Tales From A Stroll In The Dorset Sun

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 23 April 2016.

As I was chatting to a few good friends outside the entrance to the away stand at Bournemouth’s neat and tidy Vitality Stadium, I made a comment about our priorities for the remaining five games of the season.

“You know what, I could even forgive them for the last two games if they were saving themselves for Tottenham.”

It was said semi-seriously, maybe part in jest, but it made more sense the more that I thought about it. United might have Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, but Chelsea will be overdosing in Schadenfreude should we royally bugger up Tottenham’s bid for the title at Stamford Bridge on Bank Holiday Monday.

In this craziest of seasons, I was looking for a huge crumb of comfort.

The match at Bournemouth was always going to be a very special highlight of this 2015/2016 season. In the same way that the Chelsea faithful were relishing a beano to Blackpool in 2010/2011, but were then let down with a Monday evening game in March, this was an away game for all to anticipate with relish. That the footballing Gods gave us a trip to Bournemouth in April, on St. George’s Day no less, just seemed too good to be true. While others booked up hotels for the weekend, and hoped and prayed for match tickets to materialise, the Fun Boy Four purchased train tickets, arriving via Southampton in Bournemouth at 11am, and waited expectantly. This was going to be a brilliant day in the sun.

And then things went awry.

For the second successive Saturday morning, fate contrived that I had to work.

Bollocks. No pre-match giggles for me.

Thankfully the journey to Bournemouth is only an hour and a half and I would hopefully be away by 12.30pm. However, the last thing that I wanted was to get caught up in traffic, and get frustrated as I drove around in ever decreasing circles looking for a place to park. Thankfully, my pal Steve came to the rescue. He lives on the border between Poole and Bournemouth, and kindly suggested that I could park at his house and he would then drive me over to the stadium.

Job done.

I left work, thankfully, ahead of schedule at 11.45am. It had been a cold Friday, but Saturday broke with warmer weather, and on the drive south, the sun came out. This was going to be a cracking, albeit truncated, day out with the Champions.

My last visit to see a Chelsea game at Bournemouth was way back in 1994, when I witnessed a 1-0 win in the League Cup, back in the days when the early rounds were two-legged affairs. I watched alongside a visiting uncle from Australia, and one of his friends, in the home end. A Gavin Peacock goal gave us the win. In those days, the stadium was known as Dean Court. Today, it’s the Vitality Stadium, and although the new stadium is on the same site as Dean Court, the axis has been rotated 90%. I remembered it as a small, and tight stadium, and the new place is much the same.

My other previous visit was a personal low point in my days of following Chelsea Football Club. Back in 1988/89, with us newly relegated to the Second Division, I watched aghast from a particularly packed away terrace – with awful sightlines – as we lost 1-0 to Bournemouth, a team managed at the time by Harry Redknapp. I can still remember the solitary walk back to Pokesdown railway station after that game wondering where on earth my club was going. They were sobering times.

The gates at those two games were 8,763 in 1988 and 9,784 in 1994. The gate in 2016 would only be a few more thousand in number. I suspect that the Chelsea contingents in those two previous games were more than the miniscule allocation of 1,200 that we were given this season. This is ridiculously small, but it is in line with the league ruling. No wonder it was a hot ticket. With around 650 on the away scheme, there was only an extra 550 up for grabs for the rest.

Although, historically, Bournemouth was located in Hampshire, the 1974 boundary changes threw it in to the neighbouring county of Dorset. The area was well visited by myself in my childhood. There were day trips to the glorious beach at Sandbanks, now one of the most desirable locations in all of the United Kingdom – still home to Harry Redknapp – and two holidays in nearby Southbourne in 1979 and 1980. My father was born in Wareham, not more than fifteen miles to the west and many summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Purbeck. Although I am a native of Somerset, the area around Wareham is very close to me. It is a wonderful part of the world, with castles and beaches, country pubs, holiday parks, and perfect villages.

My drive south took me past some wonderfully named towns and villages : Longbridge Deverill, Melbury Abbas, Fontmell Magma, Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Sturminster Marshall, Lytchett Matravers.

Just out of range were my two favourite place names of all : Toller Porcorum and Piddletrenthide.

Dorset has all the best names.

It also has AFC Bournemouth, changed a while back for no other reason than being the first club in an alphabetical list of all ninety-two professional clubs in the football pyramid. Before that, they were called Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Only as recently as 2008/2009, the club was relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League and were in administration. Their recent rise has been mesmeric.

My aunt Julie, who lived all of her life in and around Bournemouth, played a major part in my recent Chelsea story. She kindly left me a sum of money in her will after she sadly passed away in 2004, and this enabled me to travel out to the US with Chelsea during that summer. Since then, my life has been enriched greatly after meeting many good people – Chelsea folk – from the US, and I owe a lot of this to dear Julie. She always spoke to me about Chelsea and would be pleased as punch to know that I was returning to her town to see the boys play her home-town team. I can remember how upset she was when it looked like Bournemouth might be relegated from the Football League back in the ‘nineties.

As I drove in to Bournemouth, if felt slightly odd that I was apart from my usual match day companions. They kept me updated with their progress though; they were having a blast.

Steve dropped me off at around 2pm, and it was great to be back in the tree-lined streets leading up to the small stadium, situated alongside other sporting grounds in the Kings Park. The slow walk to the stadium was an arboreal treat.

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I spotted a few Chelsea faces, and walked around the stadium, taking it all in. The locals were bedecked in red and black, and there was an expectant buzz in the air. Maybe I miss-read their smiles, but I think there was an air of “I can’t really believe we are playing Chelsea” in and around the stands.

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Everything was neat and tidy. For once, I bought a programme. Inside there was a facsimile of the 1994 edition. It seemed so old-fashioned in comparison to the fine production standards of the 2016 version. The sun was warming the air. A while back, the club changed their kit from all red to the red and black stripes of yesteryear, which were taken from the classic lines of the Milan kit. Outside the away stand, the club training facility was spotted, all sleek and modern, with Italian styling, like their own version of Milanello.

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On the red brick wall surrounding the northern boundary, keeping out the prying eyes of suburbia, there were large posters – evidently weather-resistant – of past teams and past eras. Bournemouth have certainly had their fair share of different kits over the years, but the red and black resonates throughout.

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Lastly, there was a nice remembrance of times past. The Jubilee Gates from 1960. The image conjured up potting sheds, Woodbines, the home service, The Goon Show, and men sitting in deckchairs on Boscombe beach wearing not only shirts, but ties too. Another era.

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Just before I entered the away turnstiles – how I love the click click click of those typically British contraptions – I will admit to being worried about the game ahead. This was just too nice a day, too nice a setting. It almost seemed like a pre-season friendly. Would we be fully focused? Would AFC Bournemouth hand us the A to Z on attacking and incisive football on this hazy day on the south coast? Hiddink had selected a strong team with Eden Hazard recalled, but there was surprisingly no room for Rueben Loftus-Cheek. Elsewhere, Jon Obi Mikel was preferred to the raw American Matt Miazga. Asmir Begovic replaced the suspended Courtois. Sadly there was no place for John Terry. One wonders if we will see him play again this season, and indeed if this season will indeed be his last in our colours. If fit, surely deserves a start against Tottenham.

I was half-expecting many of the Chelsea faithful to be stuck in the town centre as the kick-off approached, unable to coordinate the final leg of their match day plans. In the final twenty minutes, there was a late surge and most people were in. I met up with all the usual suspects. Everyone had had a blast in the busy town centre pubs. Bournemouth, with golden sands, high cliffs, sunken gardens, and white-faced hotels everywhere, is a very fine seaside resort.

Chelsea were playing in all white, and we had a great view of the action, along the side of the pitch, and with a similar vantage point as that cold night in Blackpool in 2011.

Bournemouth began marginally brighter, but we took the lead on only five minutes when a well-worked move, involving Hazard and Costa, found Fabregas. His fine forward pass, which dissected the centre-back and full back, found Pedro who adeptly lifted the ball over Artur Boruc. We were one-up, and it was time for Alan and myself to go through our Tommy Docherty-inspired celebration.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The game continued with some crisp passing from both sides, and with the Chelsea fans in good voice. All of that beer and cider had the desired effect. Joshua King wasted a good opportunity, slashing the ball over the bar, and Bournemouth then got the bit between their teeth, especially exposing our right flank. They had a few chances, and could easily have scored if their finishing had been better. A nice Chelsea move, again involving Fabregas, then picked out the previously quiet Hazard. He let fly with a speculative effort, which Boruc was unable to stop from reaching the net. It was – read it and weep – Hazard’s first league goal of the season. It was late April. Oh boy. However, the ‘keeper really should have done better. This was against the run of play to be honest. We were 2-0 up but Bournemouth were giving us a few moments of concern.

We spotted Cesc’s pink and yellow boots. It looked like he was wearing one of each.

“Rhubarb and custard” said Gary.

My pal Kevin was stood behind me and was talking to me about the bet that he had put on before the game.

“I got a bet that we’d win 3-0, so let’s see how this goes.”

In the very next two seconds, Elphick rose higher than anyone else and nodded a slow header past Begovic’ despairing dive.

I turned to Kev, smiling, as his betting slip became Chelsea Confetti.

“Ha. Perfect timing mate.”

Soon after, Bournemouth came close on two occasions, while Pedro skied a shot from a similar angle as the opening goal. I will be honest; we were lucky to be 2-1 up at the break.

After I returned to my seat alongside Glenn, Alan and Gary during the break, I could smell the sulphurous fumes of a flare which had evidently been let off by our support. The OB were swarming around, but there was no animosity anywhere.

As the second-half began, I was really pissed off to see so many empty seats in our section. So much for everyone wanting a ticket for Bournemouth. Immediately behind me, and right behind Kevin, there were around fifteen seats which had been vacated. Now, let’s get this straight. I acknowledge that going to football never has been “just” about the football and the pre-match and post-match drinks are as much a part of football culture as songs, pies, Adidas trainers, banter and boredom, but for fuck sake.

Leaving a Chelsea game at half-time?

Please fucking explain that to me.

Everyone likes a drink or two, but surely drinks could wait for forty-five minutes? The pubs would close in seven or eight hours’ time. Why the need to fuck off before 4pm? I especially thought of many good friends, and quite a few bad ones, who had missed out on a ticket for this game and would be watching on with a mixture of feelings from afar.

This was a very poor show.

Ironically, the absentees missed a much-improved performance from us in the second period. Diego Costa ran and ran, holding the ball well, challenging for the ball, leading the line well. Pedro was all hustle and bustle, a fine game from him. But the star was Cesc, teasing openings for our forwards, and looking at ease in the middle of all of our attacking plays.

There was a song or two for JT.

“John Terry – We Want You To Stay.”

“Sign Him up, Sign Him Up, Sign Him Up.”

Baba, seeing a lot of the ball in front of us, set up Matic who drilled a low ball across the box. Diego Costa stretched, but could not get enough of the ball. Stanislas curled a fine effort past Begovic’ far post, but we were hogging the ball, and threatening the home team at every opportunity.

Hazard skipped in to the box, but decided not to shoot – why? – and the chance went begging.

There was a little banter between the two sets of fans, but a song from us annoyed me.

AFC Bournemouth, a small club who almost went out of business not so long ago, and who exist on gates of 11,500, were being picked on by the mouthier elements of our support –

“Champions of England – you’ll never sing that.”

Again. Embarrassing.

Take the piss out of Tottenham, West Ham or the like with that song.

But not AFC bloody Bournemouth.

Kevin spoke about the embarrassing moment at Villa Park three weeks ago when the younger element of our support were taunting the home fans with “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.”

Equally embarrassing.

With twenty minutes remaining, that man Fabregas picked out Willian and our little Brazilian waited for the ‘keeper to advance before guiding the ball past him.

3-1, get in.

Costa played in Pedro, who attempted a cheeky bicycle kick. We were pouring forward now and the home fans were starting to head home. Then, the mood changed.

Out of nowhere, from behind me and to my right, came a new chant.

“Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham. Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham.”

I joined in.

I had to.

It summed up everything.

It begged a question of our team’s application. The perception was that we could play well if we felt like it. If we fancied it. If we were in the mood. Well, against Tottenham the players had better be in the mood. We have a twenty-six-year record to protect and, should Leicester City falter, we needed to extinguish Tottenham’s title hunt.

Ugh, even writing it.

”Tottenham’s title hunt.”

The noise was deafening, and it really developed when the play was over on our side of the pitch. There seemed an immediate schism between team and support; not something that I would normally advocate, but on this occasion, at this moment of time, at this stadium in Dorset, it seemed absolutely correct.

“Beat fucking Tottenham.”

And I immediately noticed the exact words used.

“You’d better beat Tottenham” and not “we’d better beat Tottenham.”

That divide. That gap. The supporters were laying everything at the feet of our under-performing players.

When Eden Hazard poked home a deserved fourth, the applause seamlessly merged into the same mantra.

I bet the players were thinking “oh, here they go again.”

They heard us. It would be hard for them not to. The players looked sheepish. Not one looked towards us.

The message was loud and clear.

Don’t let the club down on Monday 2 May.

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Tales From The Road To Milan

Chelsea vs. Porto : 9 December 2015.

Midway through the morning, a work colleague spoke.

“You’re quiet today, Chris.”

A pause…”yep.”

“Are you going to Chelsea tonight?”

“Yep. I think that’s the reason why I’m quiet.”

Here we were again, then. Shades of 2011 and 2012, when we left it – unfashionably – late to determine our progress through to the Champions League knock-out phase. Of course, our fortunes contrasted in both of those seasons. In 2012, we failed to qualify from the group phase for the very first time after we won our last game against Nordsjaeland but Willian’s Shakhtar Donetsk lost 1-0 at home to Juventus.

In 2011, a triumphant win at home to Valencia set us on our way to “you know where.”

Looking back, it’s odd that the last five final Champions League group phase games have all been at home.

2015 : Porto.

2014 : Sporting Lisbon.

2013 : Steaua Bucharest.

2012 : Nordsjaeland.

2011 : Valencia.

Thankfully, we haven’t always left it quite so late to qualify. And Chelsea have a proud Champions League record to uphold. In our thirteen previous campaigns, we have only failed to qualify for the knock-out phase just the once. We have qualified as group winners ten times, as runners-up just twice. It’s a pretty remarkable record.

I yearned for a win against Porto. Not only would it signal our passage through to further European adventures on the road to Milan, and not Basel where the Europa Final would be played, but I hoped that it would give us a much-needed confidence boost to our awful league form.

As the day progressed, my noise levels did not increase. I was truly focussed on the evening game with Porto. After the demoralising loss at home to AFC Bournemouth on Saturday evening, there is no surprise that there was an air of solemnity. These were still edgy times as a Chelsea supporter.

Ah, Bournemouth. Although their manager Eddie Howe called it the greatest result in his team’s history – with sufficient reason – was it really a nadir for Chelsea Football Club? I think not. The troubles of season 1982/1983 surely represented our historical low point. A few games in that season might be awarded the dubious honour of marking our lowest ebb. A 3-0 reverse at fellow strugglers Burnley might signify that. I was not there at Burnley nor many of the other miserable games in 1982/1983. However, the one game that many Chelsea fans quote as “the ultimate low point” actually took place in 1981/1982; the infamous 6-0 loss at Millmoor, the home of Rotherham United. I did not attend that one either. However, on a personal level, Bournemouth away in 1988/1989 represents my personal all-time low. Let me explain. Newly relegated from the top division, our third game that season took us to Dean Court for a game with Bournemouth, in only their second season at that level in their history. I was confident of a win.

We lost 1-0.

It was my “there in person” low point in terms of losing to a team, and club – a small, provincial club – that we ought to have beaten.

No doubt that game will be referenced again when we get to visit Dean Court in April.

In the pub before the game with Porto, there was the usual gathering of mates from near and far. Chris was over again from Guernsey, with his son Nick. They were both in town for the Bournemouth game, too. And get this. Although he has been watching Chelsea games in person for fifteen years, the 1-0 loss at home to Bournemouth was the very first game that he had seen us lose.

“How many games is that then, Nick?”

“Not sure. About fifty.”

“Bloody hell.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, Alan and I compared notes.

Alan : “It took me two games to see us lose.”

Chris : “Three for me. Two wins and a loss.”

Across the stadium, Porto had brought a full three-thousand to Stamford Bridge. They were, of course, still in contention for a passage into further rounds of this year’s competition. Nevertheless, three thousand was a fine showing. It made our 1,100 showing in Porto in September pale by comparison.

This was our fourth Champions League match against Porto at Stamford Bridge. They are our most familiar such opponents, along with Barcelona and Liverpool. There was also a home friendly with Porto in the heady summer of 1995, which marked the home debuts of new signings Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes.

Jose Mourinho had decided to – eventually – drop Cesc Fabregas and recall Diego Costa. Dave and JT returned, and there was a starting place for Ramires too.

In the Porto team, Iker Casillas made his Stamford Bridge debut – damn it, will we never ever draw his former team Real Madrid? – and old adversary Maicon was captain. There was no place for the remarkably named Andre Andre, whose favourite ‘eighties bands are presumably Duran Duran, The The and Talk Talk.

As the game began, although our sights were focussed on the pitch, the game in Kiev would also be monitored. This was a very tight finish to our group. Although many potential scenarios were spoken about, I am not convinced even now that I truly understood the ramifications should all three teams end up on equal points.

There was an exciting start to the game with a couple of chances exchanged. Alan had brought along his Champions League lucky wine gums. They soon worked their magic. A ball through from Eden Hazard allowed Diego Costa to advance on goal. From an angle, a low shot was parried by Casillas, but the ball bounced back towards the defender Marcano. The ball was goal bound, but seemed to lack “legs.” We watched, time appearing to stand still, as Maicon hacked the ball off the line. We were, of course, at the other end of the stadium. I was not convinced that the ball had crossed the line. A creature of habit, I glanced over to the linesman in front of the West Stand. His flag was down. The crowd were roaring, though. The referee was signalling a goal. I had, of course, neglected to look at the much-abused official behind the goal line.

It was a goal.

It didn’t create the emotional release of other goals due to its rather messy nature, but it was a goal nonetheless. Ironically, Alan and I had just bemoaned the presence of the fifth and sixth officials, who rarely get involved in any decisions whatsoever.

On around twenty minutes, I was fuming as Diego Costa needlessly, and stupidly, tripped Casillas as he had collected the ball and was looking to distribute the ball. It was just so annoying. Just like our season – one step forward, one step back – Diego Costa seems to confuse and infuriate me.

His efforts lead to a goal, but he then followed that up with a baffling trip.

Idiot.

Chances were otherwise rare in the first forty-five minutes. A sweet strike from Oscar was deflected narrowly wide. Just before the break, Courtois saved well and then Diego Costa was through one-on-one, but shot wide of the goal.

Ramires was a major plus during the first-half. His energy and running, his tackling and blocking, seemed to be a breath of fresh air. He seemed to invigorate us and drew good applause from the Stamford Bridge crowd.

It had been a competent showing in the first-half but my pre-match prediction of “a 1-0 lead from early on resulting in a nervous match all of the way through to the final whistle” looked like being correct.

In Kiev, the home team were beating Maccabi. No surprises there.

Porto began the second-half on the front foot. It was in their best interests to attack. Two efforts on goal signalled their new vigour. However, after just six minutes, a fine interchange between Diego Costa and Eden Hazard found Willian, who slammed the ball low past Casillas. It reminded me of his match-winner against Everton at the start of 2015. His run towards the far corner was the identical.

Hopefully, we could now relax a little.

I was able to sit back and appreciate the intricacies of our play. Porto continued to move forward and we were content to let them do so. They had to score. We just needed to keep it tight. Our attacking reverted to that of old-style counter attacks. I lost count of the number of times that we broke away at speed. On one occasion, Diego Costa ran through, tussling shoulder to shoulder with Maicon, but fell to the floor way too easily.

At the other end, fine tackles from our two centre-halves were perfectly executed.

Porto continued to push forward, but I thought that they suffered from the same malaise as us on Saturday; plenty of crosses played in to the danger areas, but nobody able to get on the end of them. The away fans appeared to be resigned to a defeat, a third-place finish and demotion to the maligned Europa League.

While we had dreams, however outlandish and fanciful, of Milan and the San Siro, Porto’s route to European glory would now be diverted to the Swiss city a few hundred miles to the north of the Lombardy capital.

Our counter attacks continued, and Eden Hazard went close.

A few spirited tackles from Oscar drew applause. Matic, ambling around but in control, was able to soak up Porto pressure. Hazard was not involved as much as I would have liked but was neat and rarely gave the ball away. It was reassuring to see Dave back.

One moment, involving Diego Costa, annoyed me further though. At the end of a great move, the crucial killer ball evaded him. He ended up in the goal mouth, turning his back to play. Although the ball was still “live”, rather than chase it down and keep pressure on Porto, he slowly walked back on to the field. Whereas other players had shown more of the old Chelsea spirit, it was annoying to see Costa still not 100% focussed on the team ethic which Mourinho so espouses.

“One step forward, one step back.”

Mourinho made some late changes.

Pedro for Oscar : lots of applause for the Brazilian.

Mikel for Diego Costa : this signalled an exodus from the stands, the game was safe now surely, Mikel was closing the sale.

Remy for Hazard : the poor bugger, surely he deserved more than a few minutes.

We were through. The road to Milan continues.

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Tales From The Terrace

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 7 November 2015.

The day had begun in fine fashion, with Parky and myself stopping off for a mammoth breakfast apiece in the local town of Bradford-on-Avon, thus replicating the start of our trip to The Hawthorns in August. Blimey, after that game against West Brom, we thought that our season-opening blip had ended and that, surely, by the start of November our league campaign would be back on track.

Little did we know, eh?

Straight after our galvanising breakfast, I headed back to the car, while His Lordship powdered his nose. I have a new car – a black Volkswagen – and I quickly rushed over to it, tapped the unlock function on the key fob, and let myself in, thus avoiding a few drops of rain. I settled down in the seat. I took a look around.

Sandwich wrappers and parking tickets.

What?

There was silence.

It wasn’t my car.

I had let myself in to an identical black Polo and my head was spinning. I quickly exited, locked the doors, and spotted my car three cars down. Rather sheepishly, I sat inside and waited for Parky to arrive. He had a good old look in the first car just to check if I was inside. Once he realised that my car was a few yards away, he joined me.

“You ain’t gonna believe what I just did.”

In the minute that it took me to explain what had just – bizarrely – transpired, the other car had disappeared, with its driver presumably none the wiser.

“Bloody hell Parky, if the inside of his car wasn’t so full of rubbish, I’d be driving up to Stoke in the wrong bloody car.”

We laughed. I knew that this would be a story that a few of the lads would love to hear later in the day. We wondered if, inexplicably, I had been given a VW master key. We laughed again.

“Next time I’m over your house Chris, you’ll have a fleet of black Volkswagens.”

“One for every day of the week.”

“And two for Sundays.”

“Nah, one for Aston Villa away, one for Leicester City away, one for Stoke away, one for Stoke away in the cup…”

We laughed again.

Despite the ‘orrible grey weather and miserable rain, I made good time on my drive north. It seemed odd to be heading back up the M5 and M6 for a second consecutive away game at Stoke City. In my forty-five years of following the team, I’d never attended two consecutive away games at the same stadium, though in the days of extended FA Cup replays, I am sure there have been precedents.

Wrexham in 1982 springs to mind.

At just after midday, I slowed outside Stoke-on-Trent railway station. Waiting to join us was Dave, newly-arrived on a regular service train from London. There were over five hours until our match would kick-off at 5.30pm. It was time to kick back and enjoy the familiar surroundings – stop sniggering in the cheap seats – of my old college town.

We headed over to the neighbouring town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a distinct entity to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, but not before I had given Dave a little tour past the site of the old Victoria Ground where Stoke played from 1878 to 1997. It is always galling to see an empty space, overgrown with weeds, where Sir Stanley Matthews once shimmied and swayed.

From 1985 to 1987, I lived no more than fifty yards from its away end.

There was an unsurprising dart in to a favourite menswear shop of yore, still selling casual gear of a high standard to this very day. I told the story of how I bought a “Best Company” T-shirt in the same shop in 1986 for the then astronomical price of £25 and how I felt like the dog’s doodahs when I saw the very same label being worn by Italians on holiday later that summer.

Good times.

If only I had kept it, I am sure it would be worth a mint today.

We enjoyed a pint in “The Golden Lion” while the Huddersfield Town versus Leeds United game was being shown on TV. It is hard to believe that there are new Chelsea fans that have never experienced a Chelsea against Leeds league game. Though out of sight, Leeds are never really too far out of mind. They are a massive club, and it feels very odd not playing them every season. They were, of course, League Champions in 1992 and are a good example of how successful clubs sometimes implode. Whisper it, but after narrowly edging the other United to the League title in 1992, they finished in lowly seventeenth place the following May. I can well remember that they didn’t even win a single away game in 1992-1993.

At least we have West Brom this season.

Gallows humour? You bet.

On their last visit to Stamford Bridge in 2004, before disappearing from view in a massive meltdown, their fans goaded us with this little ditty :

“If it wasn’t for the Russian, you’d be us.”

One supposes that there may well have been a grain of truth in those words.

Anyway. Leeds United. There you are. Hopefully the only time that they feature in these match reports for a few years.

We popped next door into “The Kiln.” By this time I had spilled the beans to Dave about my worrying escapade involving the two Volkswagen. This kept us chortling for a while, but there was also serious talk about the chances of us filling Wembley if we end up in exile from Stamford Bridge for three or four years.

On the walk back to the car, the boys sampled the delights from the nearby “Wrights Pies” shop. I know this sounds silly, but the three of us were having a cracking pre-match.

On getting back to the car park, Dave tee’d me up nicely.

“Which one is your car, Chris?”

“Bollocks, the nearest one.”

I pointed out where Alan Hudson, still heavily revered in The Potteries, used to own a wine bar in the ‘eighties, then aimed my car over the hill and down in to Stoke once again. I parked up outside a no-frills boozer called “The Terrace” which was just across the road from my old college, in an area called Shelton, and, specifically, its playing fields. This pub, though to the north of the station whereas the Britannia is to the south, was where the Chelsea fans were basing themselves. We were over two miles away from the stadium.

There was a police van parked outside, no surprises there. I passed over a spare ticket to a mate, and said a few “hellos” to a few familiar faces. I never used to drink in “The Terrace” back in my student days – I was more “Kings Arms”, “Roebuck”, “Station”, “Corner Cupboard”– but I must have visited “The Terrace” at some stage in those drinking years of around thirty years ago.

The clouds were subtly changing colour overhead – now tinged with the embers of a dying sun – and it was noticeably colder. I stood with my pint of lager and was lost in thought as I looked over the road at my former college. Right opposite from where I was standing, I had played in many games of football on the college playing fields. It felt strange. The memories of a spectacular volley which narrowly whizzed over the bar from my right boot some thirty yards out, a couple of goals here, a tackle there. Memories of friends.

The class of ’87 – with “The Terrace” fifty yards out of shot to the left.

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Mike, Dave, Bob, Adam, Rick, Ian, Richie.

Chris, Sean, Trev, Nige, Steve.

Five of these lads – Bob, Ian, Richie, Nigel and Trevor – have stood and sat alongside me at Stamford Bridge for more than a few games over the years, bless them all.

“Friendship and Football.”

It was quite surreal to be back.

However, it was even more surreal back in early July this year when around fifty – a nifty fifty rather than a naughty forty – met up for a college reunion. We had a magnificent time. Of the lads pictured in the team photo, six were there. I had not seen Rick and Sean since graduation in 1987, nor Steve since 1995. We took over the old Student Union, now modernised and plush, and loved every minute of it. At times, 1987  seemed like last year. I know it is a most hackneyed saying, but where does the time go?

There is, somewhere, in the darker and grimier parts of the internet, a short video of a few of us dancing to “What Difference Does It Make?”

At around 4.15pm, we needed to get moving. I said my goodbyes to the class of ’15 and drove south to the area of the city that the locals pronounce “Siddaway, duck.”

On the walk towards the Britannia Stadium, there is a section of footpath which cuts alongside the Cauldon Canal. For the past few seasons, a canal boat has been moored, and that distinctive Potteries delicacy the oatcake has been sold. I was in too much of a rush to indulge at the League Cup game, but on this occasion, I was able to stop and sample one. I treated Dave and Parky too.

“Three bacon and cheese oatcakes please, duck.”

They went down a storm. My two match day companions were duly impressed.

As we turned the corner at the top of the path, just before the bridge over the canal, a Stoke City supporter was selling the club’s fanzine, “The Oatcake.” Time for a culinary diversion methinks. Similar in appearance to a pancake, these cherished snacks are made without eggs but with oats and flour. They were the staple diet of a few fellow students while at college.

The boys were getting the complete Stoke experience. “Wright’s Pies” in ‘Castle, a couple of pints in Shelton, and now oatcakes in Sideway.

I was soon inside the away end at The Britannia once again, a mere eleven days after the last visit. This time, the four of us – Al, Gal, Parky, myself – were in the lower tier, but right behind the goal. The time soon passed. There was a raucous air of defiance within the Chelsea ranks. I was lifted by our performance against Kiev, and was adamant that we would win this one. The team line-up showed a few noticeable changes.

Begovic – Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma, Baba – Matic, Ramires – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Costa.

One familiar face was missing.

Jose Mourinho, locked away in the Fenton Travelodge along with his tea and coffee making facilities, trouser press and free wi-fi, was nowhere to be seen. We presumed that he would be in constant contact with the makeshift management team of Rui Faria and Steve Holland.

“Reception, hello…what is the wifi password? I need to send a PowerPoint presentation. Yes, yes, the pillows are very soft, but I need the password. Now. Puta.”

For a while before the teams appeared, the stadium resounded to applause for the various strands of the armed forces – from army cadets through to those serving today to veterans – as they walked the perimeter of the pitch. The two captains, Shawcross and Terry, lead their players out. There were servicemen and women to the left and to the right. After the handshakes, the teams reassembled in the centre circle.

There was a little applause, but thankfully this soon evaporated.

Arms were linked.

Silence, save for a perfect rendition of The Last Post.

“We Will Remember Them.”

The game began well for Chelsea, and I was very pleased to see Eden Hazard, especially, taking the ball towards the Stoke defence time and time again. He seemed to be heading back towards a more confident place. The Chelsea fans around me seemed to be cheered. The noise was fine.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

We came close with efforts zipping across the Stoke six yard area. Pedro and Hazard seemed to be on form, and we were pretty much on top. However, as the half progressed, Xherdan Shaqiri – so short that his arse rubbed out his footprints – kept getting the better of an increasingly nervy Baba at left-back. Sadly, rather than yells of support for our defender, there were groans of annoyance. He ended up having a torrid time.

Charlie Adam, one of my most disliked players of this and any year, continued his personal vendetta on all things blue and chipped away at Pedro.

A fine move found Diego Costa, wide right, but his shot was poor. Despite Chelsea having most of the ball, Stoke were edging back in to the game.

As Dave joined us in our row ahead of the second-half, I confided : “this has 0-0 written all over it.”

Sadly, soon in to the second period – and with Jose Mourinho pacing around room 14 of the Fenton Travelodge, nibbling on a Harvest Crunch biscuit – our game plan was hit with a body blow.

A cross from the Stoke right, indecision in our ranks, and a swivel in mid-air from Arnautovic at the far post.

One-nil to Stoke.

“Here we bloody go again.”

With that, the home supporters sung – very very loudly – their theme tune “Delilah” and I have to admit it was pretty impressive.

Ugh.

I sighed.

And Jose Mourinho punched a hole through to room 15.

The Chelsea support rallied straightaway, but easily fell into the silly trap of “You Never Won Fcuk All”, ignoring the simple fact that Stoke City beat Chelsea Football Club at Wembley in 1972.

Another “ugh.”

The rest of the game, regardless of individuals involved, seemed to follow the same pattern.

Chelsea in possession, Stoke with a blanket defence. Chelsea keeping the ball, Stoke tackling hard. Chelsea running wide, Stoke keeping their shape. Chelsea unable to break through, Stoke standing firm. Chelsea nil, Stoke one.

Willian’s free kicks for once, were poor.

Hazard seemed the one to unlock the defence, but he seemed increasingly forlorn.

“Costa, get in the fackin’ box.”

The Stoke challenges, of course, bordered on the grotesque.

The Chelsea supporters grew frustrated but we still tried our best to help entice a goal from somewhere. Our support only waned slightly.

So much for winning, this was a game we now needed to draw.

What a season.

At the other end, thankfully all of Stoke’s rare attempts on goal were wayward.

Then, hope. A fine move involving Matic and then Hazard set up Pedro, who opened up his body and aimed a curler at the far post.

I could not resist.

“Goal.”

The ball hit the base of Butland’s right post and bounced away to safety.

I turned around and screamed.

“Fuck.”

Mourinho knocked a hole in to room 13.

Fabregas and Oscar came on in place of Baba and Pedro, but in all honesty offered little.

Pass, pass, pass, block, block, block.

We rarely got behind Stoke, we rarely put Butland under pressure.

The home fans, realising that they were close to a memorable double over the reigning champions grew louder.

“C’mon Stoke. C’mon Stoke. C’mon Stoke.”

Remy replaced Ramires.

We played three at the back. John Terry moved forward to support the attack on more than one occasion, with Matic dropping back. To be fair, Remy seemed to inject a little more directness in to our play. The Chelsea support seemed to be rapidly losing patience with Costa now.

With time running out, Remy was set free inside the box. The ball was just ahead of him, but we sensed a real chance. In the flash of an eye, Butland came out to block, Remy hurdled him, but lost his footing, with the ball running wide. He slipped, and the shot was shanked high.

Without the benefit of an action replay, I stood dazed, trying to evaluate what I had seen.

On another day, Remy would not have been so quick to react – nor as honest – and Butland would have given away a penalty.

A few half-hearted chances were created, but there was a mood of gloomy pessimism inside the away end now. There would be no last gasp goal at Stoke City on this visit. We clapped the boys off at the end, but I was so disappointed. Chelsea had played well in fits and starts – the fight was there, but not the know-how – and this was another tough loss.

If only the Stoke defence was as easy to unlock as that black Volkswagen in Bradford-on-Avon.

As Parky and I walked back to the waiting car, amid the clipped and familiar accents of the locals, I could not help but think this :

“Seven defeats in twelve league games.”

And, how hateful, another international break – two long interminably long weeks – for us to stew in our own juices.

Football.

Sometimes I hate you.

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Tales From Underneath The M6

Walsall vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2015.

Following our stirring 2-0 victory over Arsenal, there followed a midweek match in the League Cup – I’m going to resolutely refrain from calling it by its current pseudonym – against League One, er Third Division – high flyers Walsall.

Here was a game which I was really relishing, although the main reason was due to me being able to tick off another new ground in the never-ending list of venues where I have seen Chelsea play. Of course, there have been Chelsea games at Walsall’s former home Fellows Park before. Everyone had been referencing the 7-0 win during our 1988/1989 promotion campaign, but I also recollect a League Cup match in 1984. Neither of these did I attend.

Walsall is just a few miles further north than West Brom’s stadium, so here was a relatively easy away game. After work, I collected Parky and we were soon on our way up the M5. This would be the first of three back-to-back-to back away games for myself; the game in the West Midlands would be followed in quick succession by games on Tyneside and in Portugal. At Gloucester Services, we happened to bump in to four of Trowbridge’s finest, who themselves were heading up to Newcastle at the weekend. Three of them would be on the same flight from Bristol as myself.

I must pass Walsall’s compact Bescot Stadium, nestled alongside some huge advertising hoardings which overlook an elevated section of the M6 as it works its way out of Birmingham, five or six times every season. The upper deck of one of its stands is a familiar sight as I head north on numerous Chelsea away trips. On this occasion, I would be stopping by and paying it a visit.

We made good time, and I was parked-up in a quiet residential street about a mile from the stadium at around 6.30pm. The match programme mentioned our most recent encounter with Walsall, and it was a game that I had forgotten all about; a 1993 League Cup game at Stamford Bridge, which had followed on from the first leg at the Bescot Stadium, back in the days when the early round was a two-legged affair. Those of a nervous disposition might want to look away now, but the gates at the two games were 5,510 in Walsall and just 7,646 in West London. The home game included that rare event, a Robert Fleck goal. More of him later.

Inside the stadium, we enjoyed a pint in the cramped bar which ran beneath the terraces of the away stand. Originally, the stadium consisted of four small stands, but the home end is now double-decked with a line of executive boxes splitting the two tiers. The songs soon started, and there were the first of many “Zigger Zaggers” which continually popped up throughout the evening. I was right behind the goal, towards the back of the slight stand. There were many familiar faces nearby within the 1,500 away support. Parky’s seat was only seven seats away from me, so he soon sauntered over to join me.

If some Chelsea games were films, then some of our most dramatic encounters could be likened to tense thrillers. Some of European nights fall in to that genre. How about those games in the Champions League with Barcelona and Liverpool. Some could be likened to sweeping epics, like some of our domestic cup ties, rolling on, with replay after replay. Others could be mysteries – how did we lose that game? – or maybe even whodunits – who was responsible for that loss? The game at the Bescot Stadium on Wednesday 23 September 2015, watched by an easily distracted away support, almost resembled an old style Ealing Comedy, or maybe a Carry On film, with a catalogue of comedic moments, ribald jokes, typical British humour, and allied high-jinks. It was a – to coin an often used phrase in the Chelsea lexicon of late – “proper” old school evening out.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The team selection soon filtered through. It was a mix of old and new.

Begovic, Ivanovic, JT, Cahill, Baba, Mikel, Ramires, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Falcao, Remy.

Despite a lot of League Cup games drawing pitiful crowds these days, I was happy to see a full house, with few seats unused, as at Shrewsbury almost a year ago. As the Chelsea players ran towards us, I wondered what was going through captain John Terry’s mind, now playing for his place alongside a few others not now guaranteed automatic selection.

Not only did the team begin well, but the buoyant away crowd were soon delving in to the well-thumbed pages of the Chelsea songbook. The night of song and revelry began.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea…”

“Here for the Chelsea…”

“Diego, Diego, Diego…”

There were sporadic and unconvincing shouts of “Zigger Zagger.”

Our noisy support was rewarded with a headed goal from Ramires at the far post after a fine cross from Kenedy on just ten minutes. The songs continued.

“In Dublin’s fair city…”

“Double, double, double…”

“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fucking great goal…”

“Knees up Mother Brown…”

“Bertie Mee said to Bill Shankly have you heard of the North Bank Highbury..?”

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star, scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far…”

“Oh Jimmy Jimmy – Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink…”

We played some nice stuff as the game continued and I remember being impressed with the neatness of Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s touch and the eagerness and speed of Kenedy. One earnest run, direct and forceful, was scintillating. However, Walsall had their moments and matched us for attempts on goal. It is just as well that their shots were truly woeful. Ivanovic, had a patchy first-half, and looked to be way off the pace one minute, yet strong the next. Overall, it was a pretty decent Chelsea performance. We just looked, obviously, fitter and faster than our opponents. A superb ball from Mikel found Falcao, who went close. I liked the relationship between Kenedy and Baba on the left. It looked a far more fluid attacking area than the stop / start nature of our attacks down the opposite flank. Among it all, Loftus-Cheek was keeping things solid and picking some fine passes. We went two goals up when Ramires picked out Remy, himself impressive, who smashed the ball home.

“You’ve had your day out…”

“Jose Mourinho…”

However, just as it looked like the game was won before half-time, Walsall managed to get a goal back. I thought Begovic did ever so well to foil an effort from a free-kick; he had moved slightly to his right, but quickly flung himself to the left to push out an effort. Alas, the ball ran to O’Connor who nudged the ball over the line from an angle. The home crowd made a racket as they celebrated a surprise goal.

Soon in to the second period, Kenedy struck home after a fine move and we regained our two-goal lead. Bolstered by some half-time drinks, the songs continued.

“Number one is Robert Fleck, number two is Robert Fleck…”

“One man went to mow…”

Then, a moment of comedy. Over in the far corner, a jet of water from a pitch side sprinkler suddenly started spraying the pitch. It wouldn’t stop. It continued for a minute or two. The sprinkler then started spraying the crowd in the lower tier of the home end. The Chelsea contingent immediately conjured up a few songs.

“Is there a fire drill…?”

“Sacked in the morning…”

“You’ve had your shower, now fuck off home…”

The Chelsea support was in full-on “Micky-Taking” mode now and the songs continued.

There was even a solid attempt at “Chelsea Ranger”, a song more suited to pre-match pubs and bars than during actual games. It is rarely heard during matches.

Pedro came on for Kenedy.

“Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez…”

Matic replaced Loftus-Cheek.

“In the middle of our pitch…”

Walsall had a few chances. A fine dribble from Remy, looking confident, was good to see. However, it was disheartening to see Radamel Falcao floundering in front of goal in front of us. I am just so pleased he scored against Palace, or we could be suffering a Torres-style goal drought. In the closing moments, Pedro advanced and shimmied before sending a low shot towards goal, which the Walsall ‘keeper should have saved, but the ball was possibly too close and low for him to react.

Walsall 1 Chelsea 4.

In the last few seconds, Falcao was replaced by Papys Djilobodji.

…mmm, no song for him yet.

As I made my way slowly out of the away seats, a young policewoman called me over, pointing at a few sticks of celery which had found their way on to the grass.

“What’s with the celery?”

I smiled and partially explained it, but didn’t elaborate fully.

Wink.

This had been an enjoyable evening, plenty of songs, lots of familiar faces, and four goal scorers. We soon learned that we had been drawn away at Stoke City, just up the road, in the next round. Would I be heading past Bescot Stadium once more next month? It’s highly likely.

But first, we take on Newcastle United and Porto in their home cities.

See you there.

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Tales From The Blue Carpet

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 10 May 2015.

With our fifth League Championship secured, the main focus before our match with Liverpool – our most bitterest of rivals over the past ten seasons – was on the guard of honour which the visitors were aiming to provide for us. There was also the matter of their captain Steven Gerrard’s last ever game in SW6, but I preferred the focus to be on us, the Champions. Three more games. Three more wins please. I wanted nine points and nine points only.

With time to kill before the 4pm kick-off, I idly spent an hour or so in and around Stamford Bridge, bumping in to a few friends outside the stadium and in a couple of bars. It is a strange fact of my life that I can run in to more acquaintances in half-an-hour outside any stadium where Chelsea are about to perform than half-an-hour in my nearest town centre. I grew increasingly frustrated by the sight of tout after tout crowding around the entrances to the tube station and stadium. I also muttered many uncomplimentary swear words under my breath – and sometimes over it – about the huge amount of people sporting joint Chelsea and Liverpool game-day “friendship” scarves. The most tell-tale sign of a wet-behind-the-ears first-timer, these scarves are stain on the English football scene. If visitors fancy a poignant reminder of their first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge, I would rather they bought a simple match programme. The need for ridiculous adornment leaves me cold.

And angry.

But you knew that.

Outside The Chelsea Pensioner, formerly the Black Bull, visitors were seen to be checking to see if their names were on the match day guest list. How things change. Back in the promotion campaign of 1988-1989, I used to frequent this lovely and perfectly-placed pub on the Fulham Road before games. In those days, my drinking partners were Alan and Gary – as of now – but also Paul from Brighton and two brothers, Mark and Paul, who I have not seen at Chelsea for maybe fifteen years. In those days, there were no guest lists. I walked past the quaint Fox And Pheasant, with drinkers nestling pints as they laughed in the bright sunlight. I took a photograph of several pastel-coloured houses, lined-up in a tight terrace, with the towering roof supports of Darbourne and Darke’s East Stand visible above.

This was a quintessentially Chelsea match day scene. Here was football-life and non-football life existing cheek by jowl. How cosmopolitan. How Chelsea.

Back on the North End Road, I popped in to The Cock Tavern, scene of my first-ever pint on a match day at Chelsea. This pub, much changed and much-gentrified since April 1984, is another lovely pub. We are truly blessed at Chelsea.

In The Goose beer garden, even more faces, even more laughter.

Lo and behold, who should be standing next to Alan and Gary, but Mark from the Black Bull twenty-six years ago. It was great to see him again. He was with his son. I gave Mark a big old hug.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I glanced at Jose Mourinho’s programme notes.

“You supporters, I think you also had some responsibility for my return, so I want to share my happiness and my pride with you all and I want to thank you.”

“I also want to honour a dear enemy: Steve Gerrard. We need dear enemies to be better, to be pushed to the limits, and no one in this country was that dear enemy better than Steve Gerrard – a super player and a good man, for sure.”

In came Filipe Luis, Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jon Obi Mikel and Loic Remy. Big things are expected of Loftus-Cheek. It was lovely to see him start.

Over in the far corner were the three thousand away fans, but with a few empty seats. Some of those empty seats were not filled the whole afternoon. I spotted some of the balconies had been given a lick of royal blue paint, with the simple words “We Are The Champions” at regular intervals.

And then I spotted a huge – long and wide – royal blue carpet stretched out from the tunnel towards the centre-circle.

“Bloody hell Alan. No expense spared there mate. I’ve never seen such a big bloody carpet. Nothing like rubbing their noses in it.”

Soon enough, the eleven Liverpool players walked out and lined the way for the Champions. This must have been hell incarnate for them. Within only a few seconds, the Chelsea players strode by, led by captain fantastic John Terry. The roar from the home supporters was magnificent. I noted that both sets of players soon veered off the blue carpet, as if embarrassed by the size of it. If something similar was ever done under the chairmanship of Ken Bates, I would have expected stern words before the game :

“Don’t get mud on that bloody carpet, I’m taking it back to the shop on Monday.”

Roman, I expect, can afford carpet.

The first-half was relatively pleasing, with Chelsea enjoying most of the possession. Within a few seconds, a flying tackle by Cesc Fabregas left Raheem Sterling in a crumpled mess on the turf. The stoppage of play allowed the Bridge choir to unleash our favourite Demba Ba song towards the listening Liverpool captain. We were back in the schoolyard once more.

After just five minutes, a lovely Fabregas corner found the leap of John Terry, whose powerful downward header flew past Mignolet and Gerrard on the line.

The place was rocking.

Alan : “ehhh, THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD, like.”

Play was at times overly pretty – from both sides – with many back-heels, self-indulgent dribbles and silly intricacies. Liverpool were not without merit, but we held the advantage.

The MH were in good voice. The serenaded the owner, who waved, in embarrassment no doubt. Then, a cheeky request –

“Roman, Give Us A Song. Roman, Roman, Give Us A Song.”

The sun was out and there was carnival atmosphere brewing.

I whispered to Alan :

“Must say it is lovely to see Liverpool and Manchester United squabbling over fourth place this season.”

An injured Zouma was replaced by Gary Cahill.

Towards the end of the first-half, there was a challenge on Fabregas by Gerrard out on the touchline in front of the West Stand. The newly-watered pitch proved problematic for the Scouse captain, who fell. He quickly scrambled back to his feet, but the moment was not lost on the home support.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…”

There were also songs for our own players of course. The widely loved Willian song has consistently been the most loudly sung ditty all season; ironic, really, because it has taken a while for the typically Mourinho-esque qualities of our combative Brazilian to be appreciated by some. Then, of course, making a late run in our affections over the past two weeks – is that all? – is the Magic Hat song, which was sung with gusto too.

With the songs raining down on the players, we hoped for more goals.

Ricky Lambert, enjoying – or rather enduring – a rare start, was roundly booed for a silly tackle on Thibaut Courtois, for which he was booked. With hardly believable rumours about us buying the Liverpool striker next season floating around the pubs before the game, the Chelsea supporters aired their views :

“What A Waste Of Money.”

It was redolent of the anti-George Graham chants in 1996.

Alas, a Jordan Henderson free-kick down below me in the north-west corner was pumped high towards the far post where the ridiculously unmarked Steven Gerrard nodded in past Courtois.

“Bollocks. Him.”

Gerrard’s celebrations were oddly muted, but the away fans roared.

Had I just photographed his last ever goal for Liverpool?

Who cares?

Level at the break, we hoped for more Chelsea goals to come.

Just after the second-half began, Filipe Luis completely lost his sense of geography, allowing his man to set up a chance for Coutinho.

“Bloody hell, how did he miss that?”

The second-half was rather a disappointment. If I am honest, Liverpool edged it. Coutinho, just like at Anfield earlier in the season, was their best player. Lalana looked busy. We, on the other hand, looked flat. Willian was possibly our best player, causing considerable damage down their left. Eden Hazard drifted in and out. Shots were rare.

With the need for three points guiding him, Mourinho replaced Loftus-Cheek – a fine debut – with the dependable Nemanja Matic. However, we still struggled. Liverpool peppered our goal with a few half-chances. It was hardly inspiring stuff from Chelsea.

As Cesc waited to take a corner below, the MH serenaded him. Although his back was towards us, he seemed to be reveling in the love.

With just over ten minutes remaining, there was one more moment of theatre. There was an announcement of a Liverpool substitution.

As soon as the much-derided figure of Steven Gerrard began walking across the sun-kissed Stamford Bridge pitch towards the Liverpool bench under the towering East Stand, I was surprised to hear – and feel – the immediate recognition of his services to the game of football, and our bitter rivals in particular, through a spontaneous round of applause which seemed to start in the Matthew Harding, but was soon followed throughout the stadium. This was a genuine surprise and I was honestly pleased with this. Despite all of the sarcasm and derision aimed at Gerrard over the years, here was a little acceptance in our ranks of the role played by him for Liverpool and England.

Yes, the own goal in Cardiff in 2005, the back-pass in 2010 and the slip in 2014, but also some heavyweight battle royales – with and against our Frank – over the years too.

I stood and clapped. To be quite honest, I had told a few friends before the match that I was in some doubt whether or not Brendan Rodgers would put the Liverpool captain through the rigours of a game at Stamford Bridge, knowing full well that a certain song would accompany Gerrard all day long. His form has not been great all season; surely there was no need for Gerrard to play. His appearance in the starting eleven surprised me. A grudging respect to them for that; he could so easily have shied away. As Gerrard strode off the pitch, he raised both arms and applauded the home sections, with a quick glance towards the spectators in the Matthew Harding.

File under : “Fackinell. I Never Thought I Would See That At The Bridge.”

Of course, the biggest irony of all is the comparison between this match and the encounter with Norwich City in the last home game of last season. In that match, Frank Lampard, Gerrard’s erstwhile rival and arch protagonist, was replaced by David Luiz at the interval. Therefore, there was no stage-managed substitution for Frank. There was no chance for us to clap him from the pitch. Admittedly, of course, there was a certain uncertainty about his future. But Lampard never played for Chelsea again. He did not play any part in the season’s finale at Cardiff City the following week. His last moments in Chelsea blue involved him sloping off the pitch at half-time against Norwich City. Indeed, at the end of the Norwich game, with a good three-quarters of the crowd either on their way home or on their way to the pub, Frank Lampard meekly walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch in a lap of appreciation with his team mates. With barely 10,000 watching from the stands, there was no great last hurrah, there was no great final round of applause and no great anything. The last ever appearances – the last ever moments –  of Frank Lampard in a Chelsea shirt at The Bridge and of Steven Gerrard in a Liverpool shirt at The Bridge could not be more dissimilar.

Gerrard 1 Lampard 0.

And that hasn’t happened too often.

Cuadrado replaced a quiet Remy. Hazard was moved up top.

The game drifted on. Despite a heart-in-the-mouth moment at the end when a lucky deflection took the venom off a Liverpool shot and enabled Courtois to safely gather, there was little drama. We had edged the first forty-five minutes and Liverpool the second.

A draw was a fair result.

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Tales From The Top Of The Hill

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 7 December 2013.

The alarm sounding at 6.30am and no need to use the “snooze button.”

The anticipation of one of my favourite away games of the season.

The simple pleasure of planning it all; the tickets, the timings, the travel plans, the pre-match, the buzz.

The fear of the day being memorable for arctic temperatures at the top of that ridge of land in Stoke-on-Trent.

The selection of the right mix of warm winter clothes.

The realisation that the away end at The Brittania Stadium will resemble “Chris Bonington Meets Milan Fashion Week.”

The Timberland boots, the CP pullover, the Victorinox coat.

The grey sky overhead and the surprisingly mild weather.

The smiles from Parky at 8.30am.

The familiar road north.

The memory of an away game at Stoke City during the promotion campaign of 1988-1989 when I managed to stave off tiredness following a night-shift and Chelsea midfielder Peter Nicholas was sent off after just five minutes but we still went on to win 3-0.

The memory of being in The Black Bull at Chelsea  much later that same season and “Stoke Away” being cited as one of the best away games of that season.

The sight of Liverpool fans at Frankley Services.

The cloudy sky giving way to clear skies just as we passed through Birmingham and, with it, the likelihood of the temperature dropping.

The Brittania Stadium being spotted away on the hill to our right.

The town centre of Stoke.

The familiarity of my old college town.

The shops.

The pubs.

The accents.

The “Wrights Pies” shop.

The “King’s Arms”, now re-opened since the last time that I called by.

The pleasure of visiting my old local from that memorable first year at college in 1984-1985, which nicely coincided with Chelsea’s first season in the top flight since 1979.

The memory of catching early-morning trains down to The Smoke every few weeks and the rush of adrenaline as the train pulled out of Stoke-on-Trent station.

The excitement of away days to Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham, Coventry and all points north, south, east and west.

The first pint of the day in the “King’s Arms” and a toast to Parky, myself and each and every one of the travelling Chelsea army.

The gaggle of locals, obvious match-goers, and the knowing looks exchanged between Parky and myself.

The memory of match days in Stoke when their lads used to gather outside “Charlie Browns” before heading off for scuffles and fights.

The drive up the hill and a second pint in “The White Lion” amidst memories of a night out with some fellow Chelsea student friends on the eve of the Stoke City vs. Chelsea game in May 1985.

The memory of walking back down the hill, after last orders, and singing, shouting, bellowing, Chelsea songs out into the quiet Stoke night almost thirty years ago.

The sight of Ruud Gullit on TV talking passionately and respectfully about Nelson Mandela.

The first few minutes of the game from Old Trafford on TV.

The short drive to our anointed parking place on the slip road of the A500.

The fastening of coats, the wrapping of scarves, the slow trudge up the hill.

The footbridge over the Trent and Mersey Canal.

The “Oatcake” fanzine.

The sleek modern stands of the Brittania, glinting in the winter sun.

The away turnstiles.

The bag search.

The line for beer.

The wait inside for familiar faces.

The traditional “Stoke Away” habit of throwing beer up in the air amidst songs.

The sad realisation that I might be getting too old for all this.

The tedious “Ten German Bombers.”

The news, via text, that The Geordies were winning at Old Trafford.

The obvious and uncontrollable surge of schadenfreude.

The lack of faces that I know; just who are these people?.

The walk up the steps to the rear of the stand to join up with Alan and Gary.

The confirmation that Manchester United had lost at home again.

The dark clouds to my left.

The camera clicking into action.

The boisterous singing of the Chelsea choir overshadowing the home support.

The gaps in the home seats.

The full three thousand in the Chelsea section.

The recognition that a sore throat would probably hamper my singing throughout the afternoon.

The memory of last season’s game; Jonathan Walters.

The entrance of the teams to my left.

The red and white chequered flags of the local youngsters.

The colour, the noise, the spectacle.

The whistle.

The two teams lined-up in the centre of the pitch.

The minute of applause for Nelson Mandela.

The sight of Cesar Azpilicueta – standing alone – having a moment of quiet prayer.

The team.

The formation.

The defence.

The midfield three.

The recall of Andre Schurrle and Jon Obi Mikel.

The singing.

The packed away stand, everyone standing, everyone involved.

The shouts of encouragement.

The buzz of seeing Eden Hazard after his tantalising display in Sunderland on Wednesday.

The elation of seeing Andrea Schurrle twist one way and then another, teasing his marker into submission, before despatching a perfectly-placed bullet past Begovic in the Stoke goal.

The yelp of pleasure.

The noise from the away end; bollocks to my sore-throat, I’m joining in.

The ease with which Hazard receives the ball and touches it, caressing it, bringing the ball to life.

The piss-taking from the away end; “You’re Going Down With United.”

The movement from our attackers.

The industry of Schurrle.

The aerial battle between Crouch and Walters and Terry and Cahill.

The chances for Ramires, Mata and – almost – Torres.

The ease with which Chelsea dominated the first-half.

The thoughts of another easy win.

The late Stoke rally in the first-half.

The cross.

The Cech error.

The melee.

The scrambled finish from Peter Crouch.

The roar from the home fans.

The triumphant leap from Crouch.

The sense of disbelief in the away end at the break.

The porous nature of our defence at set-plays.

The sight of two middle-aged women – in other words, ten years older than me…at least, honest – in full blue Santa uniforms and those silly player face masks.

The rolling of my eyes.

The comment from Gary: “Did you get their numbers?”

The sight of Walters rampaging down our left and him getting some sort of retribution for his own personal hell last season.

The pass to Stephen Ireland.

The curling shot past Cech.

The phrase “warm knife through butter.”

The roar of the home crowd once more.

The moans in the away end.

The sad sight of Dave getting roasted at left-back.

The lack of cover in front of him.

The continued singing from the away fans.

The click of the camera as Andrea Schurrle despatched a lovely strike into the Stoke goal to level it at 2-2.

The joyous celebration of the goal by player and fans alike.

The image of a rollercoaster.

The industry of Torres and the lay-off for Schurrle and a dipping shot which crashed against Begovic’ bar with the ‘keeper well beaten and begging for mercy.

The substitute Demba Ba for Torres.

The miss of the match so far from Ireland, leaning back, the shot high.

The sight of Mark Hughes – Sparky – moaning at every Chelsea challenge.

The irony.

The home support roaring “Delilah.”

The “Willian Song.”

The black sky.

The double substitution of Eto’o and Lampard.

The passing of time.

The gnawing realisation that the longer it stayed level, the less time we would be able to react to a third Stoke goal.

The awareness that some things are best left unsaid.

The desperation, at times, in our play.

The poor ball retention of Ba.

The continual encouragement for our players.

The nerves torn.

The news that Liverpool had won 4-1.

The free-kick opportunity, with only a few minutes remaining, but the annoyance of it being “too central.”

The week shot by Frank directly at Begovic.

The sense of foreboding as Stoke broke down our left once again.

The sickening sight of Assaidi’s strike bending and zipping past Petr Cech.

The noise once more.

The silence in the away end.

The false hope of five extra minutes.

The final whistle.

The silent walk outside.

The locals happy.

The first Chelsea defeat at Stoke since 1974-1975.

The slow shuffle back across the footbridge over the Manchester to London railway line.

The crescent moon high to my left.

The smoke billowing out of the council incinerator to my right.

The familiarity of a Stoke evening.

The incoming texts.

The drive home.

The sore throat.

The inevitable moans – thankfully largely unseen and unheard – by Chelsea supporters everywhere.

The shrug of the shoulders.

The game against Steaua on Wednesday.

The story continues.

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Tales From Wiltshire

Swindon Town vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2013.

Chelsea’s Capital One Cup game at Swindon Town’s County Ground was always going to be a special one for me. It would be our first competitive match at Swindon for almost twenty years but, more importantly, it also represented the nearest that I would get to a “home” game – of sorts – during this season and, probably, for many a season to come. From my place of work in Chippenham, right on the A4 – on the path of the old Roman road which linked Bristol and London – to the County Ground in Swindon is a journey of just over twenty miles. After countless midweek jaunts up the M4 to London, this was almost too good to be true.

The county of Wiltshire is not known for its footballing heritage. For many years, though, it was 1-0 up over my home shire of Somerset. Swindon Town’s presence in the Football League ensured that the rural county of stone circles and chalk horses stayed ahead in the local football bragging rights. Only since the emergence of Yeovil Town in the past decade has Somerset equalised; both counties now have a Football League team. Maybe my home county wins though; it has a county cricket team, while Wiltshire doesn’t. I have lived my entire life in Somerset – save for my college years and the three years of wanderlust which followed – but I have always worked over the border in Wiltshire; my twenty-three years of employment has taken place in the small towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Chippenham. During my childhood in Frome the local teams, supported by a few school friends, were always the City and Rovers of Bristol; Swindon Town was definitely off the radar. Since working in Wiltshire though, I’ve encountered more followers of Swindon. It must be a county thing.

As soon as the draw was made, it was obvious that this match would entice many of my local Chelsea friends to attend. A hefty “gathering of the clans” from my surrounding home area was guaranteed. However, the game at Swindon turned out to be an extra-special “local” game for one friend in particular, even although her home is on another continent.

The plans for the game at Swindon came together over a few days. I nabbed my ticket at the earliest opportunity. After a few days of waiting, Parky thankfully acquired his ticket too. We made tentative plans to meet up with Mark from Westbury at the Red Lion pub in the midst of the historic stone circles of Avebury on the way to the game. There was quite a local “buzz” about the game. A few Swindon fans from work had tickets; it would be their biggest home game for years. Then, out of leftfield – or at least outside the penalty box – came a bolt from the royal blue. My friend Karen, from Connecticut, contacted me and explained that she would be in Swindon, of all places, on a work visit on the day of the Chelsea game. Talk about serendipity. Although I promised to try to attain a ticket for her, I wasn’t sure any remained. At the very least, we could meet up for a pint. I had first met Karen, surreally, on a yellow school bus, which was used to ferry bevvied-up Chelsea fans from a pub in central Philadelphia to nearby Chester for the MLS All-Star in the summer of 2012. We had chatted about Chelsea in between swigging warm beer and singing a few old favourites. I had briefly bumped into Karen at Yankee Stadium last May, too.

Miraculously, the very next morning more tickets went on sale.

I was able to get hold of one.

Karen was a lucky girl.

Ticket requests from a few friends continued, but I had given up hope of getting hold of any extras. However – quite fortuitously – at the Fulham game on the Saturday, two more tickets became available; one for Les from Melksham, one for Glenn from Frome. Things were falling into place. This was going to be a great night of football.

Then, the good luck continued. Bristol Tim informed me that he had heard that the Chelsea team were staying at the very same hotel, just off the M4, that – yes, you’ve guessed it – Karen was staying in.

I quickly texted Karen the news and I am supremely confident that her reaction was –

“Awesome.”

I was actually surprised that the team would be staying in a hotel, just 80 miles from London, on the night before a League Cup game. It made me stop and think how professional this game of football now is. Rather than travel down on the afternoon, Chelsea had obviously thought that it was important to get a base in Swindon to fully prepare for the match. I had visions of team meetings, reminders of tactical plans, videos of the opponents and exercises in the hotel gym, but also of monotonous hours spent in anonymous hotel rooms, games on lap-tops, idle banter and possible boredom.

On the day of the game, I thankfully managed to wriggle away from work at a good time. I collected Glenn and Parky and, with chatter between the three of us making the twenty minutes seem like twenty seconds, soon found myself pulling into the Swindon Hilton (yeah, that just sounds funny doesn’t it?) bang on time at 5.45pm. Lo and behold, I soon spotted that the sleek black Chelsea coach was parked right outside the entrance. I screeched into the car park and we hopped out, with my trusty camera in hand. Gary Staker and Eva Carneiro were standing next to the coach, but it was soon evident that the players were yet to emerge. I soon spotted Karen, full of smiles, and we both agreed that this was “perfect timing.” Within just a few seconds, the blue track suited players appeared. I took a few photos. There was a small group of well-wishers nearby, but most players walked straight on to the coach. Kudos to Juan Mata and David Luiz, plus one or two more, for stopping by to sign autographs.

Jose Mourinho was close by and so I gathered my nerve and approached him. As I held out my hand, I wished him “good luck for tonight” but for a horrible moment I was sure that he would blank me. He looked as miserable as sin – I felt like saying “come on mate, Swindon can’t be that bad” – but thankfully he shook my hand, albeit rather dismissively. Glenn wished him well, too. Karen, I think, was near to fainting. As we walked back to the car, I wondered why Parky was nowhere to be seen.

The answer? In my haste to rush off to see Karen and the players, I had unfortunately locked him inside the car.

Not so perfect.

Karen was bubbling as I drove into the town centre. During the afternoon, she had found herself alongside Doctor Eva on the running machines in the gym; they had exchanged words and, once Eva found out that Karen was a CFC supporter, had offered her a ticket.

That’s lovely.

Within a few minutes, we were parked up in a side street, just minutes from the County Ground. The evening was gorgeous; blue skies, warm, no hint of clouds, no hint of rain, the business. As we walked through the rather down-at- heel streets, which reminded me of the area around Fratton Park, Glenn and I spoke about our last visit to Swindon Town. In the summer of 1996, we played at Swindon in a testimonial on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I believe that it marked Frank Leboeuf and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea debuts. We won 2-0 in front of a healthy gate of 13,881. The game was unremarkable and dull. It was notable for one reason only; for a year or so, Glenn’s German girlfriend at the time had fancied seeing Chelsea play. Glenn’s rather antiquated view of “football being no place for a woman” was jettisoned for one game, but Anke hated the experience of live footy. In truth, it was a poor game, with virtually no atmosphere to speak of. The look on all three of our faces must have been a picture. Glenn and I vowed never to go to another meaningless pre-season friendly ever again. As we reminisced about that day some seventeen years ago, we joked –

“Anke left you to it from then on, Glenn.”

“Too right, Blue.”

We decided to have a couple of drinks at the adjacent cricket ground, which adjoins the football ground to the north. The rather antiquated, but still ornate, white pavilion housed a small bar and we soon ordered a round of lager and cider. Within seconds, the queue at the bar was formidable; again, we had arrived just at the right time. Outside, there was chat with a few friends as we made our way out into the gorgeous evening as the sun slowly faded to our right. Karen was enjoying the cider as I explained a few things about football in England and how it differs in so many ways from the US sport scene; there’s a book there, or maybe an encyclopaedia, waiting to be written. We chatted with Big John, who sits just a few seats away from us at HQ, about all things Chelsea. Karen was amazed at our collective weight of support for the club and team. Karen asked John if he went to all the games.

“No” replied John, almost apologetically, “most seasons I miss a couple.”

Karen yelped “a couple?!?!”” as if it was beyond belief that someone could be so devoted.

I smiled. Karen was in good company.

This would be Karen’s fifth Chelsea game. Her first one was Juan Mata’s debut at home to Norwich in 2011. After numerous visits to Swindon with work, Karen was still pinching herself that Chelsea were in town and she had a ticket.

Good times.

The night fell and we made our way to the ground. I told Karen to be sure that the next time a rogue Manchester United supporter back in the US confronted her about being a glory hunter, Karen should be sure to respond with the two key words “Swindon away.” Glenn and Parky made their way to the open Stratton Bank – where I stood with a Newcastle  United mate in 1993 as Andy Cole made his Geordie debut – while Karen and I lined up for the seats in the main stand. We bumped into a few lads from Trowbridge and I think Karen was slightly surprised how many people I knew.

“Going away with Chelsea is like going away with a mad extended family, though – everyone knows each other.”

The ground hadn’t changed one iota since 1996. To my left, the Stratton Bank, proper old school, open to the elements. To my right, the small covered Town End. Opposite, the single tiered Don Rogers Stand, which had replaced the idiosyncratic Shrivenham Road Stand in the early ‘nineties. The Shrivenham Road Stand consisted of a small terrace underneath a single tier of seats which had originally been part of the parade ground where the Aldershot Miliary Tattoo took place. It was so antiquated and flimsy that it seemed that a gust of wind would tear it asunder. That it survived so long is a miracle.

It took me back to 1988. On a cold midweek evening in January of that year, we played Swindon Town in the Simod Cup. My father had battled hard against the evening traffic and then found parking almost impossible. He dropped me off and I rushed to the away section, right underneath the upper tier of the old stand. I arrived about five minutes late and, by then, Chelsea were already 2-0 down. My parents were hoping to get tickets for the main stand. Our turn out was about 1,200; not bad for a midweek game in a ludicrously unimportant match. My mate Leggo had informed me – as was the way in those days – that a mob of Swindon had charged some Chelsea chaps back at the train station. At the time, Swindon were a Second Division team. We eventually lost 4-0. I remember gallows humour throughout, but also chants of “Hollins Must Go” too.

At the end of the game, with dogs barking outside and the police trying to ensure that the locals had been dispersed, we were kept inside for around ten minutes. I looked down to my left and there, to my disbelief, were my parents. I had to rub my eyes. My parents – my Dad in his work suit and a sheepskin coat I am sure – in amongst the hoodlums of the Chelsea away pen.

I sauntered down to see them. I was in shock.

Evidently, all seat tickets had been sold – the gate was 12,317 – but my parents were allowed entry into the home turnstiles at half-time for a half-price £2, and were then escorted around the pitch by stewards and taken to the away pen.

Too surreal.

Even now, that makes me laugh.

As the teams entered the pitch, the TV cameras picked out Mourinho on the bench. His image was shown on the large screen to my left. He was looking pensive and still quite miserable.

In addition to around 2,000 fans on the Stratton Bank, Chelsea had around 1,400 in the corner section of the main stand; I was stood right next to the docile home fans, right next to a line of police, though there would be no trouble tonight surely? My mate Simon – from 1984 – came down to sit next to me and I soon retold the story of my parents being led around the pitch in 1988. If only I had my camera with me then.

It was a full house; over 14,000. I hoped that the Chelsea fans would put on a special show for Karen but, in the main, we went through the motions. Only on sporadic occasions did the 3,400 roar as one. Soon into the game, the home fans confirmed who their biggest rivals were :

“Oxford United – We Fucking Hate You.”

It was lovely to see Michael Essien back; he did well throughout. Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. I thought that Willian had a very quiet first-half and did not try anything adventurous. The van Ginkel injury – not far from where I was stood – looked serious and it was with sadness that he was replaced so soon. Ramires entered the fray and his energy gave us a little more vibrancy. A David Luiz free-kick whizzed through the air and the Swindon ‘keeper Foderingham did well to save.

The away fans sang about Dennis Wise and the San Siro and I soon realised that our former captain – and for a short period, Swindon manager – was in the Sky TV studio in the far corner, just where I had stood in 1988. He waved at the Chelsea fans and they roared again. There were pockets of away fans singing, but nothing worth noting.

When my local team Frome Town played the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine a few seasons ago, the Frome Ultras – yes, really – taunted the away support with the surprisingly witty chant of –

“Inbreds and  Roundabouts.”

Swindon is inundated with roundabouts. I’ll get back to you all on the inbreeding.

Fernando Torres was clean through after a Juan Mata touch, but the Swindon goalie flung up an arm and batted his effort away. Right after, Ramires set up Mata whose effort was parried only for Torres to touch in at an acute angle. He celebrated quietly in front of the home fans who had just recently taunted him. Quickly, a second goal, with a sublime ball from Torres allowing Ramires to deftly chip over the ‘keeper. Swindon, with the diminutive Pritchard at the heart of their attacks, offered a few efforts on goal, but Mark Schwarzer was largely untroubled.

John Terry replaced Rami at the break. Our captain was actually applauded by the home fans as he entered the pitch; this made a refreshing change. I guess that the locals were just happy to see a famous player on their home turf. A Swindon goal was disallowed for offside. De Bruyne, clean through, was unable to finish. Swindon perhaps should have scored after a great cross caught us flat-footed at the back. Torres looked as though he was keen to impress and showed neat footwork on a number of occasions, but his finishing was lacking. Next, a wasted Willian chance. Demba Ba, who replaced De Bruyne, then curled a shot narrowly wide. Lastly, another strong Torres run ended up with over-elaboration and frustration when Willian stabbed at the ball instead of allowing Nando to finish.

On another night, we could have scored five.

The four of us reconvened back at the cricket pavilion. Karen had met a few more Chelsea fans during the night and it was clear that she was integrating herself well into the Chelsea Family. We all agreed that it had been a so-so game of football, but everything else had been perfect. There was time for one last drink back at the Swindon Hilton (admit it, it still sounds odd) and time for reflections on the past few hours. Oh, and time for some typically crap jokes from Lord Parky.

“All part of the Chelsea experience, Karen.”

Until next time.

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