Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From Wednesday On Sunday

Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday : 27 January 2019.

Sunday Six O’Clock.

Our match in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday was to begin at 6pm. This was just a ridiculous time for a game of professional football. As I have mentioned before, there was a part of me that just wanted to swerve it. But this was the Cup. It wasn’t just any game. Regardless, it had felt bizarre to be collecting PD and then Parky for a game on a Sunday and saying to both of them “good afternoon “as they slipped into my car. It felt bizarre to be heading to London on the M4 midway through the afternoon. And it felt bizarre to be entering the pub – “The Famous Three Kings” – at 3pm.

And it certainly grated to be watching a London derby between Crystal Palace and Tottenham on TV which had kicked-off at 4pm. Why the bloody hell that one could not have started later – virtually all the spectators would be back home by 10pm – and we could have had the earlier spot is beyond me. But it is further damning evidence that the Football Association only ever plays lip service to the needs of the match-going fan. Of course, I felt for the away supporters – six thousand strong – more than anyone who would not be back in South Yorkshire by midnight at the very earliest. The fixture was so very wrong on so many levels. I’m getting irate just typing this.

I always remember that in the middle of the match programme of my very first game in 1974, the programme editor had debated the spectacle of Sunday football, which had been trialed for a number of reasons that season, and there was a selection of letters from Chelsea fans both in the “for” and “against” camp. Those “against” often cited religious reasons – “the day of rest” et al – and so heaven knows what they would have thought about a Sunday evening kick-off.

But the three of us were there.

We decided that, should we be successful against Sheffield Wednesday, our favoured draw in the Fifth Round would be an away game at Doncaster Rovers, but please not at six o’clock on a Sunday please. We briefly mentioned Millwall. No thanks. There were comments about the scrapping between the ne’er do wells of Millwall and Everton the previous day. None of us bother with the fighting these days – well, I never did, what is the point of hitting someone who simply does not like the same team as myself?  – but we had to admit that Everton earned some Brownie Points for heading straight into the eye of the needle in “Deep Sahf.” Not many firms do that. But rather them than me. We have only played away at Millwall four times in my life and I have mitigating circumstances for avoiding all of them. In 1976, I was eleven. In 1984, I was scared shitless. In 1990, I was in Canada. In 1995, my car was knackered. Maybe next time, there has to be a next time, I will run out of excuses.

We met up with a few others, and settled to watch Palace humble Tottenham with two first-half goals. We took especial glee when Tottenham missed a penalty. I roared as if we had scored a goal in fact, and the pub roared alongside me. It wasn’t their week for penalties, was it? Over in the far corner of the pub was a group of well-dressed Sheffield Wednesday fans – virtually all males, but a few kids too – and I spoke to a couple of them. One lad had never visited Stamford Bridge before. How could he? He was about twenty years old, and their last visit was in the last few days of the twentieth century. It was never like this in the ‘eighties.

The ‘Eighties.

It seems odd now, and especially to our legions of new fans, but for two or three seasons the rivalry in the mid-‘eighties between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday gave the matches between the two teams a very special edge. Sheffield Wednesday have always been a big club – the bigger of the two teams from the steel city – but in my first ten years of being a Chelsea fan, we never met since they were mired in the old Third Division. When they eventually won promotion to the Second Division in 1979, just as we were relegated from the First, we would play them incessantly for the best part of the next twenty seasons.

The rivalry built as Chelsea, with perfect dagger-in-the-heart timing, overcame all-season-long league leaders Wednesday on the very last day of the iconic 1983/84 season to become Second Division Champions, and the mutual dislike continued the next season as we were embroiled in a famous trio of games in the League Cup quarter-finals. I went to both the league games in 1984/85, but did not attend any of the League Cup games due to finances and travel limitations. But I certainly watched on with glee as we came back from trailing 3-0 at half-time to lead 4-3 at Hillsborough in the first replay – it was Paul Canoville’s finest hour – only for Doug Rougvie to scythe down a Wednesday player in front of our travelling support at the fated Leppings Lane to force a second replay. We won that game 2-1, and we were heading to our first semi-final of any description in thirteen long seasons. In those days, under the tutelage of Howard Wilkinson – before he was given his “Sergeant Wilko” moniker by the Leeds fans, with whom he won a League Championship in 1992 – Sheffield Wednesday were known for rugged defending, no frills, no thrills, route one football, a Northern Wimbledon. In 1983/84 and in 1984/85, our more skilful and entertaining football gave us a deserved edge. We had Pat Nevin. They had Gary Shelton. It was simply no contest in the entertainment stakes. Wednesday were Friday to our Crusoe, Watson to our Holmes, always subservient. We dominated them and they disliked us for it, though there was never a Leeds level of pure hatred.

They had good gates at Hillsborough though. I remember being annoyed when our league game at Hillsborough in 1984/85 attracted a whopping 29,000 but the return fixture down at Chelsea only drew 17,000. I remember feeling let down by my fellow fans. And annoyed with myself for missing the two League Cup games at Chelsea earlier that season. A few grainy photographs of that day, inside and out, are featured in this report.

Only on rare occasions did they have the better of us. They prevailed over us during our League Cup semi-final in 1990/91, when we assembled at noon on a Sunday – another silly time, see above – and the virtually silent crowd watched as we were ripped apart by the same free-kick routine within the same half of the first game. It was a massive anti-climax that one, especially having beaten Tottenham in the previous round, as mentioned in my previous match report. We did get some sort of revenge during the 1993/94 season when we beat them away in the FA Cup on the way to our first FA Cup Final in twenty-four years. But we don’t talk about that.

So, Wednesday. Yeah, we remember you well.

I can certainly remember chatting on many occasions to a lad called Dave during my time at college in Stoke, and he was a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, from Yorkshire, and we always kept it light-hearted, even when – after too many pints in our students’ union – he accosted me, semi-seriously, and said –

“You support a fascist football club.”

It was the era of racism, hooliganism, political extremism, the miners’ strike, Thatcher and Scargill, and Dave was – like many at my college, in fact – of a socialist persuasion, and I could not summon the energy nor wit to defend my club, so I just retorted –

“Yeah, and you support a fucking shit one.”

I remember he simply smiled and hugged me.

Those were the days.

Sheffield Wednesday. Bloody hell, where have you been? It reminded me of that school friend that I once had – not a close friend – but a protagonist for the same starting spot in the school football team, and a rival in a pathetic pursuit of the prettiest girl in class, who had suddenly moved a few miles and, as a result, had been forced to change schools. I’d see him every day for four years, then all of a sudden, nothing. You wonder what sort of life he was living. In the case of Sheffield Wednesday, it has been a case of life in a parallel universe with trips for them to Yeovil Town, Burton Albion, Southend United and Bristol City rather than trips to Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain for us.

Two Ghosts.

The three of us left the pub and caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We changed onto the District Line at Earl’s Court. Standing on the platform waiting for the Wimbledon train always takes me back to my first visit to Stamford Bridge. I wonder if my grandfather and his pal stood on that same platform on their sole visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties. It is quite likely. Outside the Oswald Stoll Foundation, while PD and Parky went on to the stadium for another pint, I stopped for a bite to eat at the busy match-day pop-up café. Damn it, they were out of pie and mash, but I devoured a salt beef – and gherkin – roll, as I sat outside for a few moments. A slug of away supporters marched past, full of noise, but no maliciousness, singing the praises of former Chelsea youngster Sam Hutchinson, who was now a regular in their blue and white stripes. I looked up at a tablet of stone whose words commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.

The salt beef was thick and succulent, the gherkin was juicy, the brioche roll was soft. The evening was getting darker. I needed to move on.

Six Thousand.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at 5.30pm. Tottenham would soon be out of their second cup competition within the space of seventy-two beautiful hours. What a lovely hors-d’oeuvre before the main meal, a high tea at six.  For the second successive game, Parky was forced out of his seat in The Shed. For the second successive game, I let him swap with me. For the second successive game I was behind the goal in the Matthew Harding Upper. With hindsight, I was incorrect in saying that my last game in that section before Thursday was the 1995 game with Bruges. It was in fact a year later against, of all teams, Sheffield Wednesday, when their bright orange shirts matched the rust of the Lots Road gasworks that were visible in the distance behind the slowly rising Shed. Facing me was a wall of six thousand away supporters, already noisy. There would be no doubt that this would be their day, their noise would dominate. We had matched Tottenham on Thursday, but I doubted if we could counter the Wednesdayites on this occasion. There was a smattering of flags draped over The Shed Balcony. Their nickname is due to the part of Northern Sheffield where one of their first grounds was placed, Owlerton.

“Salisbury Owls.”

“Worksop Owls.”

“Chapeltown Owls.”

Walking up from the city’s train station in the middle of Sheffield to Hillsborough on that wintry day in 1984, I was surprised how far out I had to walk, a good three miles. In the pub, we had admitted that however lengthy and arduous a replay would be, we would nonetheless go. Hillsborough is still a classic stadium – my last visit was in 1996 when we toppled them off the top of the Premier League with a very fine 3-0 win – and it is such a shame that the name will always and forever be tainted with what happened on Saturday 15 April 1989.

I soon spotted the self-styled “Tango Man”, bare chested and tattooed, in the front row.

Two Teams.

The players were announced. In addition to Sam Hutchinson – admirably recovered from a seemingly-career ending injury in our colours – the Wednesday team included familiar names Keiren Westwood, Steven Fletcher and George Boyd. The Chelsea starting eleven included Willy Cabellero – on the cover of the programme – Ethan Ampadu in the deep midfield berth, Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right, and a debut for our new striker Gonzalo Higuain. Supporters of a nervous disposition must have been squirming at the sight of current boo boys Marcos Alonso and Willian appearing on the same flank. I spotted Gianfranco Zola pose for photographs with a couple of young lads sporting Cagliari scarves in the front few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. I get that, I like that. Despite no apparent link with us, Cagliari – because of Zola – will always be linked with Chelsea. One day I might wear my royal blue and white Moscow Dynamo scarf to a game. In the upper reaches of the East were hundreds of empty seats. Also – incredibly so, I think – five corporate boxes in a row, stretching for fifty yards or more, were completely devoid of spectators, including the one belonging to our owner. On the pitch, on Holocaust Memorial Day, was a “Say No To Antisemitism” banner.

The First Forty-Five.

Songs about Blades dominated the first few minutes as the away team carved out an early chance, with Adam Reach hardly testing Caballero from an angle down below me. We could not believe that Westwood in the Shed End goal was wearing a dark kit, virtually the same as the outfield players’ uniforms. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave; he used to love a clash of kits to obsess about on “The Big Match.” It is no bloody wonder my generation struggles with the styles and techniques of modern day football. Instead of talking catenaccio, liberos, wingless wonders and total football, Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill were forever rabbiting about teams having the same colour socks.

We dominated the early stages, and Higuain – hair thinning to match his once considerable paunch – did well to engineer a shot which drifted wide of the far post from close in. Mateo Kovacic looked lively – for once, cough, cough – as he chased balls and tackled well.

With about twenty minutes played, the ball was played through to Reach by Fletcher, and Ampadu robbed him of the ball. The referee Andre Marriner pointed straight at the spot and I immediately doubted my sanity and football-spectating skills. Surely he had got the ball? While Ethan was down, clutching his shin, and with trainers on, it dawned on us that VAR was being called into action. Marriner was wrong, no penalty. With that Marriner gave himself a yellow card and booked himself in at his local “Specsavers.”

Not long after, a move inside their box came to an end when we lost the ball to a challenge, some hundred yards away from me. There was a delayed reaction from our players, the referee and our supporters alike, but Marriner signalled towards the spot. Was VAR used? I had no idea.

“Quite a week for penalties” I whispered to the chap to my right.

Willian seemed to offer the ball to new boy Higuain, but it was Willian who placed the ball above Ossie’s ashes. Another staccato step, another successful penalty to us.

Chelsea Sunday 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Out came the chorus from The Shed.

“VAR is fookin’ shit, VAR is fookin’ shit.”

Quite.

For all of the online and offline moans about Callum Hudson-Odoi, there was a considerable buzz when he had the ball at his feet. Despite our ridiculous amount of possession, we struggled to create many more chances of note. There was little service to Higuain. The away fans had provided a fair proportion of the entertainment in the first-half. There was even a Sheffield version of the Derby County chant that Frank Lampard loves so much.

“If you don’t fookin bounce, you’re a Blade.”

It must be a Derbyshire and South Yorkshire thing.

The Second Forty-Five.

The first real action of the second-half almost embarrassed Caballero, who scrambled back to protect his near post when a, presumably, miss-hit cross from the Wednesday right caught him unawares. It was only their second effort on goal the entire match.

Soon into the second period, we were treated to some sublime skill from Willian, who killed a ball lofted towards him with the outside of his right foot, before a “now you see it, now you don’t” shimmy took him away from his marker. He created enough space to send over a cross but Alonso wasted the opportunity. There was a wild shot from Kovacic shot which almost hit the roof above my head. I did notice on two occasions in quick succession a massive gap in the middle of their defensive third – enough for a game of bowls – but neither Higuain spotted it, nor our midfielders ran into it. At times, we chose to play the ball to the nearest man, the easiest option, rather than hit a killer ball into space.

There was a header from Higuain, just wide.

But the play was opening up on both flanks now; we were simply going around Sheffield Wednesday’s Siegfried Line. Willian and Hudson-Odoi were becoming the main players. Indeed, on sixty-four minutes, a great ball from Andreas Christensen released our Callum, who brought the ball down perfectly and turned inside with an ease of movement that defies description. His finish was almost a formality.

Chelsea Sundaes 2 Sheffield Puddings 0.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ampadu, and Kovacic was realigned deeper. Still the pace of Callum and Willian had Wednesday chasing shadows. I did like the look of their diminutive number ten Barry Bannan, though. He was their best player by a country mile.

Higuain was replaced by Giroud with ten minutes to go. Jorginho replaced the quiet – again – Ross Barkley.

A pacey run from Hudson-Odoi and the ball was played in to Willian. An alert one-two with Giroud and the ball was side-footed, but with a firm prod, past Westwood.

GET IN.

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Wednesday’s children were full of woe.

At last a forward pass from Jorginho tee’d up Giroud in the box but his over-ambitious bicycle kick was shinned wide.

Throughout the game, I had been warmed by the words issuing forth from a young lad – no more than ten or eleven – who was sat right behind me and who gave his father a running commentary.

“What are you DOING Willian? Why don’t we shoot more? No wonder we don’t score enough goals. Come on Chels!”

At the end of the game, as easy a match as I could ever imagine, I gathered my things and turned. I caught the father’s eye and said –

“Love your boy’s take on the game. A perfect mix of enthusiasm and frustration.”

Round Five.

Into the last sixteen we went, into Round Five, it had been an enjoyable evening.

There was a definite case of “After the Lord Mayor’s Show” after Thursday, but we could ask for no more from our players. I bumped into the trail of away supporters as I made my way slowly down the Fulham Road. They seemed a bit subdued. It is not surprising. I did not envy their trip home. I would be home, God-willing, at around 11pm.

Outside the town hall, I overheard a bloke who was chatting to someone on the ‘phone. He was a middle-aged Wednesdayite and philosophical.

“It was a good day out, that’s all.”

On Wednesday, the cups behind us and on hold for a while, we reconvene on the South Coast at Bournemouth.

I will see the lucky ones there.

1984/1985 : Kerry Dixon On The Prowl.

1990/1991 : A Rumbelows Cup Anti-Climax.

1996/1997 : The Shed Rises As Sheffield Steel Goes Rusty.

2018/2019 : A Willian Spot Kick.

2018/2019 : A Free-Kick In Front Of The Wednesday Away Support.

2018-2019 : The Debutant.

2018/2019 : Burst.

2018-2019 : Pace.

2018-2019 : Nike Football.

2018-2019 : The Third Goal.

2018-2019 : A Winning Smile.

2018-2019 : Together.

2018-2019 : Duel.

 

 

Tales From Saturday Tea Time

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 12 January 2019.

This was another 5.30pm kick-off and so PD, Parky and I took the train to London once again. One subject dominated our chat on the journey; the decision to hold the FA Cup tie against either Sheffield Wednesday or Luton Town at 6pm on Sunday 27 January.

Six o’clock on a Sunday evening.

What a ridiculous time.

“And there was much wailing.”

But, the FA had made another crazy decision to play an FA Cup game at a similar time some seventeen years earlier. In 2002, Fulham objected to their allocation for the first-choice venue of Highbury for our FA Cup Semi Final against them. So – and I still can’t fathom the madness of this – the FA chose to send both sets of fans up to Villa Park in Birmingham for a 7pm kick-off on a Sunday. And then, the deepest irony, Fulham failed to sell out, and in fact sold less tickets for the Villa Park game than their initial allocation at Highbury.

Altogether now : “For fuck sake.”

I don’t dislike Fulham Football Club one bit, but this has really tested me over the years.

5.30pm on a Saturday tea time is OK, there is at least Sunday to recover. In fact, it is rather agreeable as it allows for a good session in various pubs beforehand. But six o’clock on a Sunday is just wrong. At best, I would not return home until 11pm – 11.30pm is a more realistic prediction – and I would need to be up early for work the next day.

So, did I get a ticket when they went on sale on Thursday?

Yes, of course I did, but I partially hated myself for it.

File under “I am a twat” ( sub-section two thousand, nine-hundred and seventeen).

Maybe we can walk in after ten minutes, maybe we can turn our backs for the first five minutes, maybe we can produce banners. Some sort of protest would be good. But I won’t hold my breath on this. It would be nice, just once, for the club to see how much these mistimed kick-off choices affect the rank and file Chelsea support. I note that the Chelsea Supporters Trust wasted no time in condemning the time. Let’s see what transpires over the next fortnight.

It was the usual routine; a Paddington breakfast, a tube to Putney Bridge, into “The Eight Bells” for 11.30am.

We had decided to visit the southern tip of Fulham for the fourth time this season as a few friends from Scotland had sorted out tickets and had chosen the Premier Inn opposite the pub as their base. We had met John and Gary in a fantastic pub before our game at Sunderland in 2016 – “that Courtois save” – and had stayed in touch ever since. They touched down at Stansted at 11am and joined us in the cozy boozer at about 1.45pm. They were joined by their two mates Dave and Colin. All four are Heart of Midlothian supporters. It was fantastic to see John and Gary again. We sat chatting about all things football, though not all things Chelsea, and then moved on to “The Kings Arms” around the corner.

After a very enjoyable pre-match sesh we caught the District Line tube back up to Fulham Broadway.

As I have so often mentioned, my first-ever game was against Newcastle United in March 1974. First, my grandfather in 1920 – I think – and then my mother and myself in 1974. I am a third-generation visitor to Stamford Bridge, and doesn’t that sound good?

We were inside Stamford Bridge with a good twenty minutes or so to spare. John was alongside us in The Sleepy Hollow. It was his first visit to the “modern” Stamford Bridge since the rebuilding was completed in 2001. He was enamoured with our seats. We are truly blessed with our view.

But how the stadium has changed over the years. I can remember getting to Stamford Bridge really early before our game with Newcastle United in 1984/85 with the sole intention to take some photos with my little Kodak camera before any spectators were present. I walked up the steps at the back of The Shed and took several photos of a Stamford Bridge lying dormant. From memory, it was a bitterly cold day during a bitterly cold winter. But I am so glad that I took those photographs; I only wish that I had taken more of the old stadium over the years.

The Geordies were at their usual three thousand level despite a solid block of around one hundred and fifty left unused in a top corner. But this was a fine turnout from them.

There was the usual darkening of the lights before the teams entered. More flags, flames and fireworks, which are at least better suited to a 5.30pm kick-off than a midday one.

We half-expected another “false nine” role for Eden Hazard. And Maurizio Sarri did not disappoint :

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic.

Pedro – Hazard – Willian.

There was a reunion of former Napoli managers underneath the East Stand. But Benitez only flitted in and out of my consciousness; it is almost six years since he left us. If only those who claimed that they – still – don’t care about him would stop bloody singing songs about him.

Sigh.

I watched the Newcastle players down below me in a huddle on the pitch as the floodlights came on and the pitch was cleared of banners and the paraphernalia of the pre-match handshakes. It shocked me that I did not recognise many. Twenty years ago, I would have been able to spot a Warren Barton, a Robert Lee, a Temuri Ketsbaia, a Luis Saha, a Philippe Albert.

I have recently come to the conclusion that with so many overseas players – or specifically those signed from overseas teams –  in our game these days, my identification of them has dwindled. I still find it easier to note, identify and track a player that has bedded down in the English leagues for a while and then moves, than a player picked from a team in Europe and parachuted in to a team here. Back in the days of when I used to collect football cards as a child, my knowledge of teams’ players was encyclopedic. This continued as I started attending games, reading ‘papers and buying magazines. And it certainly continued as I subscribed to “Sky” for the best part of ten years.

But these days, I am rather lost, and have probably entered the most recent of “phases” that I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago.

I find it easier to remember a youngster from Torquay United or Tranmere Rovers who joins a Premier League team – I think my love of geography helps, in that I can pinpoint names to places – but I am floundering, if for example a Spaniard playing for an Italian team signs for another top team. There is just something untethered about these players. Give me a player like Chris Wood who played for Leeds United before joining Burnley and I might have a chance. So, unless I make the effort, they are just names to me. Most importantly neither myself nor virtually any of my Chelsea mates spend endless hours playing “FIFA” either, which would – I suppose – aid my knowledge of players, but there are just some things that are best left well alone, like Star War films, the books of J.K. Rowling, cruises and Jeremy Clarkson. Of course, if players take my eye when I see them play and have that something about them – that unquantifiable “je ne sais quoi” – then that makes them endear themselves to me and I track them.

But, Lascelles, Lejeune and Longstaff? Who?

The away team were playing with black socks, which made them look like the Newcastle of old rather than the white-socked team we played at St. James’ Park in late August.

The game began with Chelsea attacking the northern goal for a change.

There was the usual probing from us in the first portion of the match but without too much end product.

Then, on just nine minutes, David Luiz sent a ball from deep inside the Chelsea half into a space where Pedro was running. For so long I have asked that we send in an occasional early ball, just to keep the opposition back-line on their toes more than anything else. A team expecting us to pass through them all the time will not be expecting a long bomb. And this certainly was a long bomb from Luiz. It was sensational. Luiz played it with an almost nonchalant air, a sideways sweep. Pedro took the ball out of the sky and clipped it over the startled Newcastle United ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.

Whatabloodygoal.

At least I captured the celebrations if not the goal itself.

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

Chris : “Howay Pet, come on m’little diamonds, like man.”

With Arsenal suffering a surprising loss at West Ham United in the early-kick-off (it had been “on” in the pub but we did not bother watching), here was a fantastic start to our game. If we won, we would go a healthy six points clear of them. All of us have been well aware that we have an intimidating amount of away games to endure in 2019 and that we have to win as many home games as possible.

We still have to play at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Everton and Leicester City.

Tough games all.

But we did not capitalise and there was growing frustration as we struggled to get past a resolute back five. Our corners were especially poor. There were rare forays up-field from the Newcastle United players.

After half-an hour of huff and puff, Azpilicueta was fouled just outside the box and Willian floated in a cross which Luiz headed over.

There was a shot from Lejeune, but straight at Kepa. Salomon Rondon – “I know him!” – received a ball from Christian Atsu – “I know him!” – but he blazed over. Pedro shot meekly at the other end and then Perez did similarly at The Shed End. But the warning signs were there. With five minutes to go until half-time, a towering corner from Matt Ritchie was headed home by Ciaran Clark. It was a free header.

Bollocks.

The Toon Army went Loony.

It was a rare goal for The Geordies at Stamford Bridge.

I have seen the last thirty consecutive league encounters with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge – this was game number thirty-one, undoubtedly the longest stretch out of all the games that I have seen – and they had won only two of those. In the pub, I chatted briefly to three Toonistas and it did not take them long to mention the two incredible Papiss Cisse goals that gave them their first win at Stamford Bridge in twenty-six years when they beat us 2-0 in 2012.

But that was it. One win since 1986.

A meek effort from Willian and then a wild volley from Ritchie brought the first-half to a close. It was a very mundane performance from us and there was much shaking of heads at half-time. Eden Hazard had been especially ineffective.

Early in the second-period, Kante set up Pedro but Dubravka spread himself well to block. We looked a little more dynamic during the opening moments of the second-half and Kante was the one driving the team on. But we only had half-chances. A Luiz air shot and a scuffed Pedro effort did not worry the Geordies’ goal.

On fifty-seven minutes, the ball was worked over to Willian after some sublime skill from Hazard. He stood, with two defenders blocking his sight of the goal. Not to worry, his trademark hippy-hippy-shake bought him a yard of space and his curling missile found the net, just clipping the post before making the net bulge.

Whatabloodygoal.

With over half-an-hour to go, we obviously hoped for more goals, or at least more efforts, and indeed effort. Pedro had gone close with another chip, but the Newcastle ‘keeper did enough. And although the manager rang the changes – Barkley for Kovacic, Hudson-Odoi for Pedro, Giroud for Hazard) – no further goals followed.

Sarri is under the microscope now, and his man Jorginho is not particularly loved among the Chelsea match-going support. I am still trying my best to work it all out, I am trying to get my head around his philosophy, I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt.

It worked in Italy. Can it work in England?

Time will tell.

For all of the negativity during the game, the match game ended with a 2-1 win for Chelsea which solidified our fourth-place position.

Outside Stamford Bridge on the Fulham Road, after collecting some tickets for some upcoming games, PD and I bit into a couple of hot dogs with onions – the best of the season – as light rain dampened the evening air. Opposite us were a line of seven away coaches, taking the Toonistas back to Ashington, Long Benton, Swalwell, Byker, Jesmond and Gateshead. They would not get back home until 2am or 3am.

I tipped my cap to them.

“One win since 1986, bloody hell.”

We made our way back to Paddington where we met up with Parky. Although the game had been difficult to watch – I think it was John who called it “turgid”, a good word – we now enjoyed a healthy six-point gap on Arsenal.

And we play at The Emirates next Saturday tea-time.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Front Row

Chelsea vs. Derby County : 31 October 2018.

A Frank Fest.

During the day, I mentioned to a work colleague – fellow Chelsea fan Paul, who came up with us for the Huddersfield Town game last season – that I didn’t want the return to Stamford Bridge of Frank Lampard to dominate things too greatly throughout the evening’s game with Derby County. In 2017, Frank appeared at half-time against Swansea City, and everything on that day was nigh-on perfect. Tons of affection for Frank, flags in honour of him, and feelings between player and fans reciprocated nicely. He took the microphone, and his words were of love and appreciation. So, we have already experienced a “Frank Lampard Day” at Stamford Bridge, and I wasn’t too keen on things getting awkwardly out of control during the upcoming game. Frank was returning as a former hero, but as also a rival. The League Cup is not high on my list of priorities each season, but here was another game we needed to win. I had visions of it all going a bit OTT.

I said to Paul :

“We need to get behind our team. We need to win the game.”

But I knew how these things develop these days. I was sure that there would be songs for Frank Lampard throughout the game.

The Gang Of Five.

The Chuckle Bus was at capacity on the drive to London; PD, Sir Les, Lord Parky, Glenn and I were crammed inside as PD took over driving duties once again. There was the usual heavy traffic and we were not parked until around 6.30pm. There would only be time for a couple of liveners in “Simmons Bar” down at the bottom end of the North End Road, which was unsurprisingly busy, before the game. Of the five of us, only Glenn seemed super-excited about the evening’s match. Not that I was underwhelmed. Just not bitten by the same bug as Glenn. If anything, I was more excited about being able to watch the game from a slightly different perspective. As Derby County – some four thousand strong – had been given most of The Shed, Parky was bounced over to the West Lower. In a secret pact, the two of us had agreed to swap seats. I would be in row two of the West Lower, while he would be watching from my usual seat in row four of the Matthew Harding Upper. We decided to keep it a secret from Alan, PD and Glenn. In the bar, it was lovely to meet up with King Jim, among others, at a game again. Jim comes to the occasional match these days and it is always a pleasure to see him. There were people everywhere as I walked quickly towards Stamford Bridge. This was yet another full house at Stamford Bridge. Good efforts everyone.

Flags And Banners.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the image of Frank Lampard on a banner – the same one as against Swansea City in 2017 – dominated the Matthew Harding to my left. It hung from the balcony, flanked by two other banners, although not all together at the same time.

“GOAL AFTER GOAL, GAME AFTER GAME” and “FOREVER A BLUE, FOREVER A LEGEND.”

And a legend he most certainly is. Our greatest ever player? Probably.

One Of Our Own.

Late on Tuesday night, just as I was finishing off my match report of the Burnley game, I heard through a Chelsea mate of mine that our former Chelsea player, youth team coach and manager Ken Shellito had sadly passed away. Ken had been a Facebook friend of mine for quite a few years, and although we rarely interacted, Ken seemed like a thoroughly decent man, and Chelsea through-and-through. I met him – very briefly – on two occasions. The first time was in 2008 after a CPO event in London when my friend Beth, from Texas – everyone knows Beth – and I enjoyed a few boozy hours in the company of some former players in a cosy boozer after the main event. Ken seemed overwhelmed by the attention and love that other fellow fans were showing him. He seemed humble and courteous. I only spoke to him for a few moments. I later saw him – maybe three years ago – in the Chelsea hotel before a game. Again, our meeting was fleeting. It is often said that had Ken Shellito not suffered a career-ending knee injury in the early ‘sixties, he would have been remembered as an England World Cup winner in 1966. Commentators from that era say his presence would have been assured. He was that good. In the end, he played just one game for England.

Growing up in the ‘seventies, I was aware of his presence at Chelsea as the youth team manager during our barren and financially-weakened years of 1975 to 1977. After Eddie McCreadie left our club before the start of the 1977/78 season – we were all mortified – the club turned to Ken Shellito to manage the team. Even though I was only twelve, I remember thinking that following McCreadie would be a tough act to follow. But our Ken did a reasonable job in his first season as we returned to the top flight for the first time since 1975. Pride of place were the two home victories against reigning English and European champions Liverpool. Everyone talks about the 4-2 FA Cup win in January, but just as impressive was the 3-1 league win in March, a game that I attended, and which fulfilled all my fantasies about Chelsea as unfancied underdog overcoming all of the odds. It was only my twelfth Chelsea game, but one which I wondered would ever be surpassed in terms of excitement and joy. I need not have worried, eh? In the following season, we suffered from the off and the club decided to sack Ken Shellito around the Christmas period. His Chelsea career was over. He spent many of the latter years in Malaysia with his wife Jeanie and young daughter. Until the end, he ran a training camp which I believe had links with Chelsea Football Club.

After the teams entered the pitch, and after there was a mention of Glenn Hoddle and his recent hospitalisation, and then the tragedy in Leicester involving the City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the players formed in the centre circle as an image of Ken Shellito was flashed up on the TV screens and we applauded the memory of both. It had been a horrid few days for us all.

I clapped heartily.

I knew him and yet I did not know him, but another loyal Chelsea servant and supporter has sadly passed.

Ken Shellito RIP.

The Team.

Manager Maurizio Sarri had unsurprisingly changed the Chelsea team for the visit of Derby County. In came a few squad players. Willy Caballero in goal. A back four of Davide Zappacosta, Andreas Christensen Gary Cahill and Emerson. A midfield three of Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. Up front were Willian, Alvaro Morata and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The Lowdown.

This was only my fourth game in the West Lower since its birth in 1997 and eventual completion in 2001. There had been previously been games against Coventry City in 2000, Leeds United in 2004 and Fulham in 2011. I was officially in row two, but the rows were staggered a little and I was effectively sat in the front row. I was as low down as I could possibly be. The view was far from great to be honest. It was lovely to see some players up close – in the first-half, Zappacosta, Loftus-Cheek and Kante especially – but I generally found it hard to concentrate as my perspective was so awful. Apart from a small wedge of around eight-hundred Chelsea fans in the south-east corner, where the away support is usually based, Derby had the entire end. In front of the Chelsea support, was a banner honouring Frank’s assistant.

“JODY MORRIS – CHELSEA THROUGH AND THROUGH.”

Jody’s story is pretty incredible. I remember seeing his debut in the 5-0 rout of Middlesbrough in 1996. He was quite a wild child in his youth. Who would ever have thought that he would develop into a respected coach? Certainly not me.

Soon into the game, a familiar face steadied herself, aided by a steward, and sat down in the front row a few seats away.

“Hiya Felicity.”

She looked fleetingly at me, but there was no reaction. She watched the entire game in silence, alone in her own world. Felicity used to watch the lads train at Harlington. She used to bring them cakes. I saw her, briefly, last season at a game and I was surprised to see that she still attends matches. I am sure she has some form of dementia, bless her, but it was a lift for me to see her still attending games, bedecked in her Chelsea coat.

I thought to myself : “Felicity. Chelsea through and through.”

Rammed.

The Shed was going to be the epicentre of any noise during the game. Derby had come in numbers. Four thousand? It seemed more like five thousand. They were making a din right from the start.

Derby have their own version of “the bouncy.”

“If you don’t fuckin’ bounce. If you don’t fuckin’ bounce you’re a red.”

They had one for Frank.

“Frankie Lampard is a ram. He hates Forest.”

And then one for us.

“Football in a library, tra la la la la.”

Déjà vu.

Here are some observations from our League Cup tie with Fulham in September 2011, which we narrowly won on penalties, and when I was also seated in the same section of Stamford Bridge.

“My seat was in row 6, all of the way down towards the Fulham fans in The Shed. I looked around and saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I heard a few foreign accents. I took a few photos of The Bridge from this new angle. I sat myself down – not much legroom – and prepared myself for a mind-numbingly quiet evening. It’s another cliché that the West Lower is one of more reserved parts of The Bridge. By the time of the kick-off at 7.45pm, the 3,500 away fans had all arrived and were singing their hearts out. The rest of the place took some time to fill up, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see few empty seats.”

“The Fulham fans were getting behind their team, singing a whole host of songs, some of which I had never heard before. In comparison, the West Stand was silent and the MHU barely murmured.”

“A few chances for both sides, but from my angle, I was struggling to make sense of the shape of the play.”

“If I am honest, I wasn’t enjoying the game. The Fulham fans were making too much noise and I was getting rather frustrated with the lack of support from the Chelsea fans around me. In the West lower, many couples weren’t even talking to each other, let alone getting behind the team via songs of encouragement. Despite the songs of derision cascading down on us from the away fans, I couldn’t bring myself to truly despise them, unlike the supporters of other teams. I tried to put myself in their shoes. It reminded me of life as a Chelsea fan in my youth, railing against the bigger teams, forever the underdog. Forever the underachiever.”

“The referee blew his whistle to end the 90 minutes and I inwardly groaned. I had been in purgatory for the whole game – surrounded by predominantly silent fans – and I was only able to yell out a few shouts of support on a few occasions throughout the duration.”

In 2018, seven years later, I experienced a lot of these same feelings.

The First-Half.

After only five minutes, I was able to watch at close-hand as Ruben Loftus-Cheek played the ball to Davide Zappacosta. His low cross was comically turned into his own net by Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori. As easy as that we were 1-0 up. We were all over Derby County in the first part of the game.

It was deathly quiet in the West Lower. To my right, the Derby fans mocked us.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

Within five minutes, however, Derby had equalised. The lump that is Tom Huddlestone played the ball out to Jack Marriott and it looked to me like the angle was too acute. Imagine my surprise when he calmly slotted the ball past Caballero. The away fans bounced.

Martin Waghorn, a solid rock of a striker, fluffed his lines when through on goal, seemingly tripping over the ball and wasting a golden opportunity.

On twenty minutes, as a move developed, I held my camera to my eyes and snapped a rather blurry photograph – certainly not worth sharing – of Zappacosta as he blasted across the goal. I looked up to see that the ball had ended up in the net. Another Derby OG, this time from their skipper Richard Keogh.

I took a few photos as Ruben wiggled his way towards goal, moving the ball nicely, but his shot was wide. Willian then blasted over.

Soon after, just before the halfway mark, Mason Mount played a perfect ball across the six-yard box. Caballero was not close to it. Waghorn poked it home easily.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea.”

The away fans bounced again, and then aimed another dig our way.

“Shall we score a goal for you?”

I lost count of the number of times that Zappacosta, in acres of space, pleaded with his arms wide open to receive the ball from Christensen or Cahill. Often he was ignored. He is a basic player really, but he was again involved on forty minutes as he found himself inside the Derby box. Eventually the ball spun loose, and Cesc Fabregas was on hand to smash the ball in at Scott Carson’s near post.

Bloody hell, 3-2.

The highlight of the rest of the half was the magnificent way that Willian brought a high ball down with the subtlest of touches. It reminded me of Zola doing the same thing at Anfield in around 2003, when the Scousers in the Centenary Stand applauded him.

Banners.

At half-time, I checked out a few of the banners that I would not normally get a chance to see from my usual position in The Sleepy Hollow. I love the old “547 SW6” flag which pays homage to the old – and much-missed – HQ of the original Chelsea Supporters Club at 547 Fulham Road, which I used to frequent before home games until the mid-eighties. I still see one of the chaps who used to serve inside – Peter Kemp – at many away games, although we have never spoken. He is another who the “through and through” phrase could easily be applied. Behind and above me were banners from everywhere.

Adelaide, Vancouver, Devon & Somerset, York, Perth Western Australia, East Belfast, Bermuda, Slovenia.

Just in front of The Sleepy Hollow, a banner which has recently been added.

“ONE93 KERRY DIXON.”

Not So Super.

Five minutes into the second period, came our noisiest chant of the game thus far.

“Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super Frankie Lampard.”

The noise roared down from the Matthew Harding. Frank, obviously, turned and applauded. But he then signalled “enough, support them on the pitch.”

I agreed with Frank. It annoys myself and quite a few others how a sizeable section of the Chelsea support wastes no time at all – every bloody match – in singing about Frankie Lampard scoring against West Ham, Dennis Wise scoring against Milan and Demba Ba scoring against Liverpool. And yet there are few raucous songs in support of players actually playing.

And yet I thought back to September 2014 when we watched in horror as Frank Lampard played as a substitute for Manchester City against as at The Etihad. I cannot lie. I can’t hide the truth. I can’t hide from the sense of hypocrisy I felt. I did sing his name that day. We had, though, not been able to give him a proper send-off at the end of the previous campaign. His last game in Chelsea colours was the insipid 0-0 with Norwich City when he was substituted by Jose Mourinho at half-time. It was as an inglorious end to a Chelsea career as I have ever seen, certainly not befitting one of our all-time greats. He did not appear in the final game away to Cardiff City. So, in my defence, I think there were extenuating circumstances for the songs at Manchester City in 2014. I thought, as did many, that we had not said “goodbye and thank you” in a way that was correct. And here was an opportunity to show him some love. After all, we might not have seen him as a player ever again. That is my explanation for it. If you don’t agree, sue me.

But we said thankyou to him then, in the autumn of 2014. And we said thank you to him at Stamford Bridge in the January of 2015. And again in February 2017.

Enough was enough.

Suffice to say, I didn’t join in with the singing of his name during the game in October 2018. I’m not so sure I even sung before the game if I am honest.

The Second-Half.

Would more goals follow? I expected so. I had been impressed with Derby. We had played beneath ourselves, almost disinterested almost. We worked a few forays into the Derby box in the first part of the second-half but there was no cutting edge. On the hour, a Cahill header from a corner was palmed over by Carson. If I am honest, by now I was finding the game rather painful to watch. Everything was squeezed into a narrow field of vision. And we were hardly in exhilarating form.

David Luiz replaced Andreas Christensen.

Pedro replaced Ruben.

Marriott forced a fine save from Cabellero on a quick break. Mount then shot wide. Derby were still in it. There was a moment when the away fans reacted noisily and passionately to a shot, igniting the entire away end, and I longed for the days when our home fans were similarly partisan. Those days, the days when the atmosphere was venomous, seem so far away now.

Yeah, I know. A familiar story.

A great cross from Zappacosta – him again – found Morata in acres of space but his header was not worthy of the name. Another header from Morata went well wide. The same player then jumped with great body shape, twisting in the box to meet a Willian corner and getting a great deal of power on it – another photo too blurred to share, damn it – but Carson did well to save.

Two saves from Caballero kept us ahead. A hand was dabbed on a close effort from Keogh and he then smothered another Mount shot. Things were getting nervy now. An effort from Marriott was saved. Then the old warhorse David Newgent, a late substitute, shot across Caballero and I watched, painfully, as the ball seemed to be going in. Thankfully it hit the far post, and miraculously bounced back straight into big Willy’s arms.

Phew.

Not long after, the final whistle blew and we counted our blessings.

It been a strange old game. It had not been pretty. But, on Halloween, we were thankful it didn’t turn into a horror show.

Into the last eight we went.

Shots.

As I was watching from a different viewpoint, it would have been amiss of me not to take a greater share of photographs than usual. I took over two-hundred and fifty with most in concentrated bursts, and the majority before the game and then after. Here are a few from the match itself.

Frank & Jody.

There was the inevitable post-game hugs and handshakes between the players and management of both teams. All eyes were on two of our own.

Pictures.

A gallery of some of the images of the night. Down low, the immense height of the East Stand still staggers me. It was even more impressive when it was first built in 1974. There was no stand like it in England.

Postscript : 1985.

On the drive home in PD’s Chuckle Bus, I happened to mention a video clip to Glenn that I had revisited during the week but which was first aired on a “Facebook / Chelsea In The Eighties” group at the start of the year. In the quarter finals of the League Cup in the 1984/85 season, we drew 1-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday. We then drew the replay at Hillsborough 4-4, and then beat them 2-1 in the second replay at Stamford Bridge. I didn’t attend any of those games, but I can remember watching the highlights of them all on TV. Wednesday were huge rivals with us in that period. At the end of the final game, there was a pitch invasion, such was the hysteria among our support in reaching a semi-final for the first time in thirteen seasons.

The video that I spoke about was a rare six-minute clip – never aired on TV – at the end of the game, when the cameras were left to roll and the immediate post-match euphoria was captured for eternity. It shows an edgy mass of lads – honestly, virtually no females – in The Shed, The Benches and the North Stand singing and chanting and taunting the away fans. It shows a few scuffles with the police, trying to keep order, and of a vibrant, excited and noisy Stamford Bridge. Nobody wanted to go home. The areas mentioned were full of lads. Jeans and jackets. Hardly any Chelsea colours, it was 1985. Lads standing on the fences. Attitude. A baying mass of humanity. Police horses trotting up and down in front of The Benches. And the noise was loud, as loud as hell. I quickly fumbled for my ‘phone and thankfully found the video. The commentator, who spoke briefly about wanting to see a few unruly Chelsea fans get hit by the truncheons of the Old Bill, was Peter Brackley, who recently passed away.

While Parky slept, and PD and Les were silent in the front, Glenn and I watched – intensely and intently – at the images from thirty-three years ago.

We were mesmerized.

“We’re going to Wembley. We’re going to Wembley. You’re not. You’re not.”

“You come all this way. And you lost. And you lost.”

We even caught a hearty rendition of Chelsea singing “You’ll never walk alone.”

It was a Chelsea song too in those days.

And all because we had reached a League Cup semi-final.

On the drive home, we had heard that we had drawn Bournemouth – again, same as last season – in the final eight, and I knew that if we were to be victorious in that game, the difference between 1985 and 2018 would be vast. And I understand that. In 1985, Chelsea Football Club was a different beast. In 2018, we are ridiculously successful. Reaching a League Cup semi really is no big deal.

But it would be bloody lovely to have some of that adrenaline, passion and boisterousness once again. Or just 50 percent of it.

We can dream, eh?

 

Tales From Ninety-Six Minutes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 20 October 2018.

With the international break over – I watched Frome Town capitulate to Harrow Borough last weekend, thanks for asking – it was time for arguably the biggest match of the season. Say what you like about Manchester United, or the Forces of Darkness as I occasionally call them – but they are always a huge draw. Personally, I’d probably rate the visit of Tottenham as our biggest home game each season, but there is not much between them.

Just the three of us headed east to London early on Saturday morning; Parky, PD and little old me. There was early morning patchy fog as I headed through Somerset and Wiltshire, but the sun occasionally cleared. On the M4 in Wiltshire, the fog and mist descended again. Away in the distance, the view of a line of monochrome trees atop a slightly sloping horizon was so pure that I even got PD agreeing with me as to how stunning it looked.

The sun soon evaporated any moisture as we headed into Berkshire and beyond. It was to be a stunning day for football. We had set off at 7am so as to maximise pre-match drinking time. We settled on “The Goose” for ease more than anything else. As the other two shot on, I stopped to take a photo of a mackerel sky high above the old school flats of the Clement Atlee Estate just off the Lillee Road. These high-rise blocks of low-cost accommodation, hovering over The Goose, The Wellington and The Rylston pubs, must have housed thousands of Chelsea supporters over the years. I would not be surprised if some of the “North End Road mob” of the late-‘sixties and early-‘seventies were housed within. A friend of mine, Paul – now living in North Devon, and a Chelsea supporter – lived within one of the towers. There is a lot mentioned of “proper Chelsea” these days, and I often think, as I gaze up at the windows and balconies of the Clement Atlee, named after the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister of the coalition government for a few years after the Second World War, that this is a good example. Occasionally, I see a Chelsea flag hanging from one of the balconies – there used to be a dusty and weather-beaten “Munich 2012” one a few years back – but I wonder how many inhabitants get to see Chelsea Football Club play these days.

Not so many as in the late ’sixties I’d guess.

In The Goose – I had limited myself to a couple of Peronis – and the beer garden outside, I spent a good hour talking to friends from far and near. There was, as is always the case, little talk of the game ahead.

Deano from Yorkshire, Welsh Kev from Port Talbot, the boys from Kent, Eck from Glasgow, the lads from Gloucester, the Bristol lot, Rich from Loughborough.

I was aware that several friends from the other side of the Atlantic were over for the game.

And we chastise United fans that don’t come from Manchester.

Oh, the irony.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Brad, now living in New York but originally from Texas, and his father who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game.

I say this to everyone : “if we lose, you ain’t coming back.”

Pride of place during this particular pre-match meet-and-greet went to my friends Leigh-Anne and John from Toronto, now married, and dipping into see us play again after a busy holiday in Ireland. I last saw them in DC in 2015. They were to announce the fact that Leigh-Anne was pregnant to all their friends back home – baby due in March – with a photo of them holding up a little Chelsea shirt outside the West Stand.

Now that, my friends, is proper Chelsea.

The time flew past. I supped the last few sips and headed to the ground.

We were sure that Olivier Giroud would start. It was a foregone conclusion.

He didn’t.

I hoped that man-of-the-moment Ross Barkley would start.

He didn’t.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

My main concern was that we might be out-muscled by Matic and Pogba in midfield.

This would be my thirty-second Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game at Stamford Bridge. My first one came in our first season back in the top flight after a five-season break – I like to think of it as our “this relationship is going nowhere and we need a bit of space” phase – when I assembled with 42,000 others just after Christmas Day in 1984. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was super-excited. After my first game in 1974, Chelsea then played seven of the next ten seasons in Division Two, and my sightings of top teams was severely limited. It seems incredible these days, but from March 1974 to August 1984, I only ever saw us play seven home games in Division One.

Newcastle United – 1974

Tottenham Hotspur – 1974

Derby County – 1975

Aston Villa – 1977

Liverpool – 1978

Tottenham Hotspur – 1978

Queens Park Rangers – 1979

(…it would appear this random sample would support my theory of Tottenham being the biggest game each season in my mind.)

December 1984, with me on the benches with Alan and Glenn, and a few other close friends, and the visit of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United. It was a huge game. We were doing well in the league, and United were in the mix too. There was an expectant buzz before the game, and we were in The Benches early, as always, and watched the large and sprawling North Stand fill up with United fans.

“Not as many as Liverpool earlier this month” I remember thinking at the time.

These days, we are so used to inflated gates with clubs being scared to death to publish actual “bums on seats” at games, instead going for the number of tickets sold. It is why Arsenal always announce gates of 60,000 despite swathes of empty seats in the latter years of the Wenger reign. In those days, it was the exact opposite. Why pay tax on the income generated by 45,000 if you can announce the figure as 35,000? Nobody would ever check. So, in those days with that cunning old fox Ken Bates in charge, there were many times when we scoffed at some of the gates which were announced. In May 1984, Stamford Bridge was packed to see us beat Leeds United to clinch promotion but the gate was only 33,000.

“Yeah right, Batesy.”

Sitting in The Benches in those days, I always used to keep a check on the top row of the East Stand. If every seat was taken, I expected a 42,500 capacity figure to be announced.

Very often it wasn’t.

Sadly, we lost 3-1 that day and I was as disappointed as I had felt for a good few years as I exited Stamford Bridge and took the train back to Somerset. It was our first big loss at home after promotion the previous year and the little doubts about our place in the new world order were beginning to peck away.

Our home record against United used to be bloody awful, and yet paradoxically our league record at Old Trafford was excellent; from 1966/677 to 1987/88 we were unbeaten in thirteen league matches, a very fine record. And we have intermittently nabbed good wins at Old Trafford in the past thirty years.

Our home form has certainly improved.

From that game in December 1984, we lost eight out of seventeen league games at Stamford Bridge.

Since 2002, we have lost just one of sixteen.

For once, I was confident – not even quietly confident – of a Chelsea win.

“God knows where our goals will come from, but I am sure we’ll win.”

It has been a mystery to me why the movers and shakers at Adidas decided to jettison the classic Manchester United red / white / black in favour of a red / black / red this season. It was a classic kit. Why the change? All I know is that none of the United fans that I know have bothered to mention it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed.

After the usual “Park Life” and “Liquidator” segment gave way to the flag waving and flame-throwing bollocks of the immediate pre-match, the teams appeared.

United oddly chose to wear white shorts for this one match. But the kit still looked a mess.

A new Eden Hazard flag – simplicity itself – surfed over the heads of those in the tier below me.

I looked around. Ken Bates or no Ken Bates, nobody could lie about the attendance for this one. It was a full-house for sure.

Except for a few of the boxes in the West Middle.

Empty.

The mind boggles why these tend to be empty every game.

Another TV game. The nation, and parts of the world, was ready.

The game began and there was a decent buzz in the stadium. I only rarely looked over to spot Mourinho and Sarri. The red of the United substitutes was very light, almost pink. Liverpool have gone darker, United have gone lighter. Anything to distance themselves from each other. By comparison, there was more immediate noise at the Liverpool home game, but everyone was in the boozers, all fifty-two of them, for much longer three weeks ago. These lunchtime starts are usually quieter affairs.

United were singing, as they always do, in the far corner, but Chelsea had the best of the opening period of the game. There was far greater fluidity from our ranks. Hazard was hacked down by Young, but no card was shown. Soon after, Eden was fouled just outside the box, but Willian curled the free-kick way over the bar. United had a little spell; it made a change to see them in our box. Lukaku headed wide. It would be the last that we would see of him for a while.

At the other end, we dominated again.

On twenty minutes, we won a corner. Willian struck a firm cross over towards the penalty spot where Toni Rudiger rose, seemingly unhindered and at will, to thump a header past De Gea. Again, I had a clear view of its trajectory. I knew that it was a goal straight away.

BOOM.

Blue / Blue / White 1 Red / White / Red 0.

Alan – in a Mancunian Red Army accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris – in a Cockney Reds accent : “Come on my little diamonds”

Young chipped away at Hazard again; this time a card.

Next up, a sublime pass from Rudiger – lofted from afar – caught the run of a raiding Alonso, but the defender’s first touch was heavy as De Gea approached.

A similar lofted pass from David Luiz was so well disguised, none of his team mates went for it.

“That ball had a moustache and false glasses on it, Al.”

For virtually all of the first-half, while Juan Mata was involved in occasional bursts and a couple of dead-balls, the other two former Chelsea players Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku struggled to get involved at all. Matic was his usual ambling self and of little consequence. And Lukaku, sporting ridiculous XXXXL shorts – “If Gary was wearing those, he would have to have turn-ups” quipped Alan – was hardly noticeable. I was mesmerized, though, by the size of Lukaku. His arse must have a postcode all to itself. How times change; when he first joined Chelsea, I wanted him to bulk up a little as he didn’t seem to have the physical prowess to dominate defenders. Bloody hell, since those days, he has bulked up quite considerably. He must eat at every greasy spoon, twenty-four-hour truck stop and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant between Bournemouth and Tyneside.

It was lovely to see Juan Mata applauded by the home support as he took his first corner over in the far corner. I would expect nothing less, to be honest. Mata is a class act, and will always be a blue in my eyes. There was no show of love or appreciation for Matic and Lukaku.

The play continued to pass Lukaku by. He seemed slow and disinterested, and of no consequence.

In fact, he looked like the biggest pile of shite to be seen on TV from a location in West London since Lulu the elephant had stage fright in the Blue Peter studio.

The first-half came to an end, with Chelsea well in control, but without creating a great deal of chances. It gives me no comfort nor pleasure to report that Alvaro Morata was his usual self; playing in name only. Not much movement, not much guile, not much anything really.

In the much-improved programme, there was time to dip into the contents. Oddly, the Red Banner game that I covered a couple of games back was featured in depth; I learned that the game, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1954, was shown “live” on the BBC.

A Pat Nevin column detailing his love, like mine, of the Manchester music scene, was excellent. Pat has a musical column in the programme this season, similar to his piece in the old “Bridge News” of the mid- ‘eighties and it is well worth reading. There have been a couple of excellent pieces on the internet about Wee Pat of late.

After reading one of them during the morning, Glenn – who was missing the game due to work – sent me a message to say that “Pat is just like you.”

I half-guessed what he meant.

I presumed that there would be a comment about the Cocteau Twins.

“I like driving. I can listen to music. And think about football.”

Sadly, there was no hope of me playing for Chelsea Football Club nor going out with Clare Grogan, so that is where the comparison ends.

The second-half began. Early on, Morata would frustrate us further. A Jorginho through ball set him up, he did all the right things, but then meekly shot wide.

With us in charge, but desperate for a second to wrap things up, I hoped the miss would not haunt us.

David Luiz, raiding in the inside-left position, supported the attack and did well to exchange passes with Eden, but his shot was deflected for a corner. I loved the bursting runs of Kovacic which continued to breathe life into our play.

The game then, sadly, changed.

With ten minutes of the second-half played, Kepa did ever so well to push out a firm strike from Mata, but the ball was kept alive. The ball was dolloped back inside the box and although Luiz got a head to the ball, I sensed danger – “they’ll score here” – and it fell to Martial who nimbly poked it home.

London 1 Manchester 1.

Bollocks.

United roared, singing some song about Liverpool, if my hearing was correct.

Chelsea then seemed to crumple. Matic started dominating the midfield and Mata looked influential. Lukaku roamed from his central position and caused problems. Suddenly, we looked half the team we were in the first-half.

I grew more annoyed with Alvaro Morata.

Every player has a trademark play – the John Terry chest-pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the Eden Hazard 180 degree turn, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the David Luiz feint – but it seems to me the Morata speciality is holding the back of his head after yet another half-hearted jump at a high ball.

“FUCKSAKE.”

David Luiz seemed to be having a hit and miss game, but I lost count of the times his fantastic interceptions stopped United causing further damage. One run to shield the ball away from the lump of Lukaku was sublime.

A Luiz header went close from a Willian free-kick. The flight of the ball was almost perfect, but the stretching Luiz just had too much to do. But his leap was well-timed. His was an increasingly important role in the game.

Ross Barkley then replaced Kovacic. A round of applause for both.

Kante – not as involved as I would like if I am honest – then let fly outside the box but De Gea scrambled the ball away.

This was a tight game, if not high on real quality. Eden had been shackled all afternoon, often with three players hounding him, but we hoped his moment of genius would come.

Then, seventy-three minutes, a calamity. Luiz mistimed an interception out wide (there had been other similar ones during the game where his timing was spot-on) and this allowed the mercurial Mata to set up Rashford, then Martial. Moving the ball quickly out of his feet, he effortlessly struck a low shot right into the bottom corner of our net.

Nike 1 Adidas 2.

The United hordes roared again.

“U – N – I – T – E – D, United are the team for me.”

And then a song which United have taken on board as a badge of honour over the past fifteen years or so :

“Who the fuck are Man United, as the reds go marching on, on, on.”

Their thought process must be this : ”as if anyone should question who United are.”

It honestly boils my piss when I hear our fans singing this.

It’s their fucking song these days.

“Chelsea Till I Die” is another one. Hardly ever sung at a Chelsea game of any description, home or away, at any time. A song of Football League teams. A dirge much beloved by smaller clubs. A song which seems to have found a firm footing among our overseas fans, though God knows why.

Please stop it.

Immediately, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Olivier Giroud took over from the non-existent Morata.

But he mood had certainly darkened around me. Just like in 1984, we were about to be handed our first big home defeat of the season. And I had a flashback to the Tottenham game last Spring, when an early goal at The Shed was eventually wiped out and overtaken.

Eden became a little more involved. The intensity rose.

I spoke to Alan.

“Barkley to get a goal.”

The referee signaled a whopping six minutes of extra-time.

Hope, however small, existed.

The clock ate up the minutes. A few fans decided to leave.

With time surely running out, Dave swung in a high and deep cross towards the far post. I snapped as David Luiz climbed a step ladder to jump higher than two United defenders. We watched as the ball slowly looped towards the far post.

The ball struck it.

The disbelief.

The ball cannoned out and Rudiger headed towards goal.

The anticipation.

David De Gea magnificently saved.

The agony.

Ross Barkley was on hand to smash the ball in.

The pandemonium.

The noise.

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2.

By this time, I was at the top of the steps to my immediate right and I snapped away as Ross Barkley celebrated wildly. I felt my head spinning.

I was light-headed.

I grabbed hold of the hand rail in front of me and steadied myself.

Such joy.

I looked over to see Al and Bournemouth Steve shouting, smiling and pointing.

Alan’s face says it all.

All around me, there seemed to be another wave of noise and then, I wasn’t sure why, a loud “FUCK OFF MOURINHO.”

I immediately thought that this was a little distasteful. Yeah, I know the bloke is – now – a knob head but there were some good times too.

We tried to piece together what had happened, and over in the tunnel, there was a lot of handbags being thrown. Players on the pitch were pushing and shoving each other.

I didn’t care.

The whistle went and it had seemed like a win. After the ninety-sixth minute goal conceded against Liverpool, this was a lot more enjoyable. And Ross Barkley, our token Scouser, making all those Mancunians miserable now?

“Sound, la.”

Unbeaten in nine league games, a nice round dozen in total, we are doing just fine.

And Brad’s father enjoyed the game so much that he soon asked around for a spare for Thursday against BATE Borisov.

He will be sitting, apparently, two runs in front of me.

I’ll see him there.

 

Tales From The Benches

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 13 January 2018.

Last Saturday at Norwich, I bumped into a chap who I had not seen at a Chelsea game for years and years. Dave, originally from St. Albans, used to sit alongside a few of us on The Benches in the West Stand at Stamford Bridge in the mid-‘eighties. I was thrilled to see him again, and even more thrilled to hear that he was planning to meet up with two other lads from that era – Simon, who I see occasionally at Chelsea, and Rich, who I have not seen for three decades – at the Leicester City home game. As the Chuckle Brothers made our way to London, my mind was full of thoughts about this most brilliant of reunions. And it got me wondering about the absurdities of fate.

As I recalled the circumstances that led to us all getting to know each other, it just seemed that some things were just meant to be.

Rewind to the evening of Saturday 10 March 1984.

Glenn and I were on our way back to King’s Cross on the Chelsea Special after an action packed day watching The Great Unpredictables at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Glenn shot off to the buffet, leaving me to read the creased match programme one more time. Coming out of Newcastle, the train had been bricked by some far-from-friendly locals and a window in our compartment had been shattered, leaving a young lad wearing glasses with bloodied cuts to the head. It was a rude awakening to the pitfalls of travelling by train in support of Chelsea. A few others, more experienced, more seasoned, had put the blinds down as soon as we had left Newcastle, just in case this very thing happened, to try to stop the glass flying everywhere. I probably tried to catch some sleep – we had been awake since 4am – but the compartment was so cold that sleep was probably out of the question. After an hour or so – “blimey, what has happened to Glenn?” – my travel companion returned.

“Just been talking to some lads from Brighton. A good laugh.”

I thought no more of it.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Saturday 31 March 1984.

In the days before we had spare money to pop into the pubs around Stamford Bridge on match days, Glenn and I were in early for our game against Fulham. We had watched our first two games together against Newcastle United in November and Manchester City in December on The Shed, but our next couple of matches – Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday – had been in the trendier and more enjoyable benches which used to run alongside the old dog track in front of the West Stand. It was where I had seen my very first game at Chelsea ten years’ earlier. But where there was a mixture of middle-aged supporters in suits and ties, young schoolkids, and pensioners mixed in with the teenagers in 1974, in 1984 the benches were occupied by a very different beast. In the main, and certainly at the northern end of The Benches, as near to the hated away fans as it was possible to get, were legions of Chelsea supporters – 99% male and 99% aged sixteen to twenty-five – who were dressed to impress with the latest casual labels of the day.

You would pay your general admission money to get in The Shed – £3? I forget – and then show your membership card at the back of the Shed terrace to a club official and then pay an extra quid at those peculiar turnstiles (a unique feature really, a turnstile inside a stadium) at the bottom of those steps between The Shed and the West Stand. And then you were in, walking the catwalk of that wide walkway at the back of the enclosure, watching the peacocks strut their stuff, and sing their songs.

This was all relatively new to the two of us from Frome.

1983/1984 was a season of enlightenment for the two of us and there has not been a season like it before or after.

The wedge haircut, blonde highlights, Lacoste polo shirts, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops, Fila roll-necks, Adidas rain jackets, Patrick cagoules, complete Kappa tracksuits, Lyle and Scott pullovers, Pringle pullovers, Gabicci cardigans, light blue Levi jeans, Lois jumbo cords with side splits, Nike Wimbledons, Diadora Borg Elites, Puma Guillermo Vilas, Kickers, swagger, swagger and more swagger.

The two of us were overdosing on football and fashion and we could not get enough of it.

On that day against Fulham, we had nabbed the very back row of the benches; always a highly-desirable spot. We were on the halfway-line. Prime seats. No tickets in those days; first-come first-served. Lo and behold, who should arrive a little later and be sitting right in front of us than the two lads “from Brighton” who Glenn had met on the way home from Newcastle. In fact, only one was from Brighton; Paul – aka Stamford in lieu of his mane of blonde hair – while Alan was from Bromley, a proper Sarf Londoner. We struck up a little conversation. Glenn must have introduced me. It felt nice to meet some young lads who were as mad on Chelsea as us. Growing up in rural Somerset, it was a rarity to find another blue, let alone one who were as feverish about our club as Glenn and little old me.

The next game that Glenn and I attended at Stamford Bridge was the legendary promotion-decider against Leeds United. Again, we aimed for the back row of The Benches. The pre-match was a little different on this occasion, though, and rather historic too. We had popped into a pub called “The Cock” and I had supped my very first pint before a Chelsea game – a lager and lime if memory serves – and we had arrived a little later than planned. As I remember it, Alan and Paul made us some space on the back row, and I am sure that we also met a few other lads that day too.

Leggo from Bedford, Mark from Sunbury-on-Thames, and the trio of lads from the St. Albans area, Simon, Dave and Rich.

Chelsea won 5-0 and promotion was secured.

They were the days of our lives.

Back in the top flight for the first time in five seasons, the next campaign was one of the best-ever too. Even though I was at college in Stoke, I managed to attend 16 out of 21 home league games. There was a smattering of away games; Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City, Liverpool, Stoke City. I would save my pennies through the week, eating frugally, and live for my magical footballing Saturdays. Throughout the season, the little gang of us would always gather on the back row at the halfway-line. Often we would get in at 1.30pm when the gates opened. From memory, for the big games – Liverpool, United – the gates were open at 1pm. We would sit, read the programmes, soak up the pre-match atmosphere, laugh and joke about previous games, watch the players warm up, sing out their names, enjoy the camaraderie.

What a buzz.

I used to take my camera in those days too.

In the spring of 1985, on the day the club celebrated its ninetieth anniversary against Tottenham – all-ticket due to the risk of violence, but only 26,310 attended – I snapped away. In the first photo are Stamford, Alan and Dave, sporting the ski-hats which were all the rage that season. In the second one, in profile and with The Shed behind, are Alan, Dave, Rich, Mark and Leggo in his bloody awful ginger leather jacket. It is no surprise that Simon is not in either picture, since he always tended to be the last to arrive, and usually the worse for wear after several pints in the pub.

By then of course, after the riot against Sunderland in the Milk Cup semi-final, the wooden benches were no more. They were replaced by cold concrete slabs. In the picture below, also from the Spurs game in 1985, the full roll-call is as follows :

Gareth (another Bedford lad), Glenn, Stamford, Alan, Dave, Rich, Swan (one of our lot, from Radstock, an Ian Botham-lookalike), Mark with his back-turned and Leggo and Leggo’s jacket.

We would meet up again, with slightly dwindling numbers in 1985/1986, but by 1986/1987 the group had tended to disperse. The wooden benches were no more and the concrete slabs just didn’t cut it. On my visits to Stamford Bridge, I mixed it up a little; The Shed one week, The Benches the next. By the time of 1988/1989 Alan had moved over to a season ticket in the front row of the East Upper, and I only bumped into the others on rare occasions.

Fast forward to Saturday 13 January 2018.

I had dropped Glenn, Parky and PD off at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and drove off to park my car on Normand Road, just in front of Normand Mews where former F1 World Champion James Hunt used to live, as the small blue plaque commemorates. I was therefore late to the party when I strolled in at around 11.30am. But there they all were, The Benches from 1984/1985.

Rich, Simon, Glenn, Chris, Dave, Alan.

What a joy to see each other again. It would be the first time that we had all been together since, I reckon, around the autumn of 1985. We wasted little time in turning back the years. We spoke about the others. Swan moved up to Leeds, we think, and the last time I saw him was in Bath in around 1986. Gareth used to go, but has not been seen for two decades. Mark still goes home and away, I see him everywhere. Leggo has not been seen at Chelsea for fifteen years. Neither has his jacket. Stamford aka Paul aka Walnuts still goes, and will be at the Brighton vs. Chelsea match next week. As I said, I still see Simon at games, though for many years, his was a missing face. I remember how pleased I was to see him at Wolves in 2003 after not seeing him since the mid-‘eighties. I saw Dave for the first time in ages at the Luton Town semi at Wembley in 1994 and again at the Nou Camp in 2000, and he still goes, though our paths have not crossed. Rich goes, but not so often.

It was a miracle that we were all together again in 2018.

And we owed it all to Glenn going to the buffet on a Chelsea Special in 1984 and the lure of The Benches at Stamford Bridge.

The banter continued.

Alan : “When Dave saw Glenn he called him “Polly”.

“Polly” – I had quite forgotten this. Indeed. “Polly.” I scratched my head as to why this was.

Dave, Rich, Simon and Alan were soon locked in to a special memory from September 1983 when they drove up to Sheffield Wednesday in Rich’s Ford Cortina and played an impromptu game of football on the moors above Hillsborough.

Alan : “It was cowpats for goalposts.”

Photographs were shared from our mobile phones.

Simon : “Here’s a photo of Kerry and me at Aberystwyth in 1983.”

We remembered the fashions of the day.

Dave : “Rich, I am sure that we went to Highbury in 1984 wearing white tennis shorts.”

Glenn : “Remember those multi-coloured jackets made from suede and leather? We all had them.”

Chris : “Remember those two girls who sold programmes from that hut on the main forecourt and then walked behind the goal at The Shed End to The Benches every home game?”

We did. Of course we did. Ah, Sharon and Paula, where are you now?

I was reminded of the time in 2004 when Glenn and I posed for a couple of photographs outside The Goose with photos from The Benches which Alan had taken. The one of me with the black jacket is the one which appears with my piece on “Arsenal 1984” in Mark Worrall’s book from a few years back. In the photo that Glenn is holding, he is with Dave and Simon.

Chris : “Never mind Polly, we should have called you Shirley Temple with that Barnet.”

We chatted about the hold that Chelsea has on all of us. We updated each other with what we have been doing with ourselves in the past thirty-odd years. I have to be honest, it was the most wonderful pre-match for ages. The chat and the laughter bounced around the pub. It was bloody lovely.

With kick-off time approaching, we started to finish our drinks. We looked up and saw about forty of Leicester’s “lads” enter the pub, a strange mix of middle-aged henchmen and Stone Island patches, Adidas trainers, CP goggles, Aquascutum scarves, Ma.Strum jackets and glowering looks. I suspect that they were remnants of the Baby Squad, but we wasted no time in finding out. Rather than involve ourselves in conversations with them about the export/import imbalance, the threat of global warming, heightened political tension in the far east, the lack of funding for the arts by the current government and the futility of life itself, we decided to down our pints and head out.

With us were Kev and Rich, the Jam Tarts, down from Edinburgh for the day. It had been a proper gathering of the clans.

Inside Stamford Bridge, Leicester City were backed by a strong three-thousand. I recollected a game that I had attended – all on my lonesome, September 1982, hating sixth-form, trying and failing to get over my first girlfriend, not exactly enjoying life – between Chelsea and Leicester City. It was just a run-of-the-mill Second Division game, and yet over 14,000 like-minded souls had evaded the clutches of loved ones, made excuses, saved hard, traveled long distances, and bothered to attend. I remember looking over to the middle of The Shed and thinking :

“We’ve got something here. This huge stadium. A loyal support. If only we had a good team.”

Who would have thought that thirty-five years later, the two teams involved on that sunny afternoon in 1982 would be Champions of England for three consecutive seasons?

Antonio Conte had opted for a 3-5-2 although all four of us in The Chuckle Bus had wanted a more fluid 3-4-3.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Morata – Hazard

At ten to three, the musical countdown began.

“Park Life.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

The teams, the flags, “COME ON CHELSEA.”

The game began with a shot that Victor Moses slashed wide from a Cesc Fabregas pass. But then the visitors got their arses into gear. Bloody hell, Leicester– dressed in all black, how original – were all over us. I have no idea why our defenders allowed so much space for the visiting attackers, but they could have been two-up after just eight minutes. Firstly, a cross from down below me from their left was played into Shinji Okazaki but his connection was poor. Then, twice in a minute, Jamie Vardy could have scored on both occasions. We were simply not at the races.

“FACKINELL CHELS.”

Next up, was a fantastic diving save from Courtois from Wilfred Ndidi. The crowd around me were already restless and barely ten minutes had passed. At least – I was hunting for any scrap of positivity that I could – the crowd seemed to be slightly more involved than of late.

To the tune of “Amazing Grace” – our name boomed from the Matthew Harding. However, amazing we certainly bloody weren’t.

Cesc broke into the box at the other end and drew a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel. But this was very much a “one-off” as the visitors tore us to shreds. On a cold afternoon in SW6, Glenn was huddled up close to PD and Alan, his hat over his ears. He acknowledged that a brilliant pre-match had taken its toll.

“I had an opinion before six pints of Guinness.”

We laughed.

We had to laugh at something. Down on the pitch, we were as lacklustre as it gets. Our tackling was off. Our passing was so slow. Eden was finding it hard to get an inch of space anywhere. I so wanted Tiemoue Bakayoko to have a solid game, and I went out of my way to encourage him. But, let’s not kid ourselves, he had another stinker. His intensity was off, and he gave virtually nothing to the side in that woeful first-half. He struggled to fit in. He seemed unsure of his role, as did I. I wondered if he will continue to exist as some sort of Corporal Sponge to the other more established stars in our team, pottering around like one of those members of McDonalds who are only trusted to wipe dirty surfaces and dispose of debris in the rubbish bins.

We seemed to be overmanned in central midfield, yet we were over-run too. How is that possible?

A great tackle from Cahill managed to repel the threat from the fleet-of-foot Mahrez, enjoying a fine game, and a trademark crunching block from the same player stopped Vardy.

The crowd tried to lift the players.

“ANTONIO.”

Gary Cahill was then replaced by Andreas Christensen, after the captain fell, clutching his leg. The youngster soon impressed. Alvaro Morata for once set himself free of his markers and caused Schmeichel to save at his near post. But our chances were rare. At the other end, there were countless breaks from the twin threats of Mahrez and Vardy, and Leicester continued to dominate. Marc Albrighton slammed one wide. Only in the final five minutes of the half did we look like getting back to our old form. When we did, the crowd were noticeably more involved. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, should it?

Back in the “F3K”, Glenn had spoken about our time on “The Benches.”

“We didn’t know too much about tactics or formations. We just showed up and sang until we were hoarse.”

Quite.

If only supporters could support.

Not rocket science is it?

And although it is surely a myth that Stamford Bridge was a cauldron of noise three decades ago – it wasn’t because so much of the noise generated by our support simply drifted away into the London air, with the supporters so far away from the pitch –  at least we bloody well tried. The Shed tried, The Benches tried, Gate 13 tried. We all tried. Once we were in the midst of it, the noise sounded deafening…it just didn’t travel too far.

The second-half began. There was no noticeable step up from us in terms of quality nor intensity. This was all very strange. After ten minutes of play, Leicester City had a penalty appeal turned down and I commented to Alan that instead of Thibaut releasing the ball early to Morata while many of the opposing players were still moaning at the referee, and the team in momentary disarray, our Belgian ‘keeper held on to the ball and allowed the visitors to regroup. For some reason, I heard Jose Mourinho’s voice yelling at Thibaut and not Antonio Conte, not sure why. Maybe it was a definite Mourinho trait for his teams to expose the slightest weakness in any opposing team.

That man Mahrez threatened again. We were lucky that his shot – deflected – ended up spinning wide.

At last, a change.

Hazard was replaced by Pedro. Fabregas was replaced by Willian. Neither had been special. In fact, they had both been poor.

So, we got our desired “3-4-3.”

I was reminded back to Manchester United in around 2005, when we were in our pomp, and it was perceived by many among United’s match-going support that Sir Alex Ferguson was evidently “losing” it with his dalliance of new formations. On many occasions, the United support used to bellow “4-4-2, 4-4-2, 4-4-2” at their manager when things were not going their way. It made me chuckle that plasterers from Prestwich, accountants from Ardwick, taxi drivers from Totnes, nurses from Norwich, electricians from Eccles and lorry drivers from Launceston suddenly knew more about the Manchester United players and their strengths and weaknesses than one of the most revered managers the game has ever seen. Still, in this day and age, the customer is king. It is the way of the world to boo. We are a nation of moaners. And I am not saying that there was no negativity in days gone by, but the vitriol today seems to have reached new, horrible levels. There was, surprisingly, hardly any boos though at halftime, but if the score remained the same, I wasn’t so sure of a familiar outcome on ninety minutes.

Immediately, Pedro on the left and Willian on the right helped to energise us. There was a lot more pressure to win the ball, and we hoped we could breach the Leicester defence.

Chris to Alan : “Bakayoko, thirty yard screamer.”

Unfortunately, the only screaming came after a couple of Bakayoko shots were woefully off target.

“WE ALL FOLLOW THE CHELSEA, OVER LAND AND SEA.”

I was so pleased to hear a reaction from the home support. Not deafening, but at least it was something. The Benches of 1984 would have been proud of us. Maybe.

We were then handed some help when Ben Chilwell was sent off for two yellows in quick succession. It seemed that we had tons of the ball now, but with only Vardy upfront, Leicester were packing their box with players. There was no space. But our crossing was poor. Moratra, the poor bleeder, had not had much quality service the entire match. We tried and tried. I saw effort, in the main, but not much more than that. Our movement off the ball was especially woeful. Morata was at times immobile. It was, perhaps, a miracle that our man Tiemoue stayed on the entire game, but the manager obviously wants to persevere with him. Shots from Kante and Willian did not really test the ‘keeper.

In the last few minutes, a Marcos Alonso free-kick flew over the wall, and dipped, but Schmeichel scrambled low to push the ball around the post. The game ended as it had begun, with a shot from Moses which was so wide of the goal as to almost warrant being called a defensive clearance.

At the final whistle, our third 0-0 in a row and the inevitable boos from a few.

“Triffic.”

Back in the car, there were of course the expected moans – and not much chuckling – as we went through our usual post game post mortem.

Within twenty minutes, all three passengers were dozing as I headed home on the M4.

It was another day that had been spoiled by the football – ah, that familiar refrain, as pertinent now as in 1984/1985 – and I knew that my phone, tablet and computer would be on fire throughout the evening with rants, moans and complaints. Those who know me well will not be surprised by my response to the bitching and moaning which was taking place across the globe, in cyberspace and in cider space alike. I’d try to be pragmatic. I’d try to keep an even keel. I’d try not to over-react. I’d acknowledge how little we really know about the mechanics of a football team. I’d respect how hard it must be for one manager to work for a trigger-happy owner and to continually try to inspire and cajole a squad of millionaires. After all, it can’t be easy to win the league every year.

Even in 1984/1985, back on The Benches, I always was the boring and sensible one.

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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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