Tales From The Famous Three Kings

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 2 February 2019.

In the immediate aftermath of the 4-0 humiliation at Bournemouth on Wednesday, I was not particularly upbeat about the trip to London for the visit of lowly Huddersfield Town. There was not a chance of me swerving it, but I was hardly enthusiastic. I expected another limp performance, perhaps played out against a backdrop of toxic hostility. And then, on Thursday evening, my home area suffered a wintry downfall, and the mood darkened. With a foot of snow outside and with the roads and lanes around my village impenetrable – the Somerset County Council budget would only send its gritters onto the main roads – I was forced to miss work and stay at home. A few conversations took place between my usual match day companions about the chances of making it to London on Saturday. There was not much chuckling. At one stage, we presumed that the hostile roads would condemn us to staying at home while the match took place over one hundred miles to the east. London had hardly been affected; just a light dusting according to others. A fellow season-ticket holder who lives only a few miles away, but in an even more inaccessible location than me, had already declared “no football for us on Saturday.” We all feared the worst. And then on Friday evening, we all noticed a thaw and our spirits were raised a few notches. We decided to “reconvene at 7.30am” and weigh up our chances.

I set the alarm for 6.30am on Saturday and was soon up. The road outside my house still looked icy but it looked reasonable. I messaged Paul and the two Glenns.

“See you later.”

It took an age to defrost the car, but I nervously edged out of my driveway. I dropped the car onto the main road, and tried to pull away.

The wheels spun beneath me.

“Oh great.”

I knocked the car into reverse, managed to get a little traction, and steered it into a groove that had already been compacted by other cars.

“Now or never, Chris, let’s go.”

I cautiously pulled away.

It worked.

I was on my way to London.

“Phew.”

On this wintry day in the South of England, I hoped that Chelsea Football Club would be getting back into the groove too.

The roads were still rather dangerous as I nervously drove into Frome to collect PD and then Glenn. The road outside PD Towers was especially icy. I then made my way over to Parkytown, and he had walked a few hundred yards onto the main road so as not to endanger my safety by chancing the icy roads on the estate where he lived. We were soon breakfasting at Melksham in the local “McDonald’s” and it wasn’t long before I was up on the M4 and racing East on a perfect winter’s day. The fields were pristine, blanketed with snow. The sun shone. What a gorgeous morning. It was a shame that we had to talk about football.

Because talk about football we did. And let’s make no mistake, the second-half of football that we had witnessed in Dorset on Wednesday was bloody awful. We had our own little post mortem as I drove towards London. Despite bright sunshine outside, there were storm clouds inside.

On the Friday, with probably far too much time on my hands, I had carried out some research and painfully discovered the last 4-0 loss that I had personally seen for my own eyes.

“The 1994 FA Cup Final against United.”

The lads groaned. We had all been there.

None of us were relishing the game with Huddersfield Town. We were looking forward to seeing Gillian, Kev and Rich once again – on the 6am flight out of Edinburgh on a day trip – plus the rest of the gang but the football could wait. Regardless, at about 11.30am, we had all assembled at the “Famous Three Kings” – right next to West Kensington tube – which is just over a mile to the north of Stamford Bridge. There aren’t many more “Chelsea pubs” further north. It sits on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Bristol with London and which my father used to use on the Chelsea trips of my youth after joining it at Beckhampton – close to where he did his first month of training during World War Two at RAF Yatesbury – and then leaving it at Hungerford. When I worked in Chippenham, I worked right on the A4. I had crossed over it on my way to the M4 earlier in the day. It is my own personal Mother Road. I can’t seem to escape it, but nor would I want to. Anyway, it certainly felt a whole lot better to be in the “F3K” at 11.30am on a Saturday rather than 3pm on a Sunday.

We were all there.

Glenn, PD and I from Somerset. Parky from Wiltshire. Gillian, Kev and Rich from Lothian. Duncan, Lol, Daryl and Ed from Essex. Andy and Kim from Kent. Alan and Gary from London itself. Fifteen strong.

Unlike the Sheffield Wednesday game, there were no away fans. The pub filled up slowly with rugby fans ahead of the afternoon’s fixtures in the Six Nations, and quite a few were watching the Tottenham vs. Newcastle United game from Wembley before the egg-chasing took over. The pub has been voted London’s best sports bar the last three years and the bar was advertising itself as a venue to watch the following day’s NFL Final.

In the first twenty minutes of chit-chat, we put the world to rights.

We spoke about Maurizio Sarri, Jorginho, Eden Hazard, Gonzalo Higuain, the board, our managerial merry-go-round, the performances throughout the season, Carlo Ancelotti getting the push after finishing second in 2011, our style of play, Antonio Conte, our current defensive frailties. You can probably guess the tone.

I made a point about Antonio Conte.

“Seems to me a lot of our history is being re-written. Seems to me that this new manager’s style of football is seen by many as an antidote to “quote unquote” the counterattacking football of Conte, and Mourinho before him. But wait a minute. That gives the impression that under those managers we simply sat back, inviting teams on to us and then hitting them on the break, and were continually dull. That’s not how I bloody remember it. I remember tons of possession. When we won the league under Conte two seasons ago, were people moaning or even mentioning “counter-attacking” football? I’m not so sure. I know I wasn’t. The way some people talk, they speak of Sarri’s style of play as ultra-stylish, an antidote to the football we played under Mourinho and Conte.”

I shook my head.

Conte’s football in the first part of 2016/17 was pulsating and passionate, and we were relentless in our hunting down of players in possession. The first-half against Everton in the autumn of 2016 remains, possibly, the most exhilarating half of football I have ever seen at Chelsea. The fans and the manager and the team were as one in those days. It was fantastic. So I’m not sure the negative take on Conte is particularly fair.

“At least Conte could change his game plan if he had to.”

The lads were chatting in small groups, enjoying each other’s company, spoiled only by a single Tottenham goal which would give them three huge points.

We mulled over the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

“So, we know the substitutions then.”

“Pedro for Willian 65 minutes, Kovacic for Barkley 75 minutes, Giroud for Higuain 80 minutes.”

We laughed / groaned.

Chelsea Candid Camera At The F3K.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. I always love this part of the day. There was a gaggle of Huddersfield Town youngsters in MA.Strum and CP on the District Line train from Earl’s Court, singing a version of “Dirty Old Town” but with virtually unintelligible lyrics, and with only the slightest hint of the original tune. I think that I was able to decipher “we’re going down, but we support the town” but I might have been way off, like a Morata offside decision. Outside on the Fulham Road, there seemed to be more than the usual number of touts trying to offload spares. I was sure that there would be discernible gaps in the home areas after Wednesday. Fanzine sellers, grafters selling scarves, hot dogs and hamburgers, the usual match day buzz. I took a smattering of photographs outside the West Stand. I have never really noticed it before, but I like the way that this entrance is still officially called “The Britannia Entrance”, named after the pub which used to sit on the corner of Fulham Road and Britannia Road. I like that. I remember that The Britannia Entrance being mentioned on tickets and in programmes when I first started going in the mid-‘seventies. I like that the club has not renamed it.

Huddersfield had about 1,100 maybe. They would not be the noisiest away fans this season.

The teams came on as the usual fireworks and flames flew up into the air.

I popped down to see Big John in the front row.

“After Wednesday, all of this looks especially misguided doesn’t it?”

In the cold light of day, it looked ridiculous.

Just get on with it for fuck sake. Just give us ninety minutes of football. Just like the old days. We’ll moan a bit. We’ll grumble. But it is our release from the daily grind, away from the strains of work, away from the pressures of family life. And we’ll sing and shout, or at least try to. We’ll support the team. We’ll do it ourselves. We don’t need the atmosphere to be enforced upon us. Just give us the fucking football. We don’t need bloody fireworks. This ain’t the Superbowl. This is fucking Chelsea on a cold winter afternoon.

The game began.

Huddersfield were in a fluorescent-kitted homage to the old – and hideous – Borussia Dortmund get-up of the late ‘nineties.

Thankfully, there was not the level of toxicity that I might have feared. No negativity to speak of. Though, if I am honest, there was not much of anything. It was all pretty quiet, except the away fans enquiring if Stamford Bridge resembled an institution where written matter, in the main, could be taken out periodically and then returned at a later date with the use of a token.

A Barkley shot got the game started, and then the beautifully-named Aaron Mooy headed over from close-in.

PD was not perturbed : “the ‘keeper would have got that.”

Following on from the first-half on Wednesday, if not the second, I again liked the movement from Higuain. An early shot from him after a nice Jorginho forward pass – yes, I know – was deflected wide. Kante was his usual ebullient self, tacking and prodding, and Jorginho played another forward ball – yes, I know. Shots from Hazard went close. Huddersfield were poor, but we knew that. With just sixteen minutes on the clock, and after a magnificent through ball from our man Kante, Higuain whipped the ball into the Shed End goal from an angle. It was not dissimilar to the effort that he had on his debut against Wednesday last Sunday. We roared, and the marksman ran down to the corner (he must have been tipped-off : “when you score, just run to the corners, the supporters like that, and Chris Axon can take a few photos”) and was instantly mobbed.

Gonzalo Higuain’s First Chelsea Goal.

There were efforts from Barkley – again – and Higuain – again. Ross seemed to be at ease with the ball, and was an early star. Huddersfield’s forays into our half were rare indeed. Just before the break, as a player was down injured, I – like many – went off to turn my bike around. As I climbed the steps into the MHU, I saw Dave being tackled and a penalty was signalled.

We waited. Eden struck. Get in.

Eden Hazard’s Penalty.

Immediately after, a long and scurrying run from Eden right into the heart of the Huddersfield defensive lines resulted in him falling to the ground inside the box but play was waved on.

“…mmm, can’t see the referee giving two pens in a minute.”

There was applause from the stands at half-time. The memory of the debacle in Dorset was starting to subside. It had been a good first forty-five minutes of football.

But we blossomed in the second-half.

There was an early effort from Willian which curled close and then a few scintillating turns and touches from Eden got us all excited. As our confidence rose, so did our support of the team (though it never really got past the 6/10 mark the entire afternoon). It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes played, a pass from Barkley was caressed into space by Hazard and he moved the ball past the ‘keeper and slotted in from an angle. He did me proud by trotting over to The Sleepy Hollow.

Eden Hazard’s Second Goal Of The Day. 

Very shortly after, beautiful passing between Kante and Hazard set up Higuain some twenty-five yards out. It would be doing him a disservice to say that he swung his boot at it. But the ball sat up nicely and his strong, curling, shot dipped and crashed into the net. It was some goal. He raced over to see us, and the photos followed. Good lad. We would learn later that his swipe took a slight deflection, but this did not detract from the beauty of the effort.

Celebrations For Gonzalo Higuain’s Second. 

Before the game, I would have been happy with a 1-0 win. But here we were cruising at 4-0 with over twenty minutes to go.

“Time for a few more, Al.”

Well, Sarri pulled the rug from under our feet and all three late substitutions were surprises. First, off went Jorginho – yeah, I know – and on came Kovacic. A strong shot from him signalled his arrival. Callum Hudson-Odoi then replaced Hazard (on a hat-trick, boo!) and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kante.

I was glad that Barkley stayed on. It was his best game for ages. And Willian, his confidence rising throughout, had a super second-half.

With four minutes remaining, a Willian corner was forcefully headed goal wards by David Luiz. I did not realise it at the time, but there was so much power on the header that the deflection off a defender merely changed its flight.

David Luiz Scores Our Fifth.

Five nil, get in.

This was a fine performance (I honestly feel that there should be asterisks throughout all of this : *Huddersfield) and it was certainly needed. It was just a pleasure to see us hit a bit of form. The Stamford Bridge crowd were certainly not singing “Maurizio” at the end, but it undoubtedly warmed the cockles of our hearts on a cold afternoon in London.

Trying To Catch 22.

Next Sunday, we might be shuddering up in Manchester when we go up against Pep Guardiola’s City.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

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

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

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

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

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

We bloody well hoped so.

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

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

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

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

“TWENTY PAST!”

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

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

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

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

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

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

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

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

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

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

“Peroni please.”

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

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

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

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

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big game hunters? Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

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

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

The team news came through.

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

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

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

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

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

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

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

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

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

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

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

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

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

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

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

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

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

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

As the kids say : “amirite?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

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

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

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

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

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

Get in you bastard.

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

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

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

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

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

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

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

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

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

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

Phew.

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

The Chelsea end were on it.

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

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

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

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

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

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

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

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

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

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

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

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

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

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

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

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

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

“Did you go to the wedding?”

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

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

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

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

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

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

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

 

 

 

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

Tales From Under A Super Blue Moon

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 31 January 2018.

After two consecutive cup ties, we were back to the bread and butter of the League and a home game against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. We had already beaten them on two occasion thus far in 2017-2018. As we assembled in the pubs, bars and boozers around Stamford Bridge on another cold midweek night, there was a simple hope for three points, while maybe Tottenham and Manchester United could force a draw at Wembley. It was a night when we hoped to narrow the margins in the hunt for second place. As we met up with some friends, there was minimal talk of Emerson Palmieri and Olivier Giroud among our little group.

I once described Giroud – only last season – as “the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere.”

I am happy to welcome any player into the fold at Chelsea but be warned that it might take be longer than usual with this player.

Still, I think I felt the same about Mickey Thomas, Graham Roberts and Ashley Cole. And things worked out perfectly well with those three.

The ex-Arsenal target man had appeared as a substitute at Swansea City the previous night, so there was no hope of a George Weah-like appearance from the wings against Bournemouth. I knew nothing of the acquisition from Roma, but hoped that it would give the occasionally jaded Marcos Alonso both cover and competition. Our transfer window had concluded with Michy Batshuayi heading off to Borussia Dortmund on loan. The upshot of all of this was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went from Dortmund to Arsenal.

And there was much wailing.

Fans so used to the club spending millions and millions in recent years were clearly not happy. Maybe we need to accept that we will be a little less-active in the transfer market over the next few seasons while the new stadium takes centre-stage. Initially, it was reported that Roman was going to pay for it himself, but then came news that costs had – surprise, surprise – spiraled and that the club was looking for outside investment. Regardless, we may well see a little austerity at Chelsea for a while, and our aims and aspirations might need to be tempered slightly.

So be it. I’m not going anywhere.

Personally, I was just happy that the latest transfer window was over. It is the time of the season that irritates me to high heaven. It is the mating season for the thousands of FIFA-loving nerds who come to life with all sorts of absurd and unlikely transfer options for our club. At least they will be quiet until the summer.

After another stressful day at work, the lager was hitting the spot in our now regular midweek jaunt down the North End Road. There was a relaxation that comes with being among great friends, old and new. The football was an afterthought. The game was hardly mentioned. It made me realise that there is no need for transfer activity among my friends, bless ‘em.

At the top of the stairs leading into the Matthew Harding Upper, there was a quick chat with Daryl, who had been in one of the pubs, but who I had not really spoken to. We summed up our frustrations with how the club is being run in a succinct and memorable couple of sentences.

“If the club said to us that we were in a rebuilding stage – the stadium and the team – and we were going to stick with the manager through all of it, I don’t think there would be many complaints. We’d aim to consolidate – top four, top six, whatever –  and there would be some notion of a plan.”

“That we could all buy into. Yes!”

If ever we needed a five or ten year plan it was now.

The rumours surrounding the manager would not go away, but in all honesty I try to ignore them. I rarely buy a paper these days. I do not suck at the nipple of Sky Sports News. I just concentrate on showing up at Chelsea games and try to support the lads in royal blue. I am tired of the rumours. I am tired of the negativity. I am tired of the bullshit. I am tired of the over-analysis. I am tired of the same old same old. I am tired of the nonsense. I am just tired of it all.

Clearly the manager is a decent coach and he has seemed a decent man over the time that he has been in charge. His last four domestic seasons have resulted in three championships for Juventus of Turin and one for Chelsea of London; this is no mean feat. And yet he has shown signs of frustration in recent months, and I would surmise that this is as a direct result of the atmosphere present in the club. Of course, nobody really knows how or why decisions are made among the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and at Cobham, but my guess is that everything leads to uncertainty and doubt.

It was against the backdrop of rumour and counter-rumour that we assembled for the Bournemouth match. The team had been announced and without the injured Alvaro Morata, the loaned Michy Batshuayi and the unavailable Olivier Giroud, the manager was forced to play a team with no focal point.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Barkley – Hazard – Pedro

On the front cover of the programme were Eden and N’Golo, bearing a “Say No To Antisemitism” message. There was a large banner being held in the centre-circle for a good fifteen minutes before the teams took to the field. I looked over to the West Stand and spotted that Roman Abramovich’s personal bodyguard was stood in the back row of his box.

“Blimey, Roman is here” I chirped to Alan.

Alan replied that it was probably to do with the anti-Semitism theme for the night.

Yes, it probably was. And I saw no issue with that. While there are still morons who sing about Auschwitz following the club, there has to be a desire to remind everyone of this message. I just wished that Roman would appear at more than a handful of games these days. We need leadership, however understated.  Lo and behold, on page five of the programme, the owner had written a personal message about his desire to “create a club that is welcoming to everyone.”

The teams entered the pitch and they were forced to walk around the large circular banner, just as on a Champions League night.

Under a clear night sky – getting colder by the minute – a full moon appeared over the East Stand and it continued its arc as the game progressed. It was, apparently, a Super Blue Moon. In the spirit of the age, I wondered if this was the hallmark of an advertising guru, a brand salesman, taking nature to the next level.

“Get your Super Blue Moon sweatshirts, brochures and DVDs here.”

Nathan Ake appeared in the Milan-esque red and black of the visitors. I caught his wide smile on camera as he shook hands with former players.

As the players broke and sprinted to their respective ends, the Matthew Harding Lower roared –

“We Hate Tottenham.”

It seemed to be a reaction to the theme of the night.

The game began. Around 1,400 away fans. Ross Barkley in his league debut looked a bit lively at the start. Once or twice an early ball was pushed through to the attacking three. With our usual way of playing tending to resemble a game of chess of late, I have often harped on to Alan of late how I would like to see us mix things up a little, knocking the occasional early ball over the top, to encourage uncertainty in an opposition defence.

“Do they drop back, do they push up? Let’s mess with their heads. Let’s do things that they aren’t expecting.”

It was a rather timid and uneventful start to the game in all honesty. There was a desire from all of the front three to “make things happen” but with no real end result. The game moved on and the atmosphere was as timid as the action on the pitch. The away fans were soon having a dig.

“Is this The Emirates?”

I wanted the Matthew Harding to sing “Roman, give us a song.”

On nineteen minutes, the spectators applauded the memory of young Chelsea season ticket holder Jack Winter who had sadly passed away recently. A banner was held aloft in The Shed Upper.

There was a sublime piece of skill down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. A Bournemouth move had developed but there was a split second when the ball was equidistant from a few players. N’Golo Kante appeared to feint a challenge, and the Bournemouth player took the bait. The ball remained loose, in no man’s land, and Kante collected it, adeptly side-stepping a challenge and moving the ball on with the minimum of fuss. From there, a lovely move developed, with some excellent movement throughout the team. The ball was moved up the field and I watched in awe. The ball was played in from the right with a Zappacross but the ball was routinely hoofed clear. It was the highlight of the match thus far.

Bournemouth threatened occasionally.

This wasn’t much of a match.

With twenty-five minutes gone, we were sad to see Andreas Christensen leave the pitch – a strain of some description? – and our young starlet was replaced by Antonio Rudiger.

Things momentarily improved as Gary Cahill headed onto the top of the net from a corner. A cross from Alonso would undoubtedly have been perfection itself if a tall central striker been lurking; Hazard failed to connect. There was some occasionally pleasing play from Barkley. Alonso shaped to volley at the far post but a team mate chose to attack the ball too. The Spaniard headed wide just after.

As first-halves go, it was as poor as I had seen for a while. It was all very humdrum. Was this a sign of tiredness? This was the ninth game in January.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced the two new acquisitions Palmieri and Giroud.

I applauded, just.

With that, the Super Blue Moon disappeared from my view as it hid above the West Stand roof.

As a metaphor for the evening’s events, it was pretty much spot on.

There was very little Super Blue about the game’s second forty-five minutes.

With us attacking the Matthew Harding, there was hope for a goal when Marcos Alonso steadied himself for a strike on the Bournemouth goal from a free-kick. It was close, but not close enough and Asmir Begovic was not called into action.

After just six minutes gone in the second period, Bournemouth sauntered through alarming gaps in our defence and the lively Callum Wilson slotted home. Ugh. We watched as the away team celebrated at the far end in front of the Cherries away support. This goal somehow inspired the Chelsea faithful to get behind the team.

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

The noise generated from the supporters in the same stand as me brought me great pleasure. This was what supporting a team is all about. In adversity, noise. Great stuff.

Conte chose to replace Barkley – an uninspiring debut – with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped for a little more ingenuity and guile. The fans were still getting behind the team.

And then the lads and lasses in The Shed let me down.

They goaded the away fans with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

This was AFC Bournemouth here. They were in the bottom tier in 2010. Their ground holds less than 12,000. Truly, truly pathetic.

There seemed to be a tangible improvement in our play. Eden huffed and puffed and tried his best, but often ran into a wall of red and black. Antonio Rudiger crossed low but there was nobody in a danger area to tap home. We obviously missed a target man. A lovely ball found Eden, who forced a save, but was flagged offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, we went further behind. Bournemouth cut through our stagnant defence and Junior Stanislas slotted home after racing away from Cahill.

The away players again celebrated in front of their supporters.

Another “ugh.”

I then spent a few seconds watching, with increasing incredulity, as the Chelsea team walked back to their positions for the restart. Their body language was awful. They walked slowly, heads mainly down, silent. I focused on Gary Cahill. He did not speak. He did not talk to his fellow players. He did not engage with them. He did not encourage them. He did nothing to endear himself to me.

He simply dropped to his knees and tied his bootlaces.

For fuck sake, Gary.

I popped down to have a moan with Big John who shares the same opinions as me on many facets of supporting this great club.

“Shocking. No leadership.”

So true.

The manager brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi – wearing the very iconic number seventy, a Chelsea number if ever there was – to take the place of Zappacosta.

Just after, a run by Stanislas was not stopped and his low shot was touched past Courtois by Ake.

Chelsea 0 Bournemouth 3.

Bollocks.

I have to be honest, our defence at this time looked blown to smithereens. We were all over the place. But by the same token, this didn’t seem like a 0-3 game. They had simply taken their chances, whereas we had not enjoyed a cutting edge to our play and therefore – no real surprises – our attack was blunted. The rest of the game was played out against a decreasing amount of home supporters. There were tons of Super Blue seats on show with each passing minute.

We had a couple of late efforts, but the game petered out.

Ironically, the noisiest few salvos of support during the entire game occurred right towards the end of the match with thousands scurrying out to their respective homes.

On ninety-two minutes, Stamford Bridge roared.

“CAREFREE. WHEREVER YOU MAY BE. WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.”

I roared along with the rest. Bloody hell that felt good. It reminded me of years gone by when we made some noise irrespective of on-field glory.

I suppose that there were only around ten thousand – probably many less – present as the game came to its conclusion. It would be easy for me to make some comment about the fans who chose to leave early. That might upset a few people, eh? I am not so sure I care too much. Imagine if the game had finished with no fans present. What sort of message would that give the world?

So, yes. I stayed to the end.

However, you can be sure that there were a few Chelsea fans who would be making some snide remarks about “new fans” and “plastic fans” and “tourists” being the ones who left early. I am not so sure. There is a bit of a myth that “old school” supporters have always supported the team through thick, thin and thinner. Although we have enjoyed some fantastic periods of support, not always have Chelsea packed Stamford Bridge to the rafters in the way that we do know.

Think back to 1994, long before Stamford Bridge was inundated with tourists, day-trippers, new fans and the moneyed classes.

We had reached our very first cup final – the FA Cup no less – in twenty-two years. In our second-from last home game of the season, we played Coventry City on a Wednesday night, a mere ten days before our date with Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Our capacity at Stamford Bridge that season – no North terrace – was around 29,000. Was our stadium packed to the rafters on that Wednesday evening, cheering the boys on to a fine finish to the season ahead of the Cup Final?

No. The gate was just 8,923.

We have come a long way, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in the past few decades.

On the drive home, all was quiet. We didn’t even bother to listen to the rest of the results. I was sure, though, that the bitching and the moaning was lighting up the internet. And I am so fucking tired of all that too.

See you at Watford on Monday.

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Tales From Section 120

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 14 April 2013.

There was no doubt that an F.A. Cup semi-final against Manchester City would always be a very stern test. When we were still mired in our battle in the quarter-finals against Manchester United, the news that we had drawn their city rivals in the semis was met by a big silent groan from me. I am sure I was not alone.

Manchester United were eventually despatched and City loomed on the horizon. Our timetable has been ridiculously busy, but a day out at Wembley was always in my focus. It would undoubtedly be a huge game, a huge day out. I couldn’t wait.

After a wet day on the Saturday for the Wigan Athletic vs. Millwall semi-final, the weather on Sunday morning was a lot more agreeable and almost Spring-like. Parky was collected en route and the banter commenced. Apart from his visits to Stamford Bridge with me this season, his only other games were the August matches at Brighton and for the Community Shield game against City at Villa Park. This hasn’t been the best of times for him; however, the game at Fulham on Wednesday should be his first “proper” away match this season. I’ve missed his company on those away trips up north this year. As we rattled along the A303 and the M3, our anticipation for the day ahead increased. Parky was in good form. We were both bolstered by a large McCoffee apiece and the caffeine did its trick. Tons of laughs. Tons of banter. Tons of jokes.

“I’ve missed you, mate.”

I was well aware that there would be a number of ways in which I could describe our recent magnificent run of results in cup competitions. There were numbers flying around my head all weekend; I was performing various routines of numerical gymnastics on Saturday and as I drove to London on Sunday morning.

Our game at 4pm against the current league champions would be our 11th. F.A. Cup semi-final since 1994.

11 F.A. cup semi-finals in 20 seasons.

Pretty impressive, eh?

But that’s only the start.

Since the opening of the new national stadium at Wembley in 2007, the game would be our twelfth visit (4 F.A. Cup finals, 4 F.A. Cup semi-finals, 3 Community Shield games and 1 Carling Cup final.)

12 visits in less than 6 years.

Again, impressive stuff.

Looking further afield, the numbers became even more extraordinary.

Since season 1993-1994, we have stacked up an incredibly impressive 28 cup semi-finals (11 F.A. Cup, 6 Champions League, 6 League Cup, 3 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 Europa League and 1 World Club Championship.)

That’s easily more than one per season. This season, for all of its faults, we have hit four semis.

Not all have been in the Abramovich era I am quick to add.

10 came in the 1993-2003 era; 18 since.

Who says that our success are recent, our history negligible, our success due to Roman alone?

Yet, here is the contrast.

From season 1973-1974 to season 1992-1993, we appeared in just 2 major semi-finals.

1973 to 1993 : 2

1994- 2013 : 28

Oh boy.

Looking back, with my first Chelsea game having taken place in 1973-1974, I’m wondering if I was some kind of jinx. Not to worry, those twenty years of famine were not my fault. And we’ve certainly made up for it since. What was the catalyst for change in 1993-1994, then? Parky and I discussed this on the drive to London. The answer was Glenn Hoddle, who arrived in the summer of 1993 as one of the hottest properties in English football, having steered Swindon Town to promotion to the top division, playing some gloriously entertaining football along the way. 1993 was not a good year for me, but my spirits were raised several notches when Ken Bates managed to capture Glenn Hoddle’s services. Hoddle transformed the way we played on the pitch – a passing game rather than a more rudimentary style of football – and also off it, by modernising our training methods and dietary regime.

The new Chelsea awoke from its slumbers in 1994.

We have, without much doubt, never looked back since.

And there’s my “stop moaning about Chelsea’s recent poor performances, you buggers, you lot wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in the grim old days” section of the match report completed.

I reached West Brompton at 11.30pm and parked near The Atlas, where an upcoming Chelsea Supporters Trust meeting is to be held. The weather was indeed much improved from Saturday. We debated whether or not to take our jackets. The top of the East Stand at Stamford Bridge was just visible to the south. Within a few yards of the Atlas pub, the F.A. Cup Final was held in 1873 at the now long departed Lillie Bridge ground with Wanderers beating Oxford University 1-0 in front of a gate of just 3,000. I have an image of dashing footballers in natty shirts and long britches, an uneven pitch surrounded by ropes to restrain the crowd from encroaching, top hats, flat caps, cigarette smoke, and the shouts of hundreds of inquisitive Victorian gentlemen, lured in from various parts of London, to witness the new spectator sport of association football. Of course, Stamford Bridge itself hosted three finals in 1920, 1921 and 1922

From Lillie Bridge to Wembley, we’ll keep the blue flag flying high.

Incidentally, “The Blue Flag” was born in that 1993-1994 F.A. Cup run and has been a constant companion on our jaunts to Wembley ever since.

After a change of train at Notting Hill Gate, we were soon at Marble Arch. Then a quick walk up the Edgware Road to Harrowby Street. Some mates were already basking in the early-afternoon sun outside the Duke of York. We stayed from 12.15pm to 3.15pm. Three hours of kicking back and enjoying each others’ company. The days of us dressing up in Chelsea shirts of various vintages to watch us at Wembley are now long gone; I think I’ve only ever worn Chelsea shirts – both of the vintage variety – on two occasions. Instead, the lads were dressed normally; or as normally as we can under the circumstances.

Parky : an blue Aquascutum polo-shirt and a swish new pair of Forest Hills.

Daryl : a trusty lemon Lacoste and Ben Sherman desert boots.

Millsy : an Armani sweat top.

Alan : an Yves Saint Laurent shirt.

Rob : a Paul and Shark shirt.

Chris : a black Henri Lloyd polo and a pair of Nikes.

Detail, detail, detail.

What did we talk about? Anything and everything. Not many of my Chelsea acquaintances are venturing to the away game in Basel. We learned that hotels in the Swiss city are virtually non-existent due to a massive watch and jewellery convention which is taking place at the same time. Most Chelsea fans are staying in other cities. Of my close mates, only Rob is thinking about going. As for the rest of us, all eyes are on Amsterdam. There are already a few contingency plans afoot for the potential Europa League final on Wednesday 15 May. After 40,000 Chelsea fans invaded Munich last May, surely similar numbers will travel to Holland’s sin city in 2013. We laughed as we remembered Spurs’ exit from the completion on Thursday; Adebayor’s miss especially.

As the pints of Staropramen went down well, talk inevitably turned to discuss the idiotic behaviour of a few Millwall fans at the other semi-final. The general consensus was that it was simply pockets of various factions of their combustible support rowing amongst themselves. Rob, who always seems to be the most knowledgeable on these things, reckoned that it was, for example, Millwall Peckham having a go at Millwall Bermondsey. I won’t give these idiots the oxygen of publicity but I will comment on a Millwall fan who ‘phoned “606” on Saturday. He believed that “there was Chelsea and West Ham in the Millwall end. It was easy to get tickets. And then Millwall gets the blame.” What a load of nonsense. Why would a handful of Chelsea fans enter a stadium holding some 30,000 Millwall fans, probably a good 10,000 of whom were “up for a bundle?” If Chelsea – or West Ham – fancied “getting it on” with Millwall, it would be well away from Wembley, not under the scrutiny of CCTV.

All of us were just relieved that “The Wall” were out. I still have memories of a momentous battle at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Millwall in 1977 and I was not ready for a re-match. I’ll be quite happy if we never play again; they truly are a blight on football.

The sun was beaming down and there was a succession of ‘eighties pop on the pub juke box. Sunderland were winning at Newcastle. Parky was winning at drinking.

“Fancy a Jack Daniels Parky?”

On the walk to Marylebone station, I chatted to Simon about the first of our run of F.A. Cup semi-finals; a game against Kerry Dixon and Luton Town at Wembley in April 1994. I always maintain that the match, which we won 2-0 with two goals from Gavin, was a very pivotal game in our history. If we had lost, we would have had nothing to show for our efforts. However, because Manchester United, who we would meet in the subsequent final, were soon to win the league – and with it a berth in the following season’s Champions League – our participation in the Cup Final automatically guaranteed us a place in the old ECWC.

The win versus Luton therefore allowed us European football for the first time since 1971, where we reached the semi-final stage the following spring before losing to Gus Poyet’s Real Zaragoza. Our profile was raised within Europe and in the summer Ruud Gullit signed, to be closely followed by Mark Hughes.

The times they were a changin’.

Simon agreed with my appraisal, but added that the 2-1 win over Liverpool in 2003 was much more important. I soon realised that he was correct. Although we did not know it at the time, out finances were in a perilous state after years of over-spending. The win gave us Champions League football and how we celebrated. Waiting in the wings was Roman Abramovich and the rest…as they say…is…er, history.

A defeat against Liverpool may well have a signaled a Leeds United-like plummet through the divisions. In fact, when we played Leeds in the last league game of the following season, with Chelsea having reached a Champions League semi versus Monaco while Leeds were enduring a relegation campaign, the Leeds supporters regaled us with a very pertinent ditty –

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

In amongst the talk of these pivotal games in our history, the game at Bolton Wanderers in 1983, of course, should never be forgotten.

We caught the 3.26pm train from Platform One at Marylebone; it was all Chelsea. There were lovely memories of last season’s double trips on the same route for the Spurs and Liverpool F.A. Cup games. The singing was minimal, though; maybe we are getting used to all this. Of course, this is true. However, I was very relieved that all of our allocation had been sold for this game. We had, in fact, been given extra tickets. This measured up favourably to last year’s Spurs semi-final when several hundred seats went unused.

Within ten minutes, we had arrived at Wembley Stadium train station. Up the hill, with the huge bulk of the stadium ahead, the wind increased. In the shadows of the stands, I was grateful I had packed a light jacket.

I was inside with fifteen minutes to spare. I had a seat along the side of the pitch in the lower tier for the first time. All my mates were dotted around the stadium; I think most were in the lofty top tier. From row twelve, the colossal size of Wembley was all too apparent. It is quite massive. Looking around, I only spotted two or three faces that I knew. I hoped that my section would sing. If not, it would turn out to be a long afternoon, with my frustration undoubtedly rising with each failed attempt to generate some noise. Being so close to the pitch, my camera was primed for some action shots, but I first took a few photographs of the stadium. Around the top balcony, all of the previous winners are listed alphabetically – from Arsenal and Aston Villa, to Chelsea and Clapham Rovers, to West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United. Just behind me, there was an old school Union Jack, with dirty cream lettering spelling out “Chelsea FC” which was draped over the top balcony right next to Leeds United.

Adversaries after all this years, memories of 1970, Osgood, Bonetti, Bremner and Gray.

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

The teams soon appeared on the far side. We, however, were in that awful black away kit and I wasn’t happy. With John Terry and Frank Lampard dropped as per the rumours, the team was what we could have predicted. Fernando Torres, possibly deserving a start, was the one question mark. The City hordes to my left, stacked high in tiers, were the more colourful of the two sets of fans. They clearly still think it necessary to dress in team colours for big games; we think that is so 1990’s.

They also slightly edged the number of banners. None of our large ones had made it from the royal blue balconies of Stamford Bridge.

Manchester City, as is so often the case these days, were all over us like the proverbial rash in the first twenty minutes. There was immediate tension and concern among the Chelsea supporters. I must admit that one of my first thoughts as we battled in vain to get a foothold was “where is Drogba?” I think we grew silent very quickly as our players chased shadows. The City fans were definitely in the ascendency, bellowing “Blue Moon” and “We’re Not Really Here.”

This was not good. This was not good at all.

Milner, Aguero and Tevez were causing us problems with their quick movement, while Yaya Toure was his formidable self in midfield. A mixture of resolute and lucky defending managed to keep City at bay. Petr Cech was in top form; he needed to be. The shots were raining in on his goal. Our only real attempt in the first thirty minutes was a bouncing shot from Eden Hazard which was easily cleared off the line by the cool Kompany. Just when Chelsea’s play began to improve with better possession and movement, City struck. That man Toure broke from halfway, with no Chelsea midfielder within ten yards. He pushed the ball into the penalty box – level with myself – and the ball deflected into the path of Samir Nasri who quickly thumped the ball past Cech.

1-0 City.

Fcuk.

The whole west end then turned its collective back on the play as the City faithful did a massive “Poznan.” The fans in the lower tiers were, in fact, able to keep watching the game on the large screens above them.

“God”…I thought…”if they score now, their heads will explode.”

Surprisingly, Chelsea responded and a lovely curling effort from the previously quiet Juan Mata fizzed past the far post. However, this was a brief moment of hope in a poor first half. Further chances came to City and only a mixture of awful defending and greatness from Cech kept us in the game.

Chelsea fans were still making their way back to their seats as the second period began. Many will have missed the crushing blow of City’s second goal; a cross from Gareth Barry found Sergio Aguero, whose loping header found its way into Cech’s goal. It was eerily reminiscent of Chicarito’s goal at Old Trafford.

Ugh.

I tried to be positive – “well, we were 2-0 down against United” – but even I wasn’t optimistic. We enjoyed slightly more possession, but with little end product. With the clamour around me – and elsewhere I am sure – for Torres to enter the fray, Benitez surprised us all. He took off Mikel, changed things and put Torres up front, dropping Oscar alongside Ramires. There was genuine pleasure that we would now be playing with two upfront. There was, surely, nothing to lose.

The impact was immediate and stunning. Torres ran through to join Ba up front as David Luiz pumped a ball up the middle. The ball evaded the leaping Torres and Kompany, but fell behind Ba. In one gorgeous moment, he swivelled and dragged the ball from behind him, volleying it to the City goal. The nets at Wembley are especially deep but how we roared when the net eventually rippled.

Game on.

I looked at the two chaps in front and we laughed –

“Rafa Benitez. Tactical genius.”

To be honest, Torres and Ba never really played as a pair for the rest of the game; Torres, instead drifted wide in the way that Anelka used to do. However, it was now all Chelsea. Both sets of fans roared their teams on; first Chelsea as we sensed the tide had turned, then City as they realised their team was on the ropes.

Proper support. Lovely to see – and hear.

It was turning into a simply enthralling game of football. We urged the boys on further.

Mata’s shot hit Pantilimon, and then Hazard danced into the box and reached the bye-line before pulling the ball back for Ba. Just six yards out, he shot straight at the City ‘keeper.

Aaaarrrggghhh.

A free-kick from David Luiz dipped wide. The minutes ticked by.

Torres was through on goal…his big moment…but soon got sandwiched. From my viewpoint, I struggled to see any foul. That he stayed on his feet probably did him no favours. A foul on the far side on Luiz – again I was unsighted – elicited a few texts implying that Aguero stamped on our Brazilian, who was having a fine game.

The minutes faded away…four minutes of extra-time, but no more chances.

It was not to be our day.

At the final whistle, I wanted to leave the stadium as quickly as I could. The PA boomed out “Blue Moon” and I looked over to the west end, now a riot of sky blue shirts and scarves held aloft. As I clambered over the red seats, I chuckled to myself “bloody Mickey Mouse Cup, anyway” but of course I was lying.

I waited outside for Parky to arrive. Every single one of the City fans who I heard speak did so in heavy Mancunian accents.

Insert cliché here.

They were clearly happy. Overjoyed, even. This was only their second semi-final of any description since 1981. Good luck to them. Unfortunately, Parky had been pushed around to the north of the stadium and was at the back of the queue. We therefore made our own journeys back to West Brompton. As I filed out of the Wembley concourse, down to the line for the trains, I was surrounded by City. However, it could have been worse, much worse. It could have been Liverpool, United, Spurs, Arsenal or West Ham. Or Millwall.

I still don’t mind City fans. As I said to a fellow fan who I knew –

“However, if they keep beating us for the next ten years, I might change my tune.”

As we slowly edged forwards, pockets of Chelsea fans kept our collective spirits up by singing a selection of old favourites. Songs about Tommy Baldwin, Bertie Mee, Bill Shankly and Colin Pates – ah, memories of the idiotic Full Members Cup win over City in 1986 – brought many a smile from those taking part. I think this was a reflection of the riches that we have witnessed in recent seasons. I was pragmatic about the defeat and I think other Chelsea shared the same view. The better team had won, losing was not a disgrace, and we’re still the Champions of Europe. In contrast, the City fans looked bemused. Although they had been in good song during the game and only a few minutes earlier at the top of the hill, their songs had now dried up. I had to laugh. We, however, were in good voice.

Defiant. Happy and glorious. Proper Chelsea.

Millwall take note.

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Tales From Underneath The Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 5 May 2012.

During the preceding week, I was trying my best to nurture positive thoughts and the appropriate amount of anticipation ahead of the F.A. Cup Final. I will admit that I was genuinely struggling. For starters, there is no doubt whatsoever that the role of the F.A. Cup Final in the football calendar is at an all-time low. I have commented about the reasons for this on many occasions. Suffice to say, the accelerating importance of both the League and the Champions League, the huge amount of football games on TV these days, the playing of semi-finals at Wembley, the abolition of second replays, the playing of the Final itself before the league season itself has finished and the general mismanagement of The Cup by the Football Association over the years are the main reasons why we are in this current situation.

This current state of affairs leaves fans of a certain age, like me, in a bit of a predicament.

I yearn for the Cup Final Days of my youth when the world – or at least my world – would virtually stop on the second Saturday in May. Those days were wonderful. The first F.A. Cup final I remember was the centenary game of 1972 when a diving Alan Clarke header gave Leeds a 1-0 win over perennial finalists Arsenal. And the memories from the next ten years are still rich to this day. In those days, we only had three TV channels, yet BBC1 and ITV both showed the Cup Final, with saturated coverage starting from around 11.30am through to 5.30pm. It was the only club game shown “live” on TV. It was a football enthusiast’s heaven. I always favoured the BBC’s coverage, but would often channel hop to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The heady years of Cup Finals in my mind were from 1972 through to 1983 – from the ages of 7 to 18 – and of course, Chelsea were in involved in none of them. The nearest we got to the Twin Towers in that period were the quarters in 1973 (Arsenal) and 1982 (Spurs.)

Those defeats still hurt to this day.

So – anyway – you get the picture. Despite the elation of reaching another Wembley final, part of my psyche was labouring under the burden of the fact that things would never be the same as they were in those heady days of my youth. It was tough going, but I was trying my best to get my head around it all. To be honest, the fear of losing to Liverpool was helping to concentrate my addled mind. I was getting there. I could almost see the crescent of the Wembley Arch.

And then Chelsea Football Club fcuked it up. They completely disrupted my thoughts on the Friday with the news that they (and I use the term “they” wisely) had officially bid for the site of the Battersea Power Station. Now then, I am yet to be totally persuaded that my club needs to vacate our home of 107 years, but that is not the point. The point is that the club announced this massive piece of news on the eve of The Cup Final. My Friday afternoon at work in Chippenham was spent thinking about the pros and cons of Hammersmith & Fulham over Wandsworth, Stamford Bridge over The Samsung Arena, North versus South, District Line over Northern Line, old versus new, home versus new home.

To be honest, I was livid.

But yet – how typical of Chelsea F.C. to misjudge the mood of the moment. The club, the fans and the team needed to be together ahead of the Cup Final with Liverpool, yet here they were – obviously still smarting from the CPO defeat in November – quite relishing the chance to bully a point across. Rather than focussing my mind on the game at Wembley, my mind was poisoned by the thought of myself attending the last ever game at Stamford Bridge in maybe six or seven years.

Oh boy.

Thankfully, when I awoke at around 6.30am on Cup Final Saturday, my mind was clearer and focussed on the day ahead. This was good news indeed. I took a while to decide what to wear; this is always a tough part of each match day for me…all those shirts, all those options…but even more so on Cup Final Day. I opted for the lime green of a Lacoste long-sleeved polo and the muted grey of a CP top. I knew that Parky would be similarly attired. The last time I wore a Chelsea shirt to a Cup Final was in 1994 when I wore – hoping for a repeat – a 1970 replica shirt. But more of 1994 later.

I pulled out of my drive at around 8.45am and a Depeche Mode CD was playing. The closing notes of one song ended…a pause…then –

“When I’m with you baby, I go outta my head – and I just can’t get enough, and I just can’t get enough.”

And then my brain started whirring.

“Just can’t get enough” – yep, that’s about right. I certainly can’t get enough of Chelsea. And then I remembered that Liverpool are one of the several teams who have purloined this song from under our noses and I wondered if I would rue my day beginning in this way. I remember the Scousers singing this at The Bridge in the autumn and I shuddered. A repeat at Wembley? No thanks.

Parky – yellow Lacoste polo and grey Henri Lloyd top – was collected at just after 9am and we were on our way. I had pinned two Chelsea chequered flags to my car and I was keen to see if any other Chelsea cars were similarly attired as we drove up the M4. Surprisingly, on the drive east, we only saw two other Chelsea cars – and a Liverpool mini-bus. A car glided past and I spotted a bloke with an Arsenal replica shirt at the wheel. I smirked and he tried to ignore me. By the way, can anyone explain to me why that Arsenal vs. Norwich game could not have been played on the Sunday, along with all of the League fixtures? We were sharing the billing on just another football Saturday and it wasn’t right, damn it.

We reached Chelsea at 11am and – for some reason – I wanted to drive past Stamford Bridge before parking up. In truth, the place was pretty quiet, save for Bob The T-Shirt’s stall already at work. I imagined the area being full of non-attendees come 5pm.

We began with a quiet pint at “The Prince Of Wales” at West Brompton. There was drizzle outside as we caught the tube to Edgware Road. Nearing Notting Hill, however, Andy Wray sent me a text and advised that he was at “The Victoria” at Paddington. That was perfect timing and we quickly changed our plans. Several pubs in the Paddington area seemed to be overflowing with Liverpool fans. At just after 1pm, we met up with Andy, Ben, Dave Chidgey and a couple more Chelsea fans in the cosy confines of “The Victoria.” I spoke briefly to a Chelsea fan from Vancouver. Poor Ben was suffering with a hangover. I hoped he could recover quickly. Talk was of the new Battersea Stadium and of Munich. We then caught a cab to “The Duke Of York” where the lads were already enjoying a pre-match. The pub seemed quieter than for the semi-final and previous Cup Final visits. Ben commented that the main talk inside the boozer was still of Munich. Notable absentees were Simon, Milo and Daryl – all Munich-bound, and working on Brownie Points for the day. I chatted with Ben and Andy outside. The weather was mixed. I was glad I had my jacket with me. Talk was varied. Ben spoke about the Boston Blues and Andy spoke of The Olde Shippe. It was difficult to track my mood; to be truthful, I just wanted to get up to Wembley ahead of schedule and enjoy the moment.

Andy went off with Alan and Gary at about 3.45pm. Ben came along with Neil, Ed, Parky and little old me just after. We caught the 4.15pm from Marylebone and the packed train was full of Chelsea, united in song. The carriage was rocking. Ben had recovered from his previous night’s carousing with Cathy and Kerry Dixon and was joining in like a veteran. It was great to see him leading a few choice chants. I began one song –

“If you’re standing on the corner…”

We soon pulled into Wembley Stadium and met up with a drunken band of Chelsea fans from Trowbridge, singing songs about slums and dead cats. The rain was holding off. It was a grey and decidedly dull day, though. Unfortunately, there was a horrendous delay at turnstile L at the western side of the stadium. I’m afraid to say that this caused me to miss – again! – the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” Our seats were in block 538, row 24. Up and up we went.

Row 24 was the very back row. Seat 363 was just to the south side of the goal. In truth, we were only around 15 yards from our dead-central position at the 2010 Cup Final.

OK, here we go. A quick scan. The Liverpool balcony was bedecked with red banners and easily out-did our end. Had somebody forgot to bring the eight to ten permanent banners at Stamford Bridge? There were small blue flags by each seat, but not many waved these. I had my cameras at the ready. I was annoyed with myself for missing the build-up, but at least I was in for the entrance of the teams.

With the two teams lined up, the Liverpool fans were still bellowing out “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I was worried that the old habits of the ‘seventies, when Cup Final teams often sung over the national anthem, might be resurrected. Oh dear, how correct I was.

As “God Save The Queen” began, all that could be heard were the boos from the Liverpool end. However, the Chelsea fans soon out-sung the boos and the stadium was roaring by the time the last few words were being sung –

“Send Her Victorious, Happy And Glorious, Long To Reign Over Us – God Save The Queen.”

Were the boos by the Liverpool fans some sort of retaliation for the “Murderers” chants by some foolish Chelsea fans at the Spurs semi-final? Yes, for sure – but that only tells part of the story. Both Liverpool the city and Liverpool the football club see themselves as some sort of a free-spirited and anti-establishment utopia, railing against the perceived prejudices of the rest of England. They are pro-Liverpool, but anti-everything else. They are no big fans of the London government – especially a Conservative government which they still abhor for the Hillsborough aftermath, the London media, the FA. They evidently see the Royal Family as part of this picture. I have read that the Scousers were not happy that the Royal Family were not more supportive in 1989. And so it goes on. The over-whelming sense of ills being acted out against them.

There was a banner which was held aloft for a few seconds before the game began, which referenced Hillsborough once more –

“Expose The Lies Before Thatcher Dies.”

Into this mix comes Chelsea Football Club. The blue versus the red. The southern club with money but no history. The club with a history of right-wing support . The devil incarnate. Blue rag to a bull.

This Cup Final was always going to be a tinderbox in the stands.

Speaking personally, I did my best to ignore the “Murderers” chants by those around me and decided to support the team in as positive way as I could. This was my eighth cup final and it seems strange, knowing how dominant Liverpool were in my youth, that this was our first one against them. I had a further scan before kick-off and I was dismayed to see a few pockets of unused seats in our end. We had been given 25,000 seats for this game. I briefly thought back to that 1994 Cup Final when we lost 4-0 to Manchester United. We only received 17,000 for that game and yet I can well remember that we didn’t even have 17,000 members in those days. My dear friend Glenn wasn’t a member that season, but had applied for his 1994-1995 membership early. As a result, his name was put into a raffle for the last few Chelsea tickets and was overjoyed when Chelsea called him on the ‘phone to say he had been successful.

It made me realise how far we have come in eighteen years.

Less than 17,000 members in 1994.

More than 25,000 season ticket holders in 2012.

What will we be in 2030? Or – more pertinently – where will we be?

Maybe there is some sanity in Chelsea’s desire to move out of Stamford Bridge.

I put these worrying thoughts to one side as I turned my complete attention to the 2012 F.A. Cup Final. There were no surprises in the Chelsea line-up; Didier was leading the line, ready to add to his phenomenal haul of goals under the arch. I was surprised to see Craig Bellamy in the Liverpool team ahead of Andy Carroll.

Chelsea dominated possession in the first part of the game. This did not surprise me. If we were underdogs for Munich, surely we were the slight favourites for this one? We were the team in form, whereas Liverpool were floundering several places below us in the league table.

We did not have to wait long for a goal. Juan Mata was allowed time and space in the centre of the pitch and played a magnificent ball into the path of the advancing Ramires. It was eerily similar to Camp Nou. This time, there was no chip, but a low drive at Reina’s goal. Before we knew it, we were 1-0 up and the Chelsea end erupted. I was shouting like a loon, but steadied myself to capture a few of the celebrations away down below.

Wow.

Soon after, Ivanovic did well to block a Bellamy effort which was certainly goal bound. This was a cagey game, though, with few chances. A fine dribble by Salomon Kalou deep in to enemy territory petered out. Long shots from Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Kalou did not worry Reina. We rarely looked in danger, though, and I was very content to see that Luiz Suarez was having a quiet game. Downing and Bellamy were buzzing around, but our defence was in control. In the middle, our trio of Mikel, Lamps and Ramires were covering space and not allowing Gerrard much time to impose himself on the game.

The atmosphere was hardly noisy. It all seemed a little too easy. The Liverpool fans were not singing too loudly either. There was a strange feeling to the evening.

At half-time, our intelligence was insulted with a feeble attempt at entertainment and I won’t even bother explaining it.

As the teams re-entered the pitch, the Liverpool fans held their scarves aloft and sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but even that felt half-hearted. Parky had disappeared for a beer at the break, but hadn’t made it back. The second-half began with a couple of chances for both teams. Kalou set up Ashley Cole but his shot was blocked. There was ludicrous penalty appeal by Gerrard. However, right after, a fantastic move had us all buzzing. Jon Obi Mikel played in Frank Lampard and he, in turn, slotted in a slide-rule pass into Drogba. He found himself in roughly the same area as against Arsenal in the semi of 2009 and Spurs in the semi in April. A touch, a shot, a goal. The ball was slotted in with fantastic precision at the hapless Reina’s far post and we erupted once more.

Didier has done it again.

He raced over to the far corner and I again steadied myself for snaps. His little victory jig was magnificent. Oh, how he loves playing at Wembley. Four goals in four Cup Finals. Phenominal.

Parky finally re-appeared, having been drinking a beer with Whitey when Didier’s goal had given us a hopefully unassailable lead. He didn’t look sheepish, he didn’t care. Good old Parky.

“And It’s Super Chelsea.
Super Chelsea F.C.
We’re By Far The Greatest Team the World Has Ever Seen.”

Another strong dribble from Kalou, but he shot over. A Lampard free-kick. This was all Chelsea and I was silently dreaming of more goals. Juan Mata set up Didier but he only hit the side-netting. The Chelsea choir was now in full voice. How it must have hurt the Liverpool legions to hear songs of European Cup Finals.

“Che Sera Sera.
Whatever Will Be Will Be.
We’re Going To Germany.
Che Sera Sera.”

It was the loudest Chelsea chant I have heard at new Wembley.

And then the game changed. Bosingwa lost the ball and Downing fed the ball in to Andy Carroll, the Liverpool substitute. Carroll twisted John Terry one way and then the other before rifling the ball high past Petr Cech.

The red East end roared.

Game on.

The last thirty minutes seemed to be all Liverpool. Steven Gerrard, previously marginal, was seeing much more of the ball and Carroll looked a threat. Petr Cech did ever so well to get down low to turn a Suarez shot past the post. Raul Meireles took the place of the tiring Ramires. Then Dirk Kuyt replaced Bellamy. The last throws of the dice. The final fifteen minutes.

Our celebrations were proving to be overly optimistic and premature. This was now an intensely nervous affair. Liverpool moved the ball around and we were shuffling around to repel their advances. In a way, it was Camp Nou all over again, with di Matteo’s Italian heritage putting us in good stead to quash any attacks.

On 81 minutes, Liverpool had a spare man out on the right and a great cross found the head of Carroll. I expected the equaliser. In a sudden blur of activity, we saw the header parried by a falling Cech, but we heard a roar and the subsequent run of Carroll away from the goal, celebrating again. The linesman was running away from the goal-line, his flag low. I was confused; was it a goal? Was it blocked? If it wasn’t a goal, how did it happen?

It wasn’t a goal. It was a miracle. Another Chelsea miracle.

How we love that East goal at Wembley. After the Juan Mata goal versus Tottenham, the Cech save against the Scousers. Football is indeed a matter of inches.

Just amazing.

In the final moments, Liverpool shots were either off target or bravely blocked by Chelsea defenders. It was indeed Camp Nou Mark Two. I couldn’t enjoy this though. Just like in 1973, when I sat on my grandfather’s lap watching Leeds United attack Sunderland’s goal again and again, I was clock-watching like never before. We got to 89 minutes…just like Liverpool to score then, Hillsborough and all.

Five minutes of extra time.

Still we chased and defended bravely.

At last – I watched as Phil Dowd held his whistle to his lips and blew.

Chelsea F.C. – 2012 F.A. Cup Winners.

The Liverpool players looked on as Chelsea gathered together in their half and performed a “Ring Of Roses” dance. Around me, there were smiles. Parky was in tears. The Chelsea players slowly came towards us. Didier, shirtless, led the slow advance but was soon joined by his cavorting team mates. I was relieved and happy. This was Chelsea’s seventh F.A. Cup success. The first one, in 1970, was probably the reason why I became a Chelsea fan, though the real reasons are lost in time. I have been present at all six other wins. We love Wembley and we love this cup.

Magnificent.

The Liverpool players climbed the stairs, but most of their fans had left.

How proud I was to see that line of players in royal blue slowly ascend the steps, then disappear from view…tantalisingly…then arrive on the balcony.

The cup was lifted and we roared again.

Very soon, “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the echoing Wembley arena.

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In the last closing bars of the song, I looked up at the scoreboard at the opposite end of the stadium. Just as Ossie, Chopper and co were singing “Cus Chelsea, Chelsea Is Our Name”, the cameraman picked out a young Chelsea fan. He reminded me of me, circa 1972.

Now it was my turn to wipe away the tears.

Down below me, we were in party mode. It was gorgeous.

The champagne, the dancing, the smiles, the joy…the small details.

David Luiz hogging the cup as if it was his own.

Juan Mata grabbing Fernando Torres’ arm and hoisting it up, Torres looking bashful and embarrassed.

John Terry beating his chest.

Frank looking delirious.

The cup looking larger than usual and glinting like never before.

The songs –

“Blue Day.”

“One Step Beyond.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Tomorrow.”

Parky and I were one of the very last to leave the stadium. I was tired and emotionally drained. I had been stood outside the pub, on the train, at the game, my feet were on fire. We met up with Cathy and showed each other a few photos from the day. She had been right down the front, I had been right down the back. In between the two of us, thousands of Chelsea fans, thousands of memories. I spotted Andy and Ben. What stories they would have to tell their friends back home. I commented that we would be running the gauntlet at Anfield on Tuesday night.

We caught the last train out of Wembley Park at 8.30pm with the arch behind us now, lit from below and looking magnificent.

At last I could sit. I was so tired, so drained, but so happy. A Liverpool fan from work sent me a text containing a few words of congratulations, saying that the best team had won, but debated that the Cech save was really a goal. My reply to him?

“Luis Garcia.”

We made our way through central London and alighted at Earls Court. A few minutes later, we were welcomed at “Salvo’s” and were soon toasting Chelsea Football Club on another miraculous victory in this ridiculous season. Salvo mentioned that Roberto di Matteo, visiting with his blind sister back in 1996, once enjoyed a meal at his little restaurant. I reckon that Salvo should erect a plaque – a nice bug blue one – above the entrance to “Dall’Artista”to signify this.

It was now 10.30pm and we needed to return home. As we slowly walked back to the car, a Chelsea post-Cup Final karaoke was taking place in The Tournament. We peered in to see a huddle of fans standing on tables, bellowing out an Elvis Presley classic –

“I’ll guess I’ll never know the reason why
You love me like you do.
That’s the wonder.
The wonder of you.”

A few minutes later on the elevated section of the M4, I couldn’t resist a glance to the north. And there it was – the Wembley arch, illuminated still, signalling the location of our most recent triumph.

Didier’s second home.

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