Tales From The Damned United

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2022.

We had to wait around eighteen years to attend a league game at Elland Road and we were then able to visit it twice in just shy of fifteen weeks.

Our last away game of 2021/22 and our second away match of 2022/23?

OK, so be it.

Let’s go to work.

In May, it was all rather rushed; a hard slog on the motorways of England after a half-day at work, and a quick meet-up at the pub before disappearing inside to witness a pretty decent night of football in front of the Leeds hordes.

This time was a little more relaxed. I was up at 5.45am and collected PD at 7am and then LP at around 7.20am. I stopped twice en route but arrived in the car park of “The Drysalters” on the Leeds ring road at 11.15am. The 240 miles had been covered in just four hours of driving. I was happy with that. The pub was allegedly scheduled to open at midday but it was already serving pints when we arrived. I soon spotted a couple of Chelsea acquaintances. Within a short time, the place was mobbed with both home and away supporters. It felt odd to be back so soon after the recent visit. Pints – double pints for the drinkers – were purchased and the weather outside was pleasant. Deano – from West Yorkshire, now Lancashire, but steadfastly Chelsea – soon arrived and joined us. I asked a copper to take a photo of us together.

“That’s ‘Crimewatch’ sorted” laughed Parky.

An Uber cab drew up outside and there was a bit of a commotion.

“Is that your pizza just arrived” I asked the two policemen.

Soon, Goggles from the Fulham branch arrived on the pavement.

“Alright Paul? Alright Parky?”

I still found it a little odd that this once “home fans only” pub now welcomed away fans, and that Chelsea songs were being heartily sung by a few. It wasn’t quite as noisy as in May though. The times have certainly changed over the last twenty years. Looking back to that game in May, I remembered the only trouble that we had encountered took place at Woolley Edge Services on the M1 after the game. Parky and I were drying our hands after using the facilities when we felt a splash of cold water directed at us from behind. Evidently, a Leeds fan must have spotted Parky’s little Chelsea badge on his polo shirt and had decided to take retribution after his team’s loss against a dreaded enemy.

Yeah, how times have changed.

Since my last Chelsea game against Tottenham last Sunday, I had seen two Frome Town games. There was a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Willand Rovers in the league on Tuesday followed by a fine 3-0 away win at Buckland Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on the Saturday. The two footballing journeys of the weekend to Devon and West Yorkshire would total 650 miles – just over 1,000km for those reading in Ireland, the rest of Europe and Canada – and it is doubtful that I have ever driven further for two football games on consecutive days.

In May, I didn’t have time to attempt much of a look at Elland Road but, with tons of time to spare on this occasion, I set off with Deano at about 12.30pm. Deciding that the queues in the boozer were too long, PD and LP soon caught up with us. I walked past the stadium, past some stalls – there was already a healthy pre-match buzz – and up a footpath to a vantage point that looks down on the whole area.

Before a game in 1995/96, I had been drinking in the middle of Leeds with my Rotherham United mate Ian and his Leeds United pal from school days. We took a cab to Beeston and I remembered the short walk down that footpath, past the Old Peacock pub, and the grand old view that it afforded. I wanted to recreate a photo that I took before that game.

The walk up to Beeston was a good cardio-vascular workout for me. Once at the top, I positioned myself along a terraced street with the white steel roof supports of the huge East Stand in the distance. Down below, fans were winding their way down the footpath to the busy roads below. I took plenty of photographs. I was pleased with this. It set the scene nicely. Elland Road is a good three miles out of the busy city centre, and the vista afforded me from Beeston included lots and lots of greenery. Unlike stereotypical northern grounds such as Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, this stadium was never hemmed in among tight terraced streets. Beginning life as Leeds City, Leeds United then came to life in 1919 and have always played at Elland Road. It was an “out of town” ground before such stadia recently become de rigueur.

An odd fact; I always used to think that the home end – now the Don Revie Stand – from the ‘seventies and onwards was simply known as “The Kop” but only recently, the past few years, realised that it was known locally as The Gelderd End.

They love those classic white, blue and yellow bar scarves at Elland Road. They also love the iconic Admiral shirt from the mid-‘seventies. I must have seen a fair few before the game in May and I spotted many on this visit too.

Around Elland Road, street side electric boxes have been painted in various shades of white, yellow and blue depicting many of the club’s moments by local artist Andy McVeigh. Maybe that can be next season’s photo project.

I bumped into Deano outside the East Stand. This was once the largest capacity club stand in the UK, built during the 1992/93 season for the then champions, only for it to be overtaken by the other United along the other end of the M62 soon after. It holds some 17,000. I remember that at the 1995 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Tottenham (4-1), there were Everton fans on three sides of the ground with all the Tottenham lot in the one stand.

I digress.

As fate would have it, I was sat – stood – in virtually the same place as in May. Last time, I was in seat 48 of the front row of the upper level of the main stand, the John Charles Stand. This time, I was in seat 50 of the same row. There was an empty seat so PD joined us.

The front five : Davidson, Phillips, Daniels, Parkins, Axon.

The sun was out and those opposite in the Jack Charlton Stand – the East Stand, the former Lowfields Stand and terrace, the family stand in the lower tier – must have felt that they were being baked alive. Everything was cool in the shadows of the away section.

Thomas Tuchel, unable to call on N’Golo Kante, selected the following team :

Mendy

James – Silva – Koulibaly

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher – Cucarella

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

We would again be using falsies up front and it was all or bust.

Leeds? It pains me that I didn’t recognise many of the home team. Such is my fading awareness of football outside of SW6 these days that my knowledge of opponents’ teams is scant.

I bet I can name most of that 1991/92 team though.

From memory…

John Lukic in goal.

Mel Sterland at right-back, Tony Dorigo at left.

Chris Whyte in the middle. Who was the other centre-back? Dunno.

The famous midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed, God rest his soul.

Upfront, Brian Deane and Lee Chapman.

With Eric Cantona as a late addition.

Who was that bloody centre-back? No, can’t remember.

Ah, it has come to me. Chris Fairclough.

I am pretty sure that their squad was the smallest-ever to win a league title. And it was also the last team to lift the Football League version.

Dear reader : football did not start in 1992/93.

Back to 2022/23, thirty years on.

The teams lined-up.

“Marching On Together” boomed.

Chelsea were wearing navy socks. Answers on a postcard.

It was both a lively and a scrappy start to the game. We were attacking the old Kop, once the home of the most vociferous section of the Leeds support, but now playing second fiddle to the rabid hard-core to our right in the South Stand, or rather the Norman Hunter Stand. Raheem Sterling went close early on after good link-up play. Then two chances for the home team, Daniel James and Jack Harrison getting shots in on goal.

I am not convinced that we will ever see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a wing-back, but we found him coming into the box on an angle. Unfortunately, he dallied too long and the space evaporated and he was soon confronted by three Leeds defenders who halted his progress.

The noise from both sections of the crowd was impressive.

“Dambusters” was aired in the John Charles Stand.

“Father’s Gun” countered in the Norman Hunter Stand.

Is there much of a rivalry these days? The problem is that we just haven’t played them enough in the past twenty years for that classic, almost legendary, rivalry to have held firm all of the way through those years. It was bubbling along nicely in the ‘nineties when both clubs were jousting at the top table, but Leeds then got themselves relegated.

Let’s say it’s a dormant rivalry, awaiting to explode, awaiting ignition. The battles off the pitch kept the rivalry at such an intense level in past times. Those lads who stood toe to toe in the good old bad old days are probably grandfathers now and not involved. The new breed is aware of the history, but there is simply no recent history.

Leeds were full of energy and closed us down as soon as we had the merest sniff of the ball.

I was celebrating wildly on a quarter of an hour when Sterling slotted home after a pass from Cucarella but the goal was called back for off-side. I felt a proper divvy. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

On twenty minutes, a fine move ended with Mason Mount poking a shot at the Leeds goal but their ‘keeper Illan Meslier reacted well to keep it out.

We were edging possession but were not creating a great deal. I thought that Conor Gallagher was possibly trying too hard to impress and he found it difficult to knit things together. It did not help that Jorginho alongside him seemed to be slowing things down as soon as we sensed a break. There was one moment when he received the ball just inside our half with no Leeds player ahead of him for a good five yards. On receiving the ball, he reverted to type with that cradling of the ball and a slow movement to turn towards his defence and playing the ball back. Safety first was always his mantra.

“Attack you fucker.”

Koulibaly seemed to be rather discombobulated at times. He was bamboozled with the quick turn of pace from an unknown Leeds attacker and grabbed the player’s shirt in desperation. He was suitably booked.

“Embarassing.”

Then, a fucking calamity.

A Thiago Silva back-pass to Edouard Mendy. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now. There was a dither. He lost possession when an attempt to dummy the Leeds attacker Brenden Aaronson backfired and the ball was thumped into an empty net from mere inches.

Fucksake.

Mendy’s frustration was mirrored by that of ours. And then some. We have seen this before, right? And we have all commented before.

“Kick it away! Safety first! Get rid!”

As the scorer wheeled away in ecstasy, my eyes were unavoidably drawn to the scene to my right in the South Stand. It was madness. In all my times of going to football, I can never remember seeing such a reaction to any goal being played out in front of me. Bodies were falling in every direction. Limbs everywhere. Screams. Ecstasy. Complete madness.

It was – actually – despite the horrible sinking feeling of conceding a killer first goal a magnificent sight.

A horribly magnificent sight.

Fackinell.

Shockingly, just two minutes later, we conceded a second goal. A whipped-in free-kick from the Leeds left found the perfect leap from Rodrigo. His bullet header found the back of the net with ease.

Fuck.

There was another predictable riot in the South Stand.

Limbs again. I drew my camera and reluctantly took a photograph or two; sometimes, a moment simply has to be captured. Ugh.

Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. Some Chelsea supporters in the lower tier, I noticed, left and did not return.

“Thanks then…”

I turned to Parky.

“Mountain to climb.”

We didn’t create much in the rest of the half, a Cucarella effort barely troubling the Leeds custodian.

Only Sterling was a half-success. Havertz and Mount were so quiet.

As the second-half began, there was a change to the system but this only became apparent after a while. We played with a four at the back. A nice piece of skill from Loftus-Cheek in front of us allowed a Cucarella effort on goal and we hoped for an upturn in our play. Yes, we dominated possession but didn’t really create too much. On the two occasions that we were in on goal, one on one, we not only misfired but both chances were offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, changes.

Christian Pulisic for Gallagher.

Hakim Ziyerch for Jorginho.

We now had Pulisic, Ziyech and Sterling to run and twist their way into dangerous positions. In theory. This never looked like a decent game plan to this casual observer. We needed a focal point, a Broja.

Pah. What do I know?

A low shot from James was turned around his post by Meslier.

We continued to dominate but Leeds gave us no time to develop anything worthwhile. Our jousting thrusts needed to be augmented by an occasional hammer at the heart of the defence. But our artillery was without suitable weaponry. A towering leap by Koulibaly – occasionally excellent blocks making up for his malfunctioning sat nav – from a corner was easily claimed by Meslier.

Our play stagnated. Leeds never stopped running.

It was to get worse. A rapid break down their left and a cross from James, and Harrison picked up the pieces.

The ground exploded again.

May : Leeds United 0 Chelsea 3.

August : Leeds United 3 Chelsea 0.

Yet more Chelsea fans drifted away.

Earlier, we had goaded the home fans with “you’ve only got one song” but this was an empty sentiment.

We were being out sung, and how.

“We are Leeds. And we’re proud of you.”

“All Leeds aren’t we?”

“Marching on together.”

“And shoot the Chelsea scum.”

At times, the noise was electric.

It was bloody horrible. Here I was, stood exposed in the front row of the top section of the away end in full view of the tormenting home support. Loads of Chelsea had drifted away as the game progressed. Gaps appeared in the seats.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I stood silent. We had no answer. Our pants were being pulled down here.

I looked over at the three thousand in the South Stand – where I once stood when it was the away section in 2001 – and I could not help but notice that virtually all were in their twenties, virtually all were lads – by design? who knows? –  and all were up for it. We do not have a section like that at Chelsea and haven’t had one for decades.

And we were fair game. We had no real response to the piss-taking. We were being schooled both on and off the pitch. This was truly horrific.

I’ve attended games where we have been gubbed before – the 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in Lampard’s first game was particularly painful, Daniel James involved then too – but this one felt like one of the worst.

A Cucarella block averted a fourth after an effort on goal from Rodrigo. If anything, the noise increased further with the Kop now being heard too.

Ben Chilwell replaced Mount.

Then, a second yellow for Koulibaly.

Off he went.

Bollocks.

Azpilicueta for Sterling.

I had lost interest by then. I just wanted to get back to my car. I wanted to scoff that waiting Ginster’s Cornish Pasty. I wanted out.

At the final whistle, relief.

I chatted to a few friends close by, and we all agreed about the amazing antics and booming noise from the home fans.

Grudging respect.

This, though, was a deafeningly poor show from us.

So much for us playing with falsies up front. We just looked like tits.

Tales From Difficult Shapes And Passive Rhythms

Everton vs. Chelsea : 6 August 2022.

My summer had been quiet. I never fancied another CFC tour to the US during the close-season, and there was no holiday abroad to excite me. It was simply a case of staying at home, saving pennies and attempting to relax from the burden of work which was as busy as ever. The highlight of my summer season was a little burst of gigs involving some music from my youth; Tom Robinson, Tears For Fears, Stiff Little Fingers and China Crisis. Waiting in the wings in September are Altered Images and Toyah. It will be 1982 all over again and that is never a bad thing.

The summer was also short. The gap between the last game of 2021/22 to the opening match of the new season was a brief ten weeks. As time passed, I became increasingly bored with the constant tittle-tattle of rumour and counter rumour regarding our transfer targets. I realised how much I disliked the mere mention of the name Fabrizio Romano; nobody likes a smart arse. I again squirmed every time fan after fan, supporter after supporter, FIFA nerd after FIFA nerd used the phrase “done deal” without transfers being completed. Once players sign, then we can talk.

Maybe it’s an age thing but sometimes I feel that I am from another footballing planet compared to a lot of our support.

Our season would open up in a grand fashion. To start, my favourite away stadium with a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park and then what I would class as our biggest home game with the visit of Tottenham. Two absolute belters. Early on in the campaign there would also be visits to Leeds United, Southampton and Fulham. These are three cracking away trips too. But the downside of this opening burst of away games is that we only just visited Everton, Leeds and Southampton very recently. Could the league computer not have spaced the buggers out a bit?

As the new season approached, I was inevitably concerned that my enthusiasm levels weren’t at especially high levels, but this is so often the case. I often find that I need the season to begin for me to get fully back into the swing of things. But my indifference to the new campaign actually shocked me this summer.

I was faced with the age-old question: was my love of the game waning? It’s a strange one. Many aspects of the modern game leave me cold. So cold. Yet I lap up the chance to attend live matches. There is the old cliché about football – Chelsea – being my drug and I can’t dispute this. Perhaps I should add that my summer season included four Frome Town friendlies, my most ever.

Football, eh?

I hate you but I love you too.

The alarm was set for the new season at 5.30am. By 7.30am I had collected the Fun Boy Three – PD, GG and LP – and we were on our way once again.

I made good progress. After picking up PD at 7am, I had deposited the three of them outside “The Thomas Frost” boozer on Walton Road just south of Goodison only four hours later. It was surely my quickest-ever journey up to Merseyside.

While my fellow travelling companions settled down for five or more hours of supping, I began a little tour around the city, one that I had been promising myself for ages. It was also time for a little more introspection.

This would be my fiftieth consecutive season of attending Chelsea games – 1973/74 to 2022/23, count’em up – even though my fiftieth anniversary will not be until March 2024. Additionally, this would be the fifteenth season that I been writing these blogs. Long gone are the viewing figures of when these were featured on the Chelsea In America bulletin board, but these are such a part of my match-going routine now and I can’t give them up. However, over the summer one of my close friends, Francis, suggested that I should take a year out of match photography and blogging. Just to give myself a rest. An average blog takes four hours of my time. But the look that I gave him probably shocked him to the core.

“Nah. It’s what I do mate.”

I will be honest, I did go over the options in my mind though.

But here I am. Writing away. Taking photos.

I hope that I still maintain the will to keep doing this for a while yet. With the rumours of us partaking in a partial rebuild of Stamford Bridge under the new Todd Boehly regime, I have to continue on until that is finished surely? The success of the Roman Abramovich era might never be matched but there is always something to write about at Chelsea.

On we go.

On my own now, I edged my car south and west towards the River Mersey. Within five minutes, I was parked up a few hundred yards away from the construction site of the new Everton Stadium at Bramley Moore Dock. Camera in hand, I set off to record the progress being made.

I hopped up onto a small wall to gain a good vantage point of the overall scene. This would be photo number one of the season.

Snap.

On leaping down from the wall, my legs crumpled and I fell.

Splat.

The camera and spare lens went flying. My knees – my fucking knees! – were smarting. I was sure I had torn my jeans. There was blood on my right hand. What a start to the season’s photographs. I dusted myself down, then let out a huge laugh.

The first fackinell of the season? Oh yes.

One photo taken and carnage.

Ha.

I limped further along Boundary Street and spent a good twenty minutes or so taking it all in. I found it rather funny that a bold sign warned against site photography and sharing images on social media. During my spell there, around fifteen other lads – not being sexist, they were all lads – called by to take some photos too. I am not ashamed to say that I have recently subscribed to two YouTube channels that provide drone updates of the construction sites at Bramley Moore and also Anfield.

I love a stadium, me.

So, the scene that I was witnessing was indeed pretty familiar. The skeletal shell of the new stadium is rising with the two end stands – the south and north – being the first to pierce the sky alongside the murky grey of the famous river. There are seven cranes covering the site. Maybe those lads were just crane spotters.

I must admit it looks a glorious setting for a new stadium. Evertonians – like me, no doubt – will hate the upheaval of moving out of good old Goodison in a couple of years, but the move represents the chance to level up the playing field with their more moneyed neighbours at the top of the hill up on Stanley Park. I had a fear that last season’s visit to Goodison would be my last. I believe that the new stadium is slated to open up during the 2024/25 campaign.

There was a chance – with Everton likely to flirt with relegation again perhaps – that this day would mark my last ever visit to Goodison.

I hoped not.

I have a personal history with this stadium that I have often mentioned.

I marched back to the car and then drove south towards the city centre. I immediately passed a huge derelict warehouse – a tobacco warehouse I believe – and I had visions of the red brick structure being upgraded to a hotel to take care of the new match day traffic that the new stadium would attract.

But I then heard a voice inside my head, of my mate Chris, a staunch Evertonian.

“Chris lad, all our support comes from Merseyside, The Wirral, the new towns, out to the North Wales coast, we don’t have any day trippers, la.”

I continued on. I have driven around the city centre – or at least the area by the Albert Dock – on many occasions but the scale of the Liver Building knocked me for six. What a building. It’s magnificent. But I drove past it – I spotted a massive bar called “Jurgen’s” – and headed up the hill inland. For many years, ten or more, I have wanted to visit the two cathedrals in the city. This was as perfect a day as any to get this accomplished.

I parked outside the massive Anglican Cathedral on St. James Mount. The sandstone used immediately reminded me of the stone used on the tunnels approaching Lime Street – and the “Cockneys Die” graffiti – and of Edge Hill Station on that first-ever visit to the city for football in May 1985. The building is huge. It is the longest cathedral in the world. I popped inside as a service was taking place. The visitors – there were many – walked around in hushed tones. A few photographs were inevitably taken.

I then headed north and then west and aimed for the second of the city’s great cathedrals, or the fourth if the cathedrals at either end of Stanley Park are included, the Metropolitan Cathedral. This Roman Catholic cathedral – made of concrete in the ‘sixties – sits at Mount Pleasant.

Hope Street links the two religious buildings. It looked a very lively place with theatres and eateries. I dived into the granddaddy of all Liverpool’s pubs, The Philharmonic, famous the world over for the elaborate porcelain fittings in the gents. More photographs followed both inside and out of the funkier of the two cathedrals – nicknamed “The Mersey Funnel” and “Paddy’s Wigwam” – and I was lost in my own world for a few moments.

The art deco Philharmonic Hall looked a magnificent site. The TV tower in the city centre was spotted between a canopy of green leaves. There were blue skies overhead. The Liver Birds could be seen peaking over some terraced rooftops. A few hen parties were making Hope Street their own. Maybe on another visit to the city, I will investigate further.

But it was time to move on. I dabbed a CD on as I pulled out of the car park – China Crisis’ Gary Daly’s solo album “Luna Landings”- a 2020 issue of some synth tracks recorded in the ‘eighties – and it was just perfect.

My route took me past some old, and grand, Georgian houses no doubt once owned by the cream of Liverpool’s entrepreneurs, businessmen and traders when a full forty percent of global trade came through the port of Liverpool. But it then took me past Edge Hill, and onto Tue Brook – past the drinking dens of “The Flat Iron” and “The Cabbage Hall” of match days at Anfield in previous years – and everything was a lot more down-at-heal, the Liverpool of hackneyed legend.

At around 3pm I was parked up in Stanley Park. Up to my left, the extension of the Annie Road Stand at Anfield was in full flow. It will bring the capacity up to 61,000. The new Everton one will be just under 53,000.

Ouch, la.

I popped into “The Thomas Frost” – my least favourite football pub – and located the lads, who had been joined by Deano and Dave, plus a cast of what appeared to be thousands. A friend, Kim, had not been able to attend due to COVID so her ticket was passed on to another pal, Sophie. The chaps had witnessed the Fulham and Liverpool 2-2 draw, and PD was shocked at the hatred that the watching Evertonians showed their local rivals.

Heysel robbed Evertonians of a tilt at European glory and it is not forgotten by many.

A song for Marc Cucarella was aired by the younger element. It would become the song of the day.

I excused myself and squeezed out of the boozer.

This particular corner of Liverpool, along the Walton Road, is a classic pre-match location for Everton home games. “The Thomas Frost”, “The Clock”, “The Party Pad” and “St. Hilda’s” are close, and drinkers from both clubs were inside and outside all of them. At just gone 4pm, my friends – and brothers – Tommie (Chelsea) and Chris (Everton) approached “St. Hilda’s” and it was glorious to see them again.

Here was the reason why we go to football.

Lads enjoying a laugh, a catch-up, a bevvy.

I was welcomed by the Evertonians that I met outside the pub. I loved it.

This is football.

Chris was in the middle of a punk festival – “Rebellion” – up the road in Blackpool and so was now mixing up his twin passions. The brothers are off to watch Stiff Little Fingers together in Dublin over the next few weeks. That 1982 vibe again. Both of the brothers helped me plan my Buenos Aires adventure a few years back and we all love our travel / football addiction.

We briefly mentioned previous encounters. This was the first time that we had begun a league season at Everton in my living memory, though there had been opening games at Stamford Bridge in 1995 – Ruud Gullit’s league debut, a 0-0 draw – and also way back in 1978. The earlier game – a 0-1 home loss – was memorable for two of my pre-match friends in 2022. It was Glenn’s first ever Chelsea game and he still rues a miss by Ray Wilkins. It was also Chris’ first visit to Stamford Bridge with Everton. I spoke about it with him. It has gone down in Chelsea folklore as being the “High Street Kensington” game, when Chelsea ambushed Everton’s mob at that particular tube station. This inspired the infamous “Ordinary To Chelsea” graffiti outside Lime Street, aimed at uniting both sets of fans to travel together to Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool league fixture later in the season. The graffiti is so iconic that sweatshirts are being produced featuring the image almost fifty years later.

Time was again moving on.

Chris and I sauntered off to opposite ends of the Bullens Road.

I left him with a parting shot.

“Up The Fucking Toffees.”

He smiled.

“Up The Fucking Toffees.”

The kick-off was at 5.30pm and I was inside at around 4.45pm or so.

At last, I had a seat that wasn’t tucked way past the goal-line. In fact, it was right on the goal-line. Compared to previous visits my seat 38 felt as if I was watching from the royal box.  John from Paddington now sits with Alan, Gary, Parky and little old me at away games now; the Fantastic Five. I looked over at the Park End; Everton had handed out tons of royal blue flags for their fans to wave. I heard Chris’ voice once again.

“Typical Kopite behaviour.”

I hoped that the ground would be full of shiny unhappy people by the end of the game.

John asked me for my prediction.

I thought for a few seconds and went safe : “0-0.”

It was time to reacquaint myself with more than a few friends as the kick-off time approached. I had recently seen Julie and Tim at the SLF gig in Frome. And I had shared a fine evening with Kev in Aberdare at the recent China Crisis gig.

“From Abu Dhabi to Aberdare” anyone?

Kev, in fact, was wearing a China Crisis T-shirt. I had joked on the night that I would wear my exact same copy to the game too, but I had forgotten all about that. Probably just as well, eh Kev?

We could work out the starting line-up from the drills taking place in front of us. The confirmation came on the twin TV screens at opposite ends of the ground.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Jorginho – Kante – Chilwell

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

In light of our former chairman’s departure, I am surprised that nobody else but me did the “$ out, £ in” joke over the summer.

The PA ramped up the volume with a few Everton favourites, and then the stirring “Z Cars” rung out around Goodison.

It was unchanged as it has been from around 1994.

The rather mundane and bland single-tier of the Park Lane to my left. The still huge main stand, double-decked, sloping away in the top left corner. St’ Luke’s Church peeping over the TV screen in the opposite corner and then the continuous structure of the Gwladys Street bleeding into the Bullens Road, the Leitch cross-struts on show for decades but not for much longer.

A couple of large banners were paraded in the Gwladys Street.

To the left, an image of The Beatles with an Everton scarf wrapped around them all. Were they really all Evertonians? Well, they weren’t day trippers, that’s for sure.

I hoped that their team would be The Beaten.

To the right, there was an image of our Frank on a banner. Gulp.

The teams lined-up.

A shrill noise.

Football was back.

Alas we were back in the odd away kit. From a long way away, it looks reasonable, but up close I can’t say I am too fond of the stencilled lion nonsense on the light blue / turquoise hoops. This overly fussy design, which is mirrored in the collar of the home kit, resembles a great aunt’s frock design from 1971 far too much for my liking.

Me, bored rigid on a family outing, stifling yawns :“Yes, I’d love another piece of fruit cake please auntie”…but thinking “your dress looks ridiculous.”

To be honest, in the pre-release glimpses, the colour looked more jade green than blue. Eck from Glasgow, sat to my left, must have been having kittens.

Both teams were wearing white shorts. I think that ruling has changed only recently.

The game began. I was immediately warned by a sweaty steward to not use my camera. In the ensuing moments, Eck leant forward and shielded my illicit pursuits. It worked a treat.

As the game started to develop, the away crowd got behind the team, but with the lower tier of the Bullens outdoing the top tier. I must admit I didn’t sing too much during the whole game; I am getting old, eh? Soon into the game, I experienced chant envy as I couldn’t make out the Koulibaly song being sung with gusto in the lower deck.

Goodison has been an awful venue for us of late. Our record was of four consecutive losses.

But we began as we often began with the majority of possession.

The first real incident involved Kai Havertz who picked up a wayward clearance from Jordan Pickford after a poor back pass from Ben Godfrey. Rather than pass inside, he lashed the ball against the side netting. Attempting to tackle, Godfrey injured himself and there was a delay of many minutes before he was stretchered off.

There was a swipe from Mason Mount that Jordan Pickford managed to claw away. At the other end, a deep cross from Vitaly Mykolenko was headed goal wards by James Tarkowski but Edouard Mendy did ever so well to tip it over.

Everton occasionally threatened, but our defence – the veteran Dave especially – were able to quell their advances. N’Golo Kante, right after a Chelsea attack, was able to block an Everton shot back in his own penalty area. He had no right to be there. The man was starting the season as our strongest player.

Next up, Thiago Silva – the calm and cool maestro – cut out an Everton break down our right, and this drew rapturous applause.

A shot from Kante was fumbled by Pickford but although Raheem Sterling pounced to score – a dream start? – he was ruled offside. It looked offside to me, way down on the other goal line. Who needs cameras?

To be truthful, despite corner after corner (or rather shite corner after shite corner) that resulted in a few wayward headers, it wasn’t much of a half. The home fans were quiet, and the away section in the upper tier were getting quitter with each passing minute.

But corner after corner were smacked into the Everton box.

“More corners than a Muller warehouse.”

I noticed that the movement off the ball was so poor.

I chatted to Eck : “Without a target man, our forwards need to be constantly moving, swapping over, pulling defenders away, allowing balls into space.”

There was sadly none of it. I couldn’t remember two white-shirted players crossing over the entire half.

I had visions of a repeat of the dull 0-0 at Stoke City that began the 2011/12 campaign.

In injury time, Abdoulaye Doucoure manhandled Ben Chilwell on a foray into the box. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Jorginho.

1-0

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, like.”

It was the last kick of the half. Phew.

As the second-half began, the sun was still beating down on us in the upper tier. I was getting my longest exposure to the sun of the entire summer. But the game didn’t really step up. The noise continued to fall away. If anything, Everton threatened much more than us in the second-half.

A shot from Demarai Gray – after a mess up between Silva and Mendy – was thankfully blocked by our man from Senegal.

Celery was tossed around in the away section and some local stewards looked bemused.

Some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for a very quiet Mount.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Chilwell.

Reece swapped wings and Ruben played wide right.

It was pretty grim and pretty tepid stuff this. A tough watch.The practised attacking patterns needed more work. It just wasn’t gelling at all. And during that second-half we allowed Everton a little too much space in key areas. It is early days though. But I have to say it as I saw it.

I could lose myself in this honesty.

More substitutions from Thomas Tuchel.

Armando Broja for a weak Havertz.

Marc Cucarella for Koulibaly.

I wasn’t too happy about us singing Frank’s name during the game.

It took bloody ages for us to get an effort, any effort, on goal. It came on eighty-one minutes, a James free-kick, tipped over. Then, just after a pass from Cucarella to Sterling and a shot deflected for a corner.

To be fair, Pulisic looked keen when he came on and added a new dimension to our play. Cucarella looked mustard too. He looked neat, and picked out a few lovely passes, zipped with pace.

“He’s from Marbella, he eats Bonjela” wasn’t it?

And it was a joy to see Broja on the pitch, charging into space, taking defenders with him, a focal point. I hope he is given a full crack of the whip this season.

In the eighth minute of extra time, Conor Gallagher made his debut and I caught his first touch, at a free-kick, on camera. I see great things for him.

It ended 1-0.

Outside, I bumped into Sophie, with Andy her father, and remembered that she was soon off to Milan, with a side-visit to Como after talking to me in the pub at the end of last season.

“Did you know Dennis Wise is the CEO at Como?”

It made Sophie’s day. Dennis is her favourite ever Chelsea player.

We walked back to the waiting car and shared a few thoughts about the game. It was no classic, but we were all relieved with the win. Tottenham, our next opponents, won 4-1 at home to Southampton and I admitted to PD :

“I’m dreading it.”

“I am too.”

Out

In

I made good time on the way south, only for us to become entrenched in a lively conversation about all of the players’ performances just as I should have veered off the M6 and onto the M5.

“Isn’t that the Alexander Stadium? Bollocks, I have missed the turning.”

A diversion through the second city was a pain, but I was eventually back on track. As the three passengers fell asleep, I returned to the ‘eighties and Gary Daly.

And I wondered what I should call this latest blog.

Some people think it’s fun to entertain.

Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

This was it, then. The long-awaited trip to Elland Road. My last visit was towards the tail end of the 2000/1 season, although the club’s last League visit was in 2003/4. I didn’t go to the League Cup game in December 2012; it came too soon after the jaunt to Japan. Of course, last season the game was behind closed doors, a phrase that I hope that we never have to hear ever again.

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

As soon as the weekend had finished and the collapse against Wolves was behind me, I could not wait to be pounding the tarmac once more. I had booked two half days for this one. I left work at midday and deviated south to collect Parky and then PD. We set off from Frome at just before 1pm. It was a 7.30pm kick-off in West Yorkshire. Plenty of time.

It was mainly a decent enough trip north. There were rain showers to start but these cleared soon enough. The rest of the journey was spent with me gazing at a Simpsons sky and hoping that any ominous billowing and darkening clouds on the horizon would not ruin our trip. We stopped at Strensham, just south of Worcester, on the M5 at around 2.30pm and then at Woolley Edge, just north of Barnsley, at around 5pm. We then hit a fair bit of slow-moving traffic which meant that our arrival time at “The Drysalters” pub by Elland Road took place at 6pm rather than the envisaged 5.30pm. I dropped the boys off in the pub car park and soon found a cheap place to park nearby.

As I locked my car, a Leeds fan called out.

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

“The Drysalters” pub is well known to me. I have parked in the car park on two occasions before. We soon spotted Deano, and his son-in-law Steve – a PNE fan – and also three lads from Wiltshire. The three amigos from Northampton were drinking outside in the sun too. There were Chelsea fans everywhere. This sort of scenario would not have happened in the ‘eighties or even ‘nineties when survival was the key pre-game buzzword. Next, Josh appeared with a pint of Diet Coke for me, along with his two mates from Minnesota, Chad and Danny.

A younger set of Chelsea fans were loudly singing the praises of Thomas Tuchel, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Edouard Mendy.

“He comes from Senegal.”

After just one drink apiece to quench our thirsts, we walked over to Elland Road.

Previous visits came to mind.

The first one came in early May 1987. One of my mates at college, Bob, was a Leeds United supporter and had visited Stamford Bridge with me to see a couple of games in 1985/86 and 1986/87. It was time for me to repay the honour. We travelled up by train from Stoke, had a couple of pints near the central station and watched Leeds beat West Brom 3-2 in their final home game of a Second Division season. The gate of 24,688 was their highest that season. What do I remember? The day began with an excellent pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in the pub beforehand. We watched with all the Leeds loons in the infamous South Stand. I remember a pitch invasion at the end and John Sheridan being carried on fans’ shoulders. And of course I remember them singing about us.

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

That season would end disappointingly for Leeds. They had already lost to Coventry City in an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough and they would go on to lose in the play-offs to Charlton Athletic.

My first visit with Chelsea was in September 1988 when both clubs found themselves in the Second Division again. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy and as was the case with my other long trips north by train that season – Stoke City and Manchester City too – I was coming off a night-shift. I remember struggling to stay awake on both legs of the journey to Leeds. We were yet to win a match after five games in the league and the match at Elland Road – with me watching in the South Stand, now given to away fans much to the consternation of the locals – would be a tough test. Thankfully, an early John Bumstead goal – off his ‘arris – and one from Gordon Durie gave us a surprising but deeply enjoyable win. I don’t remember any trouble at that game despite hundreds of Leeds fans milling around as we caught buses back to the station from right outside the away end.

Next up was a game in November 1995 in which I drove up from Somerset, met up with my mate Ian – Rotherham United – at Stafford and watched from the main stand using tickets that Bob, I think, had bought for us. It was a pretty decent performance and I believe I am correct in saying that it was the first time that Glenn Hoddle had switched to us playing with wing backs – Dan Petrescu and Gareth Hall – outside a back three – Erland Johnsen, David Lee and Michael Duberry – only for us to succumb to a late sucker punch from the boot of Tony Yeboah. I can’t recollect moving a muscle when Leeds scored that goal. Having a mate from South Yorkshire next to me probably disguised my allegiances.

A year later, in December 1996, a Sunday game – live on the TV – and a meek 0-2 loss to a Leeds United team that included Ian Rush. He even scored against us. We were pushed up into the quadrant of yellow seats by the South Stand for this and I can remember our away following was awful, maybe only around 1,000. It was a long old drive home that Sunday evening with work in the morning.

My final visit took place in April 2001. I had driven up with Glenn and had collected Alan at Stafford en route to save the boy some money. I often did that in those days. Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with at that time. We were back in the South Stand, played decently enough but lost 0-2 to two very late Leeds goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka, with the goals coming in the final five minutes. A tidy roast at Brighouse after the game almost made up for our defeat.

With relegation threatening Leeds, I decided to make the most of my visit to Elland Road and sped off to take some shots of the stadium. If relegation follows in a few weeks, who knows when I would return. It really was hard to believe I was last outside the South Stand over twenty-one years ago.

Many home fans were wearing the iconic bar scarf from the ‘seventies. I have to say – and my pal Gary agreed with me at the game – that it still looks class. Those tri-colour bar scarves of Leeds United – white, yellow, blue – and Manchester United – red, white, black – and even us – red, green white – were fantastic. I remember the “smiley” badge too, a real ‘seventies classic. Gary and I would mention the Admiral kits. They defined the mid-‘seventies. And the numbered tie-ups on the socks. They were unique. I remembered the “Leeds United AFC” frontage to the West Stand. Bob and I were photographed outside there in 1987, me with a jade Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, one of my favourites, and of course it brought back memories of that classic scene from “Porridge” too.

I spotted a few columns of ‘seventies concrete as the South Stand disappeared around a corner. That a few pillars of brutalist architecture should please me so much is something that I don’t really want to dwell on too much, but it is a sure sign that on these away trips to altered stadia there is no doubt that I love seeing hints of a past.

“The Old Peacock” pub – as iconic a Leeds United sight if ever there was – is now temporarily renamed “The Bielsa” and I remembered walking down the hill towards it from Beeston for the 1995 game, deposited there in a taxi with Ian after a drink in the city centre. There’s a statue of Billy Bremner on the corner, with floral tributes all around. The East Stand is huge. It was built in 1993 on the site of the Lowfields Stand. For a short time, it was the largest stand in the United Kingdom, holding some 17,000, before being overtaken by Celtic and then Manchester United. I can remember the whole of Elland Road being shunted twenty yards to the north in around 1972 with the South Stand being built.

It was time to get inside.

There was a bag check outside the away turnstiles and my SLR was waved through. The old main stand, the West Stand, is now named the John Charles after the Leeds United – and Juventus, among others – centre-forward. I made my way upstairs…the steps were carpeted, as was the away bar area.

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

I had a cracking seat. Parky, Gary, Alan and I were in the very front row of the upper section. Sadly, the shunting of the pitch in the early ‘seventies meant that those to my far right – geographically, not politically – were left with a shocking view of the pitch, way past the goal line. I had a great view and even I was behind it.

I spotted many familiar faces. It was lovely to see so many mates.

The sun was still out, catching the East Stand and making it come alive. I looked around. The Kop is now the Don Revie Stand. The East Stand is now the Jack Charlton Stand. The South Stand is now the Norman Hunter Stand. They still dote on that ‘seventies era. It is as if Howard Wilkinson’s League Championship in 1992 never happened. Oh wait, the away bar at Elland Road is called “Howard’s Bar” and that seems a mite disrespectful.

I would talk to Gary about that team during the game.

“Great midfield. Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan. Had it all.”

“Fanfare For A Common Man” was played on the PA, just like at Wolves. Then came the Leeds anthem “Marching On Together.” Despite my dislike of Leeds throughout my life, my friendship with Bob and Trev – mentioned in a Brentford game this season – means that I am afraid to admit that I knew the words to a few of the songs I would hear during the evening.

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

Pre-match, I feared the worst. I need not have worried. We began so brightly and, with memories of Johnny B’s early goal in 1988, we were soon jumping around like fools. A fine move down our right and the ball was played in sweetly by Reece James for Mason Mount, shades of Frank Lampard at his peak, arriving at just the right time to strike the ball firmly past the Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier, aged twelve and three-quarters. Mase raced over to wind up the Leeds fans in the far corner.

Ha.

Alan and I resurrected our “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine.

We were playing some lovely expansive stuff and were finding lots of space out wide. We were playing one-touch football where we could, and I had to ask Alan for some smelling salts. To their credit, all of the Leeds fans in The Kop, the stand opposite and the South Stand – old habits die hard – were standing throughout, and contrasted wildly to the Everton fans in the Park End a couple of weeks ago.

“Marching On Together.”

We were purring, and Lukaku was much improved. His movement, his work rate, his involvement. It was good to see.

On around twenty-five minutes, Daniel James – a scorer in that horrible 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in 2019 – scythed down Mateo Kovacic, who up until that point was arguably our best player, and I told Gary “I reckon that’s a red.”

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

Kovacic, full of running, could run no more. After trying to run off his injury, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

But again I need not have worried. A super run from the sub soon after looked so graceful and it certainly cheered us.

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

There was a glancer from Lukaku on thirty-three minutes that narrowly missed the far post. This was heart-warming stuff indeed. The cross had come from the trusted boot of Reece out on the right, who was finding even more space to exploit. The exact same could be said of Marcos Alonso on the left.

In our packed section, we were at our Dambustering best.

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

Kalvin Phillips then hacked down Christian Pulisic. This game was living up to the hype, an old-fashioned affair with pulsing runs from deep, mis-timed tackles, battles in key areas.

I turned to Alan : “remember that game at Chelsea in 1997 when they had two sent-off?”

When the home team was rewarded with a rare corner in front of me, I was surprised that the home fans didn’t respond with their old “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” with associated chest beating. That must have fallen from grace since my last visit.

They had, instead, turned into a crowd of scarf-twirlers.

The game was halted for a good few minutes when it became apparent that there had been a medical emergency in the lower section of the away support to my left. Sadly, the home fans sung throughout and even dirtied their name further with a couple of offensive comments about “soft southern bastards.”

On a day that marked the anniversary of the Bradford Fire, this sadly reminded me of a typically shocking moment involving Leeds supporters in the autumn of 1986. Sixteen months after the fire at Valley Parade in May 1985, and with Bradford City hosting Leeds at the Odsal Stadium, some Leeds fans set fire to a chip-van high on the terracing at one end of the stadium.

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

Just at the end of the half, Trevoh Chalobah sent in a scuffler that went wide of the Leeds goal.

It was a fine first-half performance, but was I the only one who was a little worried that we hadn’t created more chances?

The second-half began with Chelsea even more on top and full of running against a Leeds team that were looking like they had already given up on the game, on survival, on life itself. But the home fans were still singing. To be fair, we couldn’t hear the other stands, but from the evidence from The Kop – no gesticulating, no clapping in unison, nowt – it as just the rabble to our right that were making the noise.

“The Yorkshire Republican Army. We’re barmy. Wherever we go. We fear no foe.”

Two chances showed our intent. A header from Lukaku was high, a volley from Loftus-Cheek went wide.

Then, on fifty-five minutes, a beautiful move involving Jorginho and Mount set up Pulisic on the edge of the box. He took a touch…I said out loud “he can find the corners” and my pulse quickened…

The low shot was perfectly struck, down low, to the left, “corners.”

GET IN.

The scorer almost grabbed a second, curling one just wide and as I found myself looking up at the TV screen to my right, both he and myself were pulling the same pained expression.

Next up, Lukaku – full of spirit – took on his marker and rifled just wide too. His play was getting better and better. Yet only as recently as just before the Wolves game had kicked-off, Oxford Frank and I had binned him off.

There were wildly loud renditions of “Que Sera Sera” – the “Wembley” version by us and not the “Father’s Gun” version by them – and then “Carefree.”

Carl from Stoke, down below me, turned up towards us and yelled :

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

I turned to Al : “To be fair, the South Stand haven’t stopped singing all night.”

We continued.

“We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum.”

Though this was tame stuff compared to the “witty” interchange about one of Leeds’ sons, but that’s not for here.

On seventy-eight minutes, a double substitution from Thomas Tuchel, who was now flavour of the month again.

Hakim Ziyech for Pulisic. The American had certainly enjoyed a fine game.

Dave for Reece. Saving our star man for the next game no doubt.

On eighty-three minutes, Mount robbed the ball and passed to Ziyech. He then found Lukaku inside the box. What followed was doggedness personified. Surrounded by Leeds defenders, he turned and tried to create an opening for himself. He moved the ball, eventually, onto his left peg and smashed the ball in.

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

His euphoria after was matched by all of us in the John Charles Stand.

I took about twenty-five photos of the move, the goal, the celebrations. I was exhausted as he was by the end of it all.

Fackinell.

Leeds were still singing at the end, but so were we.

“You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down.”

I remember only one Leeds effort on our goal in the entirety of that one-sided second-half, a header that was rising high before it left the bloke’s head. It was a deeply satisfying performance. And yet a little voice in my head kept saying –

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

For the first time that I can remember at a domestic game in decades, we were penned in after the match had ended. After twenty minutes we were let out onto the streets of Beeston. On the walk back to the car, there was time for a tasty cheese burger with onions. It rounded off a wonderful night out in West Yorkshire.

I said to PD : “Makes it all worthwhile, nights like this. We travel some miles, we don’t always get the results, or sometimes it’s all a bit flat. This was bloody superb. A great night out.”

It also meant that I had accomplished a full set of league aways for only the third time in my life.

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

I eventually reached my home a few minutes after three o’clock.

Next up, the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

We don’t always play on Boxing Day, but when we do it’s usually at Stamford Bridge. However, for once this was going to be a rare trip to the Midlands for this particular festive fixture and that suited me. Sometimes Boxing Day fixtures at Stamford Bridge, especially the dreaded early kick-offs, can be eerily quiet affairs.

Back when I was younger, attending Boxing Day football was fraught with logistical problems. I didn’t see my first Boxing Day Chelsea game until as late as 1992 when, at last with a car to drive, I made my way up from deepest Somerset to see us play Southampton at home.

Since then, I haven’t attended every Boxing Day game; most but not all.

However, the game at Villa Park on Boxing Day 2021 would only be the fourth away game out of twenty Boxing Day fixtures that I would have watched. The league computer certainly favours us to play at Stamford Bridge on this most traditional of footballing days. We missed out on an away game at Arsenal last year; and that was probably just as well.

I set off at around 9.15am but instead of heading off to collect PD, Glenn and Parky, I was headed due south for half an hour to collect Donna in Wincanton, a town in Somerset that I rarely visit. I fuelled up, then drove through Bruton and I soon realised that unless we play Yeovil Town in the FA Cup it’s unlikely that I would ever take this road to see Chelsea ever again. It was mightily heavy with fog as I crept past the Wincanton Race Course, opening up for its annual Boxing Day Meet. I collected Donna at 10am, then made a bee-line for Frome. I’ve known Donna for a while – I spent some time with her and some other friends in Porto in May – but even though I had seen her at various Chelsea games over the past ten years or so, I only found out from Parky that Wincanton was her home relatively recently.

Donna’s first ever Chelsea game was a pre-season fixture against Bristol City in 1995 just after Ruud Gullit signed for us. I remember that I eagerly travelled down to Devon to see us play Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle during the week before the game in Bristol on the Sunday. Supporters of our club that were not around in the summer of 1995 will, I think, struggle to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the Gullit signing. It absolutely thrilled us all. We both remembered it as a swelteringly hot day – we drew 1-1 – and Donna reminded me that for a long period during the pre-match “kick in”, our new Dutch superstar wandered around the pitch talking on his mobile phone. It just felt that only he would ever be allowed such a privilege.

Twenty-six years ago and a Chelsea pre-season tour in the West of England.

I can’t see that ever happening again, eh?

The first Chelsea away game that I attended on a Boxing Day was at Villa Park too; in 1996/97, a nice 2-0 win, two goals from Gianfranco Zola , and I even won some money on him as the first scorer. Our lovely “1997 FA Cup Final” season was just gaining momentum and times were good, now with a team including Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and with Ruud Gullit now as the player-manager. The greatest of times? It absolutely felt like it.

Only the previous April we had assembled at Villa Park for an ultimately agonising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United; the memory of walking back to my parking spot amidst a sea of United fans haunts me to this day.

But Boxing Day 1996 was a cracking day out; twenty-five years ago to the day. Blimey. File under “where does the time go?” alongside many other games.

I collected the remaining passengers and we were on our way. There was fog, but not as heavy as on the trip up the same M5 to Wolverhampton a week earlier. I made good time and I pulled into the car park of “The Vine”, tucked under the M5 at West Bromwich, for the second time in a week at bang on 1pm. We had enjoyed our meal there so much after the Wolves game that we had decided to do so again.

“The Vine” – good food, a quiet chat, a few drinks – would do for us.

Curries and pints were ordered. Chelsea tales were remembered. Three hours flew past. A trip to Villa Park was long overdue. It has been a mainstay on our travels for decades, but the last visit was as long ago as April 2016 when Pato scored. We remembered that, ironically, I had plans to take Donna to Villa Park for our game in March 2020 – Donna had broken her wrist and was unable to drive – but of course that game was the first one to be hit by the lockdown of two seasons ago. Like me, Donna kept the tickets for that game on her fridge as a reminder that, hopefully, football would be back in our lives again.

It didn’t take me long to drop my four passengers off near Villa Park before I doubled-back on myself and parked up on the same street that I have been using for years and years. We used to drop into “The Crown And Cushion” pub on the walk to the stadium but that is no more; razed to the ground, only memories remain. We had mobbed up in that very pub for the Fulham semi-final in 2002; there is a photo from that day of a very young-looking Parky and a very young-looking me.

I stood outside the away end, a few “hellos” to some friends. I had a spare ticket but couldn’t shift it. Unperturbed, I made my way inside the Doug Ellis Stand. I was rewarded with a very fine seat; the very front row of the upper deck. Alas, Alan wasn’t able to attend again, but Gary and Parky were alongside me.

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

Villa Park is a large and impressive stadium. I looked around at the familiar-again banners, flags, tiered stands and other architectural features. Was I last here almost six bloody years ago?

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

The stadium was full to near capacity. The players appeared from that quaint “off-centre” tunnel that Villa decided to keep as a motif from the old, and much-loved, Trinity Road stand of yore. Chelsea as Borrusia Dortmund again; yellow, black, yellow.

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

The first thing of note during the game was the realisation that I had forgotten to include a good four of five songs and chants from the Chelsea catalogue at Brentford on the previous Wednesday. I had mentioned thirty; a few friends had added a few more later, yet I was hearing some others too, repeated in The Midlands. It’s a fair assumption that the tally at Brentford must have reached forty.

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

On the pitch, there were some early exchanges and Thiago Silva continued his lovely form from the previous Sunday at Wolves. The singing in the two-tiered Doug Ellis quietened down as our play deteriorated a little.

But we were still the loud ones.

“Shall we sing a song for you?” was robustly answered on around twenty minutes by the home fans in the North Stand, which was met with sarcastic clapping from the away section.

No surprises, we were dominating possession but Villa were looking decidedly useful when they countered with pace. A run and strike by Ollie Watkins was ably blocked by the nimble reactions of Trevoh Chalobah, and the away fans applauded.

We were having a little difficulty in building our attacks. Reece James struggled with crosses and gave away the occasional ball. From a wide position on the left, Mason Mount slung in a ball that tickled the crossbar; I am not sure if the attempt on goal was intentional.

Sadly, Villa themselves were breeching us too often for our liking. Just before the half-hour mark, a cross from Matt Targett was flicked on – in an effort to block the cross – by James. The ball spun up and over Mendy’s head and outreached arms. Our goalkeeper was stranded and the ball nestled in the net. Villa probably deserved their lead.

At that time, we were looking a little weak as an attacking threat, with only Kante – “imperious” the bloke next to me called him – living up to his billing. Callum Hudson-Odoi seemed as reticent as ever to take people on and Christian Pulisic just looked lost. Thankfully our response was quick and a little surprising. Marcos Alonso pushed the ball forward and Matty Cash lunged at Callum inside the box. It was an ugly challenge and a clear penalty.

Despite Martinez’ merry dance on the goal line, Jorginho rarely misses and he didn’t this time.

1-1.

Back in the game.

The first-half ended with a period of huff and puff with not much real quality.

At the break, the fifth cavalry appeared on the horizon. Although Chalobah had performed admirably, it was his place that was jeopardised in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Pulisic, out-fought and out-puzzled in a central attacking role “of sorts” was pushed back to right wing-back. Soon after the restart, Silva slowly walked off to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.

There is no doubt at all that the changes resulted in a noticeable improvement in our play, the vast majority of which seemed to take place down below us on our right wing. Pulisic looked a lot more potent and of course it was a huge advantage to have a target, a hit-man, a goal scorer on the pitch.

But there were the usual moans and grumbles when Hudson-Odoi fluffed a goal scoring opportunity in his favoured inside-left channel. However, those chastising our youngster were soon eating humble pie. His perfectly floated cross towards the incredible bulk of Lukaku just outside the six-yard box was nigh-on perfection. Our number nine lept and angled the ball past the Villa ‘keeper.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Our play improved. We looked more confident, more at ease. There was greater intent.

On the hour, Mateo Kovacic replaced Kante and we hoped our little miracle-worker wasn’t badly hurt.

A fine long ball from Christensen played in Mount. He drew the ‘keeper on an angle but with two team mates in good positions, decided to go for goal. With the ‘keeper having over-run his challenge and in no man’s land, Mount’s effort didn’t hit the target. The ball kissed the side netting.

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

At the other end, a rare Villa attack and – if I am honest – a cumbersome challenge looked a definite penalty but we were saved by an offside flag.

A strong run from Lukaku eventually tee’d up Callum again. But this was followed with a weak finish but also an excellent low save from Martinez.

More howls.

Late, very late, in the game, I was poised with my camera as Lukaku started a chase to reach a ball pumped forward by Hudson-Odoi. I watched through my lens as he quickly made up ground on Targett, and raced past. The defender lost his footing and ended up stumbling around like a newly born fawn. Our striker raced on, seemingly ripping up the turf as he sprinted away. It was simply a glorious sight. It was an instant classic, a reminder of older days when strikers were unshackled and free. He advanced into the box, and I was preparing for a Roy Of The Rovers – or Hotshot Hamish – thunderbolt. Instead, Ezri Konsa took his legs away.

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

But that run from Lukaku. The highlight of the season? Possibly. More of the same please. The second half had been a fine turnaround. Everyone was happy. I kept saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes” as we made our way down the many flights of stairs to street level.

As we all walked back to the car, a group of Chelsea fans were singing in the dark distant night.

“Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away…”

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From Good Old Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Leeds United : 11 December 2021.

I have penned six-hundred-and-thirty-four of these match reports. Such has been Leeds United’s absence from the top flight in English football that not one of them has featured our oldest and nastiest rivals from South Yorkshire. There was one rare meeting in December 2012 – away in the League Cup – but I didn’t attend that one; it came just too soon after the World Club Cup in Tokyo. I was in no mood to make a lone trip north for a mid-week game. And then, just over a year ago, there was the high-water mark of Frank Lampard’s tenure as Chelsea manager, the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge that took us to the top of the league, but there was a limited attendance for that one of around a few thousand. Recovering from my heart attack, it was a game I really wasn’t in a fit enough condition to attend. The return game at Elland Road in March had no spectators at all.

As I drove to London early on Saturday morning – a fleeting but beautiful sunrise over Salisbury Plain, a beguiling mix of orange and pink, was the memorable highlight –  I pondered a few topics and angles to use in this blogorama. It soon dawned on me that many of our newer fans, of which there are utterly millions, have never witnessed the heated rivalry of a Chelsea and Leeds United league game at a packed Stamford Bridge stadium.

The last such occasion was in May 2004.

The last game of the season, Claudio Ranieri’s last game in charge, a 1-0 win for us, Goodnight Vienna, Goodbye Leeds. I watched that one in the West Lower, freeing up my ticket for Glenn’s mate Tomas from Berlin. A Jesper Gronkjaer goal gave us the points to secure a second place finish behind Arsenal. I wonder whatever happened to them?

But let’s go back further.

The first time that I saw Leeds United in person was in the Second Division in October 1982, a game with a phenomenally malevolent atmosphere before, during and no doubt after. Chelsea had been playing in the second tier since 1979, Leeds were newly-relegated. It seemed almost implausible, to my eyes and to others, that these two giants were now out of the top flight. But the thought of Chelsea playing Leeds, with me able to attend, certainly galvanised me during the close season. The anticipation was palpable. Throughout the previous campaign, our highest home attendance was 20,036. Yet this game smashed that; 25,358 attended and it no doubt drew in the hooligan element of which we had thousands. Leeds had signed off their long membership of the old First Division with a loss at West Brom, sending them down, and their equally notorious hooligans wrecked the away end as a parting gift.

I will not lie. In those days, football was often an afterthought in many attendees’ minds. It was all about “how many away fans, did they go in the seats, any trouble?”

Chelsea and Leeds.

Back against each other for the first time in three seasons.

It was a huge match.

I watched a dire 0-0 draw from The Shed, but can well remember the amazingly heated and noisy atmosphere. I can recollect the northern sections of The Benches and the Gate 13 section of the East Lower to be absolutely rammed with Herberts, goading the travelling thousands from the north in the middle two pens in the sweeping away terrace. How many did Leeds bring? I am not sure. Maybe 3,000, maybe more. There was a welcome and a warning on the front page of the programme for all Leeds fans; “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug and help your club achieve greatness once again” but there were outbreaks of violence throughout the game.

I also vividly remember The Shed goading the away support :

“Did the (Yorkshire) Ripper get your Mum?”

Different, crazy, brutal times.

From that encounter in 1982/83 I was then able to watch every single Chelsea versus Leeds United league game until that match in 2003/04. This was a run of seventeen unbroken games, and for around ten of these I would always meet up with my college mate Bob, a Leeds season-ticket holder, who got to know my closest Chelsea mates in the pub before disappearing into the away section. Bob also came down to Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool game in 1986, the West Ham game in 1987 and went with me to Forest in 1987 and also to Old Trafford for the FA Cup game in 1988. I accompanied him to Elland Road to see West Brom in the last league game of 1986/87, and I remember smirking as the Leeds fans alongside me in the South Stand – hoolie central – sang about guns and Chelsea scum.

I wore it as a badge of honour that they sung about us when we weren’t even playing each other.

There were the blissful moments when our promotion from the old Second Division was reached in 1984 with a memorable 5-0 demolition of Leeds United at home, then the wonderful repeat in 1989 albeit with a narrower 1-0 win to secure promotion once again against the same opponents.

I can well remember meeting up with Bob, another college mate Trev who also followed Leeds, and my Rotherham United mate Ian, all of whom watched many of Leeds’ games as they closed in on the 1991/92 League Championship. We were sat in a pub in Worcester Park on an afternoon session after the season had finished, and the lads were reminiscing on a few of the games that had given Leeds the title, and not Manchester United. Because of my friendships with these lads, I was definitely in the Leeds corner as 1991/92 came to its conclusion. I just despised Manchester United in those days. Deep down, I still do. I remember asking Bob “what did it feel like when you won the game at Bramall Lane to win the league?” and the sub-text was undoubtedly “what will it feel like if Chelsea ever win the league?”

In the summer of 1992, Chelsea Football Club seemed light years away from silverware.

But I was genuinely happy for my Leeds mates; all lovely chaps, bless ‘em.

From relegation in 1982 to a Football League Championship – the last “real” one, and one with Eric Cantona playing for Leeds – was some turnaround.

Sitting in that pub on a warm summer day, I could not help but think back on that classic Second Division season of 1983/84 – arguably the strongest ever – when the five powerhouses of Chelsea, Leeds United, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Sheffield Wednesday faced-off. At the end of it all – my favourite ever season – Leeds, along with City, missed out on promotion. Yet here they were, finally promoted in 1990, winning the bloody league ahead of the other four. In fact, all four other protagonists had managed to get themselves relegated again since 1984.

The saying “whoever laughs last, laughs longest” never felt more applicable.

Our rivalry, of course, dates back specifically to 1970 – and arguably for a few seasons before it – but there was definitely a renaissance at certain times since. In the early ‘nineties, Leeds tended to have the upper hand over us, and I hated it. They beat us at Stamford Bridge in 1990/91 and 1991/92 and also in 1994/95, a horrible 0-3 loss.

But I remember a game in April 1996 too. I watched that game in the temporary seats of the Shed End alongside Rotherham Ian and his father too – a nice memory – while Bob and Trev were in the away section of the East Lower. Chelsea won 4-1 with Mark Hughes getting a lovely hat-trick; that must have annoyed the fuck out of the away fans. Sadly, the gate was only 22,000 at a time when our capacity was at the 31,000 mark. The gaping holes in the North Stand – yet to become The Matthew Harding – make my eyes smart. Sigh.

Leeds United were relegated at the end of that 2003/04 season. There was a certain amount of schadenfreude when their last game that season was at Stamford Bridge.

“Be off with you, and take your father’s gun too.” Or words to that effect.

In 2005, our erstwhile chairman Ken Bates took over as Leeds chairman and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Leeds fans, to a man, woman and dog, definitely cried.

They eventually crawled back to the top flight of English football at the end of the 2019/20 season.

“What took you?”

There had been the usual pre-match at “The Eight Bells” with friends from near and far. For the first time, I approached Putney Bridge by car from the south side of the river and was able to drop Paul and Parky right outside the pub; door to door service indeed. By the time I had parked-up and then caught the tube to join them it was 10.30am. Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh were already with them; lucky enough to grab tickets from the ticket exchange at the last minute. They were not watching together though; Kev was in the MHU, Gillian was in the West Lower. Luke and then Aroha showed up, and also Courtney and Mike from Chicago. A few of the Kent lads sat at the bar. At last I was able to meet up with revered Chelsea author Walter Otton and it was a great pleasure to be able to personally thank him for his support in my endeavours over recent seasons.

There was talk of not only Chelsea but Leeds hiring boats to the game; a River Thames cruise apiece from out east to nearby Putney, across the river. I had visions of some bizarre medieval boating battle with jousting poles, or maybe a violent version of the university boat race (“with more than two cox”)

Outside the Fulham Broadway tube, I sensed the presence of a little mob of Leeds; just by their looks and stares. They were close by a line of police. We edged around them. By the time I had reached my seat in the MHU – with Gary talking about Leeds lads slapping a few Chelsea fans outside, unchallenged – I was absolutely ready for the football to begin.

The team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta  – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

So, still no starting place for our number nine.

Leeds United were without Patrick Bamford, the former Chelsea youngster. Unlike on many occasions at Stamford Bridge, Leeds wore the all-white kit, albeit with some nasty luminous yellow socks. On quite a few times over the years they used to opt for the all yellow kit. There were three thousand Leeds fans in The Shed, but I didn’t spot a single flag nor banner.

The match began and, just like against the United of Manchester, we absolutely dominated the first quarter of an hour or so.

An early free-kick from Reece James went close but not close enough. It was all Chelsea. My usual match-going companion Alan was absent – COVID19 – so I was sat in his seat next to Clive. In my seat, a Chelsea fan from Scunthorpe.

There was a rising shot from Ruben Loftus-Cheek that crashed into the Shed Upper.

“They’ve hardly attacked us yet, mate.”

On thirteen minutes, a loud “Marching On Together” – their battle hymn – and soon after, Leeds enjoyed their first real attack. A shot from the lively Raphinha was blocked, but the Brazilian then forced a fine save from Mendy.

It’s interesting that the Mendy song did not make an appearance during the game. I am not sure that if there is an agreed-upon life-cycle of a chant at football, but this one is still in its infancy; heard at the densely-packed away terraces, but not yet widely-known enough to warrant a full-throttle rendition at Stamford Bridge. Yet.

There was a Leeds corner, and this elicited the other Leeds battle-cry which always follows the awarding of a Leeds corner.

“Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!”

Loud and original. I can’t fault that.

Thiago Silva was trying his best to orchestrate things, looking to float balls into space or to pick out runners. But it was a hard slog. There was little room in the final third.

Mid-way through the half, a loud chant from the away quadrant :

“Marcos Alonso. You should be in jail.”

This was answered by the Chelsea faithful with a typically antagonistic chant of our own aimed at a Leeds native. I don’t like even thinking about the man, let alone saying it, singing it, nor writing it.

The Alonso chant was repeated and almost without pause for thought, our left wing-back took a wild swipe at Daniel James. It was a clear penalty.

Raphinha’s stuttering run was almost against the spirit of the game, but Mendy took the bait. However, he seemed to collapse too soon and the Brazilian’s gentle prod to his right ended up a mere yard or so away from him.

Fackinell.

The Leeds fans roared, Rapinha wound up the MHL, game on.

On the half-hour, a very loud “Marching On Together” was met with an even louder “Carefree” and everything was alright with the world. At last, the atmosphere was simmering along nicely. But I couldn’t help saying to Clive “there’s a lack of invention and guile out there today.”

A few minutes later, the third Leeds battle cry of the day.

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

This harks back to May 1975. A hotly disputed disallowed goal from Peter Lorimer and Leeds United would eventually lose the European Cup Final to Bayern Munich in Paris. I remember watching it on TV. They still feel aggrieved.

The Leeds fans still sing this almost fifty years later. Bloody hell, lads and lasses, let it go.

They must have hated seeing our “Champions Of Europe” signage on the West Stand if any of them got close to it.

With half-time approaching, sinner turned saint. Alonso won the ball on our left and played a brisk one-two with Timo Werner.

I whispered “(needs a) good cross Alonso”…and it was.

It flew low to the near post and Mason Mount whipped it home with one sweet swipe.

GET IN.

Soon after, a dipping free-kick from that man Alonso did not dip enough. Then the young Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier saved from Kai Havertz.

Chances had been rare and it was 1-1 at the break. There were no complaints with the score, but plenty of moans at the lack of quality in key areas.

We began a little brighter in the second-half but goal scoring chances were absolutely at a premium. Werner threatened a little, Havertz tried to link things together, but we missed a focal point.

Just before the half-hour mark, down below me, Raphinha slid in to prevent a raiding Antonio Rudiger cross. But the challenge was untidy and legs were tangled. Everyone yelled for a penalty. Some divs even yelled “VAR” which is anathema to me.

Penalty it was.

Jorginho.

A skip.

Goal.

Get in you beauty.

I snapped away like a fool.

At the other end, a very fine save from Mendy from James, but still no song. Silva messed up a great chance to further our lead and held his head in his hands. It wasn’t a great second-half, but we noted that Alonso improved as the game continued. He was always looking to get close to the man with the ball and on a number of occasions did just enough to help win the ball back.

Clive and I wondered if Tuchel might bolster the midfield and bring on Ross Barkley to bulk it up a little. Leeds were tending to swarm through us and we looked out of shape, physically and positionally.

Christensen for Azpilicueta.

Hudson-Odoi for Werner.

Then, a lightning bolt of an attack down the Leeds left and another low cross, a la Alonso, from in front of the East Lower. Joe Gelhardt arrived with perfect timing to knock the ball in past Mendy. The Leeds fans roared some more.

Bollocks.

In a seemingly desperate “last throw of the dice” moment, Lukaku replaced Alonso. There were three minutes to go, and then an extra five.

“COME ON CHELS.”

With ninety-four minutes played, and with Clive having headed for the exits a few minutes earlier, Rudiger again found himself in the Leeds United box. There was a half-hearted challenge from behind but my first thoughts were that Rudiger crumpled far too easily. I didn’t even appeal. I’d be no good at cricket. This one went to VAR again. Another positive decision. And a quicker decision, I think, this time.

Jorginho again.

Another skip.

In.

The winner.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Chelsea 3 Leeds United 2.

It hadn’t been a great game in terms of quality. We had hardly peppered the Leeds goal. But it was certainly an old-fashioned battle which became more intriguing as the game developed. As I walked out of the MHU, there was one almighty melee occurring on the far side between the players of good old Chelsea and good old Leeds.

Some things don’t change, eh?

To be continued at Elland Road in April, no doubt.

Next up, Everton at home on Thursday. See you there.

1995/1996 : From The Shed.

2003/2004 : Joe And Jesper.

2021/22 : High Fives.

2021/22 : Chelsea Smiles.

2021/22 : The Winner.

Tales From Boys Against Men

Chelsea vs. Grimsby Town : 25 September 2019.

Our League Cup game at home to Grimsby Town would be our second home game in a run of three within seven days. I completed an early-shift at work at 3pm ahead of yet another midweek flit to the capital. PD drove up, and Sir Les came with us too.

I was brutally frank as I settled alongside PD in the passenger seat.

“Chelsea vs. Grimsby Town. What the fuck am I doing?”

It wasn’t so much that I was totally underwhelmed by the prospect of the game, more the knowledge that I would be cream-crackered at work the next day.

PD responded early.

“It’s what we do, innit?”

Indeed it is.

Talk in the car and in the pubs before the game centered on which youngsters might play, what the attendance might be, and if Grimsby Town, as rumoured, had brought a full six thousand down. If the latter was to be true, we were all happy to lavish praise on the away support.  Admittedly, the ticket prices had been slashed to just a tenner, but – even so – this level of away support was to be commended. Many of the away fans would not be home until 3am.

In “The Goose” and in “Simmons” we met with the usual suspects, plus a few new additions.

I met up with Alex – originally from Dallas –  again, who I vaguely remembered from a game in 2013 when I met up with some fellow Texans down at “The Rose” off the King’s Road. He now lives in Kingston-on-Thames and was looking forward to a rare chance to see us play.

Gary also popped in. He is originally from Swindon but moved out to Perth in Australia in 1987 and was at our friendly against Perth Glory in 2018 and in Baku in May for the Arsenal game. I don’t remember meeting him at either game, even though he spent a lot of the time in the Chelsea pub in Baku. We must’ve just missed each other, despite having mutual friends.

Gary was at the most famous Grimsby game of all – as was PD and Les – in May 1984 when around 10,000 Chelsea invaded Blundell Park to see a Kerry Dixon goal win us the Second Division Championship. I didn’t go to that game, but I have heard so much about it from others that it almost feels as if I was there.

Another lad – Rob – who is a friend of a friend, an old college mate, also popped in to say “hi.” All three have made positive noises about this blog and I thank them for their patronage.

The team news came through on ‘phones. I ran through the team and realised that I would be seeing a couple of new faces. This gave me a nice little buzz ahead of the kick-off.

This would only be the second sighting of Grimsby Town for me. I never saw us play against them in the old Second Division. We last played against each other in an FA Cup replay in February 1996 – we won 4-1 – and my memories of that game are scant. We had a pre-match drink in “The Beer Engine” on the King’s Road, it was a wet old night, we won easily. A quick glance at a YouTube clip of the match reveals an away following of around 1,000 in a gate of 28,000, a near full house in those days. Kenny Swain – I saw his Chelsea debut during my first game in 1974 – was the Grimsby Town assistant manager, a fact that I had long since forgotten. Commentator John Motson could hardly contain himself at times.

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

I remember my parents taking me up to Grimsby – Cleethorpes to be precise, where Grimsby Town play, a bit like Chelsea playing in Fulham – in the autumn of 1973 to visit friends. As was the way in that era, it was fashionable to festoon parkas or school bags with sew-on badges of towns and cities visited. To my annoyance, our hosts made the grave mistake of getting me a Grimsby Town Football Club badge rather than a city badge. I never forgave them, the fools.

We made our way inside Stamford Bridge. I had predicted that not all those that had purchased tickets would be in attendance and I had expected a “real” gate of around 32,000. At about 7.30pm, there were a lot of empty seats.

I soon spotted that Grimsby did indeed take up the entire Shed. It was a far better showing than in 1996. Around twenty or thirty of them, in their distinctive black and white stripes, had been drinking in “The Goose.” By kick-off, the crowd has swelled. In our little section virtually every seat was being used. It was by far a greater attendance than I had expected, probably topping out at around 36,000 despite a “sell-out” no doubt being declared.

So, our team.

Caballero

James – Zouma – Guehi – Alonso

Pedro – Gilmour – Barkley

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pulisic

This would be my first sightings of Reece James and Mark Guehi.

It almost seemed that we had too many attacking players, not that this is a crime. I like the idea of playing with three wingers. Why not play with four? Let’s re-write the rule books. The line-up seemed to be fluid during the evening. The wide men sometimes swapped positions.

Before I had time to settle, we were 2-0 up. On just four minutes, Ross Barkley received the ball some twenty-five yards out, began a solo run and powered through the penalty box before smashing a strong and low strike in at the near post.

1-0.

It was too quick for my camera. I was still fannying around in an attempt to upload a photo for “Facebook” on my ‘phone.

Three minutes later, a run from Reece James was followed by a cross to the feet of Michy Batshuayi, who swiveled and struck.

2-0.

Coasting.

Neither of the game’s two goals on film though.

I was clearly slacking.

There was a trademark Marcos Alonso effort from a free-kick but the ball soared over. Then, a rare attack saw Grimsby Town attack their fans in The Shed. A long ball took us all by surprise. It dropped into space and Matt Green – more a paint colour than a footballer – smashed the ball home off the underside of the crossbar.

2-1.

The six thousand Mariners went doolally.

PD chirped : “Told we won’t keep a clean sheet this season.”

It was virtually the away team’s only shot on goal. While their main tactic seemed to be for ‘keeper McKeown to continually time waste, our tactic was to try to split defenders with crisp passing and good movement off the ball. There was a Batshuayi header, and a couple of crosses into danger areas from Pulisic.

I had spoken to Alan how it is almost taken as a given that diminutive Scottish players will hug touchlines and go on mazy dribbles. But Billy Gilmour was playing centrally, and at times quite deep, and was at the epicentre of many of our best moves. One pass inside a floundering full-back, perfectly timed for Callum Hudson-Odoi, was so sweet.

“What a pass, Al.”

We continued to attack. Just before the break, and as a corner was played in, I caught Kurt Zouma being held back, but yards away from the flight of the ball. It was a cheap penalty.

Pedro, the captain, grabbed the ball. There was none of the nonsense of last week.

He rolled it home with ease. And I photographed it with ease too.

3-1.

It hadn’t been a particularly noisy first-half. The main songs were in support of Frank Lampard. But it was lovely to see and hear a few kids, dotted around, joining in with a few chants. The appearance of a few youngsters in the MHU brought the average age of our section down to fifty-nine years and eleven months.

On fifty-six minutes, a free-kick was played out to Reece James. He clipped a cross in using the outside of his right foot, the ball spinning into the space in front of the ‘keeper, and the long legs of Kurt Zouma poked the ball in. I managed to get the touch on film. I was improving fast.

4-1.

We kept attacking. Grimsby hardly breached the half-way line. On the one occasion that they did, the six thousand away fans screamed as if they were at a Beatles concert in 1964.

Bless’em.

On sixty-six minutes, two more debutants.

Ian Maatsen for Marcos Alonso, Faustino Anjorin for Pedro.

On eighty-two minutes, the ball was knocked out of a packed penalty box to the feet of Reece James. He wasted no time in deciding to shoot. His effort was perfectly placed. Into the net it flew, nestling in at the base of the far post.

5-1.

What a debut.

The Matthew Harding turned their attention from Frank to his assistant.

“One Jody Morris.”

It was all us. We totally dominated.

The Grimsby ‘keeper, in the second-half especially, became their one star, blocking many Chelsea efforts on goal. However, on eighty-two minutes, we worked the ball well inside the box, and Batshuayi slotted the ball past the advancing ‘keeper from a position where Pulisic had been less successful on a couple of occasions. I caught that on film too.

6-1.

In the last minute of normal time, a ball found Hudson-Odoi in the inside-left position. He advanced, shimmied and put his marker off balance, before rifling home at the near post.

7-1.

It had become a slightly frustrating evening for Our Callum so his leap of joy was certainly understood. I caught that one on film too.

I was 5/7 for the night after a miserable start.

I turned to Alan.

“Must be depressing for Grimsby, a team full of seasoned professionals, of men, being turned over by a team of kids.”

This had turned out to be a lovely game of football. The spectre of being sleep-deficient at work the next day diminished with each goal. It was a fine time. I loved seeing Billy Gilmour. He was constantly involved. His future – possibly, it is ridiculously early to be sure – looks bright. Maybe because of his size, he reminded me of a young Jody Morris, a deep-lying schemer, a “prodder” of balls into the feet of others.

I like him most, though, because we are the same height.

The mood was certainly buoyant as we marched down the Fulham Road. There was even time for the first “cheeseburger with onions please love” at “Chubby’s Grill.

Perfect.

On the way back west, we heard that we drew Manchester United at home in the next round.

Tasty.

Next up, Brighton on Saturday.

See you in “The Eight Bells.”

 

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

For once, I was in with quite a while to spare. The kick-off was over half-an-hour away. On the pitch, the Chelsea players were in the middle of their warm-up drills, chatting away, looking at ease. I soon spotted the wild hair of David Luiz. He looked a little subdued to be honest. Despite rumours of him being selected in the team, he was to take a place on the bench. While the players moved over to a more central area to take shots at Asmir Begovic, there was a song for our returning centre-half / defensive midfielder.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

The blue Carabao training gear looks slightly better than the hideous yellow, but only slightly.

I captured Luiz taking a shot at goal, with him looking away at the last minute, something of his trademark. Inside, I purred.

But there would be no place for David Luiz in the starting eleven against Swansea City on this Sunday in September. Ever since the news broke through that Chelsea were in talks to re-sign our former player, I have warmed to the idea of having him back in the fold. Yes, his defensive frailties are well known, and this is what concerned me most. I’ll not lie, I was quite stunned when I heard the news. We all remember the glee that we felt when PSG stumped up fifty million big ones just before his disastrous World Cup in 2014. Why on Earth would we want him back? And then I remembered that our new man in charge Antonio Conte favours a 3-5-2, or at least he has done in the most recent past. I started thinking about football formations, team shapes, and for many an hour I was lost in my own little world, conjuring up images of tactics board after tactics board, arrows pointing this way and that way, formations, formations, formations.

I thought back to the 1995/1996 season when Glenn Hoddle embraced a 5-3-2 – or was it a 3-5-2? – for the very first time, with Dan Petrescu and Terry Phelan as pushed-on wing backs, and a trio of central defenders, which varied a little, but tended to consist of David Lee, Michael Duberry and Steve Clarke.

This formation was relatively short-lived at Chelsea, but it produced a few thrilling performances. The FA Cup winning team of the following season was a more predictable 4-4-2, but there were three central defenders famously used against the aerial bombardment of Wimbledon in the semi-final. So it is a formation that we have experienced before. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not an expert on formations and tactics. It’s not really my thing. But I thought of David Luiz, playing in a defensive three, alongside two more robust central defenders, and I wondered if he could be our version of Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, who caught my eye in the euros in France, spreading passes around with ease. Think of David Luiz being Frank Leboeuf with hair, and lots of it. The thought of Luiz, however, in just a flat back four scared me a little.

I then heard talk of 3-4-3 formations and I threw my tactics board out of the window.

Formations come and go. The standard 4-4-2 at Chelsea – ah the memories of Jimmy and Eidur – gave way to Mourinho’s 4-3-3 for a while before the 4-2-3-1 gained favour. There was also the famous 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” though hardly used by us.

It begs the age old question, does a manager fit players around a formation or a formation around players? Over the next few months, I suspect we will see Conte trying out a few variations. It might be some time before he is settled. It took Claudio Ranieri most of his first season at Chelsea to figure it all out. At the moment Antonio Conte favours a 4-1-4-1.

It seems incredible to me, really, that so few teams play with more than one attacker. The days of Jimmy and Eidur, and certainly Kerry and Speedo, seem light years away. Maybe we’ll see its return one of the days.

David Luiz, in his second spell with us, would be wearing squad number thirty. This got me thinking about the past too. We first experienced squad numbers in the 1993/1994 season, the second campaign of “Sky TV” and all of its hideous mixture of subsequent pros and cons. Until then, there was something special about the simple 1-11 shirt numbering system. I didn’t like the idea of messing with it. It all seemed too American for my liking. And we also had to suffer players’ names on the back of shirts too. More finicky changes. More commercialism. More shite. Groan.

Very soon into 1993/1994, our Danish central defender Jakob Kjeldbjerg was given shirt number thirty-seven, and a little part of me died.

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

In today’s parlance – “Against Modern Football.”

In the good old days, the system was simple.

  1. Green shirts. Big gloves.
  2. Right-back. Always. No questions asked.
  3. Left-back. Always. Easy. For some reason, he always had “an educated left foot.”
  4. Midfield dynamo. Think John Hollins. Billy Bremner. Tended to be on the short side, don’t ask why, just accept it.
  5. Centre-back. Blocker. Man mountain. The leap of a salmon. Strength of a shire horse, brains of a rocking horse. Tackle first, ask questions later. Think Micky Droy, Steve Wicks, Joe McLaughlin.
  6. Centre-back. But the more skilful one of the two. Think Alan Hansen. Marvin Hinton.
  7. Right-winger. Again, for some reason, a short-arse. Think Steve Coppell, Ian Britton, Jimmy Johnstone. Pat Nevin. A skilful bugger, prone to mazy dribbles. And falling over.
  8. Box to box midfielder. The fulcrum of the midfield. Think Nigel Spackman in 1983/1984.
  9. The centre-forward. The most iconic number ever. Peter Osgood, Tommy Lawton, Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Kerry Dixon. Goal scorer supreme. Dream maker.
  10. A smaller, more agile, version of the centre-forward, playing off the number nine. David Speedie. Why am I referencing 1983/1984 here? Too easy. Ah, think Peter Beardesley, but not for too long, that boy was hardly a looker.
  11. Left-winger. And for some reason, a lanky bugger. Peter Houseman, Peter Barnes. Davie Cooper as the exception.

And there we have it. Growing up in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, this was the accepted numbering system. Liverpool buggered it up, as is their wont, in around 1977 when Ray Kennedy, a skilful left-sided midfielder, was given a number five shirt. I can still feel the sense of betrayal and confusion to this day. Phil Thompson slid into a number four shirt, and for a while, this was the one exception. Then it became the norm for central defenders to take a number four shirt – paging Colin Pates – and at Chelsea, this resulted in John Bumstead wearing number six. It is at around this time that Western Civilisation began to fall apart, and we all know why.

I blame Ray Kennedy.

Thinking about the numbering system of old, the simple one to eleven, I quickly ran through the Chelsea team to face Swansea City and came up with this.

  1. Thibaut Courtois.
  2. Branislav Ivanovic.
  3. Cesar Azpilicueta.
  4. N’Golo Kante.
  5. John Terry.
  6. Gary Cahill.
  7. Willian.
  8. Nemanja Matic.
  9. Diego Costa.
  10. Oscar.
  11. Eden Hazard.

Admit it, it looks strange but quite perfect at the same time doesn’t it?

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

As the minutes passed by, and as the players disappeared down the tunnel, the away end seemed to take forever to fill.

Swansea is an easy away game for The Chuckle Brothers and myself. Our pre-match drink, in the same bar as last April, down by the marina, soon followed the two-hour drive from our homes on the Somerset and Wiltshire border. We were joined by a mate from Atlanta, Prahlad, who was over on business for a while, and who was supremely excited to be able to go to a Chelsea away game. A mate had not been able to attend, and so I arranged for Prahlad to pick up his ticket. Both parties were happy with the result. Incidentally, Prahlad has been working up on Merseyside for a few weeks, and I wondered if his name was changed to “Soft Lad” once the locals realised that he was a Chelsea fan.

The minutes ticked by.

I was sat – stood – alongside Parky, Alan and Gary. PD and Young Jake were right at the front, below us and behind the goal, awaiting to be captured on TV camera. Prahlad was over on the other side of the goal in the lower section of Chelsea support.

I had received a photograph on my phone from another mate from the US, John – from LA, over on business too – but his view was from the other end. His decision to attend the game – his first Chelsea away game in England, er Wales – was a last minute affair, and he had missed out on tickets in the Chelsea allocation. Instead, he had managed to pick up a front row seat from the Swansea City ticket exchange at face value. I quickly spotted him. It reminded me of the time Glenn and I watched from the home end in 2013/2014.

At kick-off, there was an empty seat to my immediate left, and an empty seat in front of me. I got the impression, as I looked around, that there were many empty seats in our section.

This was really galling.

Of course, now that every single away ticket in the Premier League is set at £30, it is obvious that many Chelsea supporters are simply buying tickets without attending the actual game, stacking up loyalty points for the big games along the way, and perhaps offloading them if they can.

This can’t be right, can it?

Sure, buy a ticket, but only if you can be sure of passing it on to someone who needs it.

As the game progressed, many seats remained unused, yet poor John was having to slum it in the home end, away from his Chelsea brethren, and our support must’ve looked poor to the home fans and those watching on in TV Land.

I am surprised that we were not treated to a chant – “sell all your tickets, you didn’t sell all your tickets” – from the locals.

This was a black and white show at the small but trim Liberty Stadium. Swansea, having jettisoned their particularly neat Adidas in favour of a poor Joma kit – were in all white and we were in our all-black abomination.

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

I refer you to my “Against Modern Football” comment and its associated moans above.

Alan and Gary had travelled down from London on one of the official coaches and had, as with last season, enjoyed some fish and chips outside the stadium before the game. Alan was so contented with his food that he took a photograph.

[AWFUL ANNUAL “WHOSE COAT IS THAT JACKET?”JOKE WARNING, ADVANCE WITH CAUTION]

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

[THIS VERY SAME LINE WILL BE REPEATED NEXT SEASON TOO. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

We played well in the first-half, and for a fleeting moment I thought that we would see a repeat of our dominant 5-0 win in 2014/2015.

Soon into the game, the dire Conte chant was aired, but it thankfully did not reappear all game.

Willian, out on the right, teasing away in his number seven jersey – sorry, number twenty-two – caused Fabianski to make strong saves. We were attacking down the left flank too, with Eden Hazard looking lively. On eighteen minutes, a spell of Chelsea pressure allowed Diego to work the ball to Ivanovic. He let fly with a fierce shot, but the ball was not cleared. Oscar did well to gather under pressure and lay off to Diego Costa. His shot was perfectly placed to Fabianski’s left.

One-nil to us, happy days.

Eden Hazard is simply unplayable when he sweeps in from the wide left position, leaving defenders in his wake, and he drove hard into the box. Sadly his shot was saved by the Swans’ ‘keeper. Despite our dominance, the Chelsea support was rather subdued in my mind.

The home support is strong in the side section to our left, but elsewhere the Liberty Stadium is not particularly intense.

Chances came and went for us, and surely a second goal would kill Swansea off. Dave went close. Kante was everywhere. Swansea rarely threatened Thibaut’s goal.

Diego, bless him, drew the ire of the home fans with every tackle, every challenge. He soon became their pantomime villain. He would be booed by the Swansea fans every time he had the ball. Unbelievably, Diego managed to plant the ball wide of the goal when only a few yards out. From our end, we simply could not fathom how he had missed, nor how a Chelsea player had failed to get a touch.

There was a little “Wales” / “England” banter during the first-half, but that bored me rigid.

The only meaningful attempt by Swansea on our goal took place in the closing minutes ofv the half, when Dave allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson to much space, but thankfully his firmly-hit shot fizzed past out far post.

In many a conversation at the break : “we should’ve scored a second.”

As the second-half started, the tackles continued to come in thick and fast. It was turning to a feisty affair. Diego, continually booed, seemed to be inspired by this depth of hatred towards him, and twisted and turned past opponents as he continually broke with the ball at his feet. At times he hangs on to the ball, but here he seemed to release others at just the right time.

Then, a calamity.

A Swansea counter attack and a long reaching ball played across the edge of the box. Courtois, living a quiet life until then, raced out and fouled Sigurdsson just inside the area. Was his judgement at fault? I think so. It was no guarantee that the Swansea player would score.

The same player thumped the ball past Courtois from the penalty.

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

More bollocks just three minutes later when Gary Cahill was caught as he struggled to control a pass from John Terry. He was robbed by Leroy Fer, and could only watch as the Swansea player raced on and somehow bundled the ball past Courtois, after the ‘keeper initially partially stopped the first effort. From my position over seventy yards away, it looked like Cahill was at fault. The referee, Andre Marriner, was much closer to the action than me…

More hymns and bloody areas, the Welsh national anthem, and “I can’t help falling in love with you.”

At least none of the buggers were dressed as Teletubbies, unlike two unfortunates in 2015.

So, rather than a second goal for us, and the chance to go four for four, and sit atop the table, we were now 2-1 down.

Crazy.

We continued to attack. I looked over at the manager, seemingly about to self-detonate at any moment. He urged, he cajoled, he bellowed, he shouted, he gestured. He was stood the entire game.

Oscar curled one towards to goal, but Fabianski did well to arch his back and tip over. Diego went down just outside the box. Maybe even I am beginning to think the same way as others; his fall looked too easy. The referee waved play on. The Chelsea end was livid.

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

Within five minutes, constant Chelsea pressure paid off. Oscar played in Ivanovic, who glided past his man and shot right down below me. The ball caromed off a defender and looped high towards the far post. Diego Costa – who else? – was waiting for the ball to fall. Time was precious and he soon decided that he could not wait any longer. He jumped, swivelled, and hit an overhead shot goal wards. The ball hit a Swansea defender, but its momentum carried the ball over.

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

I could not fault our spirit to keep going, to keep pressing, to keep attacking.

The game ended in a frenzy of chances. Diego forced a fine save from Fabianski after a gliding run from Hazard.

Hazard then took one for the team after losing possession to Barrow. He chased the advancing Swansea attacker and cynically pulled him back. A goal then would have killed us.

Two final chances to us – Fabregas, Moses – did not test the Swansea ‘keeper and it stayed 2-2.

Despite my honest pleasure in seeing us fight back to get a share of the points, there was a definite sense of dissatisfaction that such long periods of domination over the entire game did not give us three points.

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

I bumped in to John on the walk back to the car. He had enjoyed himself too – behind enemy lines – but I didn’t have the stomach to tell him that there were many empty seats in our end.

It was a fine evening as we drove back towards England, the sun fading, the evening drawing in, music on, chatting away, another match, another day on the road following the boys, with thoughts of other games on the horizon.

I watched “Match Of The Day 2” later in the evening and it was obvious that myself and Andre Marriner were wrong on both occasions. Gary Cahill was fouled in the build-up to their second goal. Diego Costa had been fouled outside the box too. Bollocks and bollocks again.

On Friday, we play Liverpool and the top of the table is beckoning.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From The Road To Milan

Chelsea vs. Porto : 9 December 2015.

Midway through the morning, a work colleague spoke.

“You’re quiet today, Chris.”

A pause…”yep.”

“Are you going to Chelsea tonight?”

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

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

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

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

2015 : Porto.

2014 : Sporting Lisbon.

2013 : Steaua Bucharest.

2012 : Nordsjaeland.

2011 : Valencia.

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

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

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

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

We lost 1-0.

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

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

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

“How many games is that then, Nick?”

“Not sure. About fifty.”

“Bloody hell.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, Alan and I compared notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a goal.

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

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

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

Idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully, we could now relax a little.

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

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

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

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

Our counter attacks continued, and Eden Hazard went close.

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

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

“One step forward, one step back.”

Mourinho made some late changes.

Pedro for Oscar : lots of applause for the Brazilian.

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

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

We were through. The road to Milan continues.

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