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.

Tales From Wiltshire.

Swindon Town vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2013.

Chelsea’s Capital One Cup game at Swindon Town’s County Ground was always going to be a special one for me. It would be our first competitive match at Swindon for almost twenty years but, more importantly, it also represented the nearest that I would get to a “home” game – of sorts – during this season and, probably, for many a season to come. From my place of work in Chippenham, right on the A4 – on the path of the old Roman road which linked Bristol and London – to the County Ground in Swindon is a journey of just over twenty miles. After countless midweek jaunts up the M4 to London, this was almost too good to be true.

The county of Wiltshire is not known for its footballing heritage. For many years, though, it was 1-0 up over my home shire of Somerset. Swindon Town’s presence in the Football League ensured that the rural county of stone circles and chalk horses stayed ahead in the local football bragging rights. Only since the emergence of Yeovil Town in the past decade has Somerset equalised; both counties now have a Football League team. Maybe my home county wins though; it has a county cricket team, while Wiltshire doesn’t. I have lived my entire life in Somerset – save for my college years and the three years of wanderlust which followed – but I have always worked over the border in Wiltshire; my twenty-three years of employment has taken place in the small towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Chippenham. During my childhood in Frome the local teams, supported by a few school friends, were always the City and Rovers of Bristol; Swindon Town was definitely off the radar. Since working in Wiltshire though, I’ve encountered more followers of Swindon. It must be a county thing.

As soon as the draw was made, it was obvious that this match would entice many of my local Chelsea friends to attend. A hefty “gathering of the clans” from my surrounding home area was guaranteed. However, the game at Swindon turned out to be an extra-special “local” game for one friend in particular, even although her home is on another continent.

The plans for the game at Swindon came together over a few days. I nabbed my ticket at the earliest opportunity. After a few days of waiting, Parky thankfully acquired his ticket too. We made tentative plans to meet up with Mark from Westbury at the Red Lion pub in the midst of the historic stone circles of Avebury on the way to the game. There was quite a local “buzz” about the game. A few Swindon fans from work had tickets; it would be their biggest home game for years. Then, out of leftfield – or at least outside the penalty box – came a bolt from the royal blue. My friend Karen, from Connecticut, contacted me and explained that she would be in Swindon, of all places, on a work visit on the day of the Chelsea game. Talk about serendipity. Although I promised to try to attain a ticket for her, I wasn’t sure any remained. At the very least, we could meet up for a pint. I had first met Karen, surreally, on a yellow school bus, which was used to ferry bevvied-up Chelsea fans from a pub in central Philadelphia to nearby Chester for the MLS All-Star in the summer of 2012. We had chatted about Chelsea in between swigging warm beer and singing a few old favourites. I had briefly bumped into Karen at Yankee Stadium last May, too.

Miraculously, the very next morning more tickets went on sale.

I was able to get hold of one.

Karen was a lucky girl.

Ticket requests from a few friends continued, but I had given up hope of getting hold of any extras. However – quite fortuitously – at the Fulham game on the Saturday, two more tickets became available; one for Les from Melksham, one for Glenn from Frome. Things were falling into place. This was going to be a great night of football.

Then, the good luck continued. Bristol Tim informed me that he had heard that the Chelsea team were staying at the very same hotel, just off the M4, that – yes, you’ve guessed it – Karen was staying in.

I quickly texted Karen the news and I am supremely confident that her reaction was –

“Awesome.”

I was actually surprised that the team would be staying in a hotel, just 80 miles from London, on the night before a League Cup game. It made me stop and think how professional this game of football now is. Rather than travel down on the afternoon, Chelsea had obviously thought that it was important to get a base in Swindon to fully prepare for the match. I had visions of team meetings, reminders of tactical plans, videos of the opponents and exercises in the hotel gym, but also of monotonous hours spent in anonymous hotel rooms, games on lap-tops, idle banter and possible boredom.

On the day of the game, I thankfully managed to wriggle away from work at a good time. I collected Glenn and Parky and, with chatter between the three of us making the twenty minutes seem like twenty seconds, soon found myself pulling into the Swindon Hilton (yeah, that just sounds funny doesn’t it?) bang on time at 5.45pm. Lo and behold, I soon spotted that the sleek black Chelsea coach was parked right outside the entrance. I screeched into the car park and we hopped out, with my trusty camera in hand. Gary Staker and Eva Carneiro were standing next to the coach, but it was soon evident that the players were yet to emerge. I soon spotted Karen, full of smiles, and we both agreed that this was “perfect timing.” Within just a few seconds, the blue track suited players appeared. I took a few photos. There was a small group of well-wishers nearby, but most players walked straight on to the coach. Kudos to Juan Mata and David Luiz, plus one or two more, for stopping by to sign autographs.

Jose Mourinho was close by and so I gathered my nerve and approached him. As I held out my hand, I wished him “good luck for tonight” but for a horrible moment I was sure that he would blank me. He looked as miserable as sin – I felt like saying “come on mate, Swindon can’t be that bad” – but thankfully he shook my hand, albeit rather dismissively. Glenn wished him well, too. Karen, I think, was near to fainting. As we walked back to the car, I wondered why Parky was nowhere to be seen.

The answer? In my haste to rush off to see Karen and the players, I had unfortunately locked him inside the car.

Not so perfect.

Karen was bubbling as I drove into the town centre. During the afternoon, she had found herself alongside Doctor Eva on the running machines in the gym; they had exchanged words and, once Eva found out that Karen was a CFC supporter, had offered her a ticket.

That’s lovely.

Within a few minutes, we were parked up in a side street, just minutes from the County Ground. The evening was gorgeous; blue skies, warm, no hint of clouds, no hint of rain, the business. As we walked through the rather down-at- heel streets, which reminded me of the area around Fratton Park, Glenn and I spoke about our last visit to Swindon Town. In the summer of 1996, we played at Swindon in a testimonial on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I believe that it marked Frank Leboeuf and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea debuts. We won 2-0 in front of a healthy gate of 13,881. The game was unremarkable and dull. It was notable for one reason only; for a year or so, Glenn’s German girlfriend at the time had fancied seeing Chelsea play. Glenn’s rather antiquated view of “football being no place for a woman” was jettisoned for one game, but Anke hated the experience of live footy. In truth, it was a poor game, with virtually no atmosphere to speak of. The look on all three of our faces must have been a picture. Glenn and I vowed never to go to another meaningless pre-season friendly ever again. As we reminisced about that day some seventeen years ago, we joked –

“Anke left you to it from then on, Glenn.”

“Too right, Blue.”

We decided to have a couple of drinks at the adjacent cricket ground, which adjoins the football ground to the north. The rather antiquated, but still ornate, white pavilion housed a small bar and we soon ordered a round of lager and cider. Within seconds, the queue at the bar was formidable; again, we had arrived just at the right time. Outside, there was chat with a few friends as we made our way out into the gorgeous evening as the sun slowly faded to our right. Karen was enjoying the cider as I explained a few things about football in England and how it differs in so many ways from the US sport scene; there’s a book there, or maybe an encyclopaedia, waiting to be written. We chatted with Big John, who sits just a few seats away from us at HQ, about all things Chelsea. Karen was amazed at our collective weight of support for the club and team. Karen asked John if he went to all the games.

“No” replied John, almost apologetically, “most seasons I miss a couple.”

Karen yelped “a couple?!?!”” as if it was beyond belief that someone could be so devoted.

I smiled. Karen was in good company.

This would be Karen’s fifth Chelsea game. Her first one was Juan Mata’s debut at home to Norwich in 2011. After numerous visits to Swindon with work, Karen was still pinching herself that Chelsea were in town and she had a ticket.

Good times.

The night fell and we made our way to the ground. I told Karen to be sure that the next time a rogue Manchester United supporter back in the US confronted her about being a glory hunter, Karen should be sure to respond with the two key words “Swindon away.” Glenn and Parky made their way to the open Stratton Bank – where I stood with a Newcastle  United mate in 1993 as Andy Cole made his Geordie debut – while Karen and I lined up for the seats in the main stand. We bumped into a few lads from Trowbridge and I think Karen was slightly surprised how many people I knew.

“Going away with Chelsea is like going away with a mad extended family, though – everyone knows each other.”

The ground hadn’t changed one iota since 1996. To my left, the Stratton Bank, proper old school, open to the elements. To my right, the small covered Town End. Opposite, the single tiered Don Rogers Stand, which had replaced the idiosyncratic Shrivenham Road Stand in the early ‘nineties. The Shrivenham Road Stand consisted of a small terrace underneath a single tier of seats which had originally been part of the parade ground where the Aldershot Miliary Tattoo took place. It was so antiquated and flimsy that it seemed that a gust of wind would tear it asunder. That it survived so long is a miracle.

It took me back to 1988. On a cold midweek evening in January of that year, we played Swindon Town in the Simod Cup. My father had battled hard against the evening traffic and then found parking almost impossible. He dropped me off and I rushed to the away section, right underneath the upper tier of the old stand. I arrived about five minutes late and, by then, Chelsea were already 2-0 down. My parents were hoping to get tickets for the main stand. Our turn out was about 1,200; not bad for a midweek game in a ludicrously unimportant match. My mate Leggo had informed me – as was the way in those days – that a mob of Swindon had charged some Chelsea chaps back at the train station. At the time, Swindon were a Second Division team. We eventually lost 4-0. I remember gallows humour throughout, but also chants of “Hollins Must Go” too.

At the end of the game, with dogs barking outside and the police trying to ensure that the locals had been dispersed, we were kept inside for around ten minutes. I looked down to my left and there, to my disbelief, were my parents. I had to rub my eyes. My parents – my Dad in his work suit and a sheepskin coat I am sure – in amongst the hoodlums of the Chelsea away pen.

I sauntered down to see them. I was in shock.

Evidently, all seat tickets had been sold – the gate was 12,317 – but my parents were allowed entry into the home turnstiles at half-time for a half-price £2, and were then escorted around the pitch by stewards and taken to the away pen.

Too surreal.

Even now, that makes me laugh.

As the teams entered the pitch, the TV cameras picked out Mourinho on the bench. His image was shown on the large screen to my left. He was looking pensive and still quite miserable.

In addition to around 2,000 fans on the Stratton Bank, Chelsea had around 1,400 in the corner section of the main stand; I was stood right next to the docile home fans, right next to a line of police, though there would be no trouble tonight surely? My mate Simon – from 1984 – came down to sit next to me and I soon retold the story of my parents being led around the pitch in 1988. If only I had my camera with me then.

It was a full house; over 14,000. I hoped that the Chelsea fans would put on a special show for Karen but, in the main, we went through the motions. Only on sporadic occasions did the 3,400 roar as one. Soon into the game, the home fans confirmed who their biggest rivals were :

“Oxford United – We Fucking Hate You.”

It was lovely to see Michael Essien back; he did well throughout. Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. I thought that Willian had a very quiet first-half and did not try anything adventurous. The van Ginkel injury – not far from where I was stood – looked serious and it was with sadness that he was replaced so soon. Ramires entered the fray and his energy gave us a little more vibrancy. A David Luiz free-kick whizzed through the air and the Swindon ‘keeper Foderingham did well to save.

The away fans sang about Dennis Wise and the San Siro and I soon realised that our former captain – and for a short period, Swindon manager – was in the Sky TV studio in the far corner, just where I had stood in 1988. He waved at the Chelsea fans and they roared again. There were pockets of away fans singing, but nothing worth noting.

When my local team Frome Town played the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine a few seasons ago, the Frome Ultras – yes, really – taunted the away support with the surprisingly witty chant of –

“Inbreds and  Roundabouts.”

Swindon is inundated with roundabouts. I’ll get back to you all on the inbreeding.

Fernando Torres was clean through after a Juan Mata touch, but the Swindon goalie flung up an arm and batted his effort away. Right after, Ramires set up Mata whose effort was parried only for Torres to touch in at an acute angle. He celebrated quietly in front of the home fans who had just recently taunted him. Quickly, a second goal, with a sublime ball from Torres allowing Ramires to deftly chip over the ‘keeper. Swindon, with the diminutive Pritchard at the heart of their attacks, offered a few efforts on goal, but Mark Schwarzer was largely untroubled.

John Terry replaced Rami at the break. Our captain was actually applauded by the home fans as he entered the pitch; this made a refreshing change. I guess that the locals were just happy to see a famous player on their home turf. A Swindon goal was disallowed for offside. De Bruyne, clean through, was unable to finish. Swindon perhaps should have scored after a great cross caught us flat-footed at the back. Torres looked as though he was keen to impress and showed neat footwork on a number of occasions, but his finishing was lacking. Next, a wasted Willian chance. Demba Ba, who replaced De Bruyne, then curled a shot narrowly wide. Lastly, another strong Torres run ended up with over-elaboration and frustration when Willian stabbed at the ball instead of allowing Nando to finish.

On another night, we could have scored five.

The four of us reconvened back at the cricket pavilion. Karen had met a few more Chelsea fans during the night and it was clear that she was integrating herself well into the Chelsea Family. We all agreed that it had been a so-so game of football, but everything else had been perfect. There was time for one last drink back at the Swindon Hilton (admit it, it still sounds odd) and time for reflections on the past few hours. Oh, and time for some typically crap jokes from Lord Parky.

“All part of the Chelsea experience, Karen.”

Until next time.

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Tales From The Black And The Orange.

Blackburn Rovers vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2010.

It’s hard to believe now, but for quite a while, Blackburn Rovers were a bogey side for Chelsea Football Club. I’m pretty sure that it took us 16 years to defeat them at home in the league, from a 4-1 win in the play-offs in 1988 to a 4-0 win in 2004. Away from home, they were equally difficult to beat. I wasn’t present at the memorable 4-3 game at Ewood in 1998 and so, in total, it took me a staggering 15 games before I physically saw us defeat Rovers. From August 1988 to February 2004 the run went on and on and it never looked like ending…the first six matches all resulted in Chelsea defeats. Yes, it was as bad as that. It’s interesting to note that I’m talking about two interlinked worlds here…our complete record through the years, but also the games that I have witnessed. From a personal perspective, the latter always seems more pertinent. I guess it’s all of the emotional and financial involvement that I put into attending Chelsea games. I guess that’s natural.

My mate Mark is a Blackburn Rovers fan and I accompanied him to Ewood Park on four occasions from 1995 to 2004. For the first three occasions, we watched from the main stand on Nuttall Street, and it was difficult for me not to get behind the team as I was surrounded by Blackburn fans. In 1995, Mark gravely miscalculated on the dates which he had promised his then girlfriend a weekend away and so his ticket became available and my Chelsea mate Alan joined me in the Nuttall Street stand. Unfortunately, we lost 3-0 and were atrocious. This proved to be the late David Rocastle’s last ever game for us. Of course, Rovers were rampant at that time and Graeme Le Saux was firing in crosses for Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. Every time Rovers scored, Alan and myself remained glumly sat and we were easily sussed. I think there was a little playful banter from the cheering Rovers fans by the time the last goal was scored. I’ve never had any problems at Ewood, though. Because of my friendship with Mark, I don’t mind them.

I left home at 7.45am and, with a coffee to perk me up, soon got into the groove. In an attempt to save some money, I had prepared some food for the day ahead. My bag was laden with provisions which Scott of the Antarctic would have been proud. As I headed through Writhlington, I spotted fellow Chelsea fan Terry leaving a corner shop, clutching a few morning groceries. I slowed down and yelped “I’m off to Blackburn” and smiles were exchanged.

The Style Council were running through their greatest hits on my trusty CD player and Paul Weller was in good voice.

“We’re gonna shout to the top.”

As I ate up the miles, I thought of the plans for the next clutch of games and tended to focus on the up-coming game at Anfield. That’s always one of the highlights of our season these days. The M5 around Gloucester and Cheltenham was edged with vibrant yellows and warm reds – by the time of that Liverpool game, the Autumn colours should be at their photogenic best. The sky was clear and the weather looked great, but I couldn’t believe that there wouldn’t be rain in Lancashire at some stage.

There are towns throughout England which are synonymous with certain types of industry – I can think of shipbuilding in Sunderland, pottery in Stoke-On-Trent, steel in Sheffield, lace-making in Nottingham, glass manufacture in Rotherham, fishing in Grimsby, shoes in Northampton, beer in Burton and textiles in Manchester and Leeds. Blackburn is also one of those towns which owe its growth during the industrial revolution to textiles and I’m sure the town was dominated by cotton mills at the time of the formation of its football club in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Rovers were one of the original members of the Football League and, growing up, we occasionally played them in the old second division. However, it was steel magnate Jack Walker who put the town on the map in the early ‘nineties. He invested millions in his boyhood team and oversaw a mini-Abramovich revolution in central Lancashire. Until then, Blackburn was probably more memorable for a brief mention in a Beatles song.

“I heard the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.”

Well, on this particular “Day In The Life”, there would be nigh-on 4,000 Chelsea in Blackburn, Lancashire.

“On Boy” indeed.

At Frankley Services, just south of Birmingham, I spotted a young lad wearing a Blackburn shirt – the first of the day. I also had a quick chat with Chelsea fan from Abergavenny in South Wales. He’s a season-ticket holder too and attends games at The Bridge with his wife and this involves a 300 mile round trip every fortnight. Fair play to them.

I called in at Stafford to collect Julie and Burger at 10am and we were soon on our way up the M6. Like me, they are looking forward to the Anfield game and it will be a first-time visit for them. I very briefly ran through a list of attractions to see in Liverpool – stop sniggering at the back – and I’m sure they will enjoy themselves. Our talk again centred on our views of fandom and how Chelsea appear to be a special club, to our biased eyes at least.

Up and over one last hill and Blackburn was visible in the valley below.

At midday, I found a safe place to park my Peugeot 207 and we soon found our way to The Fernhurst, one of the first ‘away fans only’ pubs in England. The sun was out, but the temperature was surprisingly cold in the shadows. I think we only took about 2,500 up to Ewood on that miserable Sunday in March last season. However, we had heard that we had sold over 3,500 for this encounter. Chelsea had returned some tickets and so that there would be that very rare entity of away tickets being sold on the day of the game. In The Fernhurst car park, it certainly felt like a big turnout. A few flags were pinned up, including a new one involving the words to the Celery Song and a silhouette of a nubile young girl getting “tickled.” I spotted a Chelsea / Rangers flag and more than a few Scottish accents. Groups of familiar faces were huddled in small groups and there was a general hub-bub of conversation. Bizarrely, two mounted policemen arrived on the scene and positioned themselves in the far corner. The only crimes being committed involved the wanton crushing underfoot of tens of plastic pints on the car park floor.

Burger and me had a couple of Thwaites bitters for a change – a local brew – which went down well. At just after 2pm, we drifted off to the ground. I took Julie and Burgs around to the far corner to take a few photographs of the Jack Walker Memorial. Blackburn had lost their famous player Ronnie Clayton the previous day and there were a few bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue of Jack Walker. During the redevelopment of Ewood Park, a famous old turnstile entrance ( memorably used during a famous commercial in the ‘seventies ), was demolished. However, the brickwork involving the words “Rovers FC” was saved and this is incorporated into the memorial. There is a fountain amidst the red brick and it really works well.

Burger wanted to get his flag up so we entered the ground at about 2.15pm. They were in the upper tier, but my seat was right behind the goal in the lower tier… half Rovers, half Chelsea. I took a few photos of the players in their warm-up…first Petr Cech going through his drills with Hilario and the goalkeeping coach, then the rest of the squad joined in at 2.30pm. A few stretches, a few shots, but then some sprinting drills in front of the Riverside Stand to our right. I noted that as late as 2.40pm, only four thousand spectators were inside the stadium. This is so different to days gone by. Often The Shed was pretty full as early as an hour before kick-off and the ground would be reverberating to Chelsea songs. At Ewood in 2010, things were pretty quiet. Just before the game began, the inevitable rain, but – for once – it soon subsided. On this Halloween Eve, we wore the black and orange kit.

Ronnie Clayton was remembered.

RIP.

I was happy to see Ivanovic back on the right side of the defence. We began well and controlled the first ten minutes, knocking the ball around with ease. An early Drogba header was our only threat, though. Then, for the rest of the first period, Blackburn dominated and our support grew increasingly restless. Our defence was breached on a number of occasions in a ten minute spell, with Benjani the main threat. On one occasion, Petr Cech slipped just as a deft chip was dropping into the net. Thankfully, Petr recovered superbly well and palmed the ball over. In attack, we seemed to be too leaden-footed, too willing to take an extra touch, unwilling to play the ball quickly. Mikel was doing well to hold things together, but the rest of the team were underperforming.

Then, calamity. El Hadji Diouf was pulling the strings on Blackburn’s left and his perfect cross found the leaping Benjani at the far post. Despite JT’s best efforts, his leap was unchallenged and his powerful header flew into the net, just inside the post, right at me.

Groans.

We rarely threatened during the rest of that first period and the away support was pretty quiet.

After a Blackburn attack, Cech spotted the opportunity for a quick break. His sliced kick immaculately found Malouda on the left and I immediately wondered if that is what he had intended. Cech’s kicking is one of his weaker attributes. However, Malouda soon gathered the ball and sent over a long ball towards Didier. His headed knock down was perfect for the unrushing Anelka to prod the ball past Robinson.

Get in.

As I jumped around like a fool, I shouted – “I love that route one football.”

We had weathered the storm. We surely couldn’t play as poorly as in the second period, could we?No, of course we couldn’t.

With Chelsea attacking an increasingly involved away support of 4,000, our mood changed. We had a lot more of the ball, though if I am honest I can’t put my finger on what Ancelotti said at the break to warrant the improvement. I thought that the pairing of Ashley Cole and Yuri Zhirkov were the biggest improvement. The home support sensed Ashley’s threat as they quickly serenaded him with a ditty about his ex-wife.

It was Cole who had the best chance of the half when the ball zipped across the box towards him, but he sliced his effort wide of Robinson’s right post. Drogba was in a strange mood again though and I think he isn’t 100% fit. He seemed half-hearted. As the game drew on, we heard that Manchester City were losing 2-1 at Molyneux and so it would be very frustrating if we couldn’t capitalise. Shots from Zhirkov and spritely substitute Sturridge flew past the goal.

If I am honest, I was always confident our superior quality would tell. However, what a shock from that late Blackburn attack when the ball was deftly played into the lurking Jason Roberts. He shimmied past the last defender and we stood, as one, expecting the worst.

His shot flew past the post and thousands of home fans put their heads in their hands. The Chelsea section, however, roared.

Very soon after, a period of sustained Chelsea pressure ensued and the ball was worked out to the Russian. Zhirkov was faced with a couple of robust Blackburn henchmen in his way, but he nimbly created a yard of space and deftly dug out an inch-perfect cross towards Ivanovic on the far post. Time seemed to stand still as the ball hung in the air. The powerful Ivanovic was waiting. We all saw the gaps in the goal, each side of Robinson. We all jumped with Ivanovic and his crashing downward header filled us with joy as the ball hit the back of the net.

Delirium once again – another last minute winner – and the away end exploded. Several fans rushed past me down the aisle and I bounced around, hugging Mark and Gary, our faces aching with joy. In a croaking voice, a red-faced Alan spoke –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

And I replied –

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The ignominy of 1995 and that woeful 3-0 loss, plus all those others, were forgotten and we could celebrate amongst our own now. The Chelsea choir responded with our very unique song, born in 2005 but now resurrected –

“That’s Why We’re Champions.”

Phew – all was well with the world, but we all knew we had ridden our luck against a defiant home team. We soon reminded the Blackburn Rovers support of the day’s events –

“One Nil, And You F***ed It Up.”

I took a few photos of the celebrating Chelsea players as I edged my way out of the Darwen End. The joy and emotion in JT’s face is always uplifting and it was wonderful to see that our elation was matched by theirs.

We’re in it together, after all.

After a slow start amongst bumper-to-bumper match traffic, we soon found our way back to the southbound M6. Burger spent a while looking through my photo album from the memorable 1996-1997 season and he made the point about how many players from the team at Wembley have gone into management and coaching – namely Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke, Dennis Wise, Roberto Di Matteo, Eddie Newton, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola and the substitute Gianluca Vialli. That’s pretty impressive numbers. We were to eventually hear that both United and Arsenal would win, but title challengers Manchester City were now a massive eight points adrift. And it’s only October. I said “adios” to The Burgers at 7pm, knowing that we would inevitably meet up at Liverpool next Sunday. I then continued my homeward journey, listening to “606”, featuring incandescent Tottenham fans, as I went. I gorged myself on a smorgasbord of curry slices, tuna and sweet corn sandwiches, cinnamon whirls, a Red Bull, a McDonalds coffee and a bumper pack of Maynard’s wine gums. Passing through Bristol city centre, I spotted a few local girls ( with accents that could curdle milk ) in Halloween face paint and, for many, it was an improvement.

“Alright, my luvver?”

I reached home at 9.45pm and I soon watched the highlights on “MOTD.” I briefly spotted myself in the build up to our winner as the ball hung in the air ahead of Brana’s header. It’s hard to believe that we have played ten games in the league, yet have only conceded a miserly three goals. That’s pretty phenomenal, yet nobody in the media has noted this. I’m going to suggest that our great defensive record is largely due to the fantastic shield that Mikel gives our back four. Along with Ivanovic, I’d suggest he has been our most consistent performer this season.

I quickly worked out that ‘my’ overall record against those pesky Rovers is now a much more respectable 10-7-10. That’s more like it.

And so we march on.

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Tales From World Series Week.

Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers : 28 October 2009.

During the day, my head was full of the first game of the 2009 World Series. I found myself thinking about this possibly more than the evening game against Bolton Wanderers. Here we were, in the middle of six Chelsea games in eighteen days and my head was in The Bronx. Throughout the drive to London and while at the game, my twin loves of football and baseball flip-flopped into my consciousness at various stages with both sports vying for attention. At least part of me was spiritually at Stan’s Sports Bar, adjacent the old Yankee Stadium, even if I was physically tied to England.

I left work at 4.30pm and, via a refuelling stop at Reading services that Jenson Button would have been proud, I entered The Goose at 7pm. I noted that, on the approach to The Goose, all of the other pubs were pretty empty. The Goose, however, was rammed solid. I bought a lager and headed out for a quick chat with the lads. We were full of gossip about our upcoming trip to Madrid, but Daryl and myself spent a few minutes discussing the Yankees. Daryl is a fan too and has been so for a bit longer than me. He has visited NYC on a few occasions. We were both relishing the Series – and even planning on trying to catch a game while in Spain on the Monday night.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking back to the first World Series that I saw live on TV. I bought a Sky TV package especially to watch the 1996 Series and it turned out to be an emotional week. I saw Chelsea get gubbed 4-2 at home to Wimbledon on the Saturday, then the first game at Yankee Stadium that night was rained off. Not a great start to the week! Atlanta took the first two games on the Sunday and Monday night. By the time I got into work, exhausted, on the Tuesday I was pretty low. The Yanks were 2-0 down and Chelsea had just been exposed by the physical nature of Wimbledon ( Frank Leboeuf especially ). I caught up on some sleep during Tuesday evening, woke up to find out that Chelsea had won at Bolton in the League Cup, then settled down to watch a phenomenal Game Three, with a Jim Leyritz homer inspiring the Yanks to a win. The game ended at about 5.30am. I caught an hour’s sleep. While at work, I heard from a mate that Mathew Harding had been killed on his way back from Bolton, no doubt just before Game Three had begun. I was dazed. Matthew was a great director – well loved – and it seemed that our brave new future, with him at the helm, was no more.

We were all devastated.

The Yanks tied the series on the Wednesday and went ahead in Game Five, the last ever game at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium…this took me up to Friday morning. On Friday night – at last – I could catch up on sleep. On Saturday, we reconvened at a sombre Stamford Bridge, armed with a blue and white floral tribute for Matthew, and paid our respects. I had a few pints of Matthew’s favourite Guinness and remember being numbed. The opponents that day were Tottenham Hotspur. Everyone stood silent for a minute before the game…a pint of Guinness on the centre circle…it was the most emotional I have ever felt at a game.

Chelsea beat Spurs 3-1 and, that night, in the small hours, the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978. When Charlie Hayes caught that fly ball down by third base, I yelped for joy.

What a night. What a day. What a week.

The fact that – here we were, thirteen years on – we had another Chelsea vs. Bolton League Cup game and another New York World Series Game was not lost on me.

Yet more lines at the scanners outside the MHU meant that I got in a couple of minutes late. I spotted lots and lots of young kids in and around me. This was a good sight indeed. I was impressed that Bolton filled their 1,400 allocation. Not bad for a weekday game. Compare this with Blackburn’s paltry 400 on Saturday. Proof if any was needed that the financial climate affects attendance. The ticket prices for League games are £45, for League Cup games it’s £19.

We opened the scoring with a great Kalou header and it looked like being an entertaining game. Juliano severely misjudged a cross, but the Bolton striker’s shot was bravely blocked by Hilario. Our reserve ‘keeper was soon replaced by home debutant Ross Turnbull. We scored our second when a ball took a deflection off Zat Night’s knee for the previously quiet Malouda to smash home. Two-nil and coasting.

I wanted us to soften Bolton up ahead of the second game in our double-header against them and it looked like more goals would follow as we carved them open. Joe Cole was again buzzing and looked as though he was making up for lost time.

Throughout the match, Alan and myself spoke further about our plans for Madrid, while Rousey behind us kept telling us of a lap dancing club in Madrid called, temptingly, Chelsea Girls. At half-time, Chelsea TV was previewed on the big screens and I spotted Jonny Gould, who used to host the Channel Five MLB coverage from 1997 to 2008. Bizarrely, he was sat a couple of rows behind me I Moscow. Small world. Back came the Yankees into my consciousness once again. Also at half-time, our U12 and U13 teams paraded around the pitch with two cups we had recently won in Eindhoven. They were roundly applauded.

I noted that the guy sat in Glenn’s seat, between Alan and Tom, sat through the entire game without talking, without singing, without doing anything. I wonder if he even bothered clapping our goals.

We weren’t really sure why Essien and then Drogba came on during the second-half…especially as we were in the middle of such a busy period. Sorry Carlo – couldn’t fathom that one. We all felt sorry when Daniel Sturridge shot twice from similar positions within a couple of minutes. A goal there would have done his confidence the world of good. A nice move down below me was finished off with a well placed Deco strike and – with Bolton quickly losing interest – Didier headed a fourth. Thirteen goals in three home games…superb stuff. Does anyone else realise that, from Seattle onwards, we have scored in all our games this year? Long may it continue. It was a good game. It seemed that at times Joe and Deco were trying to out-do each other, but why not? Let’s entertain the kids!

I stayed in the stadium for about ten minutes at the end. I noticed that, like Saturday, Juliano headed towards the MHL at the end of the game and presented his match shirt to an adoring young fan…a nice touch indeed. With only a few hundred souls left in the stadium, one last moment catapulted me from SW6 to North America. On the stadium PA, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” was played and I had a laugh to myself. This was the song chosen for the final scene in The Sopranos ( how my mates and I loved that show…for me, it helped cement my love for that whole NJ / NY area ) and I also, poignantly, remember it being played in Stan’s Sports Bar after my last ever game at old Yankee Stadium in June 2008.

I believe that the White Sox chose it as their anthem in their march towards their pennant and World Series in 2005, too.

So yet again on this strangest of nights for me, football and baseball intertwined.

I listened to Radio Five Live on the drive back to Somerset and it was lovely to hear former footballer Steve Claridge contrasting Liverpool with us. Liverpool seemed a confused club, whereas Chelsea ( he had been at The Bridge for the game ) had “great togetherness.” Music to my ears. It is always so nice to hear positive stuff about us from a neutral.

Despite a few foggy patches on the A303, I reached home at midnight.

Safe!

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