Tales From A Lesson In Double Dutch.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 December 2015.

Regardless of the current troubled predicaments of both teams, “United away” is always one of the very best Chelsea trips each season. Some would say it is the best of all. There is just something about visiting Old Trafford that never fails to stir the senses.

North against South.

Manchester against London.

Red against Blue.

As the day got underway, I was relishing the chance to be one of three thousand tightly-packed away fans in that sweeping corner, trying our best to be heard against the four-thousand United followers in the lower tier of “K-Stand” – I’m showing my age here – if not many more in all of the other home areas. It would surely promise to be a visceral treat for those of us who enjoy the noise and passion of a top-notch away fixture as much as the football played before us.

Old Trafford.

“The Theatre Of Dreams” as the advertising executives at Manchester United have called it.

Of course, there have been Chelsea defeats, but it was historically a venue which always used to be a pretty successful hunting ground for Chelsea Football Club in my youth.  Until 1970, it was the scene of our most famous match, our most famous win. And for many years we were undefeated in league games at Old Trafford and it annoys me to this day that I was present to see us relinquish that record on the last day of August in 1987.

From season 1965/1966 to season 1985/1986, we visited the home of Manchester United on thirteen occasions in the league and never lost once.

My first visit was in the spring of 1986, when two goals in front of us in the tightly-packed paddock sent us wild. The atmosphere that night was as visceral as I had ever experienced in my eighty Chelsea games to that point. A late Kerry Dixon winner sent us into ecstasy long before it was a staple drug of delight in Madchester. The natives were not happy that night. I can remember running the gauntlet back to our coach which was parked at the now long-gone Warwick Road train station. Fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago. You always remember your first time, right?

This would be my twenty-first visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea. In the previous twenty, my own personal record is five wins, six losses and nine defeats.

In my mind, it seems a better hunting ground than that. Maybe it is the strong memory of the emotion connected with those five wins (1986, 1986, 2005, 2010, 2013) which have altered my perception.

Regardless, as I collected Glenn and Parky at around 9am, I just knew that a classic day out was waiting for me.

Before we headed north on the busy motorway network, though, we diverted in to Bath for an archetypal post-Christmas spend-up. After a bite to eat, the three of us raided a few shops in the city’s crowded centre for some classic football clobber.

Two pairs of Adidas trainers, a Lyle and Scott Harrington jacket, a Paul & Shark hooded top and a pair of New Balance trainers were purchased between the three of us. I’ve noticed how New Balance are being worn more and more at football these days; a hark back to around 1985/1986 when they shared the limelight with the usual suspects. In one of the shops that we visited, there was a little banter with the two shop assistants.

Shop Assistant One : “Chelsea are not doing too well this season, eh?”

Chris : “Nah. Not too brilliant at the moment.”

Shop Assistant Two : “It could be worse. Could be United.”

Glenn : “We’re off to the game later this evening.”

Shop Assistant Two : “Oh right.”

Chris : “Who do you follow then?”

Shop Assistant Two : “United.”

This little exchange took me back somewhat. Although Chelsea are going through a ridiculously poor run of form, the United fan thought that his club were in a worse predicament.

But then I realised the mind set of many United supporters, who expect – nay, deserve – success.

I would like to think that Chelsea fans like Parky, Glenn and myself are a little more grounded, a little more pragmatic.

Shop Assistant One : “Predictions for tonight?”

Chris : “0-0 I reckon. I’d be happy with that.”

Regardless, purchases all bagged-up, we were on our way to the delights of Mancunia with an added spring in our step.

Sadly, the trip north – M4, M5, M6 and beyond – was yet another in the ever-growing list of horrific away journeys. A trip that should have taken three hours took over five. There were traffic delays every few miles. I had to divert through Stoke to avoid further problems on the M6. In the car, Parky had compiled a Northern Soul tape which was keeping us entertained. This was the stand out track.

“Moonlight, Music and You” by Laura Greene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE2H92jGoS0

Heaven.

However, I was getting frustrated with my slow progress.

News came through that Guus Hiddink was to employ a “false nine” in the game which was now getting close. With Diego Costa out through suspension, we presumed that Loic Remy was injured. Getting Radamel Falcao back on the pitch to score a winner at Old Trafford was beyond the stuff of fantasy.

In a similar scenario to that used by Mourinho at Tottenham, Eden Hazard was to be deployed in the furthest forward position. To be fair, the draw at Spurs was one of our most palatable performances of the season. For an old-stager such as me though, there is something decidedly odd about a “false nine.” It seems to rank up there with Peter Kay’s exclamations and protestations of “Cheesecake?” and “Garlic Bread?”

“False Nine?”

“Football with no striker?”

“False? Nine?”

It sounds like something that a transvestite might wear.

As I turned off the M60 and joined the Chester Road on that long familiar approach to Old Trafford, I reluctantly ‘phoned an old college mate, Rick, who had been waiting for me to arrive so that we could have a chit-chat before heading in to the game. Rick is a Manchester United season-ticket holder and lives in nearby Northwich. We had been looking forward to meeting up. Sadly, I advised that he should head on in.

“May the best team win and all that bollocks.”

Although we had left the city of Bath a few minutes before midday, we did not reach our allotted parking place – “a tennoh, please mate”- until around 5.15pm.

We quickly walked across Gorse Hill Park. Out on the Chester Road again, all was eerily quiet. Time was moving on and virtually everyone else was seated, or standing, inside the vastness of Old Trafford. It was a mild night as we walked as quickly as possible.

It seemed that the three of us were alone in the city of Manchester.

The red bricks. The Victorian streets. The car lights. The emptying pubs. The road signs for the neighbouring suburbs. The vast steel supports of the stadium roof. The colour red.

Manchester.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the great punk poet John Cooper Clarke, a native of the neighbouring city of Salford, in my home town of Frome, with a few good friends. Supporting him that evening was the poet Mike Garry, who went down equally well. One of Mike Garry’s most evocative poems is a tribute to the late TV presenter, journalist, and Factory record label owner Tony Wilson. DJ Andy Weatherall recently put this poem – “St. Anthony : an ode to Anthony H. Wilson” – to a dance beat and it has been in my head ever since. As a tribute to a much-revered impresario, the poem hits the spot. Hearing Garry’s emotional words, in a heavy and lazy Mancunian accent, put to music is perfect. Of course, it acts as an ode to Manchester itself. I love it. These football travels, these trips of faith and devotion, take me to some wonderful sporting cities. Surely Manchester is one of those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUE9PPiZ7W0

[A tip from this honest hardworking blogger; play this in the background as you read below. Don’t be passive. Engage.]

St. Anthony is the patron saint of things lost, of people missed. Everything about the poem seems very poignant for me and my 2015.

As I walked towards Old Trafford, one more time, Garry’s words resonated.

“Talk to me of Albion, of Anderton and of art.

Of The Arndale.

Alan Turin.

Acid House.

Alexandra Park.”

Past the Bishop Blaize pub, for once devoid of sound. United song master Pete Boyle had left for the game.

“Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs.

And the beautiful Busby Babes.”

Past the take-aways and the offies, and in to a very empty Sir Matt Busby Way. The grafters and the fanzine sellers were no more. How odd to be outside a football stadium after kick-off.

“Of Curtis.

Cancer, Christies, Catholicism.

Crack and Curt Cobain.”

We met up with Kev, from Edinburgh, who was waiting on my ticket. We quickly disappeared into the away section underneath the Munich clock. There were other Chelsea fans arriving late. We were evidently not the only ones. For the first time in ages, the away season ticket holders were in the curve, not down below to the left in the South Stand.

We had missed seven minutes. A quick “hello” to Alan and Gary. Apparently, it had been an eventful opening period. I heard how Juan Mata had struck the woodwork, but also how John Terry had gone close with a header. I took a few photographs. I tried to settle in. Everyone standing, everyone shouting. There seemed to be no seat unused as I looked across to the Stretford End, now partly corporate, its heart ripped out years ago, and then the towering North Stand. I looked across to where Rick would be watching, somewhere near the rear of the lower tier as it curved around. A quick run through the teams. I was pleased to see the steadying choice of Mikel alongside Matic, who – from memory – does well at Old Trafford. For the home team, I quickly spotted Bastian Schweinsteiger amid thoughts of that night, that penalty and that foreign city, whose name brings awful memories to this part of Manchester. How odd that one word can elicit such vastly differing emotions.

It was the first viewing of a few of these United players for me. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like a Manchester United team. With the two teams now being overseen by two Dutch managers, I pondered on what was before me. Guus Hiddink was playing without a striker and Louis van Gaal was playing Ashley Young at left-back. I had a feeling that my understanding of all of the traditional footballing rules were being tested.

To be honest, it looked double Dutch to me.

Pure football gibberish.

“Dance, Design, Durutti, Devotto.

Development of a dirty Northern city.

De La Salle.

Dignity.

And how in the end you hated all the pity.”

What then happened over the next ten minutes or so was horrible. We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

Tackles were thundering in from both sets of players.

The Chelsea crowd were in reasonable voice. Yet again I will make the point of how away fans are more prone to creating an atmosphere than the home fans. Old Trafford is no different. The game continued. I just wanted us to get to the break unscathed, so that Hiddink could fine-tune our performance.

At half-time, there were long faces in the Chelsea section. In reality, this was as poor a performance as we had seen all season. Maybe the first-half at Leicester was the worst, but this was not much better.

I wondered what we had lost. I wondered if a prayer to St. Anthony was needed.

“Saint Anthony – Saint Anthony,

Please come around.

Something is lost that can’t be found.

Oh talk to me.

Oh talk to me.

Of Gretton, God, Granada.

Hooky and Hannett.

And how the fighting just got harder.

Hamlet, Ibsen, The IRA.

Jesus Mary and Keith Joseph.

Joy Division.

Judaism.

The importance of the moment.”

I remembered back to my last visit to Manchester, the game with City in August. I reminisced how Parky and I had waited in the foyer of the Lowry Hotel and had observed the Chelsea players walk through to their awaiting coach. At the time they looked focussed. With hindsight, they looked joyless, without a spark. I remember, too, how Mourinho walked to the coach independently, away from the team. Now the separation seems important.

“Something is lost that can’t be found.”

Our team seems to have lost a spark, a sense of vitality, the desire.

It hurts.

“Liam.

London.

Lust for Life.

Louis Louis.

Linnaeus Banks.

Manchester.

Music.

Marijuana.

Majesty.

And Karl Marx.”

Thankfully, Chelsea began with a lot more zest as the second-half began. Eden Hazard set up a chance for Pedro, who forced a fine save from De Gea. The follow-up shot from Azpilicueta was also blocked by De Gea. How we had not taken the lead still escapes me. The away support stepped it up a notch. At the other end, a sublime block by John Terry stopped Wayne Rooney advancing. Throughout the evening, Terry’s control of Rooney was a Chelsea highlight. On the hour, a sublime block from close range by Courtois kept the score goal-less; a cross from the artful Martial on the right had gifted Herrera a wonderful chance to score. With the Stretford End already celebrating, the ball ricocheted off Thibaut. Stupendous stuff indeed.

We were definitely improving as the game wore on. I noted a greater desire amongst our players. With United flooding our half, they left themselves exposed when Pedro played in a bursting Nemanja Matic.

This was our moment.

I brought my camera up to eye-level. With any luck I would capture a game-winner, just as I had memorably captured a Juan Mata strike grazing Phil Jones’ thigh on the way past De Gea in 2013.

I brought the camera up to my eyes. I was aware that Dave was alongside.

Snap.

The ball was struck high and wide.

“Fuck it.”

Another shot from Matic went wide.

Willian was replaced by Ramires with twenty minutes remaining. He had looked tired. Clearly not at his best, he had been consistently fouled all evening. His departure was no surprise. I noted how quiet the United crowd had become. I had expected more disdain, more barracking of van Gaal.

I commented to Gary how poor Wayne Rooney had been, fluffing his lines on two occasions in the second-half and prone to over-hitting some passes. I wondered about Mourinho’s pursuit of him in 2013. I thought that Terry and Zouma had performed well. Further forward, there had been more positive signs as the game progressed. Eden Hazard had proved to be less effective than at Tottenham but I thought that he had tried his best in a very difficult role. At times, he was too distant from a supporting cast. But this always going to be a tough assignment without a Diego Costa or a Loic Remy. Pedro had run his socks off all game. You had to look hard, but there were pluses.

“Tony talk to me of Sex Pistols, the substance, the streets, the sounds.

The sniffed and snorted, stolen, swigged multi million pounds.

And talk to me of the greatest ever Man United team.

Greg

Burns

Jones

Edwards

Robson and Roy Keane

Was it Best

Law

Charlton

Stiles and Eric Cantona?

Unknown Pleasures of the doubles and the trebles

Incantation from the stars.”

At the end of the game, there was a general feeling of relief from Parky, Alan, Gary and myself – stood in a line – and from Glenn, stood several rows in front.

A goal-less draw is what I had predicted and a goal-less draw is what we had witnessed.

We walked back to the car. It was not even 7.30pm. It seemed later. We were caught up in more slow-moving traffic as we joined the red surge around the M60 and then south, homeward bound.

We were now on twenty points.

“Halfway to paradise.”

To complete a full day of friendship and football, we stopped off for a curry in Walsall, not so far away from our League Cup away day a few months ago. The game had been discussed on the motorway. It was now time to relax and enjoy a madras, a jalfrezi, a pathia.

I eventually reached home at around one o’clock. Of course I had enjoyed the day. Others, watching further away, were apparently not so happy. What have we lost? Maybe they need to have a word with Saint Anthony too.

“Guus talk to me.

John talk to me.

Jose talk to me.

Roman talk to me.”

On the third day of January, we reassemble at Selhurst Park. See you there.

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>>Tales : A Lesson In Double Dutch.

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Tales From The Last Picture Of Summer.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 19 September 2015.

As soon as I walked into the beer garden of “The Goose”, pint of Peroni in hand, I was met with smiles from the usual suspects. Without wasting any time, Duncan looked me in the eye and asked me of my thoughts for the lunchtime game against our North London rivals. I summed things up quickly.

“I’ll take a draw, now.”

Duncan nodded sagely.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying.”

Daryl was not in agreement.

“We’ve got to win.”

I immediately wondered if this viewpoint might lead to disappointment later in the day. It was clear to everyone that we had not started the season well, and I – for one – was not going to read too much in to our easy victory over our Israeli opponents during the week. The thought of us losing to Arsenal, and therefore garnering only four points from a possible eighteen, was not worth thinking about.

A point would suffice for me.

The football talk continued as we spoke about the team and its well documented problems so far in to the season. I spoke about Eden Hazard. I noticed that there was a moment during the second-half during Wednesday’s game when he came over to retrieve the match ball from a ball boy before flicking it over to Cesc Fabregas who was waiting to take a corner. Eden’s face was anything but a picture; he looked thoroughly down, quite depressed, and his whole body language was off. Here was a man who did not appear to be enjoying his football. He had ballooned a penalty in the first-half and had miss-placed several passes in the second-half. I felt for him. I could not remember seeing a player so obviously suffering a “dark moment” so vividly for ages. I hoped for a recovery soon.

Other facets of our game were discussed.

There certainly seemed to be a lack of intensity, of fight, in most of our matches this season. I wondered if the way that we won the league during the closing months of 2014/2015, plugging away and eking out narrow wins, but under no real pressure from a chasing pack, meant that we had been playing under an “easy” environment for a good five months. Maybe it has proved difficult to re-focus after playing with a particular mind-set for so long.

I don’t know.

However, I certainly didn’t need football pundits and experts with pointy sticks and stop/go technical gadgetry for me to realise that we were missing “bite” in our midfield at Everton, our worst performance of the season, and that we were simply affording opposing teams too much space. That lack drive and urgency from all of our players, a trademark of the first half of last season, was key to our woes in 2015/2016 in my mind.

While we were stood in the beautiful September sun, the team news came through.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Diego Costa.

Initial reactions were not favourable. We were not keen on Cesc Fabregas remaining in what is basically a defensive midfield position. Ivanovic’ inclusion annoyed many, but did not surprise me. I found it unlikely that the youngster Baba would get two games in four days.

Arsenal’s midfield was discussed.

Ed was forthright.

“We could get run ragged.”

Of course, John Terry was not playing, with Mourinho instead opting with the “Zorro and Zouma” (copyright Alan Davidson 2015) combination instead. Our fastidious manager was backing up his declaration on picking his starting eleven based on current form rather than reputation, though the pace of Arsenal’s attacking thrusts were an obvious reason why our captain was omitted.

The Goose was full of Chelsea. Arsenal would not dare enter within.

Elsewhere there was talk of New York baseball, the lesser known characters in the 1970 sitcom “Porridge” and of China Crisis songs.

It’s not always about football.

I didn’t see a single Arsenal fan on the walk in to the stadium. I have no idea where they did their pre-match drinking, but I am sure it wasn’t in the Chelsea heartland.

There was a case of squad rotation within the stands too. Instead of watching alongside my usual match-day companions Alan and Glenn – who were on holiday and at work – I took my seat alongside my good mates Neil and Walnuts. The weather was holding firm. Next week, at Newcastle, there might well be a different feel. This game, a lovely old London Derby, under a blue sky seemed like the last picture of summer.

Throughout the day – I know why, all will be explained – I kept thinking back to another Chelsea vs. Arsenal game, again in late September, but from thirty years ago.

September 1985.

I can distinctly remember bumping in to Glenn around the pubs of Frome on the day before the game, the Friday, and – because I had not been to any of the three home games so far in that season – Glenn ribbing me about my lack of attendance.

“You’ll get some stick tomorrow.”

I remember smiling. At least I was missed. It made me feel wanted.

It was only the second time that I had witnessed Arsenal down in SW6, and I look back fondly on that game, with Arsenal taking a lead but Chelsea recovering with a Pat Nevin header to equalise and then a late penalty from Nigel Spackman giving us a dramatic 2-1 win. Watching on the benches, right in the midst of it, with Alan and Glenn, and a few other lads who I still see to this day. It was a fantastic result. I remember seeing Micky Hazard play for us for the first time. And Chelsea in all blue for the first time in my life, having jettisoned the classic white socks over the summer. That evening, I always remember, I travelled back on the Chelsea supporters coach from Yeovil, and met up with some school friends on a night out in my home town of Frome, recovering from its annual autumnal carnival. There is a fuzzy photograph of me, post victory beer in hand, in a town pub, wearing a paisley button-down shirt, which was all the rage at football in the autumn of 1985 and it is hard to believe that thirty years have since passed. I would be doing the same after the game in 2015 – no paisley shirt this time – with some school friends from that era, on carnival night too.

History repeating itself, thirty years on.

Lovely stuff.

As the teams came on to the pitch, it surprised me that I had not contemplated the fact that Petr Cech would be returning to his former home. Of course, I gave him a fine welcome back as he walked slowly to take up his position below us at the north end of the stadium.

But that was it, no lingering sense of what could have been. Asmir was our man, now.

It was an evenly-contested first half. Each team had small spells of domination. There was a significant step-up in our performance and the crowd seized on this. The noise was better. The players moved for each other, with several instances of fine play. Oscar was winning tackles, Pedro was spinning out of tight areas, and Hazard was more like his old self. But Arsenal themselves too were causing us occasional problems.

Tackles were made, bodies crashed against each other. I had heard that the first-half of the recent Manchester United vs. Liverpool match had been a tepid and timid affair, with none of the passion and intensity of yester year. Well, by contrast, this contest between “soft Southerners” was full of bite.

The main chant emanating from the replica shirts and the scarves of the travelling Goons in the Shed End was this :

“Fuck Off Mourinho.”

And they question our class.

We countered :

“Ashley Cole’s Won The European Cup.”

A few chances were exchanged by both sides. It was a fine half of football.

A determined run by Eden Hazard deep in to the Arsenal box ended up with a coming together with Gabriel, but the referee Mike Dean chose to rule that both were guilty of tangling arms and legs.

A fierce effort from King Kurt zipped over Cech’s bar from forty yards. Pedro tested him too. We were in the ascendency, but only by a narrow margin.

Then, the game’s big talking pint.

I didn’t see Costa’s flailing arms as he ran with Koscielny, but I did see the chest bump, which resulted in the Arsenal defender falling back and ending up on the floor. I feared the worst. Thankfully the linesman on the far side did not flag anything untoward. Then, with me not really paying too much attention to the ongoing chat and back chat between several protagonists, they walked back towards the centre of the pitch. The dialogue seemed to be continuing for a while. Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, a rise in the noise from the crowd and a brandishing of a red card to Gabriel, which resulted in a roar from the home support and incredulity from the Arsenal players.

Of course, the viewing millions throughout the world were better placed than myself and those watching in SW6. It was all a bit of a mystery. One thing was certain, though. Diego Costa was agent provocateur in all of this. A couple of texts and posts on Facebook from a couple of respected friends backed up my initial thoughts. Our man Diego was lucky to stay on the pitch. His combative nature is admired by many, but his pernicious tendencies do not sit well with me. Of course there are two sides to every story here. If we ask Costa to reign himself in, we might well dampen his effectiveness. Yet I remember the first couple of seasons of Didier Drogba at Chelsea, when his play-acting disturbed me. After channelling all of that negative stuff in to more positive play, he became a better player, a more respected team mate and a more potent striker.

I wonder if Diego Costa will change.

I won’t hold my breath.

At half-time, John Dempsey – a scorer in Athens – was paraded at half-time. The away fans again showed their class :

“Oo The Fackin’ell Are Yooo?”

Dempsey conducted them, then gave them a full blown “double V.”

Oh boy.

With Arsenal a man down, I wondered if Daryl’s wish might come reality.

Pedro went close with a volley. Then, seven minutes in to the second-half, a foul by an Arsenal defender resulted in a free-kick to us. I waited as Cesc Fabregas sent in a magnificently placed ball deep in to the Arsenal box. I snapped as Kurt Zouma rose – with no Arsenal defender in sight – and headed down past Petr Cech. In a blur, the net rippled, the crowd roared and I watched through my lens as King Kurt sped off on the best celebratory run so far this season. He bounded along the goal line and jumped for joy.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

I knew I had a couple of beauties among that little lot.

My photos taken, I roared my approval.

From the island of Menorca, a text message from Alan : “THTCAUN.”

From Stamford Bridge : “C1-0MLD.”

Our young defender had shone defensively in the game thus far – one magnificent tackle the highlight – but now he was writing himself in to Chelsea folklore. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from Cech, but Sanchez and Walcott fired shots in on Begovic too. More chances to us. This was more like it.

Ramires replaced Oscar.

An errant, miss-timed tackle by Cazorla on Fabregas, meant that Mike Dean had no choice but to award Cazorla a second yellow. Off he went. We howled with pleasure.

Arsenal were down to nine.

Surely we were safe, now?

With Diego Costa getting in the face of Arsenal players everywhere, it was no surprise that the manager chose to substitute him. To lose him to a second yellow, and a subsequent ban, would be silly. Of course, he exited the pitch to a deafening roar of approval. He was replaced by Loic Remy.

For a while, it looked like we would play the ball to oblivion, across the back four, keeping possession, not threatening, waiting for the time to tick by.

The fat lady was gargling, off stage.

We waited for the final whistle.

However, Eden Hazard had the last laugh. The ball came out to him on the edge of the box and he slammed the ball goal wards. It took a wicked deflection, Cech was beaten, and the ball nestled in the net.

Safe.

This was a much better performance from the boys. Even the recently lampooned Branislav Ivanovic, captain for the day, so often out of position this season, did well. The star of the show, though, was King Kurt. He was immense. This was clearly a much better performance from the boys. There was much to admire, and – God bless him – Eden Hazard was obviously enjoying himself on the Stamford Bridge turf once more.

In fact, it was so good, it could have been from September 2014.

On the drive home, the airwaves were full of Diego Costa, as I knew they would be. Thousands of different opinions, thousands of different viewpoints; it’s never boring watching Chelsea.

To top off a cracking day, West Ham won at Manchester City.

“Get in.”

I had enjoyed myself immensely, but the fun was only just beginning. I met up with the class of 1985 (…followers of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United, Portsmouth and Derby County) in a Frome pub at 7.45pm, and we then set off on a lovely pub crawl, and chatted about all sorts of nonsense – but mainly football – deep in to the night. I bumped into my Uncle Mike, whose father we used to take to Chelsea games in the mid-to-late ‘seventies, and we reminisced on how Uncle Geoff used to love those trips to Stamford Bridge.

Football, always football.

Six mates, six pints, five pubs, three points and one large doner kebab.

Perfect.

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Tales From The Hawthorns.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 May 2015.

The end of the season was nigh. It really did not seem so long ago that we still had ten league games left to play. And yet now there were just two games remaining. The Monday evening game at The Hawthorns seemed to conjure up mixed emotions. There was real sadness in the fact that this would be the last away game of the season. But happiness came with the realisation that we could bestow some love and appreciation on the team – the champions – once more. A trip to The Hawthorns is one of the easiest of the season for me. As I collected Parky from The Pheasant, I was relishing the chance to be among the tight little knot of three thousand loyalists in the away end later in the evening. There was a lovely buzz, growing with each passing hour, at the thought of a Chelsea game in the evening.

This would probably be the last time that The Pheasant gets a mention in these tales. Over the summer, my place of work changes from Chippenham to Melksham – same company, sparkling new premises – and we have already sorted out a new Parky pick-up point; a newly-built pub opposite my new place of work on the A350 called The Milk Churn. Parky had enjoyed a spirited send off at The Pheasant. He had already supped four pints while waiting for me to finish my shift.

There was an undoubted tingle of excitement, then, as we headed north to the trip to the stadium which sits on the boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country. I missed the match – another midweek fixture – at West Brom last season, but there were strong memories of the last three games that I had attended there. Four seasons ago, there was a 3-1 win under Carlo Ancelotti amid glorious self-mocking chants of “We’re Gonna Win Fuck All” from the smiling Chelsea contingent. Three seasons ago came a 1-0 defeat and chants of “Sacked In the Morning” from the home fans aimed at the fated Andre Villas-Boas (no wonder the home fans disliked him with a name like that). Two seasons ago, there came a 2-1 loss and the last league game for the much-loved Roberto di Matteo, who lost his job after the following game in Turin.

“The Chelsea manager’s graveyard” they called it, and with good reason.

Over the past three visits, we had endured two losses and a draw. The Hawthorns has clearly not been the happiest of hunting grounds at all. However, this season West Bromwich Albion have hardly set the world alight. I can’t think of another Premiership team that has endured such a nondescript season. There have been no relegation scares, only lower-mid table mediocrity. The both of us were confident of a Chelsea win.

“Two wins to finish off the season, ninety points surely” uttered Parky as he opened a bottle of cider as we headed through Gloucestershire.

Our pre-match at West Bromwich Albion is always the same; a few beers at the “Park Inn” hotel just off the M5. The hotel’s bar was over-run with Chelsea fans of a certain generation and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces. Parky and I found ourselves chatting to a little group of home fans as we downed some lager. One West Brom fan was the spokesman for the group. He mentioned the last time that he had ventured to Stamford Bridge – in the 1988-1989 season – when a last minute Graham Roberts penalty saved our skins. We bantered back and forth about that game – it was on New Year’s Eve – and he reminded me that Roberts later played for West Brom, though he was well past his prime. This link seemed to inspire the cheery Baggie.

“I’ve always felt, like, that – going back – West Brom were a bit like Chelsea. Flair players. Maybe not always winning much. But…”

I smiled, benignly, wondering where this was going. The standard comparison of my youth was more like Chelsea and Manchester City – ooh, the irony – but this was the first time that I had heard of this unlikely pairing. He continued on.

“And there’s a link with West Brom and Mourinho, you know.”

Now I was intrigued.

“Mourinho began as a driver didn’t he, for Bobby Robson, at Barcelona?”

I thought to myself “translator, not driver but keep going mate, I’m intrigued to see where this is going.”

“Well, Bobby Robson played here, at West Brom, in the ‘fifties. We played some pretty good stuff. I bet you that Robson mentioned his time at West Brom to Mourinho. The tactics, like.”

This was fantastic stuff. Expect a plaque to be erected at The Hawthorns over the summer stating that Chelsea’s success under Jose Mourinho was conceived and nurtured by Bobby Robson at West Brom in the ‘fifties.

The team line-up was shown on the bar TV.

“Diego Costa in, Loftus-Cheek playing, Remy in midfield, Izzy Brown on the bench.”

We left in good time for the 8pm kick-off, but the inevitable scrum at the turnstiles resulted in a delay. The rain had just started to fall. To my right was a large rainbow lightening the gloom. My enduring love of stadia – Simon Inglis calls it “stadiumitis” – flitted in to my mind.

“A rainbow over the site of the former Rainbow Stand, nice.”

As we waited in line, a familiar face at Chelsea was to be found singing songs to himself. A decidedly odd character at the best of times (I don’t think I have ever seen him sober), he was now putting to song every single thought that was entering his head.

“We are the Chelsea, we want to go in.”

“Let us in, let us in, let us in.”

“Getting wet, getting wet, getting wet.”

Oh boy.

To my left were two touristy-types, looking quite out of place, adorned with Chelsea track-suit tops, Chelsea coats and Chelsea scarves, obviously hot-foot from the megastore. Everywhere else, Chelsea colours were at the bare minimum, as per normal.

I edged towards Al and Gal, right behind the goal. I had just missed the guard of honour. Bollocks. There was just time for me to join in with both sets of fans clapping and singing along to “The Liquidator.”

“We are West Brom.”

“Chelsea.”

Chelsea in all yellow. It always reminds me of our 6-3 win at Goodison way back in August. Good noise from both sets of fans at the start. At West Brom, the noisiest section is right next to us in the shared Smethwick End. The three of us were just yards away from them. I was surprised at the amount of empty seats in the corners.

After a few early exchanges, the ball fell to Berahino outside the box. With no Chelsea player able to get close and charge down his shot, the ball tantalisingly curved away from Thibaut Courtois and inside the post. I was, annoyingly, right in line with the flight of the ball.

After less than ten minutes, we were a goal down, and the baying home fans just yards away were letting us have it.

Groan.

Out came their colourful array of songs, but then one which made me chuckle.

“WWYWYWS?”

I turned and looked at one in the eye, pointing “here.”

He waved away my gesticulations.

Thoughts wandered back to the 1985-1986 season with me in the Rainbow Stand; a 3-0 win in front of just 10,300, including 3,000 Chelsea.

“Where were you when you were shit, mate?”

As the game developed, we struggled to find any rhythm. Overhead, the skies grew dark and dirty.The home fans were buoyant. Their chants rang out. They suggested that we’d all be Albion fans by next week, which was at least original.

Then, a few moments of craziness, which the viewing millions in Belgravia, Brisbane, Bombay and Badgercrack, Nebraska probably saw – and understood – better than the three thousand in the Smethwick End. At the other end of the pitch, with Chelsea attacking down the right, the play was stopped. Initially, I thought the play was stopped for an offside. There appeared to be an “altercation” in the penalty area. For some reason, Diego Costa was booked, although Gal was convinced that he saw an elbow aimed at our number nine. While that melee was just about to be resolved, I looked up to see Cesc Fabregas drive the ball back towards the crowd of players in the box. I can only presume that he had heard a whistle and was returning the ball to the referee.

It was struck too well. It bounced back off a player. We thought nothing of it.

Red card.

The away end went ballistic.

To be honest, nobody was sure what had happened.

I still don’t.

Down to ten men, we seemed to play with an extra drive and with extra spirit. We troubled the home defence, but not the home goalkeeper. At the break, there was a general consensus that we’d claw a goal back.

Our hopes were smashed after just a minute of play when, down at the other end of course, we saw a defender – John Terry – attempt to rob Berahino of the ball from behind as the dangerous striker advanced on goal. I could only hope, from one hundred yards away, that it had been ball before leg. The referee had decided otherwise.

Berahino scored from the penalty.

The Baggies’ stadium was in full on “Boing Boing” mode now.

Their unique club anthem, with Black Country affectations, boomed out.

“The Lord’s moy shepherd, oil not want.

He makes me down to loy.

In pastures green, he leadeth me.

The quiet waters boy.”

The Chelsea team, clearly frustrated, were struggling to create chances, but we were running up against a packed defence. The otherwise poor Loic Remy twisted into a little space and shot low, but his firm drive came back off the base of Myhill’s post. On the hour, Courtois tipped over a Morrison effort, but from the resultant corner, the ball fell at the feet of Brunt, who smashed a drive past everyone and in to our net.

Three fucking nil.

Oh boy.

The home fans could hardly believe it and, frankly, neither could we.

However, with the home fans still bubbling away with chants and taunts, the evening changed.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, the Chelsea fans collectively decided to act. Yes, we were getting stuffed at West Brom, but we had enjoyed a magnificent season and we weren’t going to let one game stop our sense of fun. Harking back to an afternoon at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, out came a song from our recent catalogue.

“We’re Top Of The League.”

And it continued, like at Selhurst, and continued.

At some point, it morphed into “We’ve Won The League.”

At times, both versions were sung together.

After thousands of miles following the team all over England, Wales and Europe, this was the simple answer – an exhausted answer – to the people who mock us.

“We’ve Won The League.”

Diego Costa was replaced by Juan Cuardrado. Nathan Ake replaced Loftus-Cheek. Izzy Brown replaced Remy.

And still we sang.

I joined in at the start and tried my best to keep it going for as long as I could. After a few breaks, I re-joined the rendition…“think I’ll have a sore throat in the morning.”

We had a few chances, but the focus was now not on the players, the focus was on us.

And still we sang.

The home fans quietened. It is easy to say we left them dumbfounded by our noise, but they had sung well all evening. They were merely taking a break. I expect that they thought we might tire, but we kept it going. It was truly wonderful. I remember a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant at Anfield – captured on TV, with a quick glimpse of me – from a 3-0 loss in 1986 going on for about fifteen minutes, and drawing a comment from the BBC commentator Barry Davies and boos from The Kop, but this one at The Hawthorns in 2015 went on for thirty minutes.

The result was simply brushed aside. I am sure that plenty of sweaty new fans in Nerdistan were getting all anxious about a surprising loss – “damn, Berahino isn’t this good on FIFA15” – but the three thousand foot soldiers in the Smethwick End were having a party.

At the final whistle, the home fans roared. Well done to them. Three losses and a draw in our last four games there now. The Hawthorns is indeed turning in to a private nightmare for us all.

I quickly spotted the lone figure of Jose Mourinho making his way across the wet grass of the pitch, his brown suede shoes pacing out in a strong path. It reminded me of his “chin up” walk at Arsenal in 2007.

With his players staying a respectful distance behind him, our manager simply walked towards us, signalling “number one” with his index finger pointing to the sky. He stopped by the goal line, and clapped us. He hasn’t always been our biggest fan this season; I always wondered if his well-publicised complaints about our home support were aired to inspire us or were they the mark of a manager who just wanted to vent? I don’t know. At The Hawthorns he wanted to just say “thank you.” Perhaps if we had kept quiet, with no thirty-minute serenade, maybe we would not have seen this iconic walk from our manager. We will never know.

For maybe thirty seconds or more, he stood in front of us, and we lapped it up. The players clapped too. It was a beautiful Chelsea moment. He turned and met his players.

We said our goodbyes to each other – “see you Sunday” – and exited amid a party-like atmosphere. Never has a three-nil loss been so widely ignored amid scenes of complete and proper joy. We walked down the exit ramp, leading down from the stadium and out in to the night, with songs continuing.

Football, eh?

With the floodlights piercing the sombre Black Country night, a West Brom fan bundled past and admitted to his mate –

“If they had to win, they’d have fookin’ spanked uz.”

I smiled. He was probably spot on.

I slowly walked back to the car. These trudges back to the Park Inn after a defeat are becoming common place, but this one was thankfully a little easier.

On Sunday, Sunderland, and the party continues.

See you there.

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Tales From Mothering Sunday.

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 15 March 2015.

On the eve of Chelsea’s clash with Southampton, I visited the local music venue in my home town. Big Country – or at least the latest incarnation, with Bruce Watson and Mark Brezezicki as the two original members being augmented by three others – played a tight and evocative set at Frome’s “Cheese & Grain” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The swirling guitars brought back memories of a time in the mid-‘eighties when they were one of my favourite bands. There was one very specific memory. It is football-related. Does that surprise anyone?

On St. Valentine’s Day in 1986, Chelsea played a Friday night friendly against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium. I was at college in Stoke-on-Trent and with time on my hands. I only found out about the game late on but I quickly managed to get a message to a mate who was studying at Strathclyde University. I asked him if I could crash at his flat and I bought a train ticket. I was on my way to Glasgow to follow Chelsea and it would be the most exotic trip of my Chelsea story at that time. Excited? You bet. The one thing that sticks in my mind features the train trip through the Southern Uplands, north of Gretna, south of Carstairs, when a fellow passenger had an old-school stereo system and played the Big Country’s debut album “The Crossing.” It seemed a bit of a cliché at the time, but it was the perfect addition to our trip north through snow-dusted hills. Magical memories.

“I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert, but I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.”

The night also brought a few bittersweet memories too. The guitars, often sounding at times like bagpipes, and the lyrics, paying homage to Scotland’s dramatic countryside and gritty urban landscape, brought back vivid memories of my trips to Scotland with my mother over the past twenty years. How Mum enjoyed those trips north. Our list of towns visited list like a Proclaimers song; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Stirling, Brechin, Inverness, The Kyle Of Localsh, Portree, Inverness, Arbroath, Dundee. At times my eyes were moist.

After my mother’s passing, it has been a difficult time, but I have slowly improved. With the weekend – including Mother’s Day – following hard on the heels of the funeral on the Thursday, I felt that an important staging post would soon be reached. As far as the grieving process was concerned, I likened it to a Winston Churcill quote. The weekend would not mark the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it would mark the end of the beginning. Since many close friends read these match reports, and since I feel it appropriate to do so, I include herein the eulogy that I wrote for my dear mother and which the vicar shared with those attending the service on Thursday 12 March.

IMG_1136 My dear mother Esmé lived a most wonderful life.

Mum was born on the third of January 1930 in one of the small cottages opposite The Talbot Inn, not more than one hundred yards from this beautiful church and lived virtually her entire life in her beloved Mells. Mum was an only child, born to two devoted parents; Ted Draper, a gardener, and his wife Blanche, a cook and housewife. Mum attended the local village school and there is no doubt that she had an idyllic childhood in this rural haven, making friends and enjoying the comforts of her family. The church was never far away, physically and spiritually. Life was simple, but rich with love. Her father would sometimes have the use of the parish vicar’s motor car and there were trips to visit local family but also occasional trips to the seaside. What a treat for young Esmé.

After excelling in the “eleven plus” at Mells School, my mother attended Frome Grammar School, cycling in from her village for the first few years. Although her studies were under the dark cloud of war, my mother had a carefree time. Mum studied hard and again excelled in all subjects. Rather reluctantly, I feel, Mum played as a goalkeeper in the girl’s school hockey team alongside her three great friends Barbara, Mary and Marda. During the war, there were occasional dances at the village hall. Mum passed all of her exams and began a teacher training course at a college in Bath. However, Mum soon decided that this was not for her and so began working as a dispensing chemist at a shop in Frome’s Cheap Street.

Just after the war, Mum travelled to Hanover in Germany with several other teenagers; it was one of the first ever exchanges after the hostilities. My mother had a wonderful time in Germany, making great friends with Liesel, the young German girl whose house Mum stayed in. While working at Roberts Chemists, my mother’s wavy hair and sparkling blue eyes attracted the attention of Reg Axon, a shy shopkeeper working a few doors away at John Dance. My father summoned some courage to ask my mother out and the rest, as they say, is history.

My parents married on April 25th 1957 in this very building. They honeymooned in London and set up home in New Street. They were, I am sure, blissfully happy. My parents were incredibly well suited. Both were kind and gentle, both loved home life. My mother moved on to work in a women’s clothes shop, again in Cheap Street. Of course, my parents longed for children. After eight years of waiting, I was born on 6th July 1965. However, my birth was tinged with sadness since my twin brother was stillborn. It is something which weighed heavily on my mother’s mind for many years. Both my mother and I contracted salmonella – I was born prematurely – and it was a miracle that I lived. For the first few weeks, Mum stayed in a nursing home, while I remained in an incubator at hospital; the distance between us must have been unbearable for dear Mum.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but my parents really were the best parents in the world.

They were always so industrious and busy. Both enjoyed gardening, but my mother’s great talent was as a home-maker and especially as a cook. Visiting friends and relatives often gasped at the enormity of the “spread” which Mum conjured up, with the dining room table creaking under the weight of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes, trifles and desserts. I always remember a Canadian relative talking in awe of the “suppers” which Mum provided. Nobody ever went hungry in the Axon household.

As I followed Mum’s path, with attendance at schools in Mells and then Frome, my mother continued to work tirelessly, maintaining her parents’ house in addition to her own. Mum was also a great servant to the village too, assisting in church affairs, village fetes and various committees. My mother also kept a close eye on those in the village who required an extra little care and attention. This was probably Mum’s greatest attribute; the selfless willingness to put others first.

Sadly, my mother often suffered with asthma and was admitted to hospital on several occasions.

In 1974, my parents announced that they were to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea for the very first time. For that simple act, I owe them so much. Our summer holidays were great highlights; there were five trips to Italy and Austria. Diano Marina in Italy was our favourite destination and in 1975 I ended-up playing football on the beach with a young Italian boy called Mario. Thanks to my mother, who swapped addresses with Mario’s mother, we became pen friends. We are still friends to this day.

My school days were not always happy and at times of upset and distress, my mother was always there to comfort me and to take away my pain. Through my teenage years, Mum suffered a little with depression and if I am truthful, our relationship became a little fraught. When I left Mells to go to college in Stoke-on-Trent in 1984, I am sure my mother missed me tremendously. Mum’s frequent letters to me throughout my three years in Staffordshire were testament to this. My parents continued to enjoy their holidays; there was a grand tour of Italy, and also a skiing trip to Austria. Yes, my mother has skied. How wonderful is that?

However, at the end of the ‘eighties, my mother lost both parents within ten months. Mum had cared for her parents, virtually until the end. The losses of her mother in April 1988 and her father in February 1989 were huge. Depression returned once again and my mother was in a fragile state of mind. I toured North America for ten months at around this time; looking back, I am sure Mum missed me enormously. On my return in 1990, things gradually improved and in 1991 my parents departed on a three month “round the world” trip, taking in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brisbane, Fiji, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Vancouver. Sadly, my mother contracted shingles just before the start and the trip was cut short. The planned visits to Toronto, New York and Philadelphia never materialised. But more of that later.

In April 1993, my dear father passed away at the age of sixty-nine. The sense of loss was huge, but I was immediately impressed with my mother’s strength and resilience. We became significantly closer. For the next few years, Mum’s depression came and went at regular intervals. We visited Scotland every autumn for six years and how Mum enjoyed these trips. When depression lifted, Mum would resume her high levels of industry in the home and village, enjoyed coach trips with other villagers and continued to attend the church. After a while, shopping trips to Frome faded, and despite occasional car trips with me, Mum rarely ventured from Mells. Our cat Gemma was a lovely companion. Mum especially enjoyed watching Formula One on TV. I even caught her watching some Italian football occasionally.

There were trips to Calais, Cornwall and North Wales. In truth, my mother first started to suffer with dementia in around 2005. Its advance was slow, but steady. Throughout it all, my mother remained happy and contented. As I moved between jobs, my mother was keen to hear of my progress and Mum took great delight in hearing of my travels. Her cheerfulness was an inspiration. There were visits to local pubs for Sunday lunch and one or two trips to Chelsea. Friends and relatives called in to see Mum. Life had changed, but things were still fine.

In around 2009, Mum began visiting a local dementia centre and then carers called in to keep an eye on her while I was at work. Mum visited both Critchill Court and Emma Shepherd Day Care Centre over the past few years; as recently as fourteen months ago, Mum was heading in to Frome on four days each week.

In September 2010, I took my dear mother to the United States for an unforgettable week. We were based in Philadelphia – where our relatives resided in the nineteenth century for a few years – but we also visited New York. Mum was a real trooper, up every morning by eight o’clock, and we had a fantastic and joyous time. One moment will live with me forever. We had visited Yankee Stadium in The Bronx one Tuesday evening and I was driving back to Philly. I was high over the Hudson River, on the George Washington Bridge, with my mother in the back seat, quietly taking it all in. I glanced over to my left and I saw the bright lights of Manhattan. My heart leaped. I felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Only eighteen months ago, we drove to Scotland, staying in Dundee. After attending around thirty Chelsea games, my mother’s last football match was in Brechin. From The Bronx to Brechin, Mum was a lovely companion.

Sadly, Mum was hospitalised with arthritis just over a year ago. My mother would never walk again. For the past year, Mum’s life has consisted of being cared for at home, watching TV, singing along to some CDs – Mum had a lovely voice – and sharing some smiles and laughs with me. Mum never complained.

The carers loved visiting Mum. Mum was always so appreciative. Everyone loved her.

Last summer, I was able to take my mother out in her wheelchair around Mells and to sit out on the lawn to sip a cup of tea in the fresh air. I so wanted to do the same this summer. Last month, Mum was again hospitalised with pneumonia. As you all know, I was full of hope that Mum would make a full recovery on her return home. It was not to be.

My dear mother passed away at home on February 26th with me by her side. Mum was a sweet, gentle and kind woman, a devoted daughter to her beloved parents and a loving wife to her husband Reg and a compassionate and respected presence in her home village. Mum was the owner of the most amazing smile; wide and welcoming one moment, mischievous and cheeky the next.

She really was the best mother that I could have ever asked for.

Mum was an angel. It was an honour to be her son.

IMG_7606 I left my home village on Mothering Sunday 2015 just before 8am and soon collected PD and LP. The pre-match was rather rushed, but hugely enjoyable. I met Roma and Shawn outside the West Stand, opposite the Peter Osgood statue, and it was obvious that a visit to the megastore had taken place; Shawn was wearing a fantastic Chelsea tracksuit. There was a Delta Airlines football competition underneath the old Shed wall; Shawn had participated here, too. Roma had certainly made the most of her Chelsea match day. The two of them had been at Stamford Bridge since 9am.

We then headed off to see Mark at the stall and I bought his latest book for Roma, highlighting the little section on Frank Lampard which I had penned. Roma adores Frank and is as confused as any of us after his move to City.

We then headed off to The Goose and enjoyed a chat with a few mates. I had fortuitously bumped into a mate, Brian – from Belfast, now Los Angeles – and it was great to see him again. In the beer garden, it was cold and crisp. Familiar faces everywhere. I then arranged to meet Tom, the Vodfather, down at Fulham Broadway to collect two tickets for Shawn and Roma. At just before 1pm, all was sorted.

We headed inside the turnstiles to the MHU and I shared a story with Roma as we ascended the flight of stairs to the upper tier. Back in 2005, my mother and my good friend Glenn’s gran, attended the Chelsea vs. Birmingham City game; it was one of the great Chelsea memories. We met Peter Osgood in the megastore and then had lunch in the Butcher’s Hook. On reaching the top of the stairs in the MHU, the two ladies – my mother 75 and Rose 79 – disappeared off in to the ladies. A split second later, Glenn and I heard both of them let out a massive laugh.

“Oh blimey, what have they said…or done?”

It transpired that on entering, they thought they had seen a man in the ladies. They had looked at each other and couldn’t resist a spontaneous giggle. Every time I walk past this spot in the MHU concourse, I think back to Mum’s laughter.

Sigh.

I took a few photos of an excited Roma and Shawn before they took their places high up behind the goal. They were fantastic seats. Alan arrived with Tom, who has been very poorly of late. He is in his ‘seventies now. It was great to see him again. The match programme, marking our 110th anniversary, was in the style of the original “Chelsea Chronicle” and it looked fantastic. The flags were passed overhead. The teams appeared. One change from Wednesday’s anti-climax; Willian in for Ramires. There was a return for Ryan Bertrand, a hero from that night in Bavaria.

We began well. After only ten minutes, Eden Hazard worked the ball to Branislav Ivanovic out on the right. Very often this season our right-back is often the outlet for our attacking plans, yet often his final ball is disappointing. On this occasion, he lofted an inch perfect ball in, which picked out the lone leap of Diego Costa who easily scored past Forster. It was a fine goal.

Southampton, a fine team under Koeman who gave us a tough game on the south coast earlier in the season, did not let our goal stop them from moving the ball well. The impressive Sadio Mane tested Courtois, and then soon after a joint lunge on Mane by Matic and Ivanovic resulted in referee Mike Dean awarded a penalty. The consensus in our little group was that it was indeed a penalty. Tadic despatched it and although Courtois got a touch, the ball still hit the back of the net. 1-1.

For the rest of the first-half, with the atmosphere at times being ridiculously quiet, Southampton moved the ball around with aplomb, and were the more incisive. We, by contrast, looked tired and lacking in confidence. Our right flank was constantly exploited; the Willian and Ivanovic partnership looked disinterested. Oscar and Fabregas made little impact. It was as poor as I have seen for a while.

The away fans, again, aired the rather amusing and self-deprecating – “The Johnstone Paint Trophy, You’ll Never Win That.”

Sadly, around five thousand Chelsea fans didn’t get the joke and responded – “Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Win That.”

Oh boy.

An overly theatrical response by Ivanovic to a tap tackle did not result in a penalty. It was the only Chelsea “moment” worth commentating on. At the other end, Courtois pulled off a few more saves. Southampton deserved to be 3-1 up at the break. Oh dear.

Yet again, we needed an inspiring team talk from the tongue of our manager at the break. Right from the first few seconds of the second-half, it was wonderful to hear the home support rising to the occasion with thunderous noise. It was a magnificent reaction. Well done everyone. However, a rasping free-kick from Alderweireld forced a full-stretch save from that man Courtois. First class.

Mourinho made a change; Ramires for Matic.

It felt like a goal must come. A Willian effort was deflected on to the post by Diego Costa. A shot from Oscar was blocked, and then a header from Oscar was parried by Forster. Surely, our goal would come.

Big John was up to his balcony-bashing best. “THUMP THUMP – THUMP THUMP THUMP – THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP – CHELSEA.”

Another Oscar effort was saved. Remy for Oscar, Cuadrado for Willian.

Cuadrado failed to impress and dragged a shot wide. Then Azpilicueta went close. In the last minute, we could hardly believe what we witnessed; the Southampton goal was under attack and how. Remy had a shot blocked off the line, and the rebound was sent goal wards by JT but his effort was blocked, but the ball rebounded out to our captain who then stabbed the ball over. As the ball flew past the goal frame, the groan could be heard for miles and miles.

The much-hoped for eight point gap was now “only” six. I felt sure that many new Chelsea fans were about to pepper the internet with a plethora of negativity.

Another sigh.

After the game, at the Copthorne Hotel, Roma and Shawn met some Chelsea royalty; Ron Harris, Paul Canoville, Bobby Tambling and Roy Bentley. There were photographs of course, but also a couple of lovely conversations. Roma especially enjoyed hearing about Bobby Tambling’s close relationship with Frank Lampard, her personal favourite, which developed as Frank drew nearer and nearer to 202 Chelsea goals.

Roma’s smile was wide.

It was a beautiful end to Mother’s Day.

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Tales From The 5,500.

Derby County vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2014.

After a few days of depressing weather, Derby County away in the Third Round of the F.A. Cup was just what the doctor ordered. Despite the protestations of the Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert – did he honestly say that the F.A. Cup was a hindrance and that his players would rather be rewarded with money rather than silverware? – over five thousand Chelsea fans had happily bought tickets to follow the boys in royal blue in our first game of the 2014 competition.

And heaven knows we have owned this trophy in recent years.

2007 Manchester United.

2009 Everton

2010 Portsmouth

2012 Liverpool

Four out of four.

In 2014, let’s make it five out of five at the new Wembley.

I had driven up to Derby with Parky and his son-in-law Kris. At just after midday, I pulled in to the car park at Derby’s Midland Station after avoiding the match-going traffic headed for the car parks around the Pride Park Stadium. From what I had seen of it, Derby looked to be in reasonable health. Rolls-Royce (jet engines in addition to cars these days) and Bombardier (trains and planes, but not automobiles) are still located within the city. There were new shopping centres and signs that the recession had not bitten too painfully. This was only my fifth visit to the city; all four previous trips were, unsurprisingly, for football.

The first of these came in 1986 and – shock horror – did not involve Chelsea. Three college mates (Steve – Derby, Bob – Leeds and Pete – Newcastle) and I bumped into each other at college in Stoke on a Friday afternoon and made the quick decision to travel over to Derby by train that evening to see the Rotherham United game. If Derby won, promotion from the old third division would be gained. I have much respect for fellow Chelsea fans who only watch Chelsea, but I used to be partial to the occasional non-Chelsea game in my younger years. Looking back, during my time at Stoke, this didn’t happen too often, though. I remember the odd match at Stoke City, Port Vale, York City and an aborted trip to Crewe Alexandra, but nothing excessive. Chelsea, then as now, was the main drug of choice. However, on that rainy May evening twenty-eight years ago, the four of us squeezed our way into the side terrace at the old Baseball Ground to watch a Derby County team, which I am sure included Steve McClaren, rather nervously defeat Rotherham with a late winner to win 2-1. There were wild scenes in that ridiculously packed mosh-pit of a terrace, underneath the upper tier. I’m so lucky to have experienced the madness of packed terraces back in those days.

It was a different world.

The Baseball Ground, irregular stands, double-decked behind the goals, squeezed in amongst iron foundries and tight terraced streets was a classic football ground. The pitch was always muddy. The atmosphere was first class.

My second visit took place in 1987, when I again made the trip by train from Stoke-on-Trent to Derby. This time, I had returned to my college town for my graduation ceremony on the Friday and had stayed in town until the Sunday for the televised game with Chelsea. This was a poor match which we lost 2-0. The only two things that I can remember from the game is the appearance of some Chelsea pensioners, guests of Ken Bates, on the pitch before the game, and me getting pushed against a crush barrier so badly that I ended up with bruises around my waist.

A different world indeed.

Then, with Derby County now playing at Pride Park, two further games; a 1-1 draw in 2001 and a 2-0 win in 2007. Strangely, of the two matches, the draw was a better contest. The latter win was as dour a win as I can remember.

We dropped into the “Merry Widow” pub, one of a few “Chelsea only” pubs in the city centre, but the place was packed and the beers were served in plastic glasses. Despite the appearance of many old black and white photographs of former Derby players adorning the white brick walls, which on another day I would have like to have studied, we soon moved on.

A few hundred yards away was the “Mansion Wine Bar.” This was also packed with Chelsea, but was a far more pleasant environment. We chatted with Burger and Julie, just arrived from their home in Stafford, and it was lovely to bump into them once more. We enjoyed their company for an hour or so and then set off – in the drizzle – for the stadium.

We had heard, through texts, that Nottingham Forest had walloped West Ham 5-0 in the lunchtime match.

Happy Chelsea fans, fed-up Derby fans.

They hate Forest.

Pride Park – sorry, iPro Stadium – is located amidst car dealerships, superstores and themed restaurants. Its location is pure 21st Century, especially compared to the more intimate surrounds of the old Baseball Ground. Welcoming the spectators outside the main stand is a bronze statue of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, holding the 1972 League Championship trophy. The statue isn’t great; the figures are more like caricatures than anything else. Derby County play a minor role in the story of the European Cup in my life; their match with Juventus in 1973 is the first European Cup match that I can ever remember seeing on TV. Those were the glory years for Derby County; how strange that a statue of Brian Clough also exists in the town centre of their most bitter rivals, Nottingham Forest.

Inside the packed concourse, there was a little confusion. My ticket was printed with “Turnstile 51-54, Stair 5” but it seemed these numbers were incorrect. After painstakingly studying a book of logarithms, a slide rule, a calculator, a heart monitor, an air-pressure gauge and a thermometer, the steward advised me to use “Stair 58.”

I think that the presence of 5,550 away fans had caused the ticketing department at Derby County to throw a wobbly.

Anyway, with minutes remaining, I was in.

“Stoke at home in the next round.”

“How boring!”

I fancied a new ground, like all 5,499 others no doubt.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, I couldn’t help but notice the Derby mascot sprinting around the pitch, pumping his fists, geeing up the crowd. It didn’t seem right to me. This chap – in a ram’s mask – was just wearing a Derby kit, but with no extra “padding” around his waist. Surely mascots should, by nature, be slightly rotund, just like Stamford, for example…thus increasing their comedic value. This wasn’t very good. This wasn’t very good at all.

May I suggest a mascot for the modern age? An overweight mascot, beer in hand, wheeled out on to the pitch on a sofa, where he just sits in the centre circle for ten minutes before getting up out of his seat and falling, head first, on to the floor?

That would appease me more than this super fit, super lean Derby County numpty.

On several occasions before the match, the announcer had implored the home supporters to get involved and make some noise for the players.

“Show us the black and white.”

This resulted in a rather lukewarm response, with only a small percentage twirling their bar scarves, in the style much beloved on Tyneside a few seasons ago.

Unlike the 14,000 down the road for the Forest versus West Ham game, I was very pleased to see a near 32,000 full house. The teams appeared. There were a few surprises, no more so than the return of Michael Essien, the captain for the day. No room, still, for Juan Mata.

With Oscar, Ramires, Willian and Luiz all playing, it was almost like watching Brazil.

Up front, Samuel Eto’o made his F.A. Cup debut.

The skies were grey and the rain still fell.

The Chelsea section, amassed in one bank in the south stand, was soon making their presence felt with tons of noise. I was right behind the goal. Just behind Parky and Kris, just in front of Cookie, Scott and Andy from Trowbridge. Familiar faces everywhere I looked.

The Derby support tried its best to rally against us; in particular their lads to my right were soon getting behind their team. Soon into the game, they made me laugh. I guess this is their “signature chant” but they soon picked out one unfortunate Chelsea fan and, as one, began their routine by clapping and pointing –

“You!”(point)…”TWAT!”…pause…“You!”(point)…”TWAT!”…pause… “You!”(point)…”TWAT!”… pause…“You!”(point)…”TWAT!”…pause… “You!”(point)…”TWAT!”

We were laughing along at that.

I was wondering if this was the modern day version of a song that Derby fan Steve used to mention back in the ‘eighties. In those days he said that the DLF – usually located in the C stand at the Baseball Ground – used to sing this at away fans –

“Sing something simple, you simple TWATS.”

The first-half was often an even affair. Derby certainly caused us a few problems early on with their blond haired starlet Will Hughes getting a lot of the ball. Our defence held strong. We seemed to find it difficult to get behind the Derby defence and our main form of attack tended to be shots from distance. A low raking shot from Ramires which bounced off the post was the nearest that we came to scoring.

The Chelsea songs kept coming, with the “Willian” song and the “Mour-in-ho” (eliciting a wave from Jose) the most popular.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea, you make me happy when skies are grey.”

On the pitch, there were green boots, pink boots, orange boots and a pink ball.

I had visions of Brian Clough turning in his grave.

No goals at the break. A replay was the last thing we wanted.

As I departed down the stairs at the half-time break, the same weary voice that had endeavoured to get the crowd going before the match was once again asking the home crowd to get involved. This time, it seemed that a camera was roving the stands and picking out supporters, with their image appearing on the “jumbo” TV screen. The whole sorry affair seemed to be a tad embarrassing.

“Come on, look at the camera. See your face on the screen. That’s it, the person in the purple jacket, well done. Give us a smile.”

I silently groaned.

Of course, this sort of crowd participation gets a much different response on these shores compared to my experience of watching baseball games in the US. Even when home teams are getting slaughtered, the roving cameras tend to garner a much more positive response from home fans, with people smiling, waving, acting the fool and even dancing. In the UK, we’re a lot more apathetic about this type of activity.

“Get that camera off me, you bugger.”

We are as awkward with cameras being pointed at us as Americans are with cutlery.

The Chelsea team were attacking us in the away section for the second-half. The noise levels soon resumed. Mourinho soon changed things, with Eden Hazard replacing Essien, with Rami moving back alongside Mikel. We had more of the ball and the pressure began to tell.

Just after an hour, Eden Hazard was clumsily fouled on the left. Willian sent in a lovely cross towards the nearpost where Mikel jumped unhindered to head in.

Yes, Mikel had scored again.

Mikel is rarely a threat at corners and so it was with joy and amazement that I saw him reel away and become smothered by his happy team mates. The away end roared.

The two chaps next to me who had been calling out Mikel were strangely silent.

Then, a massive disappointment.

A blatant, stupid, brain dead, humiliating dive in the penalty box by Ramires.

I think that the Derby fans had a ready-made chant for him.

Torres replaced Eto’o and Chelsea pushed for a second, calming goal. The Chelsea fans, way too prematurely for my liking, began singing about the final.

…”we’re going to Wemberlee, que sera sera.”

Thankfully, after a Torres pass, Oscar was able to dispatch a swerving shot past Grant in the Derby goal.

2-0, that’ll do, happy days.

In a matter of seconds, Fernando Torres – superbly backed by the 5,500 – worked two good chances for himself to no avail. Willian was my man of the match, full of endeavour and enthusiasm. He gets better with each game.

In the closing minutes, Jose Mourinho gave a first team debut to midfielder Lewis Baker.

The bloke next to me muttered “never heard of him.”

There was just time for Steve McClaren and Jose Mourinho to share a laugh and a warm embrace by the side of the pitch before the referee signalled Chelsea’s safe progression into the next round.

It had been a good day.

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Tales From Up’Anley Duck.

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2012.

I awoke on Saturday morning with a mixture of feelings. Outside, the weather was dark and depressing. I had negative thoughts about the entire day to be quite truthful. After the Swansea defeat on Wednesday, I knew that a redoubtable Stoke team would be looking to heap further misery on the club. And then there were all of the churned-up feelings about the politics of it all; the board, the manager and the supporters were seemingly at odds with each other and emotions were tugging my heartstrings in a hundred different directions. And yet, I knew that there was nowhere that I would rather be on this particular winter’s day. The city of Stoke-on-Trent was my home for the best part of three years, from September 1984 to July 1987. I studied human geography at North Staffs Polytechnic, which was based in the city. For many personal reasons, I always enjoy returning. So, I decided to make the best of the day out in Staffordshire, but I did wonder what my state of mind might be in when I would eventually return. There was no doubt about it; this could be a bad day. A very bad day.

My Facebook status summed things up –

“Off to Stoke. In the cold. In the rain. We know what we are, alright.”

I left home at 10am, with a 150 mile trip to the middle of England ahead of me. I soon texted my partner in crime Alan, who was travelling up on one of the official Chelsea coaches with Gal.

“Duck Kerouac.”

He responded –

“Tom Robinson.”

I was “on the road” to the city where the word “duck” – as a term of endearment – is used at an alarming rate. Alan was on the “2-4-6-8 Motorway.”

I tuned in to the Danny Baker show on five live – if there’s a better programme on the airwaves, I am yet to find it. Baker used to host the original “606” programme when it was first broadcast in around 1991. At the time, it was natural for that programme to follow on from the launch of a thousand and one fanzines just a few years earlier; it gave normal fans the platform to air grievances, but to share anecdotes about the quirkiness of being a football supporter. I remember back in those days, Baker would hardly mention any of the day’s games, nor would supporters care. Talk instead was of comedic moments from fans’ pursuit of their teams, sightings of footballers in unusual places, bizarre pre-game rituals, favourite kits, banter and humour. If anything, Baker actively discouraged the general public from phoning and taking about specific games because – for the 99.9% of listeners who would not have seen the game – it would have been a waste of time. How I wish that ruling was prevalent today; the current “606” show with Mark Chapman and Robbie Savage dwells too much on specific incidents in specific games.

I drove through Bristol, with no signs of the overcast weather lifting. At 11am, I eventually made it up onto the M5; it had been a slow start to the journey.

I randomly selected a CD; a collection of songs by Tears For Fears, a band from Bath – my birthplace – that I used to admire back in the days of my time in Stoke. In those first few weeks of finding new friends at college, Tears for Fears acted as a cornerstone for me.

“I’m from near Bath – where Tears For Fears are from.”

The other two cornerstones were sport-related.

“I’m from Somerset – yep, we’ve got a great cricket team.”

“I’m not from Chelsea – I’m from Somerest.”

As I drove through Gloucestershire, my mood was brightened. I realised that several of the songs perfectly summed-up the current confusion amongst Chelsea fans –

“The Hurting.”

“Shout.”

‘Change.”

“Mad World.”

Tears for Fears’ first album “The Hurting” was coloured by the band’s involvement in primal therapy – and I thought back on some of the album’s other song titles and how they would be the ideal fit for the current Chelsea situation –

“Suffer the children.”

“Start of the breakdown.”

“Watch me bleed.”

…maybe we should have a group primal therapy session in the away section of the Brittania Stadium later in the day.

“Shout, shout – let it all out. These are the things I can do without. Come on…Chelsea.”

Just south of Birmingham, a few fields were dusted with snow. I soon drove past West Brom’s ground; the final straw in the league careers of Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo. At the intersection of the M5 with the M6, at last a few splashes of blue above the clouds.

Things were looking up.

As I turned into the A500 at 12.45pm, I noticed a group of policemen in a lay-by, on motorbikes, in cars, on the look-out for Chelsea coaches and cars. With the Britannia Stadium on a high ridge of land to my right, I drove on up to the city centre in Hanley.

And here’s the inevitable history lesson. During the industrial revolution, the area now known as The Potteries consisted of several independent towns; Stoke, Fenton, Longton, Hanley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Burslem, Tunstall and Kidsgrove. Pottery was the dominant industry, although the area was endowed with a local coalfield which ably provided the fuel to fire thousands of bottle kilns. First canals and then railways ferried china clay in and pottery out, to markets throughout the UK, Europe and further afield. The names Wedgewood, Minton and Spode became world famous and put the area on the map. It was a hive of frantic activity, a real industrial hotspot.

In 1925, five of the towns – Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Fenton and Longton – came together to form the city of Stoke-on-Trent, although the slightly aloof town of Newcastle remained separate. My first few weeks in Stoke were spent trying to decipher the local geography and the local accent alike. The biggest anomaly of all was that the de facto city centre, housing the large department stores, library, theatres and bus station, was in the centrally-located town of Hanley. I lived in Stoke, the southern-most of the five towns. Stoke had the train station, the polytechnic and Stoke City Football Club. The town centre of Stoke was only marginally bigger and busier than my local town of Frome. The most northerly town of Burslem housed the city’s lesser football team, Port Vale.

As Chelsea Football Club now reside in the upper echelons of the football stratosphere these days, I am sure that millions of our global fan base has never even heard of Port Vale. If they have, I’m sure that many are unaware that the club is located in Stoke-on-Trent, even less that it is in Burslem.

On my previous visits to the city with Chelsea, I have tended to re-visit my more familiar haunts to the south in Stoke and ‘Castle. This time, I decided to head into Hanley.

Or – in the clipped and peculiar vernacular of the locals –

“Ah’m gooin’ oop’Anley, duck.”

By 1pm, I was parked up and was soon outside in the biting wind, stumbling around the city centre, attempting to recognise landmarks from a quarter of a century ago.

To my surprise, it was a bit hazy. I found my way to The Tontine pub and dipped in out of the cold. As students, we had to be wary of which pubs were “student-friendly” and quite a few pubs in both Stoke and Hanley were anything but “student friendly.” The Tontine was our safe haven on our nights out in Hanley, which tended to end up in a large multi-floored nightclub called “The Place.”

In The Tontine, I ordered a pint of lager (“lahh-geh”) and was surprised how cheap it was.

“Two qued fefty, duck.”

The long narrow pub hadn’t changed much in the 25 years since my last visit. I noted a few Stokies talking to a couple of Norwegian Stoke fans who were in town for the game. The world gets smaller and smaller, doesn’t it? In my time in the city, the locals were very insular and local to their town. I was reminded of a story which one of our lecturers told in an attempt to explain the colloquial nature of the Stokies’ mindset.

One of his aunts was touring America and she found herself on a local radio phone in. The radio presenter asked where the woman was from, since the accent completely threw him.

“Ah’m from Longton, duck.”

Not only did the woman presume that the presenter had realised she was from England, she didn’t even bother with the city name of Stoke-on-Trent, which the poor bloke might – just might – have heard of.

Seeking clarification, he quizzed her further…maybe he thought she was from Canada or Australia –

“OK. Where’s that?”

She replied, nonchalantly – “near Fenton, duck.”

The QPR v. Spurs game was on TV, but I gave it scant regard. I thought back to my time in the solidly working class and industrial city. Football dominated my thoughts. Over the three years in Stoke, I probably went to around ten Stoke games. In two of the years, in fact, I lived in a terraced house only twenty yards from the Victoria Ground. However, in November 1985, thoughts were of a game further afield; how “un-Stoke.”

Around ten friends and I travelled down to Wembley on an official Stoke City coach for the final World Cup qualifier for the 1986 Finals in Mexico. England had already qualified, but there was a chance that England’s opponents Northern Ireland could qualify too if they could muster a draw at Wembley.

However, I had another reason. It would mark Kerry Dixon’s home debut for England.

I had to be there.

Kerry had broken in to the England squad on the summer tour of Canada and Mexico, but had yet to play at Wembley. I don’t remember the trip down to London at all, save for the fact that it was a strange mix; half Stokies, half students from the poly, most of which I knew. Two friends – Nigel and Trevor – were from “Norn Iron” and were gung-ho about their team’s chances.

We all had standing tickets in the “home” end (the tunnel end) at the old Wembley. What a thrill to see Kerry Dixon, in a plain white shirt, play at Wembley on that misty night. Chelsea used to go en masse to England home games in those days and as the game developed, there were quite a few chants of “Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap” in that home end. Of course, I joined in. It felt like Chelsea had taken over the entire end. It was a magical feeling.

Untouchable.

England fielded players such as Peter Shilton, Kenny Sansom, Paul Bracewell, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle. Gary Lineker lined-up along side Kerry in a traditional 4-4-2. The captain on the night was Ray Wilkins. Sadly, it wasn’t a great night for Kerry, who missed a couple of good chances, which are shown in the following clip (with apologies for the sighting of a Juventus-era Michel Platini in the TV studio…)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ESdUZAdO24

The game ended 0-0 amidst jeers of “It’s a fix, it’s a fix, it’s a fix.” At least Trevor and Nige were happy.

It was 1.45pm and I needed to drive the two miles south to the stadium. I decided to drive past my old faculty building on Leek Road. However, the traffic was horrendous. I slowly made my way down the hill from Hanley and I soon crossed over Cauldon Canal, with one of the last remaining bottle-shaped kilns alongside it. Ahead of me was a large open space of land which was formerly the site of a large pottery. Beyond, red brick terraced houses, then industrial units, then the open wasteland up on the hill. Pretty, it certainly wasn’t.

I was taken aback by the amount of new buildings which had sprung up on the old football and hockey pitches at the polytechnic, which was renamed Staffordshire University a while back; we had a “Sports & Recreation Studies” faculty – or shortened to “Sport & Rec” or, mockingly, “Fruit & Veg” – and we had a healthy rivalry with Loughborough University. A bit like Ohio and Michigan, Auburn and Alabama, UCLA and USC (he said sarcastically.) A new sports centre for the University had been built and was named after the city’s most famous son Sir Stanley Matthews, a native of Hanley, who played for Stoke in two spells from 1931 to 1965. He was Europe’s first player of the year and played until the age of 51. A real legend, believe me.

As the traffic slowed just outside the old entrance to the Leek Road campus, I spotted hundreds of Chelsea fans, newly arrived at the nearby train station, awaiting buses to take them to the game. I spotted a few faces – Aggie, Callum, Tim – and it was a weird sensation. A personal space, to me, had become a shared space for many Chelsea fans. It couldn’t have been stranger if the same people had been spotted outside my village shop.

By 2.40pm, I was parked up on the grass verge of a road to the south of the Britannia. The cold wind was unrelenting as I quickly walked towards the bright features of the stadium, over another canal, the past never far away. There’s surely not a more inhospitable location for a ground in all of England. Like a fortress, The Britannia stands indignantly on that ridge of high land, its inhabitants ready to wail at visitors.

“We are Stoke, we are Stoke, we are Stoke” they yell.

On its day, it’s a red hot – and white – atmosphere.

The Chelsea section, three thousand strong, took up three-quarters of the south stand. The Brittannia Stadium is a strange one architecturally; two stand-alone structures, but two stands joined. I stood alongside Al and Gal in the second row of the upper tier, just to the right of the goal.

I scanned the team and noted the changes since Wednesday. Great to see Petr back, that’s for sure.

I looked across to the main stand, in two-tiers, unlike the rest of the stadium, and set well back from the pitch. There was Tony Pulis, in trademark baseball cap, alongside Rafa Benitez, already cajoling the Chelsea players with his strange selection of hand jives. Most importantly of all, I checked to see his tie colour.

Check.

And then I saw a sight which warmed my heart and made me proud; high on the roof above the Boothen End –

“The Boothen End Sponsored By Staffordshire University.”

…excellent.

We certainly weathered the Stoke storm in the first-half. A Kenwyne Jones effort after just 7 minutes whizzed wide of the far post when we were all expecting a goal. A succession of Stoke corners caused us to be fearful, but everyone was repelled. Branoslav Ivanovic was showing great positional sense with no signs of suffering from his performance on Wednesday. A shot from Lamps on 24 minutes raised our spirits. Frank began to impose himself from deep and was the instigator of a few attacks. Hazzard and Mata buzzed around. Another shot from Frank, but Ramires couldn’t follow up.

I commented to Gary about the two defeats against QPR and Swansea. My succinct summing up was met with agreement –

“To be honest, Gal, we created tons of chances and in 9 out of 10 times, we would have won both games.”

The home fans seemed surprisingly quiet. Chelsea were full of song and with – thankfully – not much negative noise. With a look at the clock, I suggested to Gal that a “goal would be nice.”

What a brilliant own goal from John Walters, as ordered right before half-time, under pressure from Demba Ba.

“Get in!”

It was cold, but not as cold as our first-ever visit to the stadium in 2003 for our FA Cup game. Alan and I agreed that, in comparison, the weather was positively balmy. That Sunday afternoon ten years ago was the coldest I have ever been watching Chelsea.

A rasping shot was gloriously tipped over by Petr Cech on 53 minutes, but Stoke thought they had been awarded a penalty just after. Thankfully, an offside was given instead. We breathed a sigh of relief. We got into our stride and continued to exploit the spaces as Stoke attempted to get back in the game. From a corner, that man Walters headed blindly into his goal with Frank right behind him. We exploded with joy again, but nothing compared to look of biss on Frank’s face as he beamed a massive smile as he spun around and shared his joy with the away fans.

It was a lovely moment.

Next, a chop on Mata and a penalty.

“Give it to Walters” chimed Gal.

Frank drilled it high past Begovic and we roared again.

194 goals for Frank Lampard. Fantastic stuff. The goal was filmed on hundreds of smart phones. Just after, with the away end booming, Frank almost reached 195 but couldn’t quite reach the rebound of a shot.

After a little provocation, the Stoke fans finally made some noise, showing commendable qualities in getting behind their team when losing.

Well done Stoke.

The game was wrapped up when Juan Mata fed in the excellent Hazard, who unleashed a swerving bullet into the top corner of Begovic’ net. I was right behind the course of the ball and detected the slightest of deflections.

4-0? Beyond my wildest dreams.

It still didn’t save Benitez, though. The loudest chant of the day was his. However, at least I didn’t detect any booing of Torres when he replaced Ba.

The game was due another comedic twist when substitute John Terry felled Walters inside the box. The troubled Walters blasted over and we howled with laughter.

“Walters – Man of the match. Walters, Walters – Man of the match.”

“Johnny Walters – He scores when he wants.”

I hurriedly rushed down to my waiting car amidst hundreds of quiet Stokies. The “feast and famine” football was continuing and Chelsea Football Club was playing games with my addled brain. I pondered the notion of only attending every other game; satisfaction guaranteed surely?

I wondered about the welcome that Walters might get from his wife as he returned home later that evening.

“Hi love. Did you have a good game?”

Within three minutes – I love Stoke, especially leaving it – I was back on the M6.

Happy days.

Tears For Fears know fcuk all.

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Tales From The Group Of Death.

Chelsea vs. Shakhtar Donetsk : 7 November 2012.

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

Well, since last Wednesday, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get in!

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

Alan – in a generic Slavic accent:

“They will have to come at us now.”

Chris – similarly:

“Come on my little diamonds.”

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

Game on.

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

Alan and I gave a running commentary throughout.

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

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

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

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

Porca Dio.

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

Italian Champions, Ukrainian Champions, European Champions.

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

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

“Look at that miserable bastard.”

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

YES!

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

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

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

2-2.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

I was so angry, I couldn’t speak.

I sat down and put my head in my hands.

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

No. It was a penalty.

The home crowd erupted in displeasure.

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

“Get up you radioactive cnut.”

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

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

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

Sorry, Tullio. Sorry, Mario. Needs must.

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

“See you Sunday, Al.”

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

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

Click.

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

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

The net bulged.

Anyone who is into football will know that feeling.

The net bulged.

YEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

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

YES!

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

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

We had done it again. Bloody hell.

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

Oh boy.

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

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

Liverpool – be warned.

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