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.

img_0336

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.

img_9423

 

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.

IMG_4718

 

Tales From Bad Saturday.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 March 2013.

It was somewhat typical in this strangest of seasons that as soon as Chelsea hit a little bit of form – a life-affirming draw at Old Trafford plus home wins over Steaua and West Ham at The Bridge – we were then hit with a dreaded international break. Our momentum was stalled, therefore, for a full two weeks. The England games came and went with little interest from myself. I lasted around twenty-five minutes in each game before falling to sleep. I was last genuinely captivated by the national team in 1996, maybe 1998. After forty years of heartbreak – I remember the Poland game at Wembley in 1973 – I just can’t get excited by the national team these days. My views on the pitiful atmosphere at Wembley for England games have been voiced before, so I won’t bore anyone further.

But, strangely, the visit to St. Mary’s for the second time in 2013 didn’t excite me too much. Maybe my momentum was upset too. I knew one thing; Southampton would prove a bigger threat to Chelsea Football Club than in the F.A. Cup game in January when many of their first team were rested.

I set off for Hampshire at 10.45am. The weather was grey and miserable. It was colder than in January. I had purchased the new Depeche Mode album in town an hour previously and as I reversed out of my drive, the first track boomed throughout the car.

“Welcome To my World.”

How very apt. Despite my work and my home life, despite my friends and travels, my other hobbies and past times, this indeed was my life…setting off on a Saturday morning, coffee to hand, music blaring, heading off to watch my boyhood idols once more. This would be game number 939.

“Welcome To My World Part 939.”

I struggled to muster enthusiasm for the day ahead, though, as I headed through Frome and Warminster and down through the thatched-roof villages on the A36. I breathed a sigh of relief when, not far from home, I saw that Southampton was just 48 miles away. It is easily my nearest game. I had a little chuckle to myself when I found myself indicating to turn left just after passing through Warminster.

Not today, Chris. There’s no trip to London today, mate. No need to turn left and head across Salisbury Plain today. It was if my car was thinking for me. I was on automatic pilot. I had to manually intervene –

“Keep going, straight ahead, Southampton is this way.”

Oh boy.

As Salisbury neared, I struggled again with the rest of the season. It was still a bloody mess. Our schedule of games, which are stretching out until May, are never-ending. Some games have been re-arranged, some games are squashed together – three in six days coming up – and some games are waiting to happen. An F.A. Cup semi-final? Maybe. A Europa league semi-final? Maybe. An F.A. Cup final? Maybe. A Europa League final? Maybe. Two trips abroad to plan and finance? Maybe. And then, ludicrously, there was the sudden announcement of the jaunt to the USA for the second time this season. For someone who likes to plan ahead, my brain was frazzled in attempting to evaluate it all. To be honest, I simply couldn’t justify a trip over to the US in May, especially since it might follow a game in Amsterdam so quickly. But then…the ultimate twist of the knife…there were growing rumours of a second game in New York, my second-home, the home of the Yankees. For me to miss out on a Chelsea game in New York just seemed so wrong.

Fcuk it.

To be honest, I hoped that the drive down to Southampton – me alone with my thoughts – might allow me the requisite personal time to evaluate if I could stomach my second trip to the US in the same footballing season.

I failed. It was never going to be that easy. Watch this space.

I was enjoying the album – a few tracks were immediately memorable. The CD began its second “loop” as I hit Salisbury.

I hardly ever listen to the CIA Podcast, but I remembered Campy imitating me a few weeks back –

“…yeah, so there I was…on the road to yet anuver away game following Chowlsea and would you Adam and Eve it, this Depeche Mode song came on and…well…it got me finking…about that Chowlsea game in 1995…I remember like it was yesterday…”

Welcome To My Tales, Danny.

The traffic stalled, as it always does, through the medieval city of Salisbury.

Slow.

At least it allowed me to admire the lovely view of Salisbury Cathedral as I edged along the elevated city-by pass. Now I’m no history buff. Geography is more my game. But I guess the two subjects are indelibly interlinked. My father was the history man. He used to read masses of books on the kings and the queens of England, the archbishops and the cardinals, the cavaliers and the roundheads, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Jarrow Marchers, the Magna Carta and the Doomsday Book, Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. We used to visit Salisbury quite often in my childhood – gammon and pineapple at the Berni Inn, what a treat – and we would always visit the magnificent cathedral which dates from the thirteenth century. The cathedral has a huge knave, but its spire is the tallest in England. It still takes my breath away to this day. As I slowly drove past, I was in awe of its magnificence.

Depeche Mode were playing still as I drove on. I’m always reminded of one of my favourite ever days when I listen to their music. Right after our game in Palo Alto in 2007, I drove to Las Vegas in one session and Depeche Mode provided the musical backdrop as I drove past Bakersfield and Barstow and through the magnificent scenery approaching Vegas. It was if I was in my own personal Anton Corbijn video.

Heaven.

Southampton was reached at about 12.45pm. I again parked at the train station. Outside, the weather was indeed cold. I buttoned up my Barbour and donned my Yankee cap. The boys were in “Yates” a mere fifteen minutes away. The site of Southampton’s lovely old stadium, The Dell, was around ten minutes to the north. I only ever visited The Dell on three occasions with Chelsea – 1994 to 1996 – and I miss it. It was their home from 1897 to 2001. It was an idiosyncratic and cosy old place. Peter Osgood, of course, graced it with his presence after he left Chelsea in 1974. I remember when it was terraced on four sides and gates of around 30,000 squeezed in, but it only held 15,000 towards the end of its existence.

One of my friends, Neil, grew up with the Southampton and England player Matthew Le Tissier on the island of Guernsey. For the two games in 1996, Neil was able to get tickets for a few of us, in the home seats, from Matthew. For the game in February 1996, Neil arranged for us to meet Matt briefly before the game. We met up in a nearby pub, and then walked over to the match day office. The Dell was very compact, squashed between four roads in the shape of a parallelogram; that is, the two end stands were oddly shaped triangles. Everything about the place was quaint, quintessentially English – and cramped.

We met Matt Le Tissier and posed for a few photographs in a ridiculously small hallway. There were four of us; Neil, his brother Daryl, plus Glenn and myself. It was great to see Neil just chatting away to his old school friend. We looked on in awe. The late Chelsea director Matthew Harding always had a massive crush on Le Tissier and tried desperately to get him to sign for us in around that time. It was rumoured that he always carried a Le Tissier sticker in his wallet. Although a boyhood Spurs fan, Le Tissier loved life at Southampton and was not tempted. He played his entire at Southampton and credit to him for it. ( I would strongly advise any new Chelsea fans to Google his goals; you won’t be disappointed.) This story took an inevitable twist, however, when the Chelsea team suddenly appeared in this most ridiculously small hallway. Before we knew it, we were rubbing shoulders with our heroes as they made their way into the changing rooms. Fair credit to the players, though – we were still able to get our photographs taken with a few of them. They took the time for us and we really appreciated it.

There are photographs of us with Dennis Wise, John Spencer, David Lee and – wait for it – Ruud Gullit.

Chelsea went on to win 3-2, with Wisey scoring two and – if memory serves – Ruud getting the winner after a lovely break with the scores level. I think we tried to restrain ourselves when the winner went in – we were amongst home supporters remember – but I’m sure we gloriously failed. One of the loveliest away games of that Glenn Hoddle era was completed when the four of us stayed the night at Ron Harris’ hotel and bar in Warminster.

Lovely times.

“Yates” was heaving with Chelsea – on two floors – and I eventually found Alan and Gary, along with a gaggle of other away day regulars. There was time for just one pint. I spoke with friends about the priorities for the season. I again uttered disdain that Chelsea has prioritised finishing fourth – and maybe elimination from next year’s Champions League after a single tie – ahead of winning the F.A. Cup Final in May.

Yes…I know…”must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players, must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players…”

That’s all well and good. But I don’t see “Finishing Fourth” in our honours section yet.

Of course, joking aside, this clamour for a Champions League spot every season is not the fault of Chelsea Football Club but the fault of UEFA and their buggering-up of the old established European Cup which served everyone one so well from 1956 to 1992.

And I hate them for it.

We made our way to St. Mary’s, no more than a twenty-minute walk to our east. After Saints moved out of The Dell in 2001, the first game in the league at St. Mary’s was the visit of Chelsea. Surrounded by several gasometers, industrial units and a large cement works, the setting is far from salubrious and far from the residential charm of The Dell.

I was in the seats in good time. I popped down to take several shots of the team warming up. I chatted briefly to Gill and Graeme who were as non-plussed about the game in Missouri as me.

“Foreign tours should be at the start of the season when everyone is fresh and eager and full of enthusiasm.”

I spotted that Fernando Torres was wearing a face-mask. A chap next to me was moaning.

“Bloody ridiculous. You wouldn’t get Peter Osgood wearing a face mask.”

He clearly had it in for Torres, but I am afraid I was not quick-witted enough to mutter –

“Or Demba Ba.”

The team was announced and there were mutters of discontent. There were wholesale changes, but we heard rumours that Mata was ill. We always miss his intelligent play. Hazard – the form player – was on the side-lines. Elsewhere, in came Moses and Marin.

The M and M boys.

Maris and Mantle, they ain’t.

“Well, Benitez – prepare yourself for some flak if we mess this up.”

The game, in the end, was a shocker.

Southampton – just as they did in the cup game in January – were faster out of the traps and their players were evidently more at ease than us. Their passing and movement was causing our defence early problems, with the central pairing of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic seemingly ill-prepared for the raids of Lambert and Rodriguez. Two early blocks from Ivanovic kept us in the game, but the portents were not good.

Midway through the first-period, disaster struck. A fine move from Southampton found Rodriguez breaking into the box. I almost looked away, so convinced was I that he would score. He neatly tucked the ball past Petr Cech and the home crowd erupted. This was no more than the home team deserved. We hoped for an F.A. Cup style recovery. Our play suggested that we were in for a tougher battle this time around, though.

Then, a Moses cross was deflected for a corner. The diminutive Marin sent over a cross. I snapped a photograph of John Terry rising unhindered and heading easily into the Southampton goal. The defence was nowhere. The simplicity of the goal astounded me.

Soft touch.

Our relief was short-lived. Two minutes later, a Ricky Lambert free-kick from around twenty-five yards out was sent spinning and curving over the wall and past a late dive from Cech. I unfortunately captured that on film, too.

Bugger.

The mood in the Chelsea end was of growing annoyance with the team and manager alike. I chatted to Alan about the resting of players ahead of Monday’s big game with United. Surely Benitez’ resting of Hazard and Cole – the obvious examples – suggested that he was thinking ahead to Monday. Of course, some fans want the best team to play in every game, others claim rotation is the key to success.

What is my opinion? I don’t know. Give me another forty years to work it out and I’ll tell you.

After a few barbed exchanges between the two sets of supporters based on our winning of the Champions League, a Southampton chant made me chuckle amongst the gloom.

“The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – You’ll Never Win That.”

The first-half finished with Southampton back on top and causing us many headaches. Torres – apart from having a goal called back for offside – wasn’t in the game. Oscar was nowhere to be seen. Marin ran into defenders. The play completely by-passed Frank Lampard. Our defence looked brittle. There were, to sum up, no positives.

During a toilet-break at half time, I heard that the Southampton announcer was barking some nonsense about fans racing from one penalty box to the other in a half-time contest. I groaned. During the race, the theme to the Benny Hill Show was played.

How bloody apt.

Our players had been running around like comedians all game.

The second-half was similarly dire. Our play was slow and our movement poor. At last a touch of skill from Torres, who danced past several challenges, but the move then broke down. A pass from Azpilicueta set up Moses, who blasted over.

On the hour, Benitez changed it, replacing Marin with Hazard. We were surprised that Oscar stayed on to be honest; such was his lack of involvement. A few Southampton chances came and went. Despite a few strong blocks, Ivanovic seemed constantly out of position. Even Terry looked troubled. Azpilicueta often found himself in a good position but his crossing was awful. Ryan Bertrand often looked lost. The Chelsea support was quiet. I haven’t sung so little at an away game for ages.

I commented to Al, with a pained expression on my face –

“There’s nobody talking to each other, nobody encouraging each other.”

With the Chelsea support getting ever more frustrated, Hazard at last showed his class, breaking into the box and flashing the ball across the box where a ball back to Lampard was the better option. Ramires added a little more thrust in place of Mikel. We wanted Ba to enter the game so that Benitez could play Torres and Ba together. Instead, his last roll of the dice was Benayoun for the lacklustre Oscar. Benayoun is not the worst player to play for Chelsea – I’ll admit he was a fair player in the past – but he is clearly disliked with a passion by the Chelsea support. One burst from him almost silenced the critics.

I was watching the clock continually and hoped for salvation. A Lampard free-kick flew over the bar. He had been awful all day long. The miss did not surprise me.

The whistle blew. In truth, a draw would have been unfair on Southampton.

We were dire and we knew it.

The fans knew it.

The players knew it.

What a bloody season.

IMG_8788

Tales From More Wednesday Night Blues.

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 January 2013.

In light of our previous domestic midweek home games over the past two months – Fulham, QPR and Swansea – there was every reason for me to dread the game with newly-promoted Southampton. Not so much for the possible result; more so the cancerous atmosphere which was likely to envelope Stamford Bridge should a victory not be forthcoming.

Strong words? That’s what it has felt like to me.

My mate Paul collected me outside The Pheasant pub in Chippenham, just opposite my place of work for the past ten years. Both lie on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Aquae Sulis (Bath) with Londinium (London) all those centuries ago. Our route east on the M4 – the A4’s twentieth century equivalent – allowed us to chat about the current state of health of our team and club. The usual stuff; I won’t bore you with details. You can surely guess the majority of it.

Paul has just started a new business venture as a chauffeur. He is self-employed and therefore has a little more control on the amount of free-time he can enjoy. He already is going to the Swansea game in the Capital One Cup and has his sights on more away games during the rest of the season. He told me a beautiful story about his time in Cornwall when he again worked as a chauffeur. He was asked to meet the Gallagher brothers – Noel and Liam – at Par train station and take them to a hotel. The brothers famously dislike each other intensely – hate is such a horrible word – and Paul had to make two trips as neither brother wanted to share a cab with the other.

It was a welcome break for me not having to worry about the traffic on our approach into Londinium. He had already driven up to Heathrow earlier in the day – he was getting used to the M4, no doubt. I already knew that Paul was raised in the locale of Chelsea Football Club. As we turned off the A4 at Hammersmith, he was on auto pilot. Then, he regaled me with a few snippets of his early years in Fulham which fascinated me. We drove past the Pear Tree pub, where Parky, Russell and Jesus began our pub-crawl against Manchester United just under a year ago, and informed us that he had his first ever pint in that very same pub. There was more to come. His first school was just around the corner. His first few years were spent in a flat in one of the Clement Atlee Court buildings which tower over the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road. I’d imagine that a large proportion of The Goose’s clientele still resides in those hundreds of densely-packed flats. This housing estate – ground-zero, Fulham – houses over 800 flats and it’s fifteen or so buildings are named after former Labour politicians; Manny Shinwell, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson for example. Paul remembers the 1967 F.A. Cup Final when it seemed that every balcony was draped with Chelsea favours. It was predominantly Chelsea despite being geographically in central Fulham. As we buttoned our jackets and attempted to counter the early-evening chill, he told me – mischievously – that most of the Chelsea North Stand originated within that half-a-square mile of terra firma.

“One armed Babs was from here…”

Only time for one pint of Peroni – yet again damn it – in The Goose and a little bit of chat with the boys. The Goose seemed busy, but there was talk of the game not selling out. I wasn’t surprised. This game, remember, was postponed in mid-December in order for us to participate in the World Club Championships – ah, Tokyo! – and had only been re-arranged a couple of weeks previous. Talk was of the Brentford away game and the Swansea cup game. There was minimal chat about Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich.

Southampton. What to say? Any other games from the past which provide me with any special memories? Maybe a couple.

It is a sad irony that the one player who more than any other was responsible for my Chelsea allegiance – Peter Osgood – departed from Stamford Bridge a matter of a few short weeks before my very first Chelsea game in March 1974. I enjoyed my first visit to SW6 – that is beyond question – but looking back, how perfect it would have been to see Ossie play in that inaugural game.

Stay still, my beating heart.

Ossie, of course, moved to Southampton. It is an irony that Saints were actually relegated in the May of that year – along with…whisper it…Manchester United – and so Peter Osgood played second division football in 1974-1975 and 1975-1976. After relegation in 1975, Chelsea joined Southampton in the second tier. As soon as the league fixtures were announced for the 1975-1976 season, there was one game I wanted to attend.

Saturday 13 March 1976 : Chelsea vs. Southampton.

The return of The King.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. Somewhere I still have a grainy photograph of the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings. I have, sadly, no memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day almost 37 years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

In September 1995 – God, it seems like yesterday – we played a league game against Southampton and the day is rich with memories. Firstly, this was the game that the club chose to celebrate the club’s 90th anniversary. Before the game, Alan, Glenn and I spent an enjoyable time in “Drake’s” meeting some of the club’s former players and managers. “Drakes” was located on two tiers in the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding. During its first few years, only Chelsea Pitch Owners were allowed inside; it was a pleasant way to spend a pre-match, in fact. It was our normal pre-match venue in 1994 and 1995. We used to have a meal and a few pints in there. It was surprisingly under-utilised. Chelsea opened it up for season ticket holders in around 1997 and it tended to get rammed. On that day in 1995, I remember having my photograph taken with John Neal and Ian McNeil, though it pained me to see that they seemed to be ostracised by the other invited guests, who were mainly from the Sexton era. John Neal was a lovely quiet man. It’s hard to believe he was a football manager.

Out on the pitch, Chelsea walloped a reasonably good Saints team 3-0. We (Daryl, Alan, Glenn and yours truly ) had partial season tickets up in the East stand in 1995-1996. The games involved were the 8 or so “B” games and represented a nice cost-saving. It turned out to be the pre-curser to season tickets for all four of us in 1997. Two things stick in my mind about the day. The game marked Ruud Gullit’s first-ever goal in Chelsea blue, a lovely volley at the North Stand after a flowing move. Oh, how we celebrated that one. The other scorers were Frank Sinclair and Mark Hughes. All three goals were scored late in the game. I also remember a moment down below me in the second half when Ruud Gullit so scared the Southampton defender Francis Benali that Benali didn’t bother marking Gullit as he toyed with the ball and simply raced back ten yards in a position to tackle him again a few seconds later. Gullit was a magical player for us in that season. I can remember the buzz that we felt as a club when first Gullit and then Hughes signed for us. I can even remember where I was when I heard Ruud was signing for Chelsea, my Chelsea, the greatest under-achievers of all time…driving in my Fiat Uno in Westbury, about to turn into Eden Vale Road.

That season was a fantastic time; Chelsea were moving forward under Glenn Hoddle, playing with wing backs Petrescu and Phelan, Gullit launching balls towards Hughes and John Spencer, ably supported by Gavin and Wisey. Great days, great days. In that season, we reached an F.A. Cup semi-final and finished in eleventh place, but it was a brilliant season in many respects.

The club was growing, step by step, and the players and supporters were together.

Yes, dear reader…we finished in eleventh place but we had a great time.

Later that evening, I remember that Glenn and I called back at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster for our usual couple of drinks. Ron had been at the game as a guest of the club; in those days, his visits were rare. It would only be a couple of months after that game that Glenn and I would be back at the same pub for an evening with Peter Osgood (when I got to meet him face to face for the first time), on a night when Tommy Langley also called by.

Drinking with Peter Osgood.

Ah, those nights were the times of our lives.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that we were in for our first sub-capacity league game for a while. The tell-tale sign was the hundreds of unoccupied seats in the top corners of the East Upper (always the last to sell) and, although it was difficult to discern, I also guessed a similar lack of bodies in the upper levels of the West Upper to my right.

It was also clear that many of the “sold” seats throughout the stadium – one here, two there, four there, five there – were unoccupied. The buyers obviously had other things planned for the night of Wednesday 16 January 2013 and the tourists were in no mood to take up the slack. This “non-appearance” of ticket-buyers is a strange conundrum, but is not reflected in the actual gates reported by the club. Chelsea always reports tickets sold, not bums-on-seats. Sometimes, the shortfall is astounding. I remember someone close to the club telling me that a midweek league game with Portsmouth a few seasons back was reported as being watched by 40,000, but the number of spectators in the stadium was only 32,000

That’s 8,000 lost opportunities for beers, food and merchandise.

And we need to move into a 60,000 capacity stadium do we, Mr. Buck and Mr. Gourlay?

Over in the far corner, even the Saints fans seemed underwhelmed. It took ages for their section to fill, and their number only totalled around 1,000 of the 1,400 seats allotted to them.

I will not take too long to talk about the game. Even in the first-half, winning 2-0, it wasn’t too special. I thought that Southampton seemed to want to attack us a little more than most teams and I relished the space which might – just might – be created in their defence. However, the away team only rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal during that first period. Our play was again laboured and there were the usual tons of possession with no end product. The game cried out for an occasional early pass to Demba Ba, who was continually level with the last man and looking for the vaguest hint of a well-hit through ball. Alan and myself discussed how ridiculously one-footed Juan Mata is, almost spinning himself in a complete circle to get the ball onto his left foot. Ashley Cole is another one. I’m no genius, but even I can pass with my “other” foot. Demba Ba’s goal was well-taken; a lovely swivel and a firm volley which found the bottom corner of the goal. Ba sunk to his knees in front of The Shed and appeared to kiss the turf. Strange – haven’t seen that before. Maybe he was looking for his contact lenses.

Alan and I attempted a rural Hampshire accent – for the expats, think John Arlott, the great cricket commentator – as we burred;

“They’ll have to come at us nowwwwww….”

“Come on my little di’mons.”

A Ramires effort hit the angle and the rebound was volleyed home by Eden Hazard who rushed off to celebrate in front of the Family Section.

These goals apart though, there was little reason to cheer. David Luiz, now in defence again alongside Cahill, threaded a couple of nice balls through, but the play was as dire as the atmosphere, or lack of it. Despite leading 2-0, the crowd probably reached an all-time low in terms of noise.

The decisive move of the night took place when Nigel Adkins replaced Jay Rodriguez with Ricky Lambert, a journeyman striker finally rewarded with football in the top division after a nomasic existence. Within three minutes, a cross was headed home emphatically by Lambert and it was a case of “game on.”

Our play seemed very lethargic with no bite or aggression in midfield. The midfield five were having poor games, none more so than Oscar and Mata. Paul was dismayed with Lampard’s play, though the whole team were underperforming in my eyes.

A great through ball from Mata fell for the in-rushing Ba, but his outstretched boot only resulted in the ball dipping over the bar. A couple of free-kicks from Lamps and Luiz did not trouble Artur Boruc in the Saints’ goal.

Southampton had the bit between their teeth now and Azpilicueta couldn’t handle the pace of Shaw as he broke down the left. From the cross, Puncheon struck low past Petr Cech to equalise. The Saints players ran towards their delirious fans in the south-east corner.

“One Nigel Adkins, there’s only one Nigel Adkins.”

Benitez was forced to make some changes, but like di Matteo before him, chose to do so late on. I haven’t seen much pro-active substitutions from Benitez yet. Torres replaced Lampard.

There was widespread booing, but I am really undecided if this was aimed at Benitez for the removal of Lampard, the arrival of Torres, or just a simple venting of frustration aimed at Benitez, the board, the entire circus.

Under such negative noise, is it any wonder that Chelsea currently play looser and more confidently away from the prickly atmosphere at Stamford Bridge? It took us a whole hour to get a stadium-wide chant going and the place was nervous and full of niggles all night.

I’m not one to instigate chants at home games; from my lofty perch, my voice wouldn’t be met with much of a response from fellow supporters in the upper tier. However, both Alan and I always join in when the more vocal fans in the lower tier “get going.” However, against Southampton these opportunities were very rare. Never have I sung so infrequently.

Oscar went deep, Torres was deployed out wide as a winger. I was hoping for him to form a partnership with Ba to be honest. Torres showed his usual poor ball control of late and was roundly jeered when he sent over a poor cross which missed not only the players huddled in the six-yard box, but the pitch completely, not to mention the strip of asto-turf surrounding it. However, Mata had been equally wasteful throughout the entire evening. A Torres break, nicely set-up by Mata, sadly resulted in a poor shot which did not even trouble Boruc as it whizzed wide of the near post. A late aerial bombardment was repelled – Cahill playing as a Robert Huth style renegade attacker – and we couldn’t score the winner.

More Wednesday night blues.

The boos echoed around the Bridge. Outside, there were all sorts of chatter about our poor form. I’m usually the first to bemoan the fact that spectators waste no time in moaning at the final whistle, but show no real signs of getting behind the team during the game. However, even I joined in on the walk past the Ossie statue.

“…is there any need to play with two defensive midfielders at home? Play 4-4-2, with Torres alongside Ba. Play a flat four in midfield, with full backs doubling up with the wide mid-fielders and attack them down the flanks.”

And there I was, the master tactician, almost making sense.

Further along, just where the spectators empty out into the Fulham Road, a couple of Chelsea fans were trading insults through song and they then squared up to each other like a couple of rutting stags, with one of them disliking the negative shouts aimed at Benitez, and the other standing up for his hatred of the new regime.

“You sayin’ I’m not Chowlsea?”

On the walk back to the car, the air was cold against my cheeks. Paul and I reluctantly discussed the game, but it was all oh-so familiar. It was a draw, but it felt like a defeat. In 1995, we would have shrugged our shoulders, but in 2013 it seemed almost catastrophic. And I am not sure how we have arrived at this juncture in our history – where a home draw is deemed to be absolute failure – but I sure as hell don’t bloody well like it.

IMG_7873

Tales From The Underdogs.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 12 August 2012.

The weather on the oh-so familiar drive up the M5 to Birmingham was horrendous. The near constant rain was painful enough, but the inclement driving conditions resulted in the traffic slowing right down to the speed of a Florent Malouda dribble. As a result of the delays, our pre-game plans of popping into the Crown and Cushion for a couple of pints of Red Stripe were knocked into touch.

I didn’t park up until 12.50pm.

It didn’t seem that long ago that Parky and I had last visited this particular part of Birmingham; the 4-2 win against Aston Villa seemed like yesterday. Ah, a lovely Torres goal too, I seem to remember.

We were parked to the north of Villa Park; the end allocated to the City fans. I expected the area to be inundated with them. To be honest, it was surprisingly quiet. There was a mixture of Chelsea and City fans milling around in the warm drizzle. It soon became apparent that many fans had expected warmer weather. Many were wearing shorts with trainers and plimsolls, with no rain jackets for cover.

It appeared to me that the drizzly conditions had travelled south with the thousands of Mancunians.

It was typical Manchester weather.

As we approached the stadium, we spotted a gaggle of familiar faces sheltering under the slight overhang of the Doug Ellis Stand. It was good to see them all once again. The others were off to sit in the two-tiered Holte End (the home end at the stadium), while I was by myself in the upper tier of the Doug Ellis. Just as I was finding my bearings, none other than Lovejoy walked past. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years. I was wondering if I’d see him at football ever again.

My seat was in the second row from the rear of the upper deck, down at the south end, behind the goal line. It soon became apparent that the 42,000 capacity was not going to be tested on this particular match day. I spotted large gaps in both tiers of the Holte End. Chelsea had been entitled to over 13,000 tickets for this game, but it was clear that we were a few thousand short of that figure. As kick-off approached, there were just as many gaps in the City sections. City had fans on three sides; the main west stand, the north stand and about a quarter of the Doug Ellis.

It was easy for me to think back to the one game that this scenario reminded me of; our 1996 F.A. Cup semi-final against the other Manchester team, in the days when Gullit and Hughes played for us and Cantona and Beckham played for them. I used to love attending F.A. Cup semi-finals en masse at these neutral venues. I loved the idea of 20,000 Chelsea fans taking over large swathes of other clubs’ stadia. And it preserved the thrill of Wembley for the Cup Final itself. How I wish the F.A. would revert to this, but I know it will never happen again.

Chelsea had both tiers of the Holte End for that game and, as luck would have it, our seats were in the very first row of the upper tier. I immediately seized this opportunity and decided to make a banner to hang over the balcony wall.

Over a week, I painstakingly made my “Ruud Boys” banner, featuring the smiling face of our dreadlocked hero who had so thrilled us in his first season.

The Chelsea fans were out in force on that Sunday in the spring of 1996. Our end was festooned with banners, streamers and balloons as the teams entered the pitch. I always remember that the United sections filled up really slowly and I am pretty sure that there were empty seats throughout the game. Just before the break, that man Gullit leapt at a cross and headed us into a lead.

Oh, how we celebrated that one.

Sadly, two defensive errors – and some unfortunate injuries to key players – allowed United to recover and win 2-1. Wembley would have to wait for one more season.

However, the story continues.

The sight of the Chelsea fans packing out the Holte End in a riot of colour must have been spectacular. There are many photographs of us from that day. One in particular was used in two publications.

One photographer down at pitch level took a photo of my Ruud Boys flag and it was used by “Action Images” to illustrate a piece on Chelsea’s influx of foreign players in a copy of “Total Football” later during that year.

It gets better.

The former Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth once had an affair with glamour model Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie. At a game at Selhurst Park in the 1996-1997 season, the Chelsea fans were full of rude comments about this romantic liaison. In the “Daily Sport” newspaper – that beacon of journalistic integrity – the following day, there was a photo of Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie (baring all) with a headline to the effect of “How dare Chelsea fans be rude to both Dean and me.”

The editor chose to illustrate her tirade at the Chelsea fans with a picture of some Chelsea fans, set just behind a large photograph of Lindsey Dawn and her quite substantial charms.

The photo that the editor chose was from the Villa Park semi-final. It was the photo of my Ruud Boys flag. Or rather, a close-up photo of Glenn and me (looking, strangely, straight at the camera).

Imagine the scene.

Glenn was sitting with his workmates during a tea break when one of them opened up the middle pages of his “Daily Sport” to exclaim –

“Hey, Glenn – there’s a picture of you and Chris Axon next to Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie here!”

The Chelsea and Manchester City teams entered the arena from that quirky tunnel towards the corner of the main stand. I guess this was a conscious decision by the Villa club, who were lambasted for replacing the much loved Trinity Road stand with a brutal structure, to maintain certain elements of the old stand. The curved panelling of the original Leitch balcony has been replicated, too.

Chelsea were in the royal blue of old, while City wore a new away kit of Torino pomegranate. The guests of honour were the former city winger Mike Summerbee and none other than our very own Ron Harris. I saw Ron sharing a joke with several of the Chelsea players as he was introduced to them.

The game began and it was clear that di Matteo was staying with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1, with Mikel and Lamps in the withdrawn roles, and Ramires out right, Hazard out left, Mata in the middle. With our influx of new players, I wondered if the manager was wondering about testing the old conundrum of whether teams should be system based or player based.

Should the formation dictate which players to use or should the players force the formation? One suspects that the answer, like a lot of things in life, is a muddy compromise.

The rain had ceased and Manchester City created a flurry of early chances. Petr Cech was in the thick of it and was soon covering himself in glory as he repelled several City efforts. With time, though, we began to make inroads as the game progressed. Eden Hazard took a few nice touches, but then drew instant laughter from the City hordes when he cut inside but tripped over his feet as he attempted a back-heel to Ashley Cole. I’m sure we’ve all done that in our time on the football pitch; I know I have.

I must admit, I didn’t know too much about Eden Hazard before we became linked with him. My knowledge of his attributes is due to a typical search on YouTube; I was mightily impressed. I just hoped that there wasn’t another selection of Eden Hazard clips on YouTube involving him falling over himself, clipping balls Gronkjaer-esque into row Z of the stands at Lille, losing possession after one touch, missing clear chances and setting up opponents’ goals with lazy back-passes.

Two chances in quick succession raised our hopes; a flowing move involving Mata and Ramires allowed Fat Frank to shoot straight at the City ‘keeper and then Hazard cut inside before shooting low.

It then occurred to me – in a lovely moment of self-awareness – that after three games of varying involvement, I was now right back in to the football. After the surreal experience in New York, the boozy song-fest of Chester and the docile frustration of Brighton, I was now kicking every ball, making every tackle, shouting words of encouragement and getting more and more involved with every passing minute.

This turned out to be the most important moment of the entire afternoon for me.

There may come a time when I suddenly lose this passion for Chelsea, but I knew at around 2pm at Villa Park that it wouldn’t be this season; European Champions or not, there are still games to attend, games to win and songs to be sung.

“Come On You Blue Boys.”

With the first half coming to a close, we were rewarded for our slight improvement in play with a goal against the general run of play. What a lovely finish from Fernando Torres, who deftly flicked the ball over the ‘keeper from Ramires’ through ball. I celebrated wildly – yes, I was back – and still managed to capture several shots of El Nino reeling away towards the Chelsea fans in the upper deck of the Doug Ellis. Another goal for him at Villa Park. I maintained my proud record of seeing every Fernando Torres goal in the flesh, from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford to Camp Nou to Villa Park.

I hope that continues.

I spotted Mick and Della a few yards away from me and I walked over to say “hi” just as the Ivanovic tackle happened. My first reaction was that it was a tough decision; replays on the TV in the bar area at half-time suggested that Kevin Friend got it right. Down to ten men, I doubted that we would be able to hold off a physically tough City side. Up front, Tevez and Aguero looked the business.

I had more words with Mick and Della at the break; they had thoroughly enjoyed their time with Ron Harris in New York and it was great to see them once again.

At the start of the second half, Mancunian drizzle and then Mancunian goals. A couple of lax defensive clearances allowed the ball to fall to Kolo Toure. He smashed it goal wards and I was right behind the path of the ball. I said “goal” as soon as it left his foot.

The City fans, who had swelled their numbers considerably during the first-half, now roared. Their version of “Hey Jude” was deafening to be fair. I wondered if there had been traffic problems for the City fans on their trek south down the M6 from Ancoats, Hyde, Droylesden and Longsight.

A sweet strike from Tevez and a flick from Nasri got them singing again. This now looked like “damage limitation” for us. I wanted Friend to blow up straight away. As Daniel Sturridge warmed up, he took tons of abuse from the City fans in the main stand.

“One greedy bastard, there’s only one greedy bastard.”

That’s ironic, eh? Half of City’s team are only there for the sheikh’s millions.

Oh well. It is what it is.

It was sad to hear the Chelsea support so quiet. Even when we were 1-0 up, the noise was no more than a murmur.

Must do better.

I thought back to the game at Yankee Stadium. The only three English shirts I saw at the stadium which were not Chelsea belonged to two Manchester City supporters and one Manchester United fan. I was expecting more to be honest. I was certainly expecting shirts to be worn by a few Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal fans in a sad attempt to wind us up. There is nothing sadder than that, in my opinion. However, the sight of the two City shirts certainly made me double-take; outside of Manchester, sightings are rare. In NYC, I decided to take the “good cop, bad cop” approach.

To City Fan #1 – “You’re at the wrong game mate”

This resulted in the City fan puffing his chest out and giving me a look of aggression.

To City Fan #2 – “Congratulations on the title…at least you’re not a red.”

This resulted in the City fan looking confused and befuddled at my – honest – compliments.

Late on, a Daniel Sturridge shot was only parried by Pantilimon and the other substitute Ryan Bertrand pounced. We roared again. Could we rise up from the dead and snatch a draw? Despite a late charge, including big Pete coming up for a corner, it was not to be.

In truth, City could have scored again at the death but Sergio Aguero screwed the ball wide in front of a virtual open goal. With us a man down throughout the second-half, a 3-2 loss was no big deal. Outside, Parky was sage like and philosophical, sharing the opinion that there were several plus points to take from the game.

With a lot of the City fans still inside, our escape route north and then west to the M6 was clear of traffic and, aided by some classics from the Stranglers, we made good time on the drive south.

Throughout the game, I had soon realised that City were the new target for all clubs in the division this season. They are a formidable team – solid in the right areas, with many attacking options. I also realised that it certainly felt “right” for Chelsea – or at least “my” Chelsea – to be classed as the underdogs once more. I’d guess we are third favourites for the league, behind the two Manchester clubs, but I can deal with that. After all, I dealt with it – and the club certainly dealt with it – against Barca and Bayern.

It’s no big deal. I quite like it. After all, a goal scored by the underdogs is celebrated five times as loudly as a goal by the favourites.

I won’t deny that there are the inevitable concerns about our team at this very moment in time. But let’s give everyone time to adapt to each other, to let the newcomers settle, to give the manager his six months to sort out his formation and his methodology. With the possible triumvirate of Hazard / Mata / Oscar feeding Fernando Torres, we could be in for quite a ride.

The league season is almost upon us.

Wigan awaits.

I’m ready.

Let’s go.

IMG_9596

Tales From Planet Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 15 May 2011.

On the Saturday evening, I met up with two of my oldest friends for a few pints and a curry in Frome. I’ve known Pete since our paths crossed in my first ever “proper” football game in autumn 1974 and I’ve known Adie since 1978, when we both played for the school team. Talk was of various memories from schooldays, current news and updates, but football undoubtedly dominated our conversation. Pete supports United, Adie supports Leeds. They love their football, but they don’t touch my levels of devotion. That’s not me being boastful – that’s just the way it is. Neither Pete nor Adie have been to Old Trafford or Elland Road; they still admire the game, but – I guess – don’t buy into the tribal nature of the game. This is the aspect that I find most appealing of all. Take away that and football becomes just a sport.

I think they regard me as some kind of Chelsea obsessive and I guess they are right. Amongst my Chelsea mates – Daryl, Gary, Alan, Andy, Neil, Glenn, Simon – I’m just normal, though. Just one of the lads. One of the team.

Pete and I always have a laugh when we are together, but our friendship was tested in 2005 when the phrase “you bought the title” was used by Pete. I got a bit defensive and we batted many emails back and forth over that summer. We’re the very best of mates though – football won’t get in the way of that. At the Indian restaurant, we raised our pints of Kingfisher lager and I congratulated him on Manchester United’s title.

Adie is more laid back in his support of Leeds. He exudes calmer character traits and I am sure he would be amazed at how wound up and passionate I get at Chelsea games. He’ll see it in the flesh over the summer, though, as he will be with me in Bangkok for our game on July 28th. Adie has been living in Thailand since 1996 and – at last – I am going to be able to take him up on his offer to visit him. We had briefly run through my itinerary at the bar before Pete arrived and I promised to call in on him with guide books and maps for a fuller discussion of my holiday over the forthcoming week or so. He was heading back to Chiang Mai, his current home in northern Thailand, at the end of May.

At 11pm, I left them drinking in the ultra-posh “Archangel” pub in Frome’s historic town centre and I headed home; I had a drive to London on Sunday and needed some sleep.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United – always an evocative game for me. My first ever Chelsea game was against The Geordies way back in 1974. 836 games later, we were to meet again. This would be my 29th Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game (and we’ve lost just three times), a fixture second only to the visit of Liverpool (34 games). Despite our loss to them in the League Cup last autumn, we have a phenomenal record against them. You have to go way back to 1986 for the last time that Chelsea lost to the Geordies in the league at home. Since then, the goals have rattled in. Oh boy. There have been some lovely highlights over the years, in fact.

October 1980.

I travelled up with my father, his former boss, and my two school friends Pete (yes, him again) and Kev (a Spurs fan.) We were mired in the old second division, but were beginning to find some form. On a memorable afternoon, Chelsea walloped the previously fancied Geordies 6-0, with Colin Lee nabbing three. My two mates, only seeing their second or third football games, were suitably impressed with the whole day; the East stand seats, close to the action, the noise of The Shed, the size of the old stadium and the attacking verve of that Chelsea team, which included the two flying wingers Peter Rhoades-Brown and Phil Driver. I remember that I had written in to the Chelsea match day DJ Pete Owen for a record request as a mark of thanks for my father who had been so kind to drive me up for my allotted “two games per season” since 1974. My mate Pete was suitably impressed when Pete Owen prefaced my request with the words “and now a request from one of our regulars, Chris Axon.” My mother would usually write in to Pete Owen’s “Pre-Match Spin” on our visits and it was a common occurrence for me to hear my name being read out at Chelsea. For a kid of ten or eleven, imagine the thrill of that. It brings back goose bumps now, to be honest. Lovely memories.

On the Saturday night, at the curry house, Pete had spoken about an instance from that game in fact. We had seats in the East lower, right behind the Newcastle bench. Towards the end of the game, with us scoring at will, the Chelsea crowd were giving the Newcastle manager, Arthur Cox, some stick. Amongst the hoopla, Pete began shouting –

“Cox out! Cox out!

After a micro-second, he realised what he was saying and glanced across to see if my father had heard. I suspect he had, but I suspect he had a little chuckle to himself and let it pass. I always remember thinking that Pete had enjoyed himself so much that he might have turned his affections towards us. I remember him saying, rather sheepishly –

“Nah, United are my team, but I’ll have a soft spot for Chelsea, with them playing in the second division…they’ll be my second team.”

I should have asked Pete if he still feels that same way.

April 1995.

Before our game with Newcastle United, my friend Glenn was presented with his CPO certificate by none other than Dennis Wise. I was allowed into the tunnel area to watch and it was fantastic to be down in that most sacred of areas. I remember Dennis was either suspended or injured at the time, so he wasn’t kitted out. We had to assemble down by the tunnel at about 2.30pm and, while we were waiting, we found ourselves right next to the Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. Even though it was close to kick-off, he was more than happy to pose for a quick photograph with me and it was a brilliant moment. Growing up in the ‘seventies, Keegan was a big hero of mine. Then, Dennis Wise appeared and chatted to Glenn for a few moments before Neil Barnett called us forward and Glenn strode out onto the pitch. Another lad from Frome being announced on the PA. Another brilliant memory. After that, the day was a bit of a blur. We quickly dashed around to join up with some mates in the North stand and saw the two teams eke out a dull 1-1 draw. But some nice memories of the pre-match for sure.

November 1995.

Newcastle were unbeaten and flying high, playing some scintillating football with players such as Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley in the team. They were at the top of the table and firing on all cylinders. We were just changing to a wing-back system with new signings Terry Phelan and Dan Petrescu filling the wide positions. This was a brilliant game of football and new signing Dan Petrescu gave us a deserved win with a bullet at the North stand end. We were watching in the temporary seats at the South end and the place was rocking. It was a fantastic Chelsea performance, but the best was to come after the game had ended. In 1994, a book called “Blue Is The Colour” was written by Khadija Buckland, a native of West London, now living in Chippenham. Glenn and myself got to know her via her friendship with Ron Harris (in those days, we always used to call in on Ron at his pub in Warminster after games at Chelsea) and, after a while, we arranged to take Khadija up to Chelsea so she could sell her book in the executive areas of the East stand. Anyway, to cut to the chase, as a reward for taking her up, she had arranged for Glenn, my Geordie mate Pete and me to gain entrance to the players’ bar after the game with Newcastle. We shuffled around by the entrance to the tunnel and waited by a door. I remember that pop star Robbie Williams quickly left the bar and we were then escorted in by Khadija.

Wow. Talk about the inner sanctum.

In a small room behind the old changing rooms (which I am sure no longer exists, what with the enlarging of the home dressing room area), we stood at the cosy bar, while Dennis Wise, his girlfriend and mother were chatting in a small group. A few players flitted in and out. I always remember Mark Hughes; arriving quietly, standing at the bar alone, silently sipping a lager. I went over to ask him to sign the programme and I was genuinely awestruck.

Some very special memories.

May 2011.

After swerving to avoid a pheasant and then a deer as I sped out of my sleepy Somerset village, I collected Glenn and Parky and we were on our way. There was sadness in the air due to this being our last pilgrimage to SW6 of the season, but also a shared joy of being able to travel up together, have a laugh, have a chat, have a giggle. Glenn and I had recently been out for a few beers around Frome too and one of the bars which we frequented – “The Old Bath Arms” – had a very special guest a few days ago. Johnny Depp has bought a house in the town – OK, just outside – and he had called in for a quiet pint. Apparently, a local ended up explaining the “leg before wicket” rule in cricket and I would have like to have witnessed that.

“Sorry, man, say that slower.”

By 11.30am, we had joined up with Cathy, Dog, Rob, Daryl, Neil and Alan in the beer garden of The Goose. Cokes for me, lager for the boys. Photos of the lads – one last glorious photocall for the season. A classic array of Fred Perry, Fila, Lacoste, Hackett, Napapijri and Ben Sherman. In the background, a few supporters were sporting the new Chelsea shirt and we didn’t have many positives to say about it. Too much white, too busy, why bother?

I had a chat with Cathy about our plans for Thailand and Malaysia. Only two months to go now; can’t wait.

The Snappy Dressers.

Neil – royal blue.
Lord Parky – purple.
Chris – mint green.

It was a usual pre-match and for those of you who have witnessed The Goose, you’ll know that it was laden with jokes and laughter.

With the news that Rangers were three up at Killie after just five minutes of play, we clinked a few glasses. Though I am way less enthusiastic than in the past, Rangers always get my approval in Scotland. Rangers were “my Scottish team” as a child, though if I am honest, Dundee United certainly came into my affections in the early ‘eighties due to the fact that several ex-Chelsea players went on to play for them (Peter Bonetti, Jim Docherty, Eamonn Bannon, Ian Britton) and the fact that I had a crush on a girl from Dundee while on holiday in Italy in 1979.

Carla B. – where are you now?

We made our way to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. All the usual sights we know so well. To be honest, there weren’t too many fans wearing the new shirts. I still can’t believe that the club has the audacity to change the kit every bloody season.

The big news was that young Josh was starting his very first league game. I noted plenty of empty seats in The Shed Upper, even though the game was a “sell-out.” The 1,500 Newcastle fans were in good voice, but that’s no surprise. They are a good set of lads. I well remember during that 1995-1996 season, they were everybody’s favourite second team and it actually hurt when they imploded and handed the title to the hated Manchester United. Since then, I’ve grown less fond of them, due to their rather lofty opinions of themselves, but – generally speaking – as a few friends have said, I’d rather spend a few hours with a Geordie, rather than a cocky Mancunian or a sneaky Scouser. They don’t take themselves too seriously and I quite like that.

I won’t dwell too much on the game as we all know that it was sub-standard fare. Frank’s corner, for once whipped in with just the right amount of venom, was ably glanced on by the forehead of Torres and Brana nimbly volleyed in past Krul.

I knew what was coming –

“They’ll have to come at wu’now.”

“Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Josh – playing quite deep – played some lovely balls in behind the Newcastle full back for Ashley Cole to run onto. This is clearly going to be his trademark ball. I look forward to seeing it more and more next season. Just after I made the comment to Alan that “I can’t really see them causing us many problems”, JT foolishly fouled an attacker and a free-kick was awarded. The shot deflected off Gutierrez and they were level.

Lee Mason, the referee, seemed to have it in for us. I rarely berate or bemoan the officials, but even I was joining in with the loud booing he was receiving. It honestly felt like we were playing against twelve Geordies.

At half-time, Neil Barnett introduced our most loved former player and he came onto the pitch for a few minutes, waving his stick, loving the attention.

“Roy Bentley – 87 on Tuesday.”

The second half came and went. Tons of possession but very few threats on goal. Carlo made a triple substitution on 64 minutes, with Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda coming on. It was a poor game and we all knew it. The Bridge was quiet, roused only to boo the referee. On 74 minutes, Drogba set up Ashley Cole with a very delicate flick but – for some unfathomable reason known only to him – Cole played it back towards Didi when he really ought to have laced it with his left foot. The look on Drogba’s face was priceless –

“Why you do that?????”

On 83 minutes, a free-kick from the right and I had my camera poised at the melee in the box. I snapped as the ball evaded Krul and Alex nodded home.

Relief. Phew.

Then, a last minute corner to them and the saddest sight; a poorly defended cross and Steven Taylor completely unmarked to head home. The Newcastle directors were up and celebrating in the West middle – Ashley was grinning, the horrible git – and the Newcastle players ran over to celebrate with the Toon Army.

The whistle went soon after…and a few souls booed.

It was with great sadness that I watched, open-mouthed, as 90% of the supporters drifted out of Stamford Bridge before the Chelsea players went on a slow lap of appreciation. After quite a wait, the players followed John Terry, with his twins, out onto the pitch. Carlo got a good – if not great – reception and I noted Drogba waving back at the MHL as he walked past our corner. A wave of goodbye? Who knows? Torres, holding two very small children, was very quiet. He’s quite a shy lad, isn’t he?

The star – by far – was the blonde haired son of Branislav Ivanovic. He was constantly dribbling the ball…first up towards the Shed, then back towards us. By this stage, both of the nets had been taken down by the groundstaff. However, they hastily erected the nets at the Matthew Harding end and – cheered on by around 1,500 souls in the Lower tier – the lad dribbled and poked the ball into the goal.

A massive roar. He pumped the air with his fist and then ran back and jumped into his father’s arms. It was a lovely moment and Branislav was clearly overjoyed. It was wonderful to witness this delightful moment between father and son. We all agreed there and then, that this was the best moment of the entire day. He then did it twice more.

The roars and cheers echoed around the stadium for the last time this season.

It was time to go home.

IMGP2486