Tales From The Second-Half

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 December 2019.

I was sitting in a cosy corner of “The St. James Tavern” just off Piccadilly Circus with PD and Lord Parsnips. There was just time for a couple of scoops before it was time to head on up the Piccadilly Line to Arsenal. Pints of Peroni had been poured, but not just any pints. At £6.30 a go, these were – I am quite sure – the most expensive pints in the UK that we had ever purchased. Bloody hell, they must have seen us coming. In fact, they certainly had seen us coming; we had popped in at 11.30am but had been unceremoniously told “no alcohol until midday” so we just had a little meander to kill some time, so imagine our annoyance when we re-entered at 11.55am to see some punters with pints three-quarters imbibed already.

“Oh, so you were serving alcohol before midday then.”

The bar staff chose to ignore me. To be honest, two pints was ample, but it was a shame they were a little rushed. The day had started off quietly – I was away at 8am – and the weather outside was mid-winter bleak, but at least with no rain. We had again parked-up at Barons Court – like last Sunday, bang on time at 11am, a three-hour trip exactly on target – and I liked the fact that right in front of me was a car with a Chelsea number plate – JC03 CFC – and I wondered if the owner had driven in like myself or was a local. Either way, I looked on it as a good omen.

There was a good deal of symmetry about the game at Arsenal.

We had played nineteen games. The end of the first-half of the season had been completed. The last away day of the first-nineteen games was also in North London, at Tottenham, and the first away game of the second nineteen games was just four miles away in Islington. Heading into 2020, our twentieth league game of the season was just a couple of hours away.

There and then, I decided to call this particular match report – number 597 – “Tales From The Second-Half.”

It would be rather prescient.

We arrived at a sunny Emirates bang on time at 1.15pm. To be honest, this made a refreshing change. Arrivals at Arsenal are usually ridiculously hurried. Very often, we get in with seconds to spare. I was able to take my time and take a few mood shots outside. Walking over the southern bridge, a statue of Herbert Chapman greets supporters.

It’s a fine statue. I imagined that many of our new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Ted Drake is, let alone Herbert Chapman. Mind you, it’s quite likely that many of Arsenal’s new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Herbert Chapman is. It is a major shame that many believe that football began in 1992, and is even more galling to hear those in the media forever banging on about Premier League records as if all other data has been expunged from the record books.

I was hanging around to make sure the safe transfer of a spare ticket had taken place OK. Although I didn’t need to meet the two parties, I didn’t want to leave them stranded.

At about 1.20pm, I got the OK by text. I could relax a little. I bumped into a few mates. Took some more photos. We weren’t sure, collectively, how to regard this match.

“At Tottenham last week, I would have been happy with a draw. No question. With Arsenal, I feel we need to beat them. We are away, after all. Less pressure. Hopefully more space. But, it could go one of any three ways – a win, a loss, a draw. They’re poor though. Worse than Tottenham.”

Inside the stadium, everything was so familiar. This would be my fourteenth consecutive league visit to this ground; the only game I have missed was when we took 9,000 in that League Cup game in 2013. There was also a ropey League Cup semi in 2018.

It has been a stadium of mixed results.

Thus far in the league –

Won : 4

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

Stepping out of the Arsenal tube, I am always reminded of how magnificent Highbury was. Those art deco stands were beauties. And on the corner of Gillespie Road, as it turns into Drayton Park, is one of my favourite art deco houses of all. I just never seem to have the time to stop and take a photograph. Maybe next season. Can somebody remind me? I consider it a failing of whoever designed the new Arsenal stadium (and that is what it should really be called, it won’t be sponsored by Emirates in twenty years’ time will it?) that there is no reference to the old Highbury ground. Not a single nod. Not one.

It’s an Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

And, I know it sounds silly, but compared to Tottenham’s new home, Arsenal’s pad looks less impressive with every visit. Yes, there is comfort. Yes, every seat is padded (imagine that in 1984 when we scurried out of the Arsenal tube and queued up at the Clock End to squeeze our young bodies onto that large terrace – padded seats in the away end!), yes it’s modern, but it lacks a visual impact, it lacks charm, it lacks intimidation. As my mate Daryl commented in the concourse “it’s like a shopping centre.”

Indeed.

Kerching.

We were down the front for this one, row three. I met up with Alan, Gary and Parky. I tried to remember if the stewards at Arsenal gave me a hard time with my camera; I think I would be OK.

The team news filtered through.

Another outing for the 3/4/3.

I guess it worked at Tottenham.

Arrizabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Mount

I had been in contact with two Arsenal lads that I had met on the outbound trip to Baku in May – it still seems like a dream – but I would not be able to meet up with them for a quick handshake as they were both pushed for time. I wished them well.

Kick-off soon arrived.

As always, we attacked the North Bank in the first-half.

First thoughts?

Yes, it was odd seeing David Luiz in Arsenal red and white. Very odd.

In fact, our former defender was heavily involved in the very first few minutes, jumping and narrowly missing with a header from a cross, attempting an optimistic scissor-kick from inside the box, and a trademark free-kick from outside it. Thankfully, Kepas’s goal remained unscathed. Sadly, despite our manager’s emotional and heartfelt protestations about his under-performing players against Southampton, it was sadly business as usual for the early part of the game. Arsenal seemed more invigorated, livelier, and they put us under pressure from the off.

We managed to create a chance for Mason Mount at the North Bank, Willian working a short free-kick, but his tame shot was saved by Bernd Leno.

Shortly after, a whipped-in corner from Mesut Ozil was headed on at the near post and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nodded in, with our marking awry.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the home areas. It was the first real noise of the entire game.

With their nippy winger Riess Nelson looking impressive on the Arsenal right and with their other players closing space, we drifted in to a very uncomfortable period of play. Our passing was strained, and there was a lack of movement off the ball. Yet again, Toni Rudiger was given the task of playmaker as others did not have the time and space to do so. But he, like others, found it difficult to hit targets. I’d imagine that teams have sussed out the diagonal to Emerson by now. Arsenal were full or funning and intent. They looked by far the better team. To be brutally frank, a better team than Arsenal would have punished us further, because we were not at the races, the amusement arcade, the pantomime or the family outing to Ramsgate. It was dire stuff and the fans around me were huffing and puffing their disdain.

Nothing vitriolic – we save that for the home games – but noticeable.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The usual terrace regulars were regurgitated.

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

“We’ve won it all.”

(We haven’t.)

No, this was poor football. Only Kante and, possibly – only possibly – Kovacic seemed up for the task ahead. Tammy was not involved; of course there was a drought of service, for sure, but there was poor involvement through being unwilling to move his marker.

Just after the half-hour mark, Frank changed it. Off came Emerson, to be replaced by Jorginho. And a change of formation. Dave switched sides, Tomori moved to right back. There was, of course, immediately more solidity in midfield. Emerson was always a steady player – I rated him, generally – but his form has certainly dipped of late. I struggle with his reluctance to take players on when “one-on-one” and he has recently been a subject of the boo boys at games and the ranters on social media.

Our attacking abilities noticeably changed and we, arguably, had the best of it over the last ten minutes of the half. There were half-chances for both teams. However, over the course of the entire half, I think, generally, we had got off lightly. And yet. How many times did Kepa have to scramble to save shots, to tip over, to lunge at an attacker’s feet? Not many.

It wasn’t the best of games.

It was 100 % doom and gloom in the crowded concourse and in the padded seats at the break.

Inside my head : “Frank is new to this game. It’s only his second season as a manager. Has he got it in his locker to motivate the players, to get across his ideas, but to remain calm and focussed too?”

I bloody hoped so.

For all our sakes.

Soon into the second-half, I whispered to Alan.

“Seems like a proper game now, this.”

Tackles were being won, passes were being threaded through, players were running off the ball, this was more fucking like it boys.

A special mention for Jorginho. Excellent.

How to accommodate both him and Kante in their strongest positions?

This season’s $64,000 question.

On the hour, fresh legs and a fresh player for that matter. Making his debut as a replacement for Tomori was Tariq Lamptey.

Bloody hell, he looked about twelve.

Even I would tower over him.

He was soon involved, and impressed everyone with a turn and run into the heart of the Arsenal defence before slipping a ball right into the path of Tammy Abraham. The steadily improving striker’s first time shot was blocked by the long legs of David Luiz. There was the usual noise of discontent about Tammy not shooting earlier, but – honestly – he struck it first time and I am not sure he could have reacted any quicker.

Dave headed tamely over.

The final substitution took place; number 20 Callum with 20 to go.

Again, he looked lively from the off, and seemed more comfortable in his own skin, dancing past players and intelligently passing to others. Behind all this was the magnificent work rate of Kovacic, Kante, Jorginho – some splendid tackles, one nasty one, unpunished – and Willian looked a different player.

“Come on Chelsea.”

“Come on you blue boys.”

“Come on Chels.”

A simple header from Tammy at a corner was straight at Leno. A yard either side and we would have been celebrating.

At the other end, a rare Arsenal chance, but Joe Willock, the silly pillock, swept it wide.

A second goal then would have killed us.

Throughout the game, I thought the home areas were dead quiet. Only when they sensed a home victory did they bother.

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

Seems the Arsenal fans have remembered the old stadium in the new stadium, even if the architects hadn’t.

The minutes ticked by.

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

On eighty-three minutes, I steadied my camera to snap Mason as he weighed up the options before taking a free-kick just fifteen yards from me. He swiped and I snapped. I saw the ‘keeper miss the flight of the ball and I exploded as Jorginho tapped the ball in to an empty net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

That I managed to get any photo at all of the delirious scenes is a minor miracle.

Beautiful.

Three minutes later, Chelsea in the ascendency, we found ourselves momentarily defending deep. The ball broke, and I thought to myself “here we go” and brought the trusty Canon up to my eyes. Over the next thirty seconds or so, I took twenty-seven photos – and the better ones are included. The strong and purposeful run from Tammy – up against Shkodran Mustafi – and the pass outside to Willian. The return pass.

I steadied myself, waiting for the moment – “We’re going to fucking win this” – and watched as Tammy turned a defender – Mustafi again, oh bloody hell – and prodded the ball goal wards.

Snap.

Right through his legs.

FUCKING GET IN.

Pandemonium in the South Stand, pandemonium in South Norwood, pandemonium in Southsea, pandemonium in South Korea, pandemonium in South Philly.

I felt arms pushing against me – I steadied myself – but missed Tammy’s slide. But I captured the rest, more or less. What a joy to see the players – Tammy especially – so pleased.

Tales From The Second-Half?

You had better fucking believe it.

Screams, smiles, roars.

“Scenes” as the kids say.

I prefer to call it “Chelsea Soup.”

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were in our element. One song dominated. It dominated at Tottenham a week previously and it took over the away end at Arsenal.

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

(I whispered an add-on – “but not this season.”)

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

It was our Christmas carol for 2019.

Tammy fired over in the last few minutes, but we did not care one jot.

The whistle blew and we roared.

We had done it.

No, wait, Frank had done it, Tammy had done it, the players had done it.

We had played our part, but the players had stepped up.

Top marks.

Inside my head : “So, so pleased for Frank. These have been worrying times. And so pleased for Tammy. He may not be a Didier or a Diego, but he gets goals. Well done him. Until it changes and we have an alternative, let’s sing his name.”

Won : 5

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

The players came over. As some returned to walk towards the tunnel, Frank turned them around. The manager wanted his charges to thank us. I clambered onto my seat and snapped away. Smiles everywhere. Just lovely.

Tottenham Mark Two.

Franktastic.

There was no rush to leave the stadium. My car at Barons Court was safe. As with last January’s game, we dropped into a Chinese restaurant on the Holloway Road for some scoff. We made our way slowly back, via the tried and tested Piccadilly Line once again, reaching my car at 6.30pm. We eventually made it home for 9.30pm, another six hours in the saddle.

No doubt many Chelsea supporters / fans / wannabees had been venting huge displeasure on every platform available about our ropey first-half performance, but I think that they might have failed to realise that a game is just not a first-half, a season is not nineteen games, this project will not be finished in May.

Chelsea is for life, not just for Christmas.

Next up, we play our first game of 2020 at Brighton.

Another away game.

Frankie says relax.

Postscript 1.

I recently joined in with the Facebook Ten Football Images In Ten Days “thing.” One of them was the cover of the “Shoot” annual of 1973. I chose it for a couple of reasons. I was in hospital in December 1972 for a minor operation. Gleefully it meant that I was able to miss taking part in the school nativity play which would have bloody terrified me. I can distinctly remember – as a pre-Christmas present I guess, a “pick-me-up” – a copy of this said publication. I remembered buying a normal copy of the weekly “Shoot” earlier that autumn while on holiday in North Wales (I can even remember that an Arsenal vs. Manchester City game was featured in the centre pages; a game that I had seen on “The Big Match” that involved Brian Moore getting very opinionated about an Arsenal handball on the line that stopped a City goal, but was not given as a penalty. I remember a very irate Francis Lee. VAR anyone?) This annual featured a photograph of my Chelsea hero Peter Osgood climbing high in the Highbury sun to win a header against Frank McLintock, the rugged Scottish centre-back. This book played a big part in my growing love of football. I can even remember a feature.

“Chelsea’s Deadly H Men.”

Step forward John Hollins, Peter Houseman, Ron Harris, Ian Hutchinson, Marvin Hinton and Alan Hudson.

Sadly, I lost my copy.

Imagine my happiness when I spotted an edition in the shop window of a second-hand shop in Frome about twelve years ago. What luck.

I snapped it up.

It brought back some lovely memories.

Frank McLintock, whose eightieth birthday was on the Saturday, was featured in a half-time chat on the pitch during the game. It was good to hear his voice. These players of our childhood are starting to leave us now. It’s so sad.

I almost thought about renaming this “A Tale Of Two Franks” but that has already been taken.

Postscript 2.

As we leave one decade, and enter another, time to reflect a little. It has been a wild time. Late on, after I had flicked through some photos and just before I settled down to watch “MOTD2”, I posted this on Facebook and I think it struck a chord because it has been shared twenty-two times already.

“2010 : League & FA Cup.
2012 : FA Cup & Champions League.
2013 : Europa League.
2015 : League Cup & League.
2017 : League.
2018 : FA Cup.
2019 : Europa League.

10 trophies in 10 seasons. Please excuse me if I am not too bothered about winning fuck all for a bit.”

May I wish everyone a happy new decade.

Keep the faith.

See you all at Brighton.

Tales From My Football Timeline

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 April 2015.

For the first time in ages, I spent a Saturday morning at work in Chippenham. However, with the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game not kicking off until 5.30pm, I was still able to finish at midday and reach London in good time. Glenn had collected PD and Parky en route. I then took over and headed in to London.

If I am honest, I was slightly nervous about the early-evening game. Without Diego Costa to cause panic and concern in the United ranks, and with a few key players hitting a dry spell, I was very wary that we just might be catching an in-form United at the wrong time. I soon commented to my three companions that a draw would suffice. A win would be lovely, of course, but I was aware that we were not, collectively, setting the bar too high. We were becoming as pragmatic as our manager.

“A draw against United this weekend and a draw at Arsenal next weekend and we can start thinking that the league really is ours.”

The game at Stamford Bridge, however, was not the only football match troubling me. My local team Frome Town had lost on the previous Wednesday to a gut-wrenching last minute goal at local rivals Paulton Rovers and with two games left of the season, were only three points clear of relegation from the Southern League. A little part of me toyed with the notion of watching the first-half of the Slough Town vs. Frome Town game before heading in to London.

I decided against it. Who the hell watches halves of football games? Not me.

Heading east along the M4, the weather was magnificent. It was a lovely day for football. I spotted a few Reading scarves and immediately dismissed the afternoon’s FA Cup Final as unimportant, and not worthy of further thought. This, in a nutshell, shows how the importance of that once revered competition has decreased.

The game at 5.30pm would be my thirty-third Chelsea vs. Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, dating back to a Saturday just after Christmas in 1984 – Glenn was with me on the benches, and I am sure many readers were there too  – when I set eyes on those famous red shirts for the very first time.

Thirty-three games. It’s quite a number. I have only seen the reds of Liverpool more often than the reds of Manchester at The Bridge. Interestingly – or not, as the case may be – a split of the first sixteen games and the second sixteen games against United reveals a seismic shift in results.

1984 to 2002.

Chelsea wins : 3

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 8

2002 to 2014.

Chelsea wins : 9

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 2

The two losses against United in that second period are quite recent too; a Champions League defeat in 2011 and a League defeat in 2012. For quite a while at Stamford Bridge, we have held the upper hand.

Among the wins, two stand out.

The 5-0 annihilation in 1999.

The 3-1 title-clincher in 2006.

Two of the happiest of days in almost forty-five years of supporting Chelsea.

Where does the time go?

Where did the time start?

I am sure that I am not the only Chelsea supporter who often thinks back upon the first few moments of our support and attempts to discover the defining moment when Chelsea became our team and our club. I’ve personally tied this down to a moment in my primary schoolyard in the first few weeks of spring term 1970 and those events have been detailed here before. As I have been coming to terms with the events of the past two months, there have been many hours spent thinking back on my childhood years.

Another trip down memory lane coming up everyone.

I am sure that I am not alone in my quest to attempt to assemble some sort of time-line of devotion, possibly involving memories of certain early games, conversations with friends, TV clips, pictures, favourite players and the like, which aid us to remember those critical moments when Chelsea became our team.

After my first game in 1974, it’s easy, remarkably easy. Before that, things get a little blurred.

Of course, some of my earliest memories involve Chelsea’s appearances on TV and of other games too. Knowing my parents, it is very likely that I was not allowed to stay up to watch “Match of the Day” on Saturday nights on BBC1 in the first few years of my growing love of football – let’s say 1970 to 1972 – because of the 10pm start. My TV-watching in these years was, I think, limited to watching ITV’s “The Big Match” on Sunday afternoons. Yes, the memories of this are clearer. I even have feint recollections of a sun-drenched Stamford Bridge in the days of the old East Stand, prior to its destruction in the summer of 1972. The earliest football game per se that I can ever remember seeing is the 1972 FA Cup Final, when an Alan Clarke header gave Leeds United a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Which is the first Chelsea game that I can remember watching? I’m pretty sure that it is the Chelsea vs. Leeds United home opener in August 1972 – with me, just over the age of seven – when 51,000 crammed in to a three-sided Stamford Bridge to see a 4-0 win, no doubt abetted by the fact that Leeds’ goalkeeper was injured and was replaced by Peter Lorimer. Typically, Peter Osgood scored.  In that season, I can also remember the Chelsea vs. Arsenal FA Cup game in March 1973, when there was an incredible buzz in the village school leading up to the match. Peter Osgood’s screamer in that game won the goal of the season that year. I also remember seeing the highlights of the replay on the nine o’clock news the following midweek, after pleading with my parents to allow me to stay up later than normal to watch. I can remember the sadness of defeat from that evening forty-two years ago.

I also recollect the very last game of that season, which involved the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge. After the scenes of chaos at the Leeds game – which must have involved trying to force 41,000 into two end terraces – it was decided to limit the attendance at Stamford Bridge to a more reasonable figure. From memory, 44,000 still assembled for the United game. I am sure that it was not the first time that I had seen United on TV, but it is the first United match that I can remember – which is the point here – seeing. Both teams were struggling that season, but the large attendance was mainly due to the fact that it would be Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United. Although Chelsea won that afternoon – Peter Osgood again, scored – my abiding memory is of the hullabaloo surrounding Charlton. I can distinctly remember the Stamford Bridge crowd – no doubt bolstered by thousands of visiting United fans, maybe not all wearing red favours – singing “We all love you Bobby Charlton.”

I am sure that this song was sung at the village school on the Monday, possibly by the younger children watching us older boys playing football on the school yard. I am also positive that a few of us re-enacted Peter Osgood’s goal in that game too, when he almost stumbled as he forced the ball over the line. His “to camera” shrug of the shoulders, as he was kneeling in The Shed End goal, was impersonated by me for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet Peter Osgood on several occasions and I was very honoured to be able to shake Sir Bobby Charlton’s hand as he brushed past me at Old Trafford last season.

Two iconic players from my early football world remembered.

Bless them both.

A Chelsea vs. Manchester United match first appeared on my football timeline, then, in April 1973.

Incidentally, while at the Frome Town match on Wednesday, I was rather taken aback when my friend Steve announced that the very first Frome Town game that I had seen – with my mother – was neither in 1971 nor 1972 as I had first thought but, in all probability, as early as 1970, when I was just five. Let me explain. During a summer holiday at a Dorset caravan site, I often played football with a former Bristol Rovers player called Mike Brimble, who was now playing for Frome. My father didn’t tend to like kicking a ball around with me – I remember he often used to “toe poke” the ball, which I didn’t approve of – ha – but I spent many hours kicking the ball to-and-forth with this chap from the adjacent caravan. There is no doubt that, during the kick-abouts with Mike, on hearing that I was a Chelsea supporter, that he would have mentioned our cup win against Leeds United that spring. And there is no doubt that this would have left a lasting impression on me.

After a week or so, my mother took me to see Frome Town play…we lost heavily…and I can remember to this day the little conversation I had with Mike at the end of the game.

“Nice to see you could make it Chris.”

I was so happy that he remembered my name.

I always thought that it was in 1971 or 1972, but Steve told me on Wednesday that Mike’s last season for Frome was 1970-1971. So, that game – with my mother – was undoubtedly as early as early autumn 1970.

1970 was obviously a defining year in my life.

It was the year that I chose Chelsea Football Club and it was the year that I saw my very first football match.

My football timeline had begun.

While out in the full-to-overflowing beer garden of The Goose, Alan and I spoke about these early moments in our football, er Chelsea, life. The first game that Alan can remember seeing on TV was the 1970 FA Cup Final.

1970.

I’d bet that many Chelsea fans’ timelines began in this year.

1970 and Peter Osgood. One and the same.

I mentioned to Alan about the nervousness that I had with the Frome Town game. His local team, Bromley, were on the brink of promotion from the Conference South to the Conference. We hoped for a triple of wins during the next few hours; Bromley, Frome Town and Chelsea. A text from a Frome Town follower in California – yes, really – informed me that Slough were 1-0 up against Frome. I groaned. He then texted me to say that the team three points below Frome, Arlesey Town, were a goal up at the high-flying Truro Town. I groaned again. If it stayed like this, it would all go to the last game of the season and relegation would be a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere in the beer garden, there were mixed thoughts about the upcoming game. Some were positive, some were cautious. We prayed for a fit Loic Remy leading the line. When we heard that Didier Drogba had been chosen, our spirits sank a little. At 36, he is not the man of 2012. I reconfirmed my view that a draw would be good enough for me.

Then, better news…Frome town had equalised at Slough Town.

“Yes.”

Then, just after 4.30pm, came some wonderful news.

Truro City 2 Arlesey 1 .

I punched the air.

Fantastic. In the end, Frome drew 1-1 and Arlesey lost 3-1.

Safe, barring a deluge of goals next Saturday, for another season. Bromley, meanwhile, had beaten Weston-Super-Mare 3-0. Beautiful.

Outside the West stand, I took a long-overdue photograph of Alan in front of the Peter Osgood statue.

We were inside with fifteen minutes to spare. The United hordes were already in good voice. I noted two flags playing on the point of United fans being “Manchester Born & B(red)” as if they have to constantly state, to the point of tedium, about Manchester being their territory and not City’s. Anyway, the United fans always put on a good show and they didn’t disappoint, singing loudly, in the first-half especially.

There was nothing but pure blue skies overhead. Despite the bright sun, there was a cold wind which blew in and around Stamford Bridge throughout the game. As the sun lowered, changing shadows formed different geometric shapes across the pitch and the towering East Stand.

So, the team.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Ivanovic – Zouma, Matic – Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar – Drogba.

The big news was King Kurt alongside Matic, with Fabregas pushed forward. We presumed Jose wanted to toughen up that area, with a nod towards the improving Fellaini.

The first-half was a mainly frustrating affair. We began well, but United soon started pushing the ball around, and I lost count of the number of times that our right flank was exposed. Ivanovic, the former centre-back, tends to drift inside too often for my liking. Ahead of him, Oscar provided little cover. United peppered our goal with a few long range efforts, but thankfully their shooting was amiss. I noted how deep Wayne Rooney was playing. We gave him, and others, too much time and space. I longed for our midfield to get closer. It was Rooney who struck a shot against the back stanchion of the goal, and it looked to me – and the away fans – that it was a goal. I looked at Alan in disbelief.

As Juan Mata, much loved during his relatively short spell with us, walked over to take a corner down below us, the Matthew Harding stood and clapped generously. It was a fantastic moment. I am trying hard to remember the last time we gave a former great a hard time.

A run by an energised Fabregas deep in to the penalty box at the Shed End raised our spirits. But, our chances were rare. Drogba battled on, but often his touch ran a yard too short or too long for the supporting midfielders. United continued their dominance of the ball, and only rarely did our midfielders bite at their heels. The atmosphere was good, though. The underperforming Chelsea team was thankfully not matched by the support in the stands.

We roared the boys on.

With the half-time interval in sight, John Terry broke up another United move and fed the ball to Fabregas, who in turn passed to Oscar, now central. As soon as Oscar adeptly back-heeled the ball in to the path of a raiding Hazard – a magnificent touch – I sensed a goal. Eden calmly advanced and slotted the ball in to the United goal.

Inside, my body buzzed. There was only one thing for it. There is a walkway right behind where I sit and I leapt up the three steps to my right, took off my sunglasses, and just jumped up in the air continually for a few seconds.

Joy unbounded.

…while thinking “I bet I look like a right twat, I’m almost fifty, not five, but what a bloody goal.”

There were smiles of relief everywhere and The Bridge boomed.

“We’re top of the league.”

At half-time I sent a text to a mate ;

“Bit lucky. Only got closer to them in the last quarter. Cesc looks a bit livelier. Great goal. Utd have too much space down our right. But…halfway to paradise.”

Into the second-half, the first big chance fell to us. Matic won the ball and played the ball on for Drogba. I immediately wished for a time machine that could send Didi back to his powerful and absurdly potent form of five years ago, fearing that Smalling would easily deal with him. To be fair, Didier assembled just enough strength to stab a ball at De Gea, despite Smalling’s attentions. The ball took a bizarre path towards goal, deflecting off both United players, but landing just too far past the far post for the on-rushing Hazard to control. In the end, he did so well to get any attempt in on goal. Bizarrely, his flick touched the ball up on to the bar.

Zouma grew throughout the game. His war of attrition with Fellaini was pure box office. Ramires replaced  Oscar. Juan Mata did not create too much for United; good lad.

Falcao, not firing on all cylinders, cut in on goal in a similar to position to Hazard’s goal, but his powerful shot rose and hit the side netting. The atmosphere remained noisy throughout the second half, but there was incredible tension as the game grew older. United still dominated. Chelsea constantly defended well. It was, no doubt, a typical Mourinho performance. I would have liked to have seen more attacking verve, of course, but our time for that had passed. The salad days of autumn are over; it’s now all about putting meat on the plate.

Juan Mata received a fantastic and heartfelt round of sustained applause as he was substituted.

United continued to attack. Shots were dealt with. Nerves were continuing to be frayed.

The last meaningful moment caused immediate concern. Herrera and Cahill met in a corner of our penalty box. From over a hundred yards away, it looked a penalty, to Glenn, to Alan, to me. However, miracles happen and the referee Mike Dean – who had been the target of increasing levels of abuse from the home fans as the game continued – waved it away.

Four minutes of extra time.

We waited, but with fantastic noise continuing to boom around the packed stands.

The final whistle.

Euphoria.

I captured a few shots of players hugging, smiling, and enjoying the moment.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out.

After clapping us, they began to walk away, but John Terry dragged them back and, in a tight line facing the Matthew Harding, they stood.

Their joy was our joy. United in triumph.

One step closer. Ten points clear. Mind the gap.

There was another notch on my football time line.

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Tales From The Stalemate

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2013.

Chelsea Football Club’s first domestic away game of the fledgling season was a jaw-dropping excursion to Manchester United. However, the programme planners at Sky TV, no doubt in league with their lackeys at the FA, had ordained that the match should take place at 8pm on the bank holiday Monday. The friction of distance may have made life uncomfortable for the 75,000 attendees, but larger obstacles were likely to be overcome during the 2013-2014 season.

We’ll be there.

I was hoping that the drive from my village in rural Somerset to the red brick and white steel of Old Trafford might take around three-and-a-half hours; surely there wouldn’t be too much bank holiday traffic on the M5 during the early afternoon? I pulled out of my drive bang on 1.30pm and began the long drive north. The weather was stunning; blue skies, warming sun, just perfect. For others, the bank holiday was in full swing, with trips to the seaside, country pub lunches, village fairs, pony rides, cycling trips, triathlons and picnics. As I headed towards the next village, the roadside hedges were ripe with blackberries amidst the brambles; I wondered what pickings lie ahead for Chelsea later that evening.

My soundtrack for the early afternoon – yes, the traffic was fine, remarkably light – consisted of The Kings Of Leon and The Ramones. I usually head off to Raintown with New Order and The Smiths blaring at me, but I fancied a change. This was a new era, in more ways than one. Sir Alex Ferguson had finally relinquished his vice-like grip on the day to day operations at United, while our very own handsome devil Jose Mourinho was limbering up to have a tilt at Fergie’s able successor David Moyes. It seemed only a few months ago that Moyes was being touted as Chelsea’s next incumbent. In reality, the thought of Moyes at Chelsea now just seems too implausible for words.

No. Jose was back and this was a match made in heaven.

Moyes versus Mourinho.

Boom.

I raced past The Hawthorns and then the Bescot Stadium. I didn’t see my first “football car” until I had passed Stoke; a white mini-bus packed full of replica-shirted United fans from Devon, Dudley, Droitwich or Devizes. Approaching my usual turn-off into Manchester – the A556 – I saw signs that there was heavy traffic expected. My diversion north over the Thelwall Viaduct, the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal worked in my favour. I was parked-up dead on 5pm; as planned, three-and-a-half hours since leaving leafy Somerset. I only hoped that Mourinho’s planning was just as good.

Outside, it was warm. Balmy even. Too hot for Manchester. I parked up in my usual place but a local lass warned me that new parking restrictions were in place – “there’s a game on love, just warning you” – and so I dutifully paid £10 for a parking place in front of an old industrial unit. Then, the short and familiar walk to Old Trafford. It seemed only five minutes since my last visit. This would be my nineteenth Manchester United vs. Chelsea game at Old Trafford; more times, I mused, than most United fans had even thought about visiting.

Songs emanated from The Bishop Blaize once more. I picked out the new song of the moment, to the tune of “Cum On Feel The Noize.”

“Come on David Moyes. Play like Fergie’s Boys. We’ll go wild, wild, wild.”

I was soon drifting in past the United fans, crowding around the chippies, before heading down Sir Matt Busby Way, past the grafters and fanzine-sellers. Dave Johnstone thrust a copy of “CFCUK” in my hand, but a bigger thrill was coming up. None other than Sir Bobby Charlton, looking dapper in a light grey suit and United tie, walked straight across my path. This was too good an opportunity to miss.

“Let me shake your hand.”

What a thrill. A football legend. A survivor of Munich. A World Cup winner. I briefly chatted to two United fans – and a childhood memory soon returned. Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United took place at Stamford Bridge in May 1973 (Chelsea won, Ossie scored) and I can well remember the buzz at school on the Monday when school chums spoke about the “We all love you Bobby Charlton” chants which echoed around the three-sided Bridge that afternoon. I ended my little history lesson for the two United fans – who were oblivious to the Stamford Bridge game – with the words;

“Enjoy the game. I don’t think you’ll enjoy the season, but you might enjoy this game.”

The game…yes, it finally came into my mind. It would be a tough one. United would have guns blazing. Deep down, I easily envisaged a United victory. Pessimist? Realist? I don’t know. I was just aware of the danger of over-confidence. This may be Mourinho, but these were still early early days.

While I waited on the famous United forecourt – under the Munich clock, with the the Sir Matt Busby statue and the Trinity statue nearby – I bumped into a few familiar faces. I noted, with disdain, that the hawkers were peddling hundreds of “half-and-half” scarves to the day-trippers. I then noted that on the reverse of the “Chelsea” half – out of view to the buying public – were the words “You can’t buy class.” I’ve never seen that before; a friendship scarf with a hidden piss-take. I grumbled to myself and moved on.

I was inside at 6.45pm; or rather, huddled in the sauna-like atmosphere of “Bar 68” alongside Alan and Gary, guzzling a Singha from a plastic bottle. There was talk of the new season and specifically the trip to Prague. I’m not going due to work commitments, but we have allegedly sold our full allocation of 4,900, a number which I find staggering. Maybe it’s the Mourinho factor. We sold around 2,000 for Monaco last summer. In 1998, it was nearer 750.

There was much debate amongst the little gaggle of friends about the team that Mourinho had chosen.

No recognised striker. OK. I don’t think anyone could have expected that.

Cech – Brana, JT, Cahill, Ash – Ramires, Lamps – Schurrle, Oscar, De Bruyne, Hazard.

I was amazed that Frank Lampard was chosen again for his third start out of three. Jose obviously likes that Ramires and Lampard combo. But no striker? Not Torres. Not Ba. Not Lukaku. I joked that we were in no position to complain about Jose’s predelictions.

“I don’t even have a road safety badge, let alone an FA coaching badge.”

Was this the Spanish “False Number Nine” formation or the Scottish national team’s “All Oor Strikers Are Shite” formation? I guess we’d soon find out. It certainly seemed that Jose had come for the draw. His formation seemed to suggest defensive pragmatism rather than a swarming offensive formation, with the four advanced midfielders breaking at will. In my head, I thought about containment. United, in comparison had Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.

Gulp.

Inside, the first song on the PA was Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

The stadium seemed to take forever to fill. Time to look around and check any new additions to the formidable array of United banners. Now that the “City clock” is no more, there is a new “clock” – currently depicting the words “20 times.” Never slow in taking a dig at their bitter rivals along the East Lancs Road, there is a sign alongside this lampooning Liverpool –

“Not Nineteen Forever.”

The Chelsea section grew to its full three-thousand strong number. We were in good song. Pre-match, United were quiet. The minutes ticked by. As the teams entered the arena, I noted Jose walking towards the dugouts with his arms around Ryan Giggs, sharing a joke and a laugh.

Soon into the game, Dave Johnstone – stood a few rows in front – was incandescent (Daniel Levy incandescent) with rage at sections of our support whose pronunciation of the simple word “Jose” was incorrect.

FFS Chelsea, at least get his name correct.

“Jo-se” not “Ho-se.”

It’s not rocket science.

With that, Alan alongside me took the Mick out of DJ.

“Honly a pound. Hurry up.”

Maybe he should call himself Dave Hohnstone.

Oh boy.

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centering on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly reveling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

The Chelsea support was roaring, with Van Persie and Rio Ferdinand bearing the brunt of the away fans’ distain. I even blushed at some of the stuff being sung about Rio’s brother. On the pitch, the game struggled to life. Of the four midfielders, we expected new signing Schurrle to take up the central position, but he in fact appeared all of the way along the front line. At times, I confused Schurrle with De Bruyne, such was their propensity to pop up at irregular locations as we pushed forward. The game lacked the expected intensity from the start and the 75,000 crowd soon hushed with very little goal-scoring action on the pitch. A long range poke from Oscar in a central position was virtually our only shot of note in the first thirty minutes. Wayne Rooney, the subject of Jose Mourinho’s apparent desires, buzzed around and looked at ease on the ball, splaying the ball out to the wings and encouraging others with his intelligent prompting.

Chelsea fans joined in with ironic cheering of his name and it wasn’t long before we replicated the Victor Moses chant of last season –

“Wayne Rooney – We’ll See You Next Week.”

United created slightly more than Chelsea in that first period, but Petr Cech was rarely tested. A van Persie shot rippled the side netting, Rooney shot meekly. We could only respond with another lame effort from Oscar and a blooter from Brana which troubled the occupants of the Stretford End rather than de Gea in the United goal. In truth, we had struggled to find any fluidity to our play and I found it frustrating to see Hazard unable to pick out any meaningful runs by his team mates. Compared to previous United Chelsea games, this was a tame affair. Just before half-time, a lone black-shirted United fan in the front row of the upper tier of the East Stand drew the ire of the Chelsea supporters, but it was telling that the away fans chose to mock him rather than pay much attention to the game.

At the break, the away end was subdued. The pre-match optimism had wilted slightly. It had been an uneventful game. As the second-half began, I said to Alan –

“Let’s cut and run.”

I would have taken a draw. No doubt.

United, attacking the Stretford End, began livelier. Welbeck shot wide. Although van Persie was quiet, Rooney was involved in everything. Chelsea, with no real focus to our attack, seemed reluctant to take risks, reluctant to break in any numbers. A Gary Cahill effort from way out was well struck, but at a safe height for de Gea to easily save. At the other end, gallant defending – especially from a magnificent John Terry – kept United at bay. A penalty appeal for handball was dismissed by Martin Atkinson.

On the hour, Mourinho replaced the ineffectual De Bruyne with Fernando Torres. At least we had a focus now, but Torres’ runs were often up blind allies and although he kept possession well, there just wasn’t the cut and thrust that we have grown accustomed to. Our play was laboured. Ashley Cole was unable to dig out any crosses; there was often a paucity of blue shirts in the box anyway.

A wonderful header away by John Terry – easily our man of the match – was then eclipsed by a dive at full stretch from Petr Cech from that man Rooney. As the minutes ticked by…Young for Valencia, Giggs for Welbeck, Mikel for Schurrle, Azpilicueta for Hazard…I was still convinced that United would claim victory with a late goal. The home fans, though, were unconvinced and began leaving with five, maybe ten, minutes to go.

“We’ll race you back to London.”

The last chance of the game came to Patrice Evra whose shot thankfully zipped wide. At the final whistle, there was gentle applause from both sections of the support. There was nothing euphoric from us; it was simply a case of “Classic Jose. Job done. Top of the league.” I am sure that Mourinho approaches these tough away games like European games; keep it tight, win it at home. For the return game later in the season, things will have settled down and we can hopefully anticipate a more positive performance. This was never going to be easy though; in the cold light of day, a draw at Old Trafford is excellent.

As I made my way slowly out, I sensed a definite air of disappointment from the United fans. As I walked up the slight incline of the forecourt, the shouts and jostling was at a minimum. There were odd shouts of “We’re keeping Rooney” but nothing more. As I filtered right onto the Chester Road, I passed United fans shovelling mushy peas and overly-salted chips into their mouths using plastic forks from polystyrene trays. The night was still. The cars began their engines and the lights flickered on. The long journey south was about to begin.

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Tales From The Shed Lower

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 March 2011.

At work in the morning, I had a little chat with one of my work colleagues, a Manchester United fan.

“If you’re involved in the loading of the vehicles today, I want everything done sharpish as I have an evening’s entertainment to attend.”

“Oh, you’re playing tonight are you? Who against?”

“Uh – yeah. You may have heard of them. From Salford. Play in red.”

The penny dropped, and he was full of embarrassment.

Such is the way with United fans, all the world over I guess.

With my workload eventually completed, I left Chippenham at just after 4.30pm and I could relax a little. For once, I was travelling alone. Parky had taken the “slow boat to China” option and had travelled up by coach. Due to concerns about getting away on time, I had warned him that I might be away late. On Monday, for example, I didn’t leave until 6.15pm. A repeat would mean that I would be trapped in rush-hour traffic and would be unlikely to reach The Bridge until half-time. So, Parky caught a coach at 11.30am and eventually reached Earls Court at 3.30pm. By the time I was leaving Chippenham, he was probably on his third pint in The Goose.

As I drove past the Griffin Park floodlights at around 6pm, I switched over to listen to the sports bulletin on the radio. Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that Drogba and Torres would both take part in the game against United, though he didn’t say if both would be starting. After a delay getting in to London, I eventually walked into The Goose at 7pm. Parky was especially glad to see me as it meant that he wouldn’t have to wait around for the 2am return coach trip. James (zippy) from Kansas City had been in touch during the build up to the game and I had pointed him in the direction of The Goose, Parky and the rest of The Bing. He had enjoyed the pre-match hospitality and it looked like a good time had been shared. I took a couple of swigs from Parky’s pint and we were soon on our way up the North End Road. There was a chill in the air but our jackets kept out the cold.

Chelsea versus Manchester United. The Blues versus the Reds. The South versus the North. The Good Guys versus the Forces of Darkness. I have been lucky enough to attend every single one of the last twenty Chelsea vs. Manchester United league games at The Bridge and, of course, there are tons of memories. Our last defeat against them at home was way back in 2002 – we have certainly held the advantage in recent years.

For a change, I had a seat in The Shed Lower – not far from where Lord Parky resides – and I found myself near James, too. Luckily, there was a spare seat next to him, so I soon sat alongside. Our seats were just three rows from the back of the lower tier near the SW corner flag, underneath the overhang. If my memory serves, the last five rows were originally part of an enclosed corporate area when the stand was built in 1997. To be quite honest, the seats were cramped and the overhang gave a claustrophobic feel to the area. I’d hate to watch from there every game – Shed or no Shed. I longed for my usual perch, way up in the Matthew Harding wraparound. However, I had my camera at the ready – as ever – and I was preparing myself for plenty of shots from a different angle for a change.

I had only ever visited the Shed Lower on two other occasions. Ironically, on the fifth anniversary of the passing of the legendary Peter Osgood, I was reminded of that emotional Sunday in October 2006 when I attended The King’s memorial service, including the burial of his ashes at The Shed End penalty spot. Everyone who was there will remember the rain shower during the service, but then the sky lighting up with sun just before the casket was taken to its final resting place. I watched, with quiet and stony-faced reverence, on that saddest of days, from around Gate 5 in the Shed Lower. Then, in May 2007, I was back in the same corner for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United encounter. I took Judy’s boy James – a United follower – along for that one and it was a bitter-sweet experience…we had just relinquished our title to a resurgent United and so we had to give them a guard of honour as they entered the pitch. To be honest, both teams put out B teams and it ended 0-0. It was enjoyable, though, to be able to share my passion for Chelsea with James and he certainly got a kick out of seeing United up close. We had the last laugh, of course, later that month…F.A. Cup winners against United at the new Wembley.

Back to 2011 and all of those United memories evaporated in the noise as the teams entered the Stamford Bridge pitch.

This was here, this was now. Let’s go to work.

Being so low down, I immediately found the viewing position very frustrating. I spent the first few minutes acclimatising myself to my new surroundings. Having been tuned to see Chelsea in a standard 4-3-3 for the past six years, it took me a while to work out if Florent Malouda was the third striker or out wide in a flat 4-4-2. I think it took me all of the game to work it out and, even by the time he was subbed deep into the second-half, I still hadn’t sussed it.

I thought we began brightly and had the majority of the early ball. Fernando Torres was finding himself in lots of good positions and his movement and enthusiastic play was good to see. He seemed to especially enjoy drifting into the space out in that wide area in front of me, and I was transfixed with the way we worked the ball between Torres, Ramires and Ivanovic. It certainly was fantastic to be so close to the action. I snapped away as Branislav, in particular, sent balls into the area. Soon into the game, Anelka sent a ball in to the area from the inside-right berth, only for Malouda to fluff his shot, hitting it straight at Van De Sar. This sort of finishing was often repeated in the first quarter.

After our left-back’s stupidity at the training ground, the Matthew Harding was shouting “shoot” every time he touched the ball. What Ashley thought of this is not known, thank heavens.

Midway through the first period, I spotted Roy Bentley, no more than thirty feet away from me, sitting in the last remaining part of the old corporate area. As The Shed Lower curves around to the West Stand, there is one little private box left – and I got the impression that there were a few players’ wives and partners sat alongside Roy. Despite this being the hottest of tickets, most of the seats in the area were unused.

Then United’s presence grew and dominated the rest of the first-half. Paul Scholes, that old warhorse, was repeating his performance at last summer’s Community Shield, sitting deep and sliding other players in. Our midfield was giving United far too much respect and space and the frustration amongst the nearby home support rose. Rooney headed over on twenty minutes and a cross from Nani screamed across our six yard box soon after. Then, calamity. We backed off as Rooney was allowed to turn and, from about twenty-five yards out, drill a superbly accurate shot into Cech’s goal.

Silence. Not just from the Chelsea support, but for a split second, from the United support too. But then, rather than being subjected to the triumphal roar that I am used to hearing from the away fans, instead there was an eerily muffled noise. I looked over to my right, above the heads of silent Chelsea fans, to the lower tier of the away section. I saw a forest of pumping arms and joyous faces, but – quire bizarrely – the overhang of the top tier and the thousand or so Chelsea fans had acted as noise insulation and the United fans’ obvious roar was ridiculously quiet. What a strange feeling. I’ll be honest, from my position in that cramped corner, I hardly heard a United song throughout the entire game, though I am sure they were in good voice. I suspect that they went through their usual repertoire. The Chelsea support responded with a ditty which amused James; I guess he hadn’t heard it before…

“Live round the corner, you only live round the corner.”

United were in their pomp and our midfield was missing. Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were so poor as to be not worth comment. The moans continued and our support quickly waned. Then, bizarrely, we upped the tempo briefly in the last few minutes of the half and an amazing chance fell to Ivanovic after a goalmouth scramble from a free-kick. From my position, the ball seemed to hang in the air with just the slightest touch required to send the ball over the line, an open goal at his mercy, but the ball didn’t go in. The ball was hacked away amid absolute astonishment from all of us. Astounding. We needed an action replay – “what happened???”

James and I met up with Lord Parky in the crowded area below the seats at half-time and the mood wasn’t great. We wanted Carlo to change something – the shape, the system, something. We weren’t sure what needed to be done – we just hoped for the best. I feared further United goals and humiliation.

Well, what a second-half. Our appetite was noticeably different and our midfield – at last! – pressed United at every opportunity. We grew with each passing minute and the home support grew louder with each thunderous tackle, each rampaging run, each towering header. Every man stepped up and it was a joy to watch.

David Luiz, one of the brighter elements in that staid first half, gave a truly unforgettable performance. He was full of enthusiasm, full of dashing runs, full of character and energy. He made a few reckless tackles to be honest, and he needs to watch that, but the Chelsea crowd immediately warmed to him. Then – his defining moment. From a cross on 54 minutes, the ball was played back to the waiting Brazilian and he slammed the ball into the United net.

What a deafening roar accompanied that strike from Luiz. After riding our luck in that first-half, we were level. With that, we had a lovely spell and our players sensed the chance to dominate a clearly troubled United team. Our defence was supremely marshalled by John Terry and we limited United to just a few chances. On the hour, Carlo changed things and brought on Didier for Anelka. Fresh blood. However, after giving Luiz the slip, Rooney (the target for much abuse from the home support) broke and I feared the worse. I watched, on tenterhooks, as he dribbled closer to Cech and struck a ball which thankfully sailed wide of the far post. On other occasions, Cech’s hands were thoroughly dependable.

The game continued and what a great game it was, full of tempo and pace. The tackles grew fiercer and fiercer. Ramires was everywhere, Torres was running the channels and Drogba was leading the line. Carlo replaced Malouda with Zhirkov and our spritely Russian was soon in the thick of it.

Was it a penalty? I wasn’t so sure. Watching from 100 yards away, it looked like Yuri just ran into the United defender, but to our absolute joy, Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

Oh you beauty.

With my camera poised, I zoned in on Frank Lampard. He placed the ball on the spot. Snap. He nervously pulled up his shorts. Snap. He approached the ball and struck. Snap.

In that split second between me taking the photo and pulling the camera away from my eye, I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on the flight of the ball, so I just waited for the roar.

There was a roar.

We were 2-1 up.

Screams, shouts, arms thrust skywards, hugs with a stranger to my left and with James to my right. What a joyous moment. We grew even stronger, United went to pieces.

In the closing moments, the substitute Ryan Giggs came over to take a corner, no further than ten yards from me. I took a few photographs. I have a lot of time for Giggs – a tremendous player and, surprisingly, a United player who is not loathed and hated by the non-United section of the football fraternity . This was his 606th league game for United. This therefore tied the United record with Bobby Charlton, whose last ever game for United (yes, you guessed it, at The Bridge in 1973…a game I remember seeing on TV, if only for a comical Ossie goal) was featured in the night’s programme.

Alex came on for David Luiz – one Brazilian for another – and Luiz was given a fantastic reception. And still the tackles thundered in. I could see someone getting sent off and, after a couple of rash challenges, Nemanja Vidic was ordered off. Oh boy –it gets better. Of course, the absolute dream ending to this great game would have been El Nino’s last minute shot going in rather than being blocked.

At the final whistle, a huge roar and the PA immediately played “One Step Beyond.” The Bridge was bouncing and nobody wanted to leave. James, thousands of miles from his home in Kansas and over for one game only, was in heaven. We met up with Lord Parky and I could see he was dewy-eyed.

Chelsea does that to you, you know.

With that, Danny and Mike from the New York chapter suddenly appeared and there were more smiles and hugs.

We sauntered – yes, that’s a good word – through the masses of jubilant Chelsea fans on the Fulham Road and the London night was full of Chelsea songs. Danny and Mike disappeared off to a pub – “see you at Blackpool”- but we needed to get home. The resurgence in our play during that excellent second period surely augurs well for the rest of the season. Carlo is in the middle of a testing spell as he needs to plan his assault on the Champions League campaign this year, but he also needs to look to the future and change the personnel for the new season, too. Let’s push on now and see where this team can take us. As we battled the crowds, I told Parky that a third-place finish in the league this year is well within our capabilities.

At the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road, James and I said our goodbyes. He promised a yearly visit to Chelsea in the years ahead and I look forward to welcoming him back. As he headed off towards West Brompton tube, I’m sure I saw him jump up and click his heels.

It had been a lovely, lovely night.

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Tales From The Only Team In London

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 3 October 2010.

This was another manic whirl-wind of a match day at Stamford Bridge – a frantic twelve hours overflowing with travel, chat, laughter, friends and football.

It was a wet and windy Sunday morning and there was considerable “debris” on the road into Frome, following a rough old Saturday night, with small branches and leaves littering the roads. The leaves have started to turn colour over the past week and this felt like a proper autumn day. I collected Glenn and his first words were –

“Yep, it’s a day for the big jackets.”

We picked up Lord Parky and we headed east on the M4, the spray on the motorway making driving a little tiresome. The pre-match vibes were good. We didn’t exactly dismiss Arsenal’s threat out of hand, but we all agreed that we had enough in our collective locker to win the day’s game. Two words alone would strike fear into the Arsenal psyche –

Didier Drogba

It was a very busy pre-match. After a quick breakfast, we left Parky to head into The Goose when it opened at midday, but Glenn and myself hot-footed it down to The Bridge where the clans were gathering. As I turned the corner and headed towards the West Stand, I was able to spot the Peter Osgood statue for the first time. It certainly dominates the West Stand forecourt and quite right too. The statue stands centrally, beneath the club crest, looking out. Initially I thought the body was spot-on, but the face wasn’t that great. However, as I looked at it later, I realised that it was a pretty reasonable likeness. The most important person to judge is The King’s widow Lynn and her praise has been well documented. That’s good enough for me. We met Jules and Steve outside the West Stand, cowering from the rain, then four NYBs soon appeared in the mist – Mike, Stan, Pat and Linda. We then collected the brothers John and George and headed up to spend thirty minutes or so in the Copthorne Hotel. “Kent Blues Gill” was there too…handshakes all round. I acted as cameraman as several group photos were taken of everyone with Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Tambling. Most of “the guests” got to speak with the three Chelsea legends, if only for a few seconds. John especially was bowled over by being able to chat to these former players. A slight glitch with a ticket for John was eventually sorted via a few transatlantic phone calls and all was good.

However, one sight in the hotel bar made me see red ( and blue. )

Two numpties were stood across the way, each wearing Chelsea leisurewear, but with Chelsea / Arsenal friendship scarves tied around their necks. I am not a violent person ( and for those of a delicate disposition, please look away now ), but I was sorely tempted to march over and bang their two heads together, causing severe and lasting pain to them both for the rest of their sad lives.

Instead, I glowered at them as I descended the elevator.

We all heard The Goose calling. I popped back to take a few snaps of the Peter Osgood statue and John and George took photos by the new Chelsea Collage on the perimeter wall. By the time we reached the pub, the place was unsurprisingly rammed, but still offering the best value for pre-match tipples at Chelsea for miles around. I spent my time flitting between the bar, The Bing in the pub and the US guests in the beer garden. The Bing were awash with the usual assortment of Henri Lloyd, Lacoste, CP, North Face, Barbour and the like and I noted that we had all made a “special effort” for Arsenal. The City vs. Newcastle game was on TV, but I gave it a wide berth. In the far corner of the beer garden, we were discussing the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees ( friendship scarves anyone? ), the Ossie statue, the phenomenon of UK-based JCLs, the predilection of Americans to annoyingly quote complete passages of “Monty Python”, John and George’s overuse of the word “Dude”, a host of various Chelsea games from the past and – for a brief moment – Shakespeare.

“Two nil or not two-nil, that is the question.”

All of the NY guests were over for just this one game – a fine effort! Linda’s one previous game at The Bridge was the Wigan 8-0 game last May. I probably said something like “you lucky so-and-so.” Glenn and myself spoke about or friendship which goes back to 1977 and John was lapping up our stories from the past. Parky and his Famous Crutches appeared on the scene and I feared for the two girls who were in our little group. He didn’t disappoint –

“I’m Parky – kiss, kiss.”

As we left, I realised that the rain had stopped and the sun was trying hard to break through. I walked down to the ground with Daryl and we spoke about Bobby Tambling, who scored some 52 more goals than Ossie, but is not well known outside the Chelsea support. He was a fine player in his own right. But it just goes to show how highly Peter Osgood was regarded by us all that Ossie was “the star of that great team,” as the song goes, by quite some margin.

There were a couple of articles about Peter Osgood’s involvement in Chelsea vs. Arsenal games in the match programme, but the game I always remember was the 1973 F.A. Cup quarter-final between the two teams. This is the very first game that I can remember being excited about before it took place. I was seven…my friend Andy Cox ( who I bumped into last week, the first time since about 1992 ) was an Arsenal fan and I was Chelsea. Not sure about the quantity nor quality of the banter in the week before, but I can remember that Arsenal went 1-0 and 2-1 up, only for Hollins ( I think ) and Peter Osgood to equalise. It ended 2-2 and I well remember watching the highlights on TV that evening. Then, on the following Wednesday, I can remember being allowed to stay up to watch the BBC News at 9pm to see brief glimpses of the replay at Highbury. We lost 2-1 and I was heartbroken. But Ossie had the last laugh. On Cup Final day ( when Sunderland beat Leeds United 1-0 ), I can vividly remember that Peter Osgood’s volley at The Bridge was voted “Goal Of The Season.” And there he was – my hero – standing in the TV studio amidst a massive pile of envelopes and postcards with the correct answer and it was Ossie’s job to pick a winner.

I got to hear my hero speak – this was all too much!

We love you Ossie.

There was the usual scrum to get in to the Matthew Harding, but I reached my seat just as the teams came onto the well-watered pitch. Alan and myself quickly scrambled down to the front of the upper tier and held by hand-made Peter Osgood banner aloft for a minute or two. I was hoping that Sky might spot it, but I think it went unnoticed. The US guests were huddled together in the Shed Lower, by the SW corner flag and Mike soon texted me to say he had snapped the banner as it was held aloft.

We weren’t sure if Zhirkov or Ramires would complete the midfield, but Carlo Ancelotti chose the latter. I noted just two Arsenal flags – pathetic.

Within thirty seconds, a Chamakh header flew at Cech’s goal and, from the resultant corner, another header was put over the bar. This seemed to set the tone for the early exchanges. Arsenal – as they do – moved the ball around at will and we seemed to be content to give them space. An Arshavin screamer was saved by Cech, at full stretch, but Arsenal were generally reluctant to shoot. A Nasri shot went narrowly wide, but Cech was largely untroubled.

Didier bore down on the Arsenal goal in the inside-right channel on 34 minutes, but could only force a save at the near post. However, we were getting in to the game and five minutes later, Ramires won a tackle, then slid in Ashley Cole with a perfect pass behind the full back. In front of the Arsenal support, Ashley slid a ball in. Didier arrived and I’ll be honest – I didn’t know how he did it, but I soon saw the ball nestling inside the far post.

We erupted – and I immediately thought of our trans-Atlantic guests being able to see the players celebrate right down in the SW corner.

With the news that Blackpool had won at fellow relegation strugglers Liverpool, the place was buoyant at the break. Lynn and Darren Osgood came on to the pitch to a warm reception and then Neil Barnett walked Erland “Moon Man” Johnsen around the pitch to an equally fine show of affection.

It was more of the same in the second period. Lots of Arsenal possession and mounting nervousness all around me. Arsenal were again goal-shy though and it was Chelsea who managed to carve out the more clear cut chances. Ramires was growing with each passing minute, but Mikel and Essien were the real stars in my eyes. The destructor Mikel, so strong and determined and looking more and more settled in our midfield. The rampaging Essien, no tackle too hard, no challenge too tough, no foraging run too difficult. Ramires set Didier Drogba off with the ball of the game, a delightfully paced pass using the outside of his foot, curving beautifully into Drogba’s run on the left.

Anelka sensed frailty in the centre of the Arsenal defence and pestered the defender into losing the ball. He calmly approached Fabianski, rounded him but then inexplicably hit the side netting. Anelka then lofted the ball into the path of Cole, but his shot into the net was ruled offside. It looked level in our eyes, but maybe we are biased. Chamakh had another clear header, but headed over.

Then, a free kick about thirty yards out. Drogba had taken a few free-kicks during the game, to no avail. The crowd were again bellowing for Alex. I pulled my camera up to my eyes and focussed on the ball. I widened the lens a little to spot Alex’ advance and waited.

A blur of blue – snap! – and I pulled the camera away from my eyes.

The ball flew.

It was a bludgeoning hammer, a swerving thunderbolt, a screaming torpedo. I gasped at its ferocity and, as the back of the net bulged, Stamford Bridge roared like hardly ever before.

A roar from me too, then I honed in on Alex on his run towards the West Lower.

Snap, snap, snap, snap. The look on John Terry’s face as he jumped on top of the huddle of players was really fantastic…one of absolute pleasure. I looked up and the Arsenal fans were leaving and it was another beautiful sight. The Chelsea fans, I felt, had been too nervous to fully get behind the team in the way I would have liked, but we soon made up for it. With the Arsenal support speeding for the exits we bellowed –

“One Team In London, There’s Only One Team In London – One Team In London, There’s Only One Team In London.”

I’m sure you all heard us.

We even had time for a few more good goalscoring chances in the dieing embers of the game, but 2-0 would be enough. What a fantastic result.

As we drifted past the Peter Osgood statue, the fans serenaded him once more and a Chelsea tradition was surely borne there and then. After every game – win, lose or draw – let’s do the same.

We sat in traffic for ages and ages, listening to the moaning Gooners on “606” – but we could almost share their frustration. They do play some good stuff, up until the penalty box, but they desperately need a 25-goal per season striker. They miss Thierry Henry and the current team is a pale shadow of the 2003-2004 team. Why Wenger doesn’t spend is a real mystery and I can sense that the Arsenal fans are losing their patience. The three of us, maybe typically underestimating our performance, had recognised Arsenal’s superior possession and were pleasantly surprised by the radio commentator’s praise of both our strength and Arsenal’s weaknesses.

Parky made a comment that we had “chiselled out a win” and I think this was a fine summation. We had defended deep, content with our defensive abilities – JT’s positioning was superb all game – and were far more direct when we attacked. With that, Parky slumped and fell asleep, his exertions taking its toll. Glenn soon joined him, leaving me to steer the ship home.

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