Tales From Glenn’s Return

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 October 2021.

Another midweek home game, another two-hundred-mile return trip to London, and another League Cup tie against opposition that we had recently played at Stamford Bridge in the league. But most importantly of all, this was Glenn’s first game at Chelsea since the Everton match in March 2020. He has seen action at Arsenal, Liverpool and Brentford this season, but this would be his first game at HQ in nineteen months.

After two games against Aston Villa in League and League Cup, here was the second of two games against Southampton in the same competitions.

As I worked a 7am to 3pm shift, altered to allow me an early finish, I thought a little about my motivation for the evening’s game. I soon realised that despite the chance to see the league leaders play again, it was all about sharing Glenn’s excitement of being back at Chelsea and – equally important – being back in his former season-ticket seat in The Sleepy Hollow alongside PD, Al and little old me.

PD collected me outside work and I sat in the back seat alongside Glenn, with Parky riding shotgun in the front.

While the lads visited “The Goose”, I was feeling peckish and so dived into the adjacent pizzeria for sustenance, a rare treat on a midweek game. I joined up with them all at “Simmon’s” along with Daryl, Simon, Alan, Gary, Pete, Andy, Luke and Doreen. On the walk down the North End Road, I remembered that it was forty years ago – almost exactly – since we played Southampton in a two-legged League Cup tie, and I mentioned this to a few people throughout the night.

On the face of it, there was nothing too special about the 1981/82 season. We were solidly entrenched in the Second Division, our third of five seasons in the second tier, and we would finish it twelfth out of twenty-two. Our highest gate was for an early-season game with Watford of 20,036 while the lowest was an end-of-season date with Orient which drew 6,009. Importantly for me, it marked the first season of independent travel to Chelsea, including my first-ever game in The Shed for the season opener against Bolton.

We had tied the first leg at The Dell 1-1, notable for the debut of seventeen-year-old ‘keeper Steve Francis’, and this was against a formidable Southampton team that included Kevin Keegan. The second leg at Stamford Bridge – on 28 October 1981 – drew 27,370 and we defeated the First Division team 2-1. I attended neither game, but I can easily remember the buzz of victory in the sixth-form the next day. In typical Chelsea fashion, three days later at Rotherham United we lost 0-6, probably the most infamous result of them all. PD attended both the Southampton games and the match at Rotherham.

Forty years ago. Bloody hell. Although we were playing some average football in the league, the League Cup victory against Southampton would be a taster for an even bigger upset in that season’s FA Cup, when we defeated the European Champions Liverpool 2-0 at Stamford Bridge.

1981/82 – with a huge dose of hindsight, to say nothing of a yearning to be that young once again – was one of my favourite seasons. It marked me starting to find my way in the world, partly through going to a few Chelsea games by myself, but also by attending the local youth club in Frome on Friday evenings which helped me overcome my shyness, baby step by baby step. By the summer, there was a few blissful moments with my first girlfriend.

As I said, forty years ago. Fackinell.

The bar seemed quiet. Apart from our merry band of a dozen, there were very few of the regulars in the bar. The talk was of Newcastle at the weekend more than Southampton that night. I know that a fair few Chelsea that are still going to Tyneside despite not having a match ticket. The lure of a night out in the Loony Toon is hard to resist.

The crowds were milling around the forecourt outside the West Stand though, and – as is often the case on midweek games – there were the usual gaggle of perplexed folk, clutching tickets, unsure of which entrance to use.

Just outside the steps to the Matthew Harding, I spotted a sallow youth wearing not only Chelsea tracky bottoms, but a hideous long sleeved training shirt – the one with yellow and blue geometric shapes that are likely to induce fits – with the equally horrific short-sleeved home jersey – ditto – on top.

I fear for the future of humanity.

Just as I was about to scan my ticket, after queuing for around ten minutes, a gentleman was turned away with “you need the lower tier turnstiles” ringing in his head.

I hoped that our false nine, tens and elevens would reach the goal easier than his quest for his seat.

Inside, a decent away turnout of three-thousand and another splendid near-capacity gate of around 40,000.

I mentioned the 1981 Southampton game to Alan.

“In those days, it was a massive competition for us.”

“Yeah. The only one we had a realistic chance of doing well in, to be honest.”

There was no Tino Livramento in the Saints team. We guessed that Armando Broja was unable to play against us.

Chelsea’s team?

Arrizabalaga

James – Chalobah – Saar

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Saul – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz – Barkley

I wondered what was going through Our Callum’s mind. From an attacking outside left position in one game to a right wing-back role the next.

Typically, the stadium was full of parents with young kids, making good use of the half-term holiday. The atmosphere was never great, but there were outbreaks of support throughout.

We began the brighter team and I joked “anything less than a 12-0 win and I’ll want my money back”. After 4-0 and 7-0 home triumphs, there was a very real hope for more goals. An early header from Saul was well saved by Fraser Forster.

“Look at his kit, Al. Virtually red stripes. Brian Moore must be turning in his grave.”

We remembered how the erstwhile presenter of “The Big Match” seemed obsessed with kit colour clashes back in the ‘seventies.

We created a few more attacks, with Ross Barkley looking keen to impress with some neat touches and a few encouraging passes. A shot from Kai Havertz went close. But Southampton were proving a far sterner test than Malmo and Norwich City. After they found their feet, they began attacking themselves and managed a few shots at Kepa in our goal. There was a nice moment when Saul controlled the ball with ease and neatly passed. He hasn’t had the best of starts to a career with us, but the applause that followed must have warmed him. It felt that the home crowd were going out of their way to try to encourage him. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

On the stroke of half-time, even better was to follow. A magnificent ball from Saul out to Marcos Alonso on the left was a joy. The subsequent cross was knocked behind for a corner. Subsequently, Ziyech aimed at the six-yard box and the leap from Havertz was well timed. The ball flew into the goal.

Chelsea 1 Southampton 0.

Excellent.

At half-time, there were updates from the other cup ties.

“Bloody hell, Al, that QPR versus Sunderland game throws up some League Cup horror stories from the mid-’eighties.”

1985 : a loss to Sunderland in the League Cup semis.

1986 : a loss to QPR in the League Cup quarters.

Shudder.

I had barely settled in my seat at the start of the second-half when a surge from Kyle Walker-Peters was followed by a low shot from an angle. Kepa lost it and Che Adams tapped it in from under the bar.

Bollocks.

The roar from the 3,000 away fans was horrible.

Two goals either side of the half and “game on.”

Although not rich in quality, the game opened up and chances began to accumulate at both ends. Havertz squirmed inside his marker on a run towards goal but Forster saved well. The German then over-ran the ball when he was clean through.

Well, that was far from silky.

No matter about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

He had made a pig’s ear of that.

Kepa was occasionally called into action down at The Shed End.

Forster then saved well from Barkley, then from a Saul header and then from a fine James free-kick.

I was surprised that Barkley was substituted, but not that Ziyech was replaced. On came Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, who played out on the right with Our Callum now back to the outside left position that he surely prefers.

A fine effort from Saul, curling in on goal from a distance, forced another agile save from Forster.

Then, schoolboy humour as Southampton made a substitution.

Enter the marvelously named William Smallbone.

“Bloody hell. If your surname is Smallbone, you ain’t gonna call yer son Willie, are you? Is his middle name Richard?”

But the sub was soon causing Kepa to save from a close-in header.

Southampton made a total of five late substitutions. Tino Livramento received a warm reception, as did the Munich man Oriol Romeu. Old warhorses Theo Walcott and Shane Long appeared too.

With tensions rising a little, Big John in the front row stood up, yelled some support – or otherwise – and the onlooking bobble-hatted young lad, no older then four, looked on in awe.

The last ten minutes sped past. Callum hit the side-netting, with Glenn getting wildly excited a few seats away, but Kepa stole the show with two fantastic saves, both stretching cat-like to his left, to deny Southampton a possibly deserved win. Real quality at the death. Phew.

With the game finished at 1-1, it was another case of penalties in front of the Matthew Harding to decide the tie.

With Theo Walcott hitting the post – Kepa with a slight touch – and Young Willie skying his effort (“Smallbone, big foot” – Alan) it did not matter that Forster brilliantly saved from Mount because James struck the last penalty coolly home.

Into the quarters we went.

Back at the car, all of us having raided a nearby shop for late-night Scooby snacks, we were relieved.

We hadn’t played well. Southampton must have felt aggrieved not to have won the tie themselves. Our intensity wasn’t great, and it all felt rather loose and disjointed. Both ‘keepers had enjoyed fine games, which probably says a lot. For every good pass, there seemed an equally poor pass a few seconds later. In the first-half, Hudson-Odoi seemed to spend half his time running towards our half with the ball. I am going to resist calling him “Wrong Way Callum” for now. Apart from Kepa, our team were 6/10.

But we won, and that can only breed confidence.

Glenn had enjoyed seeing everyone in the pubs again. And it was lovely to have him back in The Sleepy Hollow.

On Saturday, the most enjoyable domestic away game of the season awaits.

See you on Tyneside.

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From The Beautiful South

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 16 February 2018.

During the pre-match chat ahead of the West Brom game on Monday, all was going well until I was reminded that we were playing Barcelona at home on the following Tuesday. Bloody hell, that made me gulp. As at 7.59pm on Monday, we were a team and club that appeared to be low on confidence. Antonio Conte’s honest admission that his team lacked “personality” at Watford seemed to sum things up succinctly for me. Thankfully, we brushed the hapless Baggies away without too much fuss on Monday, and we looked forward to a second home win of the week against Hull City in the FA Cup as the week progressed. However, there is no doubt that the looming shadow of Barcelona dominated my thoughts for a few days. On Thursday, we had to apply for tickets for the Camp Nou game.

Tickets were purchased. Roll on Tuesday 20 February – another gulp – and Wednesday 14 March – and another.

We will be there.

The working week finished, I was a relaxed and smiling soul as I met up with Parky and PD in the pub opposite work. I was not initially a fan of Friday games – all that travelling after a hard week at work seemed a nightmare at first – but as I drove the lads to London, the realisation that I could have a lie-in on Saturday morning was a lovely thought. Outside, it was a sunny and crisp afternoon. There was a nice vibe in The Chuckle Bus. The traffic slowed a little on the M4 and it took me a little shy of three hours to reach London.

I met up with Andy and Antony from Los Angeles, and a handful of a few more locally-based faces, in “Simmons Bar” at just before 6pm. It was a lovely pre-match. Everyone seemed so relaxed, but maybe it was just me. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with Andy, who helped form the famous or – infamous – “Orange County Hooligans” (who knew Americans could be ironic?) a decade or so ago. I have met his pal Antony at a couple of stateside shindigs. I first met Andy in Santa Monica in the summer of 2007. I had arrived at LAX with Cathy for our series of three games in Palo Alto and Los Angeles, and the plan was for Cathy, Beth, Andy and me to head a few miles inland to watch Hollywood United play in the evening. That was the plan. Sadly, we managed to get a little lost on the freeways of LA, and only arrived as the second-half was starting. We had just missed Frank Leboeuf playing the first forty-five minutes, which was particularly galling. I do remember a Hollywood United strike from distant being one of the best goals that I have ever seen. Thankfully, Leboeuf joined us all for a boozy question-and-answer session at the Chelsea pub a week later.

Andy and Antony were over for the Hull City and Barcelona home games – a whirlwind trip to Prague and Brussels was planned between the two matches – and Andy informed me that the Hull City match was his fifty-ninth Chelsea games, a superbly impressive figure.

“When I get to one hundred, I’ll retire” he said, far from convincingly.

I picked up a copy of the match programme, and in-keeping with other cup games this season, the front cover was based on a previous encounter with the opponents. This time, the season featured was 1981/1982. The memories flooded back; this was a season which marked going to games by myself for the first time, aged just sixteen. I remember one school friend being quite shocked that I was OK to head up to London by train on my Tod. I might have been a rather quiet and shy youngster, but travelling alone never scared me. In season 1981/1982, I subscribed to the home programme for the first time and I would always wait with great anticipation on the Monday or Tuesday for the programme to drop through the letter box. Invariably, I would devour every part of it. I always used to enjoy reading the pages from our past which were magnificently penned by Scott Cheshire. From these pages, I learned about players such as Tommy Law, Hughie Gallacher, Ken Armstrong, John Harris, Tommy Lawton and Vic Woodley, and my interest in our history was re-ignited.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I wondered again if the attendance would hold up. Clearly, as with West Brom on Monday, the away section was far from full. But generally, there was a good show. Only the top seven or eight rows of the East Upper – at the top corners – were not used. Deep down, what with our run of midweek games of late, I wondered if we would struggle to sell 32,000 to 35,000 tickets.

Another good show from our support.

With it being a Friday might game, there were many more children dotted around our area and it was great to see.

“I’d best tone down the swearing tonight.”

The team was a mix of fringe players, first team regulars and youngsters.

Willy

Toni – Ethan – Gary

Davide – Danny – Cesc – Emerson

Willian – Olivier – Pedro

In a repeat of Monday, the lights were dimmed and the teams then appeared. Hull City had around eight-hundred supporters.

The game began with a perfect start. A Hull City move broke down and Olivier Giroud pushed the ball on to Willian. Maybe a top-tier team would not back off, but Willian was able to shuffle the ball between his two feet and gain a clear view of the goal. He adeptly curled a fine shot into the goal. It was such a fine strike.

Only two minutes were on the clock.

The Hull accent is neither particularly well known, nor easy to do. Apart from the locals using “I nerr” – for “I know” – all the time, it has little distinguishing features. But Alan and me had a little stab at it.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect start, happy days.

The singing was good at the start, but I inwardly tut-tutted every time I heard the tedious “Steve Gerrard / Demba Ba” chant and the equally tiresome “Frank / 200“chant. Shouldn’t we be singing about current players? Certanly not about Liverpool players. I suspected, actually, that Lampard and Gerrard had been spotted in the TV studio above the MHL.

Willian was on fire in the first part of the match. The next chance fell to Giroud, staying onside, after Pedro shovelled a lovely over-the-top dink to him. He slammed the ball over. We were well on top, moving the ball well. As usual the crowd yelled our support of the manager, and the man in black was soon clapping us for our support. Let’s all hope that recent horrible blip will act as a stimulus for positive change. The debutant Emerson had begun well, showing an ability to seek out space down the left.

I wondered if his middle name was “Lake.”

Emerson Lake Palmieri.

I’ll get my coat.

On twenty-seven minutes, Cesc Fabregas received the ball from Giroud inside our half and played an inch-perfect lob ahead of the on-rushing Pedro. He caressed the ball with a lovely touch, bringing it down, and then steering it low into the goal. What another lovely goal. Superb.

Five minutes later, we built another attack, and again Giroud was involved. He passed to Willian, raiding at will, and he raced at the back-peddling Hull defence.

“They can’t live with us, Al.”

Indeed, they couldn’t.

Willian steered a low shot into the goal, just clipping the far post en route.

Alan had mention that he had bumped into Andy from Trowbridge on the walk to the stadium and Andy had said that he had us to win 4-0.

“Bet he’s getting excited now.”

Lo and behold, just before half-time, a poor Gary Cahill shot was not cleared and the ball fell to Emerson, who did well to send over a low cross towards the near post. Giroud was on hand to deftly tap home. Get in. It had been a fine show of finishing, and Hull had been blitzed.

“Andy is probably thinking we need to declare now.”

I wondered what was in store for us in the second-half. Alan was hoping that Callum Hudson-Odoi would play a large part in the proceedings. He was happy to see that the manager agreed. He replaced Pedro. As the second period began, I realised that Callum’s shirt number – 70 – was as good as it gets for a player called Hudson.

I have to say that the resulting forty-five minutes was a pale imitation of the first forty-five.  Hull began far brighter than us at the start of the second period. Ethan Ampadu was forced to clear off the line, but a braindead foul by Cesc inside the box gave Hull City a penalty.

All thoughts were on Andy and his 4-0 bet.

After a little delay, David Meyler slammed the ball at goal. Willy Caballero flung himself to the right and saved. The hero from the Norwich marathon had done the job once more. Alan and I cheered and smiled.

The bet was still on.

On the half-hour, youngster Kyle & Scott replaced Fabregas. Bloody hell, the kid looked young, with the frailest of frames and a haircut from the ’eighties or modern North Carolina.

“He looks about twelve, Alan.”

The youngster looked at ease though, showing no real signs of nerves at all.

I announced to Alan that “I’m going to call him Kyle & Scott.”

Alan smirked.

Silently, I wondered if he was good in the air.

The voice inside my head replied : “Yep, he’s a nice jumper.”

I’ll get my other coat.

Hull threatened our goal again, who were by far the better of the two teams in the first fifteen minutes of the second-half. Hudson-Odoi raced away and played the ball to Zappacosta, who had the chance to shoot, but instead chose to pass to Willian. His deliberation allowed defenders to recover and his shot was blocked. As the ball then spun loose, Zappacosta forced a low save from the Hull ‘keeper Marshall.

The bet was still on.

As the game drifted past, Alan and I waffled.

Alan : “I’ve seen it all now. The Hull ‘keeper wearing all green. Whatever next?”

Chris : “Not only that, the referee in all black. Stop the madness.”

We then realised that Willy Caballero was wearing all orange, thus clashing rather spectacularly with Hull’s predominantly amber kit. We remembered how such topics were feverishly debated by Brian Moore on “The Big Match”, often eclipsing any talk of tactics and styles of play. I blame Brian Moore for both Alan’s and my continued annoyance with kit clashes.

The minutes ticked by. Hull’s little period of possession had passed now, and we were again in the ascendancy.

I loved the way that with every Willian corner, two young lads sitting behind me were yelling at him, almost feverishly. It was great to see and hear. The noise had been pretty good in the first-half, but had lessened in the second.

With twenty minutes remaining, Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata. The former Hipster Gooner Knobhead was given a fine reception. He is well on his way along the Mickey Thomas path of redemption and acceptance. Danny Drinkwater kept a rising ball down and the driven shot was saved. I found it hard to believe that the score was still 4-0. The last chance of the game – very late on – fell to the game’s most lively player Willian, who advanced and curled a shot towards the goal. The ball spun off the far post, with the ‘keeper well beaten. Alan and I sighed, but soon laughed. Andy, I am sure, punched the air with joy.

Funny game, football.

The bet was won.

The game ended, and there was a hearty roar.

The PA announced that we had reached the FA Cup quarter finals for the thirteenth time in seventeen seasons. As I left the MHU, I realised how much we have owned this competition since 2007. It is time we won it again.

We had all witnessed a fine evening of football.

London 4 Hull 0.

It had been a beautiful night in The Beautiful South.

 

Tales From Benny’s First Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 3 October 2015.

This was our homecoming after three games on the road at Walsall, Newcastle and Porto. It would also be our last game for a fortnight, with another international break looming. After the disappointment of our game in Portugal – the stinging defeat on the pitch allied with the spate of robberies off it – I was hopeful that the game against Southampton would put us back on track.

No, let’s be honest and exact here, this was a game we had to win. I knew that the Saints, continuing their fine play from last season under Ronald Koeman would be no pushover, but I was adamant that we could – and should – prevail.

However, my main focus as I drove up to London with Parky and Bournemouth Steve was centred upon seeing my close friend Ian and his young son Ben, who would be watching from the East Lower. It would be Benny’s first ever Chelsea game; a present for his eighth birthday during the late summer.

Ian and I go back to 1984, when we found ourselves on the same human geography course at North Staffs Poly in Stoke. Our friendship slowly grew over the three years, aided by our love of football and music, and was solidified on a trip around Europe on a three week Inter Rail holiday in the September of 1987. Ian was with me, memorably, on my first ever European football match, an Internazionale vs. Empoli game in the San Siro. During that trip we also visited the Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Munich’s Olympic Stadium. Our first afternoon in London after that Inter Rail trip was spent at Stamford Bridge – a good 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, Paul Gascoigne and all – and this was Ian’s first game at Chelsea.

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Ian has watched a few more games with me at The Bridge since. In our thirty plus years of friendship, football has never been too far away.

Ian is from South Yorkshire and a lifelong Rotherham United fan. Ian was at one of the most infamous games in Chelsea’s history; our 6-0 loss at Millmoor in the autumn of 1981. A few of my close Chelsea mates were there too, though I wasn’t. I can remember playing a school football match on that particular day, strangely on a Saturday afternoon, and coming in at half-time in our match to find the boys three-nil down at Rotherham. I can distinctly remember – always an optimist – thinking to myself that we would come back to win 4-3 with Alan Mayes scoring the winner. Sadly it was not to be. For those newish Chelsea fans who think that our current run of poor form entitles them to proudly boast that they can claim that they were there when we are “shit”, watch this and think again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nZfwdx9zLA

In 2015, we are League Champions, League Cup Winners, in the Champions League and one of the top twenty clubs on the planet.

In 1981, we were a struggling Second Division team, with no trophy of any description for ten years.

Later in the season, the same Rotherham United beat us 4-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Compared to 1981, 2015 doesn’t even come close.

Since leaving college, Ian and I met up again in 1989 for our never-to-be-forgotten adventure in North America; cycling down the East coast, visiting city after city, living some sort of American dream. We drove down through France for a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game in 1992. Ian now lives in Fareham, close to Portsmouth, with his wife Maria – I was the best man at his wedding in 2006 – and their two boys Tom and Benny. Both boys have teams; Tom is Arsenal, Ben is Chelsea. Once I managed to secure match tickets for the Saints match, I am sure that Ben has been so excited. But so was I. I couldn’t wait to meet up with him for the game.

We had arranged to meet up at the Peter Osgood statue at 1.30pm. It was magical to see them both, smiling and full of anticipation of the day ahead. Benny was wearing a blue and white bar scarf, and it made my day. During all of our years of friendship, who on earth would have predicted that Ian’s son would be a Chelsea fan.

Lovely.

We spent an hour in the hotel foyer. I am not honestly sure if Ben will remember too much of his first ever Chelsea game, nor the people that he met, but I made sure that I took enough photographs to help. Although it seemed that a camera was always on hand to take key photographs of my formative years, it is one of my big regrets that neither of my parents took any photographs of my first Chelsea game in 1974.

We chatted with Bobby Tambling, as always a lovely man, and it was good to look back on the summer tour in the US. I explained to Ben that Bobby scored 202 goals for Chelsea and Ben’s face was a picture. Coming from Hayling Island, Bob explained how everyone naturally presumed that he would play for Portsmouth after his impressive English schoolboy career. Instead, they made no offer, and despite an approach from Wolves, Bobby ended up at Stamford Bridge.

There were photographs with John Hollins, and Ben predicted a 10-0 win for Chelsea, and our former captain and manager loved the optimism.

There was a prolonged chat with former captain Colin Pates concerning his current job at the Whitgift School in Croydon, where he spotted the potential in a young Victor Moses, and also a few words from Colin which answered Ian’s enquiry about how difficult it was to make the transition from player to another trade.

“Put it like this. It’s like being at the best party you have ever been to. Then someone comes along and says it’s over.”

Ian and I knew exactly what he meant.

I commented back, looking at Ian –

“Colin found it so difficult, that he ended up playing for Arsenal.”

Colin and Ian laughed.

However, I chose not to talk to Colin about the Rotherham game in 1981, since he had played in that game. Neil Barnet called by and reminded us that it was Petar Borota’s last ever game for the club. What a wayward player he was, but loved by all. Bless him.

Paul Canoville joined us and I explained that this was Ben’s first-ever game. Paul spent a good few minutes with the three of us, welcoming Ben to the Chelsea family, and entertaining Ian with anecdotes from his various travels over the past summer.

I really appreciated the time that these three former players took in spending time with young Ben. And I am sure that Ian got a kick out of it too. Outside the main reception, there was time for a team photo with Ron Harris.

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Back in The Goose, it was lovely to see Alan and Gary again after their tribulations in Porto. I also bumped into a cheery Stan, too, and he seemed unperturbed, and showing no signs of distress after temporarily losing his passport. It was a sublimely beautiful Saturday evening and it was hard to believe that it was October now. The team news came through via various ‘phone updates.

John Terry was back.

Parky bought a round of amaretto shots and we then set off for the Bridge.

Southampton opted for the smaller away allocation for this fixture; around 1,500.

After the initial sparring, we were awarded a free-kick to the left of the Southampton goal. Willian swung in a looping free-kick which bamboozled Stekelenburg in the Saints goal. The ball struck the far post and rippled the net. For what seemed the umpteenth time already this season, we had scored with a free-kick from the left, and this was yet another one from Willian. He ran off to the East Stand and I can only imagine how excited young Ben must have been. Ian Hutchinson scored after ten minutes in my first game in 1974 and Willian did exactly the same for Ben in 2015.

Alan and myself attempted the Hampshire burr of cricket commentator John Arlott as we went through our “come on my little diamonds / they’ll have to come at us now” routine.

Chances were rare. Oscar and Eden Hazard struggled to find the target. Southampton burst through our ranks on several occasions. Sadio Mane was booked for diving. On more than one occasion, the alert Asmir Begovic saved our blushes.

However, a certain amount of sleepiness in our defence allowed Pelle to chest down for Davis to strike a low drive past Begovic.

At the break, Nemanja Matic replaced Ramires.

Southampton bossed the early moments of the second period. They are a fine team these days and they continually exposed the increasing self-doubt within our team. Then came a major talking point. Fabregas played in Falcao, who stretched to go past the Southampton ‘keeper, but fell. A penalty was not given, but the referee added insult to injury and booked Falcao for simulation. Our Colombian beat the Stamford Bridge turf in frustration.

The visitors were on the front foot now and several periods of Keystone Cops defending from our back line began to turn an already edgy Stamford Bridge crowd over the edge. With too much ease, Mane broke through after we lost possession, twisting past the recalled Terry to score.

Pedro replaced Willian.

There were boos.

Hazard, so obviously lacking any sort of confidence, gave the ball away and Southampton broke with pace. There was a feeling that this break would result in another goal. The ball was played outside to Pelle, who struck a low shot past Begovic from an angle. It was no more than Southampton deserved.

1-3.

Bollocks.

To my dismay, many spectators decided to leave.

Fuck them.

The substitute Matic was replaced by Loic Remy.

More boos.

I was just surprised that consistently underperforming Fabregas managed to avoid the manager’s axe yet again. Of all the disappointments this season, Cesc must rank as one of the biggest. Despite us losing 3-1, and despite hundreds of Chelsea supporters having vacated their seats, I was really pleased with the way that most Chelsea fans responded.

First of all, though, I noted a few hundred Chelsea fans in the Matthew Harding Lower singing – to my annoyance – “we’re fucking shit” and I really am lost for words to explain that.  However, a far greater number throughout both levels of the MH really got behind the team with rousing renditions of several Chelsea favourites. The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge and I so hoped that the watching millions around the globe could hear us.

Although we came at Southampton towards the end, a goal never really looked like coming.

So, no surprises, at the final whistle, there were loud boos.

We’re in a bad moment, no doubt.

We’re in a bad moment together and we’ll hopefully get out of it together too.

If we lose a few of our number along the way, so be it.

I have no logical reasons for our current malaise and I am not sure that many fellow Chelsea fans do either. We are a team so obviously low on confidence, and without that elusive “spark.” However, as I said to one or two others on the walk back to the car, it doesn’t really matter.

“I’ll be here next game, and the one after.”

However, it saddened me to receive a text from Ian later in the evening to say that Ben cried his eyes out at the end of the game.

At the age of eight, my first game, I would have done the same.

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Tales From Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 3 December 2014.

In my book, there is no bigger game each season than Chelsea vs. Tottenham. This was a match that I had been relishing for a while. Midway through my working day, the excitement was rising with each “match-day thought” that entered my mind. There were the usual nerves, too. I’m more nervous about Spurs at home than any other. There’s that unbeaten run – stretching back to 1990-1991 – which needed to be preserved. I am sure that other Chelsea fans would only be happy at 9.30pm with a win, but I was a little more pragmatic;

Anything but a loss please Ye Footballing Gods.

That is not to say that I was unduly worried too much.

The only negative thought fluttering in and out of my consciousness as the hours raced by was the thought that our team would be missing Diego Costa.

I wondered who Jose Mourinho would turn to.

Didier Drogba?

Loic Remy?

Only time would tell.

When I left the office at 3.30pm, there was a supreme sense of joy that I would soon be on the road with three good friends – Glenn, PD and Lord Parky – and an evening’s football lie ahead.

To paraphrase Tommy Johnson – “Tottenham At Home – Love It.”

PD, bless him, kindly volunteered for driving duties and so I was able to relax a little. The four of us had enjoyed the From The Jam gig in Frome ten days previously and our spirits were buoyed by a cracking ‘eighties compilation CD which accompanied our trip east. I remember mentioning to somebody at the gig that there was a spell a few years ago that as soon as we hit the traffic at Hammersmith, The Jam would always seem to be playing on my CD player. On this occasion, PD had changed the CD and to a “Suggs Selection” and, yes – lo and behold – as soon as we neared the church underneath the M4, “Beat Surrender” came on.

“Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.
Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.

All the things that I care about.
Are packed into one punch.
All the things that I’m not sure about.
Are sorted out at once.

And as it was in the beginning.
So shall it be in the end.
That bullshit is bullshit.
It just goes by different names.”

We were parked just before 6pm and The Goose was predictably heaving.

As soon as I walked in, I was pleased to meet up with Danny and his girlfriend Sonja. I got to know Danny , who hails from the wonderfully named Rancho Cucamonga in California – through my trips to the US over the past ten seasons and I first met him – to talk to – in Texas in 2009. This was his third trip over to England to see the boys play – he was at Sunderland on Saturday – but this was Sonja’s inaugural visit to London and England. I introduced them to my closest Chelsea mates and I had to smile when Sonja exclaimed that she was the “token female.” I quickly looked up and scanned the pub. Of course, Sonja wasn’t wrong. In a pub full of Chelsea fans, no more than 5% were female. I presume this came as a slight shock to Sonja. It reminded me of a similar comment by another American female last season who was amazed by the lack of the fairer sex in and around the pubs at Chelsea.

I quickly remembered some of my many visits to various baseball stadia – plus the Chelsea games I have seen too – in the US over the years. There were, indeed, many more females at the games in the US than there are at football in the UK. No time for too much social commentary on this, but I would suggest that this shows that football is still predominantly a male preserve in the UK.

In Chelsea’s case, it remains a preserve of middle-aged men with receding hairlines and a predilection for trainers, polo-shirts, lager and taking the piss out of each other.

Proper.

As we left the pub on a cold, but thankfully not bitter, evening, we all wanted to make sure that we were in the stadium well in advance of the minute of appreciation and applause for our former manager John Neal, who sadly passed away at the age of 82 the day after our last home game against West Brom.

There was a nice piece devoted to John Neal in the night’s programme. He was a much-loved man by us Chelsea fans of a certain generation.  I only met him in person on one occasion. Back in the autumn of 1995, Chelsea celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1970 F.A. Cup win with a pre-match gathering of former players in the bar which used to be called “Drake’s” (named after our 1955 Championship-winning manager). In those days, only CPO share-holders were allowed in to “Drake’s” (which nestles under the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding, but is renamed these days and is, presumably, one of the many corporate suites at Stamford Bridge). On that particular day – before a game with Southampton – Chelsea legends such as Peter Osgood, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris attracted the attention of the Chelsea fans in attendance. Away in a quiet booth – I can picture it now – sat John Neal and his assistant manager Ian McNeill, quietly eating a meal, generally being ignored by the majority. A few fans dropped in to say “hello” – I am sure that it was John Neal’s first visit back to Stamford Bridge since his early retirement in the mid-‘eighties – but I was shocked that these two figures from our relatively recent past were being generally shunned.

My only conclusion was that the Chelsea fans present were so in awe of the heralded 1970 team, that the appearance of John and Ian was – wrongly, of course – overlooked.

I made sure that I said a few words of welcome and gratitude and was very pleased that they allowed me to have my photograph taken with the quietly spoken former manager and his trusted Scottish assistant. I did – to be blunt – wonder why the two of them had been invited on a day when a different team was being honoured. In retrospect, the two should have had been the centrepiece of a ten year anniversary of the 1983-1984 season a year previously, but that is a moment lost forever.

Looking back, John Neal had a very mixed reign as Chelsea manager. He joined us after a spell as the Middlesbrough manager, and his teams were relatively steady, occasionally entertaining, but playing to low attendances in the First Division. Chelsea, in 1981, were dire and entrenched in the Second Division. I remember being hardly enamoured by his appointment. I can easily recollect attending John Neal’s first ever league game as Chelsea manager in August 1981 and the photograph of him on the front cover of the programme, standing proudly by the newly-adorned Chelsea crest above the tunnel, is quite an iconic image. After two years of poor performances, narrowly avoiding relegation in 1983, it is – with hindsight – a miracle that Chelsea maintained the services of John Neal over the summer of 1983.

1983-1984 was a different story of course. We plundered the lower leagues for talent during the close-season and John Neal’s true worth as a man-manager bore fruit from the very first game. For anyone who was at the 5-0 annihilation of promotion favourites Derby County, wasn’t it fantastic?

Kerry Dixon scored twice, we triumphed 5-0 and the tube was literally bouncing back to Earl’s Court after that one.

John Neal – for that 1983-1984 season alone – must rank as one of my favourite Chelsea managers.

It is a shame that we never saw him back at Stamford Bridge over the past twenty years or so. I believe that he suffered from dementia towards the end.

The Boys In Blue From Division Two would have loved to have said “thanks” one more time.

Thankfully, the timings were fine and I was inside Stamford Bridge with five minute to spare. As I stepped inside the seating area, I noticed that the main flood lights had been dimmed and, instead, the advertising boards were shining bright along with smaller strip lighting in and around the stadium. It was a scene which was quite similar to the pre-match routine at Manchester City a few seasons back, with the lights dimmed and blue moons appearing on the TV screens.

It looked stunning to be honest – other worldly – though my immediate reaction was “what the bloody hell is this, more contrived nonsense?”

The two teams appeared from the tunnel, but the lights were still dimmed. Only when all the players were walking on the deep green sward of the pitch were the main lights turned on.

Another full house, though the Tottenham section took forever to fill.

The two sets of players assembled in the centre-circle and Neil Barnett spoke. The minute of applause in memory of John Neal, bless him, was loud and heart-felt. A chant of “Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

God bless you, John.

Of course, Jose Mourinho had decided on Didier Drogba to lead the line. My choice would have been the nimbler Loic Remy, but – once again – what do I know?

Right then, game on, and a near twenty-five year record to defend.

We had agreed in the chuckle bus on the drive to London that Tottenham were a “hot and cold” team thus far this season. In the first twenty minutes, they were warmer than us. Harry Kane (“he’s one of our own” sang the away fans, as if it mattered) threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal with a header which rattled the crossbar. The same player twisted away from Gary Cahill and screwed a shot wide. My pre-match nerves were seemingly vindicated. It took a while for a Chelsea player to threaten the Spurs goal; a Cesc Fabregas shot curled into Loris’ clasp.

At around 8.02pm, I decided to take a comfort break.

At around 8.04pm, I approached the refreshment stand with a pie in my sights. I glanced up at the TV set above the servers (blimey, imagine that in 1983 – a TV set by the tea bar) and spotted Eden Hazard clean through. Before he had struck the ball, I heard the roar of the crowd. The TV had a split-second time delay and I then saw the ball flash past Loris into the net.

I returned back to Alan and Glenn with a chicken and mushroom pie and a very big smile on my face.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Before I could let it all sink in, Oscar had tee’d up Didier – mmm, maybe offside? – who calmly slotted the ball past Loris.

2-0 to Chelsea and my magic pie had done the trick.

I confided in Alan…”you know, to be honest, over the years…there have been times when Tottenham have played pretty well here. How they have never beaten us here is a mystery. And here they are again. Playing well, but now 2-0 down. I know we say we hate Spurs, but they must fucking loathe us.”

Alan agreed.

And then we both smiled.

The highs and lows of the rest of the half?

The high was a sublime volleyed cross field ball by Fabregas to Hazard – I think – which was pinpoint perfect and with just the right amount of dip and fade.

The low was me finishing my magic pie; no more goals ensued.

The noise was pretty decent in the first forty-five minutes, though the volume noticeably fell away towards the end.

At half time, two stalwarts from the John Neal era were on the pitch with Neil Barnett; Pat Nevin and Nigel Spackman. Nevin is still much revered, Spackman not so, after his sporadic comments about his spell at Liverpool and a few thinly-disguised digs at Chelsea.

Neil then spoke about “two girls from America – Lisa and Sonja (yes, that Sonja) who are at Stamford Bridge for the first time tonight, with their blokes Joe and Danny (yes, that Danny)…enjoy the match.” There was a picture of Joe and Lisa in the programme; I remembered Joe from a few pre-season tours too.

A nice touch. I texted Danny to see if Sonja was OK.

“Sonja is singing more than the chaps in the row in front.”

Good work.

Prior to the second-half, Kurt Zouma replaced Gary Cahill, who had battled on after an early collision with Vertonghen, but who was obviously unable to resume.

Nemanja Matic, possibly my player of the season thus far, was stupidly booked for a clumsy challenge on Kane.

“Silly Alan. Just silly. We’re two-up, for heavens’ sake. What’s the likelihood of them scoring from that move? 5%? Silly challenge.”

The Spurs dirge “Oh When The Spurs…” was roundly booed, but there wasn’t a great deal of Chelsea noise to take its place.

Tottenham were continuing to have a lot of the ball, but on the instances when we picked them off and moved forward we just looked more cohesive. Drogba shot from outside the box, but it was an easy save for Loris. Jose then replaced Didier with Remy. We enjoyed some sublime twists and shimmies from Eden Hazard throughout the night. I enjoyed the energy of Willian too. With around twenty minutes remaining, Dave played in Remy inside the box. Showing great strength to hold off Vertonghen, he nimbly side-stepped a challenge and passed the ball into the Spurs goal.

3-0 and the game was safe.

Fantastic stuff.

1 December 1990 to 3 December 2014.

25 games, 25 seasons, undefeated.

15-10-0

In the south-east corner, there was a fire-drill.

Happy days.

We saw off the last minutes of the game with the minimum of fuss, though the news of Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Sunderland was disappointing. As, of course, was the news that Arsenal had beaten Southampton 1-0 with a goal in the very last minute.

Not to worry. We’re the ones to catch.

Let’s keep this beautiful thing going.

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Tales From The Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Shakhtar Donetsk : 7 November 2012.

This game was my fifty-sixth Champions League game at Stamford Bridge and there have been few which have turned out to be more dramatic. In fact, this one turned out to be one of the most dramatic home games that I have ever seen.

Well, since last Wednesday, anyway.

Parky was back in the fold again and he accompanied me on my Wednesday evening drive to the city. As part payment, he plied me with a Cornish pasty and a Coke. In return, I made sure we were safely was parked up at 6.30pm.

I have mentioned before that my mate Simon is heavily involved in the shooting of a film and he had been in touch during the week in the search for a specific prop. He was in need of an old style, pre-modern badge Chelsea pennant to hang in the front of a car. He asked a few of us if we could come up with anything. I had a rummage around. I was successful.

The pennant race was over. Inside The Goose, I handed over a rather tattered plastic pennant with wonky lettering from around 1970. I said I wanted a mention in the film credits. The filming starts on Saturday and Simon is in for a very intense four week period. The game against Shakhtar will be his last for a while. I’m not too sure what the film’s plot entails, but it stars Aiden Gillen from “The Wire.” There will be one scene to be shot inside a boozer and all of us were hoping to be involved in that, but Simon told us that the date for that particular scene was a Wednesday. The Wednesday, in fact, of the last Champions League group phase game, when we play the team from Denmark with the unpronounceable name.

So, we will miss out on being involved in the film. A shame. We’re good in pubs.

I endeavoured to make it inside for the kick-off. It was a close-run thing. A large line at the MHU turnstiles meant that I missed the teams coming out onto the pitch, but thankfully I made the start. I ran through the team and there were a few changes from our trip to Swansea. The biggest surprise was the omission of John Terry. There were only a few empty seats in the away section. It held around 1,300 Ukrainians. This far surpassed our following in Donetsk which was in the 150-250 range. I have no doubt that the 1,300 in the south-east corner were bolstered by many Ukrainians who now call London home. It is, after all, the most cosmopolitan of all European cities.

I had a quick scan of the match programme. There was a little preview of our game on November 20th in Turin when we play Juventus. Unbeknown to me, the Piedmont capital is twinned with the city of Detroit, due mainly to both cities’ links to the motor industry. Soon into the game, I received a text message from my mate Tullio in Turin to say that he had managed to secure a ticket for the match. Just as in 2009, we will be watching our two teams play against each other. I have known Tullio since 1981. More of that later.

We began like a team possessed. After only a few minutes, Oscar sent over an absolutely fantastic cross from wide on the right wing. Not only was it played with perfect depth and precision, but it even dropped right on the six yard box, making the goalkeeper Pyatov have to judge the immediate bounce of the ball. An onrushing Fernando Torres was only inches away from connecting. The keeper then failed to read a back pass and Torres charged down his poor attempted clearance. By the time the ball had crossed the line, the Stamford Bridge crowd were roaring and Fernando Torres was running down to Parkyville in wild celebration.

Get in!

It was Fernando Torres’ nineteenth Chelsea goal and – yes, here we go again – I have seen every one of them.

Alan – in a generic Slavic accent:

“They will have to come at us now.”

Chris – similarly:

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Almost immediately after, Torres broke free and almost scored a second, but his shot was parried. Crazily, Shakhtar equalised in the very next move. Fernandinho – possibly some lost relative of the gruesome twosome from Peckham – was allowed to cross from the right and a virtually unmarked Willian easily prodded home.

Game on.

There was no denying it; our visitors – wearing a bright orange and black kit – played some superb football in the first-half. Their play reminded me of our home game with Manchester City last December, when they made us look like fools in the first half. Their passing and movement was excellent. But, equally so, our defending was shocking. We gifted their playmakers far too much room and continually failed to close down the man with the ball. That’s a cardinal sin in my book. In particular, though I hate to single him out, Ryan Bertrand was continually out of position. Mistakes were being made all over the pitch though. We seemed to be half-asleep. We were sloppy.

Alan and I gave a running commentary throughout.

“Come on Ramires, that’s poor…Ivanovic, what are you doing…come on Cech, talk to your defenders…oh God, Luiz, just clear it…Ryan, watch your marker…come on boys…get in the game, Oscar…get stuck in Torres…Mata looks knackered.”

We agreed that Mikel was the one player holding firm and doing his job well.

Cech scrambled away a quickly-taken corner which caught everyone unawares. Eden Hazard found Torres, who nimbly turned on a sixpence but hit the side-netting. Teixera was narrowly wide with a low drive which zipped low past Cech’s right hand post. There was no denying it, Shakhtar were mustard.

Before the game, it was obvious that this would be a tough one. In theory, we had to win it. Of course, a lot depended on the Juventus game. If they dropped points, could we –just – afford to also? The news came through that Juve were ahead.

Porca Dio.

Oh boy. Anyone who thought that this would be an easy qualification group was wrong. This was as tough a group that I have known.

Italian Champions, Ukrainian Champions, European Champions.

Forget faltering Manchester City’s group. Here was 2012’s Group of Death.

This was a quiet and definitely nervy Stamford Bridge. We were too edgy to sing many songs. The MHL were all standing – a good sign – but there was hardly any noise. I watched with gritted teeth. I sensed that my face must’ve been a picture.

“Look at that miserable bastard.”

My face changed on forty minutes. A Mata ball was headed away by the Donetsk ‘keeper, who was under pressure from Ivanovic, of all people. The ball fell right at Oscar, but he chose not to take a touch and control the ball. He knew that the ‘keeper was stranded on the edge of his box, so he decided to act quickly. He side-swiped a volley back over the doomed ‘keeper and we all watched, amazed, as the ball flew into the net.

YES!

We could hardly believe it. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd thundered. Oscar ran towards The Shed and his delirious team mates soon joined him. I remember a similar lob from distance from the late David Rocastle in the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994.

At the break, we knew that we were extremely lucky to be ahead. Tore Andre Flo was on the pitch at the break. We all loved him down at Chelsea, though at first he looked gangly and was unconvincing. His two goals at Real Betis in 1998 turned him into an instant Chelsea folk hero.

Well, lamentably, we were still asleep at the start of the second. A quick move by the visitors and the ball was crashed low into the box by Srna. That man Willian was there again to pounce.

2-2.

Bollocks.

With Juventus wining easily, things were looking desperate and my face mirrored the situation. Frown lines appeared and my hair grew even greyer.

For the next forty minutes, Chelsea fought to get a grip on the game. Chances were created, but the tension grew as each minute passed with no goal. Jon Obi Mikel shot over and then Shaktar countered with a long shot from distance with thudded against the base of Cech’s post. Mikel then scored, but the linesman had flagged early for offside. Ramires, after a poor first period, was back to his old self, tackling with perfect timing and balance, charging forward with gusto.

On 73 minutes, Eden Hazard – who was becoming more and more involved – sent a ball through for Ramires. His run was perfectly timed and he looked confident and strong. Just as he was about to pull the trigger he fell to the floor and we all expected the Spanish referee to blow. To our consternation, he waved play on.

I was so angry, I couldn’t speak.

I sat down and put my head in my hands.

Had I miss-read what I had just seen? Am I so blindly partisan that I immediately think that any challenge against a Chelsea player is a foul? Am I that far out-of-touch?

No. It was a penalty.

The home crowd erupted in displeasure.

Here we go again.

The game continued on and I spent a lot of my time clock-watching. It’s always the same when we are chasing the game.

“I’m surprised there’s been no subs, Al.”

We tried to engineer our way through the orange and black rear guard. The Shakhtar defence were giants. Oscar was replaced by Moses.

The quote of the night came from Alan alongside me after a Shakhtar player had stayed down too long after a Chelsea challenge.

“Get up you radioactive cnut.”

We had a lot of corners. Obi wide with a volley. Cahill over from a corner. The tension mounted. In truth, the visitors had not been so much of a threat in the second period. They were obviously happy with a share in the spoils. And yet, they had a flurry of half-chances in the very last minute as the game was agonisingly stretched. I was aging by the minute.

The referee signalled three extra minutes. I sighed once again. We would have to go Turin and win.

We were mired in third position with only five points from twelve.

Sorry, Tullio. Sorry, Mario. Needs must.

On 93 minutes, Alan rose and said “well, in light of what happened last week, I’m off. See you Sunday.”

“See you Sunday, Al.”

A few seconds later, we won a corner and the crowd roared our support. Juan Mata walked over to take it. I held my camera and centered on the action. I focussed. I saw Mata strike the ball well.

Bloody hell, that’s a great corner – that’s right on the money.

Click.

I caught the leap of Victor Moses. My photograph caught that moment in time of when the ball is but a foot away from his forehead and is on its way.

I watched as the ball crashed into the goal and the net bulged.

The net bulged.

Anyone who is into football will know that feeling.

The net bulged.

YEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

I was bubbling over again, but captured the resultant race of the players alongside and behind Moses as he ran towards the NE corner. One photo has Pyatov hacking the ball away disconsolately. I immediately turned back to my right and saw Alan racing back towards me, his face an absolute picture, his fist clenched.

YES!

There was a massive celebration taking place on the far side. Moses was engulfed by fellow team mates and the moment seemed to last forever.

Within seconds of the restart, the Spanish referee blew for time.

We had done it again. Bloody hell.

There was a predictable mood of euphoria as the teams left the pitch, but also one of bewilderment. Two consecutive Wednesdays, two consecutive nights of high drama, two games where goals were scored in the 94th minute.

Oh boy.

There are no doubts that the visitors were desperately unlucky not to at least draw. Over the two games, they were by far the better team. In fact, had the two games been played in the knockout phase, Chelsea would be out, since the Ukrainians scored more away goals than us.

But we kept battling, we kept going. The Chelsea of old has not been completely dismantled. For once, let’s look on the bright side. Let’s wallow in the positives. We didn’t give up. Full credit to us for that.

Liverpool – be warned.

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Tales From Roger’s Big Night Out

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 31 October 2012.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Seconds out, round two.

The substantial debris from the game on Sunday was still falling all around us as I anticipated the Capital One game at HQ. After the ridiculously high-scoring Reading vs. Arsenal game on Tuesday plus Chelsea and United’s predilection for attacking football, I was expecting another entertaining contest. As the afternoon progressed, I spoke about the game at work and I remember mentioning to a colleague “it won’t be 0-0.”

After having driven to all but a couple of the Chelsea games over the past two seasons, salvation was at hand. My mate Roger had volunteered to collect me from work and take on the burden of rush-hour traffic and the battle against inclement weather conditions. We left Chippenham at 4pm and, unfortunately, it wasn’t too long into the drive that the rain arrived. As Roger drove east, we spent most of the trip to London reminiscing on past Chelsea memories.

I used to work with Roger at a factory in Trowbridge from 1996 to 1998, but after he moved away to Devon a few years ago, I lost contact with him. I was elated to bump into him outside The Pelican pub at Chelsea before the game with Tottenham two years ago. We couldn’t remember if we had ever travelled up to a game together. I don’t think we had. I know that Roger joined a few friends and I on a stadium tour of Stamford Bridge in the summer of 1997. We laughed at the memory of him stealing a scrubbing brush from the home changing room. He still claims to this day that it belonged to Dennis Wise. He might even have it framed.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first two Chelsea games took place within three weeks of each other in the early spring of 1974. Roger told me how he managed to cajole his school teacher, Mrs. Fry – a keen Chelsea fan – to take him and his school friend to Stamford Bridge for their first game. On February 22 1974, young Roger – aged eleven – watched from the seats in the architectural oddity that was the North Stand as Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers drew 3-3. I made my home debut against Newcastle United in mid-March. Between the dates of the two games, Peter Osgood left Chelsea for Southampton. It is a major sadness that I never saw my childhood hero play for us.

Roger mentioned a few matches from that era. One game in which our paths collided was the March 1975 game against Derby County. We lost 2-1 to the eventual League Champions on that rainy day, but the memory which stayed strong in Roger’s mind was the presence of the Marching Mizzou band of the University of Missouri who entertained the crowd before the game. I vividly remember their bright yellow uniforms. They memorably sat in the otherwise unused (and quite possibly unsafe) seats in the upper tier of the ramshackle North Stand and I can well remember them bursting into life, unannounced, on several occasions during the game. In the Sunday Express paper the next day, I recollect the Derby manager Dave Mackay moaning about the sudden eruptions of sound which emanated from the stands during the game.

I reminded him of his Chelsea lottery win during the dark days of the 1982-1983 season. He had told me about this while we were working together. He told me how Chris Hutchings presented him with his prize before one game and how the photograph of this was featured in a later home programme. I remember delving through my programme collection and bringing it in to show him. At the time, Roger used to sell around three hundred lottery tickets on Hounslow High Street during the week before every home game. On one particular day, his brother helped himself to a ticket from the large pile in Roger’s living room. Roger asked him to pay the 25p for it, but his brother declined. Roger was livid. The ticket was rubbed away to reveal the prize of another “free” ticket. Roger swore at his brother and said –

“Well, you’re not having another. I’m having it.”

With that, Roger picked the next ticket in the pile. He rubbed it to reveal, to his immense satisfaction, a prize of £1,000, which was a huge sum thirty years ago. Imagine the look on his brother’s face. He even got an extra 10% as he was the lottery seller.

“Happy days, Mush.”

The traffic slowed around Maidenhead and my hopes for a couple of pints in the boozer before the game were diminishing quickly. The rain worsened too.

“Not so happy days, Dodger.”

We spoke about a few of the characters that we used to work with in Trowbridge, but the talk soon returned to Chelsea. Roger was clearly relishing the game against United. I’ve often thought how key defeats against Manchester United have, in a way, acted as spurs for later triumphs.

Think back to 1994. A truly demoralising 4-0 loss to United in our first F.A. Cup Final in twenty-three years left us shell-shocked and tearful. Yet, just three seasons later, the memory of two Eric Cantona penalties amid the rain of Wembley were forgotten as we finally got our hands on some silverware, beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the same competition.

Think back to 1999. We only lost three games during the 1998-1999 league campaign, yet finished in third place behind the eventual champions Manchester United. After that, I was convinced that we would never win the league in my lifetime. We had reached our level. Just three defeats, yet no title. Just three years later, in 2005, we lost just one game all season long and became league champions for the first time in fifty years.

Think back to 2008. We had to endure the misery of Moscow with an excruciatingly painful defeat by Manchester United in the Champions League Final. Our greatest ever team, perhaps just past its prime, would surely never reach the final again. We lost out on the ultimate prize in European football by the width of a post and the splash of a puddle. Four years later in Munich, our beloved club won the Champions League for the first time ever.

In each of these triumphs, the joy of victory was made substantially sweeter due to the memory of those anguished defeats by Manchester United a few years previously. Additionally, with each trophy successfully attained, the next trophy was to be more prestigious. The F.A. Cup lead to the League and then to the European Cup. It seems, now, with the perspective of time, that we were following a natural order of progression. And it certainly seems that it was ordained in the stars that we would encounter pain and defeat in our quest for glory. With hindsight, that beautiful gift, I am fine with this. Everyone knows that the best things in life are worth the wait.

West London seemed especially dark and gloomy as Roger drove around the Hammersmith roundabout before heading down the Fulham Palace Road. We parked up on Bramber Road at 6.45pm. It had been a long journey in, but it had been excellent catching up with Roger. Inside The Goose, the team news had just been announced. I was very happy to hear that Robbie had chosen a strong team. I couldn’t stomach losing twice in four days to The Pride of Asia.

We had twenty minutes to drink-up in the boozer. There was just time for one pint again. A quick chat with a few mates. Rush, rush, rush.

“Let’s make a move, Rog.”

“No worries, Mush.”

There was light drizzle outside the West Stand turnstiles. The line at the Matthew Harding turnstiles meant that I missed the kick-off for the first time this season, if only by a minute.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Seconds out, round two.

Ding ding.

As always, one of my first tasks of the game was a quick scan at the size and nature of the away support. The United masses took up 6,000 seats in both tiers of The Shed, though every single one was standing. No surprises there. The entire Matthew Harding Lower were standing too. There were around fifteen flags draped over the Shed balcony. One especially caught my attention.

“Clattenburg. Referee. Leader. Legend.”

Despite my Chelsea allegiance, that brought a wry chuckle.

There was an ironic flag, in Dundee United tangerine and black, honouring a much-maligned purchase that Alex Ferguson made from that club in around 1988.

“Ralph Milne Ultras.”

For a short period of time, a group of fans hoisted this one –

“Chelsea F.C. – Making a stand against racism since Sunday.”

Ouch.

There were a smattering of flags with musical references too, including one which honoured the drug of choice of the Mancunian ravers in the days of house music in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties.

“MD MDA MDMA OK.”

Football and music are so often entwined. At Chelsea, we have our own “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” flags, of course, honouring the Chelsea-supporting lead singers of The Clash and Madness.

Roger was to my left, Alan and Tom to my right. We wondered what events might unravel this time. None of us could have predicted what ensued on the night of Halloween, Wednesday 31st. October 2012. It was one for the ages. If Sunday’s game “had it all”, then this one had the same, though strangely, in the circumstances, no sendings-off.

A timeline of events tells the story.

6 – Daniel Sturridge, at last the lone striker, was played in with only Lindegaard to beat, but experienced a Torresesque slip in front of goal. It was also in front of the baying United fans, who had already mocked him with taunts of being a City reject.

The away fans began the game where they left off on Sunday; a wall of noise. The Chelsea fans rose to the challenge, though, and songs were exchanged with gusto. Not surprisingly, one issue was soon the subject –

“Where’s your racist at the back?”

“Where’s your racist referee?”

I didn’t bother joining in.

22 – I was busy checking my camera and so missed the error by Oriel Romeu, put under too much pressure by a silly Petr Cech pass, which resulted in Ryan Giggs picking up the loose ball and adroitly steering the ball into the goal. Cech seemed crestfallen and the Mancs roared.

Here we go again. If anything, it was against the run of play. Victor Moses was the star of our first-half, running the channels, strong on the ball, full of endeavour. Top marks to him.

31 – That man Moses attacked the United full-back Buttner and a foul resulted in a Chelsea penalty. David Luiz, one of the Munich Five, calmly slotted the ball low past the ‘keeper.

Game on.

43 – A typical David Luiz dribble out of defence, involving one touch too many resulted in him losing the ball. The United players pounced and eventually played in Chicarito, who again scored at the north end. No taunting celebrations this time. A pink flare was lit by the United fans. The Chelsea stewards seemed to take forever to extinguish it. The United fans were baying again. One ran onto the pitch, his arms flailing like a maniac.

There’s a five year ban straight away.

“We’re Man United. We do what we want.”

Run on the pitch you mean? Idiots.

It was a desperate way to end the half.

We had played reasonably well during the first period, but it was galling to be losing to errors of our own making. Lucas Piazon was struggling to get in the game, but elsewhere we were fine. However, Di Matteo replaced the under-scrutiny Mikel with Ramires at the break.

49 – A quick Juan Mata corner caught everyone unawares, but the unmarked Sturridge attempted an outrageous flick inside the six yard box where an old-fashioned header would have brought greater rewards. There were howls of disapproval from the Matthew Harding. Studge clearly has issues in selecting the correct option at times. He is so frustrating.

52 – A Juan Mata corner was met powerfully by the head of Gary Cahill. The ball crossed the line before a United defender had the chance to hook it away. The Bridge was roaring once more.

59 – A great United move found Nani who clipped the ball past Cech. The goal was against run of play and left us trailing 3-2 once more. Eden Hazard replaced the quiet Piazon.

65 – After a short corner, Hazard picked out Victor Moses, but he headed over.

68 – A Juan Mata cross, deep to the far post, found an unmarked and onrushing Azpilicueta, but his header infuriatingly flew over. Roger moaned “what do they teach you? Head it down!” Oscar replaced Romeu. The three maestros were back together again.

72 – Oscar played the ball to Mata and his shot struck the hand of Keane. The ball had travelled a good five yards and the defender surely could have moved his arm away. The referee waved play on. Shades of Barca in 2009? You bet. We howled with derision and I turned the air blew.

75 – Victor Moses shot straight at the United goalie. Things were getting very frustrating indeed. Our efforts could not be doubted, though.

I commented to Tom that “no matter who wins, we’ve played really well in this game.”

83 – Daniel Sturridge shot was saved. The groans continued.

85 – An Oscar shot from distance was parried, unconvincingly, by Lindegaard.

The Manchester United contingent were now sensing victory and another 3-2 triumph.

“Can we play you every week?” they taunted.

Oh, how I wanted to ram that down their throats.

87 – I turned to Alan and Tom and reluctantly admitted “we won’t win this, lads.”

Three minutes of extra time were signalled. The game played on. The minutes passed.

93 – I saw the referee twice put the whistle to his mouth. On the second occasion, Alan and Tom were leaving their seats.

“See you Saturday, pal.”

To be honest, I thought the referee had whistled.

“Oh, he’s not blown.”

The ball was worked inside the box and it found Ramires on the edge. A push in the back and the referee, bless him, pointed straight at the spot. I turned around and screamed, clenching my fists tightly. Who should be staring straight at me but 75 year old Tom, screaming away, looking me right in the eyes, with a face that Edvard Munch would have been proud to paint.

Euphoria.

The game was surely no more than five seconds away from its completion. The fans who had been leaving suddenly sat on any available seat. This time it was Eden Hazard who decided to take a shot from the penalty spot.

We waited.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!

Oh my. What a game. The place was rocking. I turned to Tom and said “that was more than three minutes.”

Tom, the quiet pensioner, smiled at me and, quite out of nature, barked back –

“I don’t give a fcuk!”

I had to laugh.

The period of extra-time began.

“No early night tonight, Dodge.”

“No, Mush.”

3 – For the second time, Sturridge shot from a ridiculously acute angle. If that lad was half as good as he thought he was, we’d be in business.

7 – I was lamenting Eden Hazard’s poorly directed long ball and looked away, only for the roars of the crowd to tell me that Studge had pounced on a loose ball. We stood as one as he calmly rounded the ‘keeper in front of the away fans and slotted the ball in. The ball rolled in and Stamford Bridge exploded.

For Sturridge, the “City reject”, this must have been oh-so sweet,

10 – Luiz and Nani were booked after an ugly altercation down below me. We responded with the funniest song of the night.

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

12 – Gary Cahill headed a whisker wide of the unguarded far post. The United fans were now quiet, their banners limp.

14 – A foul on Sturridge by the last man just outside the box had us all howling again. Why not a red? From the free-kick, David Luiz rattled the bar and United’s spirits.

What a game. Breathless stuff. The three substitutes had given new life, extra spirit, to the team. Oscar was simply exceptional.

Tom said “I have to keep lookin’ up to the scoreboard to remind me of the score.” It was the same for me during that equally crazy 4-4 with Liverpool in 2009.

19 – Daniel Sturridge twice shot over from similar angles within a minute.

21 – Studge played in the continually excellent Moses, but his effort was saved when it looked easier to score.

26 – The ball broke to Eden Hazard breaking clear. We all rose as one as he advanced. I raised my camera to capture his dribble deep into the United half. He stopped and spun, then dinked the ball into the path of Ramires. He drew the ‘keeper, then waltzed past him before angling a shot low into the goal.

FIVE-THREE.

Rather belatedly, Alan grabbed me and said –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

Laughing, I replied “COME ON MY LITTLE DIAMONDS!”

30 – At the other end, Azpilicueta pushed into a United player and Ryan Giggs, the aging talisman, stroked the ball in from the penalty.

5-4. Bloody hell.

31 – Hazard raced away and almost made it 6-3, but he shot wide. The look on Roger the Dodger’s face was a picture.

Before the match, during the long drive to London, Roger asked me to name my favourite ever game. An easy answer would be those three games from 1997, 2005 and 2012, but he really meant “the most entertaining game.” I cited the 4-2 game with Barcelona in 2005, whereas Roger went with a 4-3 win over Tottenham in 1994. As we left the stadium, I asked him if this game might even topple that one.

The two sets of supporters mixed on Fulham Road, but there was a heavy police presence. The Chelsea fans were exultant. We were buzzing. As Roger and I walked away from the ground, we could hardly contain ourselves. It had been a fantastic night of football. The last three Chelsea vs. United games at Stamford Bridge, all in 2012, had produced no fewer than twenty goals.

My mate Glenn, watching in a pub full of United diehards back home in Frome, soon texted the news of the quarter finals.

“Leeds away.”

I quickly decided that this would be one game too far for me. I just don’t have enough spare holiday left. No big deal. Elland Road on a cold winter Wednesday is not going to be one of the most welcoming places in the world.

Roger had to endure even worse weather on the drive back to Chippenham. I felt for him. Our spirits were up though. No bother. He dropped me off at work at 12.30am and I was home at 1am. He had to drive back to Paignton in Devon and it would be a further two hours before he would reach home.

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Tales From A Perfect Sunday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 15 April 2012.

The stakes were high. Chelsea versus Tottenham in the semi-final at Wembley. In our lives as Chelsea supporters, they really do not get much bigger than this. There were sub-plots aplenty for this game, but the simple truth was that revenge and retaliation was in the air. With our dominance over Spurs in the league since 1990, it is hard to believe that there is any revenge left to seek, but scratch the surface and there is plenty.

Let’s talk about the F.A. Cup Final of 1967; the first (and incorrectly dubbed) “Cockney Final” and a 2-1 loss. Of course, none of my friends were present at that one, but the memory is there in our collective psyche. There is 1982; the Quarter Final this time. Chelsea were a struggling second tier team and Spurs were the F.A. Cup holders, full of top players and swagger. A Micky Fillery goal gave us hope before the break, but the visitors agonisingly came back to beat us. I remember listening at home to the action on the old BBC Radio Two, staring at the swirls on the living room carpet, living every horrible minute of Spurs’ gut-wrenching come-back. It was as horrible a defeat as I can remember. And then there was 2008 and the Carling Cup Final defeat. This match was horrendous; a Drogba free-kick against the run of play, but then the eventual Spurs comeback and a 2-1 loss. Spurs out-sung us completely on the day; and it is that memory that haunts me. I actually hated vast swathes of our support on that Sunday afternoon. It left me wondering about my connection with the club, the fans, the whole nine yards.

How can I support the same team as so many Chelsea supporters who simply don’t live by the same rules?

I was up early – just after 7am. The sun was out, there was a slight frost. There was an incredible air of anticipation.

This seemed like the F.A. Cup final itself.

I collected Young Jake and then Lord Parkins by 10.30am. Stiff Little Fingers were the band of choice on the drive to London. The volume was cranked up and the raucous rasp of Jake Burns was knocking the cobwebs out of our bodies. I saw SLF in Bristol a few weeks back; still churning out the post-punk tunes of yesteryear, still tugging at my heartstrings, still taking me back to my youth. Songs about teenage angst, songs of rebellion, songs to make your blood bump. There was every danger that my vocal chords would be ruined even before I reached London, let alone Wembley. The words to “Roots, Radicals, Rockers And Reggae” were yelled at the passing traffic on the M4 –

“I said don’t fight against no colour, class nor creed.
For on discrimination does violence breed.”

“Equal rights and justice for one and all.
Cos only through liberty freedom shall form.”

I wondered if the Stiff Little Fingers’ mantra could be suspended for a few hours as we renewed hostilities with Tottenham.

We safely parked near The Lillee Langtry at West Brompton and caught the tube to Edgware Road. We reached The Duke Of York at about 1.30pm and a few of the lads were already there. We stayed three hours. We have been frequenting this corner pub since that Carling Cup game in 2008 (the defeat obviously didn’t deter us) and we usually sit outside, soaking up the sun’s rays. On this occasion, we were all inside; there was a bitter chill to the air. I limited myself to two pints of Kronenburg and found it hard going. I have driven to all but one of the games this season and I had reached frustration point; I longed to be able to free the shackles and dive in to more lagers, but knew I had to limit my intake. The F.A. had set the 6pm kick-off time and I had a long night ahead. As the others gulped their lagers, I sipped mine.

The chat swirled around me and more mates arrived. We talked briefly, and fitfully, about the game. There wasn’t a mood of optimism in the camp. Ed was realistic; the game could swing either way. Rick Glanvil, the respected club historian, briefly appeared and mentioned that a couple of Spurs mates were equally sombre about the game. This was reassuring; it reminded us that they hadn’t been performing as well as earlier in their season. Daryl mentioned that Tottenham had lost their last five F.A. Cup semi-finals and this brought a further moment of cheer. However, we spoke about the Barcelona game too; there was not a glimmer of hope for that one. We all knew it. We’re not stupid.

We set off at 4.30pm and caught the 4.55pm train at Marylebone. The train was packed with Chelsea, arriving from the south, and the carriage was soon rocking with noise.

I had a few moments to myself outside the stadium. The skies were clear and the sun lit up the shining steel of the stadium. I walked around to the front, underneath the Sir Bobby Moore statue. I took the inevitable batch of photographs of the glinting steel arch which dominates the surroundings. The Chelsea and Tottenham fans were boisterously walking up towards the stadium from the Wembley Park tube station to the north. This was our tenth visit to the new Wembley and we were allocated the east end for only the third time; again memories of 2008.

I ascended the elevators and was met with a packed concourse doing “The Bouncy” amid a sea of beer. We had seats behind the goal, just two rows from the rear. The stadium took an age to fill up, but what a sight it was. The tiers rose up to the sky and the pitch seemed ridiculously small. The new Wembley lacks something though; I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it just lacks charm.

To my right; Parky, Milo, Simon, Rob, Daryl, Ed, Alan and Gal.

The tickets only cost £30 – no complaints there.

To my left were Steve and Darren Mantle. Mick the Autograph King was in the row in front.

As the kick-off time approached, I surveyed the scene. To my annoyance and embarrassment, it was clear that we hadn’t sold all of our tickets. A large block of around 300 were completely empty down to my left. There were odd areas dotted around the Chelsea section unused. This sickened me.

Again, I conjured up thoughts about our size as a club. Steve and I chatted about Chelsea and Spurs. When I was growing up, Arsenal and Spurs were the two biggest clubs in London. Despite our in-roads of late, I would still contend that Arsenal have the biggest fan base of all the London teams. Whereas I think that Chelsea have a bigger global name than Spurs (we have ridden the internet at a key time), I still think that Chelsea lag behind Spurs in the south-east. The evidence in front of me could not be ignored.

I received an email recently from the club asking about my opinions about a few topics, but the questions were quite clearly hinting at our thoughts about a move to a new stadium. What a surprise. Well, I fully expect that the club will announce shortly that – “following a random sample of season-ticket holders and members” – the majority of Chelsea fans back a move to a new 60,000 stadium. Excuse my cynicism, but that would be a nimble piece of marketing by Chelsea, pushing through more propaganda in their desire to “up sticks” from our beloved stadium. Well, I will say one thing; it is a shame that more of the same fans couldn’t be bothered to fill 31,500 seats at Wembley.

Not many Spurs flags. More Chelsea ones.

Dare I mention the silence for the Hillsborough victims?

Notwithstanding Liverpool’s wish to avoid playing on the 23rd. anniversary of Hillsborough which then forced the F.A. to schedule us at a ludicrous time on the Sunday before a CL semi-final against the best team on the planet…notwithstanding all that…there was simply no reason for a few fools to besmirch the memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives all those years ago.

I glowered at two imbeciles in the row behind me, faces contorted with drunken rage, shouting obscenities.

Now is not the time to write about the events of that horrific day in Sheffield in 1989 – and Liverpool fans were not without blame – but it truly saddened me that a minority of Chelsea fans behaved in such a way in 2012.

Jose Bosingwa in. Didier Drogba in. Mikel in.

Let’s go.

The first-half was played out in front of a fading sun, with Chelsea only occasionally breaking into strong positions. A few players were soon the target of a few mates’ ire. Gary is not backward in coming forward in moments like these and his caustic comments brought a mixture of anger and mirth to the occasion –

“Fcuking ‘ell Kalou – your boots are worth more than you are.”

Of the two sets of fans, Spurs seemed more audible, though not up to their 2008 levels. The dirge-like “Oh When The Spurs” echoed around the west end, but we couldn’t respond. Our little group of mates, ably supported by a few others in the vicinity, tried our damnedest to get things moving, but we were met with opposition.

There were only a few chances in the first quarter for both teams. We were sounding each other out. I feared Modric, but also the pace of Bale and Lennon. Drogba was booked for a senseless challenge and I wondered if we would rue this later. Kalou broke on the left before playing in Juan Mata, but his weak effort was easily saved by Carlo Cudicini, the much-loved former Blue.

A Van der Vaart header was cleared off the line by John Terry down below us. In a nervy few minutes, Spurs ought to have gone ahead when a Van der Vaart ball towards the lurking Adebayor bounced up and rebounded off the far upright. Cech was beaten. Had Adebayor reached the ball, we would have been behind.

The Chelsea end eventually warmed up and our little gang of rebel-rousers initiated a “Carefree” which rolled around the upper tier; good work, boys.

With half-time approaching, the ball was played up to the previously subdued Didier Drogba in a central position. In a piece of classic Drogba action, he spun the ball past William Gallas and pushed the ball to his left. He unleashed a devastating shot past Carlo and the net rippled, sending us into a state of euphoria. Only Drogba could do that. How he loves Wembley. How we celebrated.

Miraculously, we were winning. Good old Chelsea.

More “Bouncy Bouncy” in the concourse at the break, but I wondered why the same fans felt so inhibited inside the stadium.

The second-half began with a flurry of Chelsea chances. Juan Mata soon forced a superb save from Carlo Cudicini and the ‘keeper parried a Luiz header from the corner which followed. There then followed a moment of infamy which will be talked about for ages. The ball bounced back towards Juan Mata who prodded the ball towards goal. The ball seemed to hit a cluster of players on the line and before any of us reacted, Mata celebrated and the referee was running back towards the centre-circle. I quickly glanced towards the linesman, but his flag was not raised.

Goal.

More manic pandemonium in the upper east end. Oh you beauty. We could hardly believe this. I noted that more than a handful of Chelsea fans, enjoying half-time refreshments, had missed this goal; fools.

Within what seemed like a few moments, Spurs had pulled a goal back. A ball from Scott Parker, the scowling former Chelsea midfielder, played in Adebayor. A clumsy challenge from Petr Cech but the ball rolled out to Bale who neatly turned the ball in to the empty net. The west end roared; that was more like it Chelsea, things were going too bloody well.

Unfortunately, David Luiz, who had been reasonable, had been injured during his attempt to block and was sadly stretchered off. Gary Cahill replaced him. Chelsea then enjoyed lots of the ball, moving the ball very well and keeping possession.

“That’s it boys, tire the fcukers out.”

The midfield were great – pass, pass, pass. We stretched them out if we could, Ramires especially doing well. Cahill did ever so well to track back and put in a sublime tackle on the raiding Bale. This was clearly a great game now. I watched on with a nervous resilience.

Juan Mata spotted Ramires’ fine run and, as Carlo advanced, the little Brazilian dinked a gorgeous chip over the advancing Number 23. The ball dropped in to the goal and bodies all around me were flying everywhere.

Get in!

Soon after, Gallas (yes, him) fouled his nemesis Drogba and Frank Lampard placed the ball. From my viewpoint, the distance seemed too far for a shot on goal, but I had my camera at the ready in any case. Surely he wouldn’t go for goal?

Frank took a swipe.

Snap.

The ball flew past Carlo and we were 4-1 up.

Yes, 4-1.

More mayhem.

Thousands of Spurs fans left en masse and I couldn’t resist taking many photographs of this perfect picture postcard scene; the scoreboard plainly stated Tottenham 1 Chelsea 4, the setting sun was disappearing behind the upper reaches of the west end and with it, Spurs season. The west end turned red.

We were roaring now…”Your support is – well, you know…”

Florent Malouda and then Fernando Torres came on as late substitutions and more chances appeared as we caught Spurs flat-footed at the back again. In the fourth minute of extra-time, with the Spurs support down to around 2,000, further joy. That man Mata, below his best these past few weeks, clipped the ball through for the onrushing Malouda who calmly stroked the ball below the hapless Cudicini.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Chelsea 5.

It was almost cruel now…

“One di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo, one di Matteo.”

“Who the fuck are Barcelona? Who the fuck are Barcelona?”

We – of course – couldn’t believe it. This was as an unexpected win as I have ever known in over 38 years of attending matches. Before the match if someone had said that the result was going to be 5-1, there is a very strong chance that I may have expected a Spurs win. I was not present at the 6-1 win at 3PL in 1997, so this represented the biggest ever Chelsea win against Tottenham. Oh boy.

We said our goodbyes – “see you Wednesday” – and we joined in the songs on the triumphant walk down the many flights of stairs.

“We won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley – we won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley.”

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There was a definite case of “we don’t believe it” as we exited the stadium, shaking hands and hugging friends, almost delirious with glee. The joy continued as we slowly trudged along Wembley Way. I kept looking behind to see the illuminated arch lighting up the darkening sky. This was a lovely sight, witnessed by myself for the first time – I have not been a fan of new Wembley – but this iconic sight struck a chord.

The clear night sky, beaming Chelsea faces, the cold April evening, the arch towering over all.

Superb.

Parky, Jake and I headed back into town. I was absolutely starving as I hadn’t had anything to eat all day long…we ended up, predictably, at Earls Court where Salvo entertained us with the perfect denouement to the day’s action; an Americano pizza with extra anchovies and a single ice cold Peroni.

I eventually reached home at 12.45am – it had been a magnificent day in London. Easily one of my top ten favourite matches of all time. For Tottenham, it was their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. I joked with Parky on the way home that even though we sing “we hate Tottenham”, I am sure that they hate us more.

Let’s keep it like that.

We now play Liverpool at our second home on Saturday 5th. May – our fourth F.A Cup Final in six seasons.

Tottenham, meanwhile, look wistfully on.

Us.

1994 – Luton Town – won
1996 – Manchester United – lost
1997 – Wimbledon – won
2000 – Newcastle United – won
2002 – Fulham – won
2006 – Liverpool – lost
2007 – Blackburn Rovers – won
2009 – Arsenal – won
2010 – Aston Villa – won
2012 – Tottenham Hotspur – won

Them.

1993 – Arsenal – lost
1995 – Everton – lost
1999 – Newcastle United – lost
2001 – Arsenal – lost
2010 – Portsmouth – lost
2012 – Chelsea – lost

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Tales From 1981 And 2011

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 14 August 2011.

It had been a strange week. The riots which began in Tottenham and then swept through various locations in the nation’s capital, and beyond, threatened to put the 2011-2012 season on hold. Thankfully, the decision to “Carry On And Keep Playing Footy” came through on Thursday.

Good. Let’s try and get back to normal. There’s nothing like a trip to football to help put the grim realities of life to one side.

But it got me thinking…riots, summertime, football. It got me focussing on 1981, the last time that similar riots ripped through our green and pleasant land.

For some reason, I have been thinking quite a lot about 1981 during the last few weeks…perhaps it was just due to the simple 30th. anniversary of my sixteenth summer but I can’t really put a finger on why this should be. I’ve noticed, though, that I have been wistfully remembering extracts from my youth more and more often of late and the clichéd fears of a “mid-life crisis” are never too far from my thoughts. During that summer, inner city riots sprang up throughout England and it was certainly a summer of discontent, even though the Royal Wedding diverted our attention at the end of July. From a footballing perspective, 1981 was a pretty nondescript year for Chelsea Football Club. We were mired in the old Second Division and were going nowhere. However, the first game of the 1981-1982 was a pretty momentous event for me, though. For the very first time, I traveled up to London without my parents for a Chelsea game. I caught a Crown Tours coach up to the capital along with my two mates Kev and Fran. They were off sightseeing, but I was headed for Stamford Bridge. Before the game, I remember being in the old Chelsea Supporters Club shop at 547 Fulham Road (opposite the current tube station entrance) and listening in as an infamous Chelsea skinhead called Lester spoke to a few friends about his involvement in the Toxteth riots in Liverpool that summer.

I took a gulp and thought to myself “blimey, welcome to Chelsea.”

I stood on The Shed for the first ever time for that game with Bolton Wanderers some thirty years ago. Chelsea won 2-0 and we wore that shimmering Le Coq Sportif kit for the first time in a league game. It represented my support for Chelsea going up a notch, moving away from trips with my parents, being more independent, moving on. I would watch Chelsea three more times in that 1981-1982 season. The football wasn’t great, but I enjoyed every second of every minute of the Chelsea experience in that momentous year. And by the end of it, I was wearing that Le Coq Sportif shirt on my first ever date with my first ever girlfriend.

Ah, 1981-1982.

I set off at 9am and as I drove over to collect Parky, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I would be watching Chelsea again within a few hours. I was happy to be back on the treadmill once again, but I was also well aware that my enthusiasm of previous years was just not there. I guess this can be put down to the passing of time. I also knew that, come September, with the league season well underway, there would be a moment when I would think “OK. This Is The Moment. I’m Ready.” To be honest, for someone who prides themselves on being pretty clued-up on all things Chelsea, I have felt more and more adrift of all of the rumours and hoopla which has surrounded the club over the summer. There seems to be an infinite array of papers, magazines, websites, chat rooms, phone-ins and the like these days. It’s simply too much. Information overload. I can’t keep up. I have an image of myself as a cartoon character desperately attempting to hang on to the side of a ship, but gallantly failing, nails clawing against the steel, that horrible high-pitched screech. I felt myself plunge into the deep, unable to keep up with a Modric transfer rumour or the latest tweet from cyberspace.

As I slowly approached Parky’s house, I had to slam on my brakes to avoid a black cat.

I wondered if some good luck was on the cards.

With Parky collected, we drove north on the familiar route up to my former college city of Stoke-On-Trent.

This would only be Chelsea’s eleventh away game in those thirty opening games since that 1981-1982 season. It certainly felt strange to be heading to an away fixture. An opening day usually meant a sweltering time in The Goose and a sun-drenched afternoon at The Bridge. And usually a win. Our last opening day defeat was way back in 1998 when we lost at Coventry. Marcel Desailly still has nightmares from that day. Our last away game opener was in 2005 when Crespo scored that winner in the last minute…and we never looked back on our march to our back-to-back championship. Happy memories. Was it really six years ago? Where does the time go?

An away game at Stoke would not be easy. However, our last league defeat in The Potteries was way back in the mid-‘seventies, in the days when prawn cocktail, gammon and chips and arctic rolls were considered the height of culinary sophistication in suburban England.

We were parked-up outside the Britannia Stadium at 12.15pm and we were soon walking up the hill towards the shiny new stands. There were immediate thoughts of our visit only a few months earlier, when we had sadly heard that United had come back from 2-0 to win 4-2 at Blackburn on that same walk to the Stoke stadium.

With every season, the memories overlap and intertwine.

Handshakes with Alan and Gary who were waiting for us to arrive.

“Alright, boys?”

We were soon inside the stadium, through the turnstiles – click, click, click – and into the melee of a Chelsea pre-match at Stoke City. We gulped down a lager and stood in a corner, catching up with each other, talk of the summer, of Kuala Lumpur, of Bangkok, of Glasgow. A few friends called by. It didn’t take long for it to start.

“One Man Went To Mow”.

The bar area underneath the terraces started to reverberate to the sound of 300 Chelsea fans singing and clapping, clapping and singing. And it didn’t take long for the beer to start to be thrown. Luckily, we were well clear, but the spray was visible to our right. It’s a bit of a tradition at Stoke – the pre-match Chelsea beer party. A few other songs were aired…”Carefree” and “The Bouncy.” And then, the asinine “Chelsea – Hooligans, Chelsea – Hooligans” chant. Alan and I rolled our eyes and grumbled. Of all the Chelsea match day chants, this surely has to be the most pathetic.

We made our way into the seats at about 1.20pm and I soon realised that I hadn’t yet heard the team announced. We had nice seats, a third of the way up, just above the disabled section, behind a wall. I was able to lean on it throughout the match.

Big shock – we were soon to learn that Fernando Torres had got the nod ahead of Didier Drogba. This surprised us all. A few hellos to some friends. Behind me was a chap from Scunthorpe who I last saw in Kuala Lumpur.

The wait was over. The teams entered the pitch.

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In the opening ten minutes, the crowd was lively with the usual exchanges of witty – and other – banter. The home fans really made a bee line for John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. The usual songs deriding our three England Lions. The exact reasoning behind Stoke fans targeting our three English internationals could be the subject of a dissertation all by itself. In addition to stealing the famous Southampton song “Oh When The Reds (Saints) Go Marching In”, the local Stokies also nicked the Manchester United ode to Ryan Giggs –

“Stoke. Stoke Will Tear You Apart, Again.”

The riots were the subject of an (almost) humorous ditty from the home fans, aimed at the travelling three thousand –

“Town full of looters. You’re just a town full of looters.”

It was a frustrating time for us all in that opening period. Stoke did what Stoke do. Balls were launched into the Chelsea penalty time and time again, with Delap’s throw-ins causing us problems. Jones and Walters, scorer of the goal against us last spring, looked in fine form. However, Petr Cech was able to fling himself around with reckless abandon to ensure our goal remained intact. Alex was magnificent in the first half, heading away threat after threat. Torres looked busy and interested, with a shot flying wide early on and an excellent wriggle and shot just before the break. It seemed that all our eyes were on him; we still plead with him to be a success at our club. Ramires, too, had a superb run at the Stoke defence from deep, but his cross-shot drifted well away from the goal. We all thought that John Terry had handled under pressure, but thankfully Mark Halsey waved the penalty claims away. Stoke were always a threat in the first period. Chelsea were much the same as the previous campaign. It seems churlish to expect a massive change in style with the same personnel as last season, but our play was still laboured and slow. I texted a few mates –

“Same old, same old.”

Mikel was holding things together well, though, and he produced the pass of the day with a beautifully weighted cross field pass to the left wing. More of the same please.

The atmosphere was pretty subdued really. These 1.30pm kick-offs are horrible in that respect with not enough time to oil the vocal chords.

At half-time, a chance to reflect. Kalou was poor and Lampard quiet. The Chelsea crowd were not getting on anyone’s back, but there was no over-riding feeling of us turning the corner. Andre Villas-Boas, now wearing the club suit and looking more the manager than when he simply wore an Adidas tracksuit, was animated on the touchline and I admired his passion. The Chelsea choir were still working on that first AVB chant. I am sure it will come eventually. Alan, Gary and I had a quick chat with Mark at half-time and there was talk of gigs in October to see Stiff Little Fingers and Sham 69 within the space of a few days.

Ah, chasing my youth again.

We began the second period far more brightly and a lovely shimmy and run from Ramires set the scene for the next forty-five minutes. I got out of my seat for the first time to applaud a lovely move which involved Bosingwa winning a tackle, playing a ball to Torres and then on to Florent Malouda. The counter attack used to be our killer move, but this one soon broke down in the final third. As the half progressed, we all got more and more animated with every Chelsea attack…and every poor refereeing decision. The trip on Lampard brought torrents of heated abuse raining down on Mark Halsey and even the Stoke fans turned on him after a few decisions went our way. The dislike of the referee acted as a catalyst for a noisy period in the stands.

Begovic flicked a dipping effort from Mikel over the bar and the atmosphere grew more intense. While Delap was receiving treatment, the Stoke and Chelsea fans enacted a battle royal of club songs.

Delilah versus Carefree and the place was rocking.

I was chatting on and off to a bloke to my right, who was watching with his young daughter. We spoke, in pained tones, about Lampard’s quiet performance and I grimaced when I said “to be honest, his legs have gone and I think his demise could be quite sudden, if he can’t change his game.” Frank often just plays the simple ball these days and his bursts from deep are getting more and more infrequent.

Nicolas Anelka came on as a substitute for Malouda and his trademark dribbles and turns were causing the Stoke defence to cover new angles. A delightful chip was magnificently flicked on to the bar by Begovic and we groaned three thousand groans. Torres was still looking busy and keen and his perfect cross fell to Kalou, but his week header was easy for the Stoke ‘keeper. If only Drogba had been there. Soon after – but too late! – Drogba replaced the lacklustre Kalou and the away end erupted with pleasure. For a while, our attack consisted of Drogba, Anelka and Torres and I bet Jose Mourinho was thinking –

“Villas-Boas…what are you doing?”

However, apart from two identical free-kicks from Didier, our threat diminished. Benayoun replaced Torres with five minutes to go and then struggled to get in the game. A couple of Stoke half-chances came to nothing and the final whistle was met with polite applause. There were differing views around me as I made my way to the exits. It was always going to be a tough game. The players looked frustrated and as I took a few photographs of the boys, I noted that the manager headed straight towards the tunnel, his head full of thoughts and ideas. We didn’t sing his name – still working out that song – and he didn’t clap us. So be it…so be it.

His time – and our time – will come.

As we blended in with the home fans on the slow traipse back to the car, a Stokie addressed a lone Chelsea fan and his comment made me chuckle –

“Cheer up, duck. I think you’ll stay up.”

It took me less than three minutes to race from my parking place on the grass verge to the M6. Stoke is now officially the easiest place to park for a game. On the drive south, we avoided listening to the United game (we drove within a mile of their game at The Hawthorns) and listened to some music from our youth once more.

The song of the trip home was Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” and it was a typical return trip home from a game, full of junk food, beer for Parky, coffees for me, memories of past Chelsea games and plans for the next one. We listened to “606” for a while, but having to listen to Joey Barton talk to Robbie Savage seemed to be particularly brutal. We soon switched it off and went back to the music. I was soon back at Parky’s village. It had been a fine day out in The Potteries, but we were both rueful of the fact that it was simply a case of “drive-game-home.” We were glad that not every away game would be the same. We both enjoy sampling the delights of all the away cities we visit and Stoke 2011 didn’t have the depth of memories as previous visits. I didn’t even get to buy a “Wrights Pie” FFS!

“See you on Saturday, mate.”

It was only after I had dropped Parky off that I put the radio on and discovered that United had won.

Oh well. They will be the team to beat again this season.

I watched the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” and was invigorated when I saw the praise being heaped on Fernando Torres. Let’s hope that he continues to improve and that we get off to a good start in our home opener against The Baggies.

6-0 last season, wasn’t it?

Let’s do it again.

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