Tales From Saturday Three O’Clock

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 12 August 2017.

On the train back to Marylebone Station last Sunday after our frustrating defeat at Wembley, I summed-up the importance of our opening game of the league campaign.

“Well, we have to win next week. Burnley at home. We have to do it. It’s a must-win. We’ll be OK. We’ll be back on track.”

Throughout the week, the lack of more signings by the club provided an increasingly noisy back-drop as some supporters grew increasingly stressed. Before a ball was kicked in anger, we were a club in crisis. I had to keep reminding myself that – while admitting our squad continued to look rather threadbare – there was still more than a fortnight left of the transfer window. On the drive up to London, we chatted about the rumours and counter-rumours. We discussed thoughts about what the first starting-eleven of the season would be. We wondered if Alvaro Morata would start. If so, would he start out wide?

But this was opening day, and although of course the up-coming football match dominated our thoughts, more than anything the day was about getting back in to the groove and, most importantly, meeting mates, drinking and moaning as a certain Nutty Boy once said.

Prior to meeting up with the chaps, I had to run around and sort out match tickets for the Burnley match and the Tottenham away game too. On my travels, I quickly popped in to the re-vamped megastore. It is certainly more spacious now, but I have heard fellow fans report that Nike have certainly got a stranglehold on merchandise, with little else on sale. I didn’t head upstairs to see the full range of stuff on show, so can’t fully comment, but the ground floor certainly lacked the usual variety of items. I’ve commented how much I admire the new home kit. Some people have commented that it is just lucky that an existing Nike template happens to evoke memories of our early 1970’s heritage. But, regardless, it fills the bill for me. The new tagline “We Are The Pride” was plastered on the megastore window. I wondered what other slogans were waiting for us inside the stadium.

Not everyone has been complimentary about our choice of kit supplier. After a decade with Adidas – sorry, adidas – I think it was time for a change. Everyone admires Adidas trainers, but some of their Chelsea kits have failed to impress me. Getting Nike on board at Chelsea takes me back to the heady days of casualdom in around 1984, and I have to say that my abiding memory of the benches – often representing a catwalk on most match days – was that Nike trainers were the trainer of choice for many. My memory of 1983/84 was of Nike Wimbledons – blue swoosh, obviously – as the most popular trainer at Chelsea. My first trainer was a Nike Wimbledon Supreme – £24.99 from Olympus Sports in Bath if I am not mistaken – and I always got the impression that Londoners favoured Nike more than northerners, who were more into Adidas. Just a personal memory. I might be wrong. It might have been that Adidas were a brand that I had grown up with and so those trainers didn’t register as much as the newer brands such as Nike, Diadora or, to a lesser extent, Puma. Anyway, fuck it, there’s my customary mention of 1983/84 out of the way.

Our pub of choice for opening day 2017 was “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. I had met my friend Lynda, from New Jersey, who I last saw during the US tour two summers ago, down at the stadium. In the pub was Kev, on a fly-in and fly-out visit from his home in Edinburgh. He had left his house at 4.15am in the morning and was catching the 10pm back “up the road” from Gatwick later that night. Much respect to him for this long and tiring day in support of The Great Unpredictables.

Later, outside the West Stand, I overheard a Chelsea supporter say that he was flying in and out on the day from his home in Spain. Respect to him too.

To be honest, it was a joy to get the season off and running with a standard “Saturday Three O’Clock” kick-off. This would certainly help to reset our clocks correctly. This would be my forty-fifth season of attending Chelsea games and although I have missed a few opening games over the years, there is nothing quite like it. With a whole season spread out in front of us – with hopefully a few Euro aways to plan and relish – it was lovely to hear the boys’ laughter boom around the spacious boozer. It helped that Watford were putting on a good show against Liverpool on the televised game. I am lucky to have a fine set of Chelsea mates.

Soon in to the summer break, we had met up to pay our respects to Alan’s mother who had sadly passed away in May. On a sunny morning in South London, our little band of brothers had assembled to support Alan, and it was an honour to attend his mother’s funeral. His lovely mother was a Chelsea supporter of course. The club got a mention on more than a few occasions in the minister’s eulogy.

At a local pub, afterwards, Daryl and myself had a couple of moments discussing how our experiences supporting the club have enriched our lives in so many ways. On a small, but vitally important scale, it has provided a tight and reliable network of friends who can be relied upon, and which succors and comforts each other when needed. Sometime, this can be with a subtle and a – typically English – understated shake of a hand or the slightest of exchanges, or at other times in more obvious show of friendship. We may not all agree on everything, inside or outside of football, but our love of the club binds us in ways that I find staggering. On the pitch, the club has brought us moments of huge joy. Too many to mention. So much success. There have been truly stunning games at Stamford Bridge, at Wembley old and new, at Stockholm, at Bolton, at Munich, at Amsterdam, at West Brom. And it has allowed us to travel to a seemingly never-ending array of exotic locations throughout Europe and beyond.

And although I dislike the chant of the same name, we both agreed that we had “won it all.”

In a moment of clarity among everything, we came to the conclusion that if Chelsea Football Club were to win nothing for the next twenty-six years (1971 to 1997, cough, cough), we really could not complain. And we genuinely meant it. Let us not forget that we have enjoyed riches beyond our wildest dreams over the past twenty years.

1997       FA Cup

1998       ECWC, League Cup, Super Cup

2000       FA Cup

2005       League, League Cup

2006       League

2007      FA Cup, League Cup

2009       FA Cup

2010       League, FA Cup

2012       European Cup, FA Cup

2013       Europa Cup

2015       League, League Cup

2017       League

Nineteen trophies in twenty years. Fackinell.

And as the month of May gave way to June and July, and as I thought hard about the club, my mates, and the entire football experience, I wondered if I have stumbled into a latest phase of personal Chelsea support.

Let me explain.

If my childhood, up to the age of 16, say, could be classed as the first phase – my formative years, besotted with the club, but with limited access to games – and from 16 to 30 as the next phase – my support building, home and away games in England, my network of Chelsea fans increasing , but with no trophies – and if from the age of 30 to 50 could be classed, you will love this, as “The Golden Age” – European travel, trophies, a new stadium, travel to North America and Asia, Munich – then maybe this new phase will equates to some sort of chilled-out alternative post-modern era of a more relaxed level of support. I’m fifty-two now. I can’t be an angry young man for ever, can I? I think my passion is still there, but maybe it is starting to wane. Or, more importantly, my reasons for attending so many Chelsea games has changed imperceptibly. Maybe, below the surface, all of the nonsense linked to modern day football is slowly eroding my love of the game in general. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring? Will there be another Munich? If not, will it matter? At this stage, at this moment, I’d suggest not. Just being able to go to football, for me, might prove to be enough. Many are denied this privilege. But I am aware of how the successes of the past two decades has affected my general mood and attitude. And I know that I am not alone with these thoughts.

That said, the memory of myself jumping around like a loon when Michy Batshuayi toe-poked Dave’s cross past Ben Foster at The Hawthorns last season has proved to me that my passion will last a long time yet.

We caught the tube down to Stamford Bridge. Parky, bless him, had gone through an operation on his left foot on the Tuesday and his mobility was limited. The short journey brought back lovely memories of my visits to Chelsea in those formative years, when I used to peak out of the tube train at the litter strewn grass which abutted the old and rambling North Stand terrace. A single glimpse at that huge floodlight pylon base in the north-west corner certainly used to get my pulses racing.

The team news came through.

Courtois

Cahill – Luiz – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Fabregas – Azpilcueta

Boga – Batshuayi – Willian

The tube trip had only lasted a quarter of an hour. The sun was out. It was a leisurely walk out of the Fulham Broadway station – for the first time for some of us, we usually walk from various pubs – and Stamford Bridge was beckoning us.

Burnley had only brought 1,400 or so. Before we knew it, the teams were walking out, accompanied by the now annoying bursts of flames in front of the East Stand.

Just. Give. Me. The. Football.

The Herberts in the top tier of The Shed unravelled an Italian flag and an English flag either side of a “Forza Conte” banner.

Season 2017/18 began.

At intermittent intervals along various balconies, slogans were noted.

“We Are Blue.”

“We Are Chelsea.”

“We Are London.”

“We Are Everywhere.”

Two massive banners were draped on the Bates Motel.

“From The World” – featuring players from Belgium, France, England and Brazil against a backdrop of most of the countries of the globe

“We Are Chelsea – featuring – very oddly – Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand, so to complete the total global coverage. File under “trying too hard.”

We get the message. Surprisingly, the Nike swoosh was not splattered on every square inch of royal blue.

But the new kit looked perfect.

There were no complaints with the first few moments of the new campaign. Rudiger was soon involved and looked neat. A Burnley attack ended with a header which Courtois easily saved. The support did not really get too involved; not to worry, this was the first game of the season, we would hopefully soon warm up.

After a quarter of an hour, we warmed up alright. Gary Cahill ran with the ball, but ended up chasing it as his touch let him down. A lunge at a Burnley defender ended up with howls of protest from the visitors, and without any deliberation a red card was brandished. This moment of play took place down the other end. I was, therefore, not particularly well-sighted. But of course, it goes without saying, the fans around me were furious. It has to be said that there was hardly a Chelsea player protesting. That said it all.

Gary Cahill, his first league game as bona fide captain in his own right, sheepishly walked off.

Ten minutes later, a cross from the Burnley right picked out Sam Vokes. His jump and volley caught us unawares. If anything, the ball was either scuffed, or took a deflection off the leg of Luiz. Either way, the ball spun towards the goal, with Thibaut scrambling in vain.

At the time, it seemed Courtois had moved late.

Chelsea 0 Burnley 1.

The away fans made some noise.

“Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee.”

A goal down and with ten men, our championship defence was rocking. There were heated words between Thibaut and David when Courtois chose not to come for a high ball. The confrontation, thankfully, ended with a hug. But we were clearly and undeniably rattled. We struggled to put any worthwhile moves together. Only Willian showed any creativity. The noise floundered too.

I do not get any ounce of joy in reporting that Batshuayi was a huge disappointment. His ball retention – big moments for him, the whole world watching – was abysmal. Of course I do not know if he was told to stay central by the management, but his movement was non-existent. On too many occasions, he was stuck in front of the goal, immobile, rather than varying it. Not once was he lined up on the back stick, waiting for a cross, with the whole goal in his sights. Surely a big striker needs to attack crosses from wider positions. He looked half the player that I had seen in Beijing.

On thirty-nine minutes, a move developed down our right and the previously combative N’Golo Kante lost the raiding movement of Stephen Ward, who lashed a ball past Courtois from an angle.

Bloody hell, we were 2-0 down.

To my left, unbelievably, a section of the MHU began chanting “Diego.”

To my pleasure, a much louder chant of “Chelsea” drowned it out.

A few minutes later, we conceded yet again. A deep cross from the Burnley right dropped on to the head of Vokes, with our defence split. According to the banner at The Shed End, “we are everywhere” but Luiz and Christensen were nowhere near the fucking ball. Of the three goals, this was the bitterest pill to swallow. Our defensive frailties from previous years came home to haunt us. Hundreds rose from their seats, and I hoped it was for a half-time beer rather than a tube or bus home.

Luiz grew frustrated – with his own form possibly – and was lucky to not get booked for remonstrating with referee Craig Pawson.

There were boos in our section at the half-time whistle and although I am sure that some were directed at the referee, I know our support only too well. I am convinced that a large percentage was aimed at the players. There is a season-ticket holder who sits nearby who is always the first to boo at such occasions and I made a point of looking at him, as a marker for the mood of the moment. His scowling face – which resembles a cat’s arse at the best of times – was to be seen booing the team. I am absolutely sure of it.

Prick.

It had been, quite possibly, the worst display of defending I had seen at Stamford Bridge in a single half since my first game in 1974.

There were echoes, too, of Arsenal away last season.

“At this bloody rate, I’ll take 0-3 at full-time.”

I clearly expected a tough old second-half, though in the concourse at the interval I was full of – ridiculous – optimism.

“We’re about to see the greatest comeback ever. We’re going down to nine men, but we’ll still bloody win.”

Not long into the second-half, a long-range effort from Marcos Alonso brought a magnificent save from Heaton. To be fair, it was all Chelsea now, despite the numerical disadvantage. Batshuayi, still frustrating us all, was replaced on the hour by Alvaro Morata. Within minutes, he was chasing a ball down the channel and stretching the Burnley defence. A quick snapshot was fired over, but the intent was there. Alonso, from a free-kick, then drew another fine save from Heaton. The impetus was with us.

“Just one goal” I pleaded.

The tackles crashed in on Chelsea players, and the noise in the stadium increased. The referee was clearly public enemy number one. Thankfully, to everyone’s credit, hardly anyone had left the stadium. After only ten minutes on the pitch, Morata threw himself at a magnificent Willian cross and headed home. It had been that trademark “wriggle, move, cross” from Willian, and the ball was right on the money. Morata gathered the ball from the net, and roared. Bollocks to all of that “Number Nine Shirt Jinx” shite.

The noise level increased further.

Just after, Willian fed in the run of Christensen and his low angled shot had beaten Heaten, and was going in, but the goal-poaching instincts of Morata worked against us. I was already up and celebrating, but noticed the raised flag on the far side.

Offside. Bollocks.

N’Golo – along with Willian, our best performer – slammed a shot narrowly wide. Luiz seemed to have no end of efforts. The momentum was with us for sure. We kept moving the ball around, trying to expose gaps.

“Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea.”

With ten minutes to go, a loose challenge by Fabregas resulted in a second yellow. Another red. Bollocks. His first yellow had been for a silly reaction to a free-kick given against him; clapping the referee is never wise. He looked dejected, as we did.

Down to nine men. I wondered if my half-time prediction might be right.

Throughout the resurgent second-half, the Stamford Bridge crowd often rallied loudly behind the manager :

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

A shot from Morata produced another save. Then, with just two minutes remaining, a lofted ball was beautifully headed on by that man Morata and dropped perfectly for David Luiz to slam home.

Chelsea 2 Burnley 3

What a comeback. The crowd upped the volume further.

Four minutes of extra-time were signalled.

In virtually Burnley’s only effort on goal in the entire second period, Brady struck a post from a free-kick right on the edge of our box.

We attacked and attacked – Charly Musonda replacing the substitute Christensen – but our efforts fell short.

At the final whistle, it seemed that the whole crowd – to a man, woman, child – rose to sing in praise of a thoroughly heart-warming second-half display.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

I was dead proud of my club at that moment in time. Noise in the face of adversity. I loved it.

There was the strangest of feelings, of moods, of atmospheres as we made our way along the Fulham Road, Fulham Broadway and the North End Road. The befuddlement and dismay of the first-half had been almost replaced by pride and appreciation of our second-half performance. In the car, one of Glenn’s mates had texted him to say that there had been – allegedly – disorder within the Chelsea squad due to the way that Diego Costa had been treated, but it seems that there was no evidence to back this up.

“Bloody hell, that performance in the second-half did not look like it was from a team in disarray. It looked like we were playing for each other. Bloody great second-half.”

But, of course, it had been – over the entire game – a humiliating defeat. And Roman does not like humiliation. The defeat might just intensify the search for new signings. It should, ironically, trigger some activity. It might – who knows? – be our “Arsenal 2016” moment of the current season.

Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know – crazy days, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

There was applause.

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

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

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

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

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

I love days like these.

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

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

“Bolasie – go home.”

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

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

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

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

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

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

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

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

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

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

We were purring.

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

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

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

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

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

Quite magical.

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

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

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

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

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

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

They agreed.

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

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

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

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

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

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

And still it continued.

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

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

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

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

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

A perfect ten.

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

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

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From An Evening Of Fireworks And Flags

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 13 February 2016.

It had been a bitterly cold afternoon in SW6. My pre-match had run along pretty typical lines; sorting tickets for future games, meeting up with mates, flitting between Stamford Bridge and the pub. Match day at Chelsea, although so familiar to me, always throws up a nice few surprises. On this occasion, there was a few brief words with Colin Pates and John Bumstead, stalwarts from my youth. I briefly mentioned that I had seen that the two of them had popped in to “The Chelsea Pensioner” after a recent home game, and it was evident that they had clearly enjoyed themselves. Colin, once our captain, laughed as he said “it was 1984 all over again.”

Ah, 1984.

1984 was one of the great Chelsea years, and it straddled two classic seasons. On a day when our old foes Newcastle United were visiting the Fulham Road once again, I didn’t need much persuasion for my mind to travel back to the home game in 1983/1984 against the Geordies when a dribble from Pat Nevin still sends shivers down my spine, and the away game, when five thousand away fans descended on St. James’ Park.

Just recently, I spotted some action from that away game, in March 1984, on “You Tube” and it managed to get me all excited and wistful at the same time. This piece of grainy film, just over a minute in length, brought back some lovely memories. I had no recollection of ever seeing this clip before. It’s wonderful. It includes a fleeting shot of Colin Pates, it includes a wonderful Pat Nevin to Kerry Dixon to David Speedie passage of play which lead to our goal, it includes a magnificent shot of the Pringle-clad Chelsea hordes going mental, it includes a classic back heel from Kevin Keegan setting up Terry McDermott’s equaliser, and it includes a beautiful Peter Beardsley shimmy. What memories from almost thirty-two years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI&app=desktop

In the pub, there was time for a little examination of our current woes. Both Daryl and I concluded that the club, not for the first time in the reign of Abramovich, has no direction. We seem to be a rudderless ship, adrift. We spoke of Allegri and Conte, but of no three or five year plan. We wondered what the future would bring. Mike, from New York, was with us, and the three of us were able to chat briefly about the last time we had been together, in New York, watching the Mets, in the warmth of a June evening.

On the walk back down to Stamford Bridge, I was lamenting my choice of jacket. I had chosen a rain jacket, but there was no rain. I should have opted for something warmer. I was bloody freezing. On a day when I was driving, I had chosen not to drink once again. My pre-match tipples were coffees and “Coke.” How typical that on a day that Singha were providing a free bottle of lager for every fan, I had chosen to stay dry.

I was inside in good time. I was aware that there would be fireworks before the game, so I wanted to be positioned to take a few photographs. I’m not honestly sure what I felt about all this. I normally roll my eyes at this sort of nonsense. It would be the first time that Chelsea would be setting fireworks off before a game, though in the depths of my memory, I recalled a game from 1995 where something similar was planned. For the return leg of our ECWC tie against Bruges, the now defunct Chelsea Independent Supporters Association had asked if they could let off some fireworks from the remains of The Shed, in the days when there was just that temporary stand at the southern end of the stadium, as the players entered the pitch. From memory, the Health & Safety Executive had said “no.” That was a shame, but the atmosphere from that cracking game still ranks as one of the best-ever at Stamford Bridge in my forty-two years of attending matches, despite the crowd being limited to just 28,000.

Neil Barnett announced the team. With Kurt Zouma injured and out, sadly, for months, Gary Cahill was recalled to start alongside John Terry. Fabregas was chosen to start in a deeper role, allowing Willian, Hazard and Pedro to support Diego Costa.

The stadium lights dimmed, and the fireworks flew above both the East and West Stands. In just over five seconds, it had finished. It was hardly November 5th or July 4th.

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The smoke from the fireworks lingered for a while and this added to the sense of coldness and greyness.

Over in the far corner, one and a half thousand Geordies – one flag – were singing the praises of their team. The traditional black and white shirts have been altered to include splodges of light blue this season; heaven knows why.

A fantastic move set us on our way after just four minutes. Willian, on the half-way line, burst away from his marker and raced up field. With Bournemouth Steve and myself urging him to shoot, he continued deep in to the Newcastle half before expertly playing in Diego Costa, who touched the ball past the advancing Newcastle ‘keeper. It was a fine goal.

“Get in.”

Diego raced over to the corner flag, and I snapped away. Such is my vantage point that on many occasions, the flags being brandished in front of the west stand almost appear to wrap themselves around the huddle of players.

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Soon after, we were recreating that scene. A terrible pass from a Newcastle defender was pick-pocketed by Pedro, who advanced on goal alone. His steadied left foot shot was firmly planted inside the waiting goal. More celebrations, more cheers, more flags.

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Newcastle had, to be fair, a few corners to their name, so it was not all one-way traffic, but our attacks were rapier-like and clinical.

Soon after, Diego Costa chased a long ball and my first thoughts were that Coloccini would easily beat our masked raider to the ball. Instead, the floppy haired defender appeared to be treading in quicksand. Diego ably won the race, beat his man, and then played in the onrushing Willian with a ball that dissected the two defenders. His shot was slammed in at the near post. Rather than complete a hat-trick of players wrapped in swirling flags, Willian decided to celebrate in front of the away fans. He went to toon.

Seventeen minutes had passed and we were three-nil up.

Phew.

Immediately I thought back to past games. Newcastle United have been on the receiving end of some horrific score lines over the years at Stamford Bridge. Everyone from my generation focusses on the 4-0 in 1979/1980, the 6-0 in 1980/1981 and the 4-0 in 1983/1984. But from seasons 2002/2003 to 2005/2006 we recorded scores of 3-0, 5-0, 4-0 and 3-0.

I daydreamed of further goals.

To be fair to the travelling away fans, they never stopped singing.

“Newcas-ul, Newcas-ul, Newcas-ul.”

“Is this a library?”

“Three-nil and yez still don’t sing.”

Newcastle were all at sea defensively and Diego Costa came close, and Pedro finished meekly when more likely to score. Only Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey appeared to have any desire and skill within the Newcastle ranks.

Sadly, we were concerned when John Terry was substituted before half-time. We hoped that it was a precautionary measure ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Paris, rather than a real threat. Ivanovic shuffled over to partner Cahill, with Dave playing at right back and the new boy Baba at left back.

Willian went close with a trade-mark free kick, but Elliot scrambled down to save well.

Although it was clear that we were up against a pretty poor team, there was a buoyant mood at the break. Our play was crisp and incisive, with Willian, Pedro and Diego Costa pressing high. Full marks to all. I hoped for further fun in the second-half.

Newcastle United began the stronger in the opening period of the second-half, but a lightning break gave us our fourth goal on the hour. Fabregas was in acres of space. A perfectly weighted high ball dropped sweetly for Pedro, just avoiding the ineffectual challenge of the last man, and he calmly right-footed it past the ‘keeper.

4-0.

Shades of 1980, 1984 and 2004.

Betrand Traore replaced Diego Costa, who received a magnificent reception in acknowledgment of his fine performance. The memory of Costa getting booed by a section of the crowd is a distant memory.

The Newcastle fans kept singing. There was even a small but noticeable round of clapping from the home support acknowledging it. I like the Geordies. A fine footballing race.

Shelvey, clearly frustrated, lashed out and was booked, but he was able to still play a few beautifully architectured balls out to team mates. He has a nice touch despite his thuggish appearance.

Baba seemed to be a little more relaxed, a little more at ease in his own skin. But, of course, it is amazing what a little confidence can do to a team. If only we had enjoyed a few early goals in our opening league game of 2015/2016, perhaps we would be experiencing a quite different season.

A fine low cross from Dave found Traore at the near post, and he swept it in, before racing over to the far corner to celebrate with a leap in front of the fans.

Hazard, slowly getting back to his best, came close, but his effort bobbled wide.

Sadly, Andros Townsend – widely booed for his Tottenham past – messed up the score line with a well taken goal on ninety minutes. Seeing Newcastle score really annoyed me.

I thought to myself…”when they get beaten heavily at Chelsea, they never bloody score.”

5-1 seemed odd. Strange. Out of place.

5-0 would have worked so much better.

It was an enjoyable game, though. It would be churlish of me to hark on about the inadequacies of our opponents. We had played well. I fear for Newcastle United though. I hope they stay up. We go back a long way, the Geordies and little old me. Plus, “Newcastle away” is one of the very best trips still left for us to enjoy.

This was my thirty-ninth game of the season. I have only missed the away game in Kiev. Already this season, there have been eight plane trips, cars, cable cars, trains, tube trains and coaches. It has been a blast. However, I soon decided not to travel to Paris after we were drawn again with PSG, and so I will miss my second game of the season on Tuesday.

My next one will be the Manchester City FA Cup game on Sunday.

Until then, for anyone travelling to Parc des Princes, please stay safe.

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Tales From The Heart Of London

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 29 August 2015.

As is so often the case after the draw for the autumnal group phase of the Champions League, conversations in the beer garden of The Goose before our match with Crystal Palace were centred upon travel plans rather than the upcoming game. In fact, our chats would have been better suited to a conference on budget air travel.

On the Thursday evening, once I had learned of the dates of our games, I quickly booked a flight from Bristol to Porto for our game at the end of September. I made a call to Parky and he soon joined me, happy to be repeating our fantastic excursion to the same country last September.

I then, to my horror, realised that I had booked a 6pm flight from Bristol on an evening when I would still be in Newcastle (after our away game there on 26 September) until 9pm that night.

“Balls.”

I quickly booked myself onto an earlier flight home from Newcastle. Sometimes the clamour to book up European trips can cloud judgements. I escaped, on this occasion, by the skin of my teeth. I get back from Newcastle at 2.15pm and then set off from the same airport four hours later. Those five days following the great unpredictables will be as fun as it gets.

Later on Thursday evening, I persuaded myself that a trip to Tel Aviv would not be as hazardous as I initially thought, and in light of the fact that a good number of friends had already booked flights, I decided to go ahead too.

So, Porto and Tel Aviv adventures to follow.

I can’t wait.

In comparison, a London derby with Crystal Palace seemed rather mundane.

I had travelled up to HQ with a full car load; Parky, PD and Deano were the fellow Chuckle Brothers.

The laughs that we enjoyed in the car continued in the beer garden. Early morning sun gradually faded, and it became comfortably cooler.

After a particularly stressful week at work, it was time to chill.

British summer time, lagers and lime.

The news eventually broke through that the team chosen by Jose Mourinho was the same starting eleven as at West Brom, save for the enforced change in central defence which meant that we were playing with Gary Cahill and King Kurt in the middle.

The continued presence of current “boo boy” Branislav Ivanovic would, I was sure, cause ructions amid some of our support. Of course our Serbian has not enjoyed the best of starts this season – I noted a sub-par performance as early as the game in New Jersey – yet it came as no surprise that Jose decided to play him. He is one of Mourinho’s men. It would be easier to tear out a fir tree from a Serbian hillside with human hands than oust Ivanovic at the moment. All eyes would be on his performance throughout the afternoon. Against the pace of our visitor’s wide men, I was a little concerned that Brana would cope.

The rest of the team picked itself, but that is possibly a critique. With Oscar injured, there are little other creative options at our disposal.

On the walk in to the stadium, after stopping to buy the match programme, I paid a little more notice to the wording chosen for this season on the “Chelsea Wall” which overlooks the West Stand concourse. This marks the western boundary of the grounds of Chelsea Football Club, and separates it from the red brick buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. Just inside the entrance, there is a sign which says :

Welcome To Stamford Bridge.

Home Of Chelsea Football Club.

Heart Of London.

And I suddenly wondered if someone at Chelsea had seen the tag line at the top of this website, but yet wondered why “The Heart Of London” wasn’t used.

And it got me wondering, just fleeting moments of thought, as I bustled past the crowds to take my place at the back of the queue for the MHU turnstiles.

The heart of London.

Were we actually the closest to the very centre of the nation’s capital?

I always remember my father telling me as an intrigued young boy that the centre of London, from where the mileages to other towns and cities are calculated, is not Buckingham Palace nor the Houses of Parliament, but Charing Cross.

And yes, the evidence does suggest that Chelsea Football Club is at the heart of London. It is the closest to Charing Cross, but only by the slightest of margins, with Arsenal and Millwall being just a few hundred yards further out. By contrast, Crystal Palace, out in suburbia, are miles away.

I was handed the match programme and shown a photograph of eighty-seven year old Joe, who has been sitting alongside us since the three of us bought season tickets in 1997. He was featured in one of the “fan pages”, and detailed his history of supporting the boys, as a season ticket holder for over fifty years, but as a spectator since 1933. Sadly Joe has not been well enough to attend the two home games so far this season, but I certainly hope that he can rejoin us soon. Every Christmas, he makes a point of writing a card to “Chris and the Chelsea Boys.” He is a lovely man.

The three-thousand Palace fans were in good voice as the teams lined up. The players were wearing a slight variation of the first Crystal Palace kit that I can ever remember, back in the days of Don Rogers and Alan Whittle in around 1972, when they sported an all-white kit with two West Ham style claret and blue vertical stripes on the shirt. The 2015/2016 version is similar, but with the tones slightly different.

Alan Pardew has developed a promising team down in the Surrey hinterlands since he joined them from his tough time on Tyneside. I looked down and saw Yohan Cabaye playing for them. Here was living proof that this league of ours is getting tougher – top to bottom – than ever before.

Crystal Palace began well and won two quick corners. We took quite a while to find our feet. An incisive break inside by Pedro followed by a sharp curler which narrowly swept past the far post was our first real effort on goal. And that was on twenty minutes.

Diego Costa was often spotted on both wings hunting for the ball, but I would have preferred to see him more central. We struggled to find him, regardless. A shot from Willian went wide. There was a suspicion of offside as Palace broke free past our static defence, but Thibaut Courtois did well to block. Soon after, Palace broke through again in the best move of the match but our tall goalkeeper again did well, falling quickly to push away. Both moves were down our right flank.

Just as I commented to PD that I could see no indication that we would be able to pierce the Crystal Palace defence, we stepped up our game. A cross from Azpilicueta zipped across the box, just beyond the lunge of Diego Costa. Just after, at last a penetrating run from Diego Costa in the inside-right channel, and his shot tested McCarthy. The ball pin-balled around in the resultant melee but Pedro was just unable to prod home. At last, there was a murmur from the Matthew Harding.

Then, a fine dribble from Nemanja Matic and a rare shot.

But.

And a big but.

And no time within that opening period were the team nor fans exhibiting any of the intensity shown during the first-half at The Hawthorns the previous weekend. At West Brom, there was a very real sense of togetherness, and a great sense of “we must win this game.”

Against Crystal Palace, no pushover at all, I never got that same feeling.

In a nutshell, the atmosphere was horrendous.

At the break, a friend agreed.

“It’s flat.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Yes mate.”

The atmosphere was as flat as a steam-rollered flatbread lying on the flat lands of Van Flattenberg in The Netherlands.

At least there were no boos at half-time. I half-expected some.

On the pitch, Bobby Tambling, waving and smiling. In the programme, a lovely piece on Pat Nevin standing firmly behind Paul Canoville after a game at Selhurst Park in 1984, when some Chelsea supporters still chose to give our first black player a hard ride.

Soon into the second half, Diego Costa went down in the box, but PD, I and maybe a few other Chelsea fans were not convinced of his vociferous penalty shout. The referee agreed. Chances were exchanged and the noise level increased slightly. There was another fine save from Courtois.  Just before the hour I heard The Shed for the first time.

A couple of Chelsea chances, but there was no luck in front of goal.

Amid all of this, Cesc Fabregas played little part. I am not one for lambasting Chelsea players, our heroes, our dream-makers, but our number four is having a torrid time. At times, his passing was atrocious.

With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I said to Alan :

“This time last year, his football was on another planet. Now, we just wish he was on another planet.”

Then, a break down the Crystal Palace left, attacking you-know-who, and the ball was played in. Dave did ever so well to block, but the ball bobbled free and Sako was able to smash home.

Immediately after, the ground managed to rouse itself from its torpor with the loudest “Carefree” of the afternoon.

Falcao for Willian.

Kenedy for Azpilicueta.

With new signing Baba Rahman – a left-back – on the bench, it surprised me that Jose chose Kenedy to fit in at Dave’s position. However, straight away, the kid from Fluminense looked energised and involved. His willingness to burst forward with pace is something that we are not used to these days. After only a few moments, a thunderous low drive from around forty yards made us sit up and take notice. Sadly the effort was right down McCarthy’s throat.

I wondered if it might be slightly unnerving if thousands of Chelsea fans shout “shoot” to Kenedy during future games.

Loftus-Cheek for Matic.

An error from Ruben allowed Sako to fire in a cross. With Courtois scrambling back from his near post, we gulped. Bolasie arrived with the goal at his mercy, and Ivanovic panting behind him, but his shot was off target.

Phew.

Kenedy continued to impress, and Loftus-Cheek, too.

With fifteen minutes remaining, at last a good Chelsea move. Fabregas picked out Pedro out on the right. He crossed relatively early and his fine ball was met with an Andy Gray-style dive from Radamel Falcao. The Bridge erupted and we were back in it. It was a fantastic goal.

Just two minutes later, a deep cross from the left was knocked back across goal by that man Sako, unmarked at the far post, and some two bit nonentity called Joel Ward headed in from close range.

We collapsed into our seats.

In the last ten minutes, the attempts on the Palace goal mounted up but a mixture of poor finishing, blocks and bad luck worked against us. However, our goal had lived a charmed life throughout the match and we could have conceded more than two.

This was Jose Mourinho’s one hundredth league game at Stamford Bridge, with one solitary lose before. Now there were two.

This was certainly a shock to us all. There were hardly any positives to take away from the game. Many players are underperforming, across all positions. Without Thibaut, to be fair, we could have conceded three or four. As if to heighten the depressing mood, rain met us as we sloped away and back along the Fulham Road. The jubilant away fans contrasted greatly. This was their best performance at Chelsea since that FA Cup game in 1976.

We had been poor.

Players and fans.

Of course those who know me will know that I hate the notion of lambasting players and our manager after just – count them – four league games. Yet there is clearly plenty of work to do. As we reassembled back at the car, I lamented the fact that we had a whole fortnight to stew in our juices, under scrutiny from the rat-like British press, with no chance to rectify our reputation on Tuesday, nor Wednesday, nor Saturday, nor Sunday, nor the following Tuesday and Wednesday. It is going to be a long two weeks.

But I’m not going anywhere. My friends too. We are too long in the tooth to give up this easily. Dean and I soon began making plans for a classic Chelsea away game, under pressure at an old school stadium – a proper away day – at Everton.

In the evening, I noted with disbelief that some fans were already writing off our league challenge.

With thirty-four games to be played and one hundred and two points still up for grabs.

It is not even September.

Give me fucking strength.

Later in the evening, I watched the Football League Show on TV and noted many mid-sized teams, with fine support and storied histories, now struggling in the lower reaches of our league pyramid.

Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Notts County, Coventry City, Luton Town.

It stirred me to see these teams hanging on to their identity and their support despite a change in fortunes and I honestly wondered how many of our suffering and emotional fans, and not necessarily “new” fans at that, traumatised by our poor start, would stay the course under such circumstances.

I hope the majority, I suspect not.

So, two weeks away from it.

See you on the other side.

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Tales From The Beautiful North

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 22 March 2015

On the long car journey north to Humberside for our match with Hull City, one thing was agreed; this was a “must win” game. Our main title rivals Manchester City had easily won at home to West Brom on the Saturday, thus narrowing the gap at the top of the league table to three points, although Arsenal were closing in too. With ten games left for us this season, there were still many points up for grabs. Although the end of the campaign seemed somewhat nearer, over a quarter of the season was still left to play. There were obviously many points to win, but also many points to lose.  After faltering performances against PSG and Southampton at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea army were travelling north with a hope that we would see a much-needed win. This was no time for the weak-hearted, among players or supporters. Despite the long day ahead, it felt good to be back on the road following the team once again.

It was, in fact, the second football away day of my weekend. On the Saturday, I was at a loose end and decided to head down to the neighbouring county of Dorset to watch my local team Frome Town play at Dorchester Town in a relegation dog-fight in the Southern League. I thoroughly enjoyed myself; it was a glorious day for football, with the early spring sun combining with clear skies overhead.  I watched from the very rear row of the impressive main stand of Dorchester’s neat stadium, The Avenue. I remember that Chelsea, in October 1990, were the first team to play at Dorchester’s new ground, although I didn’t attend. I was dismayed when Dorchester went ahead with a quarter of an hour to go, but ex-Bristol Rovers forward Lewis Haldane equalised for Frome with five minutes to go. I roared from my seat and punched the air; ah, I love how the simple pleasure of a goal can produce such emotion. It was a well-deserved draw. I had bumped into a handful of friends at the game. It was a super day out. Unbeknown to me at the time, Dorchester’s assistant manager is Nick Crittenden, who played a couple of games for Chelsea in around 1997.

The chap filming the match for the home club was positioned only a few yards to my left. My shout of “yes, come on” when Haldane scored can clearly be heard at 7 minutes, 49 seconds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yDHbIqXuq8

The second day of my footballing weekend began at around 7.30am on the Sunday when I collected PD Wetherspoon and Lord Parky soon after. The two of them were soon opening up the first of their cans of cider. We were on our way.

This was a bittersweet trip for me. At the time of our game at Hull City in January last year, my mother was in relatively good health. However, just after – the following Friday – Mum was stricken with arthritis and her life changed. As is my wont, I always seem to remember landmark events in my life with football matches; Hull City on Saturday 11th January 2014 was one of them. How I wished that things could have stayed the same as on that day, with my mother in robust health, contented. As I ate up the miles on my way to Kingston-upon- Hull, my dear Mum would never be far from my thoughts.

This would be my sixth visit to the much-derided city on the banks of the River Humber. My first visit came in the autumn of 1973 when my parents took me on a day trip, while staying with friends in nearby Grimsby. There were two visits to Hull with work – P&O Ferrymasters had an office just under the impressive Humber Bridge – in 2003 and 2008. Memorably, towards the end of an important meeting in 2008, my boss nobly excused me with the following comment –

“Right, at this point, we are allowing Chris to head off down to London for tonight’s Chelsea game.”

At 4pm, I set off and tried my best to get down to Stamford Bridge for the Reading game. I was on target, but hit some nasty traffic around Luton, and parked-up just as I heard the crowd roar a Michael Ballack goal. I got in just before half-time and my unbeaten home run – which eventually stalled at 240 games – was able to continue.

This would be my third visit with Chelsea.

I was hoping that I would get a chance to take a look around the city’s marina before the game; Hull is not known as a particularly interesting city, but I was hoping to unearth a few hidden jewels. Last season, on that fateful day, I was fed-up that I had travelled all that way “just” for ninety minutes of football. I’m always a bit dismayed by stereotypical views of cities in the north being grim and unwelcoming. I was hoping that Hull might surprise me. Last season, I mentioned that Hull was where one of my favourite bands, Everything But The Girl, were formed. It was also where The Housemartins – who morphed into The Beautiful South, an ironic stab at London and the Home counties by the band members – were formed at around the same time.

On this day of football, I was hoping for anything but London 0 Hull 4.

Despite some speed restrictions north of Nottingham on the M1, we made good time and I was parked-up in the city centre at around 12.15pm. It had taken four hours and three-quarters. There would be similar travel times for the majority of other Chelsea fans.

We based ourselves in a large, but bland, city centre pub called “The Admiral Of The Humber.” Pints of cider at just £2.25 made PD and Parky smile. We were joined by two-transatlantic visitors; Tuna from Atlanta and Luke from Boston. Luke was back in England for his father’s funeral, and it was the first time that I had met him, having befriended me on Facebook via a couple of other mates in Boston. Luke grew up close by, in Wiltshire, before heading off to fresh fields.

Tuna, Luke and I left the drinkers to it, watching the Liverpool vs. Manchester United game, while we visited the marina on a quick little walking tour. The weather was perfect and it was good to get out of the pub for a while. We chatted about all sorts, and were impressed with a few quaint side streets. A historic pub – red brick, real ales, far more interesting than the other one – was highlighted for our next visit. At 3pm we took a cab to the stadium.

The Chelsea contingent this season was wrapped around a corner flag, rather than being right behind the goal; Alan, Gary and I took our seats a few rows back. The KC Stadium is a pleasing stadium, with a main stand that rises over the other three sides, like a mini version of The Etihad. The locals love their amber and black bar scarves.

Manchester United had won at Anfield, and closed in on us too. The pressure was on.

Pressure, what pressure?

After just two minutes, the ball was worked to Eden Hazard, who advanced on goal. With a swing of his left leg, he hit a perfect shot past McGregor in the Hull goal. I was right in line with the flight of the ball, as I often am. Get in.

We were one up and flying.

Hull then had a great chance to level, with Hernandez breezing past a static defensive line, but Thibaut Courtois blocked the shot with ease.

After nine minutes, Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa, who ran at the Hull defence down the left flank. I was expecting a cross, but instead, he curled the ball past the ‘keeper and the ball nestled inside the far post. It was, frankly, a relief to see our striker back among the goals.

Two up and flying high.

This was ridiculous; two shots, two goals.

There was talk of another “Swansea” and a repetition of our five goals.

We then appeared to go to pieces. What a strange sport this can be. From a position of strength, and with our confidence presumably high, we collectively collapsed. Hull were excellent, moving the ball well, and causing panic in our defensive third. Our midfield were second best and the anxiety within the away contingent grew with each passing minute.

On twenty-seven minutes, Robertson easily escaped a poor challenge by Ivanovic and rattled in a perfect low ball in to the six yard box. The prod from Elmohamady just beat out an attempted clearance from Filipe Luis and Hull were back in the game. Just one minute later, yet more calamity. Ivanovic played a back-pass back to Courtois, but instead of a “safety first” approach, which could have involved him hacking the ball off for a throw, our young ‘keeper attempted to play the ball back to Ivanovic, but Hernandez nipped in to equalise.

The home crowd roared. Egg on faces. Ugh.

Nerves were frayed now. Our play continued to disappoint. At the break, a friend texted me to say that shots on goal in the first-half were –

Hull 14 London 3.

There was talk of tough games against Arsenal – not out of the title race – and Liverpool and Manchester United. There was talk of our lead being frittered away. Our collapse was mysterious; everywhere in the team, with maybe one or two exceptions, players were poor shadows of themselves. We needed another invigorating team talk from the manager.

Thankfully, after the break, we enjoyed most – if not all – of the early possession and we were able to threaten the Hull goal. Chances came and went, but McGregor wasn’t overly tested. We were at last finding space out wide, but a goal would not come. Ivanovic, Matic and Fabregas did not impress. All three were poor. With one mistimed challenge by Ivanovic, both Gary and myself likened the splayed legs of our big Serbian to that of Devon Loch, the horse who bizarrely stumbled, mid canter, on the homeward segment of the Grand National. A bad omen, surely, as we approached the final few hurdles of this long campaign.

Oscar came on for Ramires.

Then, against the run of play – completely – Hull broke away and a piece of sublime football followed. Thibaut Courtois, making up for his previous error, made three amazing saves from Elmohamady, Livermore and Ramirez in the same move. It was an astounding succession of saves. It reminded me of Jim Montgomery’s saves in the 1973 Cup Final.

Loic Remy – the oddly forgotten man – came on for Diego Costa.

Within two minutes, Willian – increasingly involved down below me – played in Remy who struck a low shot towards goal. The hapless McGregor was able to block, but not fully, and the ball had just enough momentum to roll slowly over the line.

We roared again.

A quiet away following were now roused and we turned the air blue.

A few late scares came to nothing.

We held on.

The final whistle blew.

I pointed skywards.

Phew.

Hull 2 London 3.

I turned to Alan and Gary –

“I’ll tell you what. City will be absolutely gutted, gutted with the way we won that, playing poorly, but still winning.”

We all met up outside and walked back to the city centre, where Luke and Tuna were parked too. I remarked to Tuna –

“Kinda reminds me of a game around this time of year, thirty-one years ago, when we came back from 0-3 down to draw 3-3 at Cardiff. Different result, but same feeling.”

At 6.45pm, we left the city, with Tuna driving right behind me. The sun was setting beyond the Humber Bridge, the crescent moon high, the sky clear. Again, another long journey lie ahead, and I reached home at 11.30pm. It was another four hours and three-quarters on the road.

It had been a very strange game of football. We had struggled throughout the game and doubts about our championship calibre would no doubt be raised by those both inside and outside our football club. Our current form is quite poor, and we have nine games left to win our fifth league title. There is worry in the air. However, remember this; in forty-five competitive games this season, we have lost just three.

Championship form?

The next nine games will answer that question.

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Tales From On And Off The Pitch

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 31 January 2015.

I was in my own little spell of Chelsea Mania. The trip to SW6 for the long-awaited appearance of Manchester City would be my fourth visit to Stamford Bridge within just eight days. In addition to the three Chelsea home games, encompassing FA Cup, League Cup and League, there was also the Chelsea Pitch Owners AGM on the Friday.

I don’t always attend these meetings; in fact, the sad truth is that, until the tumultuous events of autumn 2011, I had not bothered too much with the CPO. However, following the club’s toxic handling of the attempted buy-out, I have eagerly awaited any news emanating from the CPO. Other shareholders, I am sure, have felt the same. It certainly galvanised the shareholders and caused all of us to re-focus our thoughts on Stamford Bridge. I attended the EGM in 2011 and also the AGM in 2012, when feelings were still feverish, but did not attend any others. Why did I bother this year? I was keen to hear if there had been any substantial updates on the rumoured expansion plans of the stadium and also to see how the CPO was faring in general terms.

Around one hundred and twenty shareholders, to my reckoning, attended the meeting in the plush surroundings of the Hollins Suite on the third floor of the West Stand. The meeting lasted just over an hour-and-a-half. To be honest, it was all relatively quiet and calm, with few moments of heated discussion. Dan Levine – journalist, Chelsea supporter and CPO shareholder – had requested to be allowed to post immediate updates from the meeting via Twitter and this was put to the vote. It was carried.

It was announced that one of the company’s biggest objectives was to nullify the impact of the over-selling of approximately 1,500 new shares in the period leading up to the football club’s attempted buyout in 2011; that figure will be reached within the next two months.

Questions were asked from the floor regarding the plans to increase the capacity of Stamford Bridge. The CPO board confirmed that there had been no communication whatsoever between the football club and the CPO regarding this. So, no news on that score, unfortunately. I think that many in the room were hoping for progress on this, but alas not.

However, there had been consultation between the local council and 120 interested parties – stakeholders – including the CPO, regarding plans to upgrade the immediate area around the Stamford Bridge site. I, for one, was intrigued by this, since it shows a level of intent by the Hammersmith & Fulham council to develop the relationship between themselves and the football club. It hasn’t always been so. Any positive communication, of which this is a clear example, is to be lauded. It shows a desire by the council to work with Chelsea Football Club. Questions were asked about the size and scope of this possible improvement in the “streetscape” around Stamford Bridge, but very little detail was given. A brief mention of the planting of trees, benches and possible pedestrianized areas whetted my appetite (maybe it evoked memories of an urban geography course I took at college) but elsewhere such talking points were dismissed as being rather boring and not worthy of further elaboration. It was mentioned that Rick Glanvill – club historian and CPO shareholder – was counselled on a possible colour scheme for the area, and I had visions of Rick flicking through a book of pantone references, but there was little other detail. I was keen to ask about the geographical limits of this potential upgrade to the Stamford Bridge streetscape (I presumed it would stretch from the area outside the tube station along the Fulham Road to the railway bridge), but the moment soon passed and the discussion moved on.

There were questions about the selling of new shares, which carries on at a reasonable pace. The board reminded us that they took the decision to set up a “pay as you go” payment plan for those unable to lay out £100 in one hit. This was news to me, and a few others to be honest, but which was well received within the meeting. I raised the issue of overseas supporters and wondered if there had been a change in the geographical profile of new shareholders, since a desire to grow the share base around the world was mentioned at the 2012 AGM. I was pleased to hear that there had been an increase in supporters outside the UK buying new shares and I was keen to point out that, due to the vast size of our global support, this should be encouraged.

It was a good meeting and it was lovely to see a few familiar faces present. It still gives me great comfort to know that I am one of the 19,000 or so landlords of Stamford Bridge.

Chairman Steve Frankham’s statement can be found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/cpo-news/chairman_s-agm-statement.html

Details on how to buy shares are found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/buy-cpo-shares.html

It is worth noting that as I left Stamford Bridge after the meeting, I was approached by a tout who was asking after spare tickets for Saturday’s game.

Yep. This was going to be a big one alright.

It was my turn, once again, to drive to London. I travelled with Glenn and Parky. At Membury Services, just to the east of Swindon, we stopped at a Starbucks and Glenn spotted an old school mate – a Sheffield Wednesday fan – who was headed to their game at Reading with his wife. I remembered him from way back too, though I haven’t seen him around town for years. There was a time when Sheffield Wednesday was, briefly, one of our biggest rivals. The 1983-1984 Football League Division Two season has been detailed here before, but another mention will do no harm. In that wonderful campaign, six of English football’s big hitters found themselves in the second tier; Chelsea, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Leeds United, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday. Although Leeds United’s promotion challenge, along with pre-season favourites Derby County, soon withered away, the other four battled for the top three places throughout the season. In the end, it was Manchester City who just missed out.

I wonder whatever happened to them.

During the next campaign, in addition to two feisty league games with Sheffield Wednesday, there were the classic three game set in the League Cup too. What a host of fantastic memories from thirty years ago. A trip to Hillsborough is long overdue.

Before hitting The Goose, we paid a quick visit to another Chelsea pub, a hundred yards further along the North End Road, The Old Oak. The place was rammed with Chelsea “of a certain generation” and we spotted a few mates. One day I’ll make sure I visit every single one of the many pubs which surround Stamford Bridge, although not in one day, unless Parky is buying.

We reached The Goose at around 3.30pm. A few of the lads had been “on it” since midday. The place was heaving. There were a few City fans dotted around. I was told that a few of them even had a little sing-song at the front of the pub. This is a very rare occurrence in The Goose. There was no trouble, though. In fact, their presence was probably the reason for a little spell of singing, which again is a rare event in The Goose.

There was no talk of Frank Lampard during the time I spent – ninety minutes – in the pub.

I reached the seats just as the teams entered the pitch. Again, the club had chosen to dim the lights in the same style as against Liverpool the previous Tuesday. Additionally, the four huge flags denoting out four European trophies hung proudly from the balcony of the MHU.

It was a lovely sight.

Forced to make changes, with no Fabregas and no Diego Costa, Mourinho chose Zouma ahead of Cahill and Remy ahead of Drogba.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Ramires – Hazard, Oscar, Willian – Remy.

There were four young’uns on the bench; Christensen, Loftus-Cheek, Ake, Brown.

The home crowd continued on in the same fashion from Tuesday against Liverpool, with greater noise levels than usual. Soon into the game, the MHL produced an x-rated ditty aimed at a Sky pundit who may not be allowed back to these parts ever again –

“Frankie Lampard – Your Cousin’s  A C**t.”

Although City brought a full three thousand, they were pretty quiet. I only remember one song of note –

“Champions of England, we know what we are.”

We countered with –

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

This was entry-level banter and it never really got any better.

It was a rather tight first-half with chances at a premium. City probably had the best chances. Fernandinho shot wide, then Courtois was called in to action to save from Sergio Aguero. A John Terry error allowed Aguero a strike on goal, but the dangerous striker – always a threat in these games –  screwed wide. Elsewhere, there was passing and possession from both sides, but little penetration. A sublime tackle by Zouma on Aguero was given God-like status.

This boy looks good and – boy – we’ll let him know it.

With five minutes of the first-half to go, a fine deep cross from right to left by Ivanovic found Eden Hazard, who had stealth fully crept behind his marker. His first time cross was met by the unmarked Remy who slotted in from inside the six yard box.

Chelsea 1 Manchester City 0

Alan tee’d me up.

“Come On My Little Diamonds.”

There was an immediate thought of an eight point gap.

Ridiculously, we allowed City right back in to the game just before the break. City were allowed too much space down our right and Courtois, usually so trustworthy in the air, jumped but failed to stop a cross. The ball fell to Aguero who slammed the ball in and Silva dabbed past the stranded Courtois and the two Chelsea defenders standing on the posts.

Ugh.

If City had edged the first-half, they completely dominated the first part of the second period. City dominated possession and we constantly reshaped to soak up their probing. I was impressed with Ramires, ably closing down space and nibbling away at City attackers. Matic, too, was impressive. In contrast, this wasn’t one of John Terry’s best games. Alongside him, Zouma continued to shine.

With Chelsea starting to enjoy a little more possession, I spotted a familiar figure on the far touchline. Frank Lampard, track suit off, in City sky blue, stood next to his new manager Pellegrini.

Ugh.

Here we go, then.

He replaced Fernando.

Initially, I detected boos but these were soon drowned out by warm applause. No name calling – no “Super Frank” – like we experienced at City in the autumn, but just a growing number of Chelsea fans showing their pleasure in seeing an old friend by simply clapping. That this clapping soon morphed into a “Chelsea” chant was perfect. I was proud of my fellow fans. Well done.

I’ll be honest; I spent an inordinate proportion of my time during the remainder of the game keeping an eye on Frank.

My worry was obvious.

“Just put someone on Lampard” I whispered to Alan.

“Two if necessary.”

This was genuine concern amidst our nervous humour.

Please Frank – don’t score.

Mourinho rang the changes and on came Drogba, Cahill and Loftus-Cheek.

We kept them at bay. On at least one occasion, Frank gave the ball away.

“Good boy.”

With five minutes still to play, a few fans left. I was speechless. Not only were they missing the most crucial part of the game, they were also missing out on the chance to say thank you and farewell to one of our finest ever players.

“…mmm…maybe you were the ones booing. Best you leave, then.”

One last period of City pressure was repelled and the final whistle was met with relief all around me.

Phew.

Our first dropped points at home this season and a pretty dour performance. We shouldn’t complain, though. Robbed of two of his key players, this was typical Mourinho.

I watched as the players shook each other’s hands and there were embraces between others. All eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked alone from The Shed towards us in the Matthew Harding. He clapped us and we reciprocated. No boos, no silliness.

I don’t know the intricacies of Frank’s departure from Chelsea, or the exact detail of his employment at New York City or his temporary deployment at Manchester City.

All I know is that at the away game in September and at the home game in February, on his long walk to say goodbye, there were no smiles from Frank.

He was sombre. He was alone with his thoughts.

He simply looked gutted – on both occasions – that it had to be like this.

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Tales From The Liberty Stadium

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 17 January 2015.

As I slowly pulled away from the busy roundabout at the bottom of the hill, with the white steel supports of the Liberty Stadium roof still glowing from the floodlights beneath, and with thousands of home fans making their way back to their cars, Jose Mourinho was being interviewed on Radio Five Live, only a few hundreds of yards away. There are times when I wonder if Jose might suddenly lose his composure after being asked yet another clichéd and banal question by those in the media, but I am always impressed how he usually takes a pause, waits, and then simply answers the question truthfully and with ease.

On this occasion, Mourinho stated that the game against Swansea changed within the first minute of play; that goal caused the home team to instantly re-assess their game plan, but it also gave our players belief and self-confidence. And how true this was.  Imagine how easier each of our working days would be if we got the equivalent of a goal within the first five minutes of our shift, perhaps in the guise of an email of thanks from a manager, or some good news from a client who had previously made life difficult. With such a lift, everything would become easier and decisions would be made with a greater degree of trust in ourselves and others.

With a goal to the good, and less than a minute on the clock, our working day had begun perfectly.

I had left my home village at around 9am, but was met with snow and then sleet on the drive to collect Parky. The wintry weather reminded me of the occasion of our League Cup semi-final second leg against Swansea City in 2013, when the threat of snow and ice caused me to miss the game – the one featuring the ball boy incident, if anyone had forgotten – in case I ended-up being stranded in my car in darkest Wales. This would be our fourth League match at the Liberty Stadium; it hasn’t been the richest of hunting grounds. Previously there had been two draws and a narrow win.

It was an easy drive into South Wales. Although the Brecon Beacons to the north were dusted with snow, driving conditions were fine. I headed straight into Swansea, but didn’t stop. Rather than spend a couple of hours in a generic city centre hostelry drinking lager out of plastic pint glasses, we had decided to head on out to The Gower. Even though it was the middle of January, we were happy to head off out of the city and spend an hour or two on this peninsula of fine countryside and unspoilt beaches, maybe to do some reconnaissance for that moment when the FA give us an away trip to Swansea in August or May and when we could truly make use of the stunning scenery on offer.

When I was growing up, Wales was close-by. Living in the west of England, our local independent television station – HTV – had a sister station in Wales, and we would often get treated to television programmes in Welsh, perhaps when the TV aerial had managed to be dislodged by half-an-inch or so. We occasionally visited relatives in Llanelli. We holidayed in both South and North Wales – Tenby and Criccieth – and although I loved these coastal resorts, there was still an over-riding feeling that Wales was a dark and moody country. These trips were full of industrial landscapes, deep valleys, impenetrable accents and a subtle dislike by some natives of the English.

On the drive out to our end destination on the Gower – the little village of Port Eynon – I was reminded of another facet of Wales; it always seemed to be raining. The trees were coated in moss, lichen and ivy, the air was damp. I began to doubt the decision of heading further away from the city. However, the scenery was splendid and it reminded me fully of the New Forest in Hampshire. There were even wayward sheep and ponies just roaming the moors, unfettered by anything as organised and English as a hedge or a fence.

We spent an hour or so in The Ship at Port Eynon. I treated myself to a bowl of soup called Welsh Cawl – pronounced “Cow-ul” – and the Peronis went down well. I even meandered out to the beach in order to take a few photographs of the sand dunes and the broad bay. By the time I had returned, Parky had finished his last pint, and it was time to move. The match had hardly been mentioned.

The slow drive back in to the city was increasingly fraught as match-going traffic slowed everything down; eventually, I reached my usual parking place, but with only twenty minutes to spare.

The capacity of the Liberty Stadium is just over 20,000. Therefore, the rules of the Premiership dictate that we only received 2,000 tickets; the ruling is “10% or 3,000 – whichever is smaller.” I have been in the away scheme since 2006-2007, so thankfully I don’t need to go through the rigmarole of applying game-by-game on the club website, the constant inspection of loyalty points and the tedious checking of updates (to say nothing of the box office page crashing on occasion), which is a modern day hell for some fans. As recently as 2004-2005, all of this was much different. Fixtures for the forthcoming season were announced mid-June and it was my anointed task, among my match-going friends – all season ticket-holders – to send a letter off to Chelsea. After a week or so of the new fixtures being studied, mates sent me a list of away games and I simply wrote Chelsea a letter; it was as simple as that. I really can’t remember if many did the same; away games were not so much of a political hot potato in those days. Of course there was a clamour for some tickets, but not every game sold out. In these days of online booking, and immediate confirmation, I just find it odd, looking back, that we could apply for a ticket some nine months in advance. And that Eddie Barnett didn’t lose my letter.

However, I know one thing. I am truly thankful that in the summer of 2004, I applied, in a hand-written letter to the box office at Stamford Bridge, to ask for seven tickets for the Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea game on Saturday 30 April 2005.

I reached my seat – towards the rear of the lower tier – just before the game kicked-off.

I was in, alongside Alan and Gary, with around five seconds to spare.

Chelsea in all blue.

Petr in goal, Luis at left-back, Gary in…mmm, who else?

There was just time for me to talk through the team with Gary, when the ball broke after a little early home possession and Oscar was in on goal. I was begging him to curl one, away from the ‘keeper’s clawing leap, towards the right hand post. Instead, he whipped a shot past the ‘keeper into the other corner, and we were 1-0 up on around 45 seconds.

Parky suddenly appeared behind me, and there was much back-slapping, mayhem and mirth.

Rob Brydon : “They’ll have to come sat us now, boyo.”

Dylan Thomas : “Of course they always accuse the Welsh of using too many words, too much emotion, or perhaps too much sentiment, but at this moment in time, with my heart pounding and my body spinning in tumultuous jest, without any fear of contradiction, I can truly say to you – come on my little diamonds.”

Tidy.

“The shot seemed to go through the goalkeeper, Gal.”

Soon after, Sigurdsson came close with a fine shot which clipped our right-hand post. But it was then time for us to totally control the rest of the first-half. Willian and Oscar rifled shots at the Swansea goal, and we played the ball around the entire pitch with tons of confidence. On nineteen minutes, a beautiful move, tight on the edge of the Swansea “D”, eventually found the ridiculously unmarked Diego Costa.

I shrieked – “Gotta be a goal.”

It was.

We were now 2-0 up and were laughing.

There had been a fair bit of noise from both home and away fans until this point, but as our domination continued unabated, I sheepishly admitted to Alan “we seem to be safe here…unless we score four or five, I reckon our support will be crap.”

We were treated to the usual “WWYWYWS?” from the home fans in the side stand to our left. Alan reminded me that “WE WERE HERE” in late 1983 when we were happy enough for Swansea to pull our game with them forward a week or so in order for funds to be raised as there was a risk of Swansea going under.

Our breath-taking one touch football – I almost hesitate to use the much-derided phrase tiki-taka – was exceptional. Swansea just couldn’t get the ball from us. Costa shot over, Willian slammed a powerful shot against the post. Then, a suicidal back-pass was seized upon by Costa and he scored from an angle. Soon after, Costa provided Oscar with a goalscoring chance and our Brazilian rifled home.

3-0, then 4-0, bang bang.

To our merriment, one Swansea supporter had decided to dress in a Teletubby “onesie” – why? For the love of God, why? – and then left when his team were losing 0-3.

Who are these people and how are they allowed out in public without a carer?

Then Willian hit the woodwork a second time. Diego Costa was then set up by his partner in crime Fabregas, but he was forced too far wide to shoot and the chance petered out

Alan : “I ain’t seen so much domination since you lent me that dodgy DVD, Gal.”

At half-time, it could have been 7 or 8.

Of course, no surprises, we never lived up to our scintillating performance of the first forty-five minutes after the break. Fair play, though, to the home supporters – or at least the two thousand in that noisy section to our immediate left – who created a wall of noise in the first fifteen minutes of the second half. It irritated the away fans, but I had to tip my hat to them. They were losing 0-4 at home, but they were making a hell of a din.

“Gary Monk’s black and white army.”

Deep-down, very deep-down, I was almost jealous of them.

“Twenty years ago, that would have been us.”

Our support was OK, but if I am honest, it didn’t befit a team still going strong in all four competitions this season.

The changes were rung and the substitutes appeared. Eden Hazard and Oscar went close. A surging run from Hazard set up Branislav Ivanovic, who tee’d up an easy tap in for substitute Andre Schurrle.

Swansea City 0 Chelsea 5.

Another substitute Loic Remy fired in one last shot at the hapless Fabianski, but no more goals were forthcoming, despite the away fans clamouring for six.

It had been an enjoyable match – of course – but it was almost too easy. As we walked back to the car, the game was soon behind us. There would soon be bigger, tougher matches ahead.

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