Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

Whereas my 1985 Inter-Rail jaunt around Europe took in many countries, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north, the 1986 version – another solo-trip, another dose of me finding confidence through travel – was focussed on Spain, France, Italy and the Greek Island of Corfu. It was all about exploring the southern parts of Europe and the first fortnight or so encompassed Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona, the Italian Riviera for a week, Pisa and Rome before I then spent around ten relaxing days in three locations on Corfu. After that had all finished, and on the return trip north, I wanted to stop off in Milan. In the three weeks or so that I had been away from Blighty, I had already visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. To miss out on the San Siro – or the Giuseppe Meazza as it is sometimes known – would have been foolhardy.

I caught the long overnight train – fourteen hours, the longest of the whole month – from Brindisi to Milano Centrale, arriving at 9am on a Thursday morning in early August.

Ah, Milano Centrale.

It brought back memories of my very first taste of Italy.

In 1975, on my first European holiday, my parents and I caught a train from London Victoria to Milan, another overnighter, on the way to Diano Marina in the Italian Riviera, and so the immense interior of this incredible station – Mussolini must have liked marble – thus witnessed my first ever steps on Italian soil.

A year later, another Italian holiday – this time to Lido di Jesolo near Venice – and another train to Milano Centrale. On this occasion, our onward leg was by coach and so we walked outside the station to pick up the connection. I was therefore able to witness the three huge halls that made up the station frontage. These were equally as impressive as the three semi-circular roof spans covering all of the train tracks.

By 1976, I had already chosen Juventus as my Italian and my sole European team but was of course aware of the two Milan teams who, in those days, were known in England as AC Milan and Inter Milan.

An Italian family had settled in my home village after the war and although they didn’t seem to be particularly into football, one of the brothers had a son, Adriano, who occasionally visited and he once told me that he favoured Milan. Incidentally, the mother in this family lived to a very grand age of 109. There must be something in that Italian diet.

My parents, on a whistle-stop visit to Milan on an Italian holiday in the ‘fifties had called in to see this family’s relations and my father often told the story of being given a few shots of the infamous grappa.

On a few visits to Italy, back to Diano Marina again and again to see my pal Mario, I became acquainted with more and more aspects of the Italian game. At that time, Inter were bigger than Milan – in terms of fan base – and the two clubs’ support tended to be split along socio-political lines.

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

Oh, and I soon learned that “Inter Milan” was wrong, very wrong…either Inter or Internazionale and nothing else. At the time, Juventus were the dominant team but the two Milanese had sporadic success. Milan won a scudetto in 1978/79 but were then relegated to Serie B in 1979/80 due to a betting scandal and again in 1981/82 due to being, er, shite.

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

As I have mentioned previously, the visit of Leeds United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 9 October 1982 absolutely captivated me. It stirred so much emotion. And it engendered such a sense of anticipation.

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

Growing up, Leeds were a massive name. Just as I was getting into football, the big teams were Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Derby County were champions in 1972 but never really had the same clout as the others. Manchester United? No, a joke of a club on the decline. Manchester City? Off the radar.

With Leeds getting unceremoniously dumped into the old Second Division at the end of the 1981/82 season, throughout that summer I was kept buoyed with the thought that I would be – hopefully – able to see them play my beloved Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

The fixtures were announced. I would not have to wait too long. Unlike the Leicester City game in September when I travelled up by train, for the Leeds game I went up by National Express coach from Bath. This was a tiresome journey and I remember being relatively miserable about the whole experience. I think it was a bit cheaper than the train – my diary mentions the coach costing £5.50 – and it was all about saving money for football in those days.

I remember that some long lost Canadian cousins had recently dropped in on us – my father’s cousin from Vancouver – and I had been gifted an oversized Vancouver Whitecaps shirt as a present. I know I decided to wear it up to the Leeds United game. What do I remember of the day? I remember arriving at Victoria Coach Station and catching a tube to Fulham Broadway.

I distinctly remember this :

I was stood in the central aisle, and I noted a young lad in front of me. Maybe the same age, seventeen. He was smartly dressed. He was wearing some sportswear. Maybe some Adidas trainers. Actually, maybe some desert boots. Maybe a Slazenger pullover. Perhaps an Adidas rain jacket. Definitely some tight jeans. And I certainly remember thinking “mmm, that’s a new look, something different, bit like a mod but with a football twist.” I was certain that he was going to Chelsea. I don’t remember a pin badge though. And I remember him looking at me in my Vancouver Whitecaps shirt, and the thought went through my head that he was trying to suss out who I was, which team.

At that time, living in rural Somerset, I was blissfully unaware of the dress code that had enveloped urban cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and London but which had originated on the football terraces. There were skinheads, punks, headbangers, mods, but that was it as far as I was concerned.

Looking back, I am positive that my first ever sighting of a casual took place on the tube on the way to Chelsea and Leeds that day. I would later learn that on that very day, the warring factions – I am not sure if I had heard of the Leeds Service Crew in 1982 but it is quite possible – were chasing each other around Piccadilly Circus that lunchtime.

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

“Welcome to all Leeds United fans present today. Chelsea FC extend a warm welcome to the supporters of our distinguished visitors Leeds United. We hope you witness an exciting match and have a message for you – don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug – and help your club achieve greatness once again.”

I remember having a chuckle at this. There was no mention of a warning to Chelsea fans here. It would seem that we were an innocent party. I can just imagine Ken Bates mouthing the “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug” to the programme editor.

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

I don’t remember much of the actual game and sadly I didn’t take my camera to games in those days. I absolutely remember the malevolent atmosphere though. I watched from my usual spot in The Shed, under the roof – just – and towards the tea bar. Leeds, I suppose, had around three thousand fans and the size of the gate really warmed me. It was 25,358, much more than I had expected and the third biggest of the day in the Football League. I remember Leeds in two central pens, nobody else on the bleak north terrace. But I remember that the northern segments of The Benches and the East Lower – what I would later learn to be the infamous Gate 13 – were absolutely rammed. It was as if the stadium had been tilted north and everyone had been squashed up against the north terrace. This gave me, an excitable youngster, the impression that the Chelsea fans just wanted to have a go at the Leeds lot.

There was one chant from The Shed that made me grimace :

“Did the Ripper, did the Ripper, did the Ripper get your Mum? Did the Ripper get your Mum?”

This was the Yorkshire version, not Jack of old London town.

The teams that day?

Chelsea : Steve Francis, Gary Locke, Chris Hutchings, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew, Mike Fillery, Pop Robson, David Speedie, Clive Walker.

Leeds United : John Lukic, Trevor Cherry, Eddie Gray, Kenny Burns, Paul Hart, Gwynn Thomas, Kevin Hird, Aiden Butterworth, Frank Worthington, Frank Gray, Arthur Graham.

This would be my first sighting of David Speedie. There are some names in that Leeds team. The Gray brothers. Kenny Burns. I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Frank Worthington but I am glad that I evidently did. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Please Google his goal for Bolton against Ipswich Town in 1979.

Sadly, the game ended 0-0 and was memorable for the outbreaks of fighting in the East Stand than the quality on show on the pitch.

I sloped off and ended up waiting at Victoria for an hour or so to catch a coach home. Some Tottenham fans had been at their game at home to Coventry City and we got talking. Once they heard I was Chelsea, they told me to watch out for Leeds fans as they were “nasty buggers” and I remember one of them eying up what I was wearing.

“Don’t worry, I think that you will be safe with that on.”

Let’s move on four years to 1986 and my short stopover in Milan. I bought a map at the station and walked down past La Scala Opera House to the grand cathedral – Il Duomo – in the city centre before walking to Cairoli and catching a tube to Lotto. The weather was super-hot and the walk to San Siro was tough going. I first thought that I wouldn’t be able to get in, but thankfully I soon found an open gate so sneaked inside. In those days, the stadium was just two-tiered, a huge concrete edifice. Childhood hero Ray Wilkins was playing for Milan at the time. Another couple of tourists were inside too. One of them took a photo of me looking ridiculously tanned after my stay on Corfu. San Siro was undergoing a transformation over the summer; plastic seats were being bolted onto the once bare concrete, at least on the steps of the lower deck. I took photos inside and out. It was a joy to be inside one of the palaces of European football. My diary tells me that I scrawled “Chelsea FC” on one of the green seats at the northern end. That doesn’t surprise me. I had scrawled the same on a fence at the stadium in Rome too.

I didn’t leave Milan that day until I took a train to Paris at around 7pm. There is no doubt that I would have spent a fair few hours at Milano Centrale, an activity that I would repeat many times over the next four years as I repeatedly returned to Italy. My diary noted that Milan was “not a fantastic place really” but I enjoyed being in this famous city, this famous football city, and of course the home of Italian fashion and the birthplace of the “paninari” a few years earlier.

Earlier in 1986, I had bought the Pet Shop Boys’ mini-album “Disco” and absolutely loved the song “Paninaro” :

“Passion and love and sex and money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Food, cars, travel.
Food, cars, travel, travel.
New York, New York, New York.
New York.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

I don’t like country-and-western.
I don’t like rock music.
I don’t like, I don’t like rockabilly or rock & roll particularly.
Don’t like much really, do I?
But what I do like I love passionately.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

You, you’re my lover, you’re my hope, you’re my dreams.
My life, my passion, my love, my sex, my money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Don’t like much really, do I?
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
But what I do like I love passionately.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

What an anthem. In 1986, the paninaro look was definitely assisting the UK’s casual look to evolve. I had bought some deck shoes, a “Best Company” T-shirt and always had one eye on what was happening in Italy and on the terraces at Chelsea and elsewhere. It was a great time to be young and into football, music and clobber; the time of my life.

At San Siro in 1986, just for the record…red Kappa polo shirt, Adidas shorts and a pair of yellow espadrilles.

There is one more thing to add from my holiday in 1986. At Ipsos on Corfu, I shared a tent with a chap called Rob who owned a record shop in Sacramento in California. Every few months, he would visit London and buy up a ton of obscure music posters, T-shirts, and rare CDs and ship them out to the US to sell at hugely-inflated prices. It got me thinking. I cottoned on to the genius of selling rare items at a nice profit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think too long. My post-college future was decided during that Inter-Rail trip of 1986. I would buy English football badges – the small, super small, circular ones – and travel out to Europe flip-flopping between games in Germany and Italy to sell them at games. For all of its problems with hooliganism, or being blunt because of it, I just knew that English badges would sell well in Europe.

I was itching to go. Sadly, I had one more year at college to endure.

Tick tock, tick tock.

1986/87 passed with Chelsea finishing in a lowly fourteenth place but I had fared better; I somehow passed my Geography degree with an Upper Second. However, my immediate future didn’t involve job fairs, interviews or further studies. My future was focussed on football.

Fackinell.

That summer I returned to work in a local dairy, as in 1984, to gather some sheccles together for more foreign travel. In September, I set off with two college mates – Ian and Trev, the same course – for another spin around Europe. On a Saturday evening in Rome in early September, after another visit to Stadio Olimpico, I stumbled across a booklet listing the Serie A fixtures for the season.

A quick scan of the fixtures : Inter vs. Empoli.

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

We were headed up to Venice for an early morning visit, arriving at 6.30am. However, after a whirlwind walking tour, we were away at 9.45am and headed to Milan via a change at Vicenza. I had bought a copy of the famous daily sports paper “La Gazetta Dello Sport” to check some details about the game and tickets were on sale for L.10,000 or about five quid. The fervour being shown by a train full of Brescia fans en route to Padua – a local derby – astonished us. It was a fine pre-curser to our afternoon in Milan. We got in at 1.30pm and the game was to kick-off at 3pm. Perfect. We disappeared underground and took a metro to San Siro which was quite a way out. There was a free bus at Lotto to take us to the stadium. I had time to peruse the various grafters outside.

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

Italian ones were selling for L3,100 or about £1.50.

Our tickets positioned us above a small knot of Empoli fans in the southern end, the “Lions’ Den” section where Milan’s ultras congregated. We had reached our seats by entering near the northern end but the steady slope took us around the outside of the stadium to deposit us in the southern end. To my amazement, we sat on raw concrete. But I was not bothered. I was in football heaven.

The Alps were visible above the Inter fans in the north end. I loved all the banners.

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

Empoli? I knew little about them apart from that they were newly promoted. On the previous weekend, they had won 2-0 at home to Juventus, a huge shock at the time. On this day in sunny Milan, I watched on with great pleasure. This was my first professional football match outside of England, Scotland and Wales.

The San Siro would always have a place in my heart.

The Inter team that day included some stars; Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli plus the two “stranieri” Daniel Pasarella and Enzo Schifo. It was an utter joy to witness Italian football in the flesh.

Aldo Serena and Altobelli gave Inter a 2-0 win in front of 42,672.

My diary notes “I am sure I can make a killing there with badges.”

Later that year, in November, I sold badges at Juventus’ Stadio Communale before an evening game against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Cup. I only sold 31 but it was a start. I was less fortunate in Mannheim and Munich in Germany. I was stopped by the police in Mannheim and also in Munich where I decided to foolishly chance my luck. I had sold 34 at Munich’s Olympic Stadium – going well – but I did not have a street trader’s licence – “reisegewerbekarte” – so was arrested and fined on the spot. However, a cop let me in to watch the last twenty minutes of the Bayern vs. Uerdingen game for free.

In February 1988, I was at it again.

My first game was at San Siro, and a friendly involving Milan and Steaua Bucharest on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, the Serie A games had been cancelled due to an Italy vs. Russia game in Bari on the Saturday but thank goodness Milan had sorted out a friendly. Milan were in full flow at this time with Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten leading the team to glory. I did OK at this game. The gate was only 14,000 but I sold 26 badges and 2 scarves. One bloke swapped his “Fossa Dei Leoni” badge for one of mine. There were a few nervous moments as several police cars drove past but I was not spoken to. I had decided to pitch myself near the to where the Lotto busses stopped. It seemed perfect. I was positioned just outside the San Siro “Trotter” arena; horse racing but with the jockeys in little buggies.

It is a mystery why I did not pay the £4 to attend the game. I guess that I was on a limited budget – I certainly ate frugally and infrequently while away for a month – and the whole point of me being in Italy was, firstly, to make some money. I walked away with £40 in my pockets, and a profit of about £25.

Small acorns and all that.

A week later, I was back at San Siro for the Milan vs. Sampdoria game. Here was the real test. Thankfully this went swimmingly well. Again, I didn’t go inside, but for a valid reason; it was a sell-out. At half-time I was stood outside the stadium with a few thousand others. I went on a wander across the vast car park and returned to hear the clamour as Milan’s second goal went in. They were to win 2-1. The attendance was 72,000 and I walked away with £125 and a profit of about £80. I had sold 80 badges and 7 scarves. Not bad for around four hours’ work. I was in heaven with thoughts of returning again. And again.

Before the game, probably against my better wishes, I had bought the monthly magazine “Forza Milan.” As a Juventus fan, it was a bad move, but I just wanted to immerse myself in Italian football. It really was a heady time to be a Milanista. It felt that their time had come. At the end of the 1987/88 season, they were crowned as champions for the first time since 1979. Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, Arrigo Sacchi and his famous “pressing” was getting the best out of his players. And Gullit and Van Basten were soon to be European Champions with The Netherlands in the summer.

Mamma mia.

Later that week, I did even better at Verona, selling 79 badges from a crowd of just 33,000 before and after a UEFA Cup game with Werder Bremen.

In the summer of 1988, I recorded an episode of “Rough Guide – Milan” with Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha (remember them?) and the travel guide totally encapsulated all that was rattling around my brain at the time. There is no doubt that I was deeply infatuated with all things Italian from the mid-‘eighties onwards.

My next trip to Milan, and San Siro, would be my last for thirty-two years. It came in September 1990, right after the momentous Italia’90 World Cup – when many English folk “rediscovered football”, stop sniggering at the back – and I had returned from an equally momentous ten-month holiday in North America. With English football back with a vengeance after some dark days, the time was right for me to head over with a freshly-acquired stash of English – and Scottish, Celtic in particular always sold well in Italy – badges.

It was a heady time for Italian football. The national team had threatened in the World Cup before falling to a Maradona-inspired Argentina in a semi-final. However, I always thought that it was club over country in Italy, even more so than in England.

The Serie A title was certainly shared around in this period.

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

The second Sunday of the 1990/91 Serie A season saw me return to Milan for the Inter vs. Bologna game.

At the end of the day, I started my daily journal :

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

My sales patter didn’t go on for long, but it certainly did the job. I must have repeated that phrase five hundred times in the six hours before the 4pm kick-off.

My diary reports a “perfect day” and it is certainly one that I look back upon with a great deal of pleasure. It was, simply, one of the best “non-Chelsea” days of my life. I had arrived at Milano Centrale at just before 8am. By 10am I had arrived outside the remodelled San Siro and – oh my goodness – I can well remember the sight of those monstrous red girders floating above the photogenic towers that had been added to the San Siro since my last visit eighteen months earlier.

Within an hour, I had sold 26 badges to a stall-holder, at a slight-knock down price of L.3,500 each. I had decided to up the price to L.4,000 per badge from my L.3,000 price in 1988. I stopped selling at 3.15pm in order to buy a ticket off a tout – I couldn’t miss this game – and I nabbed one for L.25,000 instead of L.20,000.

As it happened, I could afford it.

My one memory of this day is of ascending one of the helix shaped towers behind the South Curv and scrambling to a seat almost at the rear of the very back row of the third level. I stood up and spent what seemed a long time picking L.5,000, L.10,000, L.20,000 notes and even one L.50,000 note out of all four pockets of my jeans and adding them to the pile in my wallet.

That day I sold almost 200 badges. I even sold some on the slow walk back to Lotto without even trying; a lad had remembered me from before the game and stopped me to buy ten. By the time I had pulled the last note from my jeans, I had made £330 which equated to a profit of around £200.

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

The game was half decent. Inter had the three World Cup winners Klinsmann, Matheus and Brehme in their team. I noted that Bologna countered well. In the last minute, Alessandro Bianchi scored with a great volley in front of the “Ultras”, “Boys San” and “Vikings” in the home Curva Nord to give Inter a 1-0 win. The noise was utterly incredible even though the gate was only around 50,000. The other lot, Milan, were the bigger draw by far at the time. They were the “buzz” around the city.

On the following Sunday, I paid another visit to San Siro and another fine afternoon followed. This time it was Milan vs. Fiorentina. I didn’t go inside for this one. Outside, I sold just under one hundred badges. My diary notes that I soon sold out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic – by far the best sellers in 1990 for reasons that might well be obvious – and so I did well to sell so many. I was outside the stadium when Milan scored their first goal – they went on to win 2-1 – but I left for the station well before the end as I had developed a bad headache. One thing of note; I had been chatting to an English guy from Rochdale who had stayed over from the World Cup with England. He was interested in selling badges too; he seemed a bit of a chancer, but I gave him the ‘phone number of the bloke in Blackburn who had provided me with the badges. He disappeared off to “blag” some tickets but I later saw him, crestfallen, having been picked up by plain clothes cops, his tickets nicked too.

What a plum.

Alas, my badge-selling days were over before they had really got going.

There is a sad end to all of this in fact. A few days after the greatest days in Milan, I was robbed while on a train from Zurich to Genoa – I was knocked out using CS gas I think, it was all the rage on Italian trains at the time, luckily my Inter-Rail Card and passport were untouched – and so I had to sheepishly make my way to Turin where my friend Tullio’s father lent me some money to get home.

I remember his father answered the doorbell, so surprised to see me.

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

This story continues on though. In 1995, I met up with Pete, the chap who sold me all those badges at cost price – bless him – before a Chelsea game at Ewood Park. He treated me to a pub lunch and we spoke about our grafting days. He was a Liverpool supporter – he was there in Rome in 1977 and elsewhere too – and when I spoke about Milan, I mentioned the chancer I had met in 1990.

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. From Rochdale. I always wondered how he got my number.”

“Bloody hell, Pete, I gave it to him.”

It turned out that this bloke had stayed on in Milan and was now living with the woman who was running the newsagents on the platform at Milano Centrale. He often bought badges from Pete. To say I was fed-up was another understatement.

“Bloody hell. That could have been me. Could have met an Italian girl. Could have had badges sent out to me. What a bugger.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

In February 1997, Chelsea played Milan in a friendly at San Siro and a few hardy souls went over to watch. We lost 2-0 in front of 8,756. I think both teams just needed a game. A few friends attended but there was no way I could go over.

In October 1999, Chelsea played Milan in the San Siro in the Champions League group phase. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time off work and so, sadly, missed it.

In March 2010, Chelsea played Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Again, work got in the way. I had just changed companies and I knew my new boss would have struggled without me in the office for three days and so I valiantly – stupidly? – decided that I would forego my chance to see us in Milan.

I have seen Chelsea play seven times in Italy – three against Juve, two against Roma, one against Lazio, one against Napoli, and not a single win – but a visit to San Siro with my beloved Chelsea was evading me like Tottenham’s relationship with silverware.

It was gnawing at me.

There were ongoing rumours, which gathered strength over the years, of both Milan teams moving into a new build which would rise in the car park where I had walked in 1988. This news depressed me. I saw the plans for the new place. They looked super-modern yet so bland. The drama of San Siro’s bulk was missing. Sigh.

Thankfully, our names were drawn in the same group this autumn and I could look forward, at bloody last, to a visit.

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

A flight to Turin on the Sunday evening. By the time I had got to looking at flights after returning from Chelsea on a Saturday night, all of the cheap and timely flights to Milan had disappeared. Not to worry, I much prefer Turin to Milan. Three nights in a central apartment with PD and Parky. I would hire a car on the day of the game. A brief spell of sightseeing in central Milan then off to the match. A midnight flit back to Turin and then a flight home from the city’s Caselle airport on Wednesday evening.

I picked up PD at 11am on the Sunday morning and Lord Parky not long after. It was a fine drive to Gatwick. Despite the 4.40pm flight leaving an hour late, the pilot must have known a short cut as he clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. I had a window seat and particularly enjoyed the flight over the English Channel. I pondered how many thousands of articulated lorries I had sent over this small expanse of water since I began at my job in March 2003. From the air, I was able to easily see both coasts; France to the left, England to the right. I thought back to all those solo trips to Europe in my Inter-Railing days. What good times.

We landed at Caselle at 8.10pm. We took a cab to the city. By 9.12pm, I had navigated how to obtain our apartment keys and to enter our pad on Via Fratelli Calandra. Outside, misty rain. But our spirits were lifted when we spotted a small pizza place directly opposite. We sat ourselves inside on some high stools and ordered the first beers of the trip.

“Ichnusa” – from Sardinia – was first spotted by us in Rome in 2017, and here it was again. It was a fine lager. I had a pepperoni pizza – cheap, only eight euros – and all was well with the world. We slept soundly.

Monday was a lovely, lazy day. My two fellow Chuckle Brothers had only visited Italy once before – that Rome trip in 2017 – so Turin was new to them. I took them alongside the River Po, and spoke about the city a little. But I soon found my voice often drifting away to silence when I realised that they weren’t really taking it all in.

I’ll never make a tour guide.

We sat at a few cafes and ordered some cappuccinos. We got the nod that Callum was going to be in town for an hour or so en route to Milan so we caught a cab to Porta Susa train station. This was fine since it enabled me to scope out the Hertz car hire place that I would be utilising on the Tuesday. We all met up in a bar.

We wondered if we had indeed sold all 4,300 tickets. All we knew is that they had gone “off sale” so we hoped so. I spoke to Cal about my Italian pal Tullio who I have known since meeting him in Diano Marina, that town again, in 1981.

“I remember one Saturday morning, ahead of a Napoli game on the Sunday, in 1988…he drove over to meet some school friends after they had gone in to study. They were all labelled-up. Best Company sweatshirts. Timberlands. Sisley coats. Benetton. Lacoste. Jansport duffle bags. Even their school files were adorned with designer labels.”

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

In the afternoon, we slurped a draught Ichnusa apiece in a bar directly opposite one of Turin’s must-see attractions. The National Cinema Museum is housed within the Mole Antonelliana, a building with a domed roof and spear-like tower. Rob and I went up the lift to the viewing gallery in 2009 and I was hoping to do the same this year. Alas, the lift was not working. Not to worry, I visited the film museum while PD and Parky supped on more Ichnusa.

What a joy.

And this was just right for me. During the first nervous months of lockdown in 2020, I really got into Italian films, especially those of the neo-realist school; step forward Rosselini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. I always loved “La Dolce Vita” but also really admired “Bicycle Thieves”, “Rome Open City” and the best of the lot “Two Women.” I also fell in love with Sophia Loren. Again.

The museum was stupendous. It was a visual treat. If you ever find yourself in Turin – I call it Italy’s hidden jewel – go. In fact, go now. Tell them I sent you.

That evening, we dropped into two familiar pubs on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II; “Six Nations” and “The Huntsman.” In the second one, we sat at the exact same table that we used on the night before the Juve game last season. Lo and behold, who should walk past but Andy – from the East Midlands I believe – who I last spent time with in Abu Dhabi. He too had flown into Turin.

As I always say : “Chelsea World is a very small world.”

Tullio popped in to see us for an hour or so. It was a joy to see him again. He was, alas, visibly hurting after Juventus’ continued failings under Massimilliano Allegri. I spoke about my previous visits to Turin.

I worked out this was visit number ten.

“No, wait. Eleven. I forgot your wedding.”

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

1999 : Juve vs. Fiorentina – oh, and the wedding of Tullio and Emanuela.

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

The evening was lovely. We rounded off the night with several shots of “Baileys” and God knows why. It was, as ever, a good night.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, PD woke me at around 6.45am.  We walked to the Porta Nova train station and caught a cab to Porta Susa with blue skies overhead and the city of Turin looking as gorgeous as ever.

Sorting out the car took a few minutes, but I was soon heading east through the rush-hour traffic of Turin. It was slow going during the first half-an-hour. But we were soon on the A4 to Milan. It made me chuckle really. In my childhood, my father used to drive along a section of the A4 – Beckhampton to Hungerford – on numerous trips to Chelsea. On this A4 instead of signs for Fyfield, Marlborough, Savernake, Axford and Hungerford there were signs for Chivasso, Greggio, Vercelli, Novara and Galliate. To our left, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps were stunning.

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

We stopped briefly at a service station near Novara. I stacked up on coffee and snacks.

There was heavy traffic, again, just after a toll on the western outskirts of Milan. A journey that was due to take two hours was nearing one of three hours. But I knew we were closing in on our goal. My work colleague Lorenzo had highlighted the Lampugnano transport hub as the best place to park for San Siro. I was headed there, but first wanted to park up at San Siro because…well, because…it needs no explanation.

At around 11.30am, I briefly parked my black Toyota outside a stadium car park and took a few shots with my camera. The stadium looked even greater than I had remembered it. It was simply stunning. A dormant beast. Those cylindrical towers. Those slopes of concrete. Those roof beams. Spectacular. I was boiling over with emotion.

After six previous visits I was at last going to see us play here.

It was forever a standing joke about Milan that no matter what year you visited it, the roads were always in a state of upheaval due to metro extensions taking place. I am sure my parents mentioned this from their visit in the ‘fifties. Well, ironically, the lines are all fully extended now and completely finished, but on this day of all days there was a bloody tube strike.

At Lampugnano, we were therefore forced to catch a cab into the city. The taxi driver was a Milanista and resembled Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We were driven in past the striking new skyscrapers to the immediate north-west of the centre. We soon collected our match tickets at the Westin Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica. There were familiar faces outside. It was true; we had sold all 4,300 tickets.

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

We met up with fellow Somerset supporters Charlotte and Paul, Donna and Colby. A little sight-seeing was in order. I suggested a short hop north to Milano Centrale. This edifice did not disappoint. It was as stunning today as in 1975. While PD and Parky retired to the station bar, I gave the others a quick tour. I was reminded of the time – after the Milan game in September 1990 I think – when thousands of Inter fans returned from a game just as I had reached the outer hall. They were full of noise and of course the chanting echoed around the vast chamber to superb effect. I was also reminded, after a hot day walking the streets of Milan, how cool it was inside.

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

We walked south then caught a tube, bang on three o’clock when the strike ended, at Turati to Duomo. I had always walked this section, so exiting the metro stop and seeing the myriad towers of the city cathedral for the first time was another stunning moment. I never was a great fan of the city, but its two great cathedrals – Il Duomo and San Siro – are outrageously magnificent.

More photos. A beer in a bar. And a panini. When in Rome.Then a tube down to the area called Navigli, where several canals join and a vibrant bar scene has developed. It was where Chelsea were based on the Monday, and it is where many friends were based pre-match.

The place was mobbed. We didn’t venture too far. Many bars had run dry. Beers were on hold at the first place we queued. This was all a bit of a ball ache. Thankfully, PD and Parky had spotted a quieter bar near the nearest tube station so re-camped there. I waited for some friends – Georg and Petr from Prague, Eliot and Lawson from New York, then Sean from New York – and we had a relaxing natter. One more pint of “Warsteiner.” Just two pints was enough. I had to drive back to Turin after the game after all. Georg and Petr asked of our predictions and a 2-1 Chelsea win was a common response.

We set off for San Siro at around 6.45pm. Plenty of time? Think again.

The tube was rammed. But rather than changing at Cadorna onto the red line – which I was planning to do – everyone didn’t budge. At Cadorna, none of us could leave the compartment. We were therefore forced to stay on to Garibaldi. When a train pulled in, a young woman saw who – or rather what – was waiting to join her carriage and physically ran down the compartment.

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

My route would have been eleven stops. This new route was sixteen stops. What a pain. It got worse. At Domodossola, hundreds of Chelsea fans were singing, chanting, banging the roof, creating havoc. For twenty minutes, we didn’t move. The Milan fans were getting irate.

“Because of you, we miss match.”

Corrective action was needed. It was around 7.45pm. We stepped outside and tried to get a cab. But this was hopeless. Hundreds of Chelsea got off here too. They disappeared into the night. At about eight o’clock, we realised we needed a Plan B.

“Right, back downstairs. Let’s see if the trains are running now.”

Bizarrely, the Milan fan that was so irate with all of us was still on the platform. This was odd. Eventually at around 8pm, a new train arrived. This was full of Milan fans; not a bad sign. They knew the timings. They were absolutely full of song too. And in good spirits. They loved our Cucarella chant and repeated it back to us. Most were wearing Milan colours, as had many that we had seen around the city. The dress-code of the late ‘eighties in Italy of jeans, green bomber jackets, scarves and boots – especially the Inter lot – was clearly no more.

There were many songs lauding the rossoneri and one linking interisti to “vaffanculo.”

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

Just as the train rumbled into the San Siro stop – newly built, or at least since my last visit – I turned to the nearest Milanista and said “good luck” and he smiled. We shook hands.

I had always approached San Siro from Lotto to the north so I was a little discombobulated.

We were marched west, right past where my car had been parked earlier, and we began the slow march in to the away section. Our ticket was cross-referenced with our passport. Further in, there was a predictable altercation with a couple of stewards who wanted me to take my pocket camera – I had left my SLR at home, I am no fool – back to “bus.”

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

There was no bus. My car was half-an-hour away.

I pleaded that it was just a “piccolo machina” and they thankfully let me in.

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

PD and Parky, hobbling, were allowed access to the lift. I tried to join them but was not allowed in. Instead, the slow ascent up the helix. It was fine, thank heavens. The old ticker wasn’t grumbling at all.

Inside, our area – the upper third tier, green zone – was near packed to capacity. I could go left into the centre or right to the end where I guessed there would be more empty seats. I chose right. After just five or six steps up, I spotted PD and Parky right next to the aisle.

4,300 Chelsea in one tier and we were together again.

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

This looked a full house; 75,000? Superb. Chelsea fans kept arriving, some way into the game. The stadium was as I remembered it. I looked over at the southern end and imagined myself there in 1987 and 1990.

What would the 1987 me have made of all this? Or the 1986 me for that matter?

1986 Chris : “Wonder if I will ever see Chelsea play here?”

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

1986 Chris : “2022? I’ll be an old man by then.”

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

1986 Chris : “So, that must mean in European competition? That must mean we will win something?!”

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

1986 Chris: “Tell me! No wait. Don’t. That will spoil the surprise.”

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

Graham Potter, what a journey he is on, chose this team :

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

There was a mosaic…nothing great, just “Let’s Go Milan”; like something an American high school teacher might say to a basketball team. It hardly referenced Milan’s illustrious European pedigree or used words to inspire.

The lights dimmed a little. Then the anthem, the fluttering of the logo on the centre-circle. The teams lined up. Chelsea were to play in all white. I was just pleased that I couldn’t see the insipid jade green / light blue hoops.

To me, it referenced the all-white that we wore in 1966.

On more than one occasion, a thought fluttered inside me :

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

The Milan kit looked virtually all black from row 88. It was a poor kit. I much preferred the 1988 version.

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

Just before kick-off, I couldn’t resist a short burst of venom.

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

The game began and Milan, attacking us in the North Curv – OK, it’s not a curve, but it’s what the Italians call an end – where the strongest over the first ten minutes or so. Leao danced and shuffled his feet a few times. I had a feeling that if we denied him, we would have a chance.

For all of the singing and chanting in Navigli and on the metro, I didn’t think we were in particularly fine voice.

After some exchanges, the game altered direction irrevocably on twenty minutes. Reece James threaded a fine pass into Mason Mount. Inside the box, the midfielder tried his best to get a shot away but his effort was booted clear by Tatarusanu. I was concentrating on his efforts to shoot so wasn’t looking specifically at Tomori’s rough intervention.

To our joy, the referee signalled a penalty. A huge roar from us. There were protestations from Milan, but the referee was unmoved. Jorginho, to his credit, walked away with the ball and stood yards from the melee of Milan players hounding the referee. Eventually, he approached the spot. Again, a long wait. Jorginho took forever. My camera was poised. Our midfielder took so long that I had visions of my lens retracting.

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

My dear friend Alan was unable to travel out for this game but I heard his voice from afar.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Wow. We were 1-0 up at the San Siro.

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

I smirked when I remembered another memory in Italy not so long after this Milan moment. In December 1999, I travelled out for the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Lazio. A certain left-back missed a sitter late on and this – admittedly short-lived – chant was sung :

“Babayaro. Missed a fucking great goal. With one minute to go. In the Olimpico.”

Anyone remember that?

I really don’t know how I missed it, but it soon became apparent that Milan were down to ten men. There was a little ripple of acknowledgement in our area; it seemed that I wasn’t the only one that had missed it. I suppose we were all too busy celebrating the penalty decision.

Superb.

Olivier Giroud headed wide down below us and Milan seemed upset and ill-at-ease.

A really fine move carved open the Milan defence on thirty-four minutes. Mateo Kovacic played a ball in to Mount, who flicked it beautifully wide and into space. We had the glorious sight of both Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Abameyang free and with just the ‘keeper to beat.

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

He ran down into the corner and although I had missed taking a photo of the goal, at least I captured the joyous celebrations.

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

There was a fine chance for Mount in the closing moments of the first-half. His nimble turn allowed him to poke a low shot goal wards, but the Milan ‘keeper got down low to turn it around the post.

On forty minutes, purely planned to the minute, around fifty huge flags behind the opposite goal were waved and their presence lasted for the rest of the game. It was some sight.

It was a wonderful to see the place packed to the rafters. Bizarrely, two central sections in the middle of both upper tiers were unused though. Maybe there was a problem with egress from these lofty locations. The tiers go on forever at San Siro. And the huge roof hovers over everything. There is hardly a more stunning stadium in the whole of Europe. It is certainly supremely photogenic.

I was in heaven.

I was so far up, I might as well have been.

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

Conor Gallagher replaced the really excellent Mason Mount. We guessed he was saving Mason for later games. I had liked the energy of Mateo Kovacic and the calming positional play of Jorginho in that first-half. To be fair, all our players had been magnificent.

An early, seemingly easy enough, chance came to Gallagher who rounded the ‘keeper after a fine forward run from Trevoh Chalobah but his effort went wide, striking the side netting amidst groans from the 4,300.

We were easily the more accomplished team as the half progressed. We had a few half-chances.

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

Positions were moved around. I tried my best to work it all out.

Our possession football – cheered with many an “olé” – must have tired Milan out. We looked relaxed and purposeful in everything we did.

There was a strong run from Loftus-Cheek, at his best, but his pass to Aubameyang resulted in a miss-cue. But our chances greatly out-weighed those of the home team.

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

The Milan fans raised the roof with ten minutes to go with the loudest chant of the night. If I had to choose, I would always go for Inter over Milan, but their fans really impressed me over the two games.

Our fans by now were only chanting sporadically. As far as I can recall, there was not one single moment when the entire tier was singing as one. It was almost as if this was too easy. Especially with Milan playing with only ten men. It was an odd feeling. I thought back to all those great players to have worn the red and black stripes over the past forty years and this current team, despite being the current champions, are surely a pale shadow of the great Milan teams.

Baresi. Costacurta. Baggio. Van Basten. Ronaldinho. Shevchenko. Donadoni. Maldini. Ancelotti. Rijkaard. Papin. Pirlo. Kaka. Nesta. Seedorf. Ibrahimovic. Inzaghi. Gullit.

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

On the drive up to London last week, ahead of the Milan home game, if somebody had said that we would win both games with an aggregate score of Chelsea 5 Milan 0, nobody would have believed it.

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

We were kept in for about forty-five minutes at the end of the game. We popped into the nearby snack bar which was surprisingly still open and I devoured a lemon iced-tea. I was allowed access to the lift this time.

The three of us slowly made our way back to Lampugnano; it was a thirty-five-minute walk. Halfway back, quite a way from San Siro, two trucks were still selling food.

“A burger, an iced tea and a Red Bull.”

The first two were soon demolished. The third would be consumed on the drive back to Turin.

There was a little chat with a Chelsea fan. I commented that there just didn’t seem to be that wanton euphoria that no doubt was in evidence at the 1999 “Dennis Wise” game. That it was all a bit subdued.

We agreed that the two clubs were at different stages in 1999 and 2022.

1999 : Chelsea as European novices, Milan as European royalty.

2022 : Chelsea as seasoned European competitors, Milan as a faded club.

I made relatively good time on my return to Piedmont from Lombardy. I set off at 1am, I was parked up outside the apartment at 3am.

Wednesday was another relaxing day. I was up early, though, at 7am to return the motor at 8am. It had been a magnificent adventure along the Italian A4. We checked out of the apartment after a light breakfast. There was time for a few beers in the city centre and a magnificent meal to boot. Callum joined us and we shared a cab to Caselle in order to catch the evening flight home.

There was even time to nab a couple of bargains at the Robe di Kappa shop at the airport.

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

I thankfully fell asleep for an hour on the flight back to Gatwick.

One young Chelsea fan was full of enthusiasm about the game. There had been a noticeably large contingent of youngsters out there. This is fantastic to see.

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

“No, the first ever. I just can’t get access to tickets for away games.”

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

“My first away game was Bristol Rovers. His is Milan? Mamma mia.”

I eventually got home – the M3 closed, part of the M4 closed – at 1am on Thursday morning.

Next up, Villa away on Sunday. See you there.

1987

1990

2022

Tales From A Night Of Frustration And Fackinells

Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 December 2021.

My dear father was born on 16 December 1923, and I thought it quite apt that we were playing Everton at Stamford Bridge on his birthday. Everton’s Goodison Park was the only football stadium that my father, who was more into swimming, diving, tennis and badminton, ever visited before I came along. Since my first game in 1974, he was with me on many trips to Stamford Bridge, Ashton Gate and Eastville in Bristol and the County Ground in Swindon in my childhood and beyond.

In total, Dad saw Chelsea play around thirty times. And it was again quite fitting that his last ever game was against Everton bearing in mind his Goodison Park visit in around 1944. This last match took place on New Year’s Day in 1991. I had travelled by train to spend New Year’s Eve with some college mates and then met up with my parents in the West Stand before the match. Watching the game with us were a couple of family friends and a young lad Edward, about eight years of age, attending his very first Chelsea game. When one of those family friends passed away – Jack lived four doors away and reached the grand age of ninety-eight – Edward’s father spoke about that day in 1991 and it pleased me that Edward is still a Chelsea fan. For the record, despite us going ahead with a goal from Kevin Wilson, Everton equalised at The Shed End in the first-half via Graeme Sharpe. In the second-half, to my horror, Pat Nevin pushed the ball across the six-yard box and it deflected in off Jason Cundy. We lost 1-2. The gate was just 18,351. I was on the dole at the time, not even drifting, and the game summed up the gloom in my life at the time.

Everton have never been relegated from the top flight, unlike their neighbours across Stanley Park, and so it is not surprising that I have seen them play a fair few times; thirty-five games at Stamford Bridge, twenty matches at Goodison, a Cup Final at Wembley.

PD, my work-colleague Simon and I were on our way to game fifty-seven. Sadly, Parky was unable to join us. There was the usual midweek dip into “The Goose” and then “Simmons” and I could not help notice that both places were much quieter than usual. We had noted light traffic en route to London too. It certainly seemed that this “Lockdown / Plan B” was having a real impact on people’s ability to get out and about as per normal. In both pubs, talk was of COVID19, and there were very real concerns that this football season might be pulled out from under our feet, if only for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, there was the eerie memory that the very last game before lockdown in 2020 was our home game against Everton.

There were reports of three of our players being out with fresh cases of COVID19; Lukaku, Werner and Chilwell, though were other rumours too of a couple more. As we supped our drinks, I was genuinely expecting the news to break that our game against Everton would be postponed. Regardless, we walked to Stamford Bridge, and I slapped on a face mask just outside the West Stand forecourt. I wore it all the way to my seat as per the new advice though it was clear that I was in the minority.

Not only was Chelsea’s team depleted with injuries and now COVID19, but Everton’s too. We heard on the grapevine that there would be a couple of debuts for them. Over in The Shed, the best part of three thousand Evertonians were amassed. Elsewhere, as kick-off time rapidly approached, it was clear that thousands of seats that would not be filled. In The Sleepy Hollow alone, we were missing one or two. Alan was still away with COVID19 – he hopes to be back for Wolves – and the elderly chap who sits next to PD was also absent. Simon was taking Clive’s ticket alongside me. Thus, in our little section of five seats, two were empty. Our friend John sits in the same row but around fifteen seats along. Next to him were six or seven empty seats that were never occupied the whole game.

I looked around Stamford Bridge. Easily five thousand empty seats, probably more.

Sigh.

We learned that Callum Hudson-Odoi was out with COVID19 too.

So, the team?

Eddy

Dave – Thiago – Rudi

Reece – Jorgi – Ruben – Marcos

Hakim – Christian – Mase

The Everton debutants were Jarred Branthwaite and Ellis Sims.

“Who?”

It was a very mild night in SW6. I didn’t bother with my coat which was draped over the back of my seat.

As is so often the case at home, we dominated early on and it continued throughout the first-half; for Manchester United and Leeds United, read Everton. We were soon peppering the Everton goal. A slick ball out to Reece from Jorginho set up our right wing-back, but his shot was sliced past the near post netting at The Shed End. Then came a low shot, wide, from Mount that should have hit the target. Ziyech looked keener than usual in the opening quarter and a lovely spin and turn – it drew gasps – and his pacey burst set up Pulisic with an opportunistic flick but Pickford was his equal.

The chances, pardon the pun, mounted up. I counted six in the first twenty minutes. A shot from Ziyech, two efforts from Reece, a free-kick from Alonso.

Everton rarely got out of their half.

Thiago Silva played a quarterback role again, teasing others to show for him, playing neat passes to feet and lofted chips out wide.

There was a nice little atmosphere brewing I felt. Everton had their standard selection and so did we.

“We don’t care what the red shite say…”

“Carefree wherever you may be…”

The chances continued at The Shed End.

I was enjoying an in-match chat with Simon, and we seemed to share a few opinions. After feeling distanced from football throughout all of last season, although there were frustrations that our almost total domination had not resulted in goals, I felt really involved in this game. It felt like I was back. I didn’t take nearly as many photos either; possible proof that I wanted to concentrate on the match being played out in front of me. I offered encouragement under my breath to our players, joined in with the chants, sang the praises of others.

It felt good.

We continued to dominate. Ziyech blazed over. Everton were defending so deep though and space was at a premium.

Rudiger found himself inside the penalty area and set up Mount just outside the six-yard box.

I was up celebrating the goal.

But Jordan Pickford saved it with a reactionary twitch of his leg.

Fackinell.

I turned to Simon :

“Oh please God let this not be one of those games.”

I didn’t think Ruben Loftus-Cheek was looking particularly dominant. It also concerned me that I have started to call him “Rubes” during games. This must be akin to the “Chels” moniker that was always only ever used during games, but now seems to be hideously omnipresent.

Another fackinell.

With the end of the first-half approaching, there seemed to be warm encouragement from the stands.

I joined in a vibrant “CAM ON COWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

As late as the forty-second minute, Everton struck at Mendy’s goal for the first time.

The half-time stats showed that we had enjoyed eighty percent of the ball.

Another fackinell.

As the second-half began, I spotted the increasingly more rotund figure of pantomime villain Rafa Benitez gesticulating on the touchline. I for one was pleased that the dull “we don’t care about Rafa” chant was not aired the entire match.

A song from 1984 : “Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”

For some reason, that always makes me chuckle.

The chances for Chelsea did not occur at the same rate as in the first-half. And the atmosphere was generally quieter.

Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek did not really bother Pickford.

On the hour, there was a guttural roar of support from the Matthew Harding but it was not to be often repeated.

The frustrations were rising all around me. Very often I realised that my head was in my hands.

“Nobody is a threat upfront, Si. Seems to me that the biggest problem with a False Nine is that nobody has the urgency to score. Everyone is too busy running around that nobody thinks it’s their responsibility to fucking shoot.”

It was just my frustration getting to me.

Don’t worry, BT and Sky won’t be calling on me for tactical analysis in the near future.

But the “running around” part of the plan had stalled and both Simon and I were getting annoyed with our strikers being unable to twist and turn a la Vialli or Crespo.

I decided it was time for an Alan impersonation.

I rocked forward and spoke to PD and Si :

“More fucking movement in a Burton’s shop window.”

On sixty-five minutes, Thomas Tuchel did things his way.

Barkley for Loftus-Cheek.

Saul for Alonso.

Pulisic was shunted back to wing back and for a few minutes at least, Saul was centrally placed up front.

Fackinell.

I know his options were limited, but that really caught us all out.

On seventy minutes, a breakthrough. Barkley to James to Mount, and we watched as he bore in on Pickford’s goal from an angle. My camera was poised and ready.

Shot.

Snap.

Goal.

Roar.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

I loved that. It looked like the points would be ours.

But wait.

Just four minutes later, and – honestly – a ridiculously rare Everton attack resulted in a free-kick from wide on their left. Anthony Gordon played a magnificent cross into the oft-quoted “corridor of uncertainty” and debutant Branthwaite touched the ball past the stranded Mendy. Should he have come out? My first thoughts were “yes” but my position was some one hundred yards away. There is no doubt about the outstanding quality of the cross.

But the defending reminded me so much of our defending under Frank Lampard twelve months ago.

Another fackinell.

The Everton players celebrated maniacally in front of their fans.

It was another head in my hands moment.

There was no final ten-minute push and, if anything, we seemed to play within ourselves. A late Chalobah for Azpilicueta substitution didn’t add to our potency or our desire. From a Barkley corner, Silva rose well and forced a fine sprawling save from Pickford. A towering leap from Rudiger and a header that flew over. But it simply wasn’t to be.

It was a frustrating end to the game.

There were a few boos at the final whistle.

Another fackinell.

“Will the real Chelsea please stand up?”

I’ll go back to my words from a few games ago; we are still developing, we are still learning about each other. But the frustrations are real nonetheless.

Walking back to PD’s car, it struck me that this might be the last Chelsea game for a while if the Omicron variant continues to wreak havoc. I have a feeling our that our away game at Wolves on Sunday is under threat, and I did wonder if it might be a few weeks before I see another game at Stamford Bridge. Outside forces will govern our football for a while I think.

To be quite honest, despite the possible cessation of top flight football for a while, I am sure that all of the games will eventually be played.

But it is so ironic that on a night that I definitely felt that I was “one hundred percent back” Chelsea might be taken away from us all again.

I hope to see some of you at Molineux on Sunday.

For the record, here’s how Everton shape up in the list of my most-viewed opponents.

Manchester United : 77

Liverpool : 75

Arsenal : 68

Tottenham : 64

Everton : 57

Newcastle United : 52

Manchester City : 46

Aston Villa : 44

Southampton : 41

West Ham : 41

Blackburn : 30

Stoke City : 29

West Brom : 27

Fulham : 26

Leicester City : 26

Sunderland : 24

Bolton : 22

Leeds : 22

Middlesbrough : 22

Crystal Palace : 19

Tales From Wednesday On Sunday

Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday : 27 January 2019.

Sunday Six O’Clock.

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

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

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

But the three of us were there.

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

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

The ‘Eighties.

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

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

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

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

So, Wednesday. Yeah, we remember you well.

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

“You support a fascist football club.”

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

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

I remember he simply smiled and hugged me.

Those were the days.

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

Two Ghosts.

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

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

Six Thousand.

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

“Salisbury Owls.”

“Worksop Owls.”

“Chapeltown Owls.”

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

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

Two Teams.

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

The First Forty-Five.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea Sunday 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Out came the chorus from The Shed.

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

Quite.

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

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

It must be a Derbyshire and South Yorkshire thing.

The Second Forty-Five.

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

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

There was a header from Higuain, just wide.

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

Chelsea Sundaes 2 Sheffield Puddings 0.

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

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

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

GET IN.

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Wednesday’s children were full of woe.

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

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

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

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

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

Round Five.

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

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

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

“It was a good day out, that’s all.”

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

I will see the lucky ones there.

1984/1985 : Kerry Dixon On The Prowl.

1990/1991 : A Rumbelows Cup Anti-Climax.

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

2018/2019 : A Willian Spot Kick.

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

2018-2019 : The Debutant.

2018/2019 : Burst.

2018-2019 : Pace.

2018-2019 : Nike Football.

2018-2019 : The Third Goal.

2018-2019 : A Winning Smile.

2018-2019 : Together.

2018-2019 : Duel.

 

 

Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

This season has, thus far, been quite the mixed bag hasn’t it? Our last three games perfectly exemplify this; an encouragingly optimistic performance, but a loss against Tottenham at Wembley, a very dull home win against Newcastle United and then a limp and depressing defeat at Arsenal. Overall, in these three games, we would be scored as “must do better – much better” and the mood of the Chelsea support was in negative territory. How would we perform against Tottenham in the League Cup semi second leg? Would our play take us back into the positive for the first time in a while?

When we realised that we had been drawn against “that lot” – it seems ages ago now – my thoughts were this.

“At home, a one-off tie, we could beat them. But over two legs, I don’t fancy our chances.”

But things change. Our spirited first game a fortnight ago swung the balance our way. I sensed we’d beat them. When we heard that our bitter rivals had lost Kane and Ali to injury and Son to the Asia Cup, our spirits were lifted further.

As I left work at 3pm, my mood was worryingly optimistic.

It was a typical midweek pre-match. PD had driven Parky and little old me to London, and we had enjoyed the North End Walk, which links The Goose and Simmons Bar. There were tons of familiar faces in both and even the same faces in both; it seems a common choice on match days to combine drinks at the two hostelries. There was a noticeably buoyant and expectant air in both pubs. It felt fine. It felt good. Guest of honour was Pete, originally from North London, but now living in San Diego, and lucky enough to get his hands on a ticket at the last minute for the game. I last saw him in DC for the Barcelona friendly in 2015. I am sure Pete will not mind me mentioning that he is Jewish, and he soon showed me – rather coyly – his Chelsea kippah, which he produced from his breast pocket.

We both laughed.

“…mmm, best not wear that tonight mate, might get the wrong reaction.”

We laughed again.

I reminded him of the flight I took to Tel Aviv in 2015.

“I looked up and saw that the chap sitting in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. Fucksake. Then I spotted a woman to my left, across the aisle, one row ahead, was breastfeeding her infant. So I had a tit in front of me and a tit to my left too.”

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

There was just a little team talk.  I wasn’t confident that Maurizio Sarri would begin with Olivier Giroud, and neither was Simon but Daryl thought that he would.

In the build up to the semi-final against Tottenham, I was well aware of our two previous encounters with them at the same stage of the competition.

Our 1971/1972 semi-final was just before my time, not as a Chelsea fan per se, but I certainly can’t recall the build-up nor the two games themselves at all. After all, I was only six. I since learned that we overcame Tottenham, and that the first-leg was quite a game. A poke-in from Ossie followed by The King giving the away fans a “V”, a first-ever goal in our colours from Chris Garland and a Johnny Hollins penalty. We drew the second-leg 2-2 and progressed to the final. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m68Fvvlyk

In 2001/2002, we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with a brace from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the first one a prod past Kasey Keller down below me, the second an absolute screamer at The Shed, and I certainly remembered that match. We then reconvened at White Hart Lane two weeks later and I was able to hook up a portable TV to watch while I worked the evening shift at a portakabin in Trowbridge. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2drkUtSCj4

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

In 1990/1991, this time at the quarter final stage, we again drew Tottenham in the League Cup. This was a classic game, but only insomuch that it is, without doubt, the most one-sided 0-0 that I have ever seen. I watched from the West Stand seats, a bit of a treat really since I was on the dole that season, but towards the Spurs fans in the curving North Stand. Graeme Le Saux was absolutely on fire that night, and I had a prime position to see him roast the Spurs defence time after time. It was one of those games when you thought “we’ve got a real talent here”. Even though I travelled back by train that night, and therefore would not have seen the TV highlights anyway, this game has gone down in Chelsea history because the scheduled TV programme was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Gulf War and action from the game was never aired. That night, Baghdad came under a horrendous attack, but it paled into comparison to the blitzkrieg we had rammed into Tottenham a few hours earlier. It’s likely very few have seen these rare highlights, recently unearthed by a chap on a Facebook group that I am in. I love the involvement of the crowd and the noise from this game. Just 34,000 were officially present, but it was a common view that Ken Bates massaged the crowd figures in those days. Just what we needed, really. From a period that opposing fans refer to when lambasting our historical attendances, the bloody Chelsea chairman was making out we had less fans at games than we actually did. Nice one, Ken, you silly old duffer. Anyway, fill yer boots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqOjP2s58c

One more Chelsea / Tottenham midweek memory. With the signing of Gonzalo Higuain – never saw that one coming, cough, cough – and the thought of him possibly starting the game, many of us remembered the signing of George Weah in the 1999/2000 season. On a memorable evening, he had jumped off a plane at Heathrow and then appeared a few hours later to score the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the league. It was very much a case of “mmm, how shall we beat Tottenham this time?” It was fantastic. George Weah and his white boots, what an impact player for us in those last few months of that season. In 2019, we have witnessed another Milan to Chelsea loan signing, but alas there was no chance of another “Hig-Whea-in” winning goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egOgvkpHgF4

For this game, Tottenham had around four thousand in The Shed. This meant Parky was forced to buy a seat elsewhere. I decided to swap with him so he could watch alongside Alan and PD, while I took his seat in a central area of the same tier. As I took position, I realised that it was the first time that I had watched a game from behind the goal in the MHU since Bruges at home in 1995. It cunningly gave me a new vantage point for my photographic endevours.

And it was some view.

I loved the team that Sarri had chosen. In came Emerson, Barkley and Giroud.

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

I got chatting to Vince, a season ticket holder for decades, who was with two friends, sitting to my immediate right. I warned him of my habit of taking photographs and hoped it would not spoil his enjoyment of the night. Surprisingly, the seat to my left was empty. It looked a full house, but if you looked hard enough there were odd seats not being used.

More dimmed lights and firework and flames. At night games, it adds to the drama, but what next I wonder? Thank God the club hasn’t implored us to turn our phone torches on prior to the entrance of the teams. You heard it here first, sigh.

The teams came on. I love the sense of drama as they walk across the pitch to the West Side. No Premier League flag getting in the way this time. A straight and purposeful walk to the other side of the pitch. And I was staring down the four thousand Tottenham fans. They were, awfully, in our Shed, but somehow the sight of a solid block of away fans – flanked by several hundred empty seats on each side – gave the evening a proper “Us Versus Them” feel.

Whisper it, but it gave the game an added drama. Three stands us, one stand them, just like the old days, but swung around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Spurs were weakened on paper, and they began weakly on the grass too. We began well, bossing it, and got better. A divine full body shimmy from David Luiz suggested that he was full of confidence, and I only hoped that the others shared his positivism. We absolutely dominated the first five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. We moved the ball quickly, but into danger areas with more urgency than recent memory. For once, I noted that Jorginho was not hogging the ball. For once, it was not solely about him. We moved the ball long and short, and runners were hit. Once or twice, Eden played deep-seated playmaker and propelled lasers to the feet of a wide man. This was good stuff indeed, and the crowd – that vital component – were involved from the off.

I was enjoying my little chats with Vince. We delved into a few previous games. Bruges in 1971 and in 1995. That Le Saux game in 1991. The flat semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday – which followed the Spurs tie that year – at noon on a Sunday when we were undone by the same bloody free-kick routine – John Sheridan? – on two occasions. Another infamous game. Fackinell Chelsea.

Throughout the first-half, there were no end of rugged and miss-timed challenges on our players, which the referee Martin Atkinson shrugged off, and the home crowd bellowed and roared our disapproval. Each time the referee chose not to card a Spurs player, the otherwise quiet and bespectacled lad to my left exploded with a tirade of abuse; top notch swearing in fact. It was the sole time he seemed to get involved. There was no roaring of support for any of our players from him. He seemed an odd character. But more of that later.

Tottenham’s main song of the night was clearly one intended to entice a response from us, or at least some in our ranks.

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

Cos the thing I love most is being a ***.

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

The thing I love most is being a ***.”

But we are made of stern stuff and we did not lower ourselves.

There was no Y-Word-Nonsense from Chelsea’s three stands.

Well done us. Again.

However, as the game progressed, I was rather worried that for all of our dominance, we had not really tested their ‘keeper Gazzaniga. But Tottenham had rarely ventured into our half.

“Where’s Chris Garland when you need him?” I chirped to Vince.

On the half-hour mark, a Hazard corner from our left ended up bouncing towards Kante, some twenty yards out. He steadied himself, arms balanced, and did well to keep his shot down. Somehow it squeezed through a packed box, and we were 1-0 up and level in the tie. The crowd roared and the players quickly raced back to our half.

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

A replay would show how the ball had miraculously travelled betwixt the legs of three opposing players.

I wonder if the French word for “nuts” or “megs” was uttered by our man.

I turned to Vince : “The mention of Chris Garland did it.”

The Bridge was buzzing now.

The crowd roared N’Golo’s song at a home game for the first time that I can remember.

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

There was a close chance for Giroud, but his legs seemed to become tangled.

Ten minutes after the first goal, a fantastic move involving crisp passes from Barkley, Hazard, Pedro and Azpilicueta meant that Spurs were a little slow to spot the movement of Hazard, who appeared in the box as if by magic – like Mr Benn –  to calmly steer the ball home.

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

The game opened up further. A heavy Pedro touch meant that a fine run was wasted, and there were blocked shots as we piled on the pressure. There were only rare Tottenham attacks. Luiz played the ball out to his wide man Emerson with aplomb on many occasions. In the last moment of the first-half, Hazard was tackled from behind by Alderwiereld – I was not convinced – but befitting the rest of the first-half, no action was taken.

Vince : “one of the best halves of football we’ve seen down here for ages.”

The second-half began with “Where’s Wally” to my left nowhere to be seen. However, he eventually ambled back to his seat and – I am afraid that I am not exaggerating here – for a good eighty percent of the second-half he stared at his phone as he reeled off text message after text message, rarely looking at the game for minutes on end. And it really wound me up. It shouldn’t, should it? But it did. It is a miracle of self-restraint that I chose not to bite and say something bitterly sarcastic to the prick.

The first few minutes passed and – just as I thought to myself “mmm, Eriksen has been quiet, bet he misses his usual targets”- the ball was whipped in by Danny Rose, an early substitute, from their left and Llorente prodded home.

The away fans roared now, and a Star of David was spotted being fluttered like a red rag to a bull in the Shed Upper.

The game opened up again. This season, there would be no extra time if scores were level over both games and the game would go straight to penalties. We begged for a third goal on the night. And to be fair, we certainly gave it our best shot, if not one that hit the target.

Over the next forty minutes there was shot after shot. Giroud wriggled free and lashed an effort low but Gazzaniga saved at the near post down below me. Giroud, – undoubtedly under threat with Higuain on board – had not created much for himself up until then, but his presence had allowed others to make use of space around him.

The home crowd urged the players on. I will be honest, I was especially loud – “rasping” – and aimed my voice towards Wally to my left, but there was no reaction from the twat. He had the sort of face that was begging out for a slap, glasses or no glasses, and even though I am not a violent person…mmm, my voice fades into the ether, best not say anything, I’m honestly not a violent person, but…

Unbelievably, Jorginho and Kante were booked despite the rotten Tottenham challenges, and the reaction of Sarri to a bad tackle resulted in him getting a yellow too.

“Good lad.”

Llorente messed up a great chance from close in, and there was much wailing at the Tottenham end.

We attacked again. Great play from Hazard and Emerson. A shot from Pedrio.

Moura then hit the side netting and the away fans roared just as the Chelsea fans roared when Kerry Dixon hit the side netting in 1991 (have you watched the clip yet? Go on…)

And then Dave was carded too.

Three Chelsea players carded. And not one opposing player. This seemed bloody ridiculous. This brought Wally to life and he again spewed out some fuckwords into the evening air at the referee.  But there were still no signs of support for his team.

Back to your texts, lad.

Willian replaced Pedro, who had stretched his marker all night.

My favourite part of the game, in one way, took place on the East Stand touchline. There was a foul on a Chelsea player – Kante I think –  but many players continued, and Kante himself had clearly not heard the whistle (or maybe he had, wink), and he made a firm but fair tackle, leaving a Tottenham player on the floor and clasping his shin. It was sheer poetry. This certainly galvanised our support further.

At last a Tottenham booking; Sissoko, and much sarcastic cheering.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

Hazard pelted one in from outside the box and it missed the target by inches. He repeated this shortly after, but another chance went begging. Mateo Kovacic replaced the tiring Barkley, who had begun well but was fading. We still pushed on. There were further chances though. Another messy effort from Giroud at the far post had us all frustrated, but worse was to come.

Emerson, finding great energy from somewhere, flew past Aurier and sent over a peach of a cross towards a leaping Giroud. His effort cleared the intersection of post and bar. I actually turned around and double-stamped in absolute frustration.

…”mmm, I haven’t done that before” I self-consciously thought to myself.

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

“Simple. If it is up there, we’ll lose. If it is down here, we’ll win.”

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

Great for us, great for the fans, great for me, great for my camera.

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

Chelsea : Willian (currently one of the boo boys, please don’t give them extra ammunition to have a go at you) – IN.

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

Chelsea : Azpilicueta (didn’t like his over-enthusiastic run up) – IN.

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

Chelsea : Jorginho (that stop, like at Huddersfield) – IN.

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

Chelsea : Luiz (a hero from the spot in Munich, another long run up, initiated by a Jonny Wilkinson-style stop, sorry about the rugby reference) – IN.

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

The penalties had taken place and we had done them four by two.

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

David Luiz had been featured on the programme cover and it was fitting that he had brought us home. He had enjoyed a great match along with Hazard, Rudiger, Pedro and – of course – the loved Kante. But Luiz was the centre of attention as “One Step Beyond” boomed around Stamford Bridge. I glanced over to The Shed, and many had quickly disappeared.

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

I slowly made my way to the exit and outside the West Stand one song dominated.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From Blue Saturday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 26 November 2016.

It all began on Saturday 1 December 1990 when the visiting Tottenham Hotspur team kicked-off at Stamford Bridge, with football in England enjoying a resurgence after the exploits of England during Italia ’90.

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The Tottenham side included England stars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne – forever linked to that “have a word with him” moment at the Stadio delle Alpi semi-final against West Germany – but we had a strong side too, including Italia’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo. I watched the ensuing ninety-minutes from the West Stand seats with my mate Pete, a Newcastle United supporter on his first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge. It was a cracking game, bristling with good football and played out in front of a vibrant Chelsea crowd of 33,478 which was as about as good as it got in those days. Chelsea deservedly won the game 3-2 but who would possibly guess that the same fixture would not provide an away win in the ensuing twenty-six years?

As the four of us alighted at Paddington Station at around 10.30am, there was a strong desire to see us win our seventh straight league game of a surprisingly golden autumn, but much of my focus was to just keep the run going. I just hated the thought of us losing to them, and thus ending a ridiculous show of ascendancy over our rivals from N17. In my mind, a draw would be satisfactory. Over breakfast in a diner out on Praed Street, my stand point had toughened.

“Let’s beat them.”

And Tottenham were beatable. After a disastrous defeat in Monaco, they were out of the Champions League, and were probably at a low ebb. We, on the other hand, seemed invincible.

With the kick-off some seven hours away, we had planned a pub-crawl away from the gathering legions around Stamford Bridge. We have decided that we aim to do this more frequently over the next few years. We have certainly visited virtually all of the pubs around Stamford Bridge; it is time for us to broaden our horizons. After a very enjoyable pub crawl along the Thames in September before the away game at Arsenal, we settled for a small walking tour around Covent Garden. The four of us – The Chuckle Brothers, Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – took the tube down to Embankment, and inadvertently bumped into Kim, Dan and Craig, fellow Chelsea supporters, who we knew from The Goose. They didn’t take much convincing to join us. We started off with three pints in “The Coal Hole”, alongside The Savoy Hotel on The Strand. We were joined by Andy and Wayne, from Kent, like the others. From there, a brisk walk past Covent Garden to “The White Swan”, “The Round Table” and then “The Salisbury.” The beers were flowing, as were the tears of laughter.

The game was hardly mentioned. We were too busy laughing.

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We split up, with the five lads from Kent shooting off to pick up tickets near the stadium. We grabbed a slice of pizza at Leicester Square and then caught the tube from Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington. Time for a quick drink at “The Zetland Arms” and then a cab down to Stamford Bridge. Actually, as pub crawls go – with the idea being to experience new boozers – we failed miserably; we had been to all of the pubs before. Must do better next time.

“The Chelsea Pensioner” was heaving and we weren’t allowed to enter. Not to worry. It was about 5pm. Let’s get inside. Not surprisingly, the alcohol was keeping the winter chill at bay.

With Christmas approaching, the West Stand was festooned with blue and white lights, and I have to say it looked pretty effective; a waterfall of neon greeted us as we headed off to the MH turnstiles.

We were inside with time to spare. Spurs had a few flags hanging over the balcony of The Shed. With fifteen minutes to go before kick-off, there was a buzz of excitement. For me, with each passing season, there is no bigger home game than Tottenham. I looked over at their fans and wondered how many had endured, in the same corner of the stadium, the traumatic events of 2 May.

This would be the second time that I would be seeing Tottenham play this month.

“What?” I hear you ask. Let me explain.

Back in the first week of November, I met up with my old friend Mario, who I have known since the summer of 1975, and who I have mentioned many times before in these chronicles of Chelsea Madness. Mario is a Juventus supporter from Diano Marina in Italy, but has been living in Germany for twenty years. His adopted club is Bayer Leverkusen (we watched the Bayer vs. Chelsea game in 2011 together), and he was able to get me a ticket for the Bayer game against Tottenham at Wembley. What a magnificent day we had. It was Mario’s first-ever visit to England and, after knowing him for forty-two years, it just seemed so right that the first time that I would see him in England would be at Stamford Bridge under the Peter Osgood statue. I treated Mario to a tour of Stamford Bridge, before we explored the capital’s main sights on a whirlwind tour; Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Downing Street, Westminster, The Thames. We ended up with a cracking meal in a pub on the South Bank. And then, the odd sensation of a Champions League game in London not involving Chelsea. I hated the walk down Wembley Way from Wembley Park tube station, with the whole area covered in Tottenham favours and trinkets. I hated seeing the Spurs badge superimposed on Wembley’s façade. I just wanted to get inside, away from them all.

The game itself was hugely enjoyable. Bayer Leverkusen had the upper hand throughout and I loved the experience. They were noisily supported by around 2,500 fans; they made a fantastic din. By comparison, the home support was woeful. I can honestly say that I only ever heard two Spurs’ songs during the entire evening.

“Oh when the Spurs – go marching in…”

“Come…on…you Spurs.”

Two. That was it. Honest.

For huge periods of the match, they hardly sung at all.

Bayer’s fans were led by a capo at the front of the lower tier who orchestrated each song, using a loudspeaker and what looked like a series of hand codes.

Clenched fist – song A.

One finger – song B.

Two fingers – song C.

It was odd to be in an away section that was so different to that which we experience in England. At a Chelsea away game, there are constant murmurs of songs being started throughout the away enclosure, and once a critical point is reached, songs envelope the whole area. It’s pretty democratic and organic. Songs rise and fall. At Wembley, the Bayer fans around me did not sing at all, or at least they did not start their own songs. Once the capo began, though, they all joined in. There was an awful lot of “sha-la-la-las” and a lot of rhythmic clapping.

“SHA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA.”

“LE – VER – KU – SEN.”

I must say I preferred the English model though.

When Bayer’s Kevin Kampl slammed a goal past Hugo Loris from inside the six-yard box on sixty-five minutes, I can honestly say I went doo-lally.

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Bayer Leverkusen 1.

Oh my aching sides.

Walking back up to Wembley Park after the game with Mario was schadenfreude at its very best. The Spurs fans were silent again, except for the occasional moans about how poor they had been. I lapped it up. A wink and a smirk to Mario was enough for me.

Oh happy days, oh happy night.

The stadium filled to capacity and Stamford Bridge grew expectant.

These memories of Wembley toyed in my mind as I looked over towards them.

“Hey, Tottenham. I have a song for you. Do you know this one?”

ONE FINGER.

The team was unchanged once again. Why change it? No reason.

We were treated to the darkening of the lights and another electric storm of flashing strobes, blinding flashes and a pulsing heartbeat. It looks impressive, but I’d much prefer us to be left to our own devices, and to generate some atmosphere ourselves. Additionally, there was just enough time for a two-tiered display in The Shed just before the teams entered the pitch.

In the Upper Tier : “ONE STEP BEYOND.”

In the Lower Tier : “CHELSEA ACID HOUSE.”

This football and music crossover continues on. The staples of the English working classes.

I’m personally waiting for a Cocteau Twins banner to be flown from atop the East Stand.

At 5.30pm in deepest darkest SW6, the game began with not a seat in the house empty.

Let’s not ignore the facts. Tottenham completely bossed the first-half. I captured on film the free-kick which resulted in Spit The Dog bundling the ball in but photographic evidence backed up the linesman’s decision that he was clearly – “clearly I tell ya” – in an offside position. Tottenham then took the lead on just eleven minutes when the ball was worked to Christian Eriksen, who unleashed an unstoppable drive, with minimal back lift, past Thibaut Courtois.

They celebrated down below us. The Spurs fans roared. We had conceded our first goal since the last ice age. Fiddlesticks.

We looked lethargic in possession and lacking confidence. It came as a major shock to all of us. Spurs, in comparison, resembled the team that had – “cough, cough” – pushed Arsenal to second place in the league last year, showing a greater determination to work as a team. Our first real effort on goal was a trademark David Luiz side footed free-kick, which Loris easily gathered. In the stands, frustrations were overflowing. Our back three at times looked like a plan gone wrong. And Spurs continued to dominate. Spurs peppered our goal with shots from everywhere.

There were small – ever-so-small – signs of improvement. A Hazard shot.

“Let’s just get to half-time. Conte needs to talk to them.”

On the cusp of half-time, Matic played the ball forward to Pedro. He was around twenty-five yards out and for once was allowed time to turn. In an instant, he moved the ball out of his legs, and with no Tottenham challenge forthcoming, curled an exquisite shot past Loris and in to the goal, just inside the far post. It was not dissimilar to Diego Costa’s strike at Southampton. And the turn reminded me of Oscar’s goal against Juventus in 2012.

Anyway – “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Mad celebrations.

Undeserved but level at the break.

Phew.

Time to take stock, time for the manager to try to instill some confidence in the team. At this stage, I probably would have taken a point. We had been, as if I have to say it again, quite poor.

With Chelsea attacking the MH in the second-half, the crowd seemed enlivened as the game re-started. A shot from N’Golo Kante stung Loris’ hands, but the Spurs ‘keeper was not troubled.

Soon after, Eden Hazard pushed the ball on to Diego Costa, who dribbled deep, and with real skill, into the Spurs box. He slowed, then drifted past the last challenge before pushing the ball diagonally across the box. From my viewpoint, I saw it all. I saw Victor Moses rush in completely unmarked at the far post. If we were playing three at the back, Spurs must have been playing two because nobody was near him. We watched – the time seemed to stand still – as he smacked the ball goal wards. In reality, the ball struck two Spurs players on the way in, but I just waited for the net to bulge.

2-1.

The Bridge roared once again; the noise was deafening. It must have woken some of those in the adjacent Brompton Cemetery. All around me, people were bouncing with joy. The look on Alan’s face was a picture.

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Diego Costa then similarly set up Marcos Alonso, but his shot was rushed and flew high over the Tottenham bar. It felt that Chelsea were back on top, although chances were proving to be rather rare for both sides.

On sixty-three minutes, a poignant moment as the crowd applauded the memory of Chelsea fan Robert Huxley, so tragically killed in the recent Croydon tram disaster. It is a tram that Alan has used on many a day.

The game continued. No team dominated. It was a game of only half-chances, quarter-chances. Antonio Conte replaced Eden Hazard with Willian, Victor Moses with Branislav Ivanovic and Pedro with Oscar. The crowd roared the team home.

The run had continued.

Saturday 1 December 1990 to Saturday 26 November 2016.

Played : 27

Won : 18

Drawn : 9

Lost : 0

After the game, everyone was euphoric. We quickly met up with some pals outside the Ossie statue, and then some others back at “The Malt House.” No room at the inn there either. We cut our losses and headed back to Paddington. Pub number seven of the day was “The Sawyers Arms” and there was still time for a couple of rounds of shorts before the train home.

One thought kept racing through my mind. I know hate is a strong word, a horrible word really, but if Chelsea dislike Tottenham, they must fucking hate us. Our dominance continues even when we play below par. They must be truly sick of the sight of Fulham Broadway tube station, the CFCUK stall, Chubby’s Grill, the knobhead with the loudspeaker, the Oswald Stoll Buildings, Café Brazil, The Butcher’s Hook, the whole bloody stadium. And I would not have it any other way.

Another huge game awaits next Saturday; a lunch time kick-off at Manchester City.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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

In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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

As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2sQG_f1fLU

I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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