odd character. But more of that later.

Tottenham’s main song of the night was clearly one intended to entice a response from us, or at least some in our ranks.

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

Cos the thing I love most is being a ***.

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

The thing I love most is being a ***.”

But we are made of stern stuff and we did not lower ourselves.

There was no Y-Word-Nonsense from Chelsea’s three stands.

Well done us. Again.

However, as the game progressed, I was rather worried that for all of our dominance, we had not really tested their ‘keeper Gazzaniga. But Tottenham had rarely ventured into our half.

“Where’s Chris Garland when you need him?” I chirped to Vince.

On the half-hour mark, a Hazard corner from our left ended up bouncing towards Kante, some twenty yards out. He steadied himself, arms balanced, and did well to keep his shot down. Somehow it squeezed through a packed box, and we were 1-0 up and level in the tie. The crowd roared and the players quickly raced back to our half.

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

A replay would show how the ball had miraculously travelled betwixt the legs of three opposing players.

I wonder if the French word for “nuts” or “megs” was uttered by our man.

I turned to Vince : “The mention of Chris Garland did it.”

The Bridge was buzzing now.

The crowd roared N’Golo’s song at a home game for the first time that I can remember.

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

There was a close chance for Giroud, but his legs seemed to become tangled.

Ten minutes after the first goal, a fantastic move involving crisp passes from Barkley, Hazard, Pedro and Azpilicueta meant that Spurs were a little slow to spot the movement of Hazard, who appeared in the box as if by magic – like Mr Benn –  to calmly steer the ball home.

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

The game opened up further. A heavy Pedro touch meant that a fine run was wasted, and there were blocked shots as we piled on the pressure. There were only rare Tottenham attacks. Luiz played the ball out to his wide man Emerson with aplomb on many occasions. In the last moment of the first-half, Hazard was tackled from behind by Alderwiereld – I was not convinced – but befitting the rest of the first-half, no action was taken.

Vince : “one of the best halves of football we’ve seen down here for ages.”

The second-half began with “Where’s Wally” to my left nowhere to be seen. However, he eventually ambled back to his seat and – I am afraid that I am not exaggerating here – for a good eighty percent of the second-half he stared at his phone as he reeled off text message after text message, rarely looking at the game for minutes on end. And it really wound me up. It shouldn’t, should it? But it did. It is a miracle of self-restraint that I chose not to bite and say something bitterly sarcastic to the prick.

The first few minutes passed and – just as I thought to myself “mmm, Eriksen has been quiet, bet he misses his usual targets”- the ball was whipped in by Danny Rose, an early substitute, from their left and Llorente prodded home.

The away fans roared now, and a Star of David was spotted being fluttered like a red rag to a bull in the Shed Upper.

The game opened up again. This season, there would be no extra time if scores were level over both games and the game would go straight to penalties. We begged for a third goal on the night. And to be fair, we certainly gave it our best shot, if not one that hit the target.

Over the next forty minutes there was shot after shot. Giroud wriggled free and lashed an effort low but Gazzaniga saved at the near post down below me. Giroud, – undoubtedly under threat with Higuain on board – had not created much for himself up until then, but his presence had allowed others to make use of space around him.

The home crowd urged the players on. I will be honest, I was especially loud – “rasping” – and aimed my voice towards Wally to my left, but there was no reaction from the twat. He had the sort of face that was begging out for a slap, glasses or no glasses, and even though I am not a violent person…mmm, my voice fades into the ether, best not say anything, I’m honestly not a violent person, but…

Unbelievably, Jorginho and Kante were booked despite the rotten Tottenham challenges, and the reaction of Sarri to a bad tackle resulted in him getting a yellow too.

“Good lad.”

Llorente messed up a great chance from close in, and there was much wailing at the Tottenham end.

We attacked again. Great play from Hazard and Emerson. A shot from Pedrio.

Moura then hit the side netting and the away fans roared just as the Chelsea fans roared when Kerry Dixon hit the side netting in 1991 (have you watched the clip yet? Go on…)

And then Dave was carded too.

Three Chelsea players carded. And not one opposing player. This seemed bloody ridiculous. This brought Wally to life and he again spewed out some fuckwords into the evening air at the referee.  But there were still no signs of support for his team.

Back to your texts, lad.

Willian replaced Pedro, who had stretched his marker all night.

My favourite part of the game, in one way, took place on the East Stand touchline. There was a foul on a Chelsea player – Kante I think –  but many players continued, and Kante himself had clearly not heard the whistle (or maybe he had, wink), and he made a firm but fair tackle, leaving a Tottenham player on the floor and clasping his shin. It was sheer poetry. This certainly galvanised our support further.

At last a Tottenham booking; Sissoko, and much sarcastic cheering.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

Hazard pelted one in from outside the box and it missed the target by inches. He repeated this shortly after, but another chance went begging. Mateo Kovacic replaced the tiring Barkley, who had begun well but was fading. We still pushed on. There were further chances though. Another messy effort from Giroud at the far post had us all frustrated, but worse was to come.

Emerson, finding great energy from somewhere, flew past Aurier and sent over a peach of a cross towards a leaping Giroud. His effort cleared the intersection of post and bar. I actually turned around and double-stamped in absolute frustration.

…”mmm, I haven’t done that before” I self-consciously thought to myself.

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

“Simple. If it is up there, we’ll lose. If it is down here, we’ll win.”

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

Great for us, great for the fans, great for me, great for my camera.

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

Chelsea : Willian (currently one of the boo boys, please don’t give them extra ammunition to have a go at you) – IN.

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

Chelsea : Azpilicueta (didn’t like his over-enthusiastic run up) – IN.

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

Chelsea : Jorginho (that stop, like at Huddersfield) – IN.

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

Chelsea : Luiz (a hero from the spot in Munich, another long run up, initiated by a Jonny Wilkinson-style stop, sorry about the rugby reference) – IN.

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

The penalties had taken place and we had done them four by two.

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

David Luiz had been featured on the programme cover and it was fitting that he had brought us home. He had enjoyed a great match along with Hazard, Rudiger, Pedro and – of course – the loved Kante. But Luiz was the centre of attention as “One Step Beyond” boomed around Stamford Bridge. I glanced over to The Shed, and many had quickly disappeared.

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

I slowly made my way to the exit and outside the West Stand one song dominated.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From Mourinho’s Men

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 27 October 2015.

After Saturday’s narrow loss to West Ham United, here was a chance for immediate redemption. A trip to the Britannia Stadium for a Capital One cup tie against Stoke City offered the chance for a little respite from the travails of our surprising implosion in the league. Here was a match in which we could show some fight and bottle. Here was the chance for a calming victory ahead of two monumental home games against Liverpool and Dynamo Kiev. Here was the opportunity to halt our faltering slide.

Or, if some sections of the media would have it, here was a potential banana skin on which Chelsea Football Club could have an almighty slip.

In other seasons, perhaps, I may not have fancied a three-hundred mile round trip during the week for a League Cup tie. Historically, this game might have been one that I might have missed. However, I have an emotional tie with the city of Stoke-on-Trent which meant that I had decided as soon as the draw was made that I would be attending. I have not missed a Chelsea game in my old college town since a League Cup tie in 1995. I have attended all eight of our games at Stoke City’s new windswept stadium at the top of the hill. Parky was “up for it” too. And last week, Glenn decided to go. The more the merrier.

I left work bang on 3.30pm. Ahead of me, unfortunately, was a grinding three and a half-hour journey, with the early winter evening enveloping us in increasing darkness, in to the heart of The Midlands. I was forever clock-watching. It was a tedious journey, thankfully enlightened with banter along the way.

Once again it seemed that Chelsea Football Club was at the eye of a media storm. All of the focus was on us, and our manager – and owner – especially.

From reading opinions of supporters both in the UK and abroad, both old and new, it was clear that there was a myriad of views. The majority, I have to say, were in support of the beleaguered manager. Yet opinions were hugely varied.

On one hand we had the slash and burn merchants, who wanted the club to dispense of the services of Jose Mourinho, citing the clichéd “losing the dressing room” as one of their main reasons, though there were others. That’s a pretty extreme view in my opinion and not one that I adhere to. And it would be easy, too easy, to make the broad-sweeping assumption that this view was that of the new wave of post Roman, post 2005, post Munich “Johnny Come Lately” half-and-half scarf-wearing new supporters that have sprung up in various parts of the world. This is the view, too, of a few of the so-called “old school” fans also; that we should get shot of Mourinho the loose cannon.

On the other hand, we have the pro-Mourinho faction who believe that dispensing with the services of Chelsea’s most successful manager ever – let that sink in – would be a sure sign of idiocy on a grand scale by the Chelsea board. There was even talk in some quarters of allowing the manager a leave of absence in order for him to be with his very ill father in Portugal, and for him to get his head straight after an increasing number of typically rambunctious outbursts. The view was that Mourinho was “one of our own” and that the club “owed him one.” This is more in line with my feelings. Did you expect anything else?

But I am not a fawning sycophant either. I certainly acknowledge our manager’s odd idiosyncrasies. Some of his outburst have made me cringe. And yes, Mourinho is a cantankerous bugger at times – though, which successful manager isn’t? – but I take great stock in the wise words of respected former players who continually triumph our manager’s fastidious preparations, tactical nous, man-management skills and his love of the club.

Some of his decisions this season – well documented elsewhere, I won’t bore you – have been odd. But I honestly have to say that I find it hilarious – I mean, really hilarious – to read the opinions of various Chelsea supporters who sanctimoniously and pompously deride one of modern football’s greatest managers. And yes – I know – we all have opinions. That’s OK. That is a given. What is the famous cliché? “Football is all about opinions.” Yep. But unfortunately, sadly, I have to read some of them.

It’s lovely – just lovely – when a back-bedroom keyboard warrior in Badgercrack, Nebraska, armed with no experience of playing the sport, nor coaching it at any level, but a rich history of gaming skills on FIFA2016 (“we need to buy Bale as he is awesome”), a nerd like devotion to spending a vast fortune on every Chelsea shirt from the past ten seasons (“no, I can’t afford to travel to London to see The Chels”) and a stomach-churning sense of entitlement (“we have to win at least two cups this year”) starts deriding Jose Mourinho.

At around 6pm, Glenn noted on Facebook that some Chelsea supporters were already ensconced in a few Stoke boozers.

“Tell them we’re still at Walsall, stuck in the last round.”

Eventually, I was parked up. It was bang on 7pm. Just right. I had predicted a crowd of around 20,000, but the roads around the stadium were full of cars. On the slow ascent up the hill and over the canal, the lights of the stadium lit up the darkness of a Staffordshire evening. Inside the stadium, it was soon clear that we had brought reassuringly large numbers up to The Potteries on this Tuesday night. The away section – an entire end, just like my first visit for that FA Cup tie in 2003 – was filling up nicely. This was a great show of strength from the Chelsea support.

There were rumours that the entire Chelsea board had traveled up for the game. I have to be honest, I was surprised by my reaction to this. At first I thought “ah, good for them – showing support for the team and manager.” But then, another thought entered my head.

“Wait a bloody minute. Shouldn’t they be at every bloody game? We are.”

There is no doubt, though, that certain sections of the media would be twisting this story, putting extra pressure on the manager, with something along the lines of “Chelsea board in crisis meeting at Fenton Travel Lodge as pressure mounts on Mourinho.”

Pah.

We had discussed options for the evening’s team on the drive up.

In the end, the manager went with Begovic, Baba Rahman, Terry, Cahill, Zouma, Mikel, Ramires, Oscar, King Willian, Hazard, Diego Costa.

Before the game, the crowd were treated to the appearance of some members of the League Cup winning team of 1972. In normal circumstances, this would not illicit much of a reaction from the Chelsea following, but the mere mention of the name Gordon Banks meant that these players were given a good round of applause as they posed for photographs. Banks, a World Cup winner in 1966, is one of our most revered football icons. I last saw him at a Tony Waddington testimonial at the old Victoria Ground in the last few months of my life as a student in 1987. It was lovely to see him again, along with some familiar – in my memory – names from the past such as Terry Conroy, Mike Pejic and John Mahoney.

That win – against us of course – in 1972 is Stoke’s only piece of silverware. I wonder if their fans are quite so needy.

There were areas of empty seats in the periphery of the home stands, and a few empty seats in our end, but this was a healthy crowd. The fact that the ticket prices were just £20, and that this was half-term, meant that there were many more schoolchildren in attendance than normal.

With that very quaint, ‘fifties-sounding “We’ll Be With You” song accompanying the teams on to the pitch, the noise was ramped up and the 4,500 or so away supporters were in good voice.

Chelsea began really well, attacking the home end, The Boothen End, away in the distance. This was more like the Chelsea of old, with intelligent passes from Oscar setting Hazard away down the left, and solid work from Mikel and Ramires allowing Willian to shine. Diego Costa looked a threat. We created several chances, though Stoke enjoyed a couple of efforts on our goal too. An overhead kick by Muniesa just dropped over. There was a neatness to our play and it was pleasing to see. Very soon in to the game, the away support rallied behind the manager with loud and extended shouts of his name. It was clear from the onset that the team, the supporters and the manager were as one for this tough encounter.

As it should be on game day.

As I have said before, save the internet jousting for now, and the moans for the bar and car; match days should all be about supporting the team.

A lovely move set up Ramires, but from a very tight angle he could only hit the side netting. It was the closest that we had come.

In the stands, the noise was impressive.

There were songs for Dennis Wise, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Tore Andre Flo.

After a few Stoke challenges were waived away, a new song, born of frustration at West Ham :

“Mourinho’s right, the refs are shite.”

Sadly, Diego Costa was forced to leave the field, after play stopping on two occasions for our medical staff to attend to him. Loic Remy entered the fray. A ferocious effort, again from an angle, from Hazard was blocked well by Butland. Just before the break, Stoke’s best chance of the entire game was snuffed out by a fine falling block by Begovic at the feet of Walters.

There was positive noises at the break; this was better, though the thought of extra-time and penalties (I wouldn’t be back home until around 2am, and I’d have to be up for 6am) loomed large.

Soon into the second period, Stoke took the lead when an unstoppable strike from Jonathan Walters crashed in off the underside of the bar from around twenty-five yards. The goal came out of the blue. It was a rare Stoke attack. We were dumbfounded. Walters reeled away and, for a few moments, was able to forget his nightmare against us in 2013 when he scored two own goals for Chelsea and missed a penalty. The Stoke fans, not as loud these days as ten years ago, belted out “Delilah.”

The mood within the Chelsea end changed a little. We became more anxious. Three visitors from Scotland – Glasgow from their accents – behind me provided a constant barrage of negativity.

“Get about it Chelsea.”

“That Remy is pish, by the way.”

Elsewhere the songs of support were quieter.

I became a little frustrated with the lack of movement, but we kept the ball well. Kurt Zouma was an unlikely threat on the right and he crashed a low shot against the base of Butland’s bar.

Around me, a few Chelsea fans began singing a song from our recent past which doesn’t get aired too often. I first heard it at a wet Fratton Park in 2010. It slowly grew as more and more fans joined in.

“Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Blind faith, positivism or irony?

I’m not sure.

Mourinho brought on Kenedy for Rahman and Ramires slotted in at left-back. He immediately looked the part and struck a low shot after gliding past a lunge but Butland saved easily. On several occasions, from a grassy knoll behind me, our Glaswegian friends urged the substitute to do the same :

“Shoot, Kenedy.”

Mourinho replaced Ramires with Traore. Things were looking desperate as the ninety minutes neared. To be honest, despite all of our possession, I simply could not see us equalising.

Four minutes of extra-time.

A lifeline.

We won a corner and Willian planted the ball in the six yard box. Like at West Ham on Saturday, King Kurt managed a touch, and the ball fell invitingly for Loic Remy to smash high in to the net.

Get in.

The away end exploded, with bodies falling forward, and arms flailing everywhere. There is nothing like a last minute goal, to win or at least to draw.

“Pish, right?”

Now the Chelsea fans roared the noisiest of the entire match. It was deafening. To add to our joy, Bardsley was sent off for a rash challenge on Kenedy as he broke down below us. I was convinced that we would now prevail. Our confidence would be high, Stoke’s low, and we had the extra man. Let’s win this one boys.

It was more of the same in both periods of extra-time. Tons of Chelsea possession, but unable to break through the Stoke ranks. I loved the way that Mikel was applauded by sections of our support for his steady play throughout the game. He rarely gave the ball away and even played a few fine balls forward. Traore and Hazard came close. The time flew past. Our attempts on goal stacked up, with Stoke only rarely threatening. A fine save from that man Butland from Kenedy was the last effort of the one hundred and twenty minutes.

Penalties.

Although I had witnessed penalties on the summer tour in Charlotte and DC, this would be most Chelsea supporters’ first experience of them since a night in Munich over three years ago.

I was annoyed that they would be taken, like Munich, at the home end.

Stoke – Adam : in.

Chelsea – Willian – in.

Stoke – Odemwingie – in.

Chelsea – Oscar – in.

Stoke – Shaqiri – in.

Chelsea – Remy : in.

Stoke – Wilson : in.

Chelsea – Zouma : in.

Stoke – Arnautiovic : in.

Chelsea – Hazard.

Oh dear. It was all down to Eden, our troubled maestro. A goal for survival, or a miss and a continuation of his personal nightmare. A goal to save Mourinho more misery, or a goal to go in to sudden death. A goal for survival. His run up was relaxed, but his high blast was spectacularly palmed over by Butland. He slumped. We all slumped.

I gathered my bag and quietly and quickly left.

During the entire evening, there had been nothing but noisy encouragement from the travelling hordes, and this tide of positivism continued as I joined in the clapping of the players as they left the pitch. There was certainly no hint of any boos.

It had been a tough loss, but there were lots of fine things to come out of the night.

A phenomenal away support had roared the team on. On another night, in any other season apart from this one, we would have won easily. This season, we seem fated to miss out, occasionally by the narrowest of margins. As I drove home, there were similar messages of hope being shared by many. Glenn, his away games a rare treat these days, had bloody loved it.

It was a tiring drive home. As I turned off the M4 at Bath, I was plagued with heavy fog lapping at my car, which meant that – painfully – I had to slow right down. I eventually reached home at 1.45am.

It had been, I’ll be honest, an enjoyable evening and night in Staffordshire.

There were more positives than negatives.

I’ve seen us lose so many over the years, that one more won’t kill me.

And I always love a sing-song with four thousand close friends.

IMG_3887

Tales From The Season’s Final Quarter

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 4 April 2015.

Maybe it is because Chelsea are now no longer participating in the latter stages of either the F. A. Cup or the European Cup that the end of this current season, to me at least, seems nearer than it actually is. Prior to our home game against perennial scrappers Stoke City, there were still a full nine games left of 2014-2015. Yet, it seemed like the first week of May, let alone April. We still have almost a full quarter of the season still to play. Our final league game is at the ridiculously late date of Sunday 24 May. Yet in some quarters, it appeared that the title was virtually ours. I was having none of that. Knowing Chelsea, there might still be a way for us to bugger it up at the last minute. Our form, let’s all admit it, hasn’t been too brilliant over the past few months. The swashbuckling exuberance of autumn seems distant. Our last excellent league performance was in Swansea at the start of the year.

It was agreed in the car and in the pub beforehand that a win against Stoke was all that mattered.

“Three points is king.”

It had been a busy pre-match, as they always seem to be these days. There was a slightly surreal feel to everything as I still tried to come to terms with the loss of my mother; these are tough days and nights. The cliché is that Chelsea would be there for me as an emotional crutch, but I wasn’t convinced.

As I walked to and from Stamford Bridge to meet up with friends from near and far, my mind was finding it difficult, if I am honest, to concentrate too much on the game.

I had travelled up to London with Lord Parky, Bournemouth Steve and also Dean. Dean is one of the many northerners in the Chelsea ranks, from Yorkshire, and who I have known for a few years. He has spent a while back-packing in Asia with his wife, but is now retired and house-sitting in a village south of Bath, no more than eight miles away from my home. It was lovely to have him aboard.

As I took my seat alongside Alan and Steve, I spotted a rather poor turnout from The Potteries. If the smaller allocation is 1,400, then surely no more than half of the seats were being utilised. Maybe 600 “Stokies” had travelled down.

Overhead there were clouds and the temperature was far from spring like. An impressive Arsenal win against the fading Liverpool had kept the pressure on us.

“Three points is king.”

On the large TV screens, a montage of images accompanied “Blue Is The Colour” being played over the PA. Our club anthem, of course, was in the charts back in 1972 to accompany our appearance in that year’s Football League Cup Final against Stoke City. I was a Chelsea fan by then, of course, though I do not remember one iota about that game. For the record, the Chelsea first game that I can definitely remember is the opening game of the 1972/1973 season against Leeds. Yes, them.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the sets of large blue flags – as per usual – began their journey around both tiers of the MH and the top tier of The Shed. I just happened to notice that the one in The Shed – Chelsea FC London SW6 – was temporarily stalled just off-centre. It was stalled for a reason. Above and below it, fans were holding up a few extra banners to provide a pre-match tableau.

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED.

CHELSEA FC LONDON SW6.

RUINING FOOTBALL SINCE 2003.

I took a photograph to capture it for posterity. Good work. The “ruining football” tagline is featured in a famous Chelsea sticker going the rounds at the moment and, as if I really need to explain it, makes an ironic nod to the fools who put all of modern football’s ills squarely at the feet of Roman Abramovich.

The team that Jose Mourinho had chosen did not include Diego Costa. There had been reticence in his voice during Good Friday’s press conference when he was questioned about our hitman’s chances of playing against Stoke City.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Remy.

It seemed odd to see us attacking the MH in the first-half. I commented to Alan that we don’t often do this. I remembered a last minute match-winner, a screamer, from Frank Lampard, which beat Stoke in 2009, scored at The Shed. But most last-minute winners have always been at “my” end.

As the game got going down below me, I couldn’t help notice – again – the ridiculously varied, and bright, variety of football boots on show. There were blues, whites, yellows, limes, pinks and oranges. I spotted that just one player, Nemanja Matic, was wearing predominantly plain black boots. I then rolled my eyes when I noticed that the soles were pink. Among the Stoke players, the predominant colour was orange. Many players had them. Red socks and orange boots. Ugh. This surely represented the nastiest jarring of colours seen at a Chelsea match since the ridiculously red-headed David Hopkin appeared in the particularly awful tangerine and graphite away kit in around 1995.

Chris : “JT, you’re a bloody defender. Why on earth aren’t you wearing plain black football boots?”

JT : “I know, but I have no say. I get paid thousands of pounds by Nike to wear them.”

Chris : “OK, no worries. By the way, I’m charging you £2,500 for this interview.”

JT : “About those black boots.”

We dominated everything in the first-half. Two early chances from Loic Remy, the match-winner at Hull, gave us a sense of hope. Further efforts from Hazard and Oscar followed. Stoke attacks were rare. For all of our possession, there was a typical growing anxiety among the home fans as the minutes passed by with no goal. Oscar was pretty quiet. Matic’ passing was off. Fabregas seemed to want an extra touch. There wasn’t the intensity of previous months. The team looked lacking in confidence at times.

Thankfully, on thirty-eight minutes, a run from Fabregas was found by Willian. His quick turn was too much for the Stoke defender Wollscheid (who?) and a clumsy challenge gave the referee no option.

Eden Hazard calmly rolled the ball past Begovic.

The crowd responded with a guttural roar.

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

Chris : “Come on my little ducks.”

Stoke responded in typical fashion, leaving Fabregas bloodied after a challenge by Charlie Adam. Just before half-time, the Chelsea crowd were howling after a tackle on Hazard down below me was not punished, but as the ball was moved out to that man Adam, few of us could have been prepared for what followed.

Inside his own half, by around ten yards, the unlikable midfielder looked up, spotted Thibaut Courtois off his line, and pummelled a shot high into the air. It carried on and on, and although hit with precision and pace, seemed to take forever to reach its intended target. The back-peddling Courtois leapt but could only palm the ball into the net. The away supporters, quiet until then, roared in delirious pleasure.

Courtois could not be blamed surely. It was a stunning goal. When it was replayed back on the screens at the break, the strike was applauded by a few in the home areas. That doesn’t happen too often.

Jose replaced the miss-firing Oscar with Diego Costa to offer support to Remy. However, after just ten minutes, Diego pulled-up with a hamstring problem. This was a massive blow and I wondered if things, on the small scale of the match and of the large scale of the season, just got a lot lot worse. Didier Drogba was introduced. The dices were being rolled. Thankfully, the home crowd, realising that the team needed us, got going. The atmosphere had been so-so in the first-half so I was very thankful, and rather surprised if I am honest, to see things improve rapidly.

Down below me in the MHL, the spectators – standing, always standing – provided a riot of noise, with the “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” chant going on for a while (with associated clapping – which the MHU joined in with.) It was a lovely sight and sound. I had warned two first-time visitors from Washington DC about the lukewarm atmosphere at games of late, but I was so happy for them that this surprising din was turning The Bridge into a proper stadium once more.

Just after the sixty-minute mark, a poor clearance by Begovic was picked up by Willian. He moved the ball to Eden, who selflessly played in Remy.

2-1, yes.

The crowd erupted again.

Phew.

Rather strangely, Mourinho immediately replaced the goalscorer with Juan Cuardrado.

N’Zonzi hit the outside of Courtois’ right hand post.

The atmosphere inside the stadium grew tenser with each passing minute. This was certainly not an enjoyable game of football. With an equaliser only one kick away, nobody could relax. Begovic miraculously stopped Cuardrado not once but twice from close range. The seemingly endless list of Stoke players receiving yellow cards continued as substitute Crouch launched a scissor attack on the resilient, and brilliant, Hazard.

Four minutes of extra-time was signalled and as the last few seconds ticked by, my eyes were on referee Jonathan Moss.

He blew.

We sighed.

“Three points is king.”

On the walk out of the stadium, one phrase was often repeated.

“Bloody hell, let’s hope that the last eight games are not all like that.”

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