Tales From The Eight Bells, Seven Goals And One Matthew Harding.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 23 October 2021.

This was pretty much a perfect day of football.

Where to start?

How about 5.30am? Early enough?

My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.

This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.

Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.

“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”

“Yes.”

“Bad luck.”

I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.

Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.

“Ron Harris drove us home!””

I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.

I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.

Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.

Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.

There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.

“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”

We both laughed.

After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.

Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.

So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.

All aboard the Chopper Bus.

We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.

There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.

Yeah, it was surreal.

Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.

“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”

After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.

“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”

Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.

As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.

Stupid bloody sport.

Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.

At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.

Perfect.

I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.

Again, perfect.

Did I say that I work in logistics?

For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.

Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.

The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.

Perfect.

At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.

The crowd sang.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.

I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.

On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.

“Matthew.

With Love And Appreciation.

We Will Never Forget You.”

Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.

High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.

Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.

With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.

The team news came through.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Havertz

With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”

The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.

It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.

These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.

How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.

The song again.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Sigh.

The game began.

Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.

We began brightly.

The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.

We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.

“Brilliant.”

Two-nil and coasting.

More please.

Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.

A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.

The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.

We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.

But 3-0 it was.

And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.

There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.

At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :

Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”

At the break, in the away dressing room :

“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”

The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.

Fackinell.

We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.

Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.

Four.

Keep’m coming Chels.

Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.

Five.

Callum looked embarrassed.

Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.

The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.

“Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

A minute later, louder still.

“Carefree.”

The game safe, on came three substitutes.

Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.

There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

I was just waiting for the Whitewall…

On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.

But there was time for yet more drama.

A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.

Penalty.

Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.

After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.

Six.

During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.

Seven.

Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.

Bloody hell.

On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.

They were lucky to get naught.

I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.

“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”

There was a message from Steve in Philly.

“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”

The answer was easy.

“Fackinell.”

I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.

I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.

The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.

Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.

Good times, everyone, good times.

Oh by the way, Lukak-who?

Tales From The Driving Seat.

Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers : 1 November 2014.

With two consecutive away games at Manchester United and Shrewsbury Town behind us, the home match with Queens Park Rangers represented a fine chance for Chelsea to maintain a healthy gap at the top of the pile. Having driven over seven hundred miles to Old Trafford and New Meadow, I was back in the driving seat once again for yet another trip to Stamford Bridge. After collecting PD and Glenn, Lord Parky joined us. It didn’t take too long for me to share my growing frustrations with work with my fellow match-goers. For the past few weeks, my life has existed against a dull rhythm of “work/sleep/work/sleep/work/sleep/work/sleep” albeit with the occasional “football” excursion thrown in, perhaps like a lifebelt, to allow me to survive under increasing work-related stress.

I hoped that a trip to HQ would help to reduce the pain.

Within a few miles of leaving Parky’s home village, my car was rocking with laughter as we headed east and the problems of work soon started to subside. As we neared Reading, our sides were hurting so much from all of the giggles which were erupting in The Chuckle Bus that I had to put on some music – “Dexy’s Midnight Runners”, thank you Parky – in an attempt to settle us all down.

However, after the tedious traffic jams of Sunday and Tuesday, we were hit with yet more delays, this time on the M4. I was immediately reminded of a horrible trip that my parents and I took to Stamford Bridge in March 1979 when horrendous traffic on the M4 resulted in the three of us arriving very late for a Chelsea vs. QPR game. In 1978-1979, Chelsea were quite awful. Relegation was inevitable from before Christmas. I have to be honest and admit that the season was a tough one for me. I didn’t enjoy much of it. It seemed quite apt, then, that the QPR game, which I had been anticipating for weeks before, should be such a negative experience. I only used to go to two games per season in those days. The whole day was crap. We took our seats a few minutes before kick-off, which meant that the whole pre-match was spent nervously checking my watch to see if we’d be late, rather than relaxing and taking it all in. Chelsea lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower, and we were dismal. I think that day ranks as one of the least enjoyable in all of my visits to Chelsea in over forty years. And it wasn’t that QPR were half-decent either; at the end of the season, they too were relegated. Yep, 1978-1979 was a tough one.

In 1979-1980, although we were in the Second Division, I regained my passion for Chelsea Football Club.

A very enjoyable pre-match (the antithesis of the March 1979 game) took place within the beer garden of The Goose. Yet more laughter, yet more banter, yet more silliness. Again, my general mood lightened considerably. The weather was bright and cheerful. This was going to be a fine day.

News broke through that Diego Costa was starting; excellent. There was also a Newcastle United goal against Liverpool to bring added cheer.

Although we all left the pub in good time, there were long queues at the turnstiles and so my first regret of the day was that I missed the minute of silence in memory of the fallen. I hated myself because of that. At least I will have the chance to pay my respects properly at Anfield next Sunday.

During the past few days, there were internet rumours flying around that QPR had not sold all of their tickets – something I found surprising – but their section of 3,000 was full.

Blue skies overhead. An eager crowd. Chelsea in royal blue, QPR in Tottenham white.

Let’s keep winning, boys.

We began with a flurry of corners, but the first real chance fell to Oscar after a nice flick from Diego Costa. His shot was scuffed and QPR escaped. Soon after, an incisive move down our right resulted in Branislav Ivanovic hitting the side-netting from close in. These were positive signs.

Only a Charlie Austin looping header threatened Thibaus Courtois’ goal.

On 32 minutes, Cesc Fabregas – quiet at Old Trafford on Sunday – drove forward and spotted Oscar to his right. With an impudent flick with the outside of his right foot, he bent the ball out and then in to the goal.

We screamed. We shouted.

Get in.

Alan and I – in the guise of two famous inhabitants of Oil Drum Lane – reverted to our tried and tested routine.

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

Harold : “Come on my little diamonds.”

There was every reason to think that more goals were on the agenda. We had enjoyed the majority of the ball, as is so often the case, and the visitors had shown little attacking aptitude. Just before the break, a sublime twist by Eden Hazard, down in the far corner in front of the travelling fans, made me gulp in astonishment. It was a stunning piece of skill, but I was amazed that his 180 degree turn, leaving his marker stranded, did not warrant any applause or cheer. Were we too stunned to clap or were we too spoiled to appreciate it? I had the feeling that if it had happened in the dark days of 1978-1979, maybe by Duncan McKenzie or Clive Walker, it would have gone down in Chelsea legend.

At the break, my second regret of the day; I missed my childhood hero Ian Britton on the pitch with Neil Barnett.

A lightening break down our right by Willian ended up with a teasing cross in to the box, but Eden Hazard was just unable to reach it. A second goal then would have opened the floodgates, surely.

Then, calamity struck. On one of a very rare number of Rangers excursions into our box, Vargas forced Courtois to make a stunning block. However, the rebound was smashed goal wards by Fer and was diverted past Courtois with a deft flick of Austin’s boot. We groaned. The Rangers fans celebrated wildly, but I was pleased to hear the strong reply from the home support, which immediately rallied to the cause.

To be honest, it hadn’t been a particularly noisy match, certainly not for a London derby. One peculiarity that I had noted throughout the game was that it often took a song or chant from the travelling support to rouse the home sections.

A “Hey Jude” of “la, la, la, laaa – Rangers” soon morphed into a “Hey Jude” of “la, la,la , laaa – Chelsea.”

A “Sit Down Mourinho” soon morphed into a “Jose Mourinho.”

A song ridiculing John Terry from QPR elicited “The Double” song from Chelsea.

I wondered if we were now relying on away supporters to be our cheerleaders.

Sure, there were songs and chants from the Matthew Harding, though I hardly heard The Shed. There certainly wasn’t one moment when I could honestly say that the whole stadium was united in song.

On the pitch, Mourinho went for the jugular and replaced Willian with Didier Drogba. He immediately stood close to Diego Costa. I was warmed at the thought of two strikers playing up front together for the first time in a while.

Didier and Diego.

Phew.

Chances came and went for both sides, although the quality of play never lived up to the highs of previous weeks. Oscar lifted a free-kick over the Rangers wall, but Green saved. With a quarter of an hour remaining, Eden Hazard accelerated into the box, and Vargas clumsily checked him. Hazard went tumbling and the referee immediately pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Eden Hazard nonchalantly stroked the ball home, but there was not a wild outpouring of emotion from any of our players. Although, the Chelsea fans all around me were overjoyed, I sensed that the players on the pitch were just relieved.

Andre Schurrle then replaced Diego Costa, who had started to tire. The substitute came close. A trademark near post header from John Terry then drew another save from Green.

We held on.

It hadn’t been pretty.

But three points are three points.

We were back in the driving seat.

We listened to Radio Five Live just as I was caught up in the usual slow procession out of the area near Queens Club, my car edging slowly away, alongside other match-goers. We caught a few of Jose Mourinho’s irritable words concerning the team’s performance. It was obvious that his had been a frustrating afternoon. Perhaps his meticulous game plan had not been followed. There was tiredness to his tone. He seemed extra-ordinarily grumpy.

He then turned his attention to the home spectators. On a day when he had praised the away support at Manchester and Shrewsbury during the previous week in the match programme, Mourinho made a sarcastic remark about the quietness of the Stamford Bridge support; it was only when we scored did he realise that the stadium wasn’t empty.

I have written thousands of words in these match reports bemoaning the declining atmosphere at home games, and it is no secret that many Chelsea supporters feel the same way. It is also evident that this has not happened at Stamford Bridge alone. At virtually all stadia in England, fans complain about the dwindling atmosphere in home areas. There are a few exceptions to this rule; step forward Stoke City and Portsmouth in recent years, both solidly working class clubs with no pretensions of global branding and suchlike. But these are rare exceptions. And yet, away support thrives. It is seen as the last bastion of the good old days. I’m just desperately sad that I have noticed the buzz at home games deteriorate over the past ten years; it sadly shows no signs of abating. The usual reasons for this are instantly recalled; high ticket prices forcing the young and working classes away from the game, a gentrification of support, an aging of support, larger proportions of corporate tickets, over-zealous stewards, fans being displaced so that “singers” are never in the same stand together, an increasing number – at Chelsea especially – of visitors from abroad who decide to take in a Chelsea game while in London, the onset of “day trippers” and the over-riding feeling that the club has a real desire to attract a different class of fan. There is, at Chelsea, the added problem of expectation. Long gone are the days when a simple win was met with unbridled joy. With our continued success, there is an expectation to always win. We, as a club, have become bloated and spoiled. All the reasons are well known. Why did Jose decide to utter publicly what many think privately? I am not sure. Surely it wasn’t an attempt to mask a poor team performance? I’d hate to think that. Maybe Mourinho had thought this for a while and had just decided to “get things off his chest”? He certainly seemed in a foul and irritable mood.

To be honest I think I found his tone a little distasteful; rather than talk openly about the atmosphere being a little quiet and a few words of encouragement, his comments were riddled with sarcasm

He has, however, certainly got us all talking.

Maybe the singing will come later.

IMG_9824

Tales From The Second-Half Specialists

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 8 March 2014.

I drove through the quiet streets of my home town just before midday. There he was; standing on the crossroads by Victoria Park, the agreed meeting-place. It was a classic sight and I have to say that it made me chuckle; black Crombie, Chelsea shirt, jeans and brown Doctor Martens with yellow laces and short-cropped hair.

Classic PD.

A few moments later, I collected LP – a Lyle & Scott pullover, jeans, jacket and Adidas trainers if anyone is wondering – outside The Cornerhouse pub.

We were on our way.

I was buzzing about this game with Tottenham. The weather was bloody marvellous and we had the entire day ahead of us. Very soon into the drive east, my two passengers were working their way into several cans of “Strongbow dark fruits cider” and the laughter was booming. I think it caused my car to shake on a few occasions.

I ate up the miles, they drank up the cider.

“The Goose” was predictably packed. We gathered together in our usual corner. Outside, the beer garden was rammed; it felt like the first day of spring. The usual suspects were gathered together. Everyone was pleased to see PD once more. News came through of around fifteen mouthy Tottenham fans alighting at West Brompton, several Chelsea pubs emptying and the away fans getting run from arsehole to breakfast time within a few fleeting moments. I’ve never been an advocate of beating seven bells out of someone simply because they happen to follow a different football club than me, but such brazen behaviour by away fans within Chelsea territory was always going to end in tears. Occasionally, away fans drink in “The Goose” and there is usually no trouble, but I can never remember any London teams’ supporters doing so. It’s simply not the “done thing.” For fans of other clubs, it is a safe haven in the main. I can only think of a few instances over the past fifteen years when away fans have tried to make a name for themselves and “storm the gates.” In such circumstances – QPR and Leicester spring to mind – they have been easily repelled.

With the game kicking-off at 5.30pm, it was obvious that many had made a day of it. We only arrived on the scene at 2.30pm; others had been “at it” for hours. The beers were going down well, though I limited myself to only a couple. There is always a lovely buzz about Chelsea Tottenham. It doesn’t require any explaining really.

Simon arrived and was soon to utter the words “I’m worried about today.”

I told him to “hush.” This, although not a bad team, was far from one of the strongest Tottenham teams to come to Chelsea over the years. Everyone knows that we have enjoyed a magnificent home run of games against the once glamorous North Londoners since our last defeat in the league against them in early 1990.

The record has gone on and on and on.

A win later in the evening would stretch the run to twenty-four beautiful games; I’ve been lucky – I have seen all but two of the previous twenty-three. To tell the whole story, of the thirty Chelsea vs. Tottenham games that I have witnessed at Stamford Bridge, I have only seen two Spurs victories. A meek 0-2 loss during our awful start to the 1986-1987 season was the last time. That was bad – the gate was only 21,576, the atmosphere awful and our First Division future seemed uncertain.

However, the only other Tottenham victory in all of my visits was worse. Much worse.

In 1978-1979, Chelsea were atrocious. Although we had drawn 2-2 at White Hart Lane in the August sun, our autumn was poor and the winter looked bleak. Tottenham, newly-promoted after a solitary season in the Second Division, had shook the football world with the double signing of Argentinians Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa in the summer. On Saturday 18 November 1978, I travelled up to Stamford Bridge with my parents. There was a huge buzz about the game. It was the usual routine; Dad would park the car at Ealing Common, which was followed by the ride in by tube, a few souvenirs and a programme, the wait outside the club offices to try to get player autographs and then in to our East Lower seats by just before 2pm, my excitement rising with every minute. On this particular day, there was a running battle between the two sets of fans on the large sweeping terraces before the game. I can specifically remember a scene opposite where the West Stand met the North terrace. Thousands of fans were separated by the royal blue fence which formed a natural barrier between the two stands. I can vividly remember the a long section of the fence – maybe about a forty foot stretch – being pushed and pulled as fans battled to get at each other. There had been similar crowd disturbances at several games that I had witnessed in my first few games as a youngster at Stamford Bridge (Tottenham 1974, Cardiff 1976, Millwall 1977 – I could certainly pick’em) but this memory is my most vivid memory of all of these occasions. Our team wasn’t bad on paper, but it never gelled for us all season. In front of the ‘keeper John Phillips were two poor full-backs Graham Wilkins and David Stride with Ron Harris and Steve Wicks in the middle. Our midfield consisted of Garry Stanley, Duncan Mackenzie and Ray Wilkins with Tommy Langley, Ken Swain and Clive Walker in attack.  Our manager was Ken Shellito, a loyal Chelsea servant who took over from Eddie McCreadie the previous year. A stunning Tommy Langley bicycle-kick gave us a 1-0 lead, but Spurs broke my heart and came back to win 3-1. There were simply thousands of away supporters in the North Stand that day and I remember being crestfallen that there were so many Spurs fans to my right. The gate was 41,594. There must have been 10,000 Spurs fans there. I can still hear their “We Are Tottenham, Super Tottenham, We Are Tottenham, From The Lane” to this day. It was a horrible day.

Bloody Tottenham.

However, despite this dark memory, we have dished untold misery on Tottenham since 1978.

They must bloody despise us.

Good.

That’s just the way it should be.

It was smashing to see Neil, visiting from Guernsey, for the first time for a while. He had watched the Three Bridges vs. Guernsey Isthmian League game at lunchtime. One day, I’m hoping for my own personal double-header with a Frome Town lunchtime game in the London area and then a Chelsea game at The Bridge. It was clear that Parky, especially, was enjoying the drinking session. I wondered what state he might be in at the end of the game.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, all was well in the world. It was a stunningly gorgeous London afternoon and Chelsea were playing Tottenham.

Bliss.

Inside the stadium, just before kick-off, I noted the reappearance of a relatively new flag being draped from the opposite end of the MHU; hanging from the balcony, it was being held by fans in the MHL, stretching it, to accentuate its simple message.

No words, no text, just a huge royal blue flag with the white outline of the European Cup in the middle.

The greatest memory of them all and one which causes even more pain for Tottenham supporters everywhere. Job done.

Tottenham had brought the maximum 3,000 away fans; a little different to 1978, but such are the rules these days. Hardly any flags though; certainly none with the European Cup on them. I was unaware that Fernando Torres had been injured in the pre-match. Our team still looked pretty strong. Frank Lampard was recalled in midfield. Tottenham’s team has changed a little over the past couple of seasons; the names Naughton and Bentaleb meant little to me. The presence of the invigorated Adebayor worried me, though.

The game began and the away fans, maybe not surprisingly, were making the greater din. It’s the same when we go to N17. It’s the same everywhere. Within the first five minutes, with the two teams trading a few jabs, Chelsea broke at speed down the right with Eto’o feeding Eden Hazard who rounded Lloris. A certain goal looked like the only outcome, but Hazard seemed to touch the ball a little too far just as he was taking aim and the ball spun just wide of the unguarded Tottenham goal. I jumped and screamed in pain.

“Aaaarrrrgggghhhh.”

Tottenham then seemed to enjoy plenty of possession and we struggled to get a foothold. Bentaleb’s shot went wide after we were caught out. Then Sandro forced a superb save from Petr Cech. There were few real shots on goal in the first-half. Samuel Eto’o evened-up the chances but didn’t threaten Lloris’ goal with a shot which again went wide.

The Chelsea crowd seemed a little subdued, but there was still time to remind the away fans that we’re the only team in London, only team in London, only team in London with a European Cup.

At half-time, there was frustration in the home ranks. It hadn’t been too impressive at all. The sunny weather gently eased and the early-evening light (almost a little misty) created a strange atmosphere. It had the feel of a famous Stamford Bridge late-season European game. We hoped for better things in the second period. Mourinho replaced Lampard with Oscar. No problems with that.

What a second-half.

Of all the various ways in which we have beaten Tottenham at home since 1990 – my favourite, by the way being George Weah’s “off the plane from Milan, off the bench” winner in 2000 – none could have prepared us for what occurred during the second-half on Saturday 8th March 2014.

Calamity One – 55 minutes.

Vertongen, under pressure, slipped and unwisely chose to pass the ball back to Lloris. His back-pass was wayward and ended up at the feet of a raiding Eto’o, who advanced and slammed the ball through the legs of the Spurs ‘keeper. I was already up and jumping when the ball hit the back of the net.

Alan, who had been in the middle of a Nelson Riddle when Eto’o had scored, quickly re-joined PD and me, full of smiles.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Calamity Two – 59 minutes.

Samuel Eto’o burst through into the Spurs penalty box and slumped to the floor after a challenge from Kaboul. I wasn’t convinced that it was a penalty, but the referee Michael Oliver quickly pointed at the spot. The hapless Kaboul was soon given his marching orders. Oh boy. The game was dramatically lurching our way. Eden Hazard calmly stroked the ball past Lloris. The home support roared.

Calamity Three – 88 minutes.

With Chelsea in the ascendency and Tottenham second-best, an attempted defensive clearance from Sandro just diverted the ball into the path of substitute Demba Ba, who smacked the ball past Lloris from close range. This was met with joy and mirth in equal measure. There was more to come.

Calamity Four – 89 minutes.

Kyle Walker attempted to head the ball back to Lloris, but Ba was able to intercept it, hold off a rugged challenge from Lloris and stab the ball into the waiting net. By now, there was laughter mixed with pleasure, rather than wanton euphoria. Bloody hell. What a laugh. By this stage, the away end was virtually three-quarters empty. I couldn’t blame them.

I leaned over to Alan –

“Four? Skinned’em.”

As the players hugged at the final whistle, there was more unbridled joy at our humiliation of our arch rivals. It’s getting to the point now – and I say this with my tongue well and truly in my cheek – that I am starting to feel sorry for them.

After a repeat of our second-half turnaround against Fulham the previous week, Chelsea now sit seven points clear of the chasing pack. Jose Mourinho might still think that Manchester City are still ahead – nine points back, three games in hand – but I would rather have points in the bag. What’s that you say? Jose talks highly of Manchester City to put the pressure on them?

Ah, yes, of course.

This is a ridiculous season. Our record is now a highly impressive 20-6-3. We have endured just three losses in twenty-nine games. It is, unquestionably, championship form. However, who can argue that there have only been a handful of games this season where we have shown true championship form and quality? What an irony it would be that during the ultimate re-building, re-treading season of transition we actually go on to win the bloody thing.

Nine games to go.

Seat belts on.

It’s going to be a great ride.

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Tales From A State Of Confusion

Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers : 2 January 2013.

The old unbeaten home run was in jeopardy for the game with Queens Park Rangers. I woke up to discover that I had heating problems at home and needed to wait around for an engineer to call by. I took an emergency day’s holiday from work and waited. To be quite honest, I was fully expecting the boiler to be fixed late in the afternoon, making a quick sprint up the M4 to be pointless. If I left home at 5.30pm, I wouldn’t get in until half-time. Oh, well – the run will end eventually. I was quite philosophical about it. 236 games isn’t a bad figure. Thankfully, the bloke showed up just after lunch and I was able to keep the run going. On the drive over to Chippenham, the bleak winter scenery reached new depths, with only muted greens and browns mixed in with a thousand shades of grey.

If everything was sombre outside the car, things would soon change inside it. Lord Parkins was back for this game and it was great to see the old fool once more. His last game was the Liverpool game on Remembrance Sunday. A lot has happened since then. Oh boy. The old team were back together again and, after the usual volley of verbal insults between us, the journey to London flew past.

I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who was hoping for a bagful of goals against Queens Park Rangers. We beat them 6-1 last April. Our last home game saw us score 8 against Aston Villa. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was expecting an easy win, but I knew that if we scored an early goal, the omens were good. Let’s get into them. Let’s show them who is boss.

One of my least favourite games from my first ten years of attending Chelsea games was against QPR. In March 1979, I travelled up to London with my parents and an uncle for the game against our west London neighbours and the game was on the same day as the Forest vs. Southampton League Cup Final. I always remember being stuck in about an hour-long traffic jam on the M4; maybe the influx of traffic from Southampton was to blame. It was an altogether depressing scenario. I had visions of arriving very late and missing a chunk of the game. 1978-1979 was a horrible season. We were mired in a relegation place all of the way through the entire campaign. It was the one season when my support of the team waned a little. I was getting into music at the time and I think my love for Chelsea suffered a bit. I had seen us lose 3-1 at home to newly-promoted Spurs in the November. As it transpired, we reached our seats in the East Lower just in time for the kick-off, but I hadn’t been able to enjoy my usual pre-match of autograph hunting, souvenir shopping and programme collecting. It had been rushed and I hated it. The Chelsea team included a few new signings – Jim Docherty and Eamonn Bannon – but the manager Danny Blanchflower didn’t have a clue. Our team was woeful. Players such as David Stride and John Sitton are not often mentioned in a list of our greatest ever defenders. We lost 3-1 on that miserable day some 34 years ago. A couple of QPR fans were sitting in front of us in the East Stand that day. I loathed them with every ounce of my being. In May, we were relegated and we stayed in the old second division for five long years. Funnily enough, my support for the team and club soon reached its usual stratospheric level again within the first few games of 1979-1980. But that’s another story.

But 1978-1979; oh boy. What a season.

I made an apology to Parky for continuing to play the Japan CD on the drive east. Tokyo certainly made an impact on me and the music has haunted me since my return. We talked about lots on the drive in. Suffice to say, the old bugger has missed some of the most tumultuous weeks of Chelsea’s history since his last game. I could tell that Parky was chomping at the bit to get in amongst it in the pub. We sauntered in at 6.45pm and pints of Peroni were quaffed.

Out in the beer garden of The Goose, none other than Wrayman was chatting to Steve M. He had been over in Paris for a few days with his wife, but had timed his European vacation with a last-minute trip to England for the QPR game. He, unsurprisingly, was feeling the cold, although the weather in England has been milder than at Christmas. Rob came over to say a few words – they had bumped into each other on the Thursday before the CL Final in Munich. I always get a little tingle when Chelsea friends from different parts of the globe meet up. Seeing a photo of Rob and Andy – who didn’t previously know each other – in Munich on Facebook on the Friday had made me smile.

My solitary pint was consumed and The Bridge was calling me. I met up with my mate Steve from Bournemouth outside the tube and we made our way to the stadium. The QPR section took a while to fill up, but they soon had 3,000 noisy followers in the south-east corner. Not one single flag or banner, though. Poor. Chelsea fans only have to cross the road and we’re hoisting flags from every vantage point.

In place of the Peter Osgood banner in The Shed, the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner was proudly hanging instead. Clearly a signal to the board to get him signed-up. The Ossie one was over towards the west side, just above Parkyville and Wrayland.

The news in the pub had been that Juan Mata had been dropped. He has certainly been our talisman this season. Elsewhere, there were other changes with Turnbull in for the injured Cech, Bertrand and Marin in for Cole and Mata. Lamps remained partnered with Luiz. Moses preferred to Hazard.

“Come on boys.”

Before the game was able to get going, I thought that Marko Marin was very lucky to stay on the pitch after a terrible challenge on Unknown Rangers Player Number One. He received a yellow. Lucky boy.

The first-half wasn’t great. Off the pitch, the two sets of fans traded insults.

“Champions of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

“Champions of Europe, You’re Already Out.”

“Queens Park Rangers, You’re Already Down.”

“Fcuk Off Chelsea – West London is Ours.”

“We Don’t Hate You ‘Cus You’re Shit.”

A David Luiz bouncer on thirteen minutes was the first real effort on goal. It was a disjointed affair, and that early goal that I so craved didn’t transpire. The away team had been told to defend and to defend deep, with the enigmatic Taarabt playing the most advanced role. Shades of Eden Hazard in Turin. Our efforts on goal were sporadic. An Oscar effort from way out hardly troubled Julio Cesar, all dressed in black like an extreme Lev Yashin, tights and all.

Shaun Wright-Phillips (yes, him), who replaced the injured Unknown Rangers Player Number Two, shot wide, but Turnbull was largely untroubled.

As our attacks took forever to gain momentum and as shots were ballooned high, wide and ugly, I mentioned to Alan that we were “flattering to deceive.”

“Flattering to deceive” is one of those phrases which you only ever hear being mentioned in football reports, along with “away to my left”, “pitched battles”, “early doors” and “at the end of the day.”

Well, after misses by Ivanovic, Oscar and Moses, we were certainly flattering to deceive.

“There will be boos at the break, Al” I suggested.

There were. We had been poor, of course, but I was hopeful that things would improve in the second-half. Torres hadn’t been given much service and our midfielders were passing to oblivion.

At the break, Neil Barnett always likes to give us a few clues as to who will be on the pitch at half-time. He began by saying “this player played 350 games for us in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies and won medals in three cups.” I guessed at Marvin Hinton. Looking back, it could have been John Dempsey, but I think he joined after the 1965 League Cup win.

“We used to call him Suave Marve.”

Yep, Marvin Hinton. Although, he played for us until 1976, I was sure I never saw him play for us. He is now 72, looks pretty healthy, and enjoyed a walk around the pitch. The QPR fans aimed a rude song at him –

“Who The Fcuking Hell Are You?”

This, for a 72 year old. Classy.

Barnett retaliated by digging at them –

“And Marvin Hinton has more medals than your entire club.”

Soon into the second-half, a fine twisting run by Marin below me in the north-west corner was followed up by a low cross towards the near post. Victor Moses, who had been quiet in the first period, lunged at the ball but just evaded his toe.

The crowd groaned.

However, rather than spur the home spectators, the Chelsea fans largely remained quiet and subdued. It was the away contingent who could be heard. Our play improved in the second-half and I was utterly convinced that we would edge it 1-0. Efforts from Lampard and Cahill – who headed against the bar – suggested that I was right. Then, the best chance of the night; the ball fell to Torres, who instinctively lashed at goal, but Cesar (or Billy Joel, as Al called him) pulled off a superb save.

Ross Turnbull was largely a spectator and we sighed with relief when he easily saved from Unknown Rangers Player Number Three. Further QPR raids were repelled. Billy Joel was time wasting at every opportunity. He clearly wasn’t an innocent man, but Lee Mason didn’t find him guilty. Still the home support didn’t react. In truth, our support stunk like a dustbin lorry on a hot summer day.

Halfway through the half, following a corner, Lampard volleyed in and the place erupted.

“He’s done it again. Get in!”

The linesman, though, had flagged for offside.

Benitez rang the changes, replacing Marin (who had done OK) with Mata…we hoped things would improve further. Sadly, we were wrong. QPR won a corner and I muttered “fear of impending doom” to Steve.

Me and my sixth sense.

The ball dropped to Taraabt who played in Wright-Phillips. With a fine strike, he guided the ball low into Ross Turnbull’s goal, right in line with me, right inside the post. It was a goal all the way. The only consolation was that Shaun turned in on himself and chose not to celebrate.

Respect to him for that.

In the final fifteen minutes, we tried our best to carve open the QPR defence, but it was not to be. A Luiz free-kick hit the wall. An Ivanovic header boomed over. Did anyone notice the ridiculous, crazy challenge by Luiz on Unknown Rangers Player Number Four? He just threw himself at the player after the ball was well gone. Alan and I just sighed.

The crowd were leaving before the end.

Not good.

The whistle went and I was left alone with my thoughts.

2012 – I’m missing you already.

In truth, despite the number of team-changes that Benitez made, QPR were there for the taking. We should have won this 3-0. We had enough efforts on goal, but how many saves did the ‘keeper make? The whole team underperformed really. I hate to single out players, but there were several who didn’t do well. I thought that the marking of Taarabt, their one major threat, was farcical at times. We gave him far too much room. Throughout the team, there was a lack of ideas, a paucity of movement, negligible desire. Or – at least – compared to recent games. But…I say again, we should have beaten them 3-0 on the night. We certainly did not deserve to lose.

On the long drive home, Parky and I mulled over the state of affairs at our club.

We are clearly a confused and divided club at the moment. Where there was unity and cohesion – I’m talking generally here – in the summer, now there is infighting, rumour, rancour and unrest. I made the point that it is quite likely that there are Chelsea fans who want us to lose games so that Rafa Benitez gets the push. I also made the point that there must be fans of opposing clubs who want us to win so that they can see us squirm as we try to get to grips with Rafa.

That can’t be right, can it?

I’m still confused about the whole Di Matteo / Benitez scenario. It will probably take me many more games to come up with a succinct appraisal of what is happening. I just want success for the club. That’s obvious. However, I’m certainly no apologist for Benitez. In truth, I feel like retching every time I see him wearing Chelsea gear. It is clear that most Chelsea fans won’t give him an inch. In fact, no Chelsea manager will ever experience the derision and scorn that Benitez will get with every loss, every dropped point, and every tactical malfunction. Our recent little resurgence will soon be forgotten with each game that passes. Is that right? Probably not, but who am I to say? My head tells me I should move on and give him the benefit of the doubt, but my heart is struggling to come to terms with that notion. It’s a right mucking fuddle. To be honest, I’m trying to ignore the bloke – a la Ranieri in 2000 and Grant in 2007 – but as he is the image of the club at the moment, it is rather difficult.

Oh well, at least Danny Blanchflower isn’t in charge.

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