Tales From An Unhappy Monday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 February 2019.

Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. It has a fair ring to it doesn’t it? And yet I wasn’t looking forward to this game when I woke up, I wasn’t looking forward to it when I was at work, I wasn’t looking forward to it when I left work and I wasn’t looking forward to it when I was travelling up to London. The 6-0 shellacking at Manchester City was evidently casting a long and malodorous shadow. And City’s bitter rivals were much-improved under a new manager. And I just knew that the 6,000 away fans in The Shed would out sing us throughout the evening.

The four of us – Glenn, PD and Parky too– travelled up in daylight, the winter days now becoming slightly longer. In The Goose, there was a surprising quietness. In Simmons Bar, things were a lot busier and a lot rowdier. On the TV screen in the corner, a re-run of the 1970 replay at Old Trafford was being shown and I occasionally glimpsed some of the famous tough-tackling over the heads of others in the bar. I loved the clips of the jubilant Chelsea team going to the Stretford End – some of our players wearing Leeds shirts, that would never happen these days – and the bouncing and swaying mass of fans that greeted them. It was a life-affirming sight.

But it made me think. Chelsea in the Stretford End in 1970. Manchester United in The Shed in 2019. It is an odd world that we inhabit.

We didn’t speak too much about the imminent game. There was a little chat with some of the troops who had travelled over to Copenhagen and Malmo during the week. Very soon there was that beautiful walk down to Stamford Bridge, as atmospheric and beguiling as ever. It is without doubt a walk through history. The North End Road, Jerdan Place, Vanston Place, the Walham Green of old, Fulham Broadway, Fulham Road. It was dark now, at just after seven ‘clock, and the air was lit up by street lights, the glow from Chubby’s Grill, and the illuminations of a few souvenir stalls, and there was a buzz of not quite knowing who was who.

Six thousand of them.

Sigh.

I had mentioned to the lads that of the three big games coming up – Malmo should be a formality, right? –  I was still most fearful of a loss to Tottenham, an FA Cup tie and a League Cup Final notwithstanding.

“Tottenham’s on a different level, innit?”

Strangely, I did not hear a single tout. That pleased me. It was evidence that most tickets would be used by the person who had bought them; there would be no watering down of our support for profit, most of the 34,000 in the home areas would be bona fide Chelsea fans, members or season ticket holders. There would be no passengers. Or so I hoped.

I made my way up the flights of stairs to the top tier of the Matthew Harding.

Almost one hundred years ago, on Cup Final day 1920, my father Ted Draper and his long-time friend Ted Knapton made the slow ascent up the damp terraced steps – being jostled by other fans, some drunk already – at the rear of the great slug of terracing on the West side of Stamford Bridge. The air was expectant ahead of the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town tie. It would be the only professional football match that my grandfather would ever attend. He had remembered, as a ten-year-old boy living in Somerset, how he had been astounded when told by others that a mighty crowd of 67,000 had attended a game at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s first-ever season in 1905/06. It confused him. How did a new club such as Chelsea suddenly have 67,000 supporters? And for a Second Division game too. It was an unheard of figure at the time and was the talk of the schoolyard for many a day. It had captured the imagination, wildly, of my dear grandfather. The visitors on that day in April 1906 were Manchester United and it was a promotion-decider of sorts. My grandfather was convinced that the vast number of spectators had been Chelsea fans, since Manchester was such a long way north, but how was it possible for so many to be lured to the new stadium? Chelsea had mainly played to crowds in the mid-teens throughout that inaugural campaign after that first-ever game at Stockport County. It was one of the biggest league crowds that England had ever seen, although FA Cup Final attendances at Crystal Palace sometimes reached six-figures. Apart from being a fan of the sport, my grandfather soon realised how magnificent it would be to part of such a spectacle and for many years he had daydreamed about being in a similar sized crowd.

In April 1920, he had his wish.

I am unsure of what was in store for the two Teds in terms of pre-match entertainment in 1920 – I suspect a marching band was all – but in 2019 we were treated to the usual fireworks and flames. Just before it, the lights had dimmed and the United fans had chimed “what the fookinell was that?”

Above, a full moon soared above the East Stand.

There was a minute’s applause for Gordon Banks, one of the heroes of 1966. Images of the greatest ever save were played on to the TV screen.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku – all former blues – started for United.

There was not a spare seat in the house. 40,000 is not 67,000 but it is always still a buzz to be part of it all. I was warming to the spectacle, but deep down was still fearing the worst. The United lot were already making a din, and I checked out their flags.

“The Only Way Is United.”

“One Love.”

“If The Reds Should Play In Rome Or Mandalay We’ll Be There.”

“Manchester In The Area.”

“Everything My Heart Desired.”

All of these flags were in the Barmy Flags tradition of red, white and black sections. Yet the classic United kit of red, white and black has been oddly jettisoned this season in favour of red, black and red. Heaven knows why.

Tonight it looked a little more normal; red, white, red.

Chelsea in blue, blue, white.

The game began.

There were two battles taking place at Stamford Bridge. One on the pitch, one off it.

United won both of the initial skirmishes, starting brightly with the runs of Lukaku and Rashford causing us anxiety, and also creating a visceral wall of noise at The Shed End. I had not heard one chant in praise of their new manager for years.

“You are my Solskjaer, my Ole Solskjaer.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

Alan Shearer was fucking dearer.

So please don’t take my Solskjaer away.”

This immediately brought back a distant memory of a visit to Old Trafford in the early autumn of 1997 when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored a ridiculously late equaliser at the Stretford End. I’ve rarely felt more gutted at an away game. It’s worth watching for the Mark Hughes goal alone.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEaB-feEz_g

Lukaku walloped an effort over and a header from Smalling was ably saved by Kepa.

Then, after a foul on Eden Hazard, David Luiz side-footed a swerving free-kick towards the United legions at the Shed End. Their ‘keeper Sergio Romero – who? – could not smother it and it fell invitingly for Pedro inside the box. He did well to keep the shot down – great body shape – but the United ‘keeper stopped it, and scooped up the loose ball.

Bollocks.

A shot from Hazard drifted wide. We were back in this and the United support had been quietened, thank the Lord. Gonzalo Higuain was then sent through from a rare forward pass from Jorginho – he ain’t George Best – and although he was forced wide he still managed to get a hooked shot towards the goal from a ridiculously tight angle. The ball dropped inches over the intersection of post and bar.

Bollocks.

Higuain then headed wide from a cross from Dave and I leaned forward to say to the lads in front :

“Morata would have scored that.”

And although it was all tongue-in-cheek, he might well have done.

United are a physically strong team and Matic and Young were booked. But this was turning into a fine game, though chances were rare. We were playing with a little more urgency of late, and the crowd were involved. I liked the movement and drive of Pedro. I wish we had seen him in his prime. Kepa flew through the air to deny a header from Herrera. In their midfield, even Juan Mata – applauded by us when he drifted over to be involved in an early free-kick – was tackling and harrying players.

There was a moment of near calamity down below us when Kepa seemed far too lackadaisical in dealing with a back-pass. Lukaku almost picked his pocket. I was now enjoying this game. I know I was probably biased but I thought perhaps we were on top.

And then as the half-an-hour mark passed, it all fell apart. Paul Pogba was afforded way too much time below us and he had time to send over a perfect cross into the danger area. The run of Herrrera was not tracked and he rose virtually unhindered to head in behind the half-hearted non-challenge of Marcos Alonso.

Bollocks.

United celebrated over in the far corner.

Bollocks.

Our play went to pot. We played within ourselves. The away fans roared and created a merry din.

Just before half-time, Rashford was not closed down by Luiz out on their right. In fact, Luiz took an eternity to close angles. My eyes were on Mata at the far post, but Rashford had spotted the onward run of Pogba who had initiated the move earlier. The England player whipped in a delicious cross onto Pogba’s napper. His header flew past Kepa, and Pogba – delirious – landed on his stomach, and his subsequent goal celebration made me want to fucking vomit.

Bollocks.

So, undone by two horrific defensive lapses.

Does Sarri ever go through defensive drills and coaching sessions at Cobham? I doubted it. We were warned at the start of the season, before this headlong dash into the weird world of Maurizio Sarri, that the defence was not his priority, it was his weak point, maybe his black spot, but this was just fucking ridiculous.

I had a simple request at half-time. Remembering us losing 2-0 at half-time to Liverpool in 1997, I chirped : “Bring on Mark Hughes.”

Sadly, Mark Hughes was unavailable.

In the second-half, United were more than happy to sit back and defend their lead. We had tons of possession, but rarely threatened. There were only half-chances here and there. A shot from an angle inside the box Higuain was blocked by Smalling. A good chance for Lukaku was snuffed out by a fine defensive tackle from Luiz. The fouls piled up, with Matic lucky not to be yellow-carded again.

Luke Shaw injured their ‘keeper in toe-poking away a ball that Pedro almost reached inside the box.

On the hour, a like-for-like (but in reality a dislike-for-dislike) substitution, with Pedro replaced by Willian. I felt sorry for Peds, one of our better players on the night.

“Wow, never saw that coming” said 2,584,661 Chelsea fans in Adelaide, Bangkok, Chicago, Dar Es Salaam, Edmonton and effing Fulham.

There was a shot from Hazard which flew over.

A banner appeared at The Shed and I had to agree with the sentiments.

“MAGIC OF THE CUP? SOLD BY THE FA FOR MONDAY NIGHT TV CA$H.”

Quite.

Barkley replaced the poor Kovacic.

“Wow, never saw that coming” said 2,584,661 Chelsea fans in Glasgow, Hereford, Islamabad, Jakarta, Leicester and Kuala Lumpur.

The lower tier of the Matthew Harding had had enough.

“Fuck Sarriball” was a loud and angry chant. But I did not join in, nor did many around me. I am not a fan of negativity during games. Both tiers then combined with an even louder “Come On Chelsea” right after, almost as a reaction to the hatred within the previous chant. It was thunderous and defiant and was so loud that the United fans mockingly cheered it. It was the loudest, I think, that we had been all season. United then continued their piss-take with a “Take Back Mourinho” jibe.

In the closing quarter of an hour, The Shed was a wall of noise.

I’ll be honest, I had to stand back and admire it. Six thousand away fans on fire. Fair play.

One song, a new song, no doubt penned by Pete Boyle, was kept going for ages. I could not decipher the words, and I have already forgotten the melody but when I ever hear it again it will remind me of 18 February 2019.

Bollocks.

And then, the final twist of the knife.

There were still ten minutes to go, maybe fifteen with stoppages. The game could, in theory, still be salvaged. The game was crying out for Olivier Giroud to go up front with our man Higuain and cause some panic among the United defenders, or for Callum Hudson-Odoi to come on and inject some fresh legs, an air of derring-do and pace. But instead the blithering idiot of our manager had another idea.

We looked over at the far touchline.

Oh boy.

In “The Office” Christmas Special from 2003, there is a famous scene where David Brent, nervously tugging at his tie, is filmed at a bar ahead of meeting a blind date. He is nervous and excited. He turns around, spots his date – she is not as easy on the eye as he had envisioned – and returns to stare at the camera.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

I had that same face when I saw Davide Zappacosta about to take the place of Dave.

The crowd were in shock. Some could not hide their feelings and booed.

It was an unreal substitution.

The strange case of David, Davide and Dave.

Oh for fuck sake.

The game played out. We had all of the ball, but were as hopeless and as hapless as David Brent. People started to leave. It was no good, we were out.

We were out of the FA Cup.

I was deeply proud of Glenn, PD and Parky on the drive home. We were philosophical, though of course rather saddened by our sudden demise, and talked our way through the night’s developments as PD drove east and I stared at the white lines and the white lights of oncoming traffic. We had seen worse, of course – who can ever forget the pain, as 1997 FA Cup holders, of trailing 0-5 at home to Manchester United in the first game in the defence of the trophy in 1998? – and in the record books it will go down as a standard 2-0 defeat. But there is so much more to this than the score line alone.

I did wonder if the manager would last until the morning.

Our last six games have been a roller-coaster of quite ridiculous results.

Won

Lost

Won

Lost

Won

Lost

Who is to say that the next two matches won’t follow this pattern? Of course this sort of form was “typical Chelsea” in the halcyon days of Gullit and Vialli, but back in those days we were on an upward curve, happy with even the slightest of improvements.  To be honest, what fun we had after years of darkness. We were, whisper it, a little bit like Tottenham from 2014 to 2019 (but with silverware).

But now the football club, and its support, is surely a different beast in 2019. With no football presence at the club at any level higher than the beleaguered and unlikeable manager, we are rudderless.

We are chaos theory incarnate.

See you on Thursday.

Tales From A Moral Victory

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 8 January 2019.

Not many Chelsea were saying too many positive things about this League Cup semi-final against Tottenham at Wembley. I was one of them. Just before I left work at 3pm, one of my work colleagues reminded me that I had uttered words of concern and apprehension a few hours earlier. It had been a reasonable day at work, but had become much busier with various problems snowballing in the two hours before I was set to join PD and Parky on a midweek flit to London once more. As I closed my computer down and packed up my goods and chattels, I uttered something to the effect – half-jokingly – that I’d rather stay on a few hours and get to the bottom of a few of these work issues than head up to The Smoke where Tottenham would be a very tough nut to crack.

But I left work, and grabbed a couple of items from the conveniently-located “Greggs” which sits just across a roundabout on the A350, next to “The Milk Churn” pub and a drive-thru “Starbucks” – all mod cons – and we made excellent time as PD drove to London. This was always going to be a long old evening. To that effect, I decided to take the Wednesday off work. So, as PD climbed onto the M4 at Chippenham, it felt good knowing that I would not be starved of sleep at work on the Wednesday where those problems would have required my full attention. I was even able to catch an hour of intermittent sleep. Such decadence. I awoke as PD was flying over the elevated section of the M4 just before Brentford’s new stadium came in to view.

As I came around, oddly spotting the Wembley Arch highlighted in a mid-blue, looking more Chelsea than Tottenham, “The King Of Wishful Thinking” by Go West was on Radio Two. It seemed almost appropriate, despite us heading east and then north. The game required a lot of wishful thoughts. We soon parked up at Barons Court and were soon enjoying the comfort of “The Blackbird” pub at Earl’s Court.

For an hour, we were the kings of wishful drinking.

It had taken PD a couple of minutes’ shy of two hours to cover the journey from the west of England to the west of London, possibly a personal best for these midweek trips. We were not sure where the other of the five thousand Chelsea fans would be drinking before the game. No doubt Marylebone would be the epicentre. In the pub, we ran through plans for the next run of games, but noticeably chose to ignore the evening’s game. In a nutshell, we were still hurting after the 1-3 defeat at Wembley in late November and, if anything, they have become stronger and we have become weaker.

I am sure that I was not alone in contemplating a possible heavy defeat. Involving goals, and lots of them, but let’s not be rude and mention actual numbers.

However, to be honest, an absolute shellacking has been very rare for our club for many years. In another conversation with a work colleague, I had reminded myself, from memory, that our last heavy defeat to any team in the league football was a 1-5 reverse at Anfield in the autumn of 1996. As a comparison, we have put six Tottenham in 1997, six against Manchester City in 2007, six past Arsenal in 2014, six past Everton in 2014, not to mention sevens against a few smaller clubs and even eight on two occasions.

We have enjoyed the upper hand, in general, over many since that game at Anfield twenty-three years ago.

There were, however, these two games against the evening’s opponents :

2001/02 League Cup : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 1

2014/15 League : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 3

So, despite us lording it over our rivals from North London over the past three decades, they have represented two of our biggest losses within the UK in the past two decades. By the way, if I am wrong (I have not forgotten our 3-5 loss to Manchester United in 1999 – shudder), I am sure another like-minded pedant will correct me.

So, I think we were all fearful of another cricket score.

In retrospect, I needed those two pints of “Nastro Azzurro.”

At 6.30pm we caught the tube to Edgware Road, then walked to Marylebone. There were no residual drinkers at the bar outside the station. We must have been some of the last to travel to Wembley. We caught the 7.15pm train to Birmingham New Street, which would make an additional stop at Wembley Stadium.

Perfect.

We were soon at Wembley Stadium station. Again, there were very few Chelsea around. There were a few isolated Yelps from the locals.

I tut-tutted.

We walked past a few souvenir stalls. To get around counterfeit rules, there were half-and-half scarves quoting “TOTTENHA9” which I thought was quite clever (for those not au fait with the UK postal service, Wembley Stadium is in Harrow, with its HA9 postcode).

We joined the line at the away turnstiles where at last there were more Chelsea fans. My usual camera was too much of a risk again, so the phone had to do.

In the rush to get to the stadium – in the end, we were inside at 7.45pm, well ahead of the 8pm start – I had only glimpsed at the team on my ‘phone. I had focused on the lack of Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata in the line-up, but elsewhere Andreas Christensen was in for David Luiz, and our Callum had retained his place.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Barkley – Willian, Hazard, Hudson-Odoi

PD and Parky were down in the corner, along with Alan and Gary. I popped down to see them. I was further along, behind the goal. My mate Andy offered to swap so I could be with them. But this would be a different viewpoint – I would be in that part of the stadium for the first time – so I explained how I’d be able to take a different set of photographs during the night (though, if I am honest, I knew that the subsequent quality would not be great).

“It’s not all about the photographs, though, Andy.”

“I think it is, Chris.”

I laughed, trying not to agree with him.

I walked over to gate 113 and to my seat in row 12. There were no spectators at all in the top tier; capacity had been capped at 51,000, still a healthy figure.

The teams came on.

TOTTENHA9 vs. CHELSW6.

Unlike the game in November, we were in all blue. It looked right and it felt right too.

Bizarrely, oddly, surprisingly, we began well. To my pleasure this was met with a fantastic salvo of many different Chelsea songs, as if we were forced to prove a point to the watching world that we are not all about the Y Word. Even when “that” song was aired, it ended with a whimper of “sssssshhh” rather than anything more sinister.

Why?

Because it just was not worth it.

It was a great selection of songs and chants. I knew that the other lot would not be able to compete with our selection.

Son Heing-Min and Christensen fell against each other, but no penalty. Despite our early domination, Spurs had the best of the chances in the first quarter of an hour when there was a timid overhead kick from Harry Kane which Kepa easily claimed. At the other end, Barkley, Hudson-Odoi and Hazard tested the Tottenham ‘keeper Paulo Gazzaniga which sounded like something that Paul Gascoigne might have called himself at one stage in his odd life.

Then, with Chelsea honestly dominating and looking at ease, having quietened the home support, a long ball for Kane to attack was played out of the Spurs defence.

This always looked like a problematic moment.

This is what happened in my mind.

  1. That bloody ball is going to drop right in the correct place, right in no-man’s land, we are in trouble.
  2. I did not spot the linesman’s flag, my main focus was on the race to the ball between Kane and Kepa.
  3. Kepa’s approach was full of hesitation. I feared the worst.
  4. There seemed to be contact.
  5. I expected a penalty.
  6. But there was no immediate decision. I presumed that there had been no touch.
  7. Then it dawned on me that the dreaded VAR would be called in to decide on the penalty.
  8. It became muddied in the away end with fans talking about an offside flag.
  9. The TV screen mentioned “VAR – penalty being checked.” Bollocks.
  10. The wait.
  11. The point to the spot by referee Oliver and the roar from the home fans.
  12. The further wait for the penalty to be taken.
  13. The goal, the roar, the run and jump from Kane.
  14. The bemusement – at best – and anger – at worst – that the fans in the stadium had not seen the evidence that perhaps other had seen.
  15. I hate modern football.

I made a point of looking over to the two hundred or so Tottenham supporters closest to the Chelsea crowd to my left. After only around ten seconds of the goal being scored, there was no ribald behaviour, no shouting, no pointing, no screaming, no gesturing, no passion. This was Tottenham vs. Chelsea and their lot didn’t seem to be bothered.

Bloody hell, I hated modern football further.

However, the dynamic of the game had changed irrevocably and the first goal seemed to inspire the home team and home fans alike. Their two dirges rang around the stadium.

“Oh When The Spurs.”

“Come On You Spurs.”

Y.

As in Yawn.

We lost our verve a little. Willian was enduring a poor game, seemingly unwilling to even try to get past his man. Eden Hazard was dropping ridiculously deep. Yet again, there was no threat in the box. Crosses were dolloped towards Kante. Quite ludicrous. Thankfully it was still Chelsea who were seeing more of the ball. The home team were content to sit deeper than usual. Towards the end of the half, a low Alonso cross from the left was nudged against the base of the hear post by N’Golo Kante.

We were amazed that there were just two minutes of added time; the VAR nonsense alone seemed to take more than that. Hudson-Odoi, enjoying a surprising amount of space on the right, played the ball in and it took a deflection up from Danny Rose and was deflected up and on to the bar, with Gazza back peddling, fake tits and all.

At half-time, I had a wander and the mood in the wide Wembley concourse was positive.

“We’re doing OK.”

I then spotted a “Krispy Kreme” stand.

At football.

For fuck sake.

There were police vans lined up outside Wembley and now we had Krispy Kreme stands inside it. Modern football, eh? From the threat of sporadic hooliganism to benign consumerism; what a mixture of oddities combine to make up the modern – or post-modern, I can never be sure – football experience.

Back in my seat, the chap next to me commented that we had “out shot” them by nine efforts to two. This mirrored my thoughts on the game thus far. I was enjoying it, and this surprised me. Although it had not been a riot of noise as befitting a London derby – far from it – this game was keeping me wholly involved.

It was hugely better than the November match.

This feeling of involvement would continue as the second-half began.

Spurs’ simply played very little football in our half throughout the second period. And the Chelsea fans, though not wildly loud throughout, kept backing the players in royal blue. As the game developed, I was heading every clearance and making every tackle. There was a rare chance for Tottenham, but a shot from Kane resulted in a strong-fisted save from Kepa. But for all our share of the ball, there were far too many lazy crosses, in great positions, to the far post where there were only Tottenham defenders. It seemed that a few of our players were suffering from old habits; on reaching the goal-line, how often had they been told to clip a ball to the far post throughout their footballing career? It is a standard move. But it tended to dominate our play at times. They must have strong muscle memory because this ball was often repeated, which caused much frustration in our ranks.

But a few of our players grew in the second-half, with Hazard becoming our main hope. He dominated the ball at times. I was fascinated with how he goaded players into a mistimed tackle before moving the ball on. But it was always frustrating to see such dominance hardly muster up many golden chances. We did well to work the ball into spaces, if only we had a cutting edge.

Hazard hit one straight at Gazzaniga, Kante caused the same player to stretch out and keep the shot out.

Just before the hour, Barkley – who had started strong but was drifting – flicked on a corner towards the far post. We all switched our gaze like those courtside spectators at a tennis match and spotted Andreas Christensen, unmarked, but his clumsy effort, confusing his left leg with his right leg went begging.

Pedro replaced Willian, but despite often overloading with wing play down our right, the final killer ball would never be played the rest of the game. We did have tons of space in front of the “Chelsea Corner” and it was tough to see it not coming to any use.

On sixty-five minutes, with Chelsea totally on top and pushing them back and back, Kane went down – classic gamesmanship from their captain – and play was halted. It took the wind from our sails momentarily. The home found responded with a rousing Billy Ray Cyrus, the twats. But we were not perturbed. We came back again. The fans were well in this game. We knew that our players were putting a great show of endeavour and fight.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

We continued to run the show, but there was one rare Tottenham break which looked like danger. It was a one-on-one, I forget the Tottenham player, but a seemingly ugly challenge by Antonio Rudiger went the other way. Free-kick to us. Answers on a postcard.

To our frustration, Hudson-Odoi was replaced Olivier Giroud with ten minutes to go. Another “answers on a postcard” moment.

Why? What? Who? When?

It made no bloody sense.

The clock ticked and I was still sure we might get a last-ditch equaliser. We still sang towards the end. Five thousand in a fifty-one thousand crowd seemed right; if only we could be allowed such a share in all games. I was surprised that Tottenham were so happy to defend deep. Were they sure that a 1-0 margin would honestly be enough?

Alas, the final whistle blew. We had – I think – deserved a draw. It was a loss, but it felt like a moral victory. On the walk out towards the train station – we would be on the last one out – it was reassuring to hear several groups of Tottenham fans saying that the 1-0 result had flattered them, that Eden Hazard was such a fantastic player and that the tie was far from over.

We made it back to Barons Court at 11.30pm and to Melksham to swap cars at 1.30am.

“Bloody enjoyed that lads. See you Saturday.”

Bizarrely, on the ten mile drive home from the Milk Churn car park, I narrowly avoided running over a badger, a cat, a fox and a rabbit.

If I had seen a cockerel, it might not have fared so well.

I was home at 2am.

It had been a good evening.

Tales From A Day On The Road

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2018.

Not for the first time on a Chelsea away day, I was awake before the alarm clock was due to ring at 4.30am. Initially, though, I was in no mood for football. The sad events of the Saturday evening involving the helicopter owned by Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha spiralling out of control and crashing in a shocking fireball outside the King Power Stadium hung heavy in my mind. This was so eerily similar to the tragic events of October 1996 in which our very own Matthew Harding and four others were killed on the return from a League Cup tie at Bolton. I was to set off on a long drive north for our away game at Burnley – we guessed at five hours in total – with no concrete news about the Leicester tragedy, but deep down we all knew. It had certainly been a sad footballing Saturday. During the day, our former Chelsea player-manager Glenn Hoddle had collapsed in a TV studio and had been termed seriously ill. It is no wonder that the thought of football on such a bleak weekend had left me numb.

There had been warnings of a bitterly cold day awaiting us in the old cotton town hiding underneath the moors. I chose some warm clothes and began to prepare myself for the longest drive of the footballing season. A coffee, as always, stirred me to life.

A five-hundred-mile round trip lay ahead.

I departed just before 6am and soon collected PD. Young Jake – his first game of the season, and resplendent in Napapijri and Moncler finery, he had evidently been busy in the close season – joined us at 6.20am, and the old warhorse Parky joined us at 6.45am. Just before 7am, Young Jake opened up a can of Southern Comfort and lemonade. Even the seasoned drinkers LP and PD were impressed. This was the first time up the M5 and M6 since the visit to Manchester City in the first week of March over seven months previously. But this was a well-worn path and all of the road-side views seemed so familiar.

The two Severn Bridges from the ridge of high land just before we joined the M4 at Tormarton. The ski slope at Gloucester. The abbey at Tewkesbury and the Malvern Hills in the distance. After a stop for food at McStrensham, Parky and PD washed things down with some breakfast ciders. “Autumn In The Neighbourhood” – a China Crisis album from 2015 – was given a spin. Parky and I had seen the band in Bristol on the Friday. It would be another weekend devoted to music and football. We neared Birmingham and there were more familiar markers. The floodlights of The Hawthorns. The Bescot Stadium. There were stretches of reduced speed limits between Birmingham and Manchester. Another stop at Stafford Services and Jake treated us to a round of bacon butties. We flew past Stoke and hit the flat lands of Cheshire, passing close to the site near Middlewich where the helicopter returning south from Burnden Park perished in 1996. Outside the skies were mainly clear. It looked a decent day, but we were cocooned in a warm car. We feared the worst. We climbed over the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal and the Pennines were easily visible ahead. Winter Hill at Bolton and the memories of an early-evening game at the Reebok Stadium in April 2005. The Heinz factory at Wigan. The road flattened out again, but then climbed and I spotted Blackpool Tower on the horizon to the west. The visibility was stunning. On the M65, high over Blackburn, the view was spectacular. The hills of the Lake District in the distance and the Forest of Bowland. The trees turning from shades of green to the wilder colours of autumn. Darwen Tower high on the hills to the south. And then the approach into Burnley. The bleak moorlands in the distance. The grey terraced houses. Occasional chimney stacks standing proud as a last lingering testament of a more prosperous time. The sunlight catching the rounded towers. Light and dark. Ancient and modern. A town trying its best to adapt. A quintessential Northern town. A town that loves its football.

“Smallest town or city to ever house Football League Champions, Jake.” It was his first visit. If I was honest, I wanted to wax lyrical about how happy I was to be back in one of the wilder outposts of our travels this season. Here was a “proper” football town, something that Bournemouth and Brighton could never claim.

I was parked up outside the modern curves of the town’s bus station at about 11am. It was my fourth visit to Turf Moor for a Chelsea match. It was fantastic to be back.

Outside, the weather wasn’t so severe as we had all expected. We were impressed with the nearby display at the town’s war memorial; a riot of red poppies and white crosses. It was a short, but brisk, walk to Turf Moor. On a sign depicting Yorkshire Street, there was a Huddersfield Town sticker. On the bridge carrying a canal over Yorkshire Street, the colours of Burnley were sprayed, as if marking territory. The roadside pubs warned “home fans only.” A couple of grafters were selling badges, hats and scarves. Several local shops had claret and blue signage. Everything chimed football, and Burnley Football Club seemed at the centre of everything. For a town of less than 80,000 to support its football team to the tune of 20,000 every two weeks is a highly commendable feat.

There was a strict search outside the away turnstiles. Alas, my camera was not allowed inside and so I was forced to make use of my camera phone.

We had plenty of time to kill, and so we spent the time chatting to a cast of what seemed to be thousands. Familiar faces everywhere. There was a nice pre-match buzz. The team news filtered through.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley.

Pedro – Morata – Willian.

Unlike in previous visits when I was positioned way down and almost pitch-level, here I was about halfway back. A different viewpoint allowed me to see the high moorland behind the stand to my right and beyond the stand at the other end of the ground. Turf Moor is a mix of ancient stands with wooden seats bolted to concrete risers – the old stand to my right had no more than twenty rows – and two newer, but blander, stands. The away stand is cramped but atmospheric. I remember it from the ‘seventies in the days of Steve Kindon, Dave Thomas and Leighton James.

The troops arrived and settled, but nobody sat the entire game. Everyone seemed dressed for the occasion. Puffa jackets, warm tops, ski hats, gloves, Aquascutum scarves wrapped high around the neck.

I looked over at the moors in the distance and my mind whirled back in time. Just after the completion of the Second World War, my mother spent a week in Burnley at the house of a friend that she met while working the land in Sussex. I can’t begin to think how different Burnley must have seemed to my mother, born and raised in a bucolic Somerset village.

The harsh accents. The terraced streets. The mill-workers. The industry. The hustle and bustle. The grey drabness of post-war austerity. The same bleak moors overhead. I looked to my right.

“Wonder if my mother ever set eyes on that exact piece of moorland?”

Muriel, Mum’s friend, would marry Joe Chadwick and they would go onto run a B&B in Blackpool, and we stayed there once or twice in the ‘sixties. I remember seeing Muriel when she visited a mutual friend in Frome in the summer of 1979. The lives of Muriel and Joe are now lost in time – I am sure they did not have any children – but they are remembered every time I revisit Burnley.

The teams entered the pitch from the corner to my left. I was aware that a line of servicemen had positioned themselves alongside the pitch. Although Remembrance Sunday would not take place for a fortnight, here was Burnley Football Club’s ceremony.

But first an announcement about the tragedy at Leicester.

So sad,

The teams stood at the centre-circle.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning.

We will remember them.”

Parky and I repeated the last line.

“We will remember them.”

The “Last Post” was played. There was complete silence. It was awfully poignant.

In the stands, the weather seemed OK. Cold but not uncomfortably so.

Chelsea – in the lovely yellow and blue – went through their pre-match rituals of hugging and embracing. I spotted a chest bump between David Luiz and Toni Rudiger. The team spirit looked exceptional.

The game began.

Alvaro Morata was the only outfield Chelsea player wearing gloves.

Insert comment here.

In the first ten minutes or so, it was the home team – claret and sky blue shirts, pristine white shorts and socks – who dominated. They had obviously been told to “get in among them” and we were decidedly off the pace. For all of their possession, though, we managed to limit them to few chances. We slowly managed to get hold of the ball. On twelve minutes, the game’s first real chance came our way. A cross from N’Golo Kante found Ross Barkley, and his shot bounced high off the turf towards Alvaro Morata, loitering in front of goal. He diverted the ball towards the goal only for Joe Hart to arch himself up and to his left and he tipped it over. It was a great reaction save.

We traded efforts. A Brady shot wide. A Willian shot at Hart.

On twenty minutes, a fine pass from Alvaro Morata resulted in Willian guiding a low shot against the far post.

The home supporters sharing our stand were making quite a din; not surprisingly songs about “Bastard Rovers” dominated.

On twenty-two minutes, we worked the ball quickly through our midfield – everyone took a touch – and the ball ended up at the feet of Ross Barkley, who played a perfectly-weighted ball into space for Morata. A clip past Hart and we were one-up.

“GET IN.”

I was just so relieved that our much-maligned striker had scored.

I remembered the equally exquisite pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle on the opening day of 2014/15 – from almost the same piece of terra firma – and there was a warm glow.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Chances were again exchanged. A Tarkowski header over. Another Willian shot, just wide.

On the half-hour, Pedro left the pitch in some discomfort, and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

On the car ride up in the morning, we had mentioned the thousands of FIFA nerds who must have ran off to their game consoles to play Ruben upfront after his three-goal haul against the Byelorussians on Thursday. The clamour for him to displace either Alvaro or Olivier up front as the sole attacker seemed to reach ridiculous levels. Not sure how that would work to be honest. There is more to playing as a sole striker against defenders in the most competitive league in world football than ghosting in from deeper positions against European lightweights. I was never close to being sold on that idea.

An excellent move from our penalty box, which included a forceful run at the Burnley defence from Marcos Alonso, resulted in Morata poking a ball past the post. A lofted pass found the same striker then shot straight at Hart – in the thick of it now – and we were well on top. The home fans had quietened from their opening volley in the first quarter of the game. The mood at half-time in the crowded concourse was upbeat. It had, thus far, been a great game of football.

Joe Hart, the poor bugger, was met by his own personal song which was bellowed at him by the Chelsea faithful.

“England’s number five. England’s, England’s number five.”

Ten minutes into the second-half, Willian made space and crossed from the right, but a Morata header at the near post narrowly missed the framework.

Two minutes later, a sublime move developed with rapid passes twixt Jorginho and Kante. The ball was played to Barkley, who looked up and planted a left-footed strike into the Burnley goal, with Hart unable to get close. The ball zipped low across the goal and the net rippled a few yards in front of us all.

“GET IN.”

His knee-slide was euphoric.

“Bloody superb goal.”

The away end was enjoying this. Smiles all around.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not a fan of the “viva Ross Barkley” chant though. How a song pandering to hackneyed Scouse stereotypes is going to make a Scouser feel loved is beyond me.

Just after Barkley’s goal, a trademark Willian wiggle to his right allowed him enough time and space to pick his spot, again down low to Hart’s left, in the far corner. We whooped with joy once again. More fantastic celebrations. Poor Joe Hart was undone again.

My mate Mark, a Blackburn Rovers supporter, texted me :

“Make it seven.”

We were coasting now and playing some bloody lovely stuff. There was a moment which stood out for me; the tall and strong Loftus-Cheek turning and running at pace in a central position, right at the heart of the Burnley defence, with the equally strong and robust Barkley alongside him. We may not see this too often under this new manager – his mantra is pass and move – but it was a breath-taking spectacle.

Two English midfield lions running at a defence.

Long may it continue.

Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata. There was applause for both. The Frenchman soon went close.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho and tried to spot a run from Andre Schurrle.

“Not this time, Cesc.”

Hart made a stunning save from a Giroud, palming his fierce header from inside the six-yard box onto the bar. Loftus-Cheek hit the side netting. It was all Chelsea and we did not let up. In the closing minutes of the game, a run from David Luiz – who had headed away many a Burnley cross in his own half – found Marcos Alonso, who adeptly back-heeled the ball into the path of Loftus-Cheek. Our Ruben smashed it home.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Just beautiful.

We bounced out of the ground, and there was such a positive vibe.

“Loved that. Great performance.”

I retrieved my camera, met up with the lads, and then we trotted back to the car, alongside fans of both sides. Many thousands of the home supporters had left before the final whistle. On Yorkshire Street, I narrowly avoided stepping into several dollops of police horseshit.

“Weirdest game of hopscotch I ever played.”

We edged out of Burnley town centre and I slowly began my return trip home. We were on our way by 4.15pm, soon zooming along, and down, the M65. As I headed west, the white steel roof supports – looking very European – of Deepdale could be seen in the distance.

If you know where to look, there is football everywhere.

After stopping at Stafford at our favourite Chinese restaurant on our football travels – where we bumped into three other match-going Chelsea supporters, much to our mutual amusement – I kept driving on and on, before eventually getting home at 11pm.

6am to 11pm.

It had been a long old day, but what an enjoyable long old day.

Thanks Chelsea.

 

 

Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

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

In the good old days, the system was simple.

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

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

I blame Ray Kennedy.

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

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

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

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

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

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

The minutes ticked by.

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

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

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

This was really galling.

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

This can’t be right, can it?

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

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

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

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

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

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

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

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

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

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

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

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

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

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

One-nil to us, happy days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, a calamity.

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

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

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

Crazy.

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

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

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

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

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

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

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

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

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

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

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

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

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

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

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

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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Tales From A Blue Day

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 March 2015.

On the morning of Sunday 1st. March, I was in no mood for a game of football. And now, a day later, if I am honest I am in no mood to write this match report. This is a “Tale” that I have feared for some time. Its inevitability was certain. It was only a question of time.

At around 10pm on Thursday 26th. February, my dear, sweet, gentle and kind mother sadly passed away. Words will be difficult to find, words might struggle to flow, but no end of words will ever do justice to the life of Esme Amy Axon, who left us a few days ago at the age of eighty-five. In the last chapter, I spoke about my mother’s recent short stay in hospital and how I was buoyed by her seemingly good recovery from ill-health, but it was a horrible false dawn. Worried by my mother’s weight loss, I decided to miss the Burnley home game to stay and look after my mother and I stayed away from work all week, too. I am so grateful that I made that decision. As the days passed throughout that week, with my Mum’s health faltering and then momentarily improving, I quickly sensed that work didn’t matter too much and neither did football. Chelsea, my obsession, was put into bleak perspective; after attending seven games in January, I only attended one game in February. It eventually became the darkest month of my life.

The first day of March would be a testing day for me, but I had soon decided that I needed to attend our Capital One Cup Final against Tottenham. To stay at home, possibly alone, would have been unthinkable.  As I awoke after a solid and sound eight hours of sleep on Sunday morning, football itself seemed an irrelevance, but my main desire was to meet up with some of the most wonderful friends anyone could ask for. I collected PD at 7.30am and Parky at 8pm. To give me a break, we caught the 8.37am train from Chippenham. Soon into the journey my two companions were knocking back the cider. I sipped a strong coffee. I was doing OK. I was quiet but content. Zipping through the towns of Reading, Maidenhead and Slough brought back fresh memories of a trip by train to Chelsea with both my parents in 1981 and 1982. Good memories. Strong memories. As the day developed I was sure there would be more.

It was a cold but sun-filled morning. We hopped on the tube at Paddington and were soon meeting up with others at The Tyburn at Marble Arch. We soon bumped into Gal, and I received the first of many warm embraces from friends throughout the day. Bob, over from San Francisco for a couple of games, was already in the pub. Daryl, then Neil, then Alan soon arrived. More hugs. Breakfasts were ordered. Again, I was OK. It was lovely to be among friends.

At around 11.15am, we shifted to our old favourite, The Duke Of York. The pub was already full of Chelsea. A sizeable portion of The Goose’s regulars had simply shifted a few miles north. More hugs. To be honest, after we toasted the memory of my mother, I was hardly in the mood for lager. I don’t think I have ever sipped two pints so slowly in my life.

There was time for me to detail the events of the past few days, weeks and months. Friends shared a few memories of my mother, who made the occasional trip to Stamford Bridge in her later years, and who also met friends on their visits to Somerset. Off the top of my head – and few friends would doubt my memory –  my mother’s last five trips to Stamford Bridge were against Charlton Athletic in 1988, Everton in 1991, PSV Eindhoven in 1996, Birmingham City in 2005 and Watford in 2010. It was a joy for me to be with my mother for the 2005 game; my mother had witnessed a part of our first League Championship in fifty years.  What joy! The Watford game five years later was on my mother’s eightieth birthday. Again, a wonderful memory. Does anyone think that was my mother’s last ever live sporting event? If you do, you are wrong. Later in 2010, I took my little mother to the US and we saw baseball games in Philadelphia and at Yankee Stadium. And only sixteen months ago, on a trip to Scotland, Mum was alongside me at Brechin City’s outrageously picturesque Glebe Park for a game versus Ayr United. Mum loved her trips to Scotland; after my father passed away in 1993, it became a regular event. For six straight years, we made an autumnal trip to various cities in Scotland. Mum saw Scotland – and Pat Nevin – at Hampden Park in 1994 and we also paid a lovely visit to Arbroath in 2009. I have photographs from most of these trips and – of course – I will be hunting these out over the next few emotional and delicate weeks.

All told, my mother went to a few games shy of thirty Chelsea games.

Two other games are worthy of re-telling.

In around 1972, I saw my first-ever Frome Town game. I had watched my local village team, who I later played for on a few occasions, at the local recreation ground, but the trip to Badger’s Hill for a Western League game on a wet autumn afternoon was the first time that I had seen a ‘’proper’’ game. Sadly, Frome lost that day – I remember being really sad – but my most vivid memory is of sitting alongside my mother (my father was working in his menswear shop in the town centre) and sharing a bag of cherries at half-time. Yes, that is correct – my mother took me to my first ever ‘’real’’ game of football. Bless her.

One of the travelling salesmen who used to periodically call in at my father’s shop was a chap from Exeter. My father soon told him of my love of football and, in a pre-curser to corporate hospitality, the salesman managed to obtain three of Exeter City’s allocation of tickets for the 1978 Football League Cup Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. I must admit at feeling rather guilty about travelling to a game not involving my team, but seeing a match at Wembley was a huge thrill. We had three lower-level wooden bench seats near the Forest end. It was a pretty dull 0-0 draw, and I remember thinking how small Wembley seemed. I expected it, from the fish-eye lens perspective of TV cameras to be ridiculously huge. I remember thinking Stamford Bridge to be smaller than I had imagined on my first visit, too.

Anyway, there you have it. In 1978, my dear mother attended a League Cup Final at Wembley.

Thirty-seven years later, I was too. Of course, our two most recent League Cup wins were in Cardiff. In fact, our sole Wembley win in the competition was back in 1998 versus ‘Boro. Our other win – one of only four major trophies that our club had won in its first ninety-two years – was a two-legged final in 1965.

I fancied a little time to myself, so left the other drinkers, and walked to Marylebone. It really was a crisp and sunny day, but with a wicked swirling wind.

I was soon alighting at Wembley Stadium at around 2.45pm. There was a quiet calm. To be honest, the walkways around the stadium seemed eerily silent. Maybe the old Chelsea adage of “one last pint” was in full effect. This game, incredibly, would be our thirteenth game at the new Wembley.

I had managed to source a ticket from a mate for another mate who was travelling down from Glasgow, but arranging to meet both parties at 3.30pm meant that I was caught up in a major melee to enter the block K turnstiles. Frustrations were running high; sadly, I missed the kick-off by a couple of minutes. I took my seat alongside nine friends.

Daryl, Neil, Alan, Gary, Parky, PD, Walnuts, Milo, Simon, Chris.

We were in the very last row of the upper tier above the corner flag where Frank Lampard did his spontaneous homage to his father after scoring against Everton in 2009. We stood the entire game.

Chelsea in all blue.

The scale of the new Wembley is quite staggering, especially from our lofty perch. The side stands go on for ever. I spotted a few Chelsea flags draped on the balcony walls, but very few Tottenham ones. Although I hated the defeat to them in the 2008 final, my worst memory of that day was the fact that Chelsea were heavily out sung by them. I did not want a repeat. In all honesty, I thought both sets of fans were rather quiet, especially in the first-half.

The big surprise was the appearance of Kurt Zouma in a midfield role alongside Ramires. Petr Cech in goal. A midfield three of Cesc, Eden and Willian. There were few chances in the first-half. Chelsea had a few headers which did not cause Spurs too much anxiety. After a run by Kane, the undoubted danger man, a free-kick was rewarded to Spurs outside our box. A hard strike by Eriksen thumped against Cech’s bar. Hazard shot wide. Our play seemed to be a little unadventurous at times, with most of our chances coming from set plays. I thought John Terry had a magnificent first-half, with Willian buzzing around tirelessly. Dave, too, was solid. With half-time approaching, I looked across at the huge upper tier opposite; I could hardly believe that so many fans – and they were mainly our fans – had vacated their sets with still a few minutes left. Why would they choose a pie, a pee, or a pint over watching a Chelsea Cup Final?

On forty-five minutes, a lofted ball by Terry was sent over to Ivanovic, but Chadli fouled our right-back. The resultant free-kick by Willian seemed to ghost past several Spurs defenders before eventually being deflected back to John Terry. To be honest, I was watching all of this through my camera lens, so details are scant. I did, however, see the net bulge and I did hear the resulting roar.

I did not react. I don’t think I will ever react to a Chelsea goal at Wembley as calmly as I did at around 4.45pm on Sunday March 1st. 2015. I think that the events of the previous three days had taken their toll. Sure, I had encouraged the team on with shouts of support during the first-half, but I did not feel the need to “lose it” on this occasion. I simply took a few photographs of John Terry – so glad it was him – running away towards a Tottenham corner and being mobbed by his comrades.

Phew.

There were a few lovely smiles towards me from the chaps.

Just after, unbelievably, we had a great chance to double our lead. Cahill rose to head low, but Loris reacted superbly and clung on to the ball.

At half-time, I had time to explain to a few of the lads why I was wearing my “Chelsea The Blues” scarf, which last saw the light of day on a rainy day in Moscow. After my very first game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, while I was talking to my father outside the West Stand, my mother – on the quiet, quite unannounced – shot off to buy me this scarf from one of the blue wooden huts which teetered at the top of the bank of steps leading down to street level. It has stayed with me for the past forty-one years. It is in remarkably good condition. Now, I’m not a wearer of club colours, but I chose to wear it in Stockholm – definitely a lucky charm – in 1998 and then again in 2008. Wearing it in 2015 was a simple choice.

With noise levels noticeably higher in the second-half, we went from strength to strength. A surprising overhead kick from the otherwise quiet Fabregas tested Loris and we were clearly the better team. A neat move found Costa advancing on Kyle Walker and as he shimmied past his man, I confidently blurted out –

“He’ll never score from there.”

He did. His powerful shot miraculously ended-up in the net (it was a mystery to me at the time how it evaded Loris) and the strangers to my right were hugging me and laughing at my comment. Now I could celebrate a little more. This felt great. I snapped as Costa ran to the corner. The noise boomed around Wembley. More lovely smiles from the lads.

The heavens opened and the rain poured down. The wind seemed to be blowing it towards the Tottenham fans, and many in their lower tier hid for cover. The first few red seats were starting to appear. Two good chances from Hazard and Fabregas came close. We were rampant. The noise increased. A lovely rendition of “Born Is The King” swept around the western terraces. Although I had been too subdued to sing along to many of the Chelsea standards, I knew I had to join in with that one. I commented continually to Simon; I was able to relax and enjoy – if that is the right word – the last thirty minutes, twenty minutes, ten minutes, five minutes. A fine defensive performance was highlighted by a couple of wonderfully-timed blocks by Cahill and Terry. The kid Zouma was fantastic. We simply gave them nothing. Our end was awash with royal blue flags. The minutes ticked by.

At the final whistle, there was a smile from myself to my mother and a kiss of her scarf.

The boys came over, one by one, to hug me.

In Munich there were tears of joy.

There were no tears at Wembley. There had been little moments of silence, of quietness, of tears, throughout the day, but at Wembley I was just happy that the team had won. A defeat, after the past few days, would have been awful.

We did it.

Simon took a photograph of me and the scarf. It was a very special moment. I looked behind me and spotted that the Wembley arch had turned blue. As the cup was presented and as the players joyfully cavorted in a time-honoured Chelsea tradition dating back to May 1997, I was calm. There were the usual Chelsea songs at the end of the celebrations; I quietly whispered the words of “Blue Is The Colour” and a few of the boys were dancing to another favourite. As always, we were some of the last to leave. As we began the descent, our hymn from 1997 boomed out.

“The only place to be every other Saturday is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

What lovely memories of one of the best Chelsea weekends ever. The words washed over me, and I sang along. However, I held back in order to hear a few words. I was waiting for one specific line, delivered by Suggs with a subtle key-change…

“Now even heaven is blue today.”

I kissed my scarf again.

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Dedicated to the memory of my little Mum, who gave me so much and expected so little in return. In my heart forever. 

Esmé Amy Axon : 3 January 1930 to 26 February 2015.