Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

This was our third away game in just eight days. After visits to the Black Country and Azerbaijan, it was now the turn of Merseyside. With a tea-time kick-off at 5.30pm, I was able to enjoy the luxury of a little lie-in before driving the Chuckle Bus north. I collected PD, then Glenn, then Parky. The weather worsened as we headed north on the M5 and then the M6. This would be my twenty-third trip to Anfield with Chelsea. Bizarrely, it would be my first-ever trip with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. His last visit to Anfield was way back in November 1985; that famous 1-1 draw, with 1,000 Rangers fans in their own special section on the Kemlyn Road. On that occasion, he traveled-up from Somerset with the Yeovil supporters on their coach. I had arrived by train from Stoke. We had both been at the game in May 1985 too. Again, he traveled up by coach from Frome and I trained it from my college town.

…all those years ago…we were only twenty and eighteen…yet here we were, repeating the same steps in 2017.

We had parked-up on Utting Avenue, that wide road which shoots off from the city’s ring road, Queens Drive, to the Anfield citadel at the top of the hill. We were headed for “The Arkels” – one of the most famous “away pubs” on our travels with Chelsea – where I had arranged to meet up with a few chaps. There was not the wicked wind of Baku, but it was still a cold afternoon. The rain had momentarily stopped, but a Turner-esque storm cloud was looming in the distance, the fading yellow sun offering a last blast of light as the night fell.

I was reminded of a photograph that I took of the same pub after my very first visit to Anfield in that May 1985 game, which ended with a 4-3 win for the reigning league champions.

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

We slipped inside “The Arkels” at around 3.15pm. It was frantically busy. It is not an “away fans only” pub – both Liverpool and Chelsea fans rubbed shoulders, but it was the away fans making all of the noise. The landlord welcomed the away fans to his boozer using a microphone.

“Enjoy your visit lads, sing some songs, but please don’t stand on the furniture.”

Although things often used to get a little tense at Liverpool over the years, this particular pub is always welcoming. The locals watched with strained ambivalence as the Chelsea lads sang song after song. I am not convinced that United fans are given equal billing as us. A little gaggle of lads from our home area were already there and The Chuckle Brothers joined them. I spotted my mate Rob and also three good pals from the US. Brian from Chicago was back from his travels to Baku and he was joined by J12 and his wife, and also Cruzer and his wife and daughter.

J12, Jenny, Cruzer, Abigail and Ava all live in Los Angeles.

From La La Land to La Land.

We were in the little room to the left of the bar. It brought back a memory from January 1992 where, on my first ever visit to “The Arkels”, I had found myself drinking at the exact same table. I retold the events of that day to the visitors from across the pond.

I’d like to think that it is worth sharing again here.

I was with my old school mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game and it would be a seismic weekend for him; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we had stayed with friends – my college mate Pete and his Evertonian wife Maxine – and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub on the Saturday lunchtime before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous few weeks direct from Chelsea. In those days, I am sure that you could show your membership card at Stamford Bridge, pay your money, and get handed an away ticket. No internet. No loyalty points. It was as easy as that. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete with incredulity :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it either. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the match. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in the same corner where we were standing and sitting in 2017, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked past the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me. I looked at Pete. No words were needed. We approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright, lads?”

In we went. In we fucking went. We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 Scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete, smirking.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What indescribable joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness. And I was, deep down, supremely happy to have stood on the old Kop – even though it only amounted to only forty-five minutes – before it was bulldozed two years later.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

I think it is very safe to say that Francis was very relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Francis had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. One Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant as he walked back and forth. It had been, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

The years have flown past since.

I limited myself to two pints of San Miguel, sadly served in plastic glasses. The pub was bouncing with noise from around thirty Chelsea youngsters in the far room. I shared another couple of other stories with the US visitors. I told how my father had watched his only game of football – that is, before his trip to Chelsea with me in 1974 – during his WW2 training on The Wirral at Goodison Park, the equally impressive stadium at the bottom of Stanley Park, no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I then whispered to J12 and Jenny about that infamous aspect of football on The Kop which the locals termed “a hotleg.”

The pub was thinning out. I re-joined The Chuckle Brothers in the back bar. A few idiots were standing on the sofas. At about 4.45pm, we set off, past the four of five police vans parked right outside the boozer.

I remembered how I had shaken hands with the then England manager Fabio Capello before our 2007 CL semi-final as we crossed the road, past the souvenir stalls, past the tight terraced streets.

The Kemlyn Stand of 1985 became the Centenary Stand in 1992. It is now the Kenny Dalglish Stand in 2017. There is now a car park behind the Anfield Road, where once there were houses, and only just recently a fan-zone. There are, I believe, plans to enlarge Anfield further at this end.

Inside, the Chelsea team were already on the pitch, going through their drills.

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

The three in the middle – the former Leicester City champions plus the new boy Tiemoue – were chosen to dampen the threat of Liverpool’s attacking options. The creativity would have to come from Eden Hazard.

“No pressure.”

The minutes ticked by. A large flag floated over the heads of the Scousers in the lower tier to my left. No end of flags and banners waved in The Kop.

A bittersweet flag – “Iron Lady” – caught my eye. It honoured the memory of the late Anne Williams and her relentless fight for justice after her son Kevin was killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Thankfully, I am pleased to report only a very short blast of the loathsome “Murderers” chant from the away section all day.

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I expected a lot more noise. It was four times as loud at the infamous Champions League encounter in 2005; that match had, I am sure, the loudest atmosphere at any game that I have witnessed in the UK.

To my immediate right, a Chelsea banner was held aloft. A blue flare was set off and the smoke drifted up towards the mountainous new main stand to my right.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

As so often happens, Liverpool dominated the first twenty minutes. Every game at Anfield seems to start in this fashion. Yet they rarely score. This game was no different. In previous seasons, it is so often Coutinho who impresses, but it was Mo Salah who caught the eye. His nimble footwork seemed to dazzle me, if not our defenders, who were more than able to close him down and stop him making a killer pass to others.

A few Liverpool passes zipped into our box, but we defended well, without any signs of panic or concern.

As the minutes ticked by, I gazed up at the rather old-fashioned scoreboard – no flashy TV screens at Anfield, nor Old Trafford – and commented to Gary :

“Over the years, I don’t think I have consistently watched the time pass on a scoreboard more than the one here.”

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Liverpool struggled to make any real progress despite having much of the ball. At the other end, Eden began a dribble into a danger zone which was eerily similar to his goal at the end of the 2015/2016 season. A shot from outside the box similarly followed. On this occasion, Mignolet scrambled the ball away for a corner. Not so long after, a simply sublime 180 degree turn on a sixpence and a trademark dribble set up Danny Drinkwater, who could not quite get enough of the ball as Mignolet raced out.

Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. Sadly, Bakayoko really struggled to get in to the game at all. Davide Zappacosta seemed a little overawed. But Andreas Christensen was cool and magnificent. N’Golo Kante was N’Golo Kante; enough said. Hazard was the star though. He was on fire. There were a few Hazard and Morata link-ups, but nothing like at West Brom the previous Saturday.

Eden then set up Zappacosta with a teasing lay-off reminiscent of Pele and Carlos Alberto for Brazil in 1970. Unfortunately, the Italian’s rising shot was palmed over. From the corner which followed, an almighty scramble resulted – penalty box pinball – and there were a few swipes at the Liverpool goal without an end result.

For the record, Daniel Sturridge was having a very quiet game. It is hard to believe that he was a Chelsea non-playing substitute on that night in Munich. How things change.

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

Just before the break, that man Salah shimmied, and curled one just past Courtois’ far post. It had me worried, anyway. It was Liverpool’s only worthwhile effort thus far.

At the break, Glenn shouted up to me from row two.

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

Hazard tangled with James Milner – the world’s most tedious footballer – on the edge of the box. No decision from Oliver the referee.

Oliver had given us a laugh when he had slipped and stumbled on the halfway line. The Chelsea choir did not waste much time.

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

Generally, though, the crowd were quiet. The home fans especially. And although everyone on The Kop was standing, as were the Chelsea fans, the Liverpool fans alongside us in the Annie Road were seated quietly.

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

Sturridge had a weak effort in front of The Kop. Liverpool had begun better in the second period, but the raiding Zappacosta put in a couple of testing crosses from the right. No Chelsea player was able to connect, save for a ball which bobbled up on to Morata’s chest and flew wide.

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

Away to our right, Antonio asked Willian, Fabregas and Rudiger to warm up.

On sixty-five minutes, Liverpool worked the ball in to our box and an attempted clearance from Bakayoko only teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain who touched the ball to Salah.

That horrible moment when you just bloody well know that a goal will be conceded.

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

After an age, Conte made a change. We struggled to work out why it was Drinkwater and not the very poor Bakayoko who was replaced by Fabregas. However, a lot more creativity immediately warmed us. Morata suddenly looked livelier. A few wonderful passes almost paid off.

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

We stepped it up. I kept saying to the lad with a Mancunian accent to my left –

“We’ll get a goal.”

The away support was warmed by our increased urgency. Another cross from Zappacosta was zipped in. Right in front of me, Alonso met the ball at knee height with a volley. I snapped my camera as his effort flew over. It could have been the best goal that he would ever score. It could have been the best photograph that I would ever take. In the end, both shots were consigned to the delete folder.

Sigh.

With seven minutes remaining, Willian replaced Zappacosta. We kept pushing, with Hazard and Fabregas the main assailants. The Chelsea support roared the team on.

With five minutes to go, Willian received the ball in the inside-right channel. He had a man outside, but pushed on. He chose to send over a teaser towards the far post. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ever. I watched, mesmerized, by the spinning ball. It fell out of the night sky, above the clawing hand of Mignolet, and into the top corner of the goal. As it rippled the net, some nameless photographer at The Kop end snapped his camera.

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

A scream and a shout. Arms everywhere. I clambered onto my seat – “please do not stand on the furniture” – and caught the blissful celebrations just yards away. What a moment. The goal was nothing more than we deserved.

In the final moments, a magnificent save from Courtois from Salah was met with thunderous applause.

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

I suppose we should have no complaints, but I cannot help but think that if the game had continued for another five minutes, we would have found a winner from somewhere.

It had taken forever to drive up to Anfield – a few minutes’ shy of five hours – and it took an equally long time to retrace our steps. There was slow-moving traffic on Queens Drive, heavy rain on the M6, and a 50 miles per hour speed limit too.

At a Balti House in West Bromwich, we enjoyed some curries while watching our game on “Match Of The Day.”

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

After setting off at 9.45am, I was back home at 2am. It wasn’t as far as Azerbaijan, but bloody hell it felt like it.

On Wednesday, we return home to Stamford Bridge to play Swansea City.

See you there.

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Tales From The South Bank

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2016. 

0557 : I am awake before the 0630 alarm, and there is simply no point in trying to get back to sleep. I have been buzzing for this game all week. I can’t wait to get going. A pre-planned pub crawl along the South Bank of the River Thames is the pre-curser to the London Derby later in the day. 0730 : I hop in to my car and turn the radio on. The song playing is by Madness and it seems wholly apt – “Lovestruck.” 0738 : PD, sporting a new navy Fred Perry, is collected and we are on our way. No words needed to express our sense of excitement. Belly laughs from the two of us. 0745 : Car parked at Glenn’s, the three of the four Chuckle Brothers are now on our short five-minute walk to Frome train station, where so many of my Chelsea trips had begun in the early ‘eighties. 0802 : Frome to Westbury, a beautiful sunny morning. 0821 : A text from Parky, the fourth Chuckle Brother, “just had a pint at the “Wetherspoons” in Melksham.” Off to a head start, Parky, you crafty old bugger. 0822 : Onto the Swindon train at Westbury, coffee tasting great. 0835 : Parky, with four cans of cider, joins us at Melksham. More laughter. The ciders are for the drinkers, PD and Parky. Myself and Glenn, the “B Team” will wait until we hit the first pub. This is already a fun time, and there are almost nine hours to go before the game starts. 0906 : At a windy Swindon station, all aboard the Paddington train. And relax. The journey flies by. Didcot, Reading, and in to London. We really should do this more often. 1015 : With a spring in our step, we step off the train, and go in search of a breakfast. 1030 : We are proper tourists now. Into a “Garfunkels” – a first-ever visit for me, surely no people from England visit this restaurant – on Praed Street for some nosebag. A decent fry-up hits the spot. The waitress even gets a decent tip. 1100 : The tube to London Bridge. 1130 : “The Barrowboy And Banker” – the first pub, right outside the station, and a pint of Peroni. Glenn spots some Millwall fans, who eye us up and leave. A walk past Southwark Cathedral, through Borough Market, thronged with people, our senses smacked sideways by the dizzying array of aromas emanating from the stalls selling a superb selection of nosh. 1200 : Into pub number two, “The Old Thameside Inn” right next to a replica of The Golden Hind. We sit outside, on a terrace right above the river, and note a few more football types, but can’t pin down their teams. The view is spectacular. “This seems like a European away.” And it’s true. We come up to London from our sleepy Somerset and Wiltshire towns and villages, yet very rarely open ourselves up to the majesty of London. We talk about how the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium, ahead of our trip there later in October, has proved to be so difficult for so many West Ham fans. Watching football in a sterile environment was always a fear that I had should we ever move away from Stamford Bridge. 1230 : “The Anchor” at Bankside, with the Manchester United vs. Leicester City game in an adjacent room. We prefer to sit inside, in the atmospheric snug, with a low-slung ceiling, with exposed beams. Our smiling beams were exposed too. What a brilliant time. “Let’s do something similar for Spurs at home, another 5.30pm.” “How about a stroll down the Kings Road?” United race ahead 3-0 on the TV game, and we mutter something about Jose Mourinho. Out into the sun, and I am gearing myself up for my round. 1315 : “The Swan” right next to the reworked Globe Theatre. “Looks a bit pricey, lads, wish me luck.” Again, more stunning views of the river, with the dome of St. Paul’s dominating. What a touch, the cheapest round yet. “Less than £20 boys – result.” Past Tate Modern – I last visited there in around 2002 – and past the Millennium Bridge. 1400 : “The Founders Arms” and the beers are flowing, the laughter is continuing. I last visited this pub on a Sixth Form trip in the summer of 1983, just before a gaggle of us watched Toyah Willcox in “Trafford Tanzi” in the Mermaid Theatre on the opposite bank. An England vs. New Zealand test match at The Oval in the day and a bit of culture in the evening. Back then, it was of the first pubs that I had ever bought a drink, and certainly the first in London. I remember thinking how charmless it was back in 1983, like something out of the Thamesmead setting of “A Clockwork Orange” but now everything was a lot lighter and welcoming. It was rammed with tourists. In 1983 – even on a Friday evening – it was a lot less busy. The plan was to head north and to join up with others at Holborn. We head south to Southwark train station. “Ah, bugger it, there’s ages to go yet, let’s pop into there for one more.” 1430 : “The Prince William Henry” and a quiet one, with no tourists, just a few locals. I am sticking to Peronis, PD and Parky are swerving from cider to lager, Glenn is – worryingly – on the Guinness. From Southwark, via a change at Green Park, to Holborn. 1530 : We quickly spot Alan, Gary and Daryl in a corner at the front of the final pub of the day, “The Shakespeare’s Head”, which is mobbed – as per usual – with Chelsea. Familiar faces everywhere I look. Two more pints. Up to a gallon for the day. Phew. “Not used to this.” Chelsea laughs and Chelsea smiles, and things are starting to get a little blurred. My good friend Starla, from San Francisco – a Chelsea fan for a while, and one of my first Chelsea “internet” friends from as long ago as 2006 – is over for a week, but we had not been able to rustle her up a ticket. I remember I was able to sort her out with a ticket for her first-ever Chelsea game in England at Newcastle in 2008. At least she can experience the pre-match with us. There are Chelsea songs bouncing around the pub. The team comes through on our phones, and it seems that for once a Chelsea manager and the club’s fans are on the same page. Cesc Fabregas in for Oscar. A return to The Emirates once more and let’s hope it is successful. There is – of course! – little talk of the game among all this drinking and boisterousness, but we all know that this will be a tough game. We have gone off the boil – wait, were we ever on the boil, yet, this season? – and I agree with PD. “I’ll take a point now.” 1645 : We shuffle down the escalators at Holborn and jump on a northbound train. The tube carriage is mobbed with Chelsea. Parky’s mate Ben leads the sing-song. “You want Wenger in. You want Wenger out. In out, in out, shake it all about. You do the Arsene Wenger and you turn around that’s what it’s all about.” There is also a shrill, high pitched chant of “Ar-senal Ar-senal, Ar-senal” from us and this is met with a few sniggers from the Goons among us. 1700 : I suddenly realise – as if I need reminding – how much they love their replica shirts, the Arsenal fans. Not us. 1715 : A quick bag search, and I’m in, quick to find my seat next to Alan and Gary. From the South Bank of the River Thames to the South Bank – the Clock End – at The Emirates. 1730 : The kick-off, and I’m trying to juggle photographs, text messages, some songs of support and the effects of a gallon of lager. It’s not going well. On the pitch it soon gets worse. 1741 : A calamity as Gary Cahill – heading towards the top of the unpopularity stakes – delays in playing an easy ball back to the waiting Thibaut Courtois, and Alexis Sanchez picks his pocket, and races towards goal. He dinks the ball over Courtois and sends the home fans delirious. “We’ll have to go at them now.” But we don’t. 1744 : A fine passing move in and around our defence – who are still and lifeless – ends up with Theo Walcott pushing the ball in from close-range. It is a typical Arsenal goal in many respects. For the rest of the half, Chelsea seem to have much of the ball but do absolutely nothing of note with it. 1810 : Arsenal go three-up as Ozil races through to volley a cross from Sanchez down, and up and over Courtois. This is grim, as grim as it can be. 1830 : The second-half begins, and I am just concerned about “damage limitation.” We beat Arsenal 6-0 in 2014, and I wonder if a horrible evening of retribution is about to befall us. Previously, our record at Arsenal’s new stadium is pretty decent, with four wins in ten games and just two defeats. The second-half is a little similar to the first. A decent amount of possession, but no end product. Around me, there is a dissatisfaction with our players. And that is putting it mildly. There are strong words among fellow fans, but I am pleased to see that as the second-half drifts by, very few Chelsea fans decide to leave. There are not many red seats on show. Out of nowhere, one song dominates. It soon gathers strength and is repeated, with clapping to give it an extra resonance, for what seems like ages but was probably not even ten minutes. “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.” Elsewhere, despite Arsenal winning their first game against us home since December 2010, I am amazed – no stirred, to be truthful – by the lack of noise from the home sections. “Three-nil and you still don’t sing” seems to sum it up. The manager makes changes as the half progresses. Marcos Alonso for Cesc. Ugh. It hasn’t worked out. Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for Hazard. The game continues. It’s dire stuff. Eventually a few fellow fans slink off into the murky London night. In the closing moments, Batshuayi has a couple of openings, and at last he produces our only shot on target throughout the entire game. 1930 : The referee signals a few minutes of extra time. “Come on Parky, let’s go.” I send a text to Glenn before my phone dies. “See you Paddington.” 2130 : The train back to the West of England pulls out of Paddington, and I just want to get home. The game I had just witnessed was one of the most lifeless and depressing performances in living memory. Where now, Chelsea? It might turn out to be a long long winter this one. There are a few boisterous Bristol City fans at the buffet as I get PD and myself a drink for the return journey. They are full of cheer about their 4-0 victory at Fulham, and there is a song for Tammy Abraham. I dislike – no, I hate – Bristol City and I must be one of a very small group of Chelsea fans who, although pleased for our young player, is far from happy about his spell at Ashton Gate. As the train heads west, the horrible Bristolian accent haunts me. Some City fans gave me a proper kicking in 1984 – Glenn and PD were with me that night – and this is the final twist of the knife on this most disheartening and depressing of days. 2330 : The night train to Frome sets off from Bath station, full of shrieking females from Trowbridge and Westbury. I just want to get some sleep. 0008 : The train slides in to Frome station and we say our goodbyes. “Have a good week Paul, see you at 6 o’clock next Saturday.” 

 

 

 

Tales From A Long And Winding Road

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2016.

There was a moment, not long in to the trip north, when the heavens opened and a spell of intense rain fell. The sky darkened, to an almost surreal dark green hue, and the light diminished. The spray from the cars ahead made visibility a struggle. I heaved a heavy sigh. After the second-half slow-down, and eventual capitulation at Sunderland, I had already made it quite clear that I was not relishing the long trek up to Liverpool for a Wednesday night game. I had picked up an annoying cough since just before the weekend, and as I battled the rain and the spray and the darkness, I kept barking every few minutes. There was a hint of a headache. I was not in a good place. If the rain continued on, this would surely turn out to be one of the most tedious away trips of them all.

I had taken a half-day holiday, and alongside me were Young Jake and Old Parky. They could both tell that I was getting stressed at the thought of another four hours on the road. Up on Merseyside, a few friends would be waiting for me. Jason had flown in to Liverpool from Dallas the day before, especially for the game, and I had managed to get him a ticket in the away end. It would be his first-ever Chelsea away match. If I was feeling sorry for myself a little, I was certainly feeling for him too. Let’s be honest, after our poor show at Sunderland, I think most Chelsea supporters – apart from those ridiculously optimistic ones, of which I know around four – were fearing the worst against a Liverpool team that, on their day, could shine. Jason would also be missing John Terry too, banished to some excruciating nether world. I was also mindful that our end might possibly be full of empty seats. I had memories of our 4-1 loss at Anfield on the Wednesday after we beat them in the 2012 Cup Final, when our end had swathes of empty seats. Our end was maybe only half-full. As far as first away games went, for Jason this could well be a most rotten one.

Thankfully – and I really was thankful – at around Cheltenham, the sky miraculously cleared and the sun eventually started to burn its way through the layers of foggy cloud.

By the time I had reached Birmingham, the day was turning out to be very pleasant.

I had become suddenly, yawningly, tired though. At Hilton Park Services, just out of Walsall, I decided to have a thirty-minute power nap. Jake and Parky were banished into the services as I reclined the seat. I closed my eyes. I was away. Only my bloody coughing woke me. Feeling instantly refreshed, I made light work of the remaining ninety miles or so. These away trips can be so tiring. Thankfully, I was pencilled in to do a late shift starting at 2pm on the Thursday; there would be no doubt that I would be sleeping for England once I would eventually return.

We were parked up near Albert Dock at just after 4.30pm, some five hours after I left work in Melksham. We met up with an excited Jason at a bar adjacent to “The Beatles Story” in the Albert Dock complex. I last saw him when he came over for a game in SW6 in 2013. He was having a fine time in Liverpool; he had popped up to have a look around Goodison Park on the Tuesday. This was the same bar that we chose for pre-match beers before the Everton cup game; it serves excellent Warsteiner lager.

“Four pints please.”

As at Everton, we were joined by Kim and Eddie, and it was lovely to see them both again. As before, music and football dominated the chat. We spoke about places for Jason to visit on the Thursday, and a few ideas were suggested. We chatted about The Beatles. Eddie was rather taken aback when it transpired that the five of us – Kim, Parky, Jake, Jason and myself – were not really fans of Britain’s greatest ever pop band. Coming from Merseyside, and a musician himself, his astonishment was real.

What a tragedy. What a mystery.

Time was moving on and I wanted to make sure that I was parked-up in good time. I wanted to make sure that Jason wasn’t rushed on his first visit to Anfield, and – more importantly – got to squeeze as much as possible into his two hours with the Chelsea hard-core.

Our walk through a housing estate would have caused me a severe anxiety attack back in the ‘eighties, but there was thankfully no antagonism or nastiness from any loitering youths. Strangely enough, we found ourselves on Robson Street, near the very bus stop that I had first alighted at Anfield on my first trip in May 1985, over thirty-one years ago. I easily remembered walking down the terraced road, with the almost mystical Kop at the bottom of the street. In 1984/1985, I only went to five away games due to finances, and the visit to Anfield was one of the highlights for sure. Liverpool were European Champions in 1984 and reigning League Champions too. They were in their pomp. Growing up as a child in the ‘seventies, and well before Chelsea fans grew tired of Liverpool’s cries of history, there were few stadia which enthralled me more than Anfield, with The Kop a beguiling wall of noise.

No gangways on The Kop, just bodies. A swaying mass of humanity.

Heading up to Liverpool, on an early-morning train from Stoke, I was excited and a little intimidated too. Catching a bus up to the stadium outside Lime Street was probably the nearest that I came to a footballing “rite of passage” in 1985. I was not conned into believing the media’s take that Scousers were loveable so-and-sos. I knew that Anfield could be a chilling away ground to visit. Famously, there was the “Cockneys Die” graffiti on the approach to Lime Street. My first real memory of Liverpool, the city, on that murky day over three decades ago was that I was shocked to see so many shops with blinds, or rather metal shutters, to stave off robberies. It was the first time that I had seen such.

The mean streets of Liverpool? You bet.

We walked down Venmore Street – I am adamant it was the same street I walked in 1985 – with the new main stand dominating Anfield. It will be a huge structure once completed, adding 10,000 more to the stadium’s capacity. There has been extensive housing clearance around the stadium for a while. Venmore Street has grassy areas now, and only The Albert pub underneath the new stand has been left standing, solitary, for ages, it’s terraced neighbours razed to the ground.

Back in 1985, the local scallies – flared cords and Puma trainers by the look of it, all very 1985 – were prowling as I took a photograph of the old Kop.

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Back in 1985, traveling down to Chelsea from Stoke, I was well aware of the schism taking place in the casual subculture at the time. Sportswear was giving way to a more bohemian look in the north-west – flares were back in for a season or two – but this look never caught on in London.

I always maintained that it was like this :

London football – “look smart.”

Liverpool and Manchester football – “look different.”

We walked around past The Kop – and mirrored the route that I undoubtedly took in 1985.

The Centenary Stand, in 2016, was the site of the Kemlyn Road Stand – complete with newly-arrived police horses – in 1985. You can almost smell the gloom. Note the mast of the SS Great Eastern, which still hosts a fluttering flag on match days to this day.

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We were now outside the site of the old away end at Anfield. Back in 1985, the turnstiles were housed in a wall which had shards of glass on the top to deter fans from gaining free entry. Note the Chelsea supporters’ coach and the Sergio Tacchini top.

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To complete this visit down memory lane, and to emphasise how bloody early I was on that Saturday morning in May 1985 – it was an 11.30am kick-off to deter excessive drinking and, ergo, hooliganism – here is a photograph of an empty, waiting, expectant Anfield. I guess that this photograph of the Chelsea squad in their suits was taken at an hour or so before kick-off. This is something we never see at games now; a Chelsea team inspecting the pitch before the game. I suspect that for many of the players, this would have been their first visit to Anfield too. Maybe that half-explains it.

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Incidentally, we lost that game at Anfield 4-3, but it was a fantastic Chelsea performance. The attendance, incidentally, was only 33,000 – way below capacity at the time. Maybe we should take to inquiring of the Scousers “Where were you when you were good?”

Inside the stadium, with the new upper tier peering over all, I was pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea fans were already in attendance. My worries of an embarrassingly small “take” were proving to be unfounded. In the concourse, I introduced Jason to a smattering of the loyalists. The mood among us was not great.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Hiddink had tweaked the team since Saturday.

Begovic – Baba, Mikel, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Traore.

Eddie, the Liverpool supporter – he has a season ticket in the Kemlyn, er Centenary Stand – was convinced that Klopp would put out a “B” team ahead of their Europa League Final, but it looked pretty strong to me. It included the England’s most boring international of recent memory, the plodding James Milner.

The Chelsea fans were assembled, and the home fans too.

Liverpool supporters always mock our plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, and they poke fun at our supposed plastic and manufactured atmosphere. Well, just before the teams came out on to the pitch, we were treated to “We Will Rock You” in an effort to get the locals energised and I rolled my eyes.

The teams.

Red.

Blue.

The atmosphere heightened.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I looked around. Familiar faces everywhere and not too many empty seats. A fantastic effort on a Wednesday night.

Liverpool, as they always seem to do at Anfield, began very brightly and that man Coutinho seemed to be everywhere. I really like him. He’s a fine player. We were immediately concerned about Baba’s waywardness – “Have you turned your GPS on Baba?” bellowed Alan – but through a mixture of poor finishing, and strong defending we survived the early onslaught. Sturridge was wasteful early on with a ridiculously high free-kick, and we loved that. We never really warmed to him at Chelsea, and since joining Liverpool, there has been no love lost. Soon into the game, we rounded on him.

“Chelsea reject.”

Rather than smile it off, he pulled a stern face, and encouraged us to sing up, waving his hands in mock encouragement. He was the target of our abuse for ages.

“Well this is going to end one of two ways” I laughed.

Begovic was particularly active, saving well, but many of their shots were right at our ‘keeper. A heavy touch from Firmino when through was met by howls of derision. Our goal was, if I am honest, living a rather charmed life. Chances from Lallana and Lovren were wasted. After around twenty minutes, we kept possession for a lovely spell, and seemed to get a foothold in the game, as so often happens at Anfield. We began to get Eden Hazard involved, and how he warmed to the task. He danced and weaved past defenders with ease and came close with a long shot that Mignolet saved. Our support was strong throughout the opening period, and grew noisier, while poking fun at the docile home fans.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

A blue flare was set off to my right, and the away end was filled with sulphurous fumes. I spotted a banner in praise of John Terry.

“Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up.”

We were on top now, and playing some lovely stuff. Matic was the Matic of old, breaking play up and moving the ball on. We grew stronger with every tackle won. What a Jekyl and Hyde season. Why were we not so fired up against Sunderland?

The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who waltzed out wide, and then exchanged a pass with Baba, before cutting in, like a slalom skier, and dancing past innumerable Liverpool defenders – I use the term with a little reticence, since none of them bothered to put in a tackle – and slotted home, the ball nestling just inside the far post

One-nil to Chelsea and The Kop go mild.

Fantastic. What a sublime goal. He’s having a goal of the season contest all to himself as this campaign closes. We celebrated wildly.

Ah, this game could turn out to be alright in the end.

Traore, full of running, but with a tendency to cut back on himself rather than push on, then came close to making it 2-0. Baba, playing better now after a shaky start, was in place to hack away after a timely block.

One-up at the break and time for a photo with Jason, who was watching right down the front.

At half-time, Star Wars paratroopers and a dance routine.

First, Queen and now Star Wars. This was turning into a “Room 101” evening for me.

Queen, shite, Star Wars, shite.

The second-half, with Chelsea attacking the loud and proud away fans, will be remembered by myself for the number of times that Eden Hazard, looking every inch, every centimetre, the player who so beguiled us last season, took flight and attacked the cowering Liverpool defenders. I brought my camera up to my eyes and captured several of his wonderful flights of fancy.

The puff of the cheeks, the body getting ready to explode with pace, the eyes wide open and in focus, the acceleration past a defender, the sudden stop, the change of direction, a feint, the move again, the flick, the touch, the energy.

It was truly mesmerising.

Baba of all people went close.

I thought of two mates in the US.

Steve, soon heading off to see a Liverpool vs. Chelsea pairing, of sorts, in Pennsylvania; Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole now team mates at LA Galaxy, playing at Philadelphia Union.

JR, his wife Erin expecting the birth of their first child and the birth very imminent. If we could hold on for an unexpected win, and the baby was born on Wednesday 11 May, maybe they might be tempted to name the baby Eden.

Sturridge was having a ‘mare in front of The Kop. Maybe we had got to him after all.

This was turning into a great game of football. We broke at will on a few more occasions, and Pedro – the latest of our masked men – should have done better on two occasions.

Mikel was coolness personified as he chested down a cross before releasing a great ball out.

“Jon – Obi – Mikel” sang our support, with no hint of irony.

To be honest, there had not been the all-out songfest in praise of John Terry that some had perhaps expected.

Liverpool slowly clawed their way back, but the noise was quiet. I remembered my first visit to the same stadium in 1985. We had all been brought up on the notion of Anfield being red hot, but I remember coming away all those years ago being very underwhelmed.

Kenedy came on for a quiet, again, Willian. He began in a blaze of glory with a spectacular dribble, but faded.

News came through that Sunderland were beating Everton.

Newcastle United and Norwich City were no more.

The Chelsea choir were celebrating :

“He’s going down, he’s going down. Rafa’s going down.”

So much for my bloody cough. Despite the risk of irritating my throat further, I was joining in with all of the songs; there is no rationality to it, is there?

Baba blocked an on-target Coutinho effort.

Traore came close before being replaced by debutant Tammy Abraham. The play swayed from end to end, with both teams looking to score. Abraham, clean through, could not finish. Pedro was wasteful again. I was convinced that we would hang on for a win – for you, Jason, for you JR – but with extra-time being played, a cross from the Liverpool left was parried by Begovic, but we watched aghast as the ball fell for a Liverpool player to head home.

Bollocks.

At least it wasn’t Sturridge.

The Liverpool fans were now noisy as hell and I wondered where they had been all game. Of course the goal hurt, and I think our play definitely deserved a win, but I would have taken a draw before the game, as would many. I had thoroughly enjoyed the game. What a surprise. It had been a cracker. And Eden Hazard; at times, unplayable.

Outside in the concourse, we said our goodbyes.

Parky, Jake and I walked back to the waiting car, at the top of the hill, equidistant between the two football cathedrals of Goodison and Anfield. Out onto the East Lancs road, around the city and the long trip south.

And it was a long trip south. We were diverted off the M6 on two separate occasions, and I took a silly error-ridden detour through Birmingham city centre. It was a proper Chelsea-themed magical mystery tour.

The evening’s game at Anfield would represent only the second time in my life that I had completed all away league games in a single season.

Nineteen out of nineteen.

I did it in 2008/2009 and I have done it in 2015/2016.

I dropped the lads off, feeling so tired now, driving on auto-pilot. This long and winding road – The Away Club 2015/2016 – finally ended as I turned into my drive at 3.45am on Thursday.

It was time to sleep.

For Harrison Patrick Lotto, future Chelsea supporter, born 12 May 2016.

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Tales From 1905 To 2016

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 7 February 2016.

I love a good list. If it is football-related, even better.

A week or so ago, I stumbled across a little gem which I had originally seen a year or so ago. It was a complete list of the teams with the highest average home attendances, year on year, since the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888/1889 to the current day. The timing was impeccable; it came just in time for the visit of Manchester United. The Red Devils, in my lifetime, have topped the list of highest home attendances in what seems like nearly every season. They have dominated, much to the chagrin of their closest rivals. And yet I knew full well that Chelsea, especially in our early years, drew phenomenally large crowds at Stamford Bridge. I have touched on my desire to debunk the myth about Chelsea being a “small club with money” on a few occasions before and so it was with great relish that I studied this list once more.

Of course, there is a famous line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” but this particular statistical nugget provided a really intriguing insight into the growth of football, and football fandom, over a span of one hundred and fifteen seasons – of which I have attended games in forty-three of them – and helped to illustrate how certain clubs dominated certain eras.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For the first ten seasons, from 1888/1889 to 1897/1898, one club dominated the attendance record. That club was Everton, who finished with the highest average gate in every single one of those seasons, despite being league champions just once. During the very first season, the average attendance in the top division was 4,639, and Everton’s average was 7,260. By 1887/1898, the average had grown to 9,558, while Everton’s had swollen to a weighty 17,390.

Next up were Aston Villa, taking over Everton’s mantle as top drawers, with six straight seasons of league-leading averages. In 1898/1899, Villa’s average was a sizeable 23,045. In the league’s first twelve seasons, Villa were the first real powerhouse force, claiming the league five times. The early years of professional football in the late nineteenth century were dominated by teams from the Midlands and the North. For many years, the Football League did not consist of a single southern team.

Taking over from Aston Villa were Newcastle United, with three straight seasons of leading the league in average home gates, which mirrored three championships for the Geordies in the first decade of the twentieth century. The average on Tyneside in 1906/1907 of 33,235 dwarfed the top flight average of 15,526. Interestingly, my grandfather – the cricketer and footballer, from whom I think I received my sporting genes – was a young boy at around this time, and perhaps it is no wonder that, although he was not a fervent fan, if ever pressed, he always said that he used to follow the results of Aston Villa as a young lad, and also – to a lesser extent – Newcastle United, as he became a young man.

In to this new sport, with clubs jousting for attention, came Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea, formed in 1905, were able to take part in the Second Division during 1905/1906. In that inaugural season, our home average was 13,370, compared to the divisional average of 13,429. That seems a reasonable start, yet this only tells half of the story. Most attendances at Stamford Bridge were around 8,000 to 10,000. But there were 25,000 present for the visit of Bristol City, who would end up as Second Division Champions, and 30,000 for the game against Glossop on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

However, this is where the story comes alive.

The Chelsea vs. Manchester United game on Good Friday 1906 was watched by a staggering 67,000.

I have always been astounded by the size of this gate. It seemed to come, unannounced, out of nowhere. I have no evidence to back it up, but I’d suggest it created a new league attendance record at the time. It would be Stamford Bridge’s first colossal crowd. One can only imagine the frenzied activity around the pubs and saloons on the Fulham Road and the melee at each of the busy turnstiles as such a number of spectators feverishly entered the stadium, ascended the steps, and then saw the vastness of the Stamford Bridge arena from the top of the terracing. Both Chelsea and Manchester United were excelling towards the top of the table, and I can only imagine that the Easter crowd were drawn to watch two promotion hopefuls going toe to toe. I hope they all witnessed a fine game. It ended 1-1. However, Chelsea would not win any of our remaining five games in 1905/1906, finishing nine points away from Manchester United, who were promoted alongside Bristol City.

Of course, in those days, virtually all of the spectators would have lived in London and the Home Counties, travelling in by train, tram and charabanc. Unlike in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and later – there would have been no sizeable United following at Stamford Bridge. The mere thought of all of those people, all those lives touched by the sport of football, the enormity of it all makes me lose myself in thought. For many, perhaps, it would be their first ever football match. I wonder what they thought of it all. It must have been an amazingly potent and visceral experience. The sense of occasion, the colour, the cigarette smoke, the ribald laughter, the cheers from the crowd, the players.

67,000 in our very first season; what a start for the young pretenders.

Chelsea had made their mark.

Is this the end of this trip down memory lane? Not a bit of it.

It gets better.

In season 1907/1908, Chelsea were the team with the highest home league attendance with a hefty 31,965, almost double the First Division average of 16,809. It was our first season in the top flight. The young pretenders, despite finishing in an unremarkable thirteenth place, were setting the football world alight. By comparison, Arsenal were one place behind us, but their home average was a lowly 13,765.

In fact, from 1907/1908 to 1925/1926 – fifteen seasons, allowing for the hiatus enforced by World War One – Chelsea finished top of the averages on nine occasions. It would be our high water mark in terms of attendances. In 1919/1920, we finished third in the First Division but we topped the attendances with an average of 42,615, which – at the time – was an all-time record across all clubs. It was a heady time to be at Stamford Bridge, despite silverware eluding us. A particularly impressive season was 1925/1926 when we recorded a league leading high of 32,355 despite playing in the Second Division.

So, take a moment and suck all of that information in.

Chelsea were always a small club with poor gates? Not true.

In later years, other clubs’ periods of dominance were reflected in high average attendances. In the ‘thirties, Arsenal ruled, with nine consecutive seasons ahead of the pack with an impressive high of 46,252 in 1934/1935. Newcastle United – again – and then Tottenham Hotspur dominated in the immediate years after World War Two. Chelsea’s last season of topping the attendance chart was our Championship year of 1954/1955 with 48,260.

Interestingly, Manchester United did not register the league’s highest average until as late as season 1956/1957. The year after, of course, the supreme sadness of the Munich air disaster galvanized an entire nation and Manchester United have dominated attendances ever since. In the past fifty-nine seasons, they have finished with the highest home attendance some forty-eight times. Since 1966/1967, their dominance is especially marked; only five Liverpool seasons have interrupted their procession. For the past twenty-two straight seasons, United have finished in first place.

For as long as I can remember, they have always pulled the crowds.

My first Chelsea game was in 1974, yet it took me ten years until I saw those famous red shirts of United at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.  A grainy photograph from the West Stand benches takes me back.

On that occasion, just after Christmas 1984, the gate was 42,197 and we sadly lost 1-3. Alongside me on that day were Alan and Glenn, and we would be watching together some thirty-two years later. In those days of course, the open north terrace housed up to eight thousand away fans and United certainly brought thousands.

However, it was a black day for me; seeing United for the first time, yet losing.

Before I close this walk through the turnstiles of the past, here is a summary of teams that have finished with the highest average home attendance each season.

Manchester United – 48 times.

Everton – 13 times.

Arsenal – 12 times.

Newcastle United – 11 times.

Chelsea – 10 times.

Aston Villa – 7 times.

Liverpool – 7 times.

Tottenham Hotspur – 6 times.

Manchester City – 3 times.

For those with an interest in all of this, here is a link to the website.

http://www.european-football-statistics.co.uk/attn/nav/attnengleague.htm

…from 1905/1906, I need to bring all of this up to date.

The weekend drew near, but although the lure of another Chelsea vs. Manchester United game – my thirty-fourth at Stamford Bridge – was exciting enough, the chance to meet up with my mates again was even more important. After three away games in north London and to the north of London, it would be good to be back home again in deepest SW6.

On the Saturday before the game, which marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the previously-mentioned Munich air disaster, I was pleased to see so many of my fellow Chelsea supporters being respectful on “Facebook” with quite a few posting kind words and pictures in remembrance of those that were killed so many years ago. It really warmed me. It contradicted the still widely-held view that a lot of football followers are mindless hooligans.

This fact was touched upon during an hour or so spent at “The Bottlery”, near Earl’s Court, where I shared a couple of pints with Glenn and Dave. Glenn had volunteered to drive us up to Chelsea, and so this allowed me a few pints for a change. Dave was over from France, and was following up Wednesday’s evening of fun – cough – in Watford with a home game. Parky and P Diddy had diverted off to “The Goose” where they were launching into a gallon of cider apiece. So, on a perfect Sunday, Dave, Glenn and myself supped some beers, had a bite to eat, and talked about a few topics close to our heart. We spoke about Leicester City’s amazing season. It seems everyone wants them to win it. We touched on the protest among Liverpool fans at their game at the weekend. If pushed, I would walk out from a Chelsea game too, if all other avenues of discourse were blocked. We spoke of the away game in Paris. Dave is going, though is honestly not convinced that he knows why. We spoke about Hillsborough. The horror still haunts. We spoke about standing areas. Celtic will be a test case. We spoke about the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. We were optimistic. We spoke about an exile at Wembley. We were pessimistic. We spoke about all sorts.

Intelligent football talk? If only the people who still think that we are knuckle-dragging oafs could have heard us.

We were having a lovely time.

We then sped over to a local pub, “The Pembroke”, where two visitors from California were waiting. Alex and Annissa were in town for a few days, and I had arranged to spend a bit of time with them before they watched their first ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. They just wanted to experience an authentic pre-match with some of us regulars. The two of them watch most of our games at the famous “Olde Ship” in Santa Ana, California, and were full of giddy excitement at the thought of seeing Chelsea, and no doubt Manchester United. It certainly was a great game, on paper, for a Stamford Bridge debut. In an email exchange, I had written, tongue in cheek:

“See you in the pub. We’ll be the ones not wearing Chelsea shirts.”

We ordered some beers, and the chat accelerated away. They were so happy to be able to meet some old-school supporters.

After a few moments of getting to know each other, Annissa whispered to me “so why don’t you wear Chelsea shirts?”

“Oh gosh. How long have you got?”

We then gave the two visitors a crash course in a few Chelsea fundamentals. We spoke about how I first met Glenn at school in 1977 and on The Shed in 1983, and how I first met Dave in Los Angeles in 2007. We chatted about our usual routines on match day, the Chelsea pubs, which are sadly closing one by one. The days of ska at “The Imperial”. How skinheads and boots gave way to Adidas trainers and Lacoste polo shirts in the days of our youth. Talk of Gus Mears and Brompton Cemetery. The fact that Stamford Bridge, unable to be expanded in 2011, is now looking to expand by 18,000. The Banter. Pints. Memories of Munich. The three of us were taking the piss out of each other and everyone else. The two Californians were lapping it up.

In “The Goose” Arsenal were on the TV, but nobody was watching. With so many nearby pubs closing, the pub gets busier and busier with each passing game. Annissa and Alex purchased the iconic “Chelsea and Proud” pensioner pin badge. Their smiles were wide. I could tell they were loving it.

In among the laughter, there was a moment of farce.

My friend Alan had written to the club and had asked that an obituary for dear Tom be placed in a match programme. Alan had texted me on Friday to say that there would be a short piece, written by Alan, plus a photo of Tom, in the Manchester United programme on the Sunday. The photo chosen was a rather nice one, featuring Tom at the front, with Alan, Glenn and myself, behind.

Imagine our displeasure when we heard that the imbeciles at Chelsea had cropped Tom from the photograph completely, leaving just a head shot of Alan to accompany the obituary. I was fuming. Alan, after his initial exasperation, was still annoyed, but was sure that Tom would be finding the funny side of it.

What a bloody farce.

After a while, a few texts started coming in from those friends who had already purchased a match programme.

“Bloody hell, Alan, you looked fine at Watford.”

Annissa and Alex left early to catch the pre-game stuff. They had seats in the MHL, down below Alan, Glenn, P Diddy and myself, all seated together. To be honest, there had hardly been much time to pay attention to the team. Suffice to say, Guus Hiddink went with the same team that began against Watford; no place, again, for Eden Hazard.

I had predicted 0-0 for the game at Old Trafford in December. My prediction for the return game was the same.

The United fans, the men in black, were already singing by the time I reached my seat. They had brought a few more flags than usual. One with the Munich clock. One for the “Ralph Milne Ultras.” Ferguson’s most unlikely signing in 1988, Ralph Milne became something of a cult figure at Old Trafford. He is their Robert Fleck. Kinda. Milne sadly passed away in 2015 and his flag bore the tangerine and black of his former club Dundee United, with whom he won a Scottish championship medal in 1983.

So, the Ralph Milne Ultras.

Not everything in Planet Football makes sense.

With Stamford Bridge full to its current capacity of 41,000, it was time for the focus to turn to the game itself.

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Manchester United have reverted back to Adidas this season, and their red, white and black is deeply reminiscent of the kits that were worn by United in their under-achieving years of the mid-‘eighties. I have to say it is a classic kit. The three stripes looked at home.

Sadly, United got out of the traps the quickest. Chelsea seemed unable to stop their quick passing, and although I was trying my hardest to ignore how much possession they were enjoying, by the time they started to rack up corner after corner, it was obvious that we were second best. It still hurt to see the smiling face of Juan Mata in red. His delicious touch made it all the more difficult to watch. However, a Courtois save from Martial was thankfully the only time that our goal was seriously threatened in the opening period of play. We struggled to create anything of note. A shot from Diego Costa flew wide of the post. The United fans were, unsurprisingly, the loudest. In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Chelsea support hardly sang a note. There had been loud shouts in honour of John Terry at the start, but it was as quiet a Chelsea vs. Manchester United game as I could remember. Although Kurt Zouma shows great promise, both Alan and myself wished that he had more confidence in his own ability to allow him other options than a quick hoof of the ball in to row Z.

We were warmed slightly with a couple of half-chances, but then United, in turn, threatened us too. The big bearskin of Fellaini met a corner, but he was thankfully off target. It was a decidedly humdrum affair. Towards the very end of the first period, a John Terry effort struck the arm of Blind. It didn’t seem to be “ball to hand.” From my viewpoint, it was hardly point-blank range. Surely Blind could have moved his arm away? Despite our howls of derision, no penalty was given.

At the break, all was quiet.

United continued where they had left off as the second-half began. This was tough to watch. Shots flew at Courtois.

Hiddink, admonished for using just one substitute at Watford, soon replaced the quiet Oscar with Eden Hazard. Then, Kurt Zouma fell awkwardly. A stretcher was soon called for, but it seemed to take a while for him to leave the pitch. We wondered what the problem was; it was not clear. It didn’t look good. I felt guilty for being negative towards him earlier. Gary Cahill was the easy replacement.

On the hour, the best move of the match. United worked the ball out to the left, where Borthwick-Jackson (who?) struck a low cross in to the box. Wayne Rooney touched it to Lingard, who seemed to be unhindered as he brought the ball under control and struck it past Courtois.

Ugh.

All was not good.

The home fans still sat silently. There seemed to be no will to generate much noise. I felt for Annissa and Alex down in the tier below.

We slowly created a few more chances. A Willian free-kick, and then a powerful volley from Ivanovic both tested De Gea. Fabregas was the next to threaten the United goal, but another fine stop from the United ‘keeper. Pedro replaced Matic.

There was only a slight response from the Chelsea support.

However, as the minutes ticked by, we enjoyed more and more of the ball. A few wayward efforts frustrated us. It seems churlish to knock Willian after his exemplary form in the first few months, but he seems to have faltered of late. Some of his corners and free-kicks were woeful.

Then, a hope of salvation.

There were an added six minutes.

The crowd at last responded.

“Come on.”

With the United defence massed behind the ball, Cesc Fabregas miraculously found an unmarked Diego Costa in the middle of the penalty area. I could hardly believe it. Time seemed to stand still. I immediately stood up, expecting a goal. Diego turned, rode the challenge of a defender and pushed the ball wide of De Gea. With me just about to go in to orbit, Diego coolly slotted home from an angle. At last The Bridge thundered. I turned to see Alan screaming right at me.

Get in.

Down below, a fist pump from Diego Costa, and a hug from John Terry, who had sauntered up field to add support to the attack. Stamford Bridge echoed to the sound of a relieved home support. And I bet Annissa and Alex were in heaven.

In the final minute, a lovely moment. Juan Mata was replaced by Herrera and Stamford Bridge rose, seemingly as one, to applaud our former number ten.

Just like in 1906, the game had ended 1-1, though I can only hope that the match that drew 67,000 all those decades ago was a far better game.

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Tales From The Clock End

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2016.

I began the day early. This was going to be a long one. I had everything planned out. As with last season’s trip to Arsenal, there would hopefully be a little pub crawl for the four of us from the Somerset and Wiltshire border, ahead of meeting up with more friends nearer kick-off. This would be my tenth trip to Arsenal’s new stadium. For the vast majority of those games, and a couple at Highbury too, the meet would be at “The Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn. Last season, after Parky and I went on an enjoyable walk on the north bank of the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith, we arrived late, just as the pub was reaching a Magic Hat crescendo. This year, we would be aiming for a walk through the West End before joining the massed ranks of the Chelsea Loyalists. It was going to be a fine day out.

The actual football itself worried me of course. I am sure that I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

As I set off at just before 8am, I turned the car radio on. I was automatically tuned to Radio Two, and a Sunday morning show was playing a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” On a day when I might be seeking for divine intervention in the quest for goals and points, I thought that this was quite apt.

The Chuckle Bus was fully laden for the trip to the capital. PD and myself in the front. Glenn and Parky in the back. When I had picked up PD, we both agreed on one thing.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Whisper it, but I was almost expecting us to get gubbed.

“I can see us losing 3-0.”

Glenn, who was coming with me to Arsenal for the first time since those two back-to-back FA Cup games in 2003 and 2004, was much more upbeat.

“Nah, we’ll do ‘em.”

The roads were quiet. We parked at Barons Court and rode the dark blue Piccadilly Line in to the West End. The pubs were relatively quiet, but it made a nice change to be seeing a different part of the city. Our ramble took us slowly east.

“The Sussex.”

“The Round Table.”

“The White Swan.”

“The Sun.”

“The Shakespeare’s Head.”

We were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Football was only part of the equation. Each of the first four pubs were cosy and full of character. “The Round Table” is a particular favourite of mine, its reputation slightly tarnished only because it brought back memories of Tottenham away last year, when we assembled there prior to heading north to N17. We stumbled across a few familiar faces in “The Sun” – off the beaten track really, quite a surprise – and then headed off to the last pub of the day, which – unlike the others – is far from cosy. Outside, my work colleague Bruno was waiting for me. It was just a minute or so before 2pm.

Bruno : “Hey, you’re on time.”

Chris : “We work in logistics, mate.”

Bruno is from Fortaleza in northern Brazil and had been working alongside me in our office in Chippenham and then Melksham since late Spring. He, typically, is a devoted football enthusiast. While studying in Portugal, he played for a lower level football team, somewhere in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, and his eighteen year old brother is currently on trial with us here in England. His team back home in Brazil is Palmeiras, from San Paolo, the city which hosts our 2012 World Club Championship opponents Corinthians. I was tickled to hear that Bruno has nothing but bad things to say about Corinthians. I heard a whisper that he had a slight inkling towards Arsenal, but I think it is fair to say that since we have been sharing the same office, my devotion to the Chelsea cause has inevitably worked a little magic on him. Throughout the week, I had semi-seriously joked that his life would change on Sunday 24 January 2016.

“Your life will never be the same, Bruno.”

Bruno studied for his Master’s degree at Bath University – he has loved being in England – but was yet to see a football match of any description while over here. Luckily, a ticket became available at the very last minute from a good mate, and so I was very happy to be able to invite him along. The timing really was perfect. His last day of work with us was on the preceding Friday and his flight back to Brazil would be on the Thursday. His wife had left for Brazil a week or so ago. This really would be a royal blue send off. There was just the worry about sending him away from Arsenal with a fine Chelsea performance. I knew that he would enjoy the experience of being in and among three thousand of us, but the actual match result was not so clear.

Regardless, I soon introduced Bruno to a smattering of my match-going companions in the large and noisy pub. Very soon, the boozer was reverberating with a few Chelsea songs. I could see that Bruno was impressed.

“I can see why this takes up so much of your life, mate.”

We were stood next to Alan and Gary. I casually mentioned that Gary has missed just one home game since 1976…”Sheffield United at home, 1992, Jason Cundy scored, we lost 2-1, chicken pox”…and this blew Bruno away.

“Fantastic.”

As always, Arsenal away brings back memories of 1984. I spoke to Bruno about that momentous day, and showed him a YouTube clip of Kerry scoring in front of a packed Clock End.

“Our first game back in the top flight in five years.”

“You were there, right?”

“We were all there, Bruno. And there is an entire book, in which I have written a few words, devoted to that one game.”

By the end of our hour or so in the pub, Bruno was asking about membership and season tickets.

I had a little chuckle to myself.

The team news came through.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Mikel – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.

Inside the tube, full of Chelsea, there were songs, one after the other.

“Make way for the champions…”

Bruno was full of smiles.

On the walk from Arsenal tube station – I was a little dismayed that I didn’t have enough time to show Bruno the classic art deco stands of Highbury – there were a few more Chelsea songs, but these soon petered out as we got closer to the towering stadium.

There was that odd little Arsenal chant as we walked up and over the railway lines.

“What do you think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“What do you think of shit?”

“Tottenham.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

Away in the distance, an altercation between rival fans, an echo from the past.

A shove, a punch, a stand-off, a kick.

There was time for one last photograph of Bruno and myself outside the Clock End, and we were inside.

We only reached our allotted seats with a few seconds to spare. As usual, I was positioned midway back, firmly behind the corner flag, alongside the usual suspects. Glenn was in the front row. PD was further back. Bruno towards the rear. The sky was full of low cloud. The air was still and mild. This seemed like a typical footballing day in the capital. A grey day on the surface, but full of colour – red, white, blue – underneath. The undulating upper tier of Arsenal’s stadium matched my thoughts of the day thus far. There had been lovely highs in the five pubs with good friends, but now my thoughts were full of worry about the ensuing ninety minutes.

Our play from the offset looked calm and assured. I was quickly impressed. There was efficiency in our movement and passing. This was as good a start as I could ever have hoped. I am not sure if the mind plays tricks, due to the fact that the stands are so far from the pitch at The Emirates, but there always seems to be tons of space down our right at Arsenal’s new stadium. Ivanovic and Willian were soon exploiting it.

Chances were traded, but there were no real threats on either goal.

While I waited to hear any noise from the home support, our corner quadrant was full of noise. Of course, I lament the atmosphere in the home areas of Stamford Bridge on virtually a weekly basis, so I can’t be hypocritical and say too much. However, the silence at The Emirates shocked me. Yes, home areas are usually quiet at most stadia these days, but Arsenal seem to continually set the bar high – or low – and it gets worse with every passing season.

A fine move found Willian inside the box, but his volley was wildly off target. However, it hit an Arsenal defender, allowing him a second bite of the cherry. Petr Cech – I’m over him, by the way – easily blocked Willian’s snatched follow-up.

Soon after, Willian played the ball in to space, dissecting the Arsenal line, and Mertesacker felled Diego Costa. There was a slight delay, but in my mind I was hoping that the much-maligned Mark Clattenburg would show a red card. He didn’t let me down. Get in. The Chelsea contingent roared. This was going too well. Bizarrely, Wenger took off Giroud.

A few minutes later, the ball ricocheted out to Ivanovic, lurking in space on the right. He wasted no time in punching the ball low in to the box, and I had a perfect view as Diego Costa met the ball perfectly. The ball crashed in to the net, past Cech, 1-0 to the champions.

The south-eastern section of the Clock End erupted. I punched the air continually. Such joy.

“He’s done it again.

He’s done it again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done it again.”

This soon morphed into the more sinister –

“He’s done you again.

He’s done you again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done you again.”

Arsenal never really threatened us in the rest of the first-half. Our defenders were supremely solid, no more so than the captain, who was simply dominant. We had a few chances. A towering header from Ivanovic was headed off the line. This was fantastic stuff. Our section was in full voice, almost embarrassingly so. Elsewhere, the residents of the Emirates – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middling – were deadly silent.

Arsenal’s best chance of the half fell to Flamini – I struggled to acknowledge that he was still playing for them – but his flick was well over. Arsenal appeared to be missing a cutting edge, as always.

I briefly met up with Bruno at the break.

“Enjoying it, mate?”

“I know you hate the word, Chris, but…awesome.”

The second-half was a different affair. There was less noise from the away fans as the game carried on. I think the nerves were increasing as the minutes passed by. Soon in to the second period, Fabregas, who was enjoying his best game for ages, danced in to the box. He was upended, and bounced into the air. I felt that Fabregas overdid it.

Wenger brought on Alexis Sanchez. Chances were still at a premium. Courtois was hardly troubled. Mikel was enjoying another masterclass in controlled containment, and alongside him Matic was playing better than usual. Only his distribution let him down at times. Diego Costa, the Arsenal irritant, was replaced by Loic Remy. We watched the clock on the far side. Inside, I was surprisingly confident that we would hold on. Eden Hazard replaced the excellent Oscar.

In the last part of the game, the defenders seemed tired and dropped further and further back. Our sporadic breaks up field soon ran out of steam. Remy’s touch had deserted him; he was poor.

An almighty scramble followed as Thibaut dropped a cross at the feet of several Arsenal players. The ball was frantically hacked away. A couple of half-chances for Arsenal were blocked. Courtois, at last, had a real save to make, falling to his left to save from Monreal. At the other end, Willian broke free but scuffed his low shot wide.

Five minutes of extra time.

Then four.

Then three.

Then two.

Then one.

The whistle.

Glenn was right.

We did’em.

We all met up after the game. Bruno, the boy from Fortaleza, had bloody loved it. The mood was buoyant. Glenn, especially, was full of smiles.

The Arsenal support was obviously glum as they headed back to Middle Earth.

The seven of us headed back to civilisation. On the tube, our faces were full of smiles. The red and white scarfed Gooners had their heads buried in their programmes. Their misery was our joy.

Ten visits to the Emirates in the League with Chelsea, and our record is excellent.

Won 4

Drew 4

Lost 2

Goals 14-9

I wished Bruno well as we alighted at Kings Cross.

“Take care mate, safe travels, stay in touch.”

It had been a good day.

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Tales From The Fosse

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 29 April 2015.

The league season was continuing with two away games on the trot. A trip to Arsenal on the Sunday would be followed by a trip to Leicester City on the Wednesday. A win at Arsenal would have set up a championship-decider at the King Power Stadium but it was not to be. This was always going to be an away trip to savour as it included that rare event, a new stadium. It was just a shame that it was now taking place on a midweek evening, when visits to stadia tend to be rather truncated affairs. My travel companions for this particular trip were Parky and Andy, both veterans of previous sojourns to a city that I had only ever visited once before for football, and only twice on any other occasion. I very much felt like the junior member. It is odd that I had only ever visited Filbert Street once – over thirty years ago in 1985 in fact – but I guess it was all down to circumstances. On previous occasions I presume that I was limited by financial constraints.

In truth, Parky was very lucky to be going at all. Due to the club’s cock-eyed decision to let tickets for this potentially key fixture to be sold with no loyalty points system in operation, Parky unfortunately missed out. I needed to ask for a favour from a transport company that I have been using for express loads around Europe for twelve years, based in Leicester, for an extra ticket. Within ten minutes of my call, Tim – the owner – had sorted me out a ticket in the home stand. On the basis that I could trust myself among the home fans rather than Parky, we agreed that it would be circumspect for him to have my ticket alongside Alan and Gary in the away corner. Everyone was happy.

I left half-an-hour early from work at 3pm. I gulped back a tin of Starbuck’s double espresso and we were off, headed north and through some splendid Gloucestershire towns and villages. Very soon in to the trip, I asked Andy a little trivia question.

“Why is the road that we are currently on relevant to tonight’s fixture?”

“Well, we’re on the Fosseway, aren’t we? An old Roman road.”

“Correct.”

“Ah, no idea.”

“Well, Leicester City’s first ever name was Leicester Fosse.”

I think Andy yawned.

Although it was a fine spring afternoon, with the Cotswolds looking resplendent and the sky dotted with small cumulus clouds, there were towering cumulonimbus clouds away on the horizon. I wondered if our trip to Leicester would eventually take place amid persistent rain, and the evening’s game against resurgent Leicester City too. As we circumnavigated round Coventry – by comparison I have seen us play there on five occasions – the weather was holding up but we became ensnared in some slow-moving rush hour traffic. The delays continued on as we headed north on the M69 to Leicester. It was a good thing that we had left Chippenham at 3pm. Any later and I would have been getting deeply frustrated.

At around 6.30pm, we were parked up on Shakespeare Street, around fifteen minutes to the south of the stadium. The Shakespeare’s Head at Arsenal on Saturday and Shakespeare Street in Leicester on Wednesday.

“2-0 or not 2-0; that is the question.”

We chatted about the evening’s game and whereas Andy and Parky were gung-ho about the result, I was predictably more cautious. Parky fancied a 3-1 win. Without Diego Costa, I honestly wondered where our goals would come from. Leicester City, of course, were in the middle of a fine resurgence, winning four crucial games on the bounce. Dead and buried a month ago, they were now looking a lot livelier. Four of their last five games were at home. Relegation was not the foregone conclusion it once was. I had this strange feeling that they might score first. The sun was still shining, but there was a chilling wind. The rain had held off, thus far.

“Fabregas is magic…”

I headed off to meet Tim, his young son Oliver and two of Tim’s workmates Rob and Stuart; nice to meet people that I have spoken to on the ‘phone for ages. They were all, obviously, Leicester fans. We enjoyed a chat and a refreshing beer in a modern pub called “The Local Hero.” Tim, and the others, was very worried that ex-Charlton and Liverpool left-back Paul Konchesky was playing. They predicted that he would be City’s weakest link.

At about 7.15pm, we set off for the stadium. Nearing the ground, I spotted the large electricity pylons and associated electricity sub-station that I had recognised from my visit to Filbert Street in February 1985. The station was just to the south of Filbert Street. It is just to the north of the King Power Stadium; the two sites are very close. I also spotted the new stand roof at Leicester’s Welford Road stadium too. I remember being escorted past that stadium, a very thin police escort at that, after the game at Filbert Street all those years ago.

Some comparisons.

Attendance.

1985 – 15,657

2015 – 32,021

Capacity.

1985 – 29,000

2015 – 32,500

Away fans.

1985 – 4,000

2015 – 3,000

Seat ticket.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game

2015 – £40 in advance

Club owners.

1985 – English

2015 – Thai and Russian

The Chelsea players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish

2015 – Czech, Serbian, Spanish, English, Belgian, Brazilian and Ivorian

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa

Chelsea kit.

1985 – all yellow

2015 – all yellow

I spotted a couple of fellows wearing black and silver magicians’ hats outside the away end.

“He wears a magic hat…”

Another work friend, Sally, had been in contact throughout my trip north but our paths never crossed. Sally would be sat in the home end.

Sally to Chris : “I will be the one front row corner of the kop, tunnel side, going mental if we score.”

Chris to Sally : “when you score.”

I made my way in to the East Stand and quickly found my place. It was a great seat; Tim had done me proud. Not only was my seats “gratis” but it was in line with the penalty spot. I rolled my eyes when I saw a noise-maker waiting for me.

The 3,000 away fans, all stood, were at the far end of the East Stand. It was a neat stadium, slightly larger than its lookalike in Southampton. The teams entered the pitch. I had decided that my modus operandi for the evening would be polite applause for Leicester – and Chelsea if I could disguise it well enough. The Kop to my left housed the more vociferous home support. The corner next to me, with flags of varying quality pinned to the back wall, housed the noisiest of all.

As the game began, the sky was filled with a fearsome, billowing thundercloud. It was difficult to take my eyes off it. As the players scurried about, with the Chelsea kit mirroring the lemon of 1985, huge towers of rain were seen to fall in the distance. The clouds looked ominous. Sure enough, not long in to the game there was a rainstorm. Then, gradually, the sky turned from a mix of light lavender and moody grey to a lighter blue. The sun directly opposite me tinged the sky yellow and then orange and gold. It was a gorgeous sight.

“He could have signed for Arsenal…”

Leicester City definitely edged the first-half. The continual desire from us to maintain possession without real penetration left me frustrated. Soon in to the game, I realised that Cambiasso was their main cog. He stood out. He was very impressive. The home fans were shaking their noise-makers – “Clap Bangers” if you will – and were getting right behind their team. The songs were constant, with Leicester variations of “Cum On Feel The Noize” and “Yellow Submarine” reverberating around me. There was also, typically, “The Great Escape.” Then, a song which scanned perfectly :

“He’s magic, you know – Esteban Cambiasso.”

There were murmurings of pain from my neighbours when Andy King and then Robert Huth were substituted within the first twenty-five minutes. I almost – almost – felt for them. However, we failed to take advantage.

Our key players seemed to be subdued. A fine block from Petr Cech – always lovely to see him get a game in these last few weeks of his Chelsea life – kept us in the game, but Leicester were pressing hard. For once, Dave was getting turned down in front of me. In the last of three added minutes at the end of the first-half, Jamie Vardy breezed past Dave and sent a cross in to the box. Marc Allbrighton calmly swept the loose ball low past Cech.

Damn. I stood, a little later than the rest; I didn’t want to give the game away. I had photographed the goal and I now found myself, surreally, photographing the wild celebrations just yards away.

Chris to Sally : “told you.”

The mood was buoyant in the stands at the break. Ex-Chelsea forward Alan Birchenall, who hosts the corporate stuff at Leicester these days, introduced ex-England legend Peter Shilton to the half-time coffee-drinkers and programme-readers.

I wondered what the mood was like in the north-east quadrant.

I am sure that the noise generated by our supporters in the first-half was up to its usual high standard for away games, but from where I was sat, the noise didn’t appear to be that great. It felt odd to be alone, away from so many mates.

There was an extra zip to our play as the second-half began. More urgency. More pressing. More determination. Just as I was wondering if all of this would continue and indeed amount to anything, Ivanovic clipped the ball in from a good position and Didier Drogba swivelled and swept the ball low past Schmeichel. Not only did I photograph the shot, but the exuberant run and slide from Didier which followed. Now I could hear the away fans. Andy, Parky and I had commented earlier how rare his goals have been this season.

I sat calmly, but I was so relieved.

Our play continued its metamorphosis as the second-half continued. Matic put in a sterling performance and was back to his best, closing space, making life difficult for his foes, and then maintaining possession well. The midfielders grew in confidence, none more so than Willian, who gave that man Konchesky a torrid time on our right. Didier was a new man, troubling the Leicester goal with a couple of efforts. I silently prayed for more Chelsea goals.

“But he said no, fuck that…”

With around ten minutes of play left, a Fabregas corner found the head of Cahill, but the block from Schmeichel fell nicely for none other than John Terry to stab the ball in from inside the six yard box.

I inwardly and silently screamed.

I had again captured the goal, or at least the loose ball in flight before JT intervened, and I now calmly snapped our leader’s delirious run and slide towards the corner. I really was perfectly placed.

“He passes with his left foot…”

Just four minutes later, the ball held up just on the edge of the Leicester City box for Ramires to magnificently slam the ball in to the goal with a perfectly controlled rising drive. Again, on film, and again his celebrations were but yards away and captured on film, though I am not sure why he stuck the ball up his shirt.

“He passes with his right…”

Leicester were now quiet and our support took over. The noise was great to hear. A massive bouncy took over the entire away end. There had been a very loud song for Willian during the second-half, but now one song took over on a repeated loop.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh…Fabregas is magic. He wears a magic hat. He could have signed for Arsenal. He said oh no, fuck that. He passes with his left foot, he passes with his right. And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

The players, at the final whistle, walked over to the away fans.

Another momentous win and another fantastic evening.

I quickly made my way back to the waiting car. The natives were quiet. I felt their pain. A Leicester City fan wouldn’t let up on the Konchesky talk :

“He was voted the worst ever Liverpool defender, you know.”

After the game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere

2015 – Normality

I reached Shakespeare Street. It was 10pm on the dot.

Andy and Parky were not far behind me. There was an immediate rush of pent-up joy as I explained how much I had enjoyed the match. Until then, my lips had been sealed. To be fair, the home fans around had been perfectly fine. There was no noticeable anti-Chelsea nonsense. They just supported their team and I think that they will genuinely stay up, a sentiment that I shared with Sally and Tim.

It was a slightly easier return trip back down The Fosseway, but I still didn’t get home until around 1.30am.

Still, there are no complaints from me.

This has been our season. We have dominated this league from our first game at Burnley in August and now we stand on the edge of greatness.

One more win, boys.

One more win.

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Tales From The Top Of The Tree

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2014.

Thanks to the power brokers at the FA and Sky TV, our game at Stoke City was changed to a Monday 8pm evening kick-off. Not to worry; the city of Stoke-On-Trent is a relatively easy place to get to-and-from, especially since I now finish work at 3.30pm. I set off from Chippenham alone.

I texted Steve, visiting from California and en route to Staffordshire on the official club coach with his wife Sonia, with a message to say that I was “on the road.”

“Duck Kerouac.”

This was a solo-mission for me, for once. Last season, there was a similar Monday night away game tucked in just before the yuletide festivities. However, our dull 0-0 draw at Arsenal is remembered more by me for the atrocious weather conditions which were waiting for me during the last hour of my drive home. This was the occasion when my car became stranded in rising floodwater on a local road, only ten miles from home, and when I had to cadge a lift with a policeman and then walk home for the last three miles, sodden to the skin. Happy days.

In 2014, I hoped for no repeat.

I also hoped that there would be no repeat of our fixture at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium last season, when they inflicted a painful 3-2 defeat. That away game in The Potteries represented a low-water mark for this particular website since the match report drew a season-long low number of views, by quite a large margin.

What’s the old saying?

“If you only support Chelsea when we win, don’t support us when we lose.”

At the time, I wondered if I ought to change my website tag line.

“Read when we’re winning. You only read when we’re winning.”

I ate up the miles on the familiar road north, stopping at the new Gloucester services where I was financially abused in order to eat a pasty and a sandwich.

“£7 please.”

“Merry Christmas.”

With a backdrop of music from The Buzzcocks, I thought a little about the game. With Manchester City now level with us at the very top of the table, the pressure was now on us to perform. This would be a tough physical, battle, no doubt. It had the potential to be a season-defining moment. Would we buckle under pressure or would we reconfirm our championship potential?

The time soon passed.

I turned off the A500 and was soon parked at my usual place, on the grass verge on the exit road. Around twenty cars were similarly parked.

It was 6.30pm.

Although I love revisiting my old college town, there would be no time, alas, to visit old haunts before the game kicked-off. My college years began in the autumn of 1984 and I found it hard to reconcile the fact that it all seemed relatively recent; for several moments during the evening my mind wandered back to fleeting thoughts of my student digs during that first year, my college mates – some of which I still see – and, of course, memories of Chelsea, and also Stoke City, games.

In that first term, from September to December, I travelled down to Stamford Bridge on four Saturdays, plus an away game at Sheffield Wednesday, but I also saw Stoke City play Watford at their old Victoria Ground. As students, we had a reduction in admission – maybe £2.50 and not £3 – and I remember standing in the side paddock below the main stand seats as Watford won 3-1. The gate was around 10,000. Stoke were truly awful in that season and finished rock bottom of Division One. It is a mystery to everyone that their three victories were against Manchester United, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. The Victoria Ground featured three stands with seats and standing terraces in front, but with the standing-only Boothen End to the south. At the time, it was a neat stadium, but nothing special in my mind. Of course, with the advantage of hindsight – and maybe rose coloured spectacles – the old stadium’s charms seem more appealing. Each stand different, each with its own individual charms, and – of course – what I would pay to be able to lean on a crush barrier on a vast terrace such as The Boothen once again. It is pertinent to note that the noisy atmosphere associated with The Britannia these days is a very recent phenomenon. Stoke were never too noisy in my time.

Maybe the three seasons that I attended games there – a relegation season, plus two grey seasons in the Second Division – are not a suitable sample size.

On the walk from my car to the stadium, which is located in a part of the city called Sideway – pronounced “Siddaway, duck” – I walked past the Trent And Mersey Canal. An entrepreneuring fellow was selling oatcakes – the local delicacy, but I never was a fan – from his canal boat. The smoke rising from inside reminded me of the smoke associated with the selling of hot chestnuts and hot dogs on the Fulham Road in previous years. Does anyone else remember those little tin hot dog stands at Chelsea on match days, and the grubby hands of the chaps who sold them?

Shudder.

The main stand at The Brittania is surprisingly high. From the outside, it looks impressive. Unlike the single-tiered bowl at Southampton, Stoke City decided to go for a different approach in the design of their new stadium. The main stand is double-decked, but stands alone, not linked to the other structures. The away end, at the south end, stands alone too. The home end is linked to the other side stand. Maybe the intricacies and architectural anomalies of the old Victoria were purposefully repeated here.

The home end, also called The Boothen End, allows a little continuity for the residents. For those paying attention, the Boothen End was at the southern end of the old stadium, but is at the northern end of the new one. Is this a mistake? Not really, since the area of Boothen, roughly speaking, sits between the sites of the two stadia.

I made another pilgrimage to the grassed area behind the Boothen End to admire the magnificent series of statues which celebrate the city’s most famous son, Sir Stanley Matthews. Against the backdrop of the night sky, I managed to take a few dramatic photographs.

On my approach to the away turnstiles, I chatted briefly to a steward and I spoke about that awful 1984-1985 season.

“Keith Bertschin, George Berry, Steve Bould…”

Inside the away end – it is actually split 60/40 with home fans – I soon spotted Steve and Sonia. While the goalkeepers went through their pre-game routines, which involved fans taking a few selfies with Petr Cech, we chatted about our journeys to Stoke and our plans for the rest of the Christmas matches. A friend outside the away end had mentioned that the Stoke defenders would probably be niggling Diego Costa, especially, from the kick-off and he would need to be strong in mind and body not to get embroiled in any silliness.

I was positioned halfway back right behind the goal. Being an away season-ticket holder has its privileges. Alas Alan was unable to get time off work for this one – “thanks Sky” – but Gal was alongside me. A few Christmas songs were played on the PA and I was filled with a modicum of pride to see the sign on the home end :

“The Boothen End – Sponsored By Staffordshire University.”

…of course, back in my day, it was the more down-at-heel “North Staffs Poly.”

Although it had been a blustery walk to the ground, inside it was relatively OK.

I still remember the bitterness of our cup game up there in 2003; the coldest that I have ever been at a Chelsea game. I’m still thawing out from that one.

Jose Mourinho again played Matic alongside Mikel, which pushed Fabregas alongside Hazard and Willian. This would always be a physical battle. We were ready for the Stoke onslaught. Steve had asked me about the Stoke atmosphere, but the noise levels weren’t great before the game. The Chelsea fans, however, were in buoyant form.

In parts of Manchester, others were looking on.

Chelsea – with blue socks, I’m still not a fan – had a perfect start. Hazard seemed to be in acres of space on the left – maybe an optical illusion caused by the fact that the main stand sits way back from the action – advanced and played the ball in to Brana. His shot was deflected for a corner. Cesc sent over a fabulous corner and, through the lens of my camera, I saw at least three Chelsea players converge to meet the ball. After a slight delay, the three thousand away fans soon realised that the net had rippled and we were one up.

Get in.

It took ages for anyone around me to realise that JT had headed home.

Alan, South London : “THTCAUN.”

Chris, South Stoke : “COMLD, duck.”

Steve, South Philly : “I haven’t even sat down.”

Chris, South Stoke : “It’s OK. Neither have I.”

We completely dominated the game for the next ten minutes and the home team hardly touched the ball. We bossed it and our play was crisp and purposeful.  However, the rough tackles were starting to mount up. It took a full twenty minutes for Stoke City to muster much in their attacking third; when they did, the home stands finally delivered some formidable noise. Until that point, Chelsea had been in control off the pitch too. This was my first-ever midweek Chelsea game at Stoke – when was the last one? – and I was loving it. A good game, a noisy away section, good times.

An awful challenge on Eden Hazard by Phil Bardsley, down on the left touchline, made the entire away end howl. OK, I was one hundred yards away, but this was an ugly, brutal assault on our supremely gifted magician. I was praying for a red card to be handed out but was dismayed to see a yellow. Mark Hughes – I loved him as a Chelsea player, but those days are long gone – was full of rage, throwing his arms around in a theatrical display of histrionics. It was akin to the movements shown by matadors or variety performers cracking whips. Maybe Hughes thought he would be getting points for it.

What a fool.

Hughes and Mourinho came together momentarily, and Hughes’ tantrums continued. For the rest of the game, Jose silently stalked his technical area, his presence probably annoying Hughes further. I lost count of the times that Hughes threw his arms down amid a verbal onslaught to the poor fourth official.

Courtois reacted brilliantly to push Nzonzi’s deflected low drive away for a corner. The corner, like others, was superbly claimed by our young goalkeeper. Although Petr Cech is a superb goalkeeper, his control of his six yard box – for a tall man – hasn’t always been great. A goal which was scored last season on the same ground is a case in point. In contrast, Courtois seems peerless. With the ball lofted high in to our box, I am always confident that Thibaut will claim it.

This was a fine game, but there were niggles.

The referee needed to talk to several players at a Stoke corner as players scrambled for an advantage. After a few half-hearted Stoke threats were repelled – a Cahill block comes to mind – we regained the advantage.

After good work from Matic, an oblique pass into space from Fabregas was gorgeous, but Diego Costa shot wide. Our lone striker enjoyed a fine half, running well with the ball, keeping the ball tight, but also his movement off the ball was also exemplary. There were fine performances all over, though Willian, despite his energy, was delaying his final pass which caused the away fans to grow restless. He seemed to spend his time scuttling sideways – in Sideway – rather than penetrating the defence with a pass. However, it was a minor complaint.

At the other end, more comfortable leaps from Thibaut kept Stoke at bay.

Ex Chelsea season-ticket holder Peter Crouch was having a tough ride from our supporters –

“Does the circus know you’re here?”

At the break, the mood was optimistic.

“We need a second, though, Gal. One goal isn’t enough. We need those three points. Massive game tonight.”

We again dominated as the second period began. Willian shot at goal, then continued to do so at regular intervals throughout the half. Eden Hazard was quite magical all night long and it is an absolute pleasure to be able to watch him perform week in, week out. His art is his own, and Sir Stanley Matthews would have enjoyed our Belgian’s performance in his home town.

The pitch was Eden’s.

One dribble down the left went on for an age. It was just beautiful. With his rather chunky thighs, and his low centre of gravity, he is such an obdurate individual once he has the ball at his mercy. I am reminded of Bryon Butler’s description of Diego Maradona in the 1986 game against England.

“Turns like a little eel…and comes away from trouble…little squat man.”

That second goal was elusive, though. For all our possession, there was nothing. Substitute Charlie Adam shot narrowly wide, though I was convinced that it would be the equaliser.

Nerves.

Plenty of them.

“We’re starting to tire, Gal.”

On seventy-eight minutes, the ball was played by a raiding Eden Hazard towards Cesc Fabregas. His first touch wasn’t perfect and the ball was flicked up, but he was able to stretch for a second one, which resulted in the ball almost apologetically trickling over the line, with Begovic flat-footed.

60% of the south stand erupted.

GET IN.

Inside I was boiling, but I remained cool.

I snapped Fabregas’ joyous slide towards the baying away support on film.

Cesctasy.

We could, finally, relax.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Andre Schurrle, a late substitute for Willian, shot low but Begovic saved.  Diego Drogba replaced the excellent Diego Costa. Sadly, Eden Hazard was injured after another errant Stoke tackle. The substitute Kurt Zouma was momentarily deployed within our midfield ranks as the five minutes of extra-time ran out.

“Kurt Zouma – he plays where he wants.”

On the walk down the hill to my car, I was interested to hear the comments of the home supporters.

Asmir Begovic was mentioned scathingly, though the most interesting point of view was about one of our players.

“Matic is an absolutely brelliant play’yeh.”

“He es, ent he? He wens the ball, then pushes on.”

Ah that Stoke accent.

I reached my car and threw my pullover and jacket in the back seat. I flicked the CD on and – no word of a lie – the Buzzcocks sang :

“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.”

Perfect.

I had my usual “see if I can get back on to the M6 in two minutes” race along the A500.

I did.

With our position at the top of the tree secured for Christmas, I could relax and quickly review my albeit brief time spent in The Potteries. It had reminded me so much of an infamous away win at Ewood Park against a thuggish Blackburn Rovers team during our 2004-2005 championship-winning campaign. We rose against the physicality of another Mark Hughes team that evening and many said that it was a watershed moment in our season. Ten years on, I had similar thoughts.

It had ben a brelliant naght, duck.

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