Tales From The Return Of The Blades

Chelsea vs. Sheffield United : 31 August 2019.

Sheffield. My first memories of Sheffield football involved United and not Wednesday. Back in the early ‘seventies when I first became enchanted by football, and all that went with it, it was Sheffield United who were involved in the top flight while their bitter rivals and near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday were playing football in the old Second and Third Divisions.

Names such as Tony Currie, Trevor Hockey and Alan Woodward starred for the Blades in that period. They were a mid-table team and, at times, an entertaining team. In those days, Wednesday – even though they were the bigger of the city’s two clubs, with a few more trophies and a larger stadium – were off the radar for me. Wednesday’s plight mirrored that of Aston Villa who were also loitering in the middle two divisions in that era too.

Although Chelsea played Sheffield United at regular intervals in the ‘seventies, we did not meet throughout the ‘eighties. Instead, Wednesday became one of our biggest rivals in that decade. We met United a few times in the ‘nineties, but our last meeting was in the 2006/7 season.

In all of this time, I have only ever seen them play at Stamford Bridge on three occasions, and there has only ever been one trip for me to Bramall Lane.

The first time that I saw Chelsea play Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge came in season 1991/92 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. I remember that Daryl and I spotted David Lee and Robert Fleck enjoying pre-match pints in “The Stargazey” – alas no more – on the Fulham Road before the game. But don’t worry, they weren’t playing. We won a nondescript game 1-0 with a goal from Bobby Stuart. However, the most memorable part of the entire day took place in a pub in Camden several hours after the game had ended when myself and a couple of college mates, enjoying a quiet pint, noticed an influx of United’s lads – the Blades Business Crew – who were evidently playing cat and mouse with Chelsea and also Sheffield Wednesday who, remarkably, had been playing a league fixture at Highbury that very same day. Thankfully, we managed to sidestep any problems that arose that evening, albeit narrowly. The escapades that took place that night have been well documented elsewhere. It was, evidently, quite an evening.

The most famous Chelsea vs. Sheffield United game of the past three decades, however, was the final match of the 1993/94 season. Chelsea, under Glenn Hoddle, had struggled in the first part of the campaign, adapting to a more expansive and possession based style of football – ring any bells? – but had enjoyed a resurgence after Christmas. We had, monumentally, reached our first FA Cup Final since 1970 too. The home game against Sheffield United was to be our final preparation for the Cup Final. All of our focus was on that game. It was, however, to be the final day of The Shed. We had heard that the club was to demolish the famous old terracing during the summer in preparation for new developments.

I remember travelling up with Glenn, meeting up with Daryl and maybe a couple of others in “The Stargazey” but then deciding at the last minute to get tickets in the East Stand Upper rather than stand on The Shed for the last ever time. I remember that it was raining heavily and there would have been no guarantee of cover in The Shed. So, in one of my most shocking Chelsea decisions ever, I chose not to experience The Shed on its final day. I still shudder at this ludicrous choice twenty-five years on.

“What was I thinking?”

As the North Stand terrace had been demolished around Christmas 1993, the only place left to house the away fans was the East Upper. Lo and behold, Glenn and I found ourselves just a few rows in front of the large and boisterous Sheffield United contingent. The Blades were threatened with relegation, though from memory were unlikely to go down as they were several places above the drop zone. Other teams were in the mix too and it never really dawned on me that relegation would be an option for them. Famously, Everton were right in the mire. Jostein Flo – Tore Andre’s older brother – put the away team 1-0 up and the away fans bellowed “The Blades are staying up.” Jakob Kjeldberg equalised, but Glyn Hodges quickly restored the lead. This was looking good for Sheffield United.

“Now you’re gonna believe us…the Blades are staying up.”

But this was anything but good for us. We had lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City the previous Wednesday evening at Stamford Bridge – in front of a miserable 8,923, maybe everyone was saving their hard-earned for Wembley – and now we were losing to a poor team on the Saturday. It was hardly good preparation for Wembley. Then, miraculously Mark Stein – the season’s unlikely hero – scored in the seventy-fourth minute and again on ninety to give us a dramatic 3-2 victory. Elsewhere none other than Bobby Stuart – or Graham Stuart, now that he had left us – had scored for Everton to give them a late win at home to Wimbledon, and – much to my sadness – we soon realised that Mark Stein’s late winner, a poacher’s goal in front of The Shed, had relegated Sheffield United.

The away fans went deathly quiet.

It was a game that we wanted to win for sure, with Wembley coming up, but it was horrible to witness at close hand the absolute sadness being experienced by the Blades fans. Some younger fans were in tears.

It was the first time that they had been in the bottom three all season.

It was a bizarre experience. And, I’ll be honest, I really felt for them.

Glenn and I sloped away, quiet too.

My pre-match activity for the game in 2019/20 involved more history. I joined up with twelve other Chelsea supporters who had signed up for Rick Glanvill’s historical walk along the Fulham Road. Rick is the official club historian and is heavily involved at Chelsea, having written the official book celebrating our centenary in 2005 – what timing, what a year – and writes for the match programme to this day.

From 11pm to 12.30pm, Rick effortlessly guided us from the Fulham Town Hall to Stamford Bridge – the bridge, not the stadium – and from 1905 (and before) to 2019. It was a thoroughly entertaining ride through our history, with fascinating insights into key moments in our formation and subsequent decades. It’s probably best that I don’t report too much detail of the content and undermine Rick’s further tours, suffice to say that I heartily recommend them to anyone with a passion, like me, for social history, geography, football and a good yarn.

Rick painted a wonderful picture of the area before Chelsea Football Club was formed. And there were whimsical stories about the founding fathers, music hall performers, the club’s first official photographer, music studios, a local lad who became one of the first ball boys and the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945.

It was right up my street, or rather Fulham Road.

One of the same I guess.

I met up with the lads at “Simmons” and it was a real pleasure to see Dave once again. Dave now lives in the South of France with his good lady and their young lad – who, with perfect timing – was born a couple of hours before we won the league at West Brom in 2017. And no, Dave’s son’s name isn’t called Michy.

We last saw Dave on a good old pub crawl around the West End before the debacle against Tottenham at Wembley last season.

It was a joy to see him again.

One of our party was missing however, and it felt odd. Parky was recuperating in a Bath hospital after his hip operation on Thursday. After work on Friday, PD and I had visited him and he was doing well, and in fine form.

This is code for “we couldn’t shut him up.”

With or without Parky, everyone was having a blast. I met up with a few of the usual suspects for the first time of the season in “Simmons” and it felt great. It is a very popular little bar among people I know.

To tie things up nicely with Rick’s pre-game tour, the son of our former chairman Brian Mears was in attendance.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Dave, and the fifteen-minute journey was riddled with ridiculous laughter.

Good times.

On the forecourt, I tussled with my conscience and for the first time ever, I chose not to buy a home programme. I have tended to only flick through them of late, even though they are a good read, but I have crossed the Rubicon. I gave up buying away ones a good few years ago. I haven’t bought the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, nor the 2019 Europa League programme.

There is only so much space in my house for Chelsea paraphernalia.

Ugh.

Once inside Stamford Bridge, I had a few moments to settle and prepare myself for the game, which until then, had hardly entered my thoughts.

I looked over at the away section and wondered where two supporters were located.

On the Friday, I had received a lovely message from my friend Simon, who is a Sheffield United supporter, and who I have known for over three decades. On my only visit to Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006, I met up with him at his house and we drove in together. It summed up his take on the current regime, and really brought home how lucky we have been as Chelsea supporters over the last twenty-five years.

“Big match for us tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. My brother Chris and nephew Archie will. Either me or Chris need to be around for Mum so it’s difficult for us to go on away trips together. As for the Blades, most fans are in agreement that these last few seasons have been the best ever, certainly in terms of the quality of football and also that Chris Wilder is our greatest ever manager. The season before Wilder was appointed 2015/16 was awful, I remember watching us lose consecutive home games to Bury and Colchester and we finished mid-table League 1. A couple of players from that season are still involved (Billy Sharp and Chris Basham). Before that we had all the Ched Evans stuff, supporters were falling out with each other and it really felt like we’d hit rock bottom. I remember seeing us go down to the old Div 4 in 1981 but this somehow felt much worse. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time and the pride is back in the club. We’ve made a good start this season and so will be interesting to see how we go tomorrow. Hope you are well Chris and maybe we can meet up at Bramall Lane later on this season.

Best wishes, Simon.”

Since that match in 1994, the two clubs really have enjoyed mixed fortunes, eh?

The place slowly filled up, everyone took their seats. The away team were to be backed by a full three thousand. There weren’t too many away shirts dotted around the away section. I had walked past three Sheffield United fans a couple of hours earlier, each wearing the striped home shirt, looking like they had been refused entry from one pub and were on the search for another. They looked so forlorn. Neutral colours would have at least helped. Some people never learn.

The team was announced and – sadly – N’Golo Kante was missing. No place for Toni Rudiger either, still not match fit. It was a surprise that Tomori started, only his second game for us. Mason Mount was out wide again. Another start for Pulisic. Tammy leading the line.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pulisic – Barkley – Mount

Abraham

I was a little disappointed that Sheffield United didn’t show up in their famous red and white stripes. Instead, they chose all white with red socks. Their most famous kit of all was the admiral one from 1976, with black edging on the red stripes. I mention this as it is a kit that my home village side Mells & Vobster United  – or at least the first team, the team I never quite managed to play for – used to wear in that same period too.

I can still see Alan Ford turning away, arm raised, after scoring a belting free-kick in around 1977 wearing the Sheffield United shirt.

There were a few banners adorning the away section.

One, half out of view – said “Hated, Adored” and I presumed that the part of the banner out of view said “Never Ignored.”

Stolen from Manchester United.

Must do better.

The game began, and the atmosphere was so-so. But we began well, with almost total domination of possession. It wasn’t as good a start as against Leicester City, but it wasn’t bad. A few chances came and went. There was an early repetition of the move which lead to our first goal against Norwich City with Christian Pulisic knocking the ball out to an overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta, but the firm cross evaded both the on-rushing Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham. On twenty minutes, a very similar move earned dividends. Barkley won the ball, moved it to Pulisic and then it was played to Dave, who was deeper than before. His cross was headed down and towards goal by Tammy, and the Sheffield United ‘keeper Dean Henderson had great difficulty in gathering the ball. Under pressure from Pulisic, he could only knock it straight into the path of our young striker.

Playing for Bristol City a few seasons back, Abraham was known as “Tammy Tap In” and he lived up to his reputation.

Chelsea 1 Sheffield United 0.

GET IN.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Tammy’s celebratory run and slide in front of the away fans was just joyous. It was, of course, his first goal at Stamford Bridge.

Beautiful.

We continued to excel.

Ross Barkley was heavily involved in many of our attacks, ably supported by the passing of Jorginho and the runs into space of Kovacic, but very often Barkley simply moved the ball on rather than played an incisive ball into danger. I thought Mason Mount was quiet, and Pulisic struggled to get involved. Kovacic flashed a firm shot past the far post. Sheffield United themselves had a couple of quarter-chances. A quick turn and cross from Chris Basham almost resulted in a stooping headed goal from Callum Robinson

A meek shot into the wall from Ross Barkley free-kick summed up his half.

One moment frustrated us all. The fall fell to Jorginho, centrally positioned and within sight of the goal. Rather than look to fire an effort in on goal, he lofted a pass over the heads of everyone, including the intended Tammy, and the attack died. I commented to the lads that there just must have been something in Jorginho’s footballing DNA – after years of behaviour-inducing drills – to stop him from shooting.

The away fans were relatively quiet all first-half.

Alan and I spent a few moments chatting about the wonderful Ronnie Barker in “Porridge” and we quoted some pearls.

“What, from here?”

“With these feet?”

“It was a green one.”

“He’s doing rather well.”

On the pitch, we were in command, but drifting a little, hence the brief comedic diversion.

Thankfully, with two minutes to go before the break, Jorginho lofted another high ball towards the box and Tammy pounced after a blunder from two of United’s three centre-backs, and picked up a loose ball. He found space well, picked his spot and although the ‘keeper touched the ball, the pace beat him. It crept in, lovely stuff.

Chelsea 2 Sheffield United 0.

“That’s all Tammy has to do, just keep hitting the corners.”

I captured his run and jump on film too.

“Four goals in three starts – love it.”

And all was well with the world at half-time. Dave came over to join us, we took some photos, happy days indeed.

Sadly, the second-half began awfully, and it brought back shocking memories of last season. With less than a minute played, they moved the ball far too easily down our right flank. Enda Stephens wriggled past a non-existent challenge from Dave, and his pacey low cross was flicked home by Robinson. The away end erupted. They were back in it.

We sighed.

The away fans were now ignited and there was a slight whiff of “A gallon of Magnet”, one of the best football songs ever.

“You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet.
Like a packet of Woodbines.
Like a good pinch of snuff.
Like a night out in Sheffield.
Like a greasy Chip Butty.
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again.”

The sky turned darker, to match the mood, and there was a surreal quality of light as rain fell.

We countered relatively quickly. Some gorgeous control from Dave and an intelligent ball in to the box – the epitome of the word “dink” – resulted in a side-footed stab at goal from Tammy that was clawed away by Henderson, down low, and close to him. It was a brilliant save.

Sadly, this was a very rare attack for us in the second-half. The away team sensed that confidence was seeping out of every pore of our being and grabbed hold of the game. They moved the ball well, and we lacked leadership. We looked a poor team suddenly. A couple of chances were exchanged. On the hour, Barkley was replaced by Willian, and we hoped for a far better performance from the Brazilian than against Leicester City. Mount switched inside, surely a better position for him.

Our attacking play was immediately bolstered by a couple of energetic runs from Willian, but that didn’t last. Sheffield United looked the more likely to score and the atmosphere within the stadium became rather tetchy. A lone chance fell to Kurt Zouma but he headed over from a corner. I can rarely remember a half of football which included so many mis-placed passes from so many different players. It was a shock to the system; a visual clue that confidence was low.

Michy Batshuayi replaced the impressive Kovacic, and Billy Gilmour – surprisingly – replaced Tammy Abraham.

I caught Gilmour’s first touch on his debut; a header.

Our attacks stumbled along though. It wasn’t cohesive. I didn’t like the way sections of the crowd grew noisily restless with every miss-placed pass. Rather than a cheer of encouragement there tended to be noisy swearing.

Not good.

Not good at all.

We know our role this season, don’t we?

Shouldn’t we be supporting the lads a little better?

I think so.

Mount went close with a volley. At The Shed End, a timely block from Tomori and we reacted with our heads in our hands.

Fackinell.

Sadly, sadly, sadly the game ended as we had perhaps feared.

Another raid down our right, another “after you Claude” moment, and another whipped-in cross. I could not discern who managed to get the final touch – it was evidently Kurt Zouma – but the ball flashed high into our goal.

This time, the away fans really exploded.

Bollocks.

Another second-half meltdown had left us all rather shell-shocked. As I made my way out, alongside fellow fans who were pursing lips, shaking heads and muttering, I looked up and saw the away supporters enjoying their moment.

Remembering 1994, I clapped too and whispered “well played Sheffield United.”

There was the usual “Bramber Road to Barons Court Post Mortem” in the car, and we honestly wondered if the two late substitutions were wise, but I then reminded ourselves that Frank Lampard OBE has forgotten more about football than the three of us combined will ever ever know, so we quickly shut the fuck up.

To cheer me a little, I heard that my local team Frome Town had gone top of their division with a fourth win out of four, and to cheer us all up, we had heard that Parky was home from hospital.

It was turning into a good day after all.

Chelsea under Frank Lampard is clearly a work in progress. I am not going to waste any time, effort and words on those in our midst who are unnecessarily negative.

Let’s all move on positively.

I will see some of you at Molineux.

 

Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

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

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

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

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

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

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

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

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

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

From La La Land to La Land.

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

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

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

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

“The Kop’s full.”

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

“Bollocks.”

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

“Take it.”

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

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

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

“Alright, lads?”

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

“Fucking get in.”

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

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

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

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

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

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

“We got in.”

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

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

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

The years have flown past since.

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

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

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

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

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

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

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

“No pressure.”

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

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

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

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

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

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

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

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

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

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

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

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

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

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

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

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

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

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

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

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

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

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

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

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

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

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

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

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

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

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

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

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

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

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

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

“We’ll get a goal.”

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

Sigh.

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

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

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

23844557_10155971372962658_4413997189793288281_n

Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

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

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

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

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

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

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

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

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

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

See you there.

IMG_1642 (2)

 

Tales From A Game And A Half

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 8 November 2014.

6.30am on a Saturday morning. Outside, there was darkness and silence. The rest of the world was asleep. However, the invigorating feeling which greeted the thought of a Chelsea away day was coursing through my veins. Not just any away game of course.

It was our return to the scene of the crime.

The afternoon of Sunday 27 April 2014 will live long in our collective memories.

In Liverpool, it is a date that they wish to forget.

Our 2-0 win, a stirring and resolute performance in the face of a local population that had seemingly crowned Liverpool as Champions with games still to play and with allied fawning from the media, derailed the Anfield team’s bid for their first League Championship since 1990.

It was, I’m sure, most Chelsea supporters’ most cherished memory of last season.

Schadenfreude never tasted so good.

However, during the first two months of the 2014-2015 season, the fortunes of the two protagonists had changed immeasurably; Chelsea were now dominant league leaders, Liverpool were dishevelled chasers. Although I was confident of a strong Chelsea performance, there was still a nagging and niggling doubt that there might be revenge in the air, as distant as it might have seemed to some, perhaps in the guise of a dish served cold’; perhaps like a bowl of cold scouse.

I collected Lord Parky at 7am and headed north once again; I soon realised that we would be completing our four league away days in Manchester and Merseyside within the first eleven games of the season. I expected the result at Anfield to be closer to the 1-1 draws recorded in Manchester than the 6-3 shellacking that we gave Everton.

At 11am, I was driving through familiar streets around Liverpool’s stadium. Just like at Old Trafford, street parking had tightened and there were “permits only” signs wherever I looked. In the end, I chose to pay £10 and parked in a secure site a few yards from Goodison Park. There were lovely memories of that Saturday afternoon in August.

Six goals. Phew.

The heavens opened on the short walk through Stanley Park, no longer the site of a proposed new Liverpool stadium. At the top of the steady incline, the Anfield floodlights were already on. We dived into a crowded “Arkels” and soon met up with around ten Chelsea faces from our part of the world. They had driven up in a mini-bus. Soon, the atmosphere became rowdier, with Chelsea songs to the fore. The closest pub to the away section, this pub has long been the “away” pub at Anfield, though home fans are admitted too. At times the atmosphere is a little tense, but I’ve rarely seen tempers flare. The locals seemed brow-beaten in the face of so much Chelsea noise.

They needed no reminding, but one song kept repeating…

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…”

I first visited “The Arkels” way back in 1992. It is a story worth re-telling.

In 1991-1992, Chelsea was struggling under Ian Porterfield and a decent run before Christmas had soon petered out. On the first day of February, I drove up to Liverpool on a ridiculously foggy Friday evening with my mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game on the Saturday afternoon. I had visited Anfield on four previous occasions – a draw and three defeats – but this would be a seismic weekend for Francis; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we stayed with friends in the city and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous weeks from Chelsea. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, my mate Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

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

“The Kop’s full.”

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

“Bollocks.”

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

“Take it.”

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

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

Pete looked at me.

I looked at Pete.

No words were needed.

Pete approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright.”

In we went.

In we fucking went.

We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete.

“Fucking get in.”

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

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-two sodding years.

On that Saturday in February 1992, I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

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

Inside, I purred with happiness.

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

“We got in.”

Francis was relieved.

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

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

I agreed.

At 2.15pm, I left Parky, Cooky, Ash, Andy, Sir Les, and the other members of the Trowbridge Chelsea crew, and walked the three hundred yards to take my place in the Anfield Road. I was surprised how few were inside; 1992 it was not.

Alan and Gary, fresh from their enjoyable trip to Slovenia, soon joined me in row 22, high above the goal. The Chelsea players were soon on the pitch, going through a few set drills. Long gone are the days when the players would appear on the pitch for ten minutes and nonchalantly ping balls to each other. These days every routine is planned and precise.

I spotted Diego Costa.

Phew.

I was quietly confident. Chelsea was flying high. Liverpool was the opposite.

Let’s go to work.

None other than Gianfranco Zola, commentating on the game, walked in front of the main stand and was rightfully serenaded by the three thousand faithful. I can well remember a game I attended at Anfield in 2002 when our little magician was playing out on the wing on the touchline by the Centenary Stand. A ball was booted high into the air and he killed it with one sublime touch; even the Scousers applauded it. The man was a genius.

The time seemed to suddenly race by and the stands filled-up in the blink of an eye. The teams entered the pitch behind two members of the British Army. I wondered if there would be time for the usual Liverpool anthem. Sure enough, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rattled around Anfield, though not with as much noise and fervour as in other visits. Then, thankfully, there was an impeccably observed minute of silence for the fallen.

The referee’s whistle.

Mario Balotelli touched the ball to a team mate.

Game on.

There was an initial period of free-running from the midfielders of both teams. Emre Can, a face I bluntly did not recognise, tested Thibaut Courtois with a shot which was deflected wide. I remember that Liverpool began the game in April very brightly, but failed to pierce our defence. This time around, they scored with only eight minutes gone. Liverpool were gifted too much space and the ball was played to Can once again. His speculative thump from twenty-five yards was headed for goal – I was right behind its flight – but the ball deflected off a Chelsea defender ( I was unsure if it was John Terry or Gary Cahill) and therefore wrong-footed Courtois. The ball nestled in the net and Anfield erupted.

“Rather they scored now than in the last ten minutes, Gal.”

Chelsea responded magnificently. A spell of pressure in front of The Kop. Two corners. On the second one, John Terry rose unhindered and headed towards goal. Mignolet parried but only knocked the ball in to the path of a blue-shirted assailant. Everything happened so quickly, but I saw the ‘keeper make a diving attempt to keep the ball from going over the line. The Chelsea fans around me roared, but I was unsure. I could only truly celebrate when I saw the referee and then the players running back towards me.

My immediate thought?

“Luis Garcia. Same part of the goal. Revenge. Get in. Come on you blue boys.”

Liverpool then threatened; a Balotelli goal was offside, a block by Gary Cahill. Coutinho, who always looks threatening, forced a save from Courtois. But, in an open game, Chelsea continued to move the ball well. Matic, as ever, was covering huge amounts of ground and our play was intelligent and forceful. Liverpool were getting stretched. Diego Costa shot over. A couple of Eden Hazard’s shots were blocked. There was a slight hint of Chelsea’s play being overly-elaborate.

Very often a call came up from the away section : “shoot!”

Total domination from Chelsea in the closing section of the first-half sadly brought no further goals. I was still confident though. It had been a fine first-half.

In the second-half, yet more impressive running from Hazard set up the rampaging Diego Costa, whose overhead kick flew over. Then a chance for Liverpool in front of The Kop; Sterling forcing a save, down low, from the reliable Courtois. Hazard’s turn again to run at a bewildered Liverpool defence, but we felt he held on to the ball a little too long; it is a flaw of his play. Eden needs to know when to release the ball. The resulting shot was blocked.

Willian, on for Ramires, found the advancing Cear Azpilicueta, who danced past Coutinho on the far touchline and took my advice to “get in the box Dave.” He flicked the ball in to the danger area and after Mignolet could only partially parry, the ball fell enticingly in to the path of the waiting Diego Costa.

I was right behind the path of this one too.

Our new goal-scoring icon slammed the ball low.

The net rippled.

2-1.

YEEEEEEESSSSSSSS.

The Chelsea crowd reacted brilliantly. For a few seconds, we all lost it. Arms pumping, faces gurning, hearts pumping, voices loud.

Alan : “Dey’ll ‘ave to come at us now……”

Chris : “Come on my little diamondsssssssss.”

It was no more than Diego Costa deserved. He was a constant thorn in Liverpool’s side all afternoon. One turn and run in front of the Centenary Stand, fighting off the challenge of two defenders, was a pure joy to watch. Liverpool’s home support, rather than attempting to cheer their team on, remained quiet. Our defence remained in control. I lost count of the number of times that balls were headed clear. Towards the end of the game, both Liverpool players and Liverpool fans alike responded loudly when a goal-bound shot seemed to strike a Chelsea defender. I was one hundred yards away. I was none the wiser.

In the last period, mindful of Robin Van Persie’s late equaliser at Old Trafford, the Chelsea support grew edgier and edgier. I kept looking at the old fashioned clock in the corner of The Kop. The minutes ticked by. Didier Drogba came on. Finally, Filipe Luis came on. The final kick of the game was a failed clearance from Mignolet which spun off for a Chelsea corner. The referee then blew.

A roar from the Chelsea section of the Anfield Road.

This was another enormously professional Chelsea performance. There were smiles aplenty all around me. Lovely stuff.

I soon met up with Parky and we bounced our way through Stanley Park, past the down –beaten Liverpool fans waiting for their coaches to take them back to Worcester, Bristol, North Wales, Birmingham and beyond.

“They must hate us up here, Parky.”

In 1992, we had to wait fifty-two years for a league win at Anfield.

In 2014, we have enjoyed two in seven months.

Good times in darkest Liverpool.

IMG_9891

Tales From The Blue Corner And The Red Corner

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 11 November 2012.

It was early morning on Remembrance Sunday.

Outside, the fields surrounding my Somerset village were frosted white. The sky was pure blue, devoid of clouds. Although this was a day of football, this was also a day of solemn contemplation and appreciation. Later in the morning, there would be a church service at the parish church of St. Andrew’s to commemorate those who had died while serving in the armed forces. Before the day gathered speed, I decided that I’d like to have my own little moment of quiet. I made my way down to the centre of the village and took a few photographs in and around the village church. Poppies bordered the pathway leading into the churchyard. The sun shone brightly. The village was barely awake.

Towards the eastern edge of the churchyard, there was one gravestone which I needed to capture on film. Siegfried Sassoon, one of England’s famous war poets – along with Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke – spent much of his life in my home village. It was his wish to be buried underneath the limestone spire of Mells church, alongside the avenue of yew trees, facing forever east into the Somerset countryside. As I approached his grave, I noticed the shadow from another grave – a cross – slanting across the plain tombstone. There was a ruby red bouquet and a single red poppy.

I wandered down to the village war memorial and took several more photographs. The memorial was designed by Edwin Lutyens, the famous British architect who was also responsible for London’s Cenotaph. In a quiet moment, I stood in the quiet Somerset morning. The names of the brave young men from the village who lost their lives in the two world wars were etched on Somerset stone. It was time for silence.

A Whispered Tale.

I’d heard fool-heroes brag of where they’d been,
With stories of the glories that they’d seen.
But you, good simple soldier, seasoned well
In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,
Who dodge remembered ‘crumps’ with wry grimace,
Endured experience in your queer, kind face,
Fatigues and vigils haunting nerve-strained eyes,
And both your brothers killed to make you wise;
You had no babbling phrases; what you said
Was like a message from the maimed and dead.
But memory brought the voice I knew, whose note
Was muted when they shot you in the throat;
And still you whisper of the war, and find
Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.

Siegfried Sassoon.

My friend Francis, who I first met on my inaugural day at Frome College in September 1978, collected me at just after 9am. Parky joined us en route. The banter soon started flying around. Francis is a Liverpool fan and, in some respects, is my lucky charm. He has attended around seven Chelsea vs. Liverpool games with me – including the momentous Champions League semi-final from 2008 – and was yet to see his team victorious.

The very first of these was way back in May 1991, when we travelled up by train from Frome, along with two of my former workmates Dave and Matthew. Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, were putting in a very late challenge to retain their title, but a strong Chelsea performance that day gave us a deserved 4-2 win. Our team included players such as Dave Beasant, Jason Cundy, Andy Townsend, Dennis Wise, Alan Dickens, Kerry Dixon and Gordon Durie. The four of us watched from high up in the old West Stand. It was a great game, our last home match of the season. I remember that I had to defend Francis and Matthew, who was also a Liverpool fan, from abuse from Chelsea fellow fans after they celebrated a little too noisily. Two goals from King Kerry gave us the win. Arsenal went on to win the League Championship. Liverpool, of course, is still waiting for their first title since 1990. It’s hard to fathom that the team which so dominated the football scene in my childhood (championships in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990) are still waiting. Although Manchester United suffered twenty-six years of title-drought from 1967 to 1993, their success in the ‘sixties was not as dominant as Liverpool in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. The comparison is valid, in terms of yearning, though Liverpool’s drought seems more dramatic somehow. I think that league success for Liverpool is still some time away.

Francis is off to the US next summer with his family. They are visiting Orlando, Miami and New York. We have been chatting about places to see, travel tips and possible itineraries for ages. For once it will be me living vicariously through his travel experiences. He has always been supremely interested in my trips to the US, to NYC especially, and I can’t wait to hear of his time across the Atlantic next August. We’ve spoken about baseball; rather annoyingly, the only Yankee game taking place is on the evening of his arrival from Miami, only hours after touching down at La Guardia. We think he’ll settle for a Mets game instead.

At 11am, we turned the radio on in order to hear the chimes from Westminster to signal the two minute’s silence at The Cenotaph.

We were parked up in good time and dived into the café for a filling breakfast. Parky darted into The Goose, but Francis and I headed down to The Bridge. I pointed out a few of the changes to the landscape since Francis’ last visit. Walking along Vanston Place, we passed a wine merchants’ and an upmarket restaurant. Often after midweek games, these two establishments are often full of late night carousers. I mentioned to Francis that there is often a late-night wine-tasting session taking place in the former. It’s typical Hammersmith and Fulham, typical Kensington and Chelsea, typical London. I don’t suppose that there are similar activities at 10pm near stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I collected my Juventus ticket – fantastic to get my hands on it – and we walked around to the main forecourt, past the old Shed wall; the last remaining structure, apart from the East stand, from that game in 1991. My friend Lynda, from Pennsylvania, had arranged to meet us. She introduced us to Tee, her significant other, and we quickly popped up to the hotel foyer to meet Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. I first met Lynda in The Goose on a NYB trip two seasons ago. Lynda was in the Chelsea team against PSG at Chelsea Piers in New York in July. It was great to see her again. The two of them had just flown in and were off to the delights of Madrid during the week. Tee, once he had spotted Ron Harris, needed a little moment to compose himself. Of course, Ron is the Chelsea equivalent of Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, Bayern Munich’s Franz Beckenbauer, Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana. What a treat for him to meet Chelsea’s two leading appearance makers on his first trip to Chelsea, his first trip to England. It would be like me informally chatting to Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford on my first ever visit to Yankee Stadium.

Wow. No wonder he was dizzy.

We took some photos. Francis quizzed Tee about visiting America while Lynda and I caught up on a few things. Thankfully, Sandy didn’t cause too much hardship to her house and home. I also bumped into Gary from LA, an ex-pat who I first met on the US tour in 2007.

For the next two hours, we spent an enjoyable time in two Chelsea pubs; “The Imperial” on the Kings Road, the former watering hole of Matthew Harding, and “The Pelican” on Waterford Road. I was able, at long bloody last, to chill out and enjoy some pints, even though they were served in poxy plastic glasses. Tee, who is a professional footballer with the Dayton Dutch Lions, was having a great time. He has been a Chelsea fan since 1998 and his personal favourite was Michael Essien. He was dismayed when he was loaned out to Real Madrid; imagine Tee’s pleasure, then, when he realised that he is able to see Ess play in Madrid next weekend. Free tickets too, but that’s another story. It was lovely for Francis and I to spend time with our guests from the US, to experience their enthusiasm for the game at first hand, to join in their fun. It’s what football is all about. On leaving “The Pelican,” all four of us almost got knocked over by a crowd of several hundred in-line skaters, streaming through the streets of Fulham, ghetto-blasters roaring. I repeat my comment about stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I bought a programme and we said our goodbyes to Lynda and Tee, who would be watching from the south-west corner of The Shed Lower, only a few yards away from Lord Parky. I told Lynda to keep an eye out for his flailing crutches should we score. This part of the stadium seems to be the de facto home for all CFC supporters’ group tickets these days.

Inside the stadium, all of the usual banners had been removed from behind both goals and, in their place, two banners of remembrance stood alone, just above the goalmouths. This was a great touch by Chelsea. We took our seats – Francis to my left, Alan to my right – and ran through the teams. It would be a big day for the two young full-backs, Ryan Bertrand and Cesar Azpilicueta. Torres was starting of course, and we lived in hope. We wanted him to constantly attack the aging Carragher. Despite the F.A. Cup Final win over Liverpool in May, there is no doubt that they have been a thorn in our side of late. Their last three visits to Stamford Bridge all resulted in away wins. It was time for revenge, of sorts. We just don’t like Liverpool, do we?

This game would be my fifty-ninth game involving the two teams (thirty-seven games at Stamford Bridge, eighteen times at Anfield, two at Cardiff, one at Old Trafford and one at Wembley). What is that old saying about familiarity and contempt? I’ve seen Chelsea play Liverpool more times than any other team. Every fifteen games, around come Liverpool again.

Both teams gave a guard of honour to members of the serving armed forces and, of course, to the Chelsea pensioners, marching so proudly in their bright scarlet coats and tricorn hats.

There was a near perfect silence in honour of the fallen before the kick-off. The only sound, thankfully not particularly audible, was from down below in the area underneath the Matthew Harding where some shameless home fans were singing about “poor little scousers.” I hoped that the noise was not discernible on the live TV feed.

After the two magnificent matches against Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, we all wondered what the game would have in store for us. Tom looked as though he couldn’t take another 94 minutes of drama.

Despite the two clubs’ recent intense rivalry, I thought that the atmosphere wasn’t great at all. Maybe we had been “all yelled out” against Shakhtar. The Liverpool fans began noisily but soon faded. They held up a flag saying “Football Without Fans Is Nothing” before the game – nice sentiment, not sure who it was aimed at. They also had a flag which stated the oft-cited “Against Modern Football.” I first saw Ipswich Town fans with this banner at Stamford Bridge on their visit in 2009. Again, I understand the sentiment. For all of my enjoyment in following the club and for all of the magical moments I have witnessed, the sport of football can still be a bloody train wreck.

Obscene wages, aloof players, malevolent owners, loathsome agents, numpty fans, the cult of celebrity and lurid tabloid headlines, the WAGs, the hangers-on, the gutter press, the cost of tickets. It goes on.

Maybe one day even I will stop in my tracks and cry “enough is enough.”

Liverpool enjoyed the bulk of possession in the first-half, but rarely troubled Petr Cech. A shot from Oscar, so strong of late, was our only real threat on the Liverpool in the first twenty minutes. It sailed high of the Shed End goal. Fernando Torres began the game brightly, though, skipping away from his markers on two occasions, and we hoped that his enthusiasm wouldn’t wane.

A great corner from Juan Mata, with Lynda and Tee looking on, was whipped in and John Terry, returning from his four game ban, rose unhindered and the ball flew into the net. It was a dramatic blow and The Bridge erupted with noise. Our captain sprinted down to the south-west corner and I snapped away like a fool, catching the players behind one of the three large flags which are waved each time a Chelsea goal is scored. In several photos, Tee can be seen grinning maniacally.

Fantastic stuff.

Chelsea goal scorers always seem to celebrate by running down to the three “Chelsea” corners of the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Luckily for me, this affords great photo opportunities. I can’t think of many other teams that similarly do this. Long may it continue.

The headed goal from JT reminded me of a similar goal on Remembrance Sunday in 2009 when we defeated Manchester United 1-0. A similar result would be just fine. In truth, chances were at a premium for both teams. Liverpool laboured away without much threat. A Torres strike was aimed at Brad Jones in the away goal and Hazard shot wide. Sadly, John Terry fell awkwardly in his own half and I could see immediately that our captain was in tremendous pain. We watched on as players, then our medical team, surrounded him. He was sadly stretchered off and Alan wondered if we would see him again this season.

In the closing moments of the first period, Juan Mata broke through and shot wildly over when we all wanted him to take an extra touch and possibly waltz around Jones.

At the break, Ron Harris was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. I always remember a story Ron told about a game against Liverpool in March 1979. He had been told that he would not be playing, so he went out on the Friday night and, quite unlike him, had got rather drunk on Irish coffee (of all things). On the day of the game, the Chelsea manager Danny Blanchflower had a change of heart and Chopper was playing. Although we were a very poor team that season, we drew 0-0 with the European Champions and Ron was named Man of the Match. It is not known if he repeated that pre-match ritual in later games. As an aside, Ron often played in a midfield role during that season and – even more bizarrely – often wore the number nine shirt.

Soon into the second-half Francis and I were treated to another classic comment from Alan –

“I saw that game the other night. Liverpool versus Anzi Machalach…Anzi Mallacaz…Anzi Makhachkala …I’d never heard of them before. Turns out they’re a team from Merseyside.”

Even Francis enjoyed that one. Down below us, we could hardly believe our eyes when Howard Webb only gave Glenn Johnson a yellow for seemingly elbowing Oscar in the face. The Brazilian was visibly upset and the supporters around me wailed in protest. From the free-kick, Jones saved from Torres.

Thankfully, the game was devoid of the “Murderers” and the “You Killed Your Own Fans” chants. Long may it continue. Maybe the solemnity of the pre-game silence negated this. Either way, the two chants were notable absentees.

Ryan Bertrand was having a fine game attacking down the left flank at every opportunity. It has been an aspect of his game that I wished that he could improve. From a whipped-in cross, Torres just failed to connect. In this period of our ascendency, the Liverpool fans were woefully quiet. Jon Obi Mikel was the next player to spurn an opportunity after Gerrard fouled Oscar and Mata centered.

On seventy-two minutes, Liverpool stunned us all by equalising. Carragher rose to head a corner across the goal. Luiz Suarez, the master irritant, was on hand to head the ball in from underneath the cross bar. It was his turn now to celebrate over in the corner. The visitors now fancied their chances after being poor for over an hour. We changed things and brought on Victor Moses to run at the Liverpool defence but, in truth, he saw little of the ball. Liverpool grew stronger and two saves from Petr Cech denied them an unlikely winner.

Although the game ended 1-1, it felt like a defeat.

Francis was happy. I clearly wasn’t.

Tellingly, on the way home, while we were listening to some soothing music from Paul Weller in some slow-moving traffic, Francis said, possibly in jest –

“You’re too spoiled at Chelsea, Chris.”

It made me think. I’d hope that I’d never feel spoilt. I’m sure I wasn’t. It was just a big disappointment to give up three points and, because of it, be shunted down to third place.

For the record, the fifty-nine games against Liverpool now reads –

Won 24
Drew 14
Lost 21

IMG_0774

Tales From A Chelsea Pub Crawl

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 February 2012.

On the Saturday, most of England was hit with a snowstorm. As I hardly live around the corner from Stamford Bridge, I am always faced with a dilemma when the weather conditions take a nose dive. Even if the weather had cleared in the morning, there was always the risk of further snow on the Sunday, with the possibility of myself being stranded in London. Late on Saturday night, I decided that I would not be too upset if Chelsea were to call the game off. If so, this would have followed the same pattern as in 2010-2011. Our game in December against United was postponed until March. At the time, we were going through Ancelotti’s “bad moment” and so it all worked out for us. Obviously, we are hardly firing on all cylinders right now and so there was an additional reason behind my ambivalence to the game going ahead.

Let’s play United when we have a full set of players to choose from. Let’s regroup. Let’s beat them later in the season.

And yet, there was a further problem. I was well aware that there were five friends from various parts of the US who had travelled over to see the game. None of them had the added security of an extra Chelsea match, so my heart went out to them. What a terrible shame if their mission to see Chelsea play was derailed at the last minute.

I awoke on Sunday morning and quickly peered out of the window; no further snow in rural Somerset. The roads were icy but clearly navigable. However, I wondered now the Home Counties had fared. By the time I had collected Lord Parky at just after 10am, I had already received a text from Alan to confirm that Chelsea had confirmed that the game would go ahead. OK – glad to hear that. I knew that the guests from across the pond would be elated. On the drive east, the fields adjacent to the M4 showed more and more signs of snow with each passing mile. We diverted into Reading and swapped cars at my mate Russell’s. He had kindly volunteered to drive the last forty miles. This meant that I could relax a little and have a few beers as I wouldn’t be back in my car until around 7.30pm that evening.

The weather was actually quite mild, though the visibility wasn’t great. It was a murky old day in London. For a change, we didn’t head straight to The Goose. I have often commented on how lucky we are at Chelsea; Stamford Bridge is surrounded by pubs and restaurants, bars and cafes. There must be twenty-five boozers within a fifteen minute walk from the stadium. I can’t say I have visited everyone, but every season we say we’ll try out some new ones. To this end, Russ parked a good mile and a half away from Fulham Broadway and we had a mini pub crawl.

First up was The Pear Tree. Jesus was already inside, nursing a pint at the bar. Inside, the décor was of an Edwardian front room and the place was packed with Sunday diners launching into their roasts. To be honest, we stuck out like sore-thumbs. This was clearly a pretty expensive gastro-pub and we stood at the bar like uninvited guests at a society wedding. I have often wondered how far out Chelsea fans drink on match days. Well, there were no Chelsea fans in this one. The pretty Australian barmaid actually asked us the question –

“Are you watching the rugby?”

We gave her a withering look and explained we were off to Chelsea.

Soon after, Parky spotted another barmaid slowly pulling the pump on one of the draught beers.

“Looks like you’ve pulled” he said.

It was now his turn for the withering looks.

“Is that a joke?” she replied.

With that, we decided to move on.

A hundred yards along, we called in at The Idle Hours, a pub which had obviously been recently modernised. It was very quiet though. Still no other Chelsea fans. Jesus, who loves his stay in London on his internship, had decided that he could not afford to miss the United game and so had paid out a mighty £150 for his MHU ticket. He was very worried that he had bought a fake, but it looked fine to my trained eyes. The seller had made a tidy £90 profit on the ticket; nice work if you can get it. Jesus is clearly in love with football (he has already visited The Valley and Selhurst Park during the past fortnight) and is getting wrapped up in the football culture of these isles. He reminds me so much of Farmer John, who was with us for four months in 2009; a football fanatic, overdosing on Chelsea. As long as we have passionate overseas fans such as Jesus we’ll be fine. We chatted about the differences between sporting culture in the US and the UK. Jesus sneered that many US gridiron fans change their teams as often as they like. Over here, it’s different. We both quoted the famous line –

“You can change your job, your politics, your name, even your sex. But you can’t change two things; your mother and your football club.”

I like the addendum to this –

“Never trust anyone who changes their football team.”

The red brick wall of Queens Club was to our left as we continued our slow walk towards The Goose. The icy pavements were turning to slush and we had to watch our steps; Parky especially. I mentioned to Jesus about the Stella Artois tennis tournament which takes place at Queens, just ahead of Wimbledon each June. Next up was the tiny Colton Arms and at last a couple of Chelsea fans. I’ve often driven past this pub, but this was my first visit. The place was tiny and the snug was only around eight feet wide. Another bottle of beer, more football chat, more corny jokes from Parky. We even had the chance to give Jesus a little history lesson; 1066 and all that…King Harold, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Battle of Hastings and the Bayeaux Tapestry.

It was now 2.15pm and The Goose was calling us. We turned a corner and I pointed out a blue plaque on the side of one of the red brick houses, denoting the former residence of former Formula One champion James Hunt. As we approached The Goose, youngsters on a rooftop bombarded us with snowballs. Inside, the place was absolutely jam-packed with Chelsea supporters. Over in our corner, beneath a TV showing the Newcastle game, sat Starla, the first of the US visitors. It was great to see her again; having passed her degree recently, this was her gift to herself. Alan slipped my Napoli away ticket into my hand; what pleasures await on that little trip into that crazy city? It’s only two weeks away now and I just hope we get some of our big hitters back for that tough away game.

After quickly guzzling a pint, we had to make one last call before the game began. Starla, Jesus, Parky and I strode down the North End Road and entered the equally busy Malt House. Out in the beer garden, we quickly spotted the other American guests Andy, Tom and Steve-O. More chat and laughter, mainly at Andy’s expense. The last time I saw Tom and Steve-O was for Torres’ debut one year ago. Altogether now – where does the time go?

As we squeezed out of the pub, I bumped into a chap holding a replica of the FA Cup, asking for donations for a charity. Although I didn’t stop to ask for details, I guess the idea was for punters to have their photos taken holding the cup. I wondered if the chap would fare better outside the away turnstiles; the only chance United would get to hold the trophy this season. I walked the last four hundred yards alongside Steve-O, who hails from the far sunny climes of LA. The snowfall that he had witnessed the previous day was the first of his life. Its truly humbling to walk alongside fans such as Andy, Starla, Steve-O and Tom. All this way for one match. Fair play to you all. As we approached the West Stand, Jesus began singing along to the Chelsea songs which were being aired and he did so with a noticeable cockney twang. It made me chuckle. From his home on the US/Mexico border to Chelsea, Jesus was loving it.

He gets it.

At the turnstiles for the MHU, though, he was tense. Would that expensive ticket which he purchased prove to be legitimate or not? He held the ticket’s bar code up to the scanner and the message flashed up –

“Welcome to Chelsea FC.”

I saw him go through the turnstile and he punched the air as soon as he was inside.

The look of joy on his face was one of the highlights of the season.

I arrived at my seat just after the teams had lined-up, so was not able to witness the “will they / won’t they shake hands” nonsense involving Rio Ferdinand. I quickly scanned the players going through their pre-game hugs and I spotted that Branoslav Ivanovic was like a man-possessed, bouncing his chest off several players. Without John Terry, we needed leaders out there.

Over in the far corner, the three-thousand United fans were standing; a solid mass of black, grey and navy jackets with the occasional flash of red. Only two United flags were draped over the balcony wall. I looked over to the other side of The Shed Upper – the west wing – and wondered what was going through the minds of the CIAers. I quickly ran through the Chelsea team. With our squad so depleted through injuries and internationals, I am not so sure the manager had too many options. There was a call for the youngster Ryan Bertrand to start at left-back, in place of the suspended Ashley Cole and instead of Jose Bosingwa. I wasn’t so sure. With Gary Cahill’s debut in defence, I was worried that another fresh face in the back four would be too risky. We all know that Boswinga has his doubters, but I think I would rather play him at left back rather than risk Bertrand. This wasn’t Bolton. This wasn’t Blackburn. This was Manchester United, the reigning champions, never afraid to attack with pace on the flanks. I feared Bertrand being shell-shocked after being ripped apart by the flying United wingers. His time will come – against Birmingham City in the cup, maybe. He’s one for the future.

Elsewhere, the other contentious position was taken by the floundering Florent Malouda. I guess the only other option was to play a midfield of Romeu/Essien/Meireles. Against United, maybe that would have been a sounder bet. But who am I? I haven’t got any coaching badges.

This would be the 22nd consecutive season that I have seen a Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game. This run goes all of the way back to a cold and depressing Sunday afternoon in December 1991, as a Ryan Giggs-inspired United beat us 3-1. I had travelled up with my old school friend Pete’s brother Kevin (a United fan) and we watched in The Shed. Pete (also a United fan) had travelled up separately with his girlfriend’s son, and watched from the old West Stand. We were pretty dire. The weather was cold. The Stamford Bridge pich was shrouded in mist. The crowd was only 23,000. In those days, the away fans were treated to the vast expanse of the open north terrace, holding some 10,000. It’s unlikely that United brought more than 4,000 for that game. The game was live on ITV – quite a rare event really. As was the way in that era, live games would often result in lower gates than usual. Sky TV were not yet at the party, but that would change the following season with the advent of the Premier League. That 1991-1992 season was pretty grim from start to finish for us, under the blundering stewardship of the late Ian Porterfield. The highlight was a run in the FA Cup, but we lost to Sunderland in the heady heights of the quarter-finals (our longest run since 1982 in fact.) In those days – and I’m speaking for football fans in general – we would travel to see our heroes and expect a poor display. Football was more rudimentary in ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, especially the way we played it. Not the silky football of today. Our play involved the full backs pumping the ball up to the attackers, an aerial battle, the midfield tussle for the second ball, aggressive tackles…percentage football. In those days, we would attend games through blind faith that the occasional game would be entertaining. Foreign players were rare. Our foreigners were the twin pillars in defence Ken Monkou and Erland Johnsen. The days of super sexy football involving Gianfranco Zola, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Juan Mata were light years away. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same sport.

Maybe it isn’t.

At work on Friday, my colleague Mike – yep, another United fan – and I reckoned that the game may not be that great, with both teams going through a far from convincing period of form. Well, we couldn’t have been further from the truth. After the succession of crazy games involving the top clubs this season, this was another game that is quite likely to set this season apart from the rest.

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0.

Daniel Sturridge weaved his way down to the goal line in his trademark move. This was right down at the Shed End, in front of both Parky and the visitors from the US. I was surprised that his dribble was not snubbed out by a United challenge to be honest. Next, in a scenario uncannily similar to our goal at Swansea on Tuesday, the ball was zipped into the six yard box. I will be honest; I didn’t have a clue how the ball ended up nestling in the goal. And I amazed by myself by not celebrating the goal. It just seemed a strange goal. A goal by default. An apology of a goal. The rest of the ground roared and I was alone and silent. I’ll have to improve on that. Most unlike me. Did we deserve the half-time lead? Only maybe.

“It’s not your own hair. It’s not your own hair. Wayne Rooney – it’s not your own hair.”

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 0.

A move soon into the first few seconds of the second-half found Fernando Torres wide right. He swung in a gorgeous, arcing ball towards the far post. Down below, eight yards out, Juan Mata was waiting. With a perfectly timed movement which took over his entire body, he swivelled his hips and volleyed high into the net. No messing about this time. I roared, I shrieked, I roared again. The entire stadium erupted. What a moment. Did we deserve to be 2-0 up? Perhaps.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 0.

A Juan Mata free-kick, in a deep position. The hustling Chelsea attackers pulled their United counterparts one way and then the other. Mata swung the ball in. The tousled head of David Luiz was first to the ball and the result was further pandemonium. The Bridge roared again. Did we deserve to be 3-0 up? Probably not, but who cares?

My colleague Mike texted me – “speechless.”

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 1.

A tackle from Daniel Sturridge, way in the distance. My first thought was of a fine tackle, but no. Howard Webb pointed to the penalty spot. Rooney, calm under pressure, hit the ball high into the top corner. Cech well beaten. Oh God. Here we go again. That very familiar Chelsea feeling.

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 2.

A United move. Edge of the box. A blur of two players came together. Webb pointed again. Disbelief and anger. Rooney despatched the ball, low. Now we were very worried.

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 3.

The crowd were on tenterhooks. I sat with my arms folded. Silent, yet knowing full well what was going to happen. A cross from the left and Hernandez completely unmarked in front of the goal. That sickening feeling once again. To my utter disbelief, a sizeable number of Chelsea “fans” could take no more and left.

Well, you always know how United will play. They will attack until the last minute. As the game progressed, there was a gnawing inevitability about this result. The introduction of Paul Scholes, as a deep-lying quarterback on Superbowl Sunday, was a key moment. That our midfielders then chose to ignore him was inexcusable. And yet…and yet. There were positive signs. Gary Cahill had a fine debut. The defence were steady. Torres and Mata flitted around and were at the heart of our best moves. But – the negatives…Malouda was awful and Sturridge was wasteful. I didn’t hear much positive spin on the way out. I guess that isn’t too surprising, really. We’re a moaning, miserable bunch of gits these days.

We listened to conflicting opinions about our play on “606.” Blimey, anybody would think we had lost. At least Parky and Russ tended to share my opinion that we were worth a point. Barring a very questionable penalty decision, we would have beaten the champions and stretched our unbeaten league record against them at Stamford Bridge to eleven games. We were then treated to a Blackburn Rovers fan, from my home county of Somerset, who had been a corporate guest at the Arsenal game on Saturday. He was full of praise for the hospitality afforded him at the game…”we were treated like Kings.” He then cheerily said that is only able to attend one Blackburn Rovers game a season, but was livid with the lack of passion shown by his team.

Pardon?

We returned home to various parts of Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. I was keen to see the match highlights on “Match of the Day Two” and in particular, of course, the two penalty decisions. I had no complaints about the first one, but the second one was a joke. Shades of the two Wembley penalties in 1994. David Elleray and Howard Webb. They will go down in Chelsea infamy.

I went through the usual post-game routine of trawling the internet for the moaners and the groaners who were lamenting our latest performance. Without wishing to bore people rigid, let’s see the positives in this game. We drew with the champions, despite a make-shift team. We were a de Gea fingertip save away from winning it 4-3. I feel Andre Villas-Boas’ growing frustration and we just need to support him. In case anybody needs reminding, he is barely into his sixth month of competitive fixtures. Oh, and we’re unbeaten in 2012. In the background, the Giants and the Patriots were on TV in the Superbowl. I was paying such scant attention that it took me 15 minutes to realise the Giants were playing in white. It was time for bed.

DSCN5451

Tales From Remembrance Sunday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 9 November 2009.

As a pre-curser to the United game on Sunday, I watched Paulton Rovers play Norwich City in the FA Cup on TV on Saturday lunchtime. Paulton is a village about eight miles away and they play in the same division as Frome Town. In fact, I watched Frome defeat Paulton in the Somerset Senior Cup back in the spring – the day after we lost to Barcelona in the CL semi-final. Two more contrasting games you could not wish to find. But that’s the joy of football, eh? An extra element of interest was that my next door neighbours’ grandson Ben Lacey was the young star of the Paulton team. Unfortunately, Norwich romped to a 7-0 win and Paulton’s five minutes of fame was over.

On the Sunday, I collected Parky at 10.30am and drove up to London via the A4 and then the M4. As this was Remembrance Sunday, we were both wearing poppies as a mark of respect. As a child, I used to love watching the Remembrance Service in London on TV. The Cenotaph was designed by Lutyens and the plain marble war memorial and a few other statues and plinths in my Somerset village were designed by him too. I remember that on one occasion, the BBC also showed film of a service from the large obelisk on the Marlborough Downs, near to where my father did his training at RAF Yatesbury in around 1941. As I drove between Devizes and Marlborough, I spotted the large monument and we had a chat about Remembrance Day. We knew that the Chelsea Pensioners would be involved in the ceremony at The Bridge and I knew it would be a sombre and understated affair.

Something the British do well. I remember being in downtown Las Vegas ( admittedly not the most typical of American cities ) in November 1989 and watching aghast at the Veterans’ Day Parade, awash with smiles and dancing girls. It left an impression on me and I longed for the quiet reverence of the Royal Albert Hall and The Cenotaph.

A few of us have a joint Chelsea / Poppy badge which we wear around this time of the year and I think the contrast of the blue badge with the red poppy is just right. We also heard that the Chelsea team would be wearing special shirts with embroidered poppies.

Excellent.

We arrived at The Goose at around 1.30pm and the pub wasn’t too busy at the start. I had brought up some photographs from Madrid to show the lads and we had a good chuckle recollecting a few of the funnier moments. I had heard that Tuna was over for a week or so – sadly, his mother hasn’t been too well – and he had miraculously sourced a match ticket. We found out that our respective mothers will be celebrating their eightieth birthdays within five days of each other in January. Weird, eh? He trotted off at around 3.15pm in order to collect his ticket from a bloke in “The Cock And Hen.”

Thankfully, we got our timings right and we all got into the ground in good time. I had worked out that this would be my twentieth consecutive Chelsea vs. Manchester United game at HQ, going back to a 3-2 win in March 1991. I remember a very young Ryan Giggs playing in that game – and a very low crowd of about 22,000. Hard to believe, eh? I first saw Manchester United in a game at The Bridge in December 1984 ( 42,000 – better! ) but we lost that one 3-1. Since then there have been so many games…a few low points ( the 1994 debacle, 3-5 at home in the FA Cup and of course Moscow ) but a few great results ( a few good wins at Old Trafford, plus the 5-0 in 1999 and – of course- the 3-0 win which gave us the title in 2006. )

Over the years, we have tended to do well in Manchester and United have had the advantage in SW6. However, the last seven games at The Bridge resulted in four Chelsea wins and three draws.

I noted to Alan that the all of the usual Chelsea banners which usually adorn the balconies had been turned back to front so that they were plain blue. I think this was so that the focus would just be on one white banner, draped at centre-stage at The Shed. It simply said –

“Chelsea Supporters – Will Remember Them” with club crests and a poppy.

Class.

Just before kick-off, the teams entered the pitch and gave a guard of honour to some active servicemen and seven Chelsea pensioners. Even though their tunics are red, I love that contrast too. I personally think we should go back to our pre-Ted Drake nickname of “The Pensioners.”

The game?

For vast parts, United ran the show, especially in the first-half. No question. Ferguson played just Rooney up front with a band of five in the middle. United were all over us like a rash and they closed us down at will. Pre-match, I had predicted that our midfield would be too strong for United, but I had to eat my words.

There was a lovely piece of football in the first-half involving Wayne Rooney and John Terry. Rooney ran at JT, teasingly keeping the ball on his toes and JT was back-peddling but was able to push him out wide and eventually forced Rooney to play it back to a waiting midfielder. It was pure theatre – one versus one – and I loved it.

Only Anelka – love the way he keeps possession – and Riccy – reading the game well and bursting forth at will – were above average in the first-half. I thought Frank was as poor as he had been for a while. Not one tackle and not one telling pass. Deco was below par, too. We improved in the last ten minutes of the first-period and we expected a big shake-up at half-time.

I spotted a large Canada flag in the East Stand, just above where the Chelsea Pensioners always watch every game. Chelsea gives the Royal Hospital free tickets and this is a tradition which goes back years and years. We can be rightly proud of this.

Our history.

There was the usual red/ white / black United flags in their section including one lampooning our captain.

“Viva John Terry – MUFC – Champions Moscow 07-08”

Oh dear – memories of that night came back. To be fair, the United fans did make a constant din throughout the game, including their noisy “Viva John Terry” chant.

That was – until 74 minutes.

We were awarded a free-kick right down below me after a rash challenge by Fletcher. Frank had been his usual frustrating self with dead-balls all day. I steadied my camera and pointed it towards the phalanx of players in the box. Frank floated on in and I snapped just after JT connected.

In it went.

Oh you beauty – Get in! I screamed. You probably heard me.

It brought back memories of the same combination – Frank corner, JT header – which had resulted in the winner in the 4-2 game versus Barca in 2005. JT was euphoric and raced towards Frank and I followed up with a few more snaps, but the large CFC flag tended to get in the way.

Viva John Terry indeed.

We were all convinced that United would equalise – especially when the ball zipped across the box on more than one occasion.

I watched the referee as he blew up and the noise echoed around The Bridge. We had certainly rode our luck – make no mistakes about it. I think United deserved a point. Still, the game had swung our way and we had held on.

The fact that it had been a sub-par performance from us stayed with me, though.

As I walked back to the car, it seemed as though everyone was celebrating wildly apart from me. Maybe, after all those United games, I am getting game-weary, too many big games…too many wins against Manchester United? This haunted me on the way home…maybe I need to re-fuel my batteries…

So – it’s good we have a fortnight, now, to recharge those batteries and to enjoy “Life At The Top.”

Five points clear – sit back and enjoy the view!

TEW05654935_00063

Tales From A Top Day Out

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 4 October 2009.

On Saturday evening, Judy and myself went to a surprise birthday party for a former boss ( who used to work with the both of us ) who now lives in Thailand. It was a great time. I met a few former work colleagues who I hadn’t seen for a while. I spent quite some time chatting to Steve, who also lives in Frome, but who is a Liverpool fan. How fateful that we should meet up for the first time in ages on the eve of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game. Our first concern was to check how United had got on…he had been listening on the radio on his way to the party and confirmed they were losing 2-1 with five minutes to go.

“I daren’t text anyone, mate” I said.

“It’s OK – they’ve lost – they’ve lost…definite.”

“God – I need to know.”

Another former work colleague texted another friend and disappeared out to the road to get a signal. He returned and said the infamous words “You won’t believe this…”

We groaned.

And so we learned about Rio’s brother’s OG and yet another last minute United goal. Damn. I tried not to let it spoil my night and tried to take some solace in United dropping two home points. I got stuck into some crisp Peronis and looked forward to the game.

I woke on Sunday with an inevitable headache and a slight hangover.

I set off at 9.45am and picked up Parky on the way up to London. The usual gang were doing a few different things pre-match. Dave and Karen were making their own way up, stopping off to look at a new car and Daryl, Gary and Alan were watching the Old Firm game in a pub in the city. Parky and myself sat down to a hearty breakfast in the café at 12.30pm and that sorted my hangover out.

We stayed in The Goose for about an hour and I had a couple of pints. Rob was already there, his tan topped-up from a few days In Cyprus. Dutch Mick and a few others too. They had said that the Cyprus trip had been the best ever. They spoke of being on a beach, under a Cyprus Blues flag, with Cypriot girls giving them massages for ten euros…it sounded idyllic. The whole notion of doing some sunbathing on a beach of an island ahead of a Chelsea away game just sounded so – wrong! Especially as I wasn’t there.

My mate Francis arrived at 1.15pm. He is a friend from my home town who I have known since 1978…he has always been a Liverpool fan and has been my guest at Chelsea on quite a few occasions. He was to have Glenn’s ticket and sit next to me in the MHU. He tends not to go to too many games, but this would be his eighth Chelsea vs. Liverpool game since his first one back in 1991. Much to his chagrin, he had never seen Liverpool win at Stamford Bridge. In fact, his first ever game at Anfield was the infamous game in 1992 when Chelsea won in the league at Anfield for the first time since 1937. On that particular occasion, and with the reasons being far too complicated for me to explain here, he watched from the Chelsea section and I watched from The Kop. Despite seeing Liverpool lose, he always talks about the atmosphere in that Chelsea away section as being amazing and the late Mickey Greenaway made a big impression on him!

As I wasn’t “officially” drinking due to me driving, we said our goodbyes and set off for the ground very early at about 2.15pm. The weather had brightened up and there was clearly no need for my ridiculously warm new jacket. We spotted a few Scousers around and about. They were making a fair din in The Slug, now the away pub at Chelsea…it still grates to see away fans anywhere but in the ground at Chelsea, but I guess Chelsea go into away pubs on our travels and I guess its only fair that favour is reciprocated.

We had a quick word with the fellows on the CFCUK stall. I had brought up an 8 by 10 photo of myself and Mickey Thomas for him to sign, but he had just left, unfortunately. It seemed so strange to be walking along Fulham Road at a leisurely pace with ages until kick-off. The sun was now out in force and it was very pleasant. We idled past the main gate, up and over the railway bridge, past The Black Bull ( where I used to do my drinking from 1988-1993 ) and down to the Fox And Pheasant. This is probably my favourite pub at Chelsea…two small rooms, but a lovely courtyard at the rear…everyone takes their drinks outside and the road, or rather the mews, was jam-packed. Parky bought me a coke – I know my limits. I explained to Francis that I usually bring “The Americans” into this pub on my “guided tours.” It was very pleasant indeed. There were photos of Frank Lampard and Dennis Wise, standing outside the pub, on the wood-panelled walls. Before we left, I had a quick chat with Ron Harris’ son Mark, who used to live in a nearby town to me for a while. I had last seen him, very drunk, walking along the Fulham Road after the Cup Final.

We battled through the crowds outside the West Stand. By now, my jacket was stuffed inside my bag, the weather warm enough for just a polo shirt. My new jacket would have to wait for its official debut.

Yet more queues at the turnstiles and those damned scanners…we began lining up at 3.45pm and we hoped we would get in on time.

Throughout the build up to the game, I knew there was a black cloud hanging over me. We had leant that our match day neighbour Tom had lost his beloved wife, Josey, on Monday. We had heard from his daughter that Josey had gone into a care home the previous week, but her passing had shocked us. At 3.50pm, Alan – who was already inside – phoned me to say that Tom was there, he was emotional, and asked me just to talk about the football. As Francis and myself ascended the stairs, I braced myself.

We reached our seats with a minute to spare. I reached over and gripped Tom tightly by the hand and briefly looked him in the eyes. I gave his hand an extra special squeeze.

Let the game begin.

It was a perfect day for football.

Programme Quiz.

1. Name three of the four players who scored for us in our 4-1 over Liverpool at Anfield in October 2005.
2. How many times have we played Liverpool in the CL?
3. Which striker scored his one and only goal for us in our 1-1 draw with Liverpool in the 1998-99 season?
4. John Barnes famously rapped on “World In Motion” but which two Chelsea players also featured in England’s 1990 World Cup song?

Francis was to my left, in my seat, I was in Alan’s seat and Alan was sitting next to Tom in Glenn’s seat. We settled down for the game – as we had done every other week since we first had season tickets in the Matthew Harding Upper in August 1997. Tom had been with us all the way. It seemed wonderfully normal that he should be with us once more.

Liverpool began the stronger and we struggled to get into the game. It felt odd for Chelsea to be attacking our end in the first-half. Drogba, despite a week’s rest, didn’t appear to be firing on all cylinders. We gave Liverpool too much space. Things weren’t going our way. Hilario did well to get down to turn away a free-kick which he appeared to see late. Our chances were few and far between.

At half-time, Tore Andre Flo and Mickey Thomas came onto the pitch and we applauded them. We also noted Dennis Wise in the Sky studio. We serenaded him with his song from 1999.

I looked around I noted that all of the people who had been to Cyprus had all returned with tans.

The Liverpool support was sporadic…noisy at times, quiet at others. They only had three flags. Into the second-half and we grew stronger. However, Frank appeared to be having a quiet game. Deco was shining, though. He was full of twists, flicks and enjoyed a couple of strong runs at the heart of the Liverpool defence.

Liverpool began singing “The Fields Of Anfield Road” and I commented to Alan that they even nicked that from Celtic ( the Irish “Fields Of Athenry” ). This seemed to stir the Chelsea support and we replied with first boos, but then our second-half standard of “Chelsea Chelsea” being sung to “Amazing Grace.” This usually gets sung in the second-half of away games, but we all joined in with gusto. Straight after, we moved the ball down the left and Drogba danced with the last defender, rocking him one way and then the next.

A cross – on the money – and an easy tap in for Anelka.

Yes! The place erupted. Alan shouted at me –

“They’ll Have To Come At Us Now” and I shouted at him –

“Come On My Little Diamonds.”

The place was bumping. Liverpool came back, but their finishing was awful. We noted that Torres was quiet. John Terry crunched every tackle and roared us on. What a leader. My friend Steve, on Saturday night, had said that JT would only smell his aftershave, but JT closed him out of the game. We taunted him.

“Ladyboy! Ladyboy!”

The game continued on a knife-edge…it seemed like a cup tie…we had to hang on. Hilario patrolled his area with great confidence and did a superb job as Cech’s replacement. A last-minute challenge from Ashley saved the day, too. Soon after the board was held up to signify three extra minutes, Drogba muscled his way past Carragher, right in front of Parky in The Shed Lower, and superbly set up Malouda to make the game safe.

Get in!

It had been a strange game for Drogba…at his embarrassing worst in the main – falling, diving, feigning injury – but a World-beater in setting up the two goals. The Chelsea support responded –

“We Are Topotheleague, Say We Are Topotheleague.”

Francis shook my hand and I invited him back next season. I had a word, after Tom had said his goodbyes, to another inhabitant of our little section of the stadium. Joe is around 82 and has been coming to Chelsea for 72 years. Imagine that. He comes with his two sons and he told me he wishes he could write all of his memories down. Top man.

As I waited for Parky outside the CFCUK stall, a few friends bustled by – Gary, Walnuts and Jonesy – and they were all beaming. Let’s not kid ourselves, though. We hadn’t played brilliantly, a few players did not play that well and – if I am honest – it could so easily have swung the other way.

But we’ll take it.

We were hit with atrocious traffic on the way out of Chelsea and then on the M4 around Windsor. We eventually got home at 10.15pm.

Dedicated to the memory of Josey Crowe. RIP.

TEW05342473_00198