Tales From Nine Goals And Ten Penalties

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 24 February 2019.

At the end of the first-half of this League Cup Final at Wembley, I tapped out a simple note on my ‘phone – I often record a few things for these match reports in such a fashion – which summed up my feelings at the time.

The one word that I used was “humdrum.”

This is not to say that the game was boring me rigid. Far from it. We had managed to contain the swift passing and incisive finishing which is such a trademark of this modern day Manchester City, and all of the Chelsea players were playing at a level far greater than I, and I suspect many others, had anticipated. After the awful start to the league game up in Manchester just a fortnight previous, there must have been many that would have been overjoyed at the thought of reaching the half-time mark without a goal conceded. No goals after forty-five is much better than four after twenty-five. We were level at the break and, really, there had been no shocks and scares, and no defensive lapses, no calamitous back passes, no switching off, no rash tackles, no dramas. We were in with a shout, and not a shout of anguish that was too often heard from the Chelsea ranks at The Etihad. There had been a compactness to our shape which we have not often seen this season, and although we had created little ourselves, we had limited Pep Guardiola’s team to just one lazy strike by the always dangerous Sergio Aguero. We had contained the City team, and that was fine with me.

I mention this moment, and the choice of that word, because it is exactly the same word that the respected chief football writer of “The Times” Henry Winter used at the very start of his subsequent match report.

Yet “humdrum” belies the emotion and drama that went into this game.

We had travelled up from the west of England at the break of dawn with an uneasy feeling in our stomachs. We acknowledged that the match under the arch at Wembley had the potential to illustrate the difference in the two teams; City blossoming under Guardiola’s third season at the helm, Chelsea struggling to acclimatise to Maurizio Sarri’s new regime.

The four of us – PD, Parky, PDs’s son Scott and little old me – did not dwell too much on the Final. We had other things to talk about. The upcoming trip to Kiev – only two and a half weeks to wait for that one unlike the three month wait for Budapest – dominated our thoughts. It should be a cracker. We had set off early and at just before 10am, I had parked-up in the car park beneath the Premier Inn at Putney Bridge, and then joined the others over the road at one of our favourites, “The Eight Bells.”

The first of many pre-match pints were downed. We chatted to a couple of other Chelsea fans. The day had begun well.

I was trying to fathom out if I was truly sure that we would lose against City, or was there a Munich-style win, against all odds and other clichés, lurking somewhere in the shadows? I honestly wasn’t sure.  I had told the boys in a moment of unbridled positivism that Chelsea tended not to lose finals. And I wanted to believe that on this day too. Since 1994, there had been final wins against Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough, Stuttgart, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Tottenham and Manchester United. There had only been losses against Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal.

It has been, of course, a brilliant run.

Until 1994, the previous final of any note or significance was the 1971 win over Real Madrid.

Yet in this story of Chelsea and Manchester City at Wembley, we have to mention 1986 don’t we?

Too bloody right we do.

Yes, we played City in the Community Shield in August – and humdrum was surely the key word on that day out – and we lost to them in the FA Cup semi-final of 2013, but the Full Members Cup Final almost thirty-three years ago meant so much at the time. It was the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play at Wembley. It was the day we took fifty-thousand to the national stadium. It took place on the Sunday of the same weekend where we had played at Southampton on the Saturday. It was the day David Speedie scored a hat-trick. And it was the day we almost buggered it up, leading 5-1 with five minutes to go, only for City to score three more times. It was the day we won 5-4 at Wembley. It was as mad as a bucket of frogs.

The Full Members Cup was an odd creation, and came in the wake of the UEFA ban on English clubs after Heysel in 1985/86.

A little history. Try to keep awake.

In 1983/84 the bottom two divisions were given a competition all of their own. It was called the Associate Members Cup, and would become the Freight Rover Trophy, the Sherpa Van Trophy, the Leyland DAF Trophy, the Autoglass Trophy, the Auto Windscreen’s Shield, the LDV Vans Trophy and, when our car industry ceased to exist, it became the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy. It is now the EFL trophy.

In 1985, it was decided that the clubs in the top two divisions were to have their own cup too. Ken Bates was a leading light in its foundation. This competition only lasted until 1992 and was latterly known as the Simod Cup and the Zenith Data Systems Trophy.

In that inaugural 1985/86 season, Chelsea played against Portsmouth, West Brom, Charlton and Oxford United at games with very few spectators. I didn’t attend any. I was not alone.

But we had to go to the final, despite the rather laughable nature of the competition itself. It is worth noting that the teams that missed out on UEFA competitions after Heysel took part in their own competition, the Screensport Super Cup, with games being shown on that cable station. It lasted just one year. I remember watching an Everton vs. Tottenham game one night and counting twelve Spurs fans at Goodison. The ‘eighties were a strange time.

I was living in Stoke in 1986, and I caught a 1am train in the early hours of the Sunday morning to Euston. While we were winning at The Dell, City were embroiled in a Mancunian derby at Old Trafford. As I boarded the train, I realised that their main lads were packing the train to the rafters. There were bodies everywhere. After battling United on and off the pitch, their testosterone levels must have been sky-high. I saw one Chelsea fan getting battered so I quickly took off my badges. I remember talking to a long-haired City fan – very inebriated – but although he soon sussed I was Chelsea he left me alone for which I am eternally grateful. To be honest, I should have been punched for wearing a red jacket. I eventually caught some sleep and arrived at Euston at about 5.30am. Then a two hour wait until the tube started. God knows what I did. The Mancs must have swarmed the place. I got to Wembley as early as 10.30am, and bumped into Alan outside, who had been to Southampton the previous day.

Inside the stadium, I bumped into two lads from college in Stoke that I knew. Once on the terrace, I met another lad – Swan – from my home area. I was disappointed that City did not bring more.We had 50,000. They had 17,000. Our end was absolutely rammed, the section that I was in especially. Packed in like sardines.

A Chelsea banner said “Never Drop Nevin.”

Another said “We Are Here.”

At the start, a few Chelsea got into the City end but were escorted out. Steve Kinsey soon put City ahead, only for us to retaliate in fine fashion. Three goals from David Speedie and two from Colin Lee – in place of the injured Kerry Dixon – put us 5-1 up. My diary tells me Speedo could have scored six and Wee Pat was at his best. We applauded – in jest, no doubt – City’s second and third goals, but not their fourth. There were two goals for Mark Lillis and an inevitable Doug Rougvie own goal. And we applauded City as they did a lap of honour at the end. How quaint.

Our celebrations were ridiculous though. They hardly matched the importance of the trophy. But we loved it.

However, I couldn’t help but think “bloody hell, fifty thousand for this tin pot cup, what will it be like if we ever won anything important?”

It had been a super day out.

In 2019, our travels took us up to Fulham Broadway where we were joined by Dan and Johnny, friends of Scott, from Frome. We enjoyed a few more beers at “The Oyster Rooms” above the tube station, and we sat opposite the balcony of the Fulham Town Hall where Ossie and Co restored our pride in 1970 and 1971. I was intrigued to hear that Dan had played for my local village team, Mells and Vobster United in its final season of 2017/18, the same team that my grandfather played for in the ‘twenties, and for whom I played a few games – in the reserves – in the early ‘eighties. From there, we joined the lads at The Fountain’s Abbey on Praed Street at Paddington, although we paid scant regard to the United vs. Liverpool match that was being played out on TV. Two Californians, Andy and Brett, popped in to see us, and it was a pleasure to chat to them. By now, the time was moving on and so Parky, PD, Scott, Dan, Johnny and I hailed a cab to take us to Wembley. We arrived a few minutes late.

Shocker, eh?

The team had been announced at some stage and our reactions were muted.

No striker?

Does that mean a more cat-and-mouse approach? OK.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Of course we had missed all of the pre-match hoopla. High up in the East Terrace, I soon realised that I had left my glasses back in the car.

Bollocks.

I took it all in. A full house. Empty seats were few and far between. Blue skies above. We stood the entire match, as did everyone.

The first-half passed without too much of a scare. With each passing minute, our spirits were raised. Without stating the obvious, I was very impressed with N’Golo Kante, who ran and ran and ran. Limiting City to one real chance emphasised how well we had played. Our attacks were rare, but with Eden Hazard we always have a chance.

The second-half began. Ageuro scored from close in but I immediately saw the linesman’s raised flag over to the right. Phew. A David Luiz free-kick down below us after a foul on Ross Barkley – who I favoured over Mateo Kovacic – flew over the bar. But the Chelsea crowd certainly sensed that we were gaining an upper hand, and the noise boomed around Wembley. City’s legions, on the other hand, were deadly quiet, or so it seemed. Little pockets of noise in our end soon joined up and often the entire end was rocking. I felt so proud. This was what supporting a team should always be like. Maybe it was a simple realisation that, as huge underdogs going into the match, the players just needed us more. We certainly did ourselves proud. At last the sad memory of the 2008 League Cup Final was put to history when our support simply did not turn up against Tottenham. That afternoon – with us in the same end – was probably a low water mark for me in forty-five years of attending Chelsea games. We were shocking, and – it hurts me to say it – Tottenham had never been louder.

Ugh.

With just over an hour gone, Emerson fed Hazard who attacked the space down the Chelsea left. He waltzed past Vincent Kompany and pulled the ball back to Kante, whose first time shot flew over the bar. A shot from Barkley. A City free-kick but a poor effort from a subdued De Bruyne. Then Pedro chose to pass when a shot on goal would surely have been more beneficial.

Still the songs rumbled around Wembley.

“CAREFREE…”

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Barkley.

In the last kick of the ninety-minutes, a well struck effort from Willian, from a free-kick out on the left, forced Emerson to flex back and tip over. A winner then would have sent us in to bloody orbit. We had played with guts and grit, and had limited City to a ridiculously small amount of chances.

Advantage us? It felt like it.

I got my timings all wrong, and chose the wrong moment to turn my bike around, sentenced to a long spell in the gents – others had timed it all wrong too – as extra-time started without me. When I reappeared, I realised that Gonzalo Higuain had replaced Willian. The time soon passed with little incident, although our noise levels were still the better of the two sets of supporters. I only really heard City sing en masse in the period of extra-time. Flags were waved in their end. Free bar scarves, for those in our lower sections, were twirled in response. The whole team were still defending resolutely, though our attacking bursts had not continued, despite some nice twists and turns from our Callum and a few strong runs from our Ruben. There was a ridiculous scramble at the other end as the minutes ticked by. A fine full length save from Kepa kept out that man Aguero.

And then it went mad.

Kepa went down. Willy Caballero was spotted on the touchline. We put two and two together. Word among ourselves was that Caballero, a former City player, and a bit of a hero in the penalty-saving game, would come on for the injured Kepa. But, wait a minute. Kepa was having none of it. To be honest, we were one hundred and fifty yards away, and not only was I high up at Wembley, my glasses were at Putney Bridge. But we got the message alright.

Kepa 1 Sarri 0.

What a mess.

The final whistle soon blew.

To our relief, penalties were to be taken at our end.

Advantage Chelsea? We thought so.

I took a few photos more. Two photos told a story, perhaps.

City looked united. They were in a tight group, embracing each other, no doubt being given calming words from the manager.

Chelsea looked the opposite. Some were chatting, some were alone. In the photo that I took, Sarri was absent, although I did not realise it at the time.

Penalty One.

Jorginho. A repeat of his two previous penalties for us. A hop, a slow push to the ‘keeper’s left, the same as the other two. An easy save. Fuck.

Penalty Two.

Gundogan. Low and in.

Penalty Three.

Azpilicueta. An odd run up but a strong, high penalty.

Penalty Four.

Aguero. Damn, Kepa almost reached it.

Penalty Five.

Emerson. No nerves. In.

Penalty Six.

Sane. A fantastic save from Kepa.

COME ON! PD and I yelled and hugged, hugged and yelled, and yelled and hugged some more.

Penalty Seven.

Luiz. A long run up, that side foot, the base of the post.

BOLLOCKS.

Penalty Eight.

Silva. Right down the middle, right down Regent street, bollocks again.

Penalty Nine.

Hazard. An impudent chip. In.

Penalty Ten.

Sterling. On the money. In.

BOLLOCKS.

We soon left the stadium. We were all proud of the boys, and of ourselves, but it was not to be. There were some positives. We had played much better than I had expected. The manager had been pragmatic and had changed his philosophy. Jorginho had been fine, no complaints. To be honest, we had deserved to win.

One thing pleased me, and I know this is going to sound strange. I was pleased that I was hurting. After forty-five years of going to football, and almost fifty years of being a Chelsea fan – damn, am I really that old? – I was very upset and disappointed to lose what some fools might call a Mickey Mouse Trophy. I took some real solace in that.

We marched out into the night. I took umbrage at a fan who was lambasting Sarri, Jorginho and Luiz (“fuck off to Napoli”) and I stood up to him.

“Because of their penalty misses? But Luiz scored in Munich. Don’t be a twat.”

He soon disappeared.

Back to Marylebone, a cab to Fulham, some more “Peroni” at “The Goose” and the night loosened-up a little. We made plans for the next few games amid the usual gallows humour, a night out in Liverpool for the Everton game, talk of Kiev, plans for Fulham, then next door for a late night pizza and one last “Nastro Azzuro” then one last cab back to the hotel at the southern tip of Fulham. Despite the result, the day had been magnificent.

Our sequence was now in full flow.

Won, lost, won, lost, won, lost, won, lost.

We play Tottenham on Wednesday.

See you there.

Tales From The Mancunian Way

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.

Sunday Four O’Clock.

This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.

Manchester Remembered.

It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”

A Drive Down Memory Lane.

The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.

One Final Visit.

On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.

They need not have worried.

On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.

[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].

On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.

The Mancunian Way.

With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.

“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”

“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”

She hid it inside another bag.

Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.

The Lower Tier.

I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.

As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”

I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.

Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

“Fuck, yeah.”

One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.

I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.

“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season –  if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).

Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.

I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.

We exchanged waves.

Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”

We would soon find out.

The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.

RIP.

I had almost forgotten to check our team.

Here it was.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Four.

The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.

After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.

Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.

Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.

The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.

We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.

I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”

After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.

City 3 Chelsea 0.

We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.

City 4 Chelsea 0.

We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.

But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring

There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.

Altogether now; “fackinell.”

At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.

She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”

I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.

Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.

As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.

Oh God.

Six.

Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.

City 5 Chelsea 0.

My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.

In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.

Oh bloody hell.

I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.

A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.

Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.

I sighed.

With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.

City 6 Chelsea 0.

The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :

“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”

I grimaced.

And then – this really is their Joy Division, right?  – reprised a song from last season’s game :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”

Silence from us. Ugh.

The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”

Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.

“Behave yourselves.”

For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.

And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.

I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.

Gallows humour got me through :

“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”

I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :

“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”

We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.

6-0.

Fackinell.

Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :

“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”

Our last four games this season?

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0

Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0

Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0

A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?

As for Maurizio Sarri.

To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?

I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.

Numbers.

The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.

Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.

I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.

That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.

Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.

See you there.

For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer

Thanks!

 

Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

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

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

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

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

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

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

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

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

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

From La La Land to La Land.

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

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

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

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

“The Kop’s full.”

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

“Bollocks.”

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

“Take it.”

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

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

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

“Alright, lads?”

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

“Fucking get in.”

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

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

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

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

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

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

“We got in.”

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

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

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

The years have flown past since.

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

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

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

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

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

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

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

“No pressure.”

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

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

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

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

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

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

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

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

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

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

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

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

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

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

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

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

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

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

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

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

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

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

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

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

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

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

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

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

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

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

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

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

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

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

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

“We’ll get a goal.”

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

Sigh.

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

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

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

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

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

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

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

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

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

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

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

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

See you there.

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Tales From The High Ground

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 November 2017.

This would be my twelfth visit to The Hawthorns with Chelsea. My first was in January 1986, a second one came in April 1989 but the third visit was not until March 2003. There have certainly been more frequent visits in recent years since their promotion in 2006. For many seasons, it was my closest away venue. It was known as our manager’s graveyard, but then we had the emotion and celebrations of last May. What a stunning night that was. Just like Grimsby and Bolton – to say nothing of Athens, Stockholm, Monaco, Munich and Amsterdam – it is a ground that will surely be remembered fondly within our ranks for ever. Seemingly random away stadia now intrinsically linked to Chelsea Football Club. Let’s hope that there will be many more in the years to come.

The Hawthorns sits on a piece of grey urban land, hemmed in on all sides by industrial and retail units, with red-bricked houses to the south beneath the angled floodlight pylons of the trim and compact stadium, and the growling M5 motorway only a few hundred yards to the west, thus cutting it off – in essence – from the town of West Bromwich, whose small municipal centre sits farther west still. On match days, the Chelsea support is split. Those travelling up by train from London tend to shelter in pubs and bars within the shadows of Birmingham’s New Street train station. Those propelling themselves under their own steam tend to aim for two venues just off the M5. For ever and a day we have parked at the Park Inn, along with many other Chelsea fans. It is conveniently close to The Hawthorns; only a fifteen-minute walk away. This year, we fancied a change.

A few years back we met up with the London contingent in the Birmingham city centre. The plan on this day in November 2017 was to do the same; to meet up with Alan, Gary and others including J12 from Los Angeles in The Briar Rose. However, as the traffic slowed at around 11am and the heavens opened, we decided on a change of plan. Rather than risk getting soaked on the walk to The Hawthorns train station to whip us in to Brum, we decided to come up with a Plan B. For the first-ever time, we decided to try the second of the two venues much-beloved by the Chelsea away contingent; The Vine pub, no more than a quarter of a mile from both the Park Inn and the stadium alike.

We were suitably impressed. We were in the pub at 11.30am. Beers were ordered. In addition to being a drinker’s pub – home and away fans mixed with no hint of bother – it has already earned a reputation for serving excellent food, and curries are their forte. While PD and Lord Parky supped some lagers, Glenn disappeared off to get himself some chicken tikka.

The idea of curry in the morning didn’t thrill me I have to say.

A fair few friends appeared over the next few hours. Brian, one of the oft-mentioned Bristol Posse, was celebrating his two-thousandth Chelsea match. A few of us spoke of the upcoming trip to Baku next week. I have to be honest, it has dominated my thoughts throughout the past few weeks; the thought of it has kept me going through the barren fortnight of the international break and a few difficult shifts at work. In some respects, I had found it difficult to concentrate too much on the West Brom game.

At around 2pm, we headed off to the game, first passing through a dark underpass beneath the M5 and then along a walkway adjacent to the train line. We passed the West Brom academy and continued up the hill to the stadium. The Hawthorns is famously the highest stadium in the professional game in England, though the lofty locations at Burnley and Oldham seem higher – and more desolate. We soon appeared outside the metal gates of the stadium which lead us towards the away turnstiles.

Ah memories of that night last May.

The players were soon to enter the pitch and for a few moments I watched as they went through their drills. However, I soon turned my back on the players – our men, our boys, our heroes – and kept an eagle eye on our fellow supporters hoping to spot some familiar faces. There’s a metaphor for my current stage of Chelsea fandom if ever there was; turning my back on the players, looking out for mates.

I was on a special lookout for J12, who I was to learn took a cab from The Briar Rose to meet us in The Vine, only for the cabbie to take him and another mate, Rob, to a different pub of that name.

Always keen to spot what is hot and what is not, I noticed many Canada Goose and Moncler jackets among the away contingent, as in The Vine earlier on. This boy’s obsession with football and fashion shows no signs of abating.

There were noticeable gaps in the corners of the home end opposite and the large stand to my right. West Brom were the latest club in crisis, with many of their supporters wishing that the manager Tony Pulis would get sacked.

The team was announced, and it took me a while to get the 3-4-3 out of my mind to enable me to fit the players in to their respective places.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill.

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Fabregas

Hazard – Morata

Chelsea were in the much-derided off-white away kit. Fucking hell, I’ve got tea towels that are whiter. West Brom were in a predominantly white kit too, but with a solid block of navy on the rear of their shirts. I used to remember that teams wearing the same colour shorts were not allowed. For example, every time United played at Goodison, they had to wear black shorts. Newcastle wearing white shorts at Sunderland. These days, the likelihood is of second and third kits getting an extra outing.

Not long in to the game, the noisy bunch of home fans who share the Smethwick End were having a dig at us.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

We rallied with the usual response.

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

Then, the usual shite.

“WWYWYWS?”

Ha.

I harked back to that game in 1986. I spoke to Alan alongside me –

“The gate was 10,000…we must have had 3,000. So, 7,000 of them. And they sing about us?”

In those days, the away support was split between a quadrant of terrace, on the Smethwick End, as in 2017, and the more fashionable seats of the Rainbow Stand. In the ‘eighties, the supporters of London’s teams especially – maybe it was a sign of wealth, the north-south divide, Thatcher’s Britain et al – always chose to head for the seats at away games. In 1986 specifically, it was fashionable to aim for the away seats – nice and cosy to be alongside home fans, ha – along with your black leather jackets, Burberry and Aquascutum scarves, Hard Core jeans and Nike trainers.

In January 1986, we won 3-0 – playing in all red – and we excited the Rainbow Stand singing, and believing, “we’re gonna win it all.”

In the very next game, Kerry did his knee at home to Liverpool, and our season imploded.

It was not to be. Not that year.

As the Chelsea support put together a few songs and chants – “Antonio” the clear favourite – the home fans sang a relatively new one, or at least one that I had not paid much attention to previously.

“Allez allez allez oh, allez allez allez oh. West Brom FC from the Black Country.”

Strangely enough, West Brom enjoyed the first couple of chances. Thibaut Courtois was able to easily save from Jay Rodriguez. We then watched in horror as an effort from Salomon Rondon dropped over the line after Thibaut initially saved well, then fumbled. Thankfully, the offside flag on the far side – in front of the low stand, the only one left from 1986 – cancelled the home fans’ celebrations. It was an even start, but Chelsea soon turned the screw. Bakayoko and Kante began closing down space in the midfield and our passing became crisper.

Just after a quarter of an hour, a fine move found Eden Hazard, who cut in from the right. His low shot was saved, but I momentarily missed the follow-up from Alvaro Morata, choosing to turn and follow up a comment that Alan had made.

The Chelsea support roared and I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

I don’t miss many.

Alan : “Thoy’ll ave ta com at uz neaw.”

Chris : “ Come on moi little di’monz.”

Eden had begun the game in very fine form, gliding past defenders and passing intelligently. With Cesc playing a central role, the width was forced to come from the two raiding wing-backs. With neither Pedro nor Willian playing in this finely-tweaked Conte formation, their role – out wide – becomes more important.

Six minutes later, a sublime delicate flick from Morata played into space ahead of Hazard had us all gasping. Hazard raced ahead, touched the ball past Ben Foster – from my perspective it looked like the ‘keeper was keen to foul him – and pushed the ball wide before rolling the ball into an empty net.

It felt like game over.

We were well on top. West Brom, I have to say, were very poor. I loved the way that Kante pick-pocketed player after player, guiding the ball to others with the minimum of fuss. Andreas Christensen again impressed. The lad looks the real deal. He just looks so cool. Eden, shamefully, was continually hacked by the West Brom players. I have to wonder if referees are now oblivious to this now. Has a new – unacceptable – norm now been reached?

Fouling : subsection 3, 4 – amendment ix ; “fouls against Eden Hazard do not count.”

The Chelsea choir were in good voice, regaling N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko.

Seven minutes before half-time, at last a foul against Hazard was rewarded with a free-kick. A deep ball from Fabregas – aimed slow and purposefully – was slammed high into the net with a volley by Marcos Alonso. The West Brom defenders were absolutely nowhere to be seen. I think that a few of them had disappeared off to The Vine and were tucking into some goat curry. The scorer raced over to the corner and was mobbed by his team mates.

“Definitely game over now. Let’s get six.”

The second-half began, but there was a feeling from me that we had taken our foot off the peddle. This, of course, was the first of three away games in eight days. We were playing a very dispirited West Brom team. It was no surprise that we – maybe even subconsciously – played within ourselves a little.

We carved out chances, though. Foster saved well from that man Hazard. Morata – full of guile and poise – threatened Foster too.

Just after the hour, Cesc picked out Eden, central and with space, and we seemed to go into slow motion as Eden chose his moment to lose a marker and patiently thud the ball home.

This sparked more celebrations from the buoyant away support, but it also initiated some caustic chanting aimed at the manager of the lacklustre Baggies.

“Pulis Out. Pulis Out. Pulis Out. Pulis Out.”

Even more damning –

“Tony Pulis – Your Football Is Shit.”

There were the expected late changes from Antonio.

Danny Drinkwater for Davide Zappacosta, Pedro for Eden Hazard, Willian for Kante.

The hated James McLean – on as a late sub – raced through but, much to the amusement of the away fans, shot wide. It was the last real chance of the game. At the final whistle, the players and manager paraded in front of us and it – of course – was a lot more subdued than on our last visit. But the players were genuine in their claps of appreciation. I noticed Antonio chatting for a while with the substitute Drinkwater. I wondered what plans are in store for him, and others, over the next week or so.

We filtered away into the darkness of the night. A cheeseburger from the stall at the bottom of the slope. A brief chat about the game. The cold started to bite as we retraced our steps back to the car. With Arsenal managing to grab an unexpected win against Tottenham at lunchtime, but with wins for the two Manchester teams, we had nudged our way into the top three. This was our fourth consecutive league win. We are firmly placed within the high ground of the Premier League as the season rolls on.

It is a good place to be.

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Tales From The League Cup

Chelsea vs. Everton : 25 October 2017.

After parking the car, and before we were able to enjoy a very pleasant pre-match drink-up in two Chelsea pubs, I could not help but notice that there were posters advertising the Moscow State Circus at Eel Brook Common, no more than half a mile from Stamford Bridge. At times in Roman’s fourteen years at the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club, a few of my mates have often likened proceedings to that of the famous Russian spectacle.

I silently hoped that I would not have to reference said circus in a negative way during the match report for the evening’s game.

The five Chuckle Brothers were split up for the visit of Everton and their dog’s dinner of an away kit for the League Cup tie; I was alongside PD and Glenn in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding wraparound, Parky was in the Parkyville section of The Shed Lower, while Young Jake was watching in what is officially the Matthew Harding Upper, but what is really the connecting section of the East Upper.

It was another mild night in SW6, and I expected a mild atmosphere too if I was honest.

Over in The Shed, there was a yawning gap where the missing one thousand away fans should have been. Two-thirds of a Nike swoosh was visible instead. The away section took ages to fill; I was full of disdain when I first saw how empty it was at about 7.30pm. Everton do not always bring the numbers to Stamford Bridge. The evening’s match day programme was another retro edition and I immediately recognised the font and design from season 1985/86, and I am sure that our League Cup game from the late autumn of that campaign against the same opposition was the inspiration. It brought back memories for me of midweek afternoon jaunts by British Rail to London from Stoke for Chelsea games. On that particular evening – Daryl had to remind me that the game ended 2-2 – I well remember how few Evertonians had bothered to attend. They numbered around five hundred. Remember, back in 1985 they were reigning champions. In the league match at Chelsea a month earlier, they had only brought a thousand. A poor show on both counts in my book. It seemed that the Everton tradition was continuing in 2017. However, I soon remembered back to our League Cup semi-final at Goodison in 2008 when we sadly failed to fill our three-thousand allocation. A Joe Cole goal on the break gave us a narrow 1-0 win on that very pleasing night on Merseyside – there have been a few – and the game is remembered for the best Chelsea away support of that particular season. I woke up the next day with a sore throat. The way it should be. It was the last time that the two clubs met in the League Cup.

On the walk from the bar to the stadium, I had announced that Danny Drinkwater was to make his debut for the club. There were also, possibly predictable, starts for Charly Musonda and Ethan Ampadu.

Our manager had certainly rung the changes since the weekend.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Ampadu – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Musonda

If ever there was a Chelsea “B” team, this was it.

The Everton line-up included a lad with the most ridiculously Scouse name that I think that I have ever heard; Johnjoe Kenny.

“Sound, la.”

There was, quite evidently, another full house for a League Cup tie at HQ. Quite fantastic.

For a great part of the first-half, the football formed a backdrop as Alan and myself chatted away about the players on show, our recent performances, our plans for the trip to Rome, and the days when the League Cup actually meant something. If the FA Cup has fallen from glory over the past two decades, them this is even more true of the nation’s secondary cup competition. We remembered how crestfallen we were when we lost to Sunderland in the 1985 semi, the QPR quarter final in 1986, away at Scarborough in 1989, the Sheffield Wednesday semi in 1991, away at Tranmere Rovers in 1991, at Crystal Palace in the rain in 1993, Bolton 1996, the list goes on. It felt – stop sniggering at the back – that for a decade or more the League Cup represented Chelsea Football Club’s only realistic chance of silverware.

These days, it is way down our pecking order. An irrelevance? It hurts me to say it, but yes.

Unless we play a major rival of course.

Are Everton a major rival? Not quite.

Danny Drinkwater soon impressed with a display of crunching tackles and solid passing. Alongside him was Ethan Ampadu looking like a crusty at a Levellers gig circa 1991. At just seventeen years of age, although not his debut, this was a huge night for him. In that first half, with his nerves jangling, he did not look out of place though some of his long-range passing was amiss.

The two-thousand away fans could not seem to get past their one song.

“And if you know your history it’s enough to make your heart go…”

However, no Chelsea songs were forthcoming from us, save the rousing “Antonio.”

Alan and myself chatted about our players.

We hardly noticed Charly Musonda. He was having a very quiet night. I noticed a passing resemblance of Davide Zappacosta to Groucho Marx. I wondered if our right back’s moustache was real. I pondered if Michy Batshuayi would have a memorable a game as his white undershirt.

My mind was clearly drifting…

After twenty-five minutes of huff and puff, but not much quality – nor any noise – we had our first corner, in front of the away fans in the far corner. Willian played it short to Musonda, who sent over a long cross towards the far post. We watched as Rudiger, falling back, did ever so well to head the ball back across the goalmouth, over ‘keeper Jordan Pickford, and into the far corner of the goal. The crowd loved that.

We were up one-nil, get in.

Everton created hardly anything during the first-half. Wayne Rooney was as innocuous and insipid as his grey shirt. A tame effort from Michy straight at Pickford was the only effort on goal. One from Groucho rippled the side netting.

There was wholesome applause from the Chelsea faithful at the break, but there was a realisation that this was in support of the youngsters, the fringe players, the manager, rather than for a recognition of any great period of play. However, Willian had been predictably busy, Christensen looked so natural, and everyone warmed to Zappacosta’s honesty and desire, to say nothing of his ability to stoop low, twiddle a cigar between his fingers, and crack one-liners to the West Lower.

But it had not been a memorable forty-five minutes.

At the interval, Bjarne Goldbaek trod the sacred turf. Forever etched in our minds is that thunderbolt of an equaliser at Three Point Lane in 1998. He looked well, bless him. I’m sure for many new fans – why do I always think of that prick Jeremy Clarkson when I talk about new fans? – it had might as well have been Barney Rubble out on the pitch.

We had heard that Tottenham were winning 2-0 at home to Wembley. There was the rival that would undoubtedly make the competition interesting.

The second-half started.

I commented to Alan that there did not seem to be a weight of expectation on the players. If mistakes were made, especially by those without much first-team exposure, there were less boos than normal.

The second-half had more urgency, and the challenges became more physical. Without warning, the away team turned the screw. Their resurgence was a shock.

Willy Caballero was right in the thick of it. A fantastic save from Rooney drew loud applause, but then soon after a terrible clearance from the ‘keeper gave us all kittens. Thankfully, he cleared before an Everton player could capitalise.

An effort from right under the bar at the Shed End was diverted over for a corner. Everton were on top for sure.

On the hour, the Chelsea support – realising that the team needed us – suddenly roared.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Danny Drinkwater, possibly our best player until then, was substituted and replaced by Cesc Fabregas. The former Leicester City player with the classic footballer’s name was given a very fine round of applause. There is just something about players with the same letter starting both of their first names and last names; Joey Jones, Damien Duff, Didier Drogba…Steve Sidwell. Er, perhaps not.

Our man Caballero kept pulling off some stunning saves. This was becoming a man of the match performance.

In a rare break, Willian ran at pace but drilled his shot wide of the near post.

Pedro replaced the unimpressive Musonda.

Everton still bossed it.

However, it was so gratifying to hear that the Chelsea support was back in the game. The quiet first-half seemed a distant memory. Batshuayi pick-pocketed a loose ball and touched it past Pickford, only for himself and his undershirt to see the back-tracking ‘keeper recover and push the ball away. Michy smacked the upright and for a few minutes looked like he had done himself a classic ‘seventies sitcom “mischief.”

An Everton effort rattled the top of Caballero’s bar.

Alvaro Morata replaced Michy.

We took an ineffectual short corner. I moaned to Alan.

“I bloody hate short corners. By all means, do it to get a different angle and whip the ball in early, but don’t just play it to a team mate, idly, then ponce about with it for a few moments. Certainly don’t bloody receive it back from the person you passed to.”

With injury time being played, Fabregas played a short corner to Willian. He shimmied and danced past Tom Davies, then played a sublime one-two with Fabregas who had accelerated away into space. Willian caressed the ball past Pickford into the Everton goal.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

I turned to Alan.

“As I said, I bloody hate those short corners.”

In the aftermath of the goal, Willian was mobbed by his team mates right down below us in Cathy’s Corner. He had been, I think, our star performer on the night.

As an afterthought, Dominic Calvert-Lewin toe-poked a goal for Everton. How typical of football that a team chasing a game admirably could only score once they conceded a further goal.

Into the last eight we went. Not a great game, not one that will live long in my memory, but a win is a win is a win is a win.

On the walk back to the car, I could hardly believe that Tottenham had managed to lose 3-2 to West Ham. Oh how I laughed. Not even Groucho Marx makes me giggle as that lot from N17.

Back in the car, we all agreed.

“Bristol City away please.”

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Tales From Penkhull And Sideway

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : Saturday 23 September 2017.

Game five of September’s Magnificent Seven was at a familiar ground for me. Ever since our first-ever match at Stoke City’s new stadium in the FA Cup on an astonishingly cold Sunday in February 2003, I have witnessed every Chelsea game at the stadium on the hill. The match this season would be my tenth consecutive Stoke City vs. Chelsea league game. We have generally fared well, winning five, drawing two and losing two. But “Stoke Away” is always regarded as a tough game; the home side under Tony Pulis and now Mark Hughes have never made it easy for us.

Our third away game of the league season, our second successive one in the Midlands, and the Chuckle Bus was on the road once more.

Roadworks on the M5 forced us onto the M42 and then on the M6, over Spaghetti Junction and past Villa Park, and it meant that we only turned off the motorway and onto the A500 into my former college town at around midday. After replenishing my tank at a “Sainsbury’s” filling station in the Stoke town centre, I was pleased to garner a fabled response from the middle-aged woman at the till.

“Forty pounds, please duck.”

Ah, the Stoke-on-Trent duck. This was truly music to my ears. It was one of the charming idiosyncrasies of the local dialect and I developed a strong liking for it in the three years I lived in the city. It had no barrier. It was everywhere. Teenagers would call shop assistants “duck”, grown men would call young women “duck”, women would call us students “duck”, grown men would call each other “duck.”

I had to reply in kind.

“Ta, duck.”

I was back in Stoke.

I drove up to Penkhull which, like the football stadium, sits on a high ridge of land overlooking the sprawl of The Potteries. Not for the first time, we visited The Greyhound pub, which sits opposite the church spire of St. Thomas. Drinks were ordered and the Chuckle Brothers were at ease, save for the occasional glowering look from a local Stoke fan, who evidently wasn’t too enamoured with us plotting up in his pub. The pub is just right; cosy, a friendly landlord, good beers, and the building dates back to 1704, and so has just the right amount of character.

It was right that I was in The Greyhound in Penkhull on this particular day.

During the week, an old college friend Huw passed on some sad news that a mutual friend, Chris, had passed away the previous Saturday at just fifty-three. During my first year at Stoke – season 1984/85 – I shared digs with Chris and Huw and we became good friends. I was a fresher and they were in their third and final year of their chemistry degrees. They took me under their wing. After that first year, Chris went up to Glasgow to study a master’s degree at Strathclyde University. It wasn’t long before we were to meet up again. In February 1986, I read in a midweek paper that Chelsea were to play a friendly at Ibrox against Rangers – following-on from the Chelsea/Rangers lovefest at Anfield in November 1985 – and I quickly contacted Chris to see if he could put me up for the following weekend. Without the internet, and with me in The Midlands, it was lucky that I had read about the game, which took place on a Friday night. It so easily could have passed me by. As luck would have it, British Rail were in the middle of a special fares promotion for holders of a Young Person’s Railcard, and any destination in the UK could be reached for just £8.

Perfect.

I have vivid memories of exclaiming to a couple of fellow-football lads on my course that I was heading up to Glasgow with Chelsea at the weekend and, I’ll be honest, it felt like the most decadent thing I had ever done.

I was young, and free, and I had a return to Glasgow Central. What a buzz.

It was my first Chelsea weekend away of my life and I was certainly excited then as I am these days when I bugger off to Beijing, or Rome, or Baku.

I met up with Chris at his university and we soon went on an increasingly wobbly pub crawl around Glasgow. In 1986, Scotland was the only place in the UK with all-day opening. It was to be my downfall. We visited a number of pubs in the city centre and near Chris’ digs in Shettleston. We visited a bar on Shettleston High Street owned by Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish. After gathering his next-door neighbour Jim – a Rangers fan – we hopped on to a train into the centre at about 6pm, chatting to some ‘Gers fans from Edinburgh. The alcohol was taking over. I knew that I was reaching saturation level. Chris was not a huge football fan like me – he was from Grimsby, and loosely followed them – but he loved a beer. He was clearly leading me astray on this cold night in Glasgow. We popped into a dark pub right outside Queen Street train station – “Dow’s” – and got chatting to some Rangers fans from Gloucester of all places. They were able to squeeze us into a transit van and we hurtled off towards Ibrox. Outside, by the tube station, we entered the packed “Stadium” bar, which was wall-to-wall Rangers. The beer intake was continuing. Oh my goodness.

Chris, Jim and I watched the Rangers vs. Chelsea game on that night in 1986 – it was on St. Valentine’s Day, how romantic – from high up in the home Copeland Road stand. Over in the Broomloan Stand were around three or four hundred Chelsea fans – including my mate Alan, who, I was to later learn, had been in The Stadium bar too – and it was a surreal feeling to be watching my team in such famous, and yet alien, surroundings. Chelsea lost 3-2 that night, and – of course – my memories are rather blurred from all of the alcohol coursing through my veins. I remember us playing in that pristine white Le Coq Sportif kit. I remember a floodlight failure for a good ten minutes. I remember Pat Nevin, the Catholic, getting a bit of a rough ride from the nearby fans, which I was far from happy about.

I also remember singing “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the pope” which got a – cough, cough – mixed reaction too. With about ten minutes to go, maybe to beat the crowds, maybe fearing for my safety, Jim decided it was best to head home.

We left, and disappeared into the Glasgow night, the smell of fried food blocking my nostrils, only to continue drinking back at Jim’s flat. Elsewhere in that fabled city, Pat Nevin met Clare Grogan, on Valentine’s Night, the lucky bastard.

It had been a bloody fantastic day and night in Glasgow – one of the very best – and I had Chris to thank for all of it.

In 1987, I again stayed with Chris over a weekend which saw me attend the Rangers vs. Hamilton Academical game, but we were a lot soberer on that occasion, and I was to meet his future wife Eleanor on a night out after the game.

Chris was a good mate. He loved his music, he loved a beer. He was, I soon realised, the first friend of my age group to pass away. It was, naturally, all rather shocking. He will be, always, cocooned in my mind as a young lad, with his whole life ahead of him.

Over pints in The Greyhound, where we had celebrated Huw’s twenty-first birthday in 1985, with Chris on good form, I raised a glass to his memory.

“RIP Chris.”

We stayed in The Greyhound until just before 2pm and the Duckle Brothers were suitably refreshed. There was a little chat with a couple of the local Stokies, who were concerned that their defence was hit with injuries, and they wished us well.

Opposing football fans in rational conversation shock.

The drive from Penkhull over to the bet365 Stadium at Sideway only took around ten minutes. After parking up, I veered off to take some – more – photographs of the beguiling statue of the dribbling Sir Stanley Matthews which sits on a plinth outside the home Boothen End. I mused that although Sir Stan was known as the “King of the Dribble” in The Potteries, they clearly haven’t seen Parky after a gallon of cider.

My camera was not allowed in to the stadium – “bollocks” – so I had to drop it off in a little room beneath the away end.

We had seats low down, row five, just to the right of the goal. The exposed corner to our right is now filled-in, bringing the capacity up to just over 30,000. Annoyingly, the new TV screen in the opposite corner has blocked out the spire of the church steeple in Penkhull. I always used to look for it, for old times’ sake.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, club captain Gary Cahill lost out. And the manager was clearly saving Eden Hazard further for the toughest of games, away to Atletico Madrid and at home to Manchester City.

“Delilah” rang out and the teams trotted out onto the pitch. For once, the weather was fine.

Stoke had an early attack, but we broke fast, with Bakayoko moving quickly out of defence. The ball was played out to Dave, who played a perfect early cross over the Stoke defence, and right in to the path of Alvaro Morata in the inside-left channel. The Spanish striker drew the ‘keeper and slotted home past Jack Butland.

After just over a minute, we were already 1-0 up.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

A chant soon rung out of the away end.

“Alvaro – wha-oh.

Alvaro – wha-oh-oh-oh.

He comes from sunny Spain.

He’s better than Harry Kane.”

Phew.

The game was bubbling along, but did not ignite further. To be honest the home side enjoyed much of the ball, and the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri was at the centre of all of Stoke’s attacking moves. But throughout the first-half, even though our defence was tested, I never felt troubled. A few shots were aimed at Thibaut, but bodies were sacrificed as we blocked and blocked again. As with the Tottenham away game, we always looked at ease. I was so impressed with the back three of Rudiger, Christensen and Azpilicueta. After a few below-par performances, Victor Moses was back to his best. Willian looked busy, twisting and turning, and brought others into the game.

There was a song for N’Golo.

“N’Golo – oh.

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believing.”

It reminded me of that wonderful night at The Hawthorns.

After half-an hour, we watched as a Darren Fletcher chest-pass went astray – he’s no JT, who has reigned as King of the Chest-Pass for years – and played in Pedro, who had been rather quiet until then. A quick touch, a look at the goal, and he despatched a fantastic shot past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 2

GET IN.

It seemed like we had only enjoyed two shots and here we were, two goals to the good.

There was virtually no noise emanating from the home end now.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

The two teams each had a couple of half-chances as the first-half came to its conclusion, with Diouf managing a bicycle kick which flashed wide.

There was a feisty start to the second-half, and Marcos Alonso drew the ire of the home fans along the side who were, probably not without reason, annoyed at a challenge which resulted in a yellow card. It was the noisiest that they were to get the entire game. A second foul by Alonso riled them further, and Antonio Conte saw the potential for self-harm, and replaced him with Gary Cahill. Stoke continued to try to claw their way back into the game, but with the play down the far end, I found it difficult to watch the movement of players. Peter Crouch, the former Chelsea season-ticket holder, came on and immediately created a chance for Diouf, who went as close as anyone. Thankfully, the rest of Stoke’s efforts tended to be blazed over and into the Boothen End.

Stoke were definitely back in the game, and I kept saying to Gary that I was glad that we were winning 2-0 and not 1-0.

The Stokies in the stand behind eventually boomed, with their very unique chant :

“GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE.”

The manager replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas. Four minutes later, Eden Hazard replaced Willian, whose form had dipped as the second-half continued. The two additions breathed new life into our team. A couple of chances were exchanged. A cross from Dave just evaded the far post lunge from Moses. Then, on seventy-seven minutes, Glen Johnson gave away the ball, and Alvaro Morata pounced. He pushed the ball forward, and accelerated away, with the entire half in front of him. He raced on, steadied himself as Butland approached, then clipped a low shot into the waiting goal.

We boomed.

Morata raced behind the goal, in front of the away contingent, and our arms and fists were pumping.

We live for moments like this. It was a stunning goal. Whisper it, but it immediately reminded me of his compatriot Fernando Torres in his pomp at Anfield, running free and scoring with ease. It will always be a major disappointment that we did not see Torres repeat such scoring at Chelsea. Eden Hazard, so good to have him on the pitch, was full of tricks and a shot was cleared off the line. With eight minutes remaining, a beautifully creative and cheeky chip from Fabregas was chested back – JT style – by Dave towards Morata, who nudged the ball past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 4 and Jonathan Walters wasn’t even bloody playing.

A hat-trick for our new silky striker. I think there will be more, don’t you?

In the last few minutes, Morata could easily have made it 5-0, but that would have been beyond cruel. Stoke, despite our goals, had enjoyed much of the ball. Then, shamefully, a horrid Crouch tackle on Cesc blew away any sympathetic feelings I had for the home team. On another day, Crouch would have seen red.

We bounced out of the away end, and all was well with the world.

“You know what, ahead of our trip to Madrid, that could not have been any better preparation. I know it’s a different type of football, but Europe is all about soaking up pressure, and then hitting the opposition hard on the break.”

There is no Madrid trip for me, but I wish safe travels to all those going to the Atletico game on Wednesday. It should be a belter.

Give my regards to Fernando, Felipe, Tiago – and Diego.

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