Tales From The Warm Afterglow

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 25 April 2017.

It was a surprisingly cold evening in SW6. There had been plenty of time for a couple of lagers in “The Goose” with the usual suspects, and the talk was all about our win over Tottenham in the semi-final on Saturday and the remaining games left for us this season. The huge 4-2 win had certainly warmed us all, and had given us renewed hope for the remaining games. In the beer garden, there was a glow from Saturday insulating us from the biting cold. We had six league games remaining. If we could eke out five wins, our sixth championship would be assured. It’s all about numbers at this time of the season.

Inside the stadium, Southampton had only brought 1,500, which I thought was pretty poor, considering that their tickets were pegged at £30. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the banners were out in The Shed again, with the words “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” draped vertically down from the upper deck.

Our team was a strong one, with Gary Cahill returning and Cesc Fabregas starting.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

Featured in the visiting line-up were two former Chelsea players, both of whom were in our numbers in Munich – Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu.

Just before the game began, my pal Rob – who sits a few rows behind me in The Sleepy Hollow – told me that he had organised tickets for a neighbour and his son, who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game, to sit alongside him. Rob asked me to take a few candid photographs of the young lad during the game as a little memento of the evening. It was a pleasure to be able to do so. I explained to Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside me, what Rob had asked me to do and he in turn suggested that I should shout up to him to get the lad to smile. However, not only would that spoil the shot that I was looking for, but I also added “nobody ever smiles at football, mate.” And it’s certainly at least half-true. At Chelsea games, we tend to look on with our faces being pictures of studied seriousness, often beset with worries, only smiling or laughing at irregular intervals.

“Sombre business this football.”

Not long in to the game, the shots of a suitably pensive Harrison were in the can. I hoped that he’d appreciate the photographs in his later years. It took me back, momentarily, to my first game in 1974. As I have mentioned before, despite my parents having taken many photographs of myself during my childhood, it is a little gripe of mine that there is no photographic record of my first-ever game at Chelsea. In fact, until I took my camera to games in 1983/1984, only one photograph from my first ten years of Chelsea games exists, and it came from a game against Southampton in 1976. It marked the return of The King, Peter Osgood.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us in the queue. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. My first-ever Chelsea photograph depicts the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings.

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I have, sadly, no real memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day over thirty-nine years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwRXqPoSZts

Back to our game with Southampton in 2017 and, thankfully, we did not have too long to wait for a goal. After just five minutes, a lovely long ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who ploughed a lone furrow forward. I will be honest, I thought that Diego was undecided with what he would do. He held on to the ball – “too long, too long”  I moaned – but was then able to look up and perfectly cut a ball back towards Eden Hazard. His low shot screamed towards the far post, and in it went.

GET IN.

I was the target of some good-natured ribbing from the lads sitting nearby – “too long, ha” – and then Alan and myself enacted our usual opening goal routine.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I had naively hoped that the opening period of the game would be marked by a relentless barrage of noise, effectively thanking the team for their hugely important win at Wembley, but even with a goal to cheer, the noise levels were not that special. To be honest, the spirited Southampton team caused us a few moments of concern as they fought hard for possession. They worked the ball well. But Chelsea were zipping the ball around too. It was an open game. There were groans after Eden Hazard blazed over after another delightful set-up from Diego from a pass from Fabregas.

On twenty-four minutes, a Southampton corner down below me was whipped in and it found Manolo Gabbiadini at the far post. His shot was thumped right at Courtois, but it was deflected by David Luiz in to the path of Romeu, who easily slotted home from very close range.

I rolled my eyes and envisioned an awakening from their post-Wembley slumber by Tottenham fans.

Bollocks. This was not part of the plan. I just hoped that the equaliser might generate a little more noise of support from the home areas. It did for a while.

A truly mesmeric run from the loved N’Golo Kante – at first winning the ball on the right wing and then pushing on past opponent after opponent – stirred us all. His penetrating run deep inside the box, which ended with a blocked cross from the goal-line, was just sublime.

Nemanja Matic – urged to “shoot!” by thousands – fired an effort at the Southampton goal but Fraser Forster was not worried.

Southampton continued to press, with the former players Romeu and Bertrand as good as any, and were especially dangerous at set pieces. The crowd grew nervous. There were a few dissenting voices aimed at Diego Costa as the first-half continued, which I thought was a little unfair. The frustration in the crowd grew.

One minute of injury-time was signalled. We forced a corner. It was played across the box and was cleared, but only as far as Kante. He floated a ball towards the far post and Marcos Alonso did well to head the ball back across the box. We watched as Gary Cahill flung himself at the ball and it bounced down and past Forster into the Shed End goal.

YES.

The Bridge responded with a boom of relief. He fell to his knees and then collapsed by the corner flag. I knew how he felt.

The first song from the PA at half-time was “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam.

“Something like that” I thought to myself, wondering if Messrs. Weller, Foxton and Buckler ever released a song called “Fuck entertainment, just give us a win.”

After only eight minutes into the second-half, Cesc Fabregas – playing very well – picked up a pass from Eden and floated a ball towards Diego Costa in a packed penalty box. Diego’s neat header seemed too easy. It dropped in to the goal. The crowd roared again.

We were winning 3-1. Get in.

After the applause had calmed down, I stood pointing towards one of the lads that had been giving Diego such a hard time. I stayed pointing – like Usain Bolt – until he eventually caught my eye. There were smiles from both of us. It was a lovely moment. I hoped that the third goal would calm our nerves. And I also hoped that Diego’s goal would galvanise his doubters over the final push of the campaign. We dominated now, but without causing too many problems for Forster in the Southampton goal. Kante, bearing down on Forster from an angle, forced a fine reflex save from the Saints’ keeper. Alonso’s long shot came to nothing. In the closing moments, there were further shots from substitute Pedro, on for Fabregas, and from Matic. Throughout the match, I thought that Fabregas, Kante and Luiz had been our finest players.

With five minutes’ remaining, the Stamford Bridge crowd rose as one to welcome John Terry on to the pitch as he replaced Victor Moses. His first touch, a side-footed clearance out of defence, was met with one of the loudest cheers of the night.

In the last minute of normal time, a sublime move down below us involving a tricky run from Diego, playing one-twos with first Pedro and then Eden Hazard, ended with Diego planting the ball in to the Southampton goal. It was just a beautiful moment. Diego raced away, cupping his ears, as if to say “where are the boos, now?” I followed suit, cupping my ears towards my mate in the row behind. More smiles, more laughter. The serious faces were no more.

Bizarrely, almost as an after-thought, Ryan Bertrand rose and guided a looping header past Thibaut into our goal and we ended up with a second 4-2 win in four days.

There was predictable joy as the game ended. “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the stadium as Antonio Conte came on to the pitch to hug his players.

Five games left. See you at Goodison on Sunday.

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Tales From Bristol, Bath And London

Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers : 23 August 2016.

The last time that I saw Bristol Rovers play was in February 1993 when I was lured to Bath – my nearest city and the place of my birth – to see the visit of Tranmere Rovers and, more specifically, Pat Nevin, in the second tier of English football, which was then called the First Division of the Football League. This was a season when I didn’t attend too many Chelsea games in the latter part of the season, since I was saving for a bumper trip to the US in the autumn of 1993, but I managed to gather enough money together to drive to Bath on a bitterly cold afternoon to watch my favourite ever player play one more time. Since I was supporting Pat, I took my place in the sparsely-populated away end at Twerton Park – Rovers’ home from 1986 to 1996 – among the Tranmere fans, and watched, with my extremities getting colder and colder as the game progressed, with decreasing interest in a game that neither excited me or even mattered too much. The home team won 1-0, thus pleasing the vast majority of the 5,135 crowd, but it did not save them from relegation that season. I looked on, disconsolate, as Pat Nevin struggled against the Bristol Rovers defence and I was left wondering how such a gifted player was now playing in the yellow and green away colours of Tranmere Rovers.

That I was lured to Bath for a Bristol Rovers game all those years ago was pretty typical of many like-minded souls from my local area around that time. When Bristol Rovers were forced out of their traditional Eastville Stadium, their temporary exile in the Roman and Georgian city of Bath at the home of Bath City resulted in many football fans in the Frome area adopting Rovers as a second team, or even a first team. There is no doubt that Rovers’ support – traditionally the northern areas of Bristol and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire – took on new characteristics in that ten years of alternative domicile. Their demographics definitely shifted east. I know of several local lads who now support Rovers ahead of other, larger, teams, and I think their base in Bath for ten years sparked this. I remember watching a couple of other games at Twerton too; against Middlesbrough in 1986 and Notts County in 1988. It was a poor ground to be honest, but suited Rovers’ needs.

Growing up, the two local football teams to me were Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. My father always contended that City were always a second division team and Rovers, the scrappy underdog, a third division team. I hardly knew any supporters of the two Bristol teams. They must have existed, but it wasn’t until I began middle school in the autumn of 1974 that I met one.

On my very first day at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome, I happened to sit opposite Dave, a lad from Frome, whose roots were in Bristol. It is very likely that some of the very first words that we said to each other were of our two football teams. I was Chelsea and he was Rovers. I had been to my very first Chelsea game in the March of that year, but I quickly learned that Dave had been to many Rovers games over the previous few seasons. In 1973/1974, Rovers had won promotion to the Second Division – I can still hear Dave extolling the virtues of the “Smash and Grab” striking partnership of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister – and he was full of stories of games at the endearingly ramshackle Eastville Stadium, especially involving the rough and tumble which used to accompany football in those days. We used to talk about our two teams. We even used to draw detailed drawings of Eastville and Stamford Bridge – both were oval, both had hosted greyhound racing – and our friendship grew and grew.

In the autumn of 1974, I played in my first-ever 11-a-side football match; it was a house match, Bayard – blue – versus Raleigh – red – and both Dave and myself were in the Bayard team.

We won 2-0, and I opened the scoring with a left-footed volley, while Dave followed up with the second goal as we won 2-0.

As football debuts go, it was damned perfect.

Bayard 2 Raleigh 0.

Chris 1, Dave 1.

Chelsea 1, Rovers 1.

Blue 2 Red 0.

The next season – around March 1976 if memory serves – the two of us were selected, as mere ten year olds, to play in the school team against a team from Bath, the only two from our year to be selected. It was a proud moment for me, yet – looking back with hindsight – it probably represented the high water mark of my footballing career. I would never reach such heights again, eventually dropping to the “B team” by the time I reached the age of fourteen, right at the end of the 1978/1979 season, unsure of my best position, and riddled with a lack of confidence in both myself as a person and as a player. Dave turned out to be a far more rounded footballer – a combative midfielder with a good pass – and played football at a reasonable level for many years. My mazy runs down the wing soon petered out against tougher opposition.

I will say something, though – and I was only speaking to Dave about this a couple of months ago after a “From The Jam” gig in our home town – there was a ridiculous chemistry between the two of us on a football pitch, which probably stemmed from the hours we played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard. I was a right winger and Dave played in midfield. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

I would play the ball to Dave, set off on a run, and he would find me. After a while of this – time after time, game after game – it almost got embarrassing.

Dave agreed.

“Baker – our games master – would say “what is it with you two?””

Good times.

No, great times.

Leading up to our League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers, I was in contact with Dave, though was sorry to hear that he would not be attending. I had to bite my lip from uttering the classic schoolboy line “shall I get you a programme?”

This would – hopefully – be a fun evening for myself, perhaps for Dave, and for the others from my home area who are afflicted with Chelsea and Rovers devotion.

As I caught a glimpse of the local BBC TV news bulletin at 6am on the day of the game, there was a brief mention of the game at Stamford Bridge. The graphic came up on the TV screen :

“Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers”

I shuddered and had a second look. It brought back immediate memories of when the two clubs were in the same division – the old second division – on a few occasions in my youth. But more of that later.

After another torrid day at work, I collected the Chuckle Brothers and we were on our way. Talk was all about the game at the start of the drive to London. A few friends would be in the Rovers end. News came through that a lot of Rovers’ fans had made a day of it and had been on the ale all day. This was brewing up nicely. A Chelsea game of course, but a game with a lovely local interest for us all. Whisper it, but Glenn often used to go and watch Rovers with his brother and a few other Frome rapscallions from 1986 to 1993, but he has since seen the light and now regards Rovers as an afterthought; a fling which had no long-lasting meaning.

Bristol Rovers. The Pirates. The Gas. The blue half – or maybe quarter – of Bristol, and therefore more palatable to me than Bristol City. Rovers spent most of their existence in the second and third divisions, before cascading down to the fourth division in the early-eighties along with their hated city rivals. Whereas City have enjoyed a little more success of late, Rovers were relegated from the Football League as recently as 2014. It was Dave’s worst ever moment. However, successive promotions have now hoisted Rovers back in to the third tier. Things are looking up for The Gas, a relatively recent moniker from the ‘eighties, which originated firstly as “Gasheads”, a derisory term from the City end of town, since an old gasometer used to stand over Eastville. The Rovers fans have now adopted it as a badge of honour.

Some stories to tell.

Of my first-ever twenty Chelsea games, four were against Bristol Rovers, at Eastville.

Because so much of who I am as a Chelsea supporter stems from my childhood passion for the team, I always say that my first one hundred games are the bedrock of my devotion. I can remember distinct details, most probably, from all of my first one hundred games. And as I am about to demonstrate I can certainly remember oodles from my first twenty.

Game 5 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 29 November 1975.

My first-ever Chelsea away game, and I can distinctly remember waiting outside my grandparents’ house in my local village for a lift to take my mother and I to the game. My father, a shopkeeper, was unable to get time off, but he had arranged for one of his customers, a Rovers season-ticket holder from near Cranmore, to take us to the game, along with his wife and daughter. I can remember the drive to Bristol, and the chat with the attractive blonde girl – a couple of years older, phew – to my right. I always remember she wore a blue satin jacket, edged in tartan.

“Blue for Rovers, tartan for the Bay City Rollers.”

Mum and myself took our seats in the main stand, and I loved being able to see Eastville in the flesh, at last, after all of Dave’s diagrams and related details. Chelsea wore the lovely old Hungarian red, white, green, and we won 2-1, despite Bill Garner getting sent off. I remember the angled flower beds behind the Tote End goal. There were outbreaks of fighting in the stadium. It was a fantastic first away game. The gate was a pretty healthy 16,277. Oh – I also remember a Chelsea fan getting a little too interested in my mother – awkward – and I remember seeing the very same bloke at Ashton Gate later in the season, this time with my father on the scene. My mother and I would have a knowing glance and smile at each other.

Game 9 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 5 October 1976.

I always remember that my parents and I travelled up to see the Chelsea vs. Cardiff City game on the Saturday, and were amazed to read in the programme that our away game at Eastville, originally planned for later that autumn, had been brought forward to the following Tuesday. Tickets were hastily purchased – again in the main stand – and this time it was a full family carload that left my village after my father had picked me up outside my school on the way home from work. Both my parents and, from memory, my grandfather (his only Chelsea game with me) watched us on an autumnal evening in Bristol. I remember Dad got a little lost nearing the ground, but that was the least of our troubles. We lost 2-1 after getting it back to 1-1. Chelsea in red, red, blue. My first midweek game. More crowd trouble. A gate of 13,199. Despite the sad loss, we were promoted at the end of the season,

Game 16 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 23 February 1980.

An iconic game, for all the wrong reasons. On my travels around the country with Chelsea, I bump in to many of our fans from the West of England. It seems that every single one of them, to a man, was at this game. We were riding high in the second division after relegation in 1978/1979, and I was relishing the visit to Eastville to see a good Chelsea team against a mediocre Rovers eleven. I watched from the main stand yet again, and was thrilled to see my friends Glenn – yes, the very same – and his brother Paul, with their grandfather, watching from a few rows behind me. There was untold fighting before the game, with Chelsea in the Tote End, and police horses in the Tote End too. It was pandemonium. On the pitch, a below-strength Chelsea team (Bob Iles in goal, for starters) lost 3-0 to a fine Rovers performance. The crowd was a feisty 14,176. There must have been 4,000 Chelsea there. Debutant Dennis Rofe was sent off. Tony Pulis – yes, him – scored for Rovers. It would eventually cost us our promotion place at the end of the season and we would not recover until 1984. A grim day.

Game 19 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 14 March 1981.

This was a poor season and this was a poor game. This time, my father and two school friends stood on the small terrace in front of the main stand. We were drifting towards a lowly position in the second division while Rovers were on their way to relegation. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, of the previous season, had dissipated. The stand on the other side of the pitch – where I had watched a couple of speedway matches in 1977 and 1978 – had been burned down the previous summer and the gate was just 7,565. We were woeful. We lost 1-0. I remember Micky Droy playing upfront in the last ten minutes and hitting the bar with a header. A dire afternoon of football.

So, those paying attention will realise that of the last three times I have seen us play Bristol Rovers, we have lost every one.

In 2016, bizarrely, it was time for revenge.

We didn’t see many Rovers fans on the M4. I expected an armada. It was just a trickle. Most were already in the pubs and hostelries of London. A former boss, up for the game with his two sons, texted me to say they had been asked tom leave The Goose. No trouble. Just, I guess, for safety’s sake.

I was parked-up at about 6.30pm. The ridiculously warm London air hit me hard. It was like a sauna. PD, Parky and Glenn had chosen shorts. I wish I had done the same. In The Goose, there were a residual few Rovers fans, but everything was quiet. It was not as busy as I had expected. We had heard that some of the 4,000 were drinking at Earl’s Court, quite a common occurrence these days.

The team news broke.

Begovic – Dave – Cahill – Brana – Aina – Matic – Cesc – Pedro – Moses – Loftus-Cheek – Batshuayi.

A mixture. A chance for some to shine. We presumed Ruben would play off Michy.

The air was thick and muggy on the walk down the North End Road, along Vanston Place and up the Fulham Road. There were Rovers fans about – in their iconic quarters – but there was no hint of 1980-style nastiness.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was more than happy with the crowd. Only a few rows at the top of the East Stand remained empty. For some reason, like Liverpool in 2015, the away fans had the western side of the upper tier of The Shed, in addition to the whole of the bottom tier. Only three flags; a poor effort to be honest.

It was clear from the onset – and no real surprise to anyone – that the good people of Frenchay, Easton, Yate, Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Fishponds and Bradley Stoke would be making all the noise.

Very soon I heard the familiar sound of the Rovers’ theme tune.

“Irene, Goodnight Irene.

Irene, Goonight.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

More bloody silly flames were thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams entered the pitch. For a League Cup game. In August. Do me a favour, sunshine.

Chelsea in blue, Rovers in yellow.

The game began. It was still ridiculously warm.

It was all Chelsea for the first part of the game. With Moses and Pedro out wide, and Ruben alongside Batshuayi, we moved the ball well, and – cliché coming up – the Rovers players were chasing shadows. Chances piled up in the first twenty minutes with shots from all areas. Batshuayi dragged his shot wide after a fine move, and Ruben drove a low drive hard against the far post. In The Shed, the away fans were singing away.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rovers hardly threatened. They put together a crisp move featuring over twenty passes, but got nowhere.

On the half-hour, Loftus-Cheek played in Matic, and his ball in to the box was deflected towards the waiting Batshuayi; he swivelled and lashed it high past Steve Mildenhall in the Rovers’ goal.

Fred Wedlock : “CHTCAUN.”

Billy Wedlock : “COMLD.”

Soon after, a cross from Dave was played right across the goal and Victor Moses had the easiest job to touch it home.

It was 2-0 to us, and we were well on top.

But, no. Just before the break, Rovers swept in a fine ball from a free-kick in front of the East Stand and Peter Hartley rose to head the ball past Asmir Begovic, who until that point had not been tested.

The Rovers end ignited and, no bias, the version of “Goodnight Irene” that greeted their goal was truly deafening. Good work, my luvvers.

They then aimed a ditty at City and Glenn and myself thought about joining in.

“Stand up if you hate the shit.”

City call Rovers “Gas Heads.”

Rovers call City “Shit Heads.”

It’s all very colloquial in Brizzle.

Ellis Harrison then went close with a header.

Thankfully, we soon restored the lead when Batshuayi turned in a Loftus-Cheek pass, again from close range. It was good to see us getting behind defenders and hitting the danger areas.

We lead, then, 3-1 at the break.

It was still a sultry and steamy evening as the second-half began. It was Rovers, though, who began on the front foot and a deep run by their bearded talisman Stuart Sinclair caused us problems. A clumsy challenge by Pedro – yeah, I know – gave the referee an easy decision. Harrison dispatched the penalty with ease.

Rovers soon started singing Billy Ray Cyrus. Fuck off.

We rather went to pieces, and for the next twenty minutes, the away team held the upper hand. Their reluctance to attack for most of the first-half was cast aside and they caused us a few problems. Moses twisted and turned but shot wide. Then, the loose limbed Harrison unleashed a fine shot from distance which Begovic did well to turn over. It was becoming quite a competitive match.

We slowly got back in to our stride, but our finishing was quite woeful. I watched Ruben Loftus-Cheek as our moves developed, but his movement was non-existent. On more than one occasion, I was begging him to make an angle, to lose his marker, to create space, but he did not do so. I guess that instinct is not inside him.

Dave Francis would have found Chris Axon in 1976, no problem.

Thankfully, Rovers began to tire in the final quarter. By then, almost ridiculously, the manager had brought on Eden Hazard for a poor Pedro, John Terry for Ola Aina – sadly injured – and then Oscar for Loftus-Cheek. Our play was invigorated again, but no further goals followed, despite Michy bundling the ball in after good work from Hazard; sadly he was offside.

The away end was still bristling.

“We’re Bristol Rovers, we’ll sing to the end.”

Batshuayi had impressed me throughout the game. He is strong, does not lack confidence, is mobile and has a good first touch. I have a feeling he will be among the goals this season. It was a pretty reasonable game, save for our second-half dip, and I am sure that the travelling Bristolians enjoyed themselves. I was in contact with Dave throughout the match, and I am sure he was proud of his team, and supporters.

However, for the blue and white quarters – the travelling Gas Heads – it was “Goodnight Vienna.”

We set off home, on the M4, along with thousands of others heading west. At Reading Services, the Rovers fans outnumbered us, but they were in good spirits. After delays at a couple of spots on the journey home, I eventually pulled into my drive at 1.15am. These midweek games, Chuckle Brothers or no Chuckle Brothers, do not get any easier.

It had been thirty-five years since my last Chelsea game against Rovers. I wonder if I will ever see another one.

If so, I’m looking forward to it already.

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Tales From My Chelsea Family Tree

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 December 2013.

As strange as it seems for me to write these words, this was only my sixth sighting of Crystal Palace as a Chelsea supporter. During my teens and ‘twenties when my ability to attend matches was hampered by lack of money, there were some teams that I wittingly or unwittingly avoided. Admittedly our paths didn’t cross every season, but given the choice of travelling up from Somerset to see the boys play Tottenham or Palace, there would have been only one winner. My first-ever game was an away encounter at Selhurst Park in the autumn of 1991; a dull 0-0. There has only ever been one other visit to Selhurst Park for me to see us play Palace; a pre-season friendly in 2003 when the Arthur Waite Stand was overrun with a huge Chelsea army excited at seeing one of the first games of the Roman Abramovich reign. In fact, another odd statistic; I’ve visited Selhurst Park on five occasions, but only two games have involved Palace. The other three games were against their tenants Charlton Athletic (1989) and then Wimbledon (1996 and 1999).

So, this would only be my fourth Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace game at Stamford Bridge. I can remember the game in November 1992 when I watched on the Shed, uncovered, in spitting rain, with my mate Daryl. Our respective paths had crossed a year or so earlier as fans of baseball – the Yankees in particular, Daryl produced a Yankee fanzine and I contributed on occasion – but it only became apparent a year or so into our limited communication that we were both Chelsea fanatics. We arranged to meet up for a pint in The Black Bull before that game over twenty-one years ago and we have become the very best of friends since. I met Daryl’s brother Neil a month or so later for another game. It’s fascinating to me how these Chelsea friendships are forged. Daryl, Neil and I hope to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays watching baseball in New York in 2015. Meeting new fellow fans in that era was rare; at the time I usually travelled up from Frome by myself, meeting only Alan on occasion, and most commonly in the Black Bull. In those days, Gary used to call by occasionally. There were other acquaintances, but many have fallen by the wayside.

I remember introducing Daryl to Glenn at the Makita at White Hart Lane in 1993, then Alan a year or so later. For the 1994 F.A. Cup Final, Daryl and I watched the game together. The following season, we travelled to Prague and Zaragoza together. In Prague, we bumped into long-time Chelsea stalwart Andy from Nuneaton and friendships blossomed.

With each passing game, my number of match-going Chelsea mates grew one by one. One day I might sit down and type out a chronological chart of when friendships began.

A Chelsea Family Tree, if you will.

Glenn 1983.

Alan, Walnuts, Leggo, Mark and Simon 1984.

Gary 1988.

Daryl and Neil 1992

Andy and Neil 1994.

Jonesy and The Youth 1995.

Ironically, Daryl and Neil would not be in attendance for this one; instead, they were back in Guernsey to celebrate their father’s 70th. birthday.

I collected Glenn (from 1983, though we first met in 1977) at 8.45am and soon picked-up Parky (2000) too. Glenn always berates me for not wanting to talk too much about the football on the drive to Chelsea, but on this occasion there was lots to talk about. Players were discussed, performances analysed, games examined. There was hope that we could despatch Crystal Palace and stack up three points ahead of the pre-Christmas showdown with Arsenal.

Before the usual pre-match in The Goose (a friend since 1999), all three of us made a quick pilgrimage to the “CFCUK” stall to purchase Mark Worrall’s new Chelsea book. Detailing the first ten years of “The Roman Years”, it contains many anecdotes from Chelsea regulars, a selection of photographs and a forward by Sir Frank Lampard. My small contribution details the day of Frank’s 202nd and 203rd goals at Villa Park.

“Only £16.99, HURRY UP.”

It was a lovely pre-match in The Goose. The Manchester City vs. Arsenal game was garnering a fair bit of attention and yelps of approval greeted the City goals. Some may say that a draw would be the best result, but I just wanted a heavy Arsenal defeat so that their season could start its inevitable implosion in December 2013 rather than March 2014. I personally think that the league is City’s to lose. Being brutally honest, if we are not to win it – a tough ask, let’s admit it now – I would rather the title ended up at City rather than Arsenal.

There was chat with Rob (2005), Sophie (2000), Barbara (2011) and Eva (2012). Tim (2009) and the Bristol Boys were nearby.

As the goals rattled in at Eastlands, the laughter increased. A great time.

Rob warned that although the Crystal Palace “ultras” come in for a lot of stick, they would make a lot of noise.

And fair play to them. This would be their first visit since they were gubbed 4-1 in the 2004-2005 Championship season – WHEN EVEN MATEJA KEZMAN SCORED TWICE – and I was sure they would enjoy their visit regardless of the result. I’ve lost count of the number of games I have seen this season when Selhurst Park appears to be rocking, yet the only fans seemingly involved are the little knot of 200 “ultras” in the bottom corner of the Holmesdale Road End. They appear to be “miked” too.

I mentioned this to Alan.

“Of course” he replied. “The TV love that, miking the fans that make a racket, making out the atmosphere is loud throughout the stadium.”

On ascending the steps to the upper tier, confirmation that two very late goals had been exchanged in Manchester.

City 6 Arsenal 3.

Let the implosion commence.

As we entered the seats, I was given a Christmas card from Joe (1997) who sits nearby with his son Gary. Joe is now eighty-five. We love him to bits.

There have been few Chelsea versus Crystal Palace “classics” but the one game that always seems to grab the attention of my generation came in 1976 during our F.A. Cup campaign. As a struggling Second Division team, we were drawn at home with Malcolm Allison’s Third Division Crystal Palace in the fifth round of the cup. This fixture really captured the imagination of the London public and, with Stamford Bridge’s vast terraces able to withstand the demand, over 54,000 attended. Sadly, we lost 3-2 but it is an afternoon that I can easily recount some 37 years later.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M6pRs5PHF4

Just after the first two Palace goals, thousands of Chelsea teenagers can be heard singing “Chelsea aggro, Chelsea aggro, ‘ello, ‘ello.”

With Chelsea chasing the game, the atmosphere is clearly electric. The old Stamford Bridge, full to bursting, was a grand old stadium in its time. The sight of The Shed holding almost twenty thousand spectators is just gorgeous.

Peter Taylor went on to play for Tottenham. I never liked him.

I had a quick run through the team and two players stood out; Michael Essien, despite having a nightmare two weeks ago, was back alongside Ramires and David Luiz was partnering John Terry. Further forward, Juan Mata, Willian and Eden Hazard were asked to provide ammunition for the recalled Fernando Torres.

Very soon into the game, the three thousand Palace fans were working their way through their own very distinctive repertoire of songs. They were bellowing them out. It was pretty impressive stuff. Maybe I was wrong; maybe Selhurst is rocked by more than those two hundred self-styled “ultras” in that bottom left corner of their home end.

They taunted us : “Is this a library?” and then “Here for the Palace, you’re only here for the Palace.”

We replied : “Here for the season, you’re only here for the season.”

The away team were fighting for every ball under new boss Tony Pulis. However, after only a quarter of an hour, Willian sensed an opportunity to run at goal. His positive dribble took him close and he sent a low shot towards Speroni. The Palace ‘keeper’s dive turned the ball onto the post only for Fernando Torres to pounce on the rebound.

1-0 Chelsea

Alan and I did our usual routine.

You know the score.

Immediately after, the Palace fans ignored the deficit and rallied behind their team. Well done them. It reminded of us when we were…er…shit.

We then hit a little purple patch with some lovely play from a strong Torres run and then a Mata touch enabling Ivanovic to strike at goal. His shot scraped the far post. This was good stuff. Maybe more goals would follow. Even the home crowd were getting involved.

A London derby with noise. Just like 1976. Luvverly jubberly.

Until then, Palace had only enjoyed rare opportunities to attack. Sadly, just before the half-hour mark, a Palace move down our right resulted in a ball being whipped in for an unmarked Chamakh to volley home.

We fell silent and the Palace fans bounced in unison. It was a celebration typical of fans from Istanbul, not Croydon.

I turned to Alan : “I don’t care what anyone says. That’s impressive.”

Thankfully, we regained the lead soon after.

Eden Hazard, relatively subdued until then, glided past his marker and passed to an unmarked Ramires. Our little midfield dynamo looked up, aimed and fired a curler into Speroni’s goal.

2-1 Chelsea. Phew.

At the break, Danny Granville – Stockholm 1998 and all that – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Thousands upon thousands of new Chelsea fans in the West Upper scratched their heads.

In the second-half, Crystal Palace were clearly more aggressive than in the opening forty-five minutes. Our midfield were left chasing shadows and the frustration among the home support grew with each passing minute. Palace raided our goal, but thankfully neither Nicky Chatterton nor Peter Bloody Taylor was on hand to score. Petr Cech was able to smother and repel all of the efforts on his goal. Still the Palace fans sang.

Essien, though clearly not at his best, stayed on as Juan Mata was replaced by Oscar. Our chances had dried up and we were hanging on. Palace were surprising us all. There was a ridiculous scramble at The Shed End on seventy-five minutes, but continued shots at goal were thwarted by desperate defending by the Chelsea rear-guard. A header then flashed past the post. Cech’s goal was leading a charmed life.

And all around me, instead of generous support for Chelsea in our twenty minutes of need, there was little singing and little encouragement.

At one point, after a welcome period of positive Chelsea play, out of over one hundred spectators in our little section, Alan noted only Big John, Alan and myself clapped.

Welcome to Stamford Bridge 2013.

In the last ten minutes, Andre Schurrle replaced Willian and then Demba Ba replaced Torres. This really surprised me. Although there was little defensive options on the bench available to him, Mourinho chose to make offensive rather than defensive changes. Rather than bring on Lamps as extra cover, Jose chose other options. I quickly remembered an infamous game from only last season.

At Reading with us winning 2-1, Rafa Benitez replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. We let in an equaliser.

At home to Palace in 2014, with us winning 2-1, Jose Mourinho replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. I hoped there would be no equaliser.

Our nerves were jangling. We were still hanging on. There was still no noticeable show of support for the boys.

There were two late Chelsea chances at the Matthew Harding. The ball was played through towards Ramires but, with only Speroni to beat, the little Brazilian fluffed his kick. Whereas I sighed in silent frustration, I looked quickly to my left where there were howls of indignation and anger being aimed at Ramires by many in the MH Upper.

These fuckers had hardly sung a note of support for the team all afternoon, yet their faces were contorted with rage at Ramires’ miss and were heaping abuse towards our own players on the pitch below.

Soon after, another Chelsea chance came and went. There was an almighty scramble after substitute Schurrle played a lovely wall pass with Ba, but shot right at the Palace custodian. The rebound came to Ba, but Speroni again saved. A further rebound was sliced wide by the suddenly hapless Rami.

I grimaced as fellow supporters in the MHU spewed vitriol once more.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, I commented to Alan that we were still looking to attack. This was a very different approach to the Mourinho team of ten seasons ago when a tight, nervy game would be notable for ball retention among the back four rather than forward passes.

Despite one more Palace chance, we survived.

However, such was the dreadful atmosphere during the last ten minutes, it honestly felt like we had lost.

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Tales From More Wednesday Night Blues

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 January 2013.

In light of our previous domestic midweek home games over the past two months – Fulham, QPR and Swansea – there was every reason for me to dread the game with newly-promoted Southampton. Not so much for the possible result; more so the cancerous atmosphere which was likely to envelope Stamford Bridge should a victory not be forthcoming.

Strong words? That’s what it has felt like to me.

My mate Paul collected me outside The Pheasant pub in Chippenham, just opposite my place of work for the past ten years. Both lie on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Aquae Sulis (Bath) with Londinium (London) all those centuries ago. Our route east on the M4 – the A4’s twentieth century equivalent – allowed us to chat about the current state of health of our team and club. The usual stuff; I won’t bore you with details. You can surely guess the majority of it.

Paul has just started a new business venture as a chauffeur. He is self-employed and therefore has a little more control on the amount of free-time he can enjoy. He already is going to the Swansea game in the Capital One Cup and has his sights on more away games during the rest of the season. He told me a beautiful story about his time in Cornwall when he again worked as a chauffeur. He was asked to meet the Gallagher brothers – Noel and Liam – at Par train station and take them to a hotel. The brothers famously dislike each other intensely – hate is such a horrible word – and Paul had to make two trips as neither brother wanted to share a cab with the other.

It was a welcome break for me not having to worry about the traffic on our approach into Londinium. He had already driven up to Heathrow earlier in the day – he was getting used to the M4, no doubt. I already knew that Paul was raised in the locale of Chelsea Football Club. As we turned off the A4 at Hammersmith, he was on auto pilot. Then, he regaled me with a few snippets of his early years in Fulham which fascinated me. We drove past the Pear Tree pub, where Parky, Russell and Jesus began our pub-crawl against Manchester United just under a year ago, and informed us that he had his first ever pint in that very same pub. There was more to come. His first school was just around the corner. His first few years were spent in a flat in one of the Clement Atlee Court buildings which tower over the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road. I’d imagine that a large proportion of The Goose’s clientele still resides in those hundreds of densely-packed flats. This housing estate – ground-zero, Fulham – houses over 800 flats and it’s fifteen or so buildings are named after former Labour politicians; Manny Shinwell, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson for example. Paul remembers the 1967 F.A. Cup Final when it seemed that every balcony was draped with Chelsea favours. It was predominantly Chelsea despite being geographically in central Fulham. As we buttoned our jackets and attempted to counter the early-evening chill, he told me – mischievously – that most of the Chelsea North Stand originated within that half-a-square mile of terra firma.

“One armed Babs was from here…”

Only time for one pint of Peroni – yet again damn it – in The Goose and a little bit of chat with the boys. The Goose seemed busy, but there was talk of the game not selling out. I wasn’t surprised. This game, remember, was postponed in mid-December in order for us to participate in the World Club Championships – ah, Tokyo! – and had only been re-arranged a couple of weeks previous. Talk was of the Brentford away game and the Swansea cup game. There was minimal chat about Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich.

Southampton. What to say? Any other games from the past which provide me with any special memories? Maybe a couple.

It is a sad irony that the one player who more than any other was responsible for my Chelsea allegiance – Peter Osgood – departed from Stamford Bridge a matter of a few short weeks before my very first Chelsea game in March 1974. I enjoyed my first visit to SW6 – that is beyond question – but looking back, how perfect it would have been to see Ossie play in that inaugural game.

Stay still, my beating heart.

Ossie, of course, moved to Southampton. It is an irony that Saints were actually relegated in the May of that year – along with…whisper it…Manchester United – and so Peter Osgood played second division football in 1974-1975 and 1975-1976. After relegation in 1975, Chelsea joined Southampton in the second tier. As soon as the league fixtures were announced for the 1975-1976 season, there was one game I wanted to attend.

Saturday 13 March 1976 : Chelsea vs. Southampton.

The return of The King.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. Somewhere I still have a grainy photograph of the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings. I have, sadly, no memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day almost 37 years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

In September 1995 – God, it seems like yesterday – we played a league game against Southampton and the day is rich with memories. Firstly, this was the game that the club chose to celebrate the club’s 90th anniversary. Before the game, Alan, Glenn and I spent an enjoyable time in “Drake’s” meeting some of the club’s former players and managers. “Drakes” was located on two tiers in the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding. During its first few years, only Chelsea Pitch Owners were allowed inside; it was a pleasant way to spend a pre-match, in fact. It was our normal pre-match venue in 1994 and 1995. We used to have a meal and a few pints in there. It was surprisingly under-utilised. Chelsea opened it up for season ticket holders in around 1997 and it tended to get rammed. On that day in 1995, I remember having my photograph taken with John Neal and Ian McNeil, though it pained me to see that they seemed to be ostracised by the other invited guests, who were mainly from the Sexton era. John Neal was a lovely quiet man. It’s hard to believe he was a football manager.

Out on the pitch, Chelsea walloped a reasonably good Saints team 3-0. We (Daryl, Alan, Glenn and yours truly ) had partial season tickets up in the East stand in 1995-1996. The games involved were the 8 or so “B” games and represented a nice cost-saving. It turned out to be the pre-curser to season tickets for all four of us in 1997. Two things stick in my mind about the day. The game marked Ruud Gullit’s first-ever goal in Chelsea blue, a lovely volley at the North Stand after a flowing move. Oh, how we celebrated that one. The other scorers were Frank Sinclair and Mark Hughes. All three goals were scored late in the game. I also remember a moment down below me in the second half when Ruud Gullit so scared the Southampton defender Francis Benali that Benali didn’t bother marking Gullit as he toyed with the ball and simply raced back ten yards in a position to tackle him again a few seconds later. Gullit was a magical player for us in that season. I can remember the buzz that we felt as a club when first Gullit and then Hughes signed for us. I can even remember where I was when I heard Ruud was signing for Chelsea, my Chelsea, the greatest under-achievers of all time…driving in my Fiat Uno in Westbury, about to turn into Eden Vale Road.

That season was a fantastic time; Chelsea were moving forward under Glenn Hoddle, playing with wing backs Petrescu and Phelan, Gullit launching balls towards Hughes and John Spencer, ably supported by Gavin and Wisey. Great days, great days. In that season, we reached an F.A. Cup semi-final and finished in eleventh place, but it was a brilliant season in many respects.

The club was growing, step by step, and the players and supporters were together.

Yes, dear reader…we finished in eleventh place but we had a great time.

Later that evening, I remember that Glenn and I called back at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster for our usual couple of drinks. Ron had been at the game as a guest of the club; in those days, his visits were rare. It would only be a couple of months after that game that Glenn and I would be back at the same pub for an evening with Peter Osgood (when I got to meet him face to face for the first time), on a night when Tommy Langley also called by.

Drinking with Peter Osgood.

Ah, those nights were the times of our lives.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that we were in for our first sub-capacity league game for a while. The tell-tale sign was the hundreds of unoccupied seats in the top corners of the East Upper (always the last to sell) and, although it was difficult to discern, I also guessed a similar lack of bodies in the upper levels of the West Upper to my right.

It was also clear that many of the “sold” seats throughout the stadium – one here, two there, four there, five there – were unoccupied. The buyers obviously had other things planned for the night of Wednesday 16 January 2013 and the tourists were in no mood to take up the slack. This “non-appearance” of ticket-buyers is a strange conundrum, but is not reflected in the actual gates reported by the club. Chelsea always reports tickets sold, not bums-on-seats. Sometimes, the shortfall is astounding. I remember someone close to the club telling me that a midweek league game with Portsmouth a few seasons back was reported as being watched by 40,000, but the number of spectators in the stadium was only 32,000

That’s 8,000 lost opportunities for beers, food and merchandise.

And we need to move into a 60,000 capacity stadium do we, Mr. Buck and Mr. Gourlay?

Over in the far corner, even the Saints fans seemed underwhelmed. It took ages for their section to fill, and their number only totalled around 1,000 of the 1,400 seats allotted to them.

I will not take too long to talk about the game. Even in the first-half, winning 2-0, it wasn’t too special. I thought that Southampton seemed to want to attack us a little more than most teams and I relished the space which might – just might – be created in their defence. However, the away team only rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal during that first period. Our play was again laboured and there were the usual tons of possession with no end product. The game cried out for an occasional early pass to Demba Ba, who was continually level with the last man and looking for the vaguest hint of a well-hit through ball. Alan and myself discussed how ridiculously one-footed Juan Mata is, almost spinning himself in a complete circle to get the ball onto his left foot. Ashley Cole is another one. I’m no genius, but even I can pass with my “other” foot. Demba Ba’s goal was well-taken; a lovely swivel and a firm volley which found the bottom corner of the goal. Ba sunk to his knees in front of The Shed and appeared to kiss the turf. Strange – haven’t seen that before. Maybe he was looking for his contact lenses.

Alan and I attempted a rural Hampshire accent – for the expats, think John Arlott, the great cricket commentator – as we burred;

“They’ll have to come at us nowwwwww….”

“Come on my little di’mons.”

A Ramires effort hit the angle and the rebound was volleyed home by Eden Hazard who rushed off to celebrate in front of the Family Section.

These goals apart though, there was little reason to cheer. David Luiz, now in defence again alongside Cahill, threaded a couple of nice balls through, but the play was as dire as the atmosphere, or lack of it. Despite leading 2-0, the crowd probably reached an all-time low in terms of noise.

The decisive move of the night took place when Nigel Adkins replaced Jay Rodriguez with Ricky Lambert, a journeyman striker finally rewarded with football in the top division after a nomasic existence. Within three minutes, a cross was headed home emphatically by Lambert and it was a case of “game on.”

Our play seemed very lethargic with no bite or aggression in midfield. The midfield five were having poor games, none more so than Oscar and Mata. Paul was dismayed with Lampard’s play, though the whole team were underperforming in my eyes.

A great through ball from Mata fell for the in-rushing Ba, but his outstretched boot only resulted in the ball dipping over the bar. A couple of free-kicks from Lamps and Luiz did not trouble Artur Boruc in the Saints’ goal.

Southampton had the bit between their teeth now and Azpilicueta couldn’t handle the pace of Shaw as he broke down the left. From the cross, Puncheon struck low past Petr Cech to equalise. The Saints players ran towards their delirious fans in the south-east corner.

“One Nigel Adkins, there’s only one Nigel Adkins.”

Benitez was forced to make some changes, but like di Matteo before him, chose to do so late on. I haven’t seen much pro-active substitutions from Benitez yet. Torres replaced Lampard.

There was widespread booing, but I am really undecided if this was aimed at Benitez for the removal of Lampard, the arrival of Torres, or just a simple venting of frustration aimed at Benitez, the board, the entire circus.

Under such negative noise, is it any wonder that Chelsea currently play looser and more confidently away from the prickly atmosphere at Stamford Bridge? It took us a whole hour to get a stadium-wide chant going and the place was nervous and full of niggles all night.

I’m not one to instigate chants at home games; from my lofty perch, my voice wouldn’t be met with much of a response from fellow supporters in the upper tier. However, both Alan and I always join in when the more vocal fans in the lower tier “get going.” However, against Southampton these opportunities were very rare. Never have I sung so infrequently.

Oscar went deep, Torres was deployed out wide as a winger. I was hoping for him to form a partnership with Ba to be honest. Torres showed his usual poor ball control of late and was roundly jeered when he sent over a poor cross which missed not only the players huddled in the six-yard box, but the pitch completely, not to mention the strip of asto-turf surrounding it. However, Mata had been equally wasteful throughout the entire evening. A Torres break, nicely set-up by Mata, sadly resulted in a poor shot which did not even trouble Boruc as it whizzed wide of the near post. A late aerial bombardment was repelled – Cahill playing as a Robert Huth style renegade attacker – and we couldn’t score the winner.

More Wednesday night blues.

The boos echoed around the Bridge. Outside, there were all sorts of chatter about our poor form. I’m usually the first to bemoan the fact that spectators waste no time in moaning at the final whistle, but show no real signs of getting behind the team during the game. However, even I joined in on the walk past the Ossie statue.

“…is there any need to play with two defensive midfielders at home? Play 4-4-2, with Torres alongside Ba. Play a flat four in midfield, with full backs doubling up with the wide mid-fielders and attack them down the flanks.”

And there I was, the master tactician, almost making sense.

Further along, just where the spectators empty out into the Fulham Road, a couple of Chelsea fans were trading insults through song and they then squared up to each other like a couple of rutting stags, with one of them disliking the negative shouts aimed at Benitez, and the other standing up for his hatred of the new regime.

“You sayin’ I’m not Chowlsea?”

On the walk back to the car, the air was cold against my cheeks. Paul and I reluctantly discussed the game, but it was all oh-so familiar. It was a draw, but it felt like a defeat. In 1995, we would have shrugged our shoulders, but in 2013 it seemed almost catastrophic. And I am not sure how we have arrived at this juncture in our history – where a home draw is deemed to be absolute failure – but I sure as hell don’t bloody well like it.

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Tales From Yet Another Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 9 January 2013.

Our second domestic cup game in five days provided us with a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg against those entertaining and resourceful fellows from Swansea City. There had been virtually no “build-up” for this game. I’ve probably never been less bothered about a semi-final. Of course, there is a tinge of guilt about that, but we are in a frantically busy spell. After our nine games in December, there would be a further nine in January. It is unlikely that these two months have ever been more demanding. No time to sit back and relax; game after game after game. Of those nine matches in December, I missed four. There were various reasons for this – my trip to Tokyo sucked a lot of my time and resources – but I would be back on track for January. God willing, I hope to attend all nine. It will probably turn out to be my busiest Chelsea month ever.

Wednesday – Saturday –Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday – Sunday – Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday.

The nearest I got to an official build-up occurred at about 3.45pm in Chippenham. In the office at work, there are eight co-workers. There are only two who are also footy fans – typically, Liverpool and Manchester United. Andy, however, is not in to football at all. He is, however, from Swansea. Just before I left Chippenham on the drive up to London, I asked him –

“No banter, then?”

Seizing his moment, Andy bristled “no need, Chris. We’ll win tonight. 2-1.”

I smiled and said “oh – that’s banter, mate.”

He replied “and we’ll win 3-1 in the next game, too.”

I smiled again. This wasn’t a sign of me underestimating Swansea’s threat over two games. It was more a result of Andy’s new-found hobby of forecasting scores.

Semi-finals used to be a ridiculously rare event in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

From our famous League Cup semi-final in 1972 against Tottenham (I don’t remember it, but Chris Garland’ s finest hour), we went a complete thirteen years until our next one; another League Cup semi-final (in the guise of The Milk Cup) against Sunderland in 1984-1985.

Yes, that’s correct.

Thirteen years with not one single semi-final appearance in any cup competition.

Read it and weep.

Another League Cup semi-final followed in 1991 against Sheffield Wednesday, when it was known as the Rumbelows Cup.

And then came an FA Cup semi-final in 1994 against Kerry Dixon’s Luton Town (now a non-league team)…a wait of 24 years in that particular competition.

So, you hopefully get the message; these games were rare events for us Chelsea fans. To put it bluntly, from the age of 7 to the age of 28 (my prime, damn it!), I witnessed just two Chelsea semi-finals.

And now the other side of the coin.

The Swansea City game would be our twenty-fifth cup semi-final in twenty seasons.

1993-1994 FA Cup
1994-1995 European Cup Winners Cup
1995-1996 FA Cup
1996-1997 FA Cup
1997-1998 League Cup
1997-1998 European Cup Winners Cup
1998-1999 European Cup Winners Cup
1999-2000 FA Cup
2001-2002 League Cup
2001-2002 FA Cup
2003-2004 Champions League
2004-2005 League Cup
2004-2005 Champions League
2005-2006 FA Cup
2006-2007 League Cup
2006-2007 FA Cup
2006-2007 Champions League
2007-2008 League Cup
2007-2008 Champions League
2008-2009 FA Cup
2008-2009 Champions League
2009-2010 FA Cup
2011-2012 FA Cup
2011-2012 Champions League
2012-2013 League Cup

Our winning percentage in these ties? 63%.

For our legion of new fans; you lucky gits.

But, let’s go back to 1985, the year the drought ended. Season 1984-1985 was a classic Chelsea campaign. We had won promotion in 1983-1984, with the likes of Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Micky Thomas, Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin and David Speedie entertaining us along the way. We found the transition to top flight football to be relatively easy and the season was memorable for a successful Milk Cup (named after the sponsors, the Milk Marketing Board) campaign. Sheffield Wednesday were memorably dispatched over three tumultuous games in the quarters and we were paired with Sunderland in the semis. We unfortunately lost the first-leg at Roker Park on a bitterly cold night 2-0. The return leg was originally pencilled in for Wednesday 20 February. I was at college in Stoke-on-Trent at the time and can remember walking to the train station, buying a paper and then being shocked to see that the evening’s game was not listed. The winter had been particularly cold with many cancellations and I picked up another paper to see that the game had indeed been postponed. It’s amazing to think that in these days of internet and smartphones, a person living in the Midlands would not have known that a football game in London had been postponed, but it shows how the world has changed. I can certainly remember my crestfallen walk back to my house on that Wednesday afternoon. I was gutted. This would have been my first ever home midweek game too; living in Somerset, a trip to Stamford Bridge on a Wednesday would have been nigh on impossible. The game with Sunderland was rescheduled for Monday 4 March; it was my 55th Chelsea game.

Some 28 years later, I can remember lots about that day, though little is very positive. I attended some lectures in the morning and then caught a lunchtime train from Stoke down to Euston. I remember getting over to Chelsea really early and lining up at The Shed turnstiles. The kick-off was the usual 7.45pm, but as the game wasn’t all-ticket (games very rarely were), I wanted to make sure of my place in the stadium. By 4.30pm, I had joined the back of the already 500 strong line as it wended its way down the Fulham Road. There was real, uncontainable excitement in the air. Supporters were just so thrilled to be watching a semi-final at The Bridge for the first time in 13 years. I remember that the early evening was bright and sunny. It just felt so strange for me to be in London at that time of the day. I was totally thrilled by the whole experience. My first semi-final. My first mid-week game. And hopefully a trip to Wembley, that sacred ground, at the end of the evening.

Fantastic.

As crazy as it sounds, I got in the ground as early as 5.15pm. In those days, it was about £5 to go in The Shed and you could then show your Chelsea membership card at a gate into the West Stand Benches, pay an extra £1 and get a seat in the enclosure. These were magical times at Chelsea. And I always felt that The Benches were my spiritual home. My first ever game – in 1974 – had been in the Benches too. I sat with Alan – and a few other mates…Mark, Leggo, Dave, Rich – in the very back row, right on the half-way line. From 5.15pm to 7.45pm we waited. The stadium soon filled-up. The Sunderland hordes…some 5,000 strong…filled a few pens in the large, sweeping north terrace to my left. The night fell. It got colder.

Chasing a 0-2 deficit from the first leg (Dale Jasper’s far from finest hour), we broke through after just 6 minutes when Pat set up Speedo. The 38,000 crowd exploded. If I was to try to recreate in words what the noise was like back in those days, I would fail. It seemed like the world would cave in. After this opener, with more to hopefully come, it is very likely that the entire Benches would have jumped up, landed on top of a neighbour, pushed themselves upright, hugged a neighbour, yelled, screamed, with faces contorted with near-orgasmic delight.

We were, however, stunned when former Chelsea favourite Clive Walker equalised down at The Shed.

Oh boy.

The noise continued into the second-half, however. We would not go meekly. We had a few chances and they hit the bar. Walker scored their second.

We were losing 2-1 on the night and 4-1 overall.

This is when it got nasty.

Fans in the East Lower ripped up their seats and threw them on the pitch. Fellow citizens in The Benches, away to my left, ripped up the wooden struts and launched them onto the pitch. A pitch invasion was attempted. The Old Bill attempted to quell the situation. There were policemen and photographers swarming everywhere. Police horses raced around the pitch from behind The Shed. Chelsea fans again attempted to get the game called-off by encroaching onto the pitch. Believe it or not, when Sunderland scored their third goal, a policeman was standing inside our six yard box.

Then, with disarray all around me, a Chelsea fan – John Leftly – ran onto the pitch from a few yards away and tried to assault Clive Walker, the former hero turned villain.

By this stage, I was mortified and in deep shock.

So much for Wembley.

I was deeply saddened by the hooligans. This was the real face of 80s hooliganism. Wanton violence and destruction, yobbish and callous behaviour. This was just after Millwall at Luton. Just before Leeds at Birmingham. Just before Heysel.

I was pig sick and couldn’t muster a cheer as Pat lobbed the goalie from 8 yards to make it 2-3 on the night.

No one cared.

I remember I walked back to South Kensington tube just to avoid the inevitable trouble which would have occurred at Fulham Broadway; not only between Chelsea and Sunderland, but West Ham were down at Wimbledon in an FA Cup tie on that night and I didn’t fancy being in the vicinity when the ICF came through Fulham Broadway.

It was a long train ride home back to Stoke-on-Trent that night.

28 years later, the Chippenham to London drive only took two hours and fifteen minutes. On the short walk from the pub to the stadium, I happened to glance at the poster on the window of a bookie.

Michu : First Goal Scorer – 7 to 1.

“Yep, that Michu is a cracking player. We’ll have to watch him” I thought as I rushed past.

Along Vanston place, I overheard a couple of Chelsea fans running through a couple of “Ba” songs. Three songs to his name on Sunday, with plenty more to follow no doubt. On the ascent up the six flights of stairs to the Matthew Harding Upper, an irate fan was loudly berating Benitez about the dropping of Ba and the insertion of Torres.

Inside the stadium, I soon noted that Swansea’s away following was a lot less than I had expected. I’m sure that Swansea has never appeared in a major cup final. Therefore, was this their first-ever semi-final? Either way, I certainly expected 3,000 (if not 6,000) followers from South Wales to attend the game at Stamford Bridge. There was a large section of around 800 seats unused in the upper tier and the lower tier wasn’t 100% full. Therefore, I guess that they only had 2,000. I remember Burnley bringing down 6,000 in 2008 for an early round in the same cup. I suppose many Swansea fans thought “been to Chelsea last season, not going again.”

I found this a bit sad really. The tickets, after all, were only £25.

Alan was sat elsewhere in the MHU with Gary. It felt decidedly odd to be sat by myself at a home game. I don’t think it has ever happened in the 15 years of having a season ticket; either Alan or Glenn is always sat alongside me.

A quick scan of the team; Ross in goal. A sturdy back four of Ash, Gary, Brana and Dave. Luiz and Rami holding in the deepzone. The three amigos of Oscar, Mata and Hazard in the shallowzone. Torres as the target man.

The game began and the first song from the home fans poked fun at the Swansea contingent.

“Is that all? Is that all? Is that all you take away? Is that all you take away?”

Swansea sang “Land of my fathers” all through the night.

The Swansea away kit made me smile. Although the red / white / green mirrored the colours of the Welsh flag, these are also the colours of Hungary. Our former manager Dave Sexton so admired the ground-breaking football of the Hungarians of the ‘fifties – Puskas, Hidekguti, Kocsis et al – that he chose the national colours of Hungary as our away kit from 1972 to 1974, which was also reprieved in 1975-1976. I looked down on the players and had a sudden and heart-warming thought. The last time I had seen that lovely combination of red shirts, crisp white socks and light green socks in a live game was at the Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea game in November 1975. For a spilt second, I was transported back to Eastville Stadium, the Tote End, Rover’s blue-and-white quartered shirts and their “Smash & Grab” strikeforce of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister. On that Saturday afternoon, my mother and I had seats among the home fans and we saw us win 2-1. There were quickly lovely memories of a goal from Teddy Maybank and Bill Garner getting sent off.

Red / white / green.

A classic Chelsea combination. And – the magic of memory – I was a ten year old boy once more. Incidentally, the red / white / green bar scarf was often seen on The Shed for many years. It remains a cult item of clothing amongst Chelsea fans to this day. My friend Daryl sometimes wears his; it looks fantastic.

On ten minutes, a really exceptional move cut through the Swansea defence and Ramires seemed certain to be able to shoot early. Instead, he held on to the ball slightly too long and was only able to poke the ball towards goal. The ‘keeper saved easily.

We began the game well. On 16 minutes, the RDM minute. Although I only clapped for around 10 seconds at Southampton, I clapped for a few more against Swansea. I looked around and had a quick vox pop. In the MHU, maybe one in five were clapping. Down in the MHL, it was nearer 50/50. In the East Stand, maybe one in ten. In the West Stand? Who cares about the West Stand?

The travelling fans were making some noise…

“We’re Swansea City, We’ll Sing On Our Own.”

On 22 minutes, Azpilicueta – who was defending well – struck a low shot just past the Swansea far post. From a similar location a week earlier, SWP had been more successful. On 25 minutes, the best chance of the game; a sublime Hazard dribble set up Juan Mata, but his shot was weakly hit and straight at the ‘keeper. I noticed that the entire MHL were standing; always a good sign that the spectators were “up for it”, yet the noise was again pretty poor. On the half-hour, an Oscar back heel set up Mata, but he shot wide. Then a fantastic ball from David Luiz from deep picked out Oscar, but he had a poor first touch and the ball bounced away. Luiz was having a pretty good game, though he tended to react to play rather than being able to predict play. On many occasions, his speed came to his assistance. His tackling was fine, his reading of the game not so good.

A text from Philadelphia summed up my thoughts too –

“Plenty of chances. One of these will go in, no?”

Right after, an Ivanovic error gave the ball away. It was played in to Michu – yes, of course – and he slotted past the diving Turnbull.

It wasn’t what Philly Steve nor I had meant.

Just before the break, Ivanovic turned nicely and, attempting to make up for his error, struck a sweet shot which the ‘keeper did well to turn wide.

There were a few boos at the break. Former custodian Dave Beasant was on the pitch at half-time; looking pretty fit and healthy. Beasant memorably injured himself while at Chelsea by dropping a bottle of salad cream on his toe. True story.

To be honest, we were playing OK, moving the ball around nicely. However, Torres – apart from winning a ball out wide and playing the ball in for others – was quiet. Swansea were clearly a better team than QPR, but it was noticeable that it was all eerily similar to that game seven days before. I joked with the guy next to me –

“I have a ticket for the away leg but, to be honest, I was hoping for a big win tonight and then I might not bother with the second leg. Give myself a night off. Well…it looks like I’m going to Swansea.”

We were worse in the second-half, no doubts. With every passing minute, the frustration rose with the team and manager alike. David Luiz shot wide from a fee-kick and he then had a low shot saved. But chances were at a premium. In truth, Swansea were well marshalled and didn’t really need to attack. Frank Lampard and Demba Ba were serenaded as they warmed up in front of the family section.

“We got Demba Ba. Say we got Demba Ba. We got Demba Ba. Say we got Demba Ba.”

Frank replaced Ramires and I predicted that Frank would score a last minute penalty. He rattled in a trademark shot which was well hit, but an easy take for the Swans’ keeper.

With only ten minutes remaining, Demba Ba appeared on the far side of the stadium and the applause rang out. Torres was the man to be substituted and then, to my sadness, the stadium was full of boos, perhaps the loudest I have ever heard for a Chelsea player. I just wished that those same fans had reached similar volume levels when we were in possession and attacking. Like most people who have been steadfastly attempting to defend Torres, I am finding this an increasingly difficult task. Yet, here is the crunch; discuss his faults away from the game by all means, but please support him while in the stadium. Not just Torres, any player. Surely this is the golden rule of Chelsea Fundamentalism?

To be fair to Ba, in those ten to fifteen minutes, he made a massive impact. He had two good headers and was also sent sprawling in the penalty box, but was bizarrely booked for simulation. Marin replaced a poor Oscar, but further catastrophe was just around the corner. Ivanovic’ back-pass to Turnbull was intercepted by Graham who rounded Turnbull and slotted in.

0-2.

There was a tumultuous rendition of “One Di Matteo, There’s Only One Di Matteo, One Di Matteo” immediately after this second goal – I didn’t join in – and I wondered what the members of the board were thinking. The final twist of the knife saw a rampaging Ba blast the ball in, only for an offside to be given. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, a volley of boos echoed around the emptying stands at the final whistle.

I have heard a few fans call this particular brand of the beautiful game “Feast and Famine Football.” This is certainly the Chelsea of old; the Great Unpredictables. After the win in Southampton, Bob in California quite succinctly called it “Bi-Polar” football.

On the walk to the car, I realised that attending games at Stamford Bridge is not enjoyable at the moment. That’s a terrible thing to be forced to admit. Thoughts turned to the away leg. We have the capacity to turn things around in the second-leg, but we will be foolish to chase the game in a gung-ho fashion right from the start. With Dyer, Routledge, Britton and Michu playing their own little brand of tiki-taka in deepest Wales, Swansea could easily increase their aggregate lead.

Which Chelsea will show up? Please send your answers to our usual address.

As I drove home, I got some comfort in the fact that, at least in Swansea, I will be amongst the more vociferous members of our support. At that point in time, I was grateful for any positives that I could find.

The only other positive was that Swansea Andy didn’t text me.

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Tales From The Big Easy

Chelsea vs. Blackpool : 19 September 2010.

With the Stoke City game a distant memory, the Blackpool match couldn’t come quick enough for me. Three weeks with no Chelsea game for me represented a real mid-season drought and the longest time I had “gone without” since late summer in 2003, when my mother’s ill health resulted in me missing four home games. I can remember my huge pleasure at getting back into the swing of things with a game at Wolves and I realised then how much attending Chelsea games meant to me. Back in 2003, I had missed the first three weeks of the Abramovich era – who were all these new players? That Wolves game was a landmark game in my Chelsea life…I can’t put into words the joy I felt at seeing the team play again.

Back to 2010 and an extra bonus – my mate Glenn volunteered to drive up, so I was able to kick back and relax. He called for me at 10am, dressed like a spokesman for Quicksilver ( his VW van even had a Quicksilver logo ) and Lord Parky was collected by 10.30am.

We were on the road.

The first portion of the drive up to London was spent discussing some sad news that has befallen one of our fellow Chelsea mates. PD had been working for one of the many tarmac gangs of Frome ( due to the many limestone quarries in our home area, Frome seems to be the centre of the road-gang industry in southern England ), when a piece of heavy machinery crashed into his lower leg. Details are still a bit sketchy, but PD is in a Bristol hospital and has already had three operations in an attempt to save his ankle and foot. We haven’t seen much of PD at Chelsea games recently, but he is a well-liked member of our little crew and the news came as a massive shock.

Our thoughts and prayers are with him.

The usual drive up the M4…a bit of chat about the team’s form of late, some musings on the Hate Derby taking place at Old Trafford at lunchtime, we even – briefly – spoke about the Somerset county cricket team…surely a first. Somerset are the “nearly men” yet again this season…the team lost two one-day finals this year, but also missed out on a first county championship in 135 years ( you think the Cubs have it bad! ) to Nottinghamshire. Both teams finished level on 214 points, but Notts won one more game during the season. I can’t say I’m a cricket fan, but I was gutted that my county lost out yet again. I played cricket for my school during the summer of 1980 and I was constantly reminded of the adage that the sport is “9 parts complete boredom and 1 part complete terror.” My maternal grandfather was the cricketer in my family and he was quite the sportsman, playing for my village cricket and football teams.

I had only ever seen Blackpool play once before – a game way back in the autumn of 1975. It was my fourth Chelsea game and the first one in the old second division. My parents were with me and we also invited my Uncle Geoff – a Spurs fan – from the nearest village to attend too. I remember little of the game, except the distinctive tangerine of the away team, plus players Bob Hatton and Mickey Walsh. We won 2-0…the most memorable part of the day was when Tommy Langley came off the bench to score the second goal. He ran straight back towards the bench from the North Stand end and, as our seats were right behind the Chelsea bench, it appeared that Tommy was running straight towards us. His face was a picture, his arms were outstretched and, for a moment, I thought he was running straight towards me to give me a hug. Mum took a shine to young Tommy from this moment and he was her favourite Chelsea player for many a year. I reminded Tommy of my Mum’s infatuation with him when I first met him a few years back. Lovely memories, eh?

12.30pm Glenn had parked his van on Bramber Road.

The usual start to the day in Chelsealand…breakfast, then into the boozer. Reg the landlord must have found his feminine side as the pub was festooned with colourful hanging baskets.

With the United vs. Liverpool game on Sky, the pub was rammed and the twelve or so of my mates were huddled together in a corner. There were five or six Blackpool fans on the next table and there was no trouble. I nipped out to get a “Get Well Soon” card for PD which we all duly signed. I showed a few of the lads some of my photos from my recent trip to Philadelphia and spoke with Daryl about my visit to Yankee Stadium, then our proposed “50th Birthday Bash” to NYC in 2015…we hope to see the Mets vs. Yankees series that summer as it coincides with our fiftieth birthdays, plus Daryl’s brother Neil too. That promises to be a memorable holiday, no doubts.

The United goals were met with stony silence, but the pub erupted when Gerrard’s too goals were scored. Then silence again on 84 minutes.

Pah.

Alan spoke of the enjoyable trip to Slovakia during the week. He said that they spent a few moments in the bar at the Holiday Inn, where the team were staying. Dutch Mick had walked over to Patrick Van Aanholt and spoke to him in Dutch. Florent Malouda appreciated this show of fraternity and apparently bought Dutch Mick ( who is originally from London ) a bottle of wine as a “thank you.” It is not known how many times Dutch Mick mentioned the phrase “for sure” in his dialogue with Patrick.

Mike from the New York Chapter – in his trademark shirt from last season – showed at about 2.30pm and I showed him the US photos too…it didn’t seem real that we had met up in a bar in Greenwich Village only ten days earlier. Then Burger and Julie called in, full of pleasing stories of how they are acclimatising to life in Staffordshire, duck.

On the walk to The Bridge, I read with interest in the programme about a 21 year old “avid” Chelsea fan from Lancashire, who was attending her first ever game.

Avid, eh?

I had to wonder why she never saw us play at Manchester United in 1995, Bolton in 1997, Blackburn in 2003, Wigan in 2005 or Burnley this year?

Just before the teams entered the pitch, there was a moment’s applause in honour of the late Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur forward Bobby Smith, who played for us in the ‘fifties. The away corner in The Shed housed the eager Blackpool support and they resembled the orange-clad hordes of Nicosia from last season. Just two flags, though.

What a first-half.

We only had to wait two minutes for the opener. We played the ball around with ease and I think Blackpool’s only touch was the hoof out for the resultant corner. Drogba whipped the ball into the six yard box and Kalou smashed it in.

Here we go again.

On eleven minutes, a strong run and endearingly unselfish play from Drogba set up Malouda with a sweeping ball into the goal area which was inch perfect in its execution. Malouda couldn’t miss – and didn’t.

I unfortunately was in the middle of a comfort break when our third goal was scored, a Drogba deflected goal after nice work by The World’s Best Left Back.

Oh boy – coasting.

As Drogba came deep to help defend, Glenn piped up –

“Drogba…what are you doing back there?”

With that, he won the ball easily, advanced and spun a delightful ball into the path of Kalou with the outside of his foot. Kalou sent in a ball to Malouda and we were four goals to the good. Alan and myself had great pleasure asking Glenn –

“You were saying, mate?”

Every attack was a joy to behold. Each time we broke, I sat back and wondered “how will we create a goal scoring chance this time?” What a goal scoring run we are on at the moment and long may it continue. Amazing times in our history…and all this without Messrs. Anelka, Lampard and Terry.

At half-time, I heard a PA announcement and I recognised a mate’s name. Steve works for a former supplier of our company and his name was announced as part of a treat his wife had arranged for him – he was watching in one of the executive areas of the West Stand. It reminded me of when I was a child and my parents would often write in to Chelsea DJ Pete Owen and I would often get my name read out on the “Pre-Match Spin” show. The first time this happened – it may well have been the Blackpool game in 1975 actually – I remember being very embarrassed, with me thinking that everyone in the stadium was aware it was me.

Dennis Wise was on the pitch at the break.

I’ll be honest, the second-half was a let down, but we are – of course – so splendidly spoilt these days. To be fair, Blackpool – spurred on by the deep Bristolian twang of Ian Holloway – put on a good show and tested Petr Cech on a few occasions. They did well and played it on the floor, probing away. We are so lucky these days – even the less successful teams play it on the grass, unlike the “route one” football employed by many teams back in the grim ‘eighties. In those days, teams like Sheffield Wednesday and Wimbledon would start every attack with a hoof up the field from a ‘keeper, there would be a midfield scramble, the ball would break to a full back who would then chip it up into “the channels.” A further heading duel would ensue, then possession would be lost.

Back in those days, the atmosphere at games was better, but the football could be bloody awful.

The away fans mainly stuck to their “This Is The Best Trip I’ve Ever Been On” chant throughout the game and it certainly seems to sum up their Premiership experience perfectly. They’ll probably get relegated, but I’m sure they will have fun along the way. There will be as many ups and downs for them this season as a rollercoaster on their famous Pleasure Beach.

We took our foot off of the pedal in the second-half and, looking back, it seemed inconceivable that we didn’t score any more. We had a typical Kalou one-on-one fluff on 63 minutes, a Malouda volley was palmed over on 64 minutes and Ashley Cole annoyingly decided to take an extra touch with his favoured left peg on 75 minutes when he really should have slammed it in with his right.

The World’s Best Left Back Who Can’t Kick With His Right Foot.

On 86 minutes, Drogba blazed over.

The finishing was so woeful that I am convinced I saw Alan Mayes miss an open goal on 73 minutes, Teddy Maybank head the cross-bar rather than the free ball on 85 minutes and Dave Mitchell fall over his feet in the last minute when clean through with only the ‘keeper to beat. Blackpool then scored a consolation goal via a Graham Wilkins own goal at the death. What a strike. He doesn’t miss from there.

Our support had become pretty docile as the game progressed. We had only been momentarily roused on a few occasions. I think we need a stern test to re-focus ourselves…we have had it too easy. Manchester City next Saturday will be just about perfect.

As I joined the buoyant crowd on the Fulham Road – even the Seasiders looked happy – I enjoyed a bit of banter with a colleague by phone who is an “avid” Manchester United fan. He commented that we had enjoyed the easiest start to a new season he had ever seen.

I replied –

“True. We haven’t played Everton or Fulham yet.”

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