Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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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 : “THTCAUN.”

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 The Blue Haze

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2013.

At last, a relatively short away day trip. Southampton is only 55 miles away from base camp. My Saturday was all planned. I had two appointments in Frome in the morning (a hair cut at 9am and an eye test at 9.40am) and then an appointment in Southampton in the afternoon (a sanity check at 3pm). That my sanity would remain intact and unscathed from the rigorous trial that Chelsea Football Club would enforce upon it was open to debate.

The weather was incredibly mild, but overcast. I set off from Frome at 11.30am and – for one of the few times for a Chelsea away game – pointed my car south-east. The boys from London were already nearing Southampton, having set off by train an hour or so before. The “meet” was at a pub called “The Giddy Bridge.” As always I hit some traffic in the cathedral city of Salisbury, but I wasn’t worried. I was just happy to be visiting a stadium that I hadn’t frequented since April 2005, when a win even convinced the most cynical of Chelsea supporters to start singing about “winning the league.” I have very happy memories of that game. We were on the march to our first league title in fifty years and our mood was stratospheric.

As I drove out of Salisbury on the A36, I climbed Pepperbox Hill just as a group of country folk were walking through some woods, dressed in tweed and flat caps, Barbour jackets and plus-fours, with gun dogs barking at their feet. They were out on a shoot. Barbour jackets are a current brand which is favoured by football fanciers these days; the quilted variety, rather than the original waxed jackets which were de-rigueur for a brief period on the terraces in the mid-‘eighties. No doubt I would see a few later in the day.

Although Southampton is relatively close to my home town, I have been a relatively infrequent visitor over the years. I have a very vague notion of being in Southampton, maybe when I was around three or four, when the QE2 was berthed. It must be one of my earliest memories; being on the quay alongside the enormous bulk of that famous cruise ship. My next visit was in 1981. Yes, it was football-related; though, surprisingly perhaps, not Chelsea-related.

In 1980, Southampton – a middling First Division team – signed the England captain Kevin Keegan from Hamburg in the biggest transfer coup for ages. I was particularly upset at this because Chelsea had been linked with his signature; even though we were a struggling Second Division team. Keegan has become a much derided figure since his managerial days with various teams, but in 1980 Keegan was England’s biggest name and the ‘seventies biggest football superstar. In 1980-1981, he was scoring goals for fun for his new team while Chelsea was faring less well. I saw us play Newcastle at home (won 6-0) and Bristol Rovers away (lost 1-0) in 1980-1981. However, these games were augmented by a visit down to Southampton’s old stadium, The Dell, in April to see Keegan play for the Saints against reigning European Champions Nottingham Forest. My father was a shopkeeper – menswear, but no Barbour jackets – and one of his regular customers was a Southampton season-ticket holder. He had mentioned I was a bit of a Keegan fan and some tickets found their way into Dad’s hands. It wasn’t Chelsea, but it was good enough.

Ironically, the game in April was my second Southampton game of that particular season; in the autumn, a Southampton team had visited my local club Frome Town to play in a friendly which celebrated the opening of the club’s first ever set of floodlights. It had been advertised that they would be bringing a full-strength team. My friend Steve must have sold 100 tickets alone. Even girls – girls, I tell you! – had been tempted to attend. They were there to see one man; Kevin Keegan. A bumper crowd of around 2,500 assembled on a cold Wednesday night and I can well remember peering over at the Southampton coach as it arrived in the car park. As we stood on tip-toes on the grass bank, the visiting players stepped down off the coach and my friends and I memorably commented –

“Don’t recognise him.”

“Don’t know him.”

“Or him”

“Who’s that?”

“Don’t know him.”

“Don’t know him.”

What a let-down. It was a reserve team. I think the only players who would go on to play for the first team was Rueben Agboola and one of the Wallace brothers.

Ironically, Southampton and Chelsea played each other at The Dell in the third round of the FA Cup in 1981 – like this year – too. We lost 3-1.

For the Nottingham Forest game, we watched from the bench seats along the east-stand side of the ridiculously compact Dell. Southampton won 2-0. I enjoyed it – of course – but it felt odd to be at a game which didn’t involve Chelsea. It was the same day that Aldaniti won the Grand National with former cancer victim Bob Champion the triumphant jockey. Weird how I can remember sporting stories from 31 years ago, eh? I guess it just highlights how important those first ten, twenty, thirty games were. Every game counted. Every memory was etched in stone. I did note, though, that the Southampton fans seemed less partisan – less rabid – than my experiences at Stamford Bridge. Or perhaps I was biased.

Strangely enough, I didn’t get to visit The Dell with Chelsea until 1994. Our allocation was always small at The Dell which meant I wasn’t often in a position to apply for tickets. For some reason, fate always seemed to contrive against me. Games at The Dell either took place while I was at college in Stoke, on Boxing Day when transport was difficult or – to be blunt – when I was hard up for cash.

Outside of that QE2 visit in around 1968 and an Everything But The Girl gig in 1999, I’ve only ever visited Southampton for football.

Ditto Sunderland, Blackburn, Leeds, Watford, Coventry, Middlesbrough…

With Southampton in my sights, I drove on, right on the eastern edge of the New Forest, and stopped off for my second McCoffee of the trip. Forget beer and football, it is caffeine and football for me these days. I headed into Southampton on the dual carriageway, right past thousands of containers waiting to be shipped-out from one of England’s busiest ports. A huge cruise ship was nearby too. Just over 100 years ago, The Titanic set off from Southampton Water and was never to return.

I was parked up near the train station at 1.15pm and soon received a text from Alan to say that they were now drinking in “The Standing Order.” Southampton was heavily bombed during WW2 and the shopping centre of the town is rather bland due to the abundance of ‘fifties concrete rather than medieval stone and Victorian brick. I had a jacket on – a new quilted Henri Lloyd – and the mild weather meant that I was sweating like a Scouser in court by the time I reached the pub. Outside “Yates” there was a gaggle of policemen observing Chelsea singing inside the packed interior. We had 4,500 tickets for this and were out in force.

In the cavernous pub – a “Wetherspoons” – I eventually located the chaps, although the boozer was full of familiar Chelsea characters. Home fans, kitted out in a variety of old and new Southampton shirts, were drinking in the pub too, but there wasn’t any hint of trouble. Our visits in the ‘eighties were never so peaceful. I knocked back a solitary pint and spoke to Simon about the ailments of Fernando Torres. Some lads had been there since 9.30am and were showing the signs of it too. It was soon time to make a move. Just outside the pub, we heard that Demba Ba was in the team. There was a little buzz of excitement.

We briskly walked east and then north – bumping into Mark Worrall and a selection of other Chelsea fans. Walking over a footbridge, they did “The Bouncy.” Spotting a Southampton fan in a wheelchair, they started singing – in jest –

“If we don’t win, we’ll buckle your wheels.”

Post-modern football hooliganism.

The Southampton fan took it well.

We walked north through a strange hinterland of new apartments and then industrial units with the grey roof supports of St. Mary’s beckoning us ever closer. The railway line was to the west with cranes and gasometers to the east and north. It was a typical twenty-first century football setting; away from dense residential areas, but not on the edge of cities. Instead, the stadium was used to infill a previously derelict part of town. It was neither here nor there. Outside the main stand, there was a statue of Ted Bates, the former manager from the ‘sixties and ‘seventies.

With typical Chelsea timing, I arrived at my seat just as the teams were entering the pitch. Wait a moment; why were Southampton wearing an all-white kit? That was just silly. To be honest, I don’t like the fact that they jettisoned their traditional red and white stripes this season for a 1981-1982 Liverpool kit of all red and thin pinstripes. Maybe in 2013, they are thinking outside the box; the red and white stripes will turn into all red for one match, all white for the other.

Southampton in all white, Chelsea in all blue. Game on.

In truth, we took a while to warm up. The first twenty minutes was dominated by cagey approach play on the pitch and a cacophonous noise from the travelling blue army in the Northam Stand. We stood the entire game. The mood among the away support was boisterous and upbeat, but there was no real improvement on the performance against QPR. The grey skies overhead suggested an afternoon of grim attrition. Then, we were caught sleeping and a superb pass by Jason Puncheon dissected our centre-halves and allowed Jay Rodriguez to strike, rolling the ball past Ross Turnbull.

The home fans cheered and sections of our support grew even more boisterous. Insults were exchanged. The Chelsea fans sang the “Pompey Chimes” to rile the home fans. Then it was their turn.

Southampton : “Champions League – You’re Having A Laugh.”

Chelsea : “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up.”

Southampton : “Small Town In Fulham – You’re Just A Small Town In Fulham.” (…what?)

Chelsea : “Are You Tottenham In Disguise?”

Southampton : “Are You Pompey In Disguise?”

Chelsea : “They’re Here, They’re There, They’re Every Fcuking Where – Empty Seats, Empty Seats.”

We began to get into the game. Eden Hazard advanced and curled a shot low just past the far post. On 34 minutes, our equaliser came. Nice play from Moses and Hazard down our left…I brought the camera up to my eyes…click, click, click…just in time to capture Mata’s flick being bundled over the line by a Southampton defender and / or Demba Ba.

Get in!

Ba’s celebrations were rather muted and I wondered if he had indeed got the final touch. I immediately thought of the difference between Ba and Torres’ start for the club.

Oh boy.

The game was opening up now, but Southampton seemed a little toothless in attack. I was surprised that Ricky Lambert wasn’t playing. On the stroke of half-time, a lovely finish from Victor Moses gave us a 2-1 lead. The ball was perfectly drilled into the far corner. He celebrated with several summersaults.

The Chelsea crowd were in good form and the singing increased. More drinking took place at half-time in the ridiculously crowded concourse below the seats. Throughout the first-half, I had watched Rafa Benitez pacing the technical area, cajoling the players and trying his best to communicate with them. I was still struggling to feel one iota of warmth towards him. My sanity check was now in progress.

“Is he Chelsea? Is he more Chelsea than Liverpool? Should I dislike him? Should I trust him? Should I feel sorry for him? Should I support him? Should I ignore him? Do the players like him? Do the players want to play for him? Is he a better coach than Robbie?”

I was stood next to a Chelsea fan – name unknown – who I have spotted going to Chelsea since the mid-‘eighties…I remember him rabbiting away on a tube after a game at Chelsea…just one of those characters you don’t forget. Anyway, we chatted away.

“Trouble is…I look at Benitez. And I just think Liverpool.”

Soon into the second-half, a perfect Juan Mata cross was headed in by Branislav Ivanovic.

Game over.

Down to my right, a Chelsea fan set off a couple of blue flares and the Southampton fans were well and truly mocked.

“You’ve Had Your Day Out – Now Fcuk Off Home.”

To be truthful, the 300 or so locals in the corner section next to us were the only ones in the crowd who were up for a song. The rest of the 22,000 or so Saints fans were totally docile. Maybe I was right in 1981.

It was all Chelsea now, both on and off the pitch.

“We Know What We Are…F.A.Cup Holders – We Know What We Are.”

A little group of semi-familiar Chelsea lads to my left kept singing a song in honour of Juan Mata, but I couldn’t quite discern the tune. Fair play to them; despite nobody joining in, they kept going. In the end, it came to me.

“Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap, a dance anthem from 1992.

“You can play him everywhere.
Whoaaa – Juan Mata…”

After a quiet start, Demba Ba began to impress me with his link-up play and close control. On the hour, we scored our fourth with a fine move. Ramires found Hazard who picked out a perfect run in to space by Ba. An exquisite touch and the Chelsea crowd exploded. I watched as Ba was mobbed by his team mates. He blew a kiss to us. Amidst the noise and adulation, more blue haze from around five more smoke bombs. Then a thunderclap.

BOOM.

Just like a proper football match.

Bring the noise.

“We got Demba Ba, We Got Demba Ba, We Got Demba, We Got Demba, We Got Demba Ba.”

“He’s Here, He’s There, He’s Every-Fcuking-Where, Demba Ba, Demba Ba.”

“Demba, Demba Ba – Demba Ba – Demba, Demba Ba.”

Benitez brought on Lamps for Ivanovic, with Luiz dropping back into the defence. A perfect Moses cross was met by Ba…click…but the Saints ‘keeper miraculously blocked the goal bound header. Turnbull saved twice at the other end. Marin replaced the impressive Moses.

Two songs for two heroes rang out in the closing quarter.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star.
Scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.
And Chelsea won – as we all knew they would.
And the star of that great team was Peter Osgood.
Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood.
Born is the king of Stamford Bridge.”

I half-expected the Saints fans to applaud us in lieu of Ossie’s spell at The Dell, but there was nothing.

Our attentions moved to another ex-Southampton player –

“Oh Dennis Wise.
Scored a fcuking great goal.
In the San Siro.
With ten minutes to go.”

Lampard attempted to play in a team mate with a delicate flick, but a defender handled. I immediately thought “Ba” but a fellow on the other side of me said “no, Lamps…to equal Kerry.”

Of course. I steadied myself as Frank approached the ball.

Click…and 5-1.

Frank ran to celebrate with the Chelsea fans…click, click, click, click, click.

What an achievement.

193 goals. Simply magnificent.

With this, the home fans began to leave.

“Is There A Fire Drill, Is There A Fire Drill?”

At the final whistle, the Chelsea players and supporters were one. As it should be.

The police and stewards shepherded the singing Chelsea hordes out of the stadium and I raced back to the car. I overheard a conversation between a father and young son, both Southampton supporters, as I overtook them.

“The decisive goal was the second just before half-time, really.”

“Yes. That was when the nightmare began Dad.”

Bless him. He reminded me of me, aged nine, trying to evaluate yet another Chelsea capitulation.

At 5.30pm, I threw my jacket in the back seat, turned the ignition on, wound down the windows and pulled away. The winter air chilled me, but it was a welcome relief. It was superb in fact. I just about beat the traffic and would be home by 7pm. For a change, I was listening to some classical music on the CD. I accelerated away, over the railway bridge, the city’s lights in my rear view mirror.

There is nothing better than driving away from an away game, a Chelsea win under our belts, enjoying the moment.

Third gear to fourth.

In and out of the traffic.

Up to fifth

Job done, Chelsea.

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Tales From Planet Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 15 May 2011.

On the Saturday evening, I met up with two of my oldest friends for a few pints and a curry in Frome. I’ve known Pete since our paths crossed in my first ever “proper” football game in autumn 1974 and I’ve known Adie since 1978, when we both played for the school team. Talk was of various memories from schooldays, current news and updates, but football undoubtedly dominated our conversation. Pete supports United, Adie supports Leeds. They love their football, but they don’t touch my levels of devotion. That’s not me being boastful – that’s just the way it is. Neither Pete nor Adie have been to Old Trafford or Elland Road; they still admire the game, but – I guess – don’t buy into the tribal nature of the game. This is the aspect that I find most appealing of all. Take away that and football becomes just a sport.

I think they regard me as some kind of Chelsea obsessive and I guess they are right. Amongst my Chelsea mates – Daryl, Gary, Alan, Andy, Neil, Glenn, Simon – I’m just normal, though. Just one of the lads. One of the team.

Pete and I always have a laugh when we are together, but our friendship was tested in 2005 when the phrase “you bought the title” was used by Pete. I got a bit defensive and we batted many emails back and forth over that summer. We’re the very best of mates though – football won’t get in the way of that. At the Indian restaurant, we raised our pints of Kingfisher lager and I congratulated him on Manchester United’s title.

Adie is more laid back in his support of Leeds. He exudes calmer character traits and I am sure he would be amazed at how wound up and passionate I get at Chelsea games. He’ll see it in the flesh over the summer, though, as he will be with me in Bangkok for our game on July 28th. Adie has been living in Thailand since 1996 and – at last – I am going to be able to take him up on his offer to visit him. We had briefly run through my itinerary at the bar before Pete arrived and I promised to call in on him with guide books and maps for a fuller discussion of my holiday over the forthcoming week or so. He was heading back to Chiang Mai, his current home in northern Thailand, at the end of May.

At 11pm, I left them drinking in the ultra-posh “Archangel” pub in Frome’s historic town centre and I headed home; I had a drive to London on Sunday and needed some sleep.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United – always an evocative game for me. My first ever Chelsea game was against The Geordies way back in 1974. 836 games later, we were to meet again. This would be my 29th Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game (and we’ve lost just three times), a fixture second only to the visit of Liverpool (34 games). Despite our loss to them in the League Cup last autumn, we have a phenomenal record against them. You have to go way back to 1986 for the last time that Chelsea lost to the Geordies in the league at home. Since then, the goals have rattled in. Oh boy. There have been some lovely highlights over the years, in fact.

October 1980.

I travelled up with my father, his former boss, and my two school friends Pete (yes, him again) and Kev (a Spurs fan.) We were mired in the old second division, but were beginning to find some form. On a memorable afternoon, Chelsea walloped the previously fancied Geordies 6-0, with Colin Lee nabbing three. My two mates, only seeing their second or third football games, were suitably impressed with the whole day; the East stand seats, close to the action, the noise of The Shed, the size of the old stadium and the attacking verve of that Chelsea team, which included the two flying wingers Peter Rhoades-Brown and Phil Driver. I remember that I had written in to the Chelsea match day DJ Pete Owen for a record request as a mark of thanks for my father who had been so kind to drive me up for my allotted “two games per season” since 1974. My mate Pete was suitably impressed when Pete Owen prefaced my request with the words “and now a request from one of our regulars, Chris Axon.” My mother would usually write in to Pete Owen’s “Pre-Match Spin” on our visits and it was a common occurrence for me to hear my name being read out at Chelsea. For a kid of ten or eleven, imagine the thrill of that. It brings back goose bumps now, to be honest. Lovely memories.

On the Saturday night, at the curry house, Pete had spoken about an instance from that game in fact. We had seats in the East lower, right behind the Newcastle bench. Towards the end of the game, with us scoring at will, the Chelsea crowd were giving the Newcastle manager, Arthur Cox, some stick. Amongst the hoopla, Pete began shouting –

“Cox out! Cox out!

After a micro-second, he realised what he was saying and glanced across to see if my father had heard. I suspect he had, but I suspect he had a little chuckle to himself and let it pass. I always remember thinking that Pete had enjoyed himself so much that he might have turned his affections towards us. I remember him saying, rather sheepishly –

“Nah, United are my team, but I’ll have a soft spot for Chelsea, with them playing in the second division…they’ll be my second team.”

I should have asked Pete if he still feels that same way.

April 1995.

Before our game with Newcastle United, my friend Glenn was presented with his CPO certificate by none other than Dennis Wise. I was allowed into the tunnel area to watch and it was fantastic to be down in that most sacred of areas. I remember Dennis was either suspended or injured at the time, so he wasn’t kitted out. We had to assemble down by the tunnel at about 2.30pm and, while we were waiting, we found ourselves right next to the Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. Even though it was close to kick-off, he was more than happy to pose for a quick photograph with me and it was a brilliant moment. Growing up in the ‘seventies, Keegan was a big hero of mine. Then, Dennis Wise appeared and chatted to Glenn for a few moments before Neil Barnett called us forward and Glenn strode out onto the pitch. Another lad from Frome being announced on the PA. Another brilliant memory. After that, the day was a bit of a blur. We quickly dashed around to join up with some mates in the North stand and saw the two teams eke out a dull 1-1 draw. But some nice memories of the pre-match for sure.

November 1995.

Newcastle were unbeaten and flying high, playing some scintillating football with players such as Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley in the team. They were at the top of the table and firing on all cylinders. We were just changing to a wing-back system with new signings Terry Phelan and Dan Petrescu filling the wide positions. This was a brilliant game of football and new signing Dan Petrescu gave us a deserved win with a bullet at the North stand end. We were watching in the temporary seats at the South end and the place was rocking. It was a fantastic Chelsea performance, but the best was to come after the game had ended. In 1994, a book called “Blue Is The Colour” was written by Khadija Buckland, a native of West London, now living in Chippenham. Glenn and myself got to know her via her friendship with Ron Harris (in those days, we always used to call in on Ron at his pub in Warminster after games at Chelsea) and, after a while, we arranged to take Khadija up to Chelsea so she could sell her book in the executive areas of the East stand. Anyway, to cut to the chase, as a reward for taking her up, she had arranged for Glenn, my Geordie mate Pete and me to gain entrance to the players’ bar after the game with Newcastle. We shuffled around by the entrance to the tunnel and waited by a door. I remember that pop star Robbie Williams quickly left the bar and we were then escorted in by Khadija.

Wow. Talk about the inner sanctum.

In a small room behind the old changing rooms (which I am sure no longer exists, what with the enlarging of the home dressing room area), we stood at the cosy bar, while Dennis Wise, his girlfriend and mother were chatting in a small group. A few players flitted in and out. I always remember Mark Hughes; arriving quietly, standing at the bar alone, silently sipping a lager. I went over to ask him to sign the programme and I was genuinely awestruck.

Some very special memories.

May 2011.

After swerving to avoid a pheasant and then a deer as I sped out of my sleepy Somerset village, I collected Glenn and Parky and we were on our way. There was sadness in the air due to this being our last pilgrimage to SW6 of the season, but also a shared joy of being able to travel up together, have a laugh, have a chat, have a giggle. Glenn and I had recently been out for a few beers around Frome too and one of the bars which we frequented – “The Old Bath Arms” – had a very special guest a few days ago. Johnny Depp has bought a house in the town – OK, just outside – and he had called in for a quiet pint. Apparently, a local ended up explaining the “leg before wicket” rule in cricket and I would have like to have witnessed that.

“Sorry, man, say that slower.”

By 11.30am, we had joined up with Cathy, Dog, Rob, Daryl, Neil and Alan in the beer garden of The Goose. Cokes for me, lager for the boys. Photos of the lads – one last glorious photocall for the season. A classic array of Fred Perry, Fila, Lacoste, Hackett, Napapijri and Ben Sherman. In the background, a few supporters were sporting the new Chelsea shirt and we didn’t have many positives to say about it. Too much white, too busy, why bother?

I had a chat with Cathy about our plans for Thailand and Malaysia. Only two months to go now; can’t wait.

The Snappy Dressers.

Neil – royal blue.
Lord Parky – purple.
Chris – mint green.

It was a usual pre-match and for those of you who have witnessed The Goose, you’ll know that it was laden with jokes and laughter.

With the news that Rangers were three up at Killie after just five minutes of play, we clinked a few glasses. Though I am way less enthusiastic than in the past, Rangers always get my approval in Scotland. Rangers were “my Scottish team” as a child, though if I am honest, Dundee United certainly came into my affections in the early ‘eighties due to the fact that several ex-Chelsea players went on to play for them (Peter Bonetti, Jim Docherty, Eamonn Bannon, Ian Britton) and the fact that I had a crush on a girl from Dundee while on holiday in Italy in 1979.

Carla B. – where are you now?

We made our way to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. All the usual sights we know so well. To be honest, there weren’t too many fans wearing the new shirts. I still can’t believe that the club has the audacity to change the kit every bloody season.

The big news was that young Josh was starting his very first league game. I noted plenty of empty seats in The Shed Upper, even though the game was a “sell-out.” The 1,500 Newcastle fans were in good voice, but that’s no surprise. They are a good set of lads. I well remember during that 1995-1996 season, they were everybody’s favourite second team and it actually hurt when they imploded and handed the title to the hated Manchester United. Since then, I’ve grown less fond of them, due to their rather lofty opinions of themselves, but – generally speaking – as a few friends have said, I’d rather spend a few hours with a Geordie, rather than a cocky Mancunian or a sneaky Scouser. They don’t take themselves too seriously and I quite like that.

I won’t dwell too much on the game as we all know that it was sub-standard fare. Frank’s corner, for once whipped in with just the right amount of venom, was ably glanced on by the forehead of Torres and Brana nimbly volleyed in past Krul.

I knew what was coming –

“They’ll have to come at wu’now.”

“Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Josh – playing quite deep – played some lovely balls in behind the Newcastle full back for Ashley Cole to run onto. This is clearly going to be his trademark ball. I look forward to seeing it more and more next season. Just after I made the comment to Alan that “I can’t really see them causing us many problems”, JT foolishly fouled an attacker and a free-kick was awarded. The shot deflected off Gutierrez and they were level.

Lee Mason, the referee, seemed to have it in for us. I rarely berate or bemoan the officials, but even I was joining in with the loud booing he was receiving. It honestly felt like we were playing against twelve Geordies.

At half-time, Neil Barnett introduced our most loved former player and he came onto the pitch for a few minutes, waving his stick, loving the attention.

“Roy Bentley – 87 on Tuesday.”

The second half came and went. Tons of possession but very few threats on goal. Carlo made a triple substitution on 64 minutes, with Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda coming on. It was a poor game and we all knew it. The Bridge was quiet, roused only to boo the referee. On 74 minutes, Drogba set up Ashley Cole with a very delicate flick but – for some unfathomable reason known only to him – Cole played it back towards Didi when he really ought to have laced it with his left foot. The look on Drogba’s face was priceless –

“Why you do that?????”

On 83 minutes, a free-kick from the right and I had my camera poised at the melee in the box. I snapped as the ball evaded Krul and Alex nodded home.

Relief. Phew.

Then, a last minute corner to them and the saddest sight; a poorly defended cross and Steven Taylor completely unmarked to head home. The Newcastle directors were up and celebrating in the West middle – Ashley was grinning, the horrible git – and the Newcastle players ran over to celebrate with the Toon Army.

The whistle went soon after…and a few souls booed.

It was with great sadness that I watched, open-mouthed, as 90% of the supporters drifted out of Stamford Bridge before the Chelsea players went on a slow lap of appreciation. After quite a wait, the players followed John Terry, with his twins, out onto the pitch. Carlo got a good – if not great – reception and I noted Drogba waving back at the MHL as he walked past our corner. A wave of goodbye? Who knows? Torres, holding two very small children, was very quiet. He’s quite a shy lad, isn’t he?

The star – by far – was the blonde haired son of Branislav Ivanovic. He was constantly dribbling the ball…first up towards the Shed, then back towards us. By this stage, both of the nets had been taken down by the groundstaff. However, they hastily erected the nets at the Matthew Harding end and – cheered on by around 1,500 souls in the Lower tier – the lad dribbled and poked the ball into the goal.

A massive roar. He pumped the air with his fist and then ran back and jumped into his father’s arms. It was a lovely moment and Branislav was clearly overjoyed. It was wonderful to witness this delightful moment between father and son. We all agreed there and then, that this was the best moment of the entire day. He then did it twice more.

The roars and cheers echoed around the stadium for the last time this season.

It was time to go home.

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Tales From West London

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 22 September 2010.

Oh boy – on Saturday, I was trying to remember the last team to score against us at Stamford Bridge.

After three weeks of no Chelsea games for me, I’m now in the middle of a “four games in ten days stretch.” Busy times. I do love football at this time of the year, especially the mid-week matches, where the fading sun provides a lovely backdrop to the evenings’ entertainment.

I was able to leave work at just after 4pm. Unfortunately, the 96 miles to HQ took over two and a half hours due to congestion around Heathrow airport. As is usually the case, Parky and myself spent the time chatting about all sorts. We talked about the current TV mini-series “This Is England ‘86” which is an exceptional follow-up to the Shane Meadows film of a few years back. Gritty working class drama with magnificent characters, plus some unforgettably dark humour too. A shame there is just one episode left.

We drove past Brentford’s Griffin Park, where Everton – The Toffees – had become unstuck the previous night.

There is an advertisement for Lucozade ( an energy drink ) which has reappeared on this stretch of the elevated section of the M4. It was originally torn down in 2004 – and I hated the fact it had disappeared, as I always used to look out for it on our pilgrimages to Chelsea as a kid. It seems that other people missed seeing it, too, as there has been a warm response to it appearing in February, albeit in a location 200 yards away from the original. It brought a “whoop” of joy from Parky, Glenn and myself when we spotted it for the first time last season. I’m sure there are ex-pats living around the world will enjoy seeing it over the years too, on their taxi cab rides from London Heathrow.

Welcome back!

Parky usually has around ten classic “Chelsea stories” which get aired every few weeks.

“Yeah, I remember you telling me” never seems to work as he launches into yet another repeat of Nottingham Forest 1985, Watford 1981 or Preston North End 1980. However, a new story – a new story, I tell you! – had me laughing as we approached Hammersmith, the clock ticking towards 7pm. He told me the story of a game over the Christmas period back when he was in his ‘twenties and a gang of Chelsea travelling up by train from Trowbridge, standing in the area by the buffet, knocking back cans of lager and getting stuck into some riotous and aggressively non-PC Chelsea songs of the time. They were making a hell of a racket. However, every time the doors swished open and a family with small children appeared, they immediately switched to singing Christmas carols. I quickly imagined the scene –

“The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope and this is what he said – Ding Dong merrily on high, in heaven the bells are ringing.”

“Spurs are on their way to – Old King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.”

“Chelsea here, Chelsea there, Chelsea every – away in a manger, no crib for a bed.”

We were parked up at the usual spot at around 6.45pm and we hot-footed it to the beer garden of The Goose, where we bolted down a pint apiece. To be honest – and this happens quite a lot – the game against the Geordies hadn’t occupied too much of my mind since Sunday and I was more focussed on the trip to Eastlands on Saturday. Burger would be travelling with me for that one and was on the look out for another ticket for Julie. Luckily – very luckily – Rob happened to mention that Millsy had a spare…a few texts and phone-calls later, we were sorted.

We were only in the pub for twenty minutes. The place didn’t seem as busy as it is for weekend games…Parky and myself really wondered if we’d get anywhere near a full house, despite the ?20 tickets across all areas.

I picked up a match programme and flicked through the pages on the quick approach to the Matthew Harding. My attention was drawn again to the piece by Rick Glanvill detailing a game from our history.

October 25th 1980 – Chelsea 6 Newcastle United 0

This was a game I well remember – this was my eighteenth Chelsea game and I travelled up from Frome with my father, his former boss ( a cousin of the great English comedian Kenneth Horne ) and two school friends…Pete ( Manchester United ) and Kev ( Tottenham Hotspur ). It was a magical day as Chelsea played some really excellent stuff on that autumn day some thirty years ago. Colin Lee nabbed a hat-trick and we played with two old-fashioned wingers for the first time in a while. It really was a 4-2-4 formation, with Phil Driver and Peter Rhoades-Brown providing the crosses for Lee and Clive Walker. We were rampant against a team which included Chris Waddle in one of his first games. Our legendary ‘keeper Petar Borota was playing for us and I remember a particularly acrobatic save at The Shed in the first-half when it was 0-0.

An extra bonus was the fact that the TV cameras were present. At Sunday’s game, Rob mentioned the buzz we used to get back in those times when we used to get to The Bridge and see the TV cameras in position.

“Great – we’ll be on the highlights this weekend!”

The fans of today live in a different world.

I remember quite a bit from the game. In the 1974 to 1980 period, we used to watch from the lower tier of the East and on this occasion we were behind the away bench, maybe eight rows back. The Newcastle manager at the time was Arthur Cox and my cheeky mate Pete took great pleasure in shouting “Cox out! Cox out! Cox out!” when we were scoring our last few goals. To accompany Rick’s piece in the programme, there were around four black and white photos from the game…annoyingly, in one photo, we are out of shot by a matter of yards. I remember that Gary Chivers’ goal was selected as one of the Goals Of The Season in 1980-81 by the BBC and we could be seen in the build-up. There I am in a green jacket and a blue and white bar scarf around my neck. At the time, it was the best game I had seen, despite it being a second division encounter.

I texted Pete and he replied “Great – happy days” and we then exchanged some texts as the Chelsea vs. Newcastle United and S****horpe United vs. Manchester United games were played out. Pete is a great friend – my oldest – and he actually played against me in my first-ever 11-a-side game in the autumn of 1974. Where does the time go?

Another mate called Pete – a Newcastle fan from S****horpe – was in touch during the evening, too. Everyone keeping in contact, the football uniting us all – perfect.

I was amazed that it was another full house. Well done everyone. The away fans resembled a big jar of mint humbugs in the corner opposite. I noted a TV gantry positioned on the balcony wall above the away fans in the Shed Lower – I’ve never seen one there before.

“Great, we’re on TV!”

I noticed a new banner in the MHU – “History Makers.” This must’ve been the winner in the CSG competition I believe.

No complaints with the team selection – a nice mix of youth and experience.

But what a crazy game.

We began very brightly and scored yet another early goal, from a lovely finish from Van Aanholt. However, the immense and bulky frame of Sol Campbell soon retaliated with a header which flew past Ross Turnbull’s right post.

A warning sign.

However, we were playing some nice football in the opening fifteen minutes, with Benayoun especially making some nice runs and looking as though he was energised by the night’s encounter.

Pete The Geordie texted me –

“Scunny One Up – Come On!”

This piece of good news was not mirrored at The Bridge as Newcastle got back into the game and lead 2-1 at the break. Defensive frailties resulted in an equaliser on 26 minutes. Ameobi had an incredible “air shot” soon after and then an awful defensive wall failed to stop a bullet of a free-kick from Taylor. Ameobi was clean through on 38 minutes, but Brouma did ever so well to thwart him with a great sliding tackle.

There was a full moon arcing its way through the night sky as the game progressed and I took quite a few photographs…I’m not saying the football was that bad, though!

Moans and groans from the home support at the break.

Despite his links – on two separate occasions – with Spurs, Gus Poyet was given a superb reception at half-time.

“Poyet – There’s Only One Poyet.”

Into the second-half and two substitutions – Alex for JT and Kalou for a very quiet Gael Kakuta. However, an awful blunder at the back gave Ameobi a clean run before he placed a shot past Turnbull at The Shed End. We all thought Turnbull should have done a lot better.

Yet more groans.

On 53 minutes, Salomon Kalou pulled up as he was chasing a through ball. It annoyed me that not everyone clapped him off, nor clapped on his replacement Josh McEachran.

On 62 minutes, Yossi pulled up too. Oh hell – we were down to ten men.

After 64 minutes, Alex hit the post after following a free-kick which rebounded back off the wall.

And then it happened. With the team showing signs of being roused, the home fans turned up the volume with the best show of support I have seen this season at The Bridge. I was loving it and prayed that the team would sense the desire amongst our fans. An inch-perfect ball found Van Aanholt on an overlap and his first time ball was finished with glee by Nicolas Anelka. This was a spectacular bit of football and the crowd roared our approval.

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

A few texts flew around as the game progressed, the noise increasing with every minute. We were all very impressed with substitute McEachren, who showed great poise and skill in that central midfield birth. Ramires, however, did not impress me with his passing…and Sturridge was poor too.

There was an amazing last ten minutes. On 85, Alex ( getting forward at every opportunity ) was fouled below me and a penalty.

Another roar.

I steadied myself and held the camera in place to capture Anelka’s impudent strike. The noise continued on and it was turning into an amazing game. Paolo Ferreira hit a stonking volley which crashed against the near post.

How would it end? I was preparing for extra time and penalties…

In the last minute of normal time, that man Ameobi glanced in a header from a corner and the ball nestled in at the far post. This was hard to take. Seeing the fans in that away segment bounce around like loons reminded me of a Les Ferdinand equaliser in the 95th minute of a FA Cup game in 1996. At this point, a lot of the home support decided to leave.

Why? Why? Why?

Six minutes of extra time was announced and this stemmed the flow of fans leaving. Big John thumped the balcony wall down below me and the supporters around me recommenced the chants which had so buoyed the team in the last twenty minutes.

We hoped and prayed.

It was not to be.

I texted a “well done” to Geordie Pete.

After the game, I collected the ticket for Manchester City outside the So Bar as the Newcastle fans trooped past – it had been their first win in any competition at The Bridge since November 1986. Good luck to them…there are teams in England I dislike more.

Parky and myself decided on a curry at the Garden Tandoori on the Lillie Road before we headed back along the M4 to Wiltshire and Somerset. It had been some game. We were concerned about the injuries we had sustained but the major plus points were the form of Josh McEachren ( when Frank hangs up his boots, he could be the man ) and our support which was loud and passionate.

When I eventually got home at 1.45am, I flicked on the TV and experienced a warm glow of schadenfreude when I saw that Liverpool had lost to Northampton in front of just 22,000 at Anfield.

“Oh dear”, I thought,” our obsession with Liverpool’s demise shows no signs of abating.”

Ho ho ho.

We reconvene at Eastlands at 12.45pm on Saturday.

See you all there.

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