Tales From Easter Monday

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 22 April 2019.

Sunday, Thursday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday and Easter Bank Holiday Monday. The stretch of non-Saturday games was continuing. After our home game with Burnley, there were at least another five coming up too. Should we get to Baku, it will be a run of twenty-four matches with no Saturday football. It seemed particularly annoying that all other Premier League games were played on Saturday and Sunday. And that our match took place on the Monday evening, with a day of work right on its heels. There was not even the luxury of a three o’clock kick-off.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive and we were on our way at 10am. The reason for the very early start? Well, no surprises, there was a Fulham pub crawl planned. We were slightly surprised by the volume of traffic on the M4, boosted by folk returning to London from the fields and beaches of the West Country. But London was reached in the usual three hours. All four of us have developed an unhealthy interest in the construction of the new Brentford stadium over the past twelve months. As we drove past, high up on the elevated section of the M4, we looked over to check any recent changes. It’s going to be a compact little stadium, each stand different, and a good addition to London football.

We were parked-up near West Kensington. The heat hit us. It was setting up to be a beautiful day in London. The first problem was side-stepped; the District Line was closed over the weekend so we hopped into a cab to take us down to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. This cosy boozer wins our “Pub Of The Year” by some margin. As we pulled up, we spotted Luke and Aroha sitting outside.

“Save us a seat, we’ll be back in a bit.”

Inside, the Jacksonville Five were boosted by an extra member, Steve. And thus the drinking party was set.

Aroha, Luke, Jennifer, Brian, Danny One, Danny Two, Danielle, Steve, Parky, PD, Glenn and some bloke with a camera and a mental notebook.

The Thirsty Dozen.

We quickly came up with a game plan; a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham, and then a few cabs up to “Simmons” at the southern tip of the North End Road to meet the usual suspects.

The story of the weekend was of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United all losing. Tottenham’s 1-0 loss at Manchester City worked well both ways; a win for City in their race for the title and no points for Tottenham. It was, perhaps, expected. The other two results – proper miracles on Easter Day – were not anticipated; Everton beat United 4-0 and Palace won 3-2 against Arsenal in North London. A win against Burnley in the evening, after a lovely pub crawl, would be the perfect end to the footballing weekend.

We live in a place called Hope.

The game would be Chelsea match number one thousand, two-hundred and fifty for the bloke with a camera and a mental notebook. From Saturday 16 March 1974 to Monday 22 April 2019, I have made a record of all of them.

Some milestones –

Game 1 : 16 March 1974 – Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

Game 250 : 7 September 1996 – Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday

Game 500 : 8 August 2004 – Chelsea vs. Real Zaragoza

Game 750 : 15 September 2009 – Chelsea vs. Porto

Game 1,000 : 14 August 2014 – Burnley vs. Chelsea

Game 1,250 : 22 April 2019 – Chelsea vs. Burnley

I could suck out all sorts of data and statistics from all of these games, but a particular favourite of mine is that by the end of my fifteenth season of support (Game 117 : 28 May 1988 – Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough) the player that I had seen more than any other was Pat Nevin, my favourite-ever Chelsea player. And that date, that horrible game, marked Pat’s last-ever appearance for Chelsea Football Club.

81 starts, all wearing that number seven shirt, plus two substitute appearances.

83 out of 117 games.

In the summer of that horrible summer of 1988, I wrote to Pat – thanking him for his services – and I was so elated when he took the time to write back to me.

Meeting him in Moscow in 2008, another horrible game, was magical.

Cheers Wee Pat.

In fact, I found myself checking out some Pat Nevin rarities over the previous week or so.

Here’s a few gems :

1987 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIy7K2xMHjI&fbclid=IwAR1LAcchmu8Ub96RZbuLXM6Wy7Jk8aPDF9C43TfqMQG-JL7dA85c3sfhLJk

1989 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFChBeYhoso&fbclid=IwAR3t__j_DjNmhzVWh00Z5YCDAk6s1P-3jhQ1QILxD1rfCE5sUCMtviVWGOk

2015 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAETjZMOSq0&fbclid=IwAR3g_pr6NMuD9CS5eu9mq2F8ct7LGo363hWXVEVdv3QGq77oMP1-J7CkyS8

Having spent a good deal of time with Aroha and Luke in Kiev, European adventures were not far away from our minds. We spoke, inevitably of Frankfurt and Baku. Over the weekend, Parky and PD finalised their plans for Frankfurt. On many occasions, friends have often said to me that they live vicariously through these match reports, but in a couple of weeks’ time I will be living vicariously through Parky and PD.

Our American visitors were thoroughly enjoying their stay in London. Banter was soon flying around. It’s great to hear and see some fresh perspectives about Chelsea Football Club. There was even time for a very quick chat with Jennifer and Brian about our predilection for some staples of terrace fashion – a crash course in casualdom – rather than Chelsea favours.

We moved on to “The King’s Arms” – just around the corner – and I changed from pints of “Grolsch” to bottles of “Peroni.” Glenn, bless him, was imbibing a heady mix of coffees, orange juices and “Cokes.” Both pubs were pretty quiet to be honest. We ended up over the road in “The Temperance”, a roomy bar which used to be a billiards hall in days long ago. Time was moving on. We then jumped into some sherbet dabs – a little bit of rhyming slang for you, Danny One – and ended-up at “Simmons.”

There was talk of foreign travel further afield this time. Andy and Gary collared me and asked if I was planning on going to Japan in the summer. The quick answer was “no” although once I realised that we are now playing two games in Japan – in Tokyo and Saitama – I did momentarily look at options. But no, Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was exceptional. That visit could never be beaten. Talk moved to the following season. Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck has recently dropped some heavy hints that we would be returning to the US in 2020.

Andy, who is a big Elvis fan, told me “if we are going, we are going with you Chris. You can be our travel agent. I want us to play in Memphis.”

“Uh-huh.”

In the first pub, Jennifer had asked me which city in the US would I like to see us play.

“New Orleans would be good.”

If Chelsea Football Club do return to the US for a fully-fledged US tour (I am not going to the game in Boston next month), it would be my twentieth trip across the pond.

Number 20 in 2020.

That has a nice ring to it, eh?

On the façade of the West Stand, there were large displays of a few of our players advertising Beats headphones. With his musical background, Wee Pat should have been involved alongside Rudi, Eden and Ross. His musical column in the 2018/19 match day programme mirrors that of his column in the inaugural “Bridge News” of the mid-‘eighties.

Inside, there were more empty seats dotted around than usual.

Burnley, essentially needing a point for guaranteed safety, were to be watched by around 1,500.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

I honestly think that Sarri regards Higuain and Giroud in the same way that Ron Greenwood regarded Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in the late ‘seventies. In one game, out the next.

It was a warm and sultry evening in SW6.

And a quintessential game of two halves for sure.

There was early pressure from us, with our wide men getting behind their defenders in wide positions in front of the Burnley contingent on the left and Parkyville – where the Jax 6 were watching – on the right. There was a rifled shot from Eden Hazard straight at Tom Heaton, then a lob from Gonzalo Higuain that was hoofed off the line.

However, on eight minutes we conceded a corner and the long ball to the far post was headed back into a dangerous area by Dave. It fell invitingly towards a spare Burnley man. Jeff Hendrick volleyed it straight through a scrum of players and Kepa was well beaten. Well, Chelsea – that was bloody marvellous.

Four minutes later, some textbook jinking from Hazard, with one defender on his arse, resulted in a pull-back from the bye-line towards N’Golo Kante. His sweet strike, high into the net, meant that we were right back in the game.

And then two minutes after, some equally pleasing passing inside their box involving Jorginho, Higuain and Azpiliceta – a subtle flick – resulted in Higuain lashing the ball high past the Burnley ‘keeper and into the net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

While I was up celebrating, I just happened to glance behind me and I couldn’t help but spot around five or six fellow season ticket holders sitting, hardly clapping, nor moving.

“Oh right.”

But how the players celebrated. They raced over to the south-west corner. The flags waved. The crowd roared. Lovely.

This was an open game of football. But my camera was working faster than my mental notebook, dulled by the alcoholic intake of the previous six hours. Our Ruben fancied his chances with a curler from just outside the box but it didn’t have quite enough dip. Sadly, on twenty-five minutes, a free-kick to Burnley was lumped towards our back post again. My camera caught the flight of the ball, the header back from Ben Mee – a free header, Ruben was all over the place – and the flick-on from Chris Wood. Ashley Barnes volleyed the ball in from close range with our defence ball watching. Not one defender had picked-up Barnes, zonal defending my arse. There was – of course – not one player on the back post. My next photo was of the Burnley players celebrating in a close huddle.

Bollocks.

I thought Italian managers were known for their defensive nous.

It was 2-2 and the mood changed a little. But we kept going. There were long shots. Hazard blasted over from an angle. Higuain was narrowly wide. Emerson and Hudson-Odoi were getting space out on our flanks. Sadly, our Callum was injured just before half-time. Pedro replaced him. He forced a save from Heaton, who had just been booked for time-wasting. Thankfully, Burnley had very few forays into our half.

It was level at the break. It had been, at the start especially, a pretty good performance. But it was all about three points. And I was far from convinced. How “typical Chelsea” for us to balls it all up.

As the second-half began, we saw that Mateo Kovacic had replaced Kante. Our spirits fell a little.

Pedro fed Higuain who forced Heaton to get down quickly. Soon after, Hazard dribbled and set up Kovacic. Here was another shot that worried the spectators behind the goal rather than the Burnley goalkeeper. On the hour, a rasper from Emerson flashed wide of the far post. But our attacking play lacked much cohesiveness. The crowd grew frustrated with our play and also with the deliberate time-wasting and “agricultural” challenges from the away team. All eyes were on Hazard, but his path was often unscrupulously blocked. Space was a premium. As so often happens this season, our opponents were so happy to sit deep and for us to pass ourselves to oblivion. I am not sure about a heat map, but Jorginho was so often involved in the middle of the park that his position was like those tube maps with a “you are here” sign which has been worn out by thousands of grubby fingers. The problem was that there were line closures in all directions, not just the District Line.

“You are advised to seek an alternative route”

But no route was forthcoming. And all the ubers were otherwise engaged.

Burnley’s attacks were still rare. Our attacks dried up too. Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain. Big surprise, eh?

Frustrations grew and grew, it became an ill-tempered game of football. It was hard to believe that Heaton was Burnley’s sole booking. We heard that the manager had been sent to the stands. On the walk back to the car, I tried to be as philosophical as I could.

“Hey, three games left. We’re still in it.”

Our next game, on Sunday afternoon, is at Old Trafford where we play the second-best team in Manchester.

I will see you there.

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 assembling to head up to London 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 A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

It had been a near perfect journey north; light traffic on the motorways, cloudless winter skies, bright sun, and only a couple of stops for breakfast and fuel. Four and a half hours after picking up PD in Frome, and then Parky and Young Jake, we were now located at our usual parking space a mile or so from Old Trafford, outside a small unit which would normally be used to sell tyres. The locals – City fans – took my £10 and guided me back alongside other cars. The car would be safe there. We have used it three or four times now. Fearing the worst – near Baltic conditions were forecast – we fastened buttons on jackets and set off towards Old Trafford. This was Young Jake’s first-ever visit to Manchester United. It would be my twenty-third. In my loose circle of friends who grew up locally to where I live, there are only a few United fans. Yet I am sure that my total of twenty-three visits was considerably more than the three or four United fans could muster between them.

It’s a strange one alright.

For a stadium that holds 75,000 – and is nigh on full to capacity every week, please take note Arsenal – you would think that more of their supporters would actually attend games. I just think that it shows how huge a club Manchester United are. Growing up, working, meeting football fans, meeting people who say they are football fans yet clearly aren’t, it seems that you are never far away from a United supporter. There must be several million United fans in the UK alone. I suppose they can’t all get tickets.

Of course, many never intend doing so, which is another topic completely and which, quite frankly – showing the apathy that would make many United fans proud – I simply can’t be bothered to address.

The twenty-minute walk towards Old Trafford was fine, apart from when we crossed the Chester Road and the wind howled.

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

We were apparently in for a wintry week, which would finish with us playing another game in Manchester, at City’s stadium a few miles further east on the following Sunday. Two supremely tough games indeed. It could turn out to be a very cruel month. Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly.

We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

While the other three went ahead for a pre-match pint inside the away section, I decided to spend thirty minutes or so outside, in front of an old abandoned club shop, and observe.

The famous forecourt sloped down from right to left from Sir Matt Busby Way. I watched the match-going traffic head off to their seats inside. In truth, it was a generally quiet scene. But there was still that great sense of occasion that you get ahead of any important football match. That sense of unquantifiable anticipation – and apprehension for some – with the knowledge that something big, huge, will soon be taking place but a few hundred yards away.

The forecourt. It is the definitive Old Trafford “space.”

In the days of my childhood, and then my youth, before I ever visited Old Trafford, the TV camera crews would always assemble underneath the Munich Clock if there was anything worth reporting at Old Trafford. A Tommy Docherty scandal, or a new signing, the reporter would stand underneath the façade at the eastern end of the stadium, and the image would become locked in my memory bank. On my first visit to Old Trafford – a night game in 1986 – I suspect I only glanced at the Munich Clock as we had arrived late and I am sure I was in a rush to get in. In those days, the forecourt stretched all of the way down towards the corner of the United Road Stand. Since then, the stands have grown exponentially at Old Trafford and the huge megastore now sits on a large portion of the former wide open space.

It was the site of many a battle in the hooligan era. We all remember the scenes from that “ICF” documentary in 1985 when West Ham got rather lippy with some United lads on the forecourt and along the terraced streets nearby. I can remember myself some punches being thrown at a few United versus Chelsea games over the years on this concrete slope. There is an understated commemorative plaque overlooking the remaining forecourt quadrant now, and of course the Munich Clock remains. It is a myth that the clock shows the actual time of the crash; although once a day it does.

I remembered back to our game on a sunny afternoon in late August of 2013 when I spotted Sir Bobby Charlton unobtrusively walking through the forecourt and being thrilled that I was able to shake his hand. That was a great memory for me. One of the better “non-Chelsea” spine-chilling moments of my life. I remember a United supporter waxing lyrical about the importance of the forecourt in the club’s history and how it’s relatively gradual slope tended to resemble the north face of the Eiger after a particularly painful defeat.

There have been additions on three sides at Old Trafford since 1994. And although there are still discussions rumbling on about increasing the capacity of the oldest stand, now named the Bobby Charlton Stand, by building over the railway line behind, I can’t see the capacity increasing in the near future. As I stood for a few final minutes, I realised that the curved quadrant above the away turnstiles at Old Trafford is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium still intact. Those red bricks could tell a few stories I am sure. Underneath, there is a permanently shuttered serving hatch, which may well have sold scarves, hats and favours in the past. How quaint. The megastore now takes care of all that.

One sallow youth wearing a lopsided beanie hat managed to get a few Manchester United fans, and then Chelsea fans, to squeak and yelp into his handheld camera. I inwardly tut-tutted. But he had something special for me. A few minutes later, a United fan in a black away shirt and a Chelsea fan in a blue home shirt – probably friends, possibly even brothers – and each with a half-and-half scarf, both posed and yelled at the camera.

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

Oh well, there have always been dickheads who go to football.

I began chatting to a bloke from Madrid, who was taking some crowd shots – some mood shots as I call them – with a couple of cameras. I wanted to warn him that bags, and cameras, would need to be checked before entering the game. But he had no match ticket, he was simply drawn to the game, to the stadium, to capture the pre-match buzz. He was a Real Madrid fan, and we joked about the upcoming Barcelona versus Chelsea game. As my normal camera was abandoned at home, I made sure that I took a few basic shots of the stadium using my mobile phone, focussing on large blocks of colour rather than the up-close and personal details of match action that I usually capture.

Old Trafford is a very photogenic stadium, if you know where to point.

Inside and up the steps and I immediately bumped into the lads; Young Jake, Lord Parky, PD were chatting to John, Alan and Gary. Alan had left his house at 4am that morning and would not be home again until the small hours. We had passed two of the three Chelsea coaches on the M6 at around Stafford earlier. It is the knowledge that loyal supporters like Alan, Gary and John – and hundreds more – make these horrendous journeys for our away games up North each season that fires a lot of my rude responses to many knob head Chelsea fans around the world who mope and moan at the slightest dip in form.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions blah blah blah” – yes, and many of them strike me as being fucking worthless.

There was quiet optimism among our little group. Personally, I predicted a 0-0 draw.

I ascended the final few steps of the day, and gulped in a breath of expectation.

This stadium had provided me with some fantastical memories over the years. Let’s hope for one more.

James and “Sit Down” was on the tannoy. How apt.

We had great seats, row eight, right on the curve behind the corner flag. The stadium took a while to fill. With fifteen minutes remaining, I went down to the concourse to turn my bike around before kick-off, and fortunately just missed “ten men went to mow” and beer being thrown over everyone.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

The manager had chosen to go back to a 3-4-3 with Alvaro Morata given the nod. I had wondered if Fabregas would be dropped in favour of Danny Drinkwater; he was.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in a vain attempt to engender any sort of atmosphere, the United DJ played “Dirty Old Town” and then a newer version – with a female vocalist – of “Take Me Home.”

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

Chelsea soon responded with a few loud salvos of our own.

It was the first pre-match sing-song of the day and it was almost kick-off.

Bloody hell. In days gone by – “here he goes again” – the singing before the game was an expected appetiser ahead of the match. It set the mood. It got us all ready.

I remembered back to the days when we used to be given that slim little paddock behind the goal. It is where I stood, crammed in with thousands of others like bloody sardines, for my first three games at Old Trafford in 1985/1986, 1986/1987 and 1987/1988. In those days, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise. The lads in the seats behind us used to stand and bellow out “United, United, United, United” as if their lives depended on it. It was a spine-chilling sound, even more so when there used to be tales of pool balls being launched from the seats behind us into that small away paddock.

These two grainy photos are from the September 1987 fixture when we sadly lost our first league game at OT in ages; we always had a fantastic record up there. We had gone unbeaten in thirteen league visits to Old Trafford since 1965/1966. My very first two visits to United’s home resulted in two back-to-back wins within five months in 1986. What a fantastic couple of matches; King Kerry with all three goals and Tony Godden with two penalty saves.

Of course the view was crap; but as an away fan we knew no different.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner. I was waiting for the noise to snap, crackle and pop.

It never really did.

The self-generated atmosphere at Old Trafford back in those early visits sizzled like a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.

In 2018, it was eerily similar to the ambiance of a mid-‘seventies Berni Inn; softened muzak, embarrassed silences and prawn cocktails.

Despite the cold gusts of arctic air outside, the temperature inside was fine. Not a cloud could be seen above. There were good vibes in the away end. I still fancied a draw. Tottenham were still drawing at Crystal Palace.

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

Soon after, with only two minutes played, Toni Rudiger ran and ran from the Chelsea half – “keep goin’ Rudi”- to deep inside the United half. It was a barnstorming run, which summed up our early dominance, and free-flowing football. The away fans certainly sensed that we were on top.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Right after, a sublime move allowed the ball to be played out wide to Marcos Alonso, who volleyed a cross at waist height towards Alvaro Morata. The ball crashed onto the cross bar. It was a stunning start to the game from us and set the tone for the first-half.

Without wishing to over-exaggerate, it felt like it was all Chelsea.

Time after time we played a long diagonal over to Victor Moses, who seemed to be United’s forgotten man, he was in so much space. Once or twice, he played the ball in, but far too often there was the trademark extra touch, or – even more frustrating – the desire to beat the same man twice. Throughout that first-half, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante stifled many a United attack. Eden Hazard and Willian hopped, skipped and jumped away from tackles; they were the stars alright.

The atmosphere from the home areas inside Old Trafford was virtually non-existent. Even I was shocked.

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

“Your city is blue. Your city is Blue. Just like London your city is blue.”

(I wonder if we will be quite so magnanimous next Sunday…)

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the United lot, whose only song was aimed at Merseyside.

We continued to find space between the lines. United were clearly second best.

However, a half chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, usually so prolific inside the box, so we were all relieved when his shot was easily gathered by Thibaut. It had been United’s first real effort on goal. Not long after, just after the half-hour mark, the twin threats of Willian and Hazard combined magnificently. Willian, his toes twinkling, ran with the ball from inside our box and the space opened up in front of him. He pushed the ball on to Hazard, who continued the move, and spotted the Brazilian’s “underlap” and returned a perfect pass into space. The whole away end lent forward. This smelled like a goal. After one touch, Willian smashed it past De Gea.

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

I saw Calvin race down to the front of the aisle and – in a scene which reminded me of a late winner against Tottenham – I joined him. The away end was on fire. I overlooked the balcony wall at the bottom of our section and punched the air.

FUCKING YES.

It was certainly deserved. The Chelsea support had been providing constant noise during the entire match, but the noise levels increased again. My college pal Rick – a season ticket holder in the back row of J Stand, at the other corner of our end –  always rates our away support at Old Trafford. He has told me that we are consistently in the top three or four. I wondered how he was rating the noise in this game. I was certainly proud of our racket. Of course it helps that the team was playing well – “helping each other” – but I always think we should be making tons of noise regardless of how well the team are performing on the pitch.

I grew nervous when some supporters started singing “Jose, what’s the score?”

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

Inexplicably, and against the run of play, United countered and the large and looming presence of Romelu Lukaku held up the ball in a central position. The ball was pushed back to a waiting United player. Despite a great deal of congestion in our box, Martial found Lukaku, who did well to steer the ball past Courtois.

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

Lukaka, the big Belgian lump, took great pleasure in crossing his arms in front of his chest and sneering at the three thousand away fans.

“Noted.”

We broke again, but the entire end was left fuming as Eden raced into the box but bizarrely opted not to shoot. The moment was gone. The ball broke to Alonso, but his rushed shot cleared the bar. It is one aspect of his play that is lacking.

As one or two Americans are prone to exclaim : “He needs to shoot the ball.”

Shoot. Shoot will do. We all know there is a ball involved.

So, all square at half-time. I reviewed our players’ performances in that first forty-five minutes. All came out positively apart from that man Moses, who so infuriates, and Morata, who was largely quiet, and relatively uninvolved. I had kept looking over at Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, both dressed in black, as the first-half developed. For some reason, maybe an air of inevitability, I have been a Chelsea fan for too bloody long, I sensed that although United had been lucky to escape with just one goal conceded, Mourinho just might have the last laugh.

The second-half began. As always, United attacked the Stretford End.

Mourinho’s men were certainly more involved, but we kept pressing and probing. Another fine run from Willian set up Morata in the inside-left channel, but rather than hit a first-time effort, decided to turn back on himself and shoot meekly at De Gea. A few Chelsea attacks tended to peter out rather lamely, and United were now the dominant force. They are such a big and physical team. Pogba, Matic and Lukaku suddenly seemed to grow an extra few inches. On the hour, De Gea fumbled a long shot from Drinkwater and Alonso, busting a gut, could not reach the loose ball. Our chances were becoming rarer and rarer.

Lukaku dramatically attempted a spectacular overhead kick but Courtois did well to finger-tip it over.

The home crowd were uttering the occasional song of support, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly quiet.

A Willian free-kick, way out wide, caught us all unawares as he chose to target De Gea’s near post. Although De Gea was well positioned to gather it, the low trajectory surprised him and the ball bobbled on the line before he finally grabbed hold.

These were crumbs of comfort as United, I sensed, were gathering momentum.

To our surprise, Conte decided to take off Eden. He was replaced by Pedro. I watched for a handshake. There was one, though only just.

A popular view was this :

“Fackinell Conte, are you fackin’ sure? Eden is our best player, our match winner. Why take him off? Why not take that useless facker Morata off?”

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

Morata had disappeared, really, as the second half continued. I lost count of the amount of times that he went down too easily, holding some sacred body part, eyes glaring at the referee.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Lukaku controlled the ball and sent over a perfect cross for the substitute Lingard to head home. There seemed to be no challenge, nobody close.

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

Conte replaced Moses with Olivier Giroud. I presumed that Pedro would revert to right wing-back, but here was an odd line-up for sure. We were playing with two lanky centre-forwards…on the pitch…at the same time…bloody hell. Just after, Cesc Fabregas replaced Danny Drinkwater.

The personnel change and the shape change can be discussed from here to eternity, or at least until next Sunday, but there is no doubt that the new mix of players looked ill at ease with each other. On more than one occasion, with the ball out wide, we chose to play to feet in front of the box, rather than hit high balls in for Morata and Giroud. But we kept attacking, we kept trying. A linesman on our side of the pitch was quick to flag when Alvaro Morata drifted into a slightly offside position. His effort on goal was hardly applauded since we all saw the flag early.

In the last moments, at a corner, deep in to five minutes of extra-time, Thibaut Courtois raced up field to try to put pressure on the United goal. It amounted to nothing. The ball was cleared.

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

I had to think. What offside? Oh, the Morata one? Blimey. That was a surprise. Looked it to me.

Outside, we walked up the north face of the Eigur and the United faithful were goading us with songs about “that big Russian Crook.” On the walk back to the car, we dissected the game. In my mind – call me biased –  I thought we had deserved a point, no doubt.

Once inside the car, I turned the radio on. Like a voice from the grave, someone spoke about Tottenham getting a late winner at Crystal Palace.

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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Tales From The Working Week : Monday

Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough : 8 May 2017.

Our last five league games of this wonderful season were to take place on two Sundays, two Mondays and a Friday. We would be whores to the TV money yet again. But I hoped that this odd pattern would not disrupt us on our stride towards the title, which seemed a lot more attainable after West Ham’s surprising win at home to Tottenham on Friday.

It left us requiring two wins from our remaining four league games to ensure our sixth league championship.

The first of these games was against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough on the Monday, followed by a game at West Brom on the Friday. These were two monumental bookends to a potentially fantastic five days.

In my comments about Chelsea, I often use the phrase “let’s go to work” to convey a sense of duty to the common good. There is inevitably a back story to this. When I was even more in love with Italy than I am now – if it is possible – I remember seeing a travel programme in 1988 called “Rough Guide” detailing the industrial and commercial stronghold of Milan. There was talk of the “rampanti” – the young and feverish young businessmen, intoxicated by business but also consumed by Italian style. They were the Italian equivalent of “yuppies” (remember them?) I guess.

As one of the presenters said : “The protestant work ethic has gone crazy in Catholic Italy.”

Around the same time, I vividly remember reading a guide to the same city that mentioned that instead of wishing each other “good morning” or “good day”, the business folk of Milan would often utter the Italian equivalent of “let’s go to work” and it immediately struck a chord.

And I am sure that Antonio Conte would approve. And so this would be a working week like no other. From Monday to Friday, Chelsea Football Club would be focused. At the weekend, following the game at The Hawthorns, there might be a chance to relax.

My working week began with Wembley on my mind. My main task on the day of the Middlesbrough game was to purchase Cup Final tickets. I was so absorbed on this objective that I completely forgot to pack my camera for the game later that evening. I would have to make do with my mobile phone. A lack of focus such as this would have been frowned upon by Antonio, no doubt. It is a good job that he is not my boss.

By the way, who thought that in this match report about our game with Middlesbrough – a win and we would consign them to the Championship – that my first comments about 1988 would be concerning Italian yuppies?

1988.

Let me explain, if it needs to be explained.

We began 1987/88 in good form but after Christmas we fell drastically down the league. Under manager John Hollins, things went from bad to worse. Chairman Ken Bates replaced Hollins with Bobby Campbell for the last month or so of the season. At the time, the First Division was being trimmed from twenty-two teams to twenty teams over two seasons. Additionally, it was the second year of the Football League play-offs, which featured teams from the top two divisions playing off over two legs. Chelsea finished fourth from bottom of the First Division in 1987/88 and met Blackburn Rovers in the first round of the play-offs. They were easily dispatched. In the final, we met Middlesbrough, who had beaten Bradford City in their first round. At Ayresome Park, we lost 2-0. In the return leg, I fancied our chances to over-turn this. Our team contained some half-decent players such as Steve Clarke, John Bumstead, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gordon Durie and Tony Dorigo. On paper we were no mugs.

In late May 1988 – a fortnight after the Cup Final, virtually the last game of the season – over 40,000 assembled at Stamford Bridge on a bright and sunny afternoon to see if Chelsea could claw back the two goals. I watched, alongside Alan – just like in 2017 – as Gordon Durie guided the ball in after only a quarter of an hour. The noise was deafening. We were watching from the back row of the benches, willing the team on, kicking every ball, heading every clearance. I can remember that such was the appetite to see this game that The Shed was packed early on. Shamefully, the club decided to open up a section of The Shed terrace that had been closed under the safety of sports grounds act for years and years. My photograph of The Shed from the day shows the ridiculous density of people in the rear portions of The Shed and also the overflow, standing on a terrace that should not have been used.

The club had decided to do this for the league game with Charlton Athletic a month or so earlier too. My dear parents, as late arrivals, watched that game from that section of The Shed, sitting on a terrace that had not been used since around 1979.

Remember this was a year before Hillsborough. Not only Sheffield Wednesday snubbed ground regulations in those days.

On that day in May 1988, we tried and tried but could not break Middlesbrough down despite having tons of possession. Their side, containing Gary Pallister and Tony Mowbray at the heart of their defence, rode their luck and held on. They were followed by around 7,000 away fans who were packed into the sweeping north terrace to my left.

At the end of the game, and with Chelsea relegated to the Second Division for the third time of my life, we did not take defeat well.

At the final whistle, hundreds of Chelsea fans scaled the fences at The Shed and raced on to the pitch, and ran at the away fans. I remember some stewards opened up some exit gates at The Shed. Of course, only a very small percentage of our fans bothered to trespass on to the pitch. Most were in a state of shock at our demise. Most just looked-on aghast. I remember feeling a mixture of emotions. I was just so sad that we were relegated. There was no desire for me to get on to the pitch. I dare say that a lot of this was bravado and posturing by the Chelsea fans, rather than a desire to go toe-to-toe with ‘Boro, who were, of course, unreachable, penned in by themselves.

This was immediately before the UK’s 1988 Summer of Love when a fair proportion of old school hooligans throughout the UK found dance music and ecstasy and gradually turned away from knocking lumps out of each other for a while. This was an era of jeans, trainers, Rockport boots, Timberland shoes, England “Invasion of Germany 1988” T-shirts, denim button-down shirts, jade away shirts, and a subtle selection of new casual brands such as Marc O’Polo, Chevignon and Chipie. This was pre rave, pre Smiley-face, pre acid-house, and at times all very grotesque.

“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose” was about right.

So – relegation. What a bitter pill to swallow. In 2017, we have thoughts of The Double. In 1988, there was only double-denim.

Outside, as I marched dejectedly down the Fulham Road, the venom from the waiting Chelsea fans outside the away end was palpable. There would be running battles for hours after. By which time, I had returned to Paddington for the train home, feeling totally depressed. We had become – and remain – the only team to finish fourth from bottom of the top division and still be relegated.

One wonders how millions of modern day Chelsea fans would cope with all that.

In Germany, a few weeks later, England were humiliated in the European Championships and there was mayhem as the English hooligans fought the locals and opposing fans alike. At the start of the 1988/89 season, Chelsea were forced to play our first six home games with no spectators allowed in The Shed nor North Stand.

They were pretty bleak times.

Oh, and worst of all, we sold Pat Nevin to Everton in the summer too.

I think it is fair to say, from a football perspective, 1988 was the worst summer of my life.

Fast forward to May 2017 and we live in a different universe.

Outside the stadium, I had bumped into my pal Jason from Texas – over for one game only – and we headed over to The Chelsea Pensioner to meet up with Kathryn and Tim from Virginia, themselves over for one game only. We skipped past a twenty-five strong bunch of Chelsea fans, all scarves and replica shirts, from Poland. In The Butcher’s Hook, the mood was of quiet confidence, though if I am honest, I was still a little nervous. We heard that N’Golo Kante was not playing, nor even on the bench.

I joked that we would win 1-0.

Scorer : Kante.

What a superhuman season he has had.

Unlike in 1988, ‘Boro had only brought 1,500 fans, and one flag. Very poor.

I was hoping for a red hot atmosphere from the very start, or from even before the start. I was a little dismayed, but not at all surprised, that the noise levels were not as tumultuous as I had hoped as the game kicked-off.

There was an early foray into our half by Middlesbrough, but our first real attack was a joy to watch. We moved the ball quickly and purposefully from centre to right to left and Marcos Alonso crashed a volley towards goal, only for us to gasp as the ball was deflected by Brad Guzan on to the bar

In the early stages, ‘Boro looked to release their right winger Adama Traore as often as possible. He looked a bit useful. Alan said that he was reminded of Forest’s Franz Carr – ugh, a 6-2 loss at home in 1986, Jon Millar still has nightmares.

I noted that Middlesbrough’s awful shirt ideally represents their gradual decline this season; that ridiculous white diagonal goes from sixteenth place to nineteenth place.

Slowly, the noise picked up.

Chelsea : “We’re top of the league.”

‘Boro : “We’re going down.”

Chelsea (missing the joke ) : “You’re going down.”

Alonso was finding tons of space out on our left. Sadly, a second effort did not trouble Guzan. Pedro was everywhere, picking up the loose ball, passing it on, involved. He may not be our most influential nor best player this season, but he surely embodies the Conte work ethic like no other. Cesc Fabregas, heavily involved, was stroking the ball around majestically. Eden Hazard set Fabregas up, but his low shot was well off target.

The same player then set up Diego Costa, but his teasing and tantalising cross just evaded the lunge from Diego. In The Sleepy Hollow, I turned and demanded answers from my fellow fans :

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

A lovely long ball, across the box, from Fabregas found Diego Costa, who steadied himself and stroked the ball home.

There was the opening goal. Get in you bastard.

Vic Reeves : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Bob Mortimer : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The crowd was in the game now. A medley of songs rang around the stadium.

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re coming for you.”

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re waiting for you.”

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re laughing at you.”

Another goal quickly followed. Dave looped another long ball over the heads of everyone and picked out Alonso. Stretching at the bye-line, he did well to connect at all. Imagine our joy, and relief of course, when we saw the net ripple.

We were 2-0 to the good. Fackinell.

“Another goal now Alan, and we could score a hat-full.”

Efforts from Moses – running into space on the right – went close and that man Alonso curled a free-kick just over. We were well on top.

All of that pre-match worry seemed ill-placed. It had been a lovely half of football.

Soon into the second period, we went close again, with the effervescent Pedro lashing a ball against the top of the bar from twenty yards. Alonso’s shot was almost touched in by Diego. The look on our forward’s face was of pure agony. Gary Cahill was next to test Guzan, shooting with power from thirty yards. It seemed everyone wanted a touch of the ball. How different to last season. Man of the moment Fabregas touched a shot wide. Amongst all this, Eden Hazard was having a relatively quiet game, save for a mesmerizing spin away from a marker and a strong run, which was typically ended by a clumsy challenge. Hazard, of course, is heavily marked these days, but other players are primed to intelligently exploit the space he leaves elsewhere.

With twenty minutes of the game remaining, another lovely move ended up with Fabregas clipping a delightful ball towards Nemanja Matic. He chested it down and smashed it home.

Three-naught. Get fucking in.

The crowd sang “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in.

Hazard was substituted by Willian (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.)

Pedro fired over. Moses went close.

I turned to Alan : “It could have been seven, tonight.”

David Luiz raced up field and clearly wanted to score. It was one of those nights. This was a very mature performance from Chelsea. We looked at ease in our own skin, at ease with each other. There had been a couple of silly defensive errors in the first-half from Cahill and Luiz but they soon redeemed themselves. ‘Boro’s infamously goal-shy attack did not get a sniff.

Some of the away fans could be heard singing a song of never-ending support. A few Chelsea around me clapped, but were soon dwarfed by louder shouts of disdain. We had revenged 1988 but in truth our Wembley victories in 1997 and 1998 had sorted that out years ago.

Nathaniel Chalobah replaced Pedro and, to a hero’s welcome, David Luiz was replaced by none other than John Terry (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.) Every one of JT’s three or four touches were warmly applauded. I was pleased that a gaggle of pals from the US had seen the captain play, albeit for only a few easy moments. Everywhere we purred, none more so than Alonso, Pedro and Cesc.

Alan : “That young lad Kante will struggle to get back in for Friday.”

In the end, it was a cake-walk. A walk in the park. A piece of cake.

I commented to Alan that it seemed so strange that our humiliation of Tottenham last season – that goal, that game – has been mirrored, although on a far grander scale, throughout the past few weeks of this season.

“It is almost as if last May was a dummy run for this May. Bloody love it.”

There was a gorgeous and joyous atmosphere as we walked down the Fulham Road. There were hugs and handshakes with a few good friends. That horrific walk from 1988 could not have been more different.

One game to go, Chelsea, one game to go.

Is it Friday yet?

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Tales From New Year’s Day

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2015.

A game on New Year’s Day is a rather rare event for me. An away game on New Year’s Day is even rarer. In all of my one thousand-and-counting Chelsea games, ahead of the game in darkest  North London, I have only ever attended one other such game; last year at Southampton.  This figure surprised me. Why have I not attended more? Maybe there simply haven’t been too many more. Additionally, in years past I guess that I was unable to attend due to reasons of geography and financial constraints.

A match which never was sticks in my mind, and which would have been my first-ever away game on the first day of the year, was our game at Upton Park in 1986. I had attended the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Trafalgar Square – on one of the last occasions when you could take alcohol along, what a laugh – and was staying, as fate would have it, at a college mate’s digs in Tottenham. Feeling rather delicate, I ventured by tube to our game at West Ham (inevitably I think it was an 11am kick-off), but with a few underground stops to go, I heard – somehow – that the game had been postponed due to a hard pitch. I returned crestfallen back to North London. If only there were mobile phones in 1986; my mate Alan diverted, along with a hundred more Chelsea, to Highbury for the Arsenal vs. Tottenham derby. According to Alan, in a story that he has joyously recounted on many occasions, everyone split up while entering the Clock End, but then gathered together amid the away contingent. A loud “Chelsea” sent the Spurs fans scarpering. The Chelsea fans then had their own little section, cordoned-off by police, to enable them to watch the game.

Thinking back… Arsenal vs. Spurs and West Ham vs. Chelsea on the same day.

Shudder.

So, after this rather disappointing turn of events, I had to wait twenty-nine years for my first-ever London away game on New Year’s Day.

I drove up with Parky. It was a miserable grey day outside, but there was a noticeable buzz as we headed east. There were plans for him to connect with a ticket during the day; he had missed out, again, on an away ticket, but we had hopes for a positive conclusion. He had also missed out on a Swansea away ticket under excruciating circumstances.

He had entered the Chelsea website page at 7.02am, had the ticket in his “basket” yet there was an error which asked him to reconfirm his postcode. By the time he had re-entered the info, the away allocation for the game had sold out. How infuriating. He ‘phoned the club, but was met with empty platitudes.

What a load of bollocks.

So – if anyone has a spare for Swansea.

At just before 2.30pm, we strolled in to The Courtfield, an old-fashioned boozer, opposite Earl’s Court tube station where we met Mike from NYC and his family. The Courtfield seems to be where many away fans now “mob up” before games at The Bridge. A pint there, we then headed into town. With an hour to kill, I fancied visiting an old haunt, The Round Table, between Leicester Square and Covent Garden. After games in the 1988-1989 season, I often used to meet up with some non-Chelsea college mates in this snug little pub for some post-game revelry. It is where I celebrated our promotion after beating Leeds United in April 1989 with a few mates.

A couple of pints of Staropramen went down well and I was reveling in being able to do something different on a Chelsea match day. We spoke about a few games at White Hart Lane. Mike, Parky and I all went to the 1987 game and we spoke about our own memories of that match. We had begun the season with two straight wins and we took 10,000 to Tottenham that afternoon. It was a fantastic show of strength. Mike had not seen us play since 1981, having lived in the US in that time, and remembered being dumbfounded at the sight of policeman searching hardened Chelsea types for celery.

We laughed.

“Ah yes, celery…bet that was an odd thing to see. Ten thousand there, they kept opening new pens under The Shelf. Nico Bloody Claesen.”

Mike was now with his two young boys, Mikey and Matthew, having said “goodbye” to his wife at Earl’s Court. This would be the boys’first visit to Tottenham. At 4.15pm, we set off for Liverpool Street. At Holborn we passed twenty chaps on a platform as we changed trains. They chanted;

“We are Chelsea. We caught the wrong train.”

At Liverpool Street, we caught an over-ground train to White Hart Lane. A text came through to say that Frank Lampard had scored a winner for City.

Ugh.

Time was now pressing on. We rolled in to the station at 5.10pm. After a five minute yomp, we arrived outside the away turnstiles. A mob of Chelsea squeezed past a police escort. Sirens were wailing. Scuffles were heard, and then witnessed. The atmosphere was tense. Still no ticket for Parky. I bumped in to a few mates. Tottenham fans sauntered past.

“Yidarmeeeee.”

Whatever.

It was 5.25pm.

Time to go in.

“Parky – see you back at Earl’s Court.”

There was a quick discussion by stewards about my camera.

“That should be handed in.”

“I’ve ran out of tags.”

Result.

Rush, rush, rush.

Up those damned stairs.

Bumped in to Joe from Chicago.

“Hello Chris.”

Familiar faces everywhere I looked.

I just missed kick-off, but by only a minute at the most.

We began well enough and I honestly thought that we dominated the first half-an hour. And the Chelsea crowd, bolstered by copious amounts of Carling, Fosters, Guinness, Stella, Fullers, Peroni, Carlsberg, San Miguel, Kronenburg, Staropramen, Becks, Amstel and Grolsch were in fine form.

A lively opening period saw chances for both teams but we took a deserved lead after around a quarter of an hour. A Tottenham corner was superbly claimed by Courtois, who then released the ball early. Eden Hazard attacked down the right. He twisted and turned deep inside the box before shooting low. The shot rebounded off the base of the far post straight towards Oscar. His shot was turned in from very close range by Diego Costa.

We erupted.

Diego Costa reeled away in front of the home support in the Paxton Road.

Get in.

We enjoyed a lovely spell and had Spurs on the ropes. Their support quietened, while ours remained strong. An appeal for a handball on Vertonghen in the Spurs box was waved away. Oscar rolled a ball wide.

Then, out of nothing, Harry Kane worked an opening for himself and skipped past a few unconvincing challenges. His low shot swept past Courtois.

We were dumbfounded.

1-1.

We tried to attack as we had been doing for the previous thirty minutes, but Tottenham suddenly found extra drive. Then, calamity. Two goals in the last two minutes of the half changed the game and we were left to scratch our heads at the break. Eriksen played in Chadli down below us and his low shot evaded Courtois. The ball slammed the far post, but Rose was on hand to score, with at least two Chelsea defenders ending up on the floor, embarrassed, in his wake.

Then a rash challenge by Gary Cahill on Kane left referee Dowd with no option but to signal a penalty. Townsend despatched it.

We were 3-1 down.

At Tottenham.

Happy New Year.

(Outside, in a parallel universe, Parky was told to move on. He popped into “The Corner Pin” and there were a few Chelsea present. They then made their way back to the station. Parky was enamoured with the rich display of fauna and flora on display in this delightful suburb of London, to say nothing of the varied nature of the area’s exemplary architecture. He met many interesting locals, who were simply enchanted that he was among a band of visiting Chelsea fans. Sad to leave this welcoming part of London’s cityscape, Parky reluctantly headed back in to town.)

The fact that we had dominated most of the first-period and yet found ourselves behind caused much comment at the break.

“We just need to be more clinical. The second goal is always a damned struggle at so many away games. Every team, playing at home, regardless of who they are, will get a ten minute spell. They will always get a chance. We need to kill teams off.”

Mourinho replaced the quiet Oscar with Ramires, pushing Fabregas further up-field.

We got behind the team from the first minute of the second-half and hoped for better things. Ramires was involved in a move which resulted, sadly, in a wild finish from Hazard. After only six minutes of play in the second-half, our night caved in. Chadli pushed the ball in to that man Kane, who struck another low shot past Courtois. I was right in line with the path of the ball.

Hate it when that happens.

4-1.

A fair few Chelsea left at this stage. This match report is not dedicated to them.

Tottenham now appeared stronger and leaner and I had visions of more goals. To be fair, we kept plugging away and I roared when Hazard played a fine one-two with Fabregas before slamming past Loris.

“COME ON.”

I had visions of another 4-4, like in 2008.

Robbie Bloody Keane.

We fancied Drogba, or Remy, to partner Diego Costa, so it was with surprise when we saw the manager replace the poor Willian with Salah. This seemed very odd. However, we kept going. Sadly many Chelsea fans continued an exodus. We came close. I didn’t give up hope. I urged the team on.

“One more goal boys.”

Sadly the next goal, eerily similar to their previous goal, went to the home team on a rare attack. Another low shot past Thibaut, another one in at the far post, another one that I saw all the way.

5-2.

More fans departed.

Un-Chelsea.

We still pushed on, with more efforts on their goal. We surely out-shot them throughout the night. It was our fragility at the back, unheard of in previous Mourinho campaigns, which allowed us to buckle.

It was a rotten night.

A John Terry goal, to make 5-3, was hardly celebrated.

Ugh.

It was a horrible walk back to the station. On the waiting train, there was a silent “thumbs up – you alright?” to a Chelsea friend. The Spurs fans were ecstatic.

Annoyingly, a Tottenham fan played a Cup Final song from 1982 on his phone.

Bloody Chas And Bloody Dave.

I overheard the same fan then have a conversation with his mate; he wasn’t sure who his team were playing in the FA Cup, just days away.

Fackinell.

Back at Earl’s Court, I arrived at “Salvo’s” mere twenty seconds after Parky. In times of pain, there is always pizza. Mike and the boys arrived, annoyed with our performance, but equally fed up with the fans who had vacated the away end before the final whistle. The two boys were equally excited about a London derby and dismayed by a loss. I became suddenly sanguine and philosophical –

“We win together. We lose together.”

I was most heartened to hear Mikey repeat this back to me on two separate occasions, smiling, as if he had been taught a meaningful lesson. It made me happy.

We said our farewells.

At 10pm, we headed home.

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Tales From The 5,500

Derby County vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2014.

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

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

2007 Manchester United.

2009 Everton

2010 Portsmouth

2012 Liverpool

Four out of four.

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

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

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

It was a different world.

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

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

A different world indeed.

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

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

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

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

Happy Chelsea fans, fed-up Derby fans.

They hate Forest.

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

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

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

Anyway, with minutes remaining, I was in.

“Stoke at home in the next round.”

“How boring!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Show us the black and white.”

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

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

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

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

The skies were grey and the rain still fell.

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

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

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

We were laughing along at that.

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

“Sing something simple, you simple TWATS.”

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

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

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

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

I had visions of Brian Clough turning in his grave.

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

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

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

I silently groaned.

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

“Get that camera off me, you bugger.”

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

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

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

Yes, Mikel had scored again.

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

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

Then, a massive disappointment.

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

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

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

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

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

2-0, that’ll do, happy days.

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

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

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

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

It had been a good day.

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Tales From The Match

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2013.

There was every reason to suggest that the trip to Old Trafford for our F.A.Cup quarter final with Manchester United would be a tough one. Our season seems to have taken a downward trajectory in recent weeks, culminating in that dire ninety minutes in Bucharest, one of the worst Chelsea performances in living memory. One phrase kept resonating in my mind on Sunday morning.

I was travelling in blind faith.

I’d try to make the most of the day – of course I would – and I already had a visit to the Lowry Art Gallery planned to take place before the match, but there were negative vibes running through to my core. I chose a black Henri Lloyd polo to wear to the game and I did wonder if it might be an ominous sign for the day ahead.

The man in black.

Gulp.

This would be my seventeenth visit to Old Trafford to watch the boys play Manchester United. I have only visited Anfield – eighteen – on more occasions. Of course, there have been good and bad memories. There were two previous F.A. Cup games that I had attended; in 1988 and in 1999. In truth, we have only been totally outclassed on a few of those seventeen occasions. Who remembers the surreal atmosphere and the false dawn last season under Andre Villas-Boas? We lost 3-1 but left the stadium singing “we’re gonna win the league” – and meaning it. Of course, there was a Torres goal, but also the career-defining Torres miss, too, both in front of the Stretford End. Somehow the Rooney penalty fluff seems to have been forgotten. Such is life.

I left home in Somerset at 9.45am. This was yet another solo away trip, this one. Not to worry. Music was soon blaring – Robin Guthrie, then Depeche Mode – as I drove north and onto the motorway network. It was mightily cold outside, but at least the grey skies were not issuing forth some of Manchester’s finest rain. No doubt that would come later.

I texted Alan – due to set off from Chelsea on one of the club coaches – to tell him that I was now “on the road.”

“Spring-Heeled Jack Kerouac.”

He soon replied “Ian Dury.”

As I headed north, I tried not to ruminate too much about the game. However, one topic kept dominating my thoughts. Ron Gourlay had recently reconfirmed the club’s priorities for the rest of the season; that of securing a Champions League place rather than silverware. Now, I’m no fool, and I understand the pure economic reasons behind that thought process. His view has probably placated some of our fans. But what a sad indictment on the modern game that my beloved Chelsea Football Club would put finishing fourth higher than winning the F.A. Cup.

“If that is the case, Ron…why the hell am I bothering with this eight hour return trip to Manchester?”

At just after 10.30am, I received a text from Californian Andy Wray, evidently over for the game.

“Kerouac.”

I had seen on “Facebook” that he was meeting up with Cathy and was travelling up by train. It would be his first-ever match at Old Trafford.

Then, an hour later, I received the exact same text. This time it was from Burger, the transplanted Canadian, and now living in Stafford.

“Kerouac.”

At 11.45am, I spotted the first United coach – from Devon, I believe – as I drove past West Bromwich.

Just after, I again texted Alan to let him know my progress.

“Five Goal Gordon.”

On the CD, Depeche Mode sang about a “Black Day.” In my mind, things were starting to take shape. A theme was definitely starting to evolve here. Would the day be black or would it be white? To be truthful, I expected a black thumping. The chances of the opposite seemed desperately remote. When snow started to fall, fleetingly, at around Stoke, the white flakes brought a smile to my face.

I changed the music and chose The Stranglers.

The men in black.

This was a proper black and white day. At that exact moment, I glanced to my right and spotted a herd of black and white Friesian cattle. Around thirty minutes earlier, I had spotted a large flock of both black and white birds suddenly take off from a field adjacent to the M6. This seemed an odd occurrence to me.

Yep – black and white…the theme for the day.

As I headed north through Staffordshire, there were the first few spots of rain. And then I saw some snow on the highest parts of the Peak District to my east. However, I was making good time and – I’ll be honest – I was in my element.

“What else ya gonna do on a Sunday?”

I’m rather familiar with the sights of Manchester now. It was, after all, only two weeks since that dire trip to Eastlands. Away in the distance, in the city centre, I spotted the tall hotel where Real Madrid had recently stayed. Further beyond, the desolate moors. More snow.

At 1.15am, I had parked-up, just three-and-a-half hours after leaving home. This was probably a personal best for Old Trafford. But my goodness, the wind was bitterly cold. I briskly walked through Gorse Park, with the European-style floodlight pylons of the Lancashire cricket ground to my right and the local council office block where Morrissey worked in his first ever job to my left.

Welcome to Manchest’oh. The home of Unih’ed.

Outside the stadium, the “half-and-half scarves” sellers were busy, as were the lads selling the two main United fanzines (“United We Stand” and “Red Issue”). Not many Chelsea were on the forecourt. I had a look around. The Munich memorial always looks classy. Without further ado, I headed north and soon found myself at the Salford Quays. Originally, this busy inland dock area allowed the products of the world’s first industrialised city to be transported west on the Manchester Ship Canal and out into the Irish Sea and beyond. The deep-seated rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester was, if not initiated, deepened by the building of this canal by Manchester’s entrepreneurs, who were unwilling to pay the expensive dock fees at Liverpool. The area has been revitalised in recent years, with the BBC having moved many of their staff north from the TV centre in London to the Media City complex at Salford Quays. In addition to waterside apartments, there is the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry Art Gallery on either side of one of the widest channels.

I visited the Lowry once before, on the day that Avram Grant made his bow as Chelsea boss, and I could hardly believe that it was over five years ago. As I walked over the gently swaying footbridge, the wind was bitter as it came off the choppy waters of the former docks. Away to my right, the hulking structure of Old Trafford dominated the view.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a quarter inside The Lowry. I made a confession to the rosy-faced chap on the information desk.

“I’m a Chelsea fan and I’m here just to take my mind off the game.”

He smiled and replied “oh, I’ll be a fan for you today.”

“Are you City? Ah,good man.”

What is it that they say about your enemy’s enemy being your friend?

L.S. Lowry was one of England’s most revered painters of the twentieth century, with his heavily stylised images of urban life in the industrialised centres of northern England. A short twenty minute film, including black and white film of him at work, was utterly fascinating. It was wonderful to hear his voice, too, matter-of-factly explaining how he went about his daily painting routine. He seemed a very complex character. A loner. Possibly autistic. In love with his work.

I then spent a while viewing a selection of his work in four or five rooms. His home in Pendlebury – in Salford, no more than a couple of miles to the north – afforded him easy access to the streets and mills, the bustling city-scapes, the desolation of urban blight, which became the focus of his work.

His trademark was of simplistic pencil-thin figures made famous in a 1978 song which I found myself constantly singing to myself –

“He painted Salford ‘s smokey tops.
On cardboard boxes from the shops.
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play.
I’m sure he once walked down our street.
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet.
The clothes we wore had all seen better days.”

His famous painting “Going to the match” – based not on Old Trafford or Maine Road, but Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – drew this comment from Jack Charlton, the brother of Bobby –

“This is just like it was when I was young; wooden open stands, cinders underfoot, terrible conditions in the toilets…it’s fabulous.”

Some script alongside the photo told its own story –

“Lowry’s interest in football was partly in the crowd itself and how a match brought them together. It is this, rather than the match itself, that he depicts.”

As I left, I looked over to Old Trafford and took a few photographs of the 21st Century equivalents of his Bolton spectators heading over the bridge, the skies now clear and blue, their eyes set on the stadium.

Adjacent to the art gallery, there is a large shopping outlet – surprisingly, I did not venture in. There were a couple of restaurants nearby and these were full of singing United fans. However, as I myself headed back over the bridge, I heard a defiant “Oh Dennis Wise” and then “Carefree.”

Accents from all parts of England were being spoken by the United fans going to the match. There was even a voice from Yorkshire. Now, even to my ears, that didn’t sound right. Yorkshire and Lancashire have animosities far out-reaching those of Manchester and Liverpool. For a Yorkshire native to support Manchester United was surely the oddest marriage. I immediately thought of my college mate Bob, a Leeds fan from Bramley in West Yorkshire, a few miles from Elland Road. He memorably once announced to me that “I’ve hated Manchester United longer than I’ve liked Leeds.”

I thought back to the cup game in 1988. On that day, Bob attended the game alongside me and some eight thousand rabid Chelsea fans. Of course, that 1987-1988 season eventually resulted in relegation via the dreaded play-offs (we are the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still get relegated – imagine how I felt that summer. Black ain’t half of it.)

However, in January 1988, we had not yet reached the relegation places, though manager John Hollins was under considerable pressure. I had just eleven days previously seen us lose 4-0 to Swindon Town in the Full Members Cup. Things were getting grim. Yet on that day some 25 years ago – and despite gates averaging only around 20,000 – we were roared on by almost half of our home crowd…the equivalent today of 16,000 away followers.

My diary from the day tells the story…

”pink Lacoste, Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, Aquascutum scarf, leather jacket, Reeboks…caught the train from Frome…there were ten familiar faces – all MUFC – who were on the train too, but they got off at Bath (probably to catch the supporters’ bus to Old Trafford)…sat with a young Chelsea lad from Bath…chatted to two girls from Cardiff who were Spurs fans on the way to Port Vale…missed our connection at Birmingham, so had to go via Stafford…a can of Grolsch…Chelsea lads joined at Crewe…got to Piccadilly at 2pm, a raucous bus to Old Trafford…pleased to see Bob already present…we had all of K Stand…we played poorly…Freestone saved a 7 minute McClair penalty…but Whiteside (42) and McClair (71) sealed our doom…no confidence in our team…we hardly had any attacks at all…brightened up when Nevin and Hazard came on…alas no fat copper to take the piss out of this time…a bloody long wait in the mud to catch the train back to Piccadilly…a row at the station, but not severe…eventually back to Bristol at 10.40pm…Dad picked me up…Spurs lost too…so much for Wembley.”

I was soon outside the away entrance. Unlike 1988, our “allowance” was 6,000 but I had heard that we had only sold 4,500 or so. I hoped that there would be no gaping holes in our section. The last thing I wanted was to hear the “WWYWYWS” nonsense being sung at us by 70,000 United fans.

In the bar areas, Chelsea were in good voice. I noticed the DJ Trevor Nelson, quietly stood to one side, and caught his eye. He nodded back. I suspect that his work for the BBC brings him up to Salford quite often. I bumped into Alan and Gary, then the Bristol lads – fresh from Bucharest – and then Burger and Julie. It would be Julie’s first ever game at Old Trafford. I said to one of my Chelsea acquaintances “well, we need to keep them out for the first twenty minutes…hell, no…the first five.”

I got to my seat…row 12 of the large upper deck, right in line with the penalty spot…the roof overhead afforded little light and there was a dark and gloomy atmosphere inside Old Trafford. For the first time ever at Old Trafford, I was able to see the outside world; a thin sliver of land above the lower main stand roof and the high roof overhead. Old Trafford is huge. The three-tiered North Stand was immense…the upper tier wasn’t even in view.

I took a look at all of the United flags and banners which decorate the balconies. They add so much character to the stadium in the same way that those at The Bridge add to our match experience.

The surprising news was that Van Persie was on the bench for United. As for Chelsea, there were masses of team changes since Bucharest.

The main one; Axon in.

As the two teams entered the pitch, the Stretford End unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of the Busby Babes…black and white…but with bright scarlet shirts…from the fateful game in Belgrade, prior to the crash.

A Ba effort went wide and I commented to the bloke to my right “well, that’s one more shot than I thought we’d get.” I wasn’t smiling for long, though.

Before we had time to settle, Carrick pumped a great ball through to Chicarito. There was indecision from Cech and Cahill was lost at sea. A softly cushioned header from the little Mexican sent the ball looping up and over the stranded Cech and into the United goal. The stadium erupted. I looked at the clock to my left.

We hadn’t even lasted five minutes.

For Fcuk’s Sake.

Within five more minutes, a Wayne Rooney free-kick was played towards the far post and – how often do we see this in modern football? – the ball evaded everyone’s lunge and bounced past Cech into the goal.

Ten minutes gone.

2-0 down.

This could be a long day. With thoughts of a score resembling that of a rugby match, I sighed a million sighs. The Chelsea crowd, originally quite buoyant, were now resorting to the chants which have trademarked this season.

“We don’t care about Rafa…”

“When Rafa leaves Chelsea…”

“Roman Abramovich – is this what you want?”

“We want our Chelsea back…”

United were singing their songs too, needling the benched John Terry.

“Viva John Terry…”

“Where’s your racist centre-half?”

To be honest, I wanted to hide. We seemed to be on the end of a leathering both on and off the pitch. We had a few half-chances, but shots from Moses and Lampard were wasted. Cech made a sublime double-save, first from Rooney and then from the rebound which Luiz inexpicably headed back towards him. He rose, like Gordon Banks in Guadalajara in 1970, to tip it over. It was a sublime save.

We did manage to create a few more attempts on goal. I began talking to the two chaps to my left. Face Familiar Name Unknown #1, Face Familiar Name Unknown #2 and I agreed that although United had been on top, the first half had not been without chances. But then we agreed; United didn’t really have to attack. The mood was mixed…there was derision from some quarters, but I was ever hopeful. It was gratifying to note a few seeds of optimism amongst my two neighbours. To be honest, amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the away section, it was lovely to chat with two lads who were forever cheering the team on – like me – and who were intelligent in their comments. There had already been an altercation further along the row which almost ended up in a fight. It was another example of near Civil War in the Chelsea ranks this season.

I chatted with Tim at half-time and we mulled over the game…”they don’t have to attack…they can just wait for us to attack and exploit our gaps…”

We expected more goals.

Soon into the second-half, I almost wanted the referee to blow up such was my fear for conceding more goals.

In the end it was the clichéd game of two halves.

One black, one white.

Soon into the second period, the manager made two key substitutions. Firstly, Mikel for Lampard. To be truthful, Frank had not enjoyed a great game and I thought that he gave Rooney far too much space. Secondly, Hazard – not the 1988 version – for Moses. Again no complaints.

In the upper tier of the East Stand our support increased.

Out of nowhere, a goal. Hazard picked the ball up on the edge of the box and, with hardly a moment’s thought, curled an exquisite shot past De Gea into the United goal. It was the same corner that United’s two goals had ended up.

Oh boy. The Chelsea support went crazy, jumping up and punching the air. I felt the sharp plastic of the seat in front cutting into my shin as I jumped and cavorted like a drunken fool.

Game on.

From then on, we dominated the game in a way that I have rarely seen. It was certainly our best 45 minutes this season and our best ever 45 minutes that I had ever seen at the home of United. With every passing minute, United’s support diminished.

Van Persie replaced Hernandez.

Worried? Of course.

“She said no, Robin, she said no…”

As I remember it, the increasingly confident Luiz won possession deep in our box and the worked the ball through. It found Oscar and he played in Ramires. Our little Brazilian dynamo wriggled inside Evans and found himself inside the box. With the entire Chelsea support roaring him on – “go on Rami!” – he coolly slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.

We went berserk.

Pandemonium.

Complete madness.

Arms up, bodies bouncing, screams of ecstasy, bodies falling, noise.

It was a Munich Moment all over again.

Ouch, my bloody shins.

The game now opened up further with Van Persie wasting several chances. However, United’s midfield gave us so much space that we were able to run at them each time we were in possession. Oscar and Mata twisted and turned, rarely losing the ball and Hazard provided much-needed thrust. A special word, though, for Mikel who continually broke up play in that indomitable way of his and provided the de facto defensive shield for Luiz and Cahill. Cahill, who had suffered badly in the first-half, grew with each minute. Luiz was very good.

With United fans starting to stream out, we chided them –

“Race you back to London – we’re gonna race you back to London…”

We roared the team on.

Torres replaced Mata. After last season’s game, could he be the saviour?

With the time running out, one amazing chance. Mata, stretching to take control of Luiz’ pass, and miraculously holding on to the ball despite appearing to run out of pitch in which to play, stayed on his feet, then twisted inside before prodding the ball towards goal. I immediately thought of Gianfranco Zola against United in 1997. I’m sure I saw the bloody net bulge.We jumped up as one, but turned aghast as the ball flew off of De Gea’s boot for a corner.

Phew.

The referee blew soon after and the Chelsea crowd roared their approval.

The United support was full of moans as I hot-footed back across Gorse Park. I was back at my car at 6.45pm…warmth! The incoming texts had provided me with a few moments of satisfaction on that walk back to the car.

From United fan Mike –

“Well done mate. Can’t see how you didn’t win that though. We were awful second half, mediocre in the first.”

From United fan Pete –

“Unlucky mate. The best team drew. Great pressing and control from your lot. Never seen us give the ball away so badly, so often.”

From me to them –

“Proud as fcuk.”

From United fan Pete –

“Rightly so.”

From United fan Mike –

“You should be mate. Showed great team spirit and were the better team over ninety minutes.”

I got back to the M6 in super-quick time. However, detours through Stoke and then the Black Country meant that I didn’t get home until 11.20pm. I was still buzzing when I got home…still buzzing as I trawled the internet at 1am.

Still buzzing at 1.30am…

Buzzing now…

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Tales From The Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Shakhtar Donetsk : 7 November 2012.

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

Well, since last Wednesday, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get in!

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

Alan – in a generic Slavic accent:

“They will have to come at us now.”

Chris – similarly:

“Come on my little diamonds.”

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

Game on.

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

Alan and I gave a running commentary throughout.

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

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

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

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

Porca Dio.

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

Italian Champions, Ukrainian Champions, European Champions.

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

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

“Look at that miserable bastard.”

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

YES!

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

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

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

2-2.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

I was so angry, I couldn’t speak.

I sat down and put my head in my hands.

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

No. It was a penalty.

The home crowd erupted in displeasure.

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

“Get up you radioactive cnut.”

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

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

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

Sorry, Tullio. Sorry, Mario. Needs must.

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

“See you Sunday, Al.”

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

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

Click.

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

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

The net bulged.

Anyone who is into football will know that feeling.

The net bulged.

YEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

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

YES!

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

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

We had done it again. Bloody hell.

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

Oh boy.

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

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

Liverpool – be warned.

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Tales From The North Circular

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 October 2012.

On Friday evening, with the arid desert of the two week long international break thankfully behind us, I felt like an excitable five year old on Christmas Eve. We all remember that feeling. On any other night of the year, as a child, it was typical to eke out as much time in the evening as possible before it was time to head up to bed. I can well remember the glee when my parents relented after persistent pleading to have “ten more minutes” outside (to play football in the street usually, with light fading), before being herded inside and then taken upstairs to bed. Christmas Eve was different; get to bed early, try to get to sleep quickly, it will soon be Christmas Day, with presents and jollity and fun.

At 6.30am, the alarm sounded and, unlike weekdays, there was no need for me to utilize the snooze button.

This was Tottenham Away.

Bearing in mind the rivalry between the two clubs, the magnificent denouement to last season, which of course resulted in us elbowing Spurs out of the Champions League, and the added frisson of Andre Villas-Boas as Spurs’ new manager, I regarded this as the most important away game of the domestic season.

Love it.

At 8.15am, I had packed my match day essentials – ticket, wallet, camera, coffee – and I was on my way. Within a minute of driving through the misty village, I had disturbed some pigeons as they sat idling in the middle of the road. Feathers flew, but I didn’t have time to check if there had been fatalities. I think they had a lucky escape. I wondered how we would fare with our feathered friends from Tottenham later in the day. Would the cockerels be quite so lucky?

The early morning was shrouded in mist as I headed east. As I drove along the quiet country roads to the north of Frome, a huge lock of birds suddenly appeared to my right. They swooped down and across my field of vision and the sight was rather impressive, if not slightly spooky. I let my imagination run away with me for a few seconds and I chuckled as I wondered if the pigeons had been in touch with the starlings after the incident five minutes earlier. As I drove on, I looked back and saw around twenty black birds sitting, ominously, on an electric wire, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Gulp.

I took a swig of coffee and told myself to pull myself together.

Pigeons, starlings, cockerels, Hitchcock.

What did it all mean?

Thankfully, the next hour or so was devoid of similar incidents. In fact, the drive through Somerset, into Wiltshire and on into Berkshire was simply fantastic. Back in my childhood, my father used to take this route on his drive up to London for our twice-a-season pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge. For games at White Hart lane, I usually drive into London and then take the tube up to Seven Sisters. For a change, I had decided to drive all the way in and chance my arm with a parking spot near the stadium. The first hour was spent driving along the idyllic roads of Wessex, through towns such as Devizes and Marlborough. While thoughts of previous games at White Hart Lane flitted in and out of my mind, all was good with the world.

Slender church spires piercing the monotone grey sky, prim thatched cottages hugging the road, trees peeking out over valleys of low-lying fog, delicate Turneresque smudges of light as the sun attempted to burn its way through the grey clouds, red brick farmhouses, the surreal lunar landscape of the chalk down lands, the first tints of autumn on beech trees and the dull purr of my tires on the road below.

As my little capsule of contentment headed east, I was happy with my lot.

And Chelsea’s game at Tottenham was only a few hours away.

Seriously, what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

Typically, my mind wandered back to my youth; my first ever two visits to White Hart Lane during the early weeks of the 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 seasons.

In September 1986, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out in N17. After a far from impressive start to the season, we travelled to White Hart Lane and triumphed 3-1. The weather was dreadful, I got drenched on that long walk back to Seven Sisters, but I was euphoric. Only five months earlier, my first ever visit to Old Trafford had resulted in a Chelsea win. Two debut wins at my most despised opponents’ home stadia was just perfect. Although unmemorable in the main, 1986 at least provided me with those two excellent away days.

Less than a year later, we had got off to a flier with two wins from games against Sheffield Wednesday at home and Portsmouth away. The Chelsea hordes travelled in our thousands for this one. The attendance for the 1986 was just 28,000, but the 1987 one drew 37,000. I travelled up by train with Glenn and it felt like we were part of an invading army. We bought tickets (Glenn bought his from a tout) for seats in the upper tier of the Park Lane End and watched as our ranks were swelled with each passing minute. As I thought about the current limit of 3,000 away fans at all Premier League games, I became misty-eyed for those distant times. On that day in August 1987, I’d say that we probably had 10,000 fans at White Hart Lane. Those were the days my friend; for a moment, I was transported back in time. As kick-off approached and the terraced areas in front of our seats became swelled to capacity, there were calls by the Chelsea fans for the police and stewards to open up extra sections in the lower tier of The Shelf terrace, which ran along the side of the pitch and housed the Tottenham hardcore.

Eventually, an extra pen was given to the away fans. The Chelsea fans charged into the section, much to the chagrin of the Spurs fans above. It was all about territory in those days. It was all about how many you took to away games. It was all about numbers. These days, it’s difficult to gauge the size of various clubs’ travelling support because the limit is always 3,000. Back in those days, it was the size of our away “take” that was in many ways as important as the result on the pitch. In 1987, we travelled to White Hart Lane not because we were in the hunt for silverware. We just travelled to make a statement and to support the team.

Sadly, a last minute goal by Nico Claesen gave Spurs a 1-0 win, but the over-riding memory of that day twenty-five years ago was the fearsome size of our travelling support.

At 9.30am, I flicked on a Morrissey CD as I joined the M4. The next hour, save for some familiar tunes making me chuckle, the driving was rather monotonous. The fog thickened. It wasn’t so much fun.

Heading into London, the fog was still thick and the Wembley Arch to the north was not visible. Ah Wembley – memories of that 5-1 annihilation in April.

I exited the M4 and began a clockwise circumnavigation of inner London via the fabled North Circular. I don’t often travel on this road; the last time, in fact, was with Beth on our return from Leverkusen via Stansted airport last November. Before the advent of the M25 in around 1986, the North Circular – and the South Circular – was the main road used to traverse the great city of London. It acts as a ring road. It was and it still is notoriously busy.

As I drove through Ealing Common, with the road at its narrowest, I easily thought back on the years from 1975 to 1980 when my father would park on an adjacent side road and we would travel in by tube to see games at Stamford Bridge. My father was terrified of the London traffic and Ealing was as far as he could manage. Ah, how excited I was on those walks to Ealing Common tube station. My father’s last ever Chelsea game was against Everton on New Year’s Day 1991 and I’m pretty sure he parked at Ealing Common on that occasion, too. My mind became full of memories of match after match. They were layered one on top of another, just like the piles of bright autumn leaves on the Ealing Common walkways.

After Park Royal, from where we travelled in by tube for my very first game in 1974, the road broadened to three lanes. I had an eye on the clock and an eye on my speedometer. The traffic slowed to a halt on a few occasions. The road cut through inter-war housing estates, industrial areas and small parks. Signs for Wembley, Neasden, Finchley, Barnet and Wood Green. North London proper. It didn’t seem like Chelsea territory and, of course, it wasn’t. Sure we have pockets of support in this vast section of England’s capital, but this area of suburban sprawl belongs to the two North London teams. A large advertisement hoarding for an Arsenal shop at Brent Cross shopping centre emphasised the point.

I continued on. As I neared my destination, the traffic crawled along and my frustration was rising. How I’d hate to have to do this every two weeks. The only place to be every other Saturday certainly isn’t driving around the North Circular.

At last, I turned off at Edmonton and, via yet more slow moving traffic and a rather circuitous route, I eventually parked on Wilbury Way. It had taken me three and a half hours to cover the 125 miles.

Phew.

It was 11.45am.

I walked along Bridport Road and then Pretoria Road, past small industrial units, past the Haringey Irish Centre, where Cathy sometimes stops for a drink at Tottenham. I was soon outside White Hart Lane. Land was evidently being cleared for the construction of their new stadium which is planned to be built directly to the east of the current site. A computerised image of the new stadium appeared on a few hoardings. It looked impressive, but eerily similar to Arsenal’s new pad. This is no surprise; most new football stadia look as if they have been taken from the same blueprint these days.

Lower bowl, two tiers of executive seats, undulating top tier.

There is nothing special architecturally about White Hart Lane from the outside. It’s all rather dull to be honest. What makes it special are the memories of past matches and past players.

I shuffled past a heavy police presence in the south-west corner and entered the stadium. It was 12.15pm. While I waited for the kick-off, I spoke with a few acquaintances. It’s amazing how slow it takes for grounds to fill up these days. With fifteen minutes to go, the place was only half full. The team was the same as for Arsenal, apart from Cahill in for Terry. We heard that Gareth Bale wasn’t playing. Alan and Gary joined me just before the teams entered the pitch. There had been a few Chelsea songs in the pre-match build-up, but nothing from Tottenham.

As the match began, we soon serenaded the home fans of memories of Munich.

“We know what we are…Champions of Europe…we know what we are.”

Two lads arrived with a twelve foot long banner, obviously nicked from Munich, which we tied to the barrier right in front of us.

This was the Champions of Europe section.

Happy days.

Down on the pitch, Chelsea were in the ascendency and were pushing the ball around intelligently. The sun briefly broke through the grey sky and White Hart Lane looked a picture. It is a very neat stadium.

The songs continued.

“We won 5-1 – Wembley.”

“We won 6-1 – at The Lane.”

“We are the champions – the Champions of Europe, we are the champions – the Champions of Europe.”

“That song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

“You got battered, you got battered, you got battered – in Seville.”

“Love the Old Bill – in Seville. Love the Old Bill – in Seville.”

We were certainly in good voice and our team were responding well. Our midfield maestros Oscar and Mata were soon probing away and we looked calm and relaxed, often finding room on both flanks. A corner to the far post was headed back across the box by Gallas. Gary Cahill had peeled away from his marker on the near post and met the dropping ball on the penalty spot with the sweetest of volleys. As a planned corner it could not have worked better if Gallas was still a Chelsea player. The ball thundered into the net. It was a volley which reminded me of the strike by Ivanovic in the Norwich game.

I captured Gary’s joyful run back towards us in the southern Park Lane end on camera. He was being chased by his gleeful team mates and their happiness was matched by ours.

Get in.

Our excellent play continued, but we didn’t carve out many chances. Tottenham tested Cech a little, but the defence held firm. Mata should have made it 2-0 as the interval approached but he shot over after he followed up his own shot after it was parried by Brad Friedel.

With memories of that night in Naples, Ashley Cole was able to scurry back and head a dipping cross off the line. Two fantastic blocks in quick succession – I think by Cahill and Ivanovic – told me all I needed to know about this new Chelsea team. Both players flung themselves at the ball with no respect for personal injury. It was magnificent to watch. Fantastic stuff.

At the break, talk was all about us playing well, but we were all rueing the lack of a second goal.

Well, the opening period of the second-half was a nightmare. Our concerns about that missing second goal came to fruition. Within ten minutes, defensive lapses had presented Tottenham with not only an equaliser through Gallas but a second goal via Defoe. The home crowd roared both strikes and the sight of all the gurning Spurs fans goading the Chelsea fans to my left and right was sickening.

White Hart Lane came to life. The uber-slow dirge “Oh when the Spurs…go marching in” echoed around the white tub of the old stadium. I hate it because it reminds me of that 2008 Carling Cup Final, but the Spurs fans certainly love it. It’s the one time they all get behind the team. The noise was deafening and we were momentarily quiet and subdued.

We were staring our first league defeat in the face. We hadn’t won at Tottenham in the league since 2005. Our unbeaten run of thirty-two league games against Spurs from 1990 to 2005 suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was time for us to buck that trend. It was time for the players to respond. It was Roberto di Matteo’s first real challenge of the 2012-2013 league season. There was a niggling doubt that our three marauding midfielders would not be able to offer the two holding midfielders enough cover and assistance. Not just for this game, but throughout the whole campaign. I sat and wondered if our new playing style might be one-dimensional and too fragile. I looked at the Spurs midfielders – Sandro, Sigurrdsson, Huddlestone – and I looked at the slender Mata, Hazard and Oscar.

This was a big test alright.

To be truthful, Hazard had been the least impressive in the first-half. Suddenly, the overwhelming good vibes at the break had turned into feelings of worry and concern. There were cat calls amongst the away support. Fernando Torres, though neat in possession, seemed to be unwilling to run and test the Spurs defence. Too often, he stayed still, rather than exploit space.

Tottenham fired a few long range shots at Cech, but thankfully they tended to be straight towards him.

We need not have worried.

With Mikel and Ramires starting to re-exert themselves in the middle, the rhythm of the first-half soon returned. We enjoyed watching some wonderful flowing football. A loose clearance by Gallas – it was turning out to be his afternoon after all – fell at the feet of Juan Mata on the edge of the box. With ice cold blood in his veins, he took a steadying touch and calmly drilled the ball into the goal, with just inches to spare by the post.

YEEEEESSSSSS!

We were bouncing again. The Chelsea corner exploded with joy.

This was turning into some game. Remarkably, Defoe forced a supremely athletic save from Cech with a dipping shot. Then, a magnificent move resulted in more joy for the three thousand royal blue loyalists. Mikel played the ball to Hazard, who was now a lot more involved. His delightful first-time ball cut straight through the Spurs defence and into the path of the advancing Mata. It was the pass of the season.

Mata clipped the ball past Friedel and we were 3-2 up.

YYEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!

Oh boy.

What a game.

I found myself yelling awful abuse at the Spurs fans in the distance and I somehow felt cleansed for the experience.

Spurs had a couple of half-chances. Juan Mata could have scored another. He then played in Torres, but his studied strike towards the far post narrowly missed the target.

To our surprise, Daniel Sturridge took the place of the magnificent Oscar when we all expected Torres to be substituted. I commented that Jose Mourinho would have brought on at least one defender with us being 3-2 up. The days of narrow pragmatic wins were now a distant memory.

Attack or be damned.

With Spurs pushing for an equaliser – amid horrible memories of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser in the ridiculous 4-4 draw in 2008 – Walker was robbed by Mata on the far touchline in front of The Shelf. He painstakingly passed the ball across the six yard box for Studge to almost apologetically prod home from four yards. Behind him, Torres.

It was one of those days for Nando.

We roared again, though our screams of delight were mixed with howls of laughter too. We turned to the intense figure on the Tottenham bench for one last bout of piss-taking.

“Andre – what’s the score? Andre, Andre – what’s the score?”

Mr. Villas-Boas was not available for comment.

This was a stunning game of football. Not only did we play some wonderfully entertaining stuff, but the nature of our recovery was emblematic of the new found confidence running through this team. Although Mata deservedly garnered all of the attention, and Cech kept us in the game, I need to mention Mikel and Ramires, our two quite dissimilar bastions at the base of our midfield five. They were quite simply magnificent. Who could have possibly thought that our movement away from a physical style of football to a more entertaining variant would be so easy?

Transition season? What transition season.

On the walk back to the car, all was quiet among the Tottenham fans. There seemed to be an air of sad acceptance that Chelsea had prospered. I hate to say this, but I’m genuinely starting to feel sorry for them.

Wink.

IMG_0313

Tales From A Sobering Week

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 15 September 2012.

At last. At long last another Chelsea game. A whole three weeks had passed since I attended our fine win over Newcastle United. Thankfully, I didn’t venture to the south of France for the Super Cup game. Yes, three whole weeks. Twenty-one days. It felt like an extra close-season. And I hated every minute of it.

It was a sunny morning in deepest Somerset as I slotted my coffee mug into the drink holder alongside my car seat. I flicked the ignition on; I was back on the treadmill. Japan’s “Quiet Life” reverberated through the speakers and I was on my way.

I texted the briefest of messages to Alan in London.

“Jack Qprouac.”

I was on the road once more.

With no detour north to collect Lord Porkinson on this occasion, I was soon driving through Frome, past Warminster and then up and over Salisbury Plain. It was soon clear that it was going to be a cracking day. The sun was up, the sky was blue, it’s beautiful and so are you. On the long straight before I dipped into the miniscule village of Chitterne, the view ahead made me smile. Hay bales were stacked in the fields to my left and right. It was a perfect scene of rural England. It was a perfect day for football.

And then it came back into my mind once again.

Hillsborough.

I’m sure that there were many fans that set off for Sheffield on that sunny day in 1989 that had a similar outlook; a sunny day and a perfect day for football.

My mind had been full of thoughts about Hillsborough since the news of the enquiry into the disaster came through on Wednesday. Without much prompting, my original thoughts on those events came rocketing back. And I recoiled at the memories.

The recollections from that day in April 1989 are still surprisingly clear. On the previous Saturday, I had travelled by train to see our enjoyable 3-2 win at West Brom. As I was saving hard for my first-ever trip to North America throughout the 1988-1989 season, I had decided to save some money and not travel to Filbert Street for our game with Leicester City. I remember that it was the day that we could have been promoted and many Chelsea travelled to the game.

Instead, I was at home. I remember I was sat at the table, pen in hand, attempting to put further meat on the bones of my skeletal planning of my US trip. I had a few brochures strewn over the table and the radio was on. The commentary game on BBC Radio Two was from Hillsborough and there had already been mention of a little crowd disturbance. This surprised me; there was no “previous” between the two teams as far as I was aware. If anything, there was a general easing off from the, dare I say it, hooligan hay days of the early ‘eighties. We had the second summer of love in the UK in 1988 and there was a tendency for hooligans to start a slow drift away from decaying football terraces and into nightclubs, warehouses and fields as a drug called ecstasy took hold.

After just six minutes, the game was stopped and I was bemused.

“Why?”

I couldn’t work out why there was any trouble in Sheffield.

As news of the events unravelled, I soon realised that the BBC would have TV cameras at the game. I turned the radio off. I turned the TV on. Within a few moments of watching the scenes of confusion at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, the news came through that several Liverpool supporters had died.

I was in shock. I can solemnly say that the news chilled me to the core.

The travel brochures were brushed aside as I watched with a mixture of sadness, horror and disbelief as the afternoon turned into a scene of devastation.

The rest of the day is a blur. Chelsea lost 2-0 at Leicester and it didn’t matter. Pat Nevin scored for Everton in the other semi-final and it didn’t matter.

To be honest, not much mattered that evening.

Football wore a black armband the following few weeks; the events cast a deep shadow over us all.

Our next game was on the following Saturday and the fates contrived for a massive game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Leeds United. Not only a game against our old rivals from West Yorkshire, but the game which could see us promoted. I met up with three college mates – Ian, Bob and Trev. Ian was a Rotherham fan, but Bob and Ian were Leeds. We had a few pre-match pints in The Black Bull alongside my Chelsea mates Alan and Paul. We spoke in earnest about Hillsborough. By then, the death toll was a massive ninety-five (*it became 96 in 1993 when Tony Bland’s life support machine was turned off. Bland was the only victim with whom I had a link. He worked for the same company that I did between 1991 and 1998 ). The over-riding feeling throughout the talk was that “it could have been us.” I had watched Chelsea from the Leppings Lane enclosure in 1985. We had all experienced moments on terraces where the crush had been slightly scary. From what I remember, there was a muted atmosphere in and around the stadium. The attendance was only 30,000; under normal circumstances, I would have expected more. There was a well observed minute’s silence before the game. A John Bumstead goal gave us a 1-0 win, but it was a weird day. There wasn’t the euphoria of the 5-0 win over Leeds which got us promoted in 1984. This was a far different feeling.

After the game, Bob, Trev, Ian and I had a few pints at Earls Court and then in central London. We ended up in one of my favourite boozers – “The Round Table” near Covent Garden. Talk was still dominated by Hillsborough. I remember I said to Bob “in a way, we’re all responsible” and he wanted me to explain myself.

Every violent song, every violent gesture helped stir the atmosphere at games and the language of hate was never far away in those days. And although I had never been in involved in football violence, I – like many – enjoyed the banter and badinage that went with football hooliganism in that era. It was part of the scene, part of the culture, part of football.

There had even been moments when I had shouted “go on Chelsea” as it kicked off at a game. We had all been ambivalent to it. But Hillsborough was an eye-opener for me and a few of us. It made me question myself and the part I had played, however miniscule, in the erecting of those fences at Hillsborough which had, ultimately, caused the death of ninety-six football fans.

And it really could have been me. If Hillsborough hadn’t happened in 1989, it may have happened at Highbury in 1990, Old Trafford in 1991 or Stamford Bridge in 1992. I can well remember a game at Chelsea in 1988. We played Charlton Athletic in a real relegation dogfight. My parents arrived late and, intending to get seat tickets, were forced to sit on a part of the crumbling Shed terrace which had been sectioned off as unsafe under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act. Thankfully, only around three hundred were sat on this terrace, but the point is that Chelsea Football Club broke all the rules about crowd safety that day. They were lucky nobody was hurt. They were also lucky that nobody was hurt when the same thing happened against Middlesbrough a few weeks later. My photos from that day show the central part of The Shed heavily over-populated to the point of danger.

Ring any bells?

Big John, who sits near me at HQ, posted on Facebook on Thursday about Hillsborough. He mentioned that in that game against Leeds United in 1989, the spectators raised £15,000 for the Hillsborough disaster fund. In today’s climate, today’s money, today’s 41,000 full house, that equates to around £75,000.

I think this evidence illustrates that most football fans’ view back in 1989 was of sadness and solidarity with the Liverpool fans.

Even Chelsea.

Since then, there is no doubt that perceptions have changed, presumably triggered by our on-going unhealthy spat with Liverpool Football Club. Blame Luis Garcia, blame “that” song about history. However, my own view – though not widely expressed – has always been that the emergency services were to blame for the deaths of the ninety six in 1989. I certainly never believed those scurrilous lies which were peddled by The Sun newspaper, but which became “fact” as the years passed, about fans stealing from the dead and urinating on the police.

And I abhorred my fellow fans’ chant about “killing your own fans.”

I never joined in. It always felt so wrong.

For the reasons mentioned, I’m not a fan of the “Chelsea – hooligans” chant either.

There is, however, one black mark against Liverpool Football Club. It was always seen as the “done thing” amongst their support (and more so than any other team’s fan base) to try to “jib in” – or find a way to get in without paying, sometimes by the most ingenious ways – and this is one part of the Hillsborough tragedy that they have been shamefully quiet about.

Not even I could have expected such an exoneration of the Liverpool fans, not even I could have expected the scale of the cover-up by the emergency services and the government alike. I found it quite incomprehensible that Hillsborough, seen at the time to be one of the best stadia in the country, did not have a valid safety certificate at the time of the game on 15 April 1989. For this, the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday should be held accountable.

I learned this week that each of the pens at the Leppings Lane end was fitted with small gates at the front, which were locked. When the crush started to occur, a simple unlocking of those gates would have eased the pressure on those fans at the front and the disaster could have been averted. I’d suggest that the keys to those gates were not within easy reach of anyone at Hillsborough. I’d even suggest that nobody even knew where those keys were kept.

One final image.

While the Liverpool supporters ferried the injured and the dead away from the pitch, using advertising hoardings as impromptu stretchers, a line of policemen – with Alsatian dogs – stood across the entire width of the pitch. They were there to stop the Liverpool and Forest fans – in their eyes – from fighting each other.

It all beggars belief.

The past week has been a sobering time.

It has provided me with a very sombre reminder of how we, as football fans, were regarded back in the late ‘eighties.

And it was too important topic for me not to mention.

It was the old familiar route in to London. I rarely travel in via the “southern route” these days; straight in on the M3 which then took me hurtling past Twickenham’s towering stands and all of the way through to Chiswick, then Hammersmith, then Fulham. I turned the radio on at midday in order to catch a sniff of the football chatter on “Five Live.” It was all about “the handshake.”

I quickly uttered a “FFS” to myself and turned it off. After the events of Hillsborough this past week, it seemed ludicrous that a handshake was getting so much attention.

Although we were playing at Loftus Road, I first had an appointment at Stamford Bridge. I quickly trotted down to the little shop outside the main forecourt and collected a couple of photographs of myself – smiling like a fool – with the twin trophies from last May. I aim to frame one of them along with a couple of photographs from Munich and the ten match tickets that are evidence of my attendance throughout last season’s maniacal assault on the Champions League trophy. I also purchased the double-disc DVD of the same Champions League campaign. As I stepped out into the surprisingly warm September sun, the players’ coach slowly drive past. I tried to peer in, but the windows were tinted. I just stood there, smiling, again like a fool.

When it comes to Chelsea, there will always be part of me that is an awestruck eight year old at my first ever game.

I returned to my car and it only took me fifteen minutes to reach my familiar parking spot off Askew Road. It even surprised me how quick I was able to traverse the borough; from Stamford Bridge to Loftus Road in a heartbeat. If there had been no traffic, I expect I could have driven it in around eight minutes flat.

I spotted a few QPR fans in their hooped shirts, but there was no over-riding feeling that there was a “big match” in the vicinity. Loftus Road now barely holds 18,000. Our biggest ever game at this compact stadium took place during the march to the 1970 F.A. Cup Final when around 30,000 attended. No doubt the streets would have been swarming with fans on that particular day.

In 2012, there was a hush around the immediate environs. We had read on the internet that the Rangers fans were aiming to recreate “hell” for our visit.

“Mmm – let’s see how that pans out.”

I dipped into a cosy café for a bite to eat. There were a few home supporters there too. I didn’t let on I was Chelsea; why would I? There were no negative comments about us, nor no reason to believe that they regarded us as the beasts with horns that sections of their support would have us believe. Talk was of QPR players, past and present, their recent form and general football chat.

I was soon outside the entrance to the away end. I spotted the habitually morose Zac (“I’m still worried about the manager, Chris”) and then the cheerier Long Tall Pete and Liz. I didn’t fancy bringing my “proper” camera to this game; with the heightened frisson between our clubs, I didn’t want an overly keen steward to stop me entering the ground with my long lens. Instead, I opted for my small “pub camera.” I took a few shots of the cramped approach into the stands, all corrugated iron and narrow passageways, and then had a quick chat with the contingent from Bristol who I often speak about.

We all agreed that the gap between games was unwanted. It felt – it really did – like the first game of the season again.

The School End at Loftus Road – or Rangers Stadium as they like to call it – houses the away support in two tiers. The upper tier is only thirteen rows deep. The lower tier possibly smaller. The seats are cramped. The Loft at the other end is larger, but only slightly. It took a while for the place to fill up. To my left, there were a few empty seats in both tiers of the main stand. I spotted the idiot with the sombrero; we all remembered him from last season. To my right, the dark shadows of the single tier stand, home to some of the QPR’s more boisterous support.

Above, signage stated “QPR, Loftus Road, 1882.”

This is a clear lie.

Sure, Rangers were formed as long ago as 1882. They have played at a large variety of locations in west London, but only at Loftus Road since 1917. The deep corrugated fascia on the stand roofs appeared to have been given a lick of paint over the summer; a darker blue, a royal blue.

“Mmm.”

To be fair, Loftus is a neat stadium, but oh-so small.

Alan and Gary arrived with five minutes to spare. We stood the entire game. I only slouched into my seat at half-time when I gave my feet a rest.

The teams were announced and then we awaited the arrival of the teams on the pitch. With a blink of an eye, the teams had lined up and the pre-game ceremonies took place. I squinted to see what Anton Ferdinand decided to do, but – to be truthful – nobody could tell. The Chelsea players were warmly applauded by the loyal 2,500 in the School End. Three songs dominated the day.

“We are the champions – the champions of Europe.”

“John Terry – Ashley Cole – John Terry – Ashley Cole.”

“We don’t hate – ‘cus you’re shit.”

After the coin toss, the teams changed ends and so we were treated to Anton Ferdinand sprinting deep into his half, all by himself, to within a few yards of the Chelsea fans in the corner. He turned to acknowledge the home fans but – of course – his intentions were clear; to wind up the away fans, to maybe illicit some abusive reactions, to maybe get a Chelsea fan arrested. According to Alan, he did exactly the same in the home game last season.

A lad next to me had to be reassured that, yes, the QPR goalkeeper was indeed Julio Cesar, the same Julio Cesar who had stood between the posts for Internazionale of Milan. There are strange things happening on Planet Football these days and no transfer is weirder than that. From 80,000 screaming Milanese to 18,000 dreaming West Londoners. It mirrors the absurd move, some thirty years ago, of Allan Simonsen from Barcelona of the Primera Liga to Charlton Athletic of the second division.

In truth, it was a poor game.

I thought that Fernando Torres began brightly and seemed to be full of confidence. Little things; the confident touch as the ball was played to him, the step-over, the impudent flick, the consummate ease with which he spun a ball out to the wing with the outside of his foot. This was promising stuff.

An early passage of play found Eden Hazard bearing down on the goal down below me. The shot was at the ‘keeper and the save drew groans from us. Then, Torres did well to turn inside the box under pressure, but his shot was weak.

And then the referee played his part. I thought that a high foot on Ashley Cole, inside the box, warranted a penalty, but the play wasn’t even halted. Andre Marriner then annoyed us all when he called a foul back when we were breaking through with the ball. Then a free-kick and John Terry ended up on the floor. Then a delicate run by Eden Hazard deep into the box and a tangle with Shaun Wright-Phillips. I didn’t get a clear view, but the appeal by my fellow School Enders was loud and sincere.

The sun was casting clear shadows on the green rectangle below. Above the tall spindles of the floodlight pylons at the Loft End, jet flumes were creating patterns in the sky. Down below, the huff and puff of a typical London derby was producing few clear chances, few passages of entertaining play.

At the break, I said that the game “had 0-0 written all over it.”

Long Tall Pete, a few rows in front, agreed.

After the initial flurry of songs in support of both teams, the atmosphere was pretty lame. An illustration of how low Chelsea really regards QPR is that no mention was made of our 6-1 win against them last Spring.

As the second-half progressed, we seemed to go into our shell. For the first twenty-five minutes, it was the home team who were edging it. They had a few half-chances. At last, the home fans were in the game: they urged on their beloved hoops with the slightly pornographic “Come on you Rs.”

It was all frustrating stuff from us. Fernando Torres, all alone at the pinnacle of our 2-3-1, was hardly given any service. When he did have the ball at his feet, his tendency was to dribble through the defence single-handedly. He was clearly getting frustrated. On more than one occasion, Marriner did not see fit to give a free-kick in his favour. Elsewhere, our method of play was oh-so familiar…pass, pass, pass.

I am one of Mikel’s supporters, but his tendency for a back-pass was winding me up. His most annoying trait is not looking up to see his options available before receiving the ball. His mind is often made up. And it’s usually to pass back to JT or Luiz. I’m sure that if Mikel is ever asked to take part in a penalty shoot-out, he will pass the ball back.

QPR carved a few chances. Jose Bosingwa – given only the briefest round of applause by the away fans at the start – was testing our defence, but the other Chelsea old-boy SWP was not so great. After a couple of shots missed the target, we duly serenaded him –

“Shaun Wright-Phillips – we’ve seen that before.”

However, our own players were hardly shining. JT – typically – was solid, but most other players were struggling. Frank looked tired. Ramires was drawing a few negative comments too. For most of the second period, things were dire.

Two late chances gave us ample opportunity to scramble a win, but wayward shots from Hazard and then Lampard blazed over the bar.

It was one of those days. It was clearly one of those games. There was palpable dismay as we sloped out of the ground. The home fans were chirpy, the Chelsea fans were less so. I suppose that the pragmatic view is that we didn’t lose, we didn’t concede, we are still top of the table. Obviously, Juventus on Wednesday will be far more of a test.

I’m sure I speak for many when I say that I can’t wait to hear that Champions League anthem once again.

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