Tales From Stamford Bridge To Wembley

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 May 2022.

I am sure that I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who wasn’t a little fearful going into the 2022 FA Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley. On the early morning drive into London – I collected PD as early as 6am – the feeling was of worry and impending doom. As has been proven by the league table – “the league table does not lie, it just sits down occasionally” – we are a fair distance behind both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, as we were last season and the season before it. Additionally, a defeat at the hands of the Scousers would mean a record-breaking third consecutive FA Cup Final loss. And that thought was just horrible too.

But, bollocks to all that, we were off to Wembley again and we kept ourselves contented with the usual badinage of wisecracks as I ate up the miles. I was hopeful that one of the great FA Cup Final weekends was upon us. We all live in hope, right?

But first, a walk down memory lane.

1972.

The first FA Cup final that I can ever remember watching took place in 1972. It was between Arsenal and Leeds United. My best friend Andy was an Arsenal fan, though I can’t honestly remember wanting them to win. I was a neutral. I can still remember a few bits about the day. I was six, coming up to seven, and already a mad-keen Chelsea supporter. I remember that it was the centenary of the first competition that took place in 1872, though of course not the actual one-hundredth final due to the wartime interruptions. I remember representatives of all of the previous winners parading around the perimeter of the old Wembley pitch with flags. I was proud to see the Chelsea flag. Leading up to the final, Esso were running a promotion celebrating the game. Collectible coins – to go in an album – were rewarded for petrol purchases. Suffice to say, I must have pleaded with my father to only fuel up at Esso for a few weeks. I still have the album, completed, to this day.

I remember Allan Clarke, from around the penalty spot, scoring with a diving header and David Coleman exploding “one-nil” as if the game was over at that exact moment. I can recall Mick Jones dislocating his shoulder as he fell awkwardly attempting a cross and hobbling up the steps to the royal box, bandaged like a mummy. Fifty years ago. Bloody hell. Looking back, this is the very first club game I can remember seeing live, though I am pretty sure the England vs. West Germany game just one week before it is the first full game I saw live on TV. Or at least the first I can remember seeing.

I think.

1973.

The FA Cup Final was huge in those days. It was the only club game shown live on TV – both channels – and would remain that way until 1983 apart from rare one-offs. On a trip to London in the autumn of 1973 we called in to see Uncle Willie, my grandfather’s brother, at either his house in Southall or at a nursing home at Park Royal (where my father would park for my first Chelsea game in 1974, but that is – and has been – another story.) After the visit, my father granted my wish to drive up to see Wembley Stadium. That I had not asked to see Stamford Bridge is surprising from fifty years away, but I am sure that my father would have been intimidated by the thought of traffic in those more central areas.

Wembley it was.

I can vividly remember sitting in his car as we wended our way up to Wembley. On that fateful cab trip to Wembley for the “aborted” FA Cup semi-final recently, I half-recognised the journey. I have always had a heightened sense of place and a recollection and memory of places visited in other times.

I remember Dad parking off Olympic Way and me setting eyes on the magnificence of the historic stadium. It sat on top of an incline, and the twin towers immediately brought a lump to the throat of the eight-year-old me. I remember walking up to the stadium, the steps rising to the arched entrances, the dirty-cream colour of the walls, the grass embankments. I veered left and possibly tried to peer down the tunnel at the East End, an end that would become known as the “lucky tunnel end” for FA Cup Finals over the next few decades. The stadium was huge. However, it needed a bit of a clean-up. It looked a bit grimy. But I loved the way it dominated that particular part of North London. The visit has stayed etched in my mind ever since even though I was only there for maybe twenty minutes.

“Come on Chris, we need to head home.”

I can almost picture my father’s worried look on his face, chivvying me on.

1997.

Our appearance in the 2022 FA Cup Final provided a perfect time to recollect our appearance in the much-loved 1997 FA Cup Final; the quarter of a century anniversary.

Here are my recollections.

The 1996/97 season was a beautiful one, but also a sad one. The death of Matthew Harding in October 1996 hit all of us hard, and the immediate aftermath was tough on us all. Remarkably, our spirits rose not so long after Matthew’s tragic death when we signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma. It felt like, in the same way that getting Mickey Thomas in 1984 completed that wonderful team, the signing of the Italian magician helped complete the team being assembled by Ruud Gullit.

The FA Cup run was the stuff of legends. I went to most games.

West Brom at home : an easy win, 3-0.

Liverpool at home : the greatest of games, losing 0-2 at half-time, we turned it round to triumph 4-2.

Leicester City away : a 2-2 draw, I watched on TV.

Leicester City at home : Erland Johnsen’s finest moment and a Frank Leboeuf penalty gave us a 1-0 win in extra-time.

Pompey away : a 4-0 win in the mist, I watched on TV.

Wimbledon at Highbury : 3-0, a breeze, Zola’s twist to score in front of us in the North Bank.

On the Thursday before the Cup Final itself, we watched Suggs perform “Blue Day” on “TOTP” and the pleasure it gave us all is unquantifiable. Everything was well in the world, or in my world anyway. In the January of 1997, I was given a managerial job in my place of employment, a bit more dosh to follow the boys over land and sea, and maybe even Leicester next time.

On the Saturday of the final, a beautiful sun-filled morning, Glenn drove to London with two passengers; our friend Russel, eighteen, about to sit his “A Levels”, and little old me. I was thirty-one with no silverware to show for years and years of devotion to the cause. We parked-up at Al’s flat in Crystal Palace, caught the train at the local station, changed at Beckenham Junction and made our way to “The Globe” at Baker Street via London Bridge. We bumped into a few familiar faces from our part of the world – can you spot PD? – and enjoyed a sing-song before heading up to Wembley Park.

Funny the things I remember.

Lots and lots of singing on the way to Wembley. We felt unbeatable, truly. Ben Shermans for Daryl and myself. Lots of Chelsea colours elsewhere. I had just bought a pair of Nike trainers and I had not worn the bastards in. They pinched my feet all day long. We posed for my “VPN” banner underneath the twin towers. However, I tried to hoist it once inside, using small sticks, but was immediately told to hand it all in at a “left luggage” section in the concourse. Our seats were low-down, corner flag. Unfortunately, I had a killer headache all bloody game.

The Roberto di Matteo goal after just forty-three seconds was insane. Limbs were flailing everywhere. Oh my fucking head.

The dismal 1994 FA Cup Final was recollected, briefly. For that game, we only had about 17,000 tickets and it seemed that all neutral areas were United. In 1997, all the neutral tickets seemed to be hoovered up by us. Not sure how that worked to this day. I remember virtually nothing about the game except for Eddie Newton’s prod home at our end to make it safe at 2-0.

When Wisey lifted the famous silver pot, twenty-six years of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting were evaporated.

It was always going to be “Matthew’s Cup” and so it proved. At the time, it was the best day of my life. Since, I have had two better ones; Bolton in 2005 and then Munich in 2012. But for anyone that was supporting the club on Saturday 17 May 1997, it was a feeling that was pretty indescribable.

So I won’t even try. Just look at the fucking pictures.

After the game, I remembered to collect my banner but I don’t remember how we reached Fulham Broadway. It seemed that all of the bars around the stadium had closed. We weren’t sure if this was because there was no beer left or if the police had said “enough.” One image stays in my mind. The Fulham Road was still closed for traffic and a sofa was sat in the middle of the road. Thankfully, we de-camped to our pub of choice that season, The Harwood Arms, and Pat and his three “Sisters of Murphy” let us in.

If there is a more blissful photo of Chelsea fans from that day – Neil, me, Daryl, Alan, Glenn outside the pub – then I would like to see it. We made it back to South London via Earls Court and God knows where else. We watched the game, taped, when we reached Alan’s flat late that night. We fell asleep happy.

On the Sunday morning, the big man made us breakfasts. We all hopped into Glenn’s car and made our way back to Fulham with “Blue Day” playing on a loop the entire day. Both Alan and I took our camcorders for the parade. The film I have of us driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, Chelsea bunting everywhere, is a wonderful memory of another time, another place, lost in time.

We plotted up outside the old tube station. The double-decker with Chelsea players stopped right in front of us. Photographs. Film. Everyone so happy. Fans wedged on shop roofs. Almost hysteria. Chelsea shirts everywhere. A wonderful weekend.

2022.

I made good time heading East. The roads were clear. As I was lifted over the Chiswick flyover, we all spotted the Wembley Arch a few miles to the north. Maybe it thrills the current generation in the same way the Twin Towers used to thrill others…

In the pub against Wolves, some friends from the US – step forward Chad, Josh and Danny – said we could kip in their AirB’n’B for the Saturday night. The plan was, originally, for me to drive up and back and therefore be unable to partake in a few bevvies. This kind offer solved that problem. But this wasn’t just any AirB’n’B…this was a little studio flat right underneath the old Shed Wall at Stamford Bridge.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.

But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.

Sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, mushrooms, two rounds of toast and a mug of Rosie Lea.

I looked over at PD.

“I say this so often. Hope this ain’t the high spot of the fucking day.”

We weren’t sure.

I drove to Baron’s Court, parked up, then we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We soon bumped into the Minnesota Triplets. We left our bags in the apartment and set off. The Americans were waiting, nervously, for their tickets to arrive via royal mail post.

Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”

I had planned a little pub-crawl that mirrored the one in 2018 that we had enjoyed before our win against Manchester United. We made our way to London Bridge. “The Mudlark” next to Southwark Cathedral was closed, so at just after 11am we made our way to one of London’s glorious pubs “The Old Thameside Inn” where we met up with Russ from Melbourne, the Kent boys, Steve from Salisbury, Dan from Devon and the three Americans. The weather was red hot. There were the usual laughs. After an hour or so, we sought shade in “The Anchor At Bankside”, another riverside favourite.

Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.

But we were still all loathe to talk about the game.

Thankfully, I had seen very few Liverpool supporters at this point; just one in fact.

At around 2.15pm, we set off for Wembley. A Jubilee Line train from London Bridge took us straight up to Wembley Park, a repeat of 1997.

I lost PD and Parky, and walked with Steve up towards Wembley for a while. Whether it was because of the abhorrent abundance of half-and-half scarves being worn by many, or the fact that the famous vista of Wembley from distance is no longer as spine-chilling as in decades gone by, or just…well, “modern football”; I was having a bit of a downer to be honest.

Wembley is now absolutely hemmed in by flats, hotels, restaurants. There is no sense of place about the new gaff at all.

After my issues with getting in against Palace, this one was easy. No searches, straight in. I took the elevators up to the fifth level, with no bloody Scouser sliding in behind me like at the League Cup Final.

We were in ridiculously early, at about 3.30pm or so.

I was so pleased to Les from nearby Melksham. He had ‘phoned us, distraught, at 6.30am and asked us to keep an eye out for a spare. His ticket had gone ten rounds with his Hotpoint washing machine the previous evening and was much the worse for wear. Thankfully, he kept the stub – there’s a stub? – and Wembley were able to reprint it.

As the seats filled up around us, a surprising number of friends were spotted close by.

The two Bobs, Rachel and Rob, Kev, Rob Chelsea, Dave and Colin.

I was, in fact, in a Wembley section that was new to me; the north-east corner of the top tier. This would be my twenty-fourth visit to Wembley with Chelsea apart from the Tottenham away games. Of the previous twenty-three, I had only been seated in the lower deck on five occasions. And the East/West split has provided vastly differing fortunes.

The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3

The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5

So much for the lucky “tunnel” end. The West End at new Wembley was clearly our luckier-end.

Pah.

The seats – the ones in our end, or at least the ones in the lower tier, would be baking, with no respite from the sun – took ages to fill up. It annoyed the fuck out of me that every spare foot of balcony wall in the Liverpool end was festooned with red flags and banners. Our end was sparsely populated.

Chelsea tend to go for geographical locations on our flags honouring fan groups in various parts of the UK and beyond.  Liverpool tend to go with white text on red honouring players and managers. Obviously, you never see St. George flags at Anfield, nor at Old Trafford for that matter.

The kick-off approached.

With about half an hour to go, we were introduced to a spell of deafening dance music from DJ Pete Tong, who was visible on the giant TV screens, seemingly having a whale of a time. The noise boomed around Wembley. This annoyed me. Rather than let fans generate our own atmosphere in that final build-up to the game, we were forced to listen to music that wasn’t football specific, nor relevant to anything.

It was utter shite.

“Pete Tong” infact.

With minutes to go, the Liverpool end was packed while our end had many pockets of empty red seats. Surely not the biggest ignominy of all? Surely we would sell all our Cup Final tickets? I had a worried few minutes.

The pre-match, the final moments, got under way.

The pitch was covered in a massive red carpet. Ugh. More bloody red.

I joined in with “Abide With Me” though many didn’t.

“In life. In death. Oh Lord. Abide with me.”

The only surprise was that said DJ didn’t mix it with a Balearic Anthem from the ‘eighties.

With the teams on the pitch, and Chelsea in all yellow – why? – it was now time for the national anthem. Again, I sang heartily along to this even though I am no fervent royalist. I wanted to be respectful and to add to the occasion.

With my awful voice booming out, I did not hear the Liverpool end booing it. But I was soon reliably informed by many that they were.

There was a time in the ‘seventies, at the height of the era of football fans revelling in being anti-social, that supporters often sang club songs over “God Save The Queen” but no team actually booed the national anthem at Cup Finals.

Liverpool seem to love doing it. It’s their “thing.” And while I can understand that some sections of the United Kingdom feel unloved and disenfranchised, it is this feeling among Liverpool Football Club supporters of them being “special cases” that grates with me and many. Do supporters of clubs from other currently and previously impoverished cities throughout England take such great pleasure in such “anti-Royal / anti-establishment” behaviour?

Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.

Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.

As Tracey Thorn once sang “narrow streets breed narrow minds” and there must be some awfully narrow streets around Anfield.

There were flames as the pre-match nonsense continued. It meant the opening minutes of the game was watched through a haze.

Those seats were still empty in our end.

FUCK.

We lined up as below :

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic

A big game for Trevoh. A big game for Christian. A massive game for Romelu. Happy to see Mateo starting after his gruesome injury at Leeds United.

Liverpool began very brightly, attacking us in the east, and at the end of the first ten minutes I was supremely grateful that they were not one, or more, in front. They peppered our goal. We were chasing shadows and other clichés. However, Chalobah did well to recover and thump a goal-bound shot from Luis Diaz away from inside the six-yard box after Edouard Mandy had initially blocked the shot. A rebound was flashed wide. At the end of this opening flurry, I counted five decent attacks from the men in red.

We were hanging on.

Thankfully, ten minutes later, all of our seats were now occupied.

That temptation of “one last pint” at Marylebone is always a tough one.

I have often thought that our current team lacks a little personality, undoubtedly compared to certain teams that we have known and loved over the years. It often feels the current crop are missing charisma – even Quaresma would be half-way there – and I really wanted the team to show some mettle and get back into this game. The Liverpool fans were by far the loudest in the opening quarter and I wanted us, the fans, to show some charisma too.

We improved, both on and off the pitch.

A decent move down the right, probably the best of the match thus far, involving James and Mount set up Pulisic but his delicate shot rolled just wide of the far post. Next up, Pulisic set up Alonso but Alisson blocked after a heavy first touch from our raiding wing-back,

Chelsea were now much louder while Liverpool had quietened down considerably. It became a cagier game in the last part of the first-half, but I thought it a good game. This is however based on the fact that we weren’t getting pummelled, that we were in it.

My worst, worst, nightmare was for us to lose…pick a number…3-0? 4-0? 5-0?

But this was fine. Silva was looking as dominant as ever. With him in the team, we had a chance right?

More of the same please, Chelsea.

Into the second-half, we blitzed Liverpool in the opening few minutes, mirroring what had had happened in the first-half, though with roles reversed.

A smart move allowed Alonso, always a threat to opposing teams in the opposition box, but so often a threat to us in our own box, drilled one wide. Pulisic then wriggled and weaved but Alisson again foiled him. The scorer against Arsenal in 2020 – a game I often forget about for obvious reasons – was getting into good positions but needed to find the corners.

The third of three decent chances in the first five minutes of the second-half came from a free-kick from a tight angle, with Alonso slamming a direct hit against the crossbar.

“Fucksakechels.”

The wing-backs were often the focal points, and we were finding space in wide areas. This was good stuff.

Diaz screwed one just wide.

“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.

A young lad standing behind me initiated a loud “Zigger Zagger”; good work, mate.

We were in this game. All along, I had toyed with the Football Gods by silently wishing for a penalty shoot-out win as revenge for this season’s League Cup Final defeat.

The game continued, but we couldn’t quite keep the attacks going. There were only half-chances. But I still thought it a decent tight game.

On sixty-six minutes, N’Golo Kante replaced Kovacic.

Diaz, again a threat, bent one wide of the far post.

A few players were looking tired now, as was I. My feet were killing me. With less than ten minutes to go, Diaz cut in on our left and slammed a shot against Mendy’s near post.

A largely ineffectual Lukaku was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to go.

A deep cross from the horrible Milner, on as a substitute, evaded everyone and David Robertson hot the back post. Another curler from Diaz always looked like going wide. It is so weird that even from one-hundred yards away, the trajectory of shots can be surmised.

I guess I watch a lot of live games, eh?

The referee blew up for full-time.

My wish for penalties – down our end please – looked a strong possibility.

The red end sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the first-period of extra-time and we prepared for an extra thirty-minutes of terror.

Football, eh?

More tired bodies on the pitch and up in The Gods. The two periods of fifteen minutes were not of high quality. Were both teams hanging on for penalties? Were we all?

We went close from a cross on the right but a Liverpool defender hacked it away before Pulisic could make contact. I loved how Kante chased down a Liverpool attack out on their right. What a player.

I painfully watched as Alonso just didn’t have the legs, try as he might, to match the pace of his marker as a ball was pushed past him.

Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.

The players were now dead on their feet and so was I.

Then, a bizarre substitution in the last minute of the game.

Ross Barkley for Ruben.

I think that I last saw him at Bournemouth, pre-season.

The referee blew up.

Another 0-0.

I got my penalties, and – thankfully – at our end too. I hoped that Liverpool would lose in the most tragic way possible.

Alas, alas…

We began OK with Alonso striking home. Then Thiago scored. Dave hit the post and our world caved in. I was dumbstruck as I saw more than a few Chelsea fans walk out. Wankers. We then exchanged goals – James, Barkley, Jorginho – with Liverpool but with their last kick, Sadio Mane’s strike was saved low by Mendy.

Hugs with the stranger next to me.

He beamed : “That’s for those that walked out.”

Sudden-death now.

Ziyech : in.

Jota : in.

Mount : saved.

Tsimikas : in.

We were silent. The Liverpool end roared. Red flares cascaded down onto the pitch. We trudged silently out, up to Wembley Park, a horrendous wait in a warm train, oh my bloody feet, and back – trying to rely on gallows humour to get us through – eventually to Earl’s Court for a few drinks and some food. It was our year in 1997 but not in 2022.

Nor 2021.

Nor 2020.

Three FA Cup Final defeats in a row. We have now played in sixteen of them, winning eight and losing eight. After our dominance from 2007 to 2012 – four wins – we need our fucking lucky West end back.

The three of us eventually got back to Fulham Broadway at about 10.30pm and met up with Josh, Chad and Danny.

From Wembley to Stamford Bridge, the return journey over, we fell asleep under The Shed Wall.

1997

2022

Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

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

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

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

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

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

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

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

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

“He comes from Senegal.”

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

Previous visits came to mind.

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

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to get inside.

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

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

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

Ha.

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

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

“Marching On Together.”

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

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

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

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

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

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

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

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

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

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GET IN.

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

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

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

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

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

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

We continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

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

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

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

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

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

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

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From The 677

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 19 March 2022.

Our FA Cup quarter final tie at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium would necessitate our first visit to Teesside in over five years. PD and I had enjoyed the last one; we stayed the Saturday night and got to witness the joys of a night out in Middlesbrough before our narrow 1-0 win on the Sunday evening in late 2016. PD liked it so much that he has been using the photo of him in the first row of the away section as his cover photo on Facebook ever since.

This time, Parky was joining us. Although I swore blind that I’d never drive up and back to Middlesbrough ever again, after doing this for a match in 2008, due to a variety of reasons that are just too dull to explain here, I was damn well doing it again.

In the build up to this game, it still felt that we were at the centre of a massive storm. However, we did not help ourselves. The club’s pathetic request for the game to be played behind closed doors drew warranted disdain from all quarters. At a time when we should have been quietly going about our business, on and off the park, this just gave others the chance to label us negatively. It was a massive PR own-goal. Sometimes the actions of those at our club defy description.

After a tough few days at work – our office was hit with COVID and sickness – at last the weekend arrived. Parky and I are away season ticket holders but PD’s presence was in doubt. Thankfully, a spare became available from a usual source and the three of us were headed to Middlesbrough. We would be part of, surely, our smallest domestic away following in decades. There were games at Luton Town in the mid-‘eighties when away fans were effectively banned, but a few Chelsea – OK more than a few – still attended via a variety of means. I am unsure how many got in.

I also remember a game at Anfield in the autumn of 1994 when The Kop was closed and I believe our official away allowance was ridiculously small. I watched that game with a Liverpool mate in the main stand that night. From memory we only had about four hundred.

Around seven hundred were due to get in at Middlesbrough. Not for the first time did I feel blessed to be able to attend.

I am a lucky man.

Middlesbrough, eh?

Smoggy Land. The Smog Monsters. The Smoggies. Ironopolis. The huge ICI plant. The ‘Boro. Pak Doo-ik of North Korea scoring against the Italians in 1966. George Camsell and Wilf Mannion. Don Revie and Brian Clough growing up mere streets away from each other. The Ironsides. The 1973/74 promotion team of Jack Charlton. The white bar on the chest of their jerseys. The players Frank Spraggon, Alan Foggon and John Craggs. An industrial wasteland in the ‘eighties. John Neal and Tony McAndrew. The locking of the Ayresome Park gates in 1986. The team of Gary Pallister, Bernie Slaven, Stuart Ripley and Tony Mowbray. The play-offs in 1988. Juninho and Ravanelli. The Wembley games. The Zenith Data, the FA Cup, the League Cup. The Riverside. Roy Chubby Brown. Their League Cup win and the Europa Cup journey under Steve McClaren. The Transporter Bridge. Bob Mortimer. Chris fucking Rea. Club Bongo. The chicken parmo.

I called for PD at eight o’clock and LP just after. A journey of exactly three-hundred miles was ahead. My fellow travellers came armed with a few tins of cider for the trip north. I thoroughly enjoyed this drive. The weather was magnificent; clear blue skies to start, hardly a cloud appeared all day, dry roads, a great feeling of freedom. We stopped for some breakfast bagels at Strensham on the M5 at 9.30am and I was soon hurtling around Birmingham on the M42. The half-way point was reached as I neared the M1 just south of Nottingham. I stopped to refuel at Woodall Services, then headed straight up the A1. The road into Middlesbrough, with the North York Moors visible past Thirsk, and then the approach into Smoggy Land.

We chatted away. But there were the inevitable periods of silence when I was left alone with my thoughts.

The very first time that I saw us play Middlesbrough was that infamous play-off game at Stamford Bridge in 1988. I have detailed that game at legth previously.

My first sighting, though, was a little nearer home.

In 1986, Bristol Rovers were turfed out of their Eastville stadium, never to return, and began playing at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City. Before I returned to college in Stoke in that September, my school friend Steve coerced me to attend a Rovers game against Middlesbrough in the then Third Division. It was a midweek match and I believe less than 4,000 attended. ‘Boro themselves were going through a very rough time, the worst in their history, and were limping along financially from one game to another. I watched from a side terrace as ‘Boro won a decent game 2-1. The one thing that I remember from that night was that Graeme Souness – himself ex-Middlesbrough – and the new Rangers manager had been spotted in the seats above. That he had travelled down from Glasgow – probably by car in those days – on a scouting mission blew my mind. He was no doubt keeping an eye on Gary Pallister.

I hated Middlesbrough in 1988. They spoiled my life, or at least that summer. While many football fans were getting all loved up on ecstasy, I was depressed, so depressed, and fearing life in Division Two. Again.

I have only ever met three Middlesbrough fans outside of match days in my entire life.

My college mate Chris is from nearby Thornaby and I shared digs with him from 1984 to 1987. A distant branch of his family – “Dickens” – sponsored the ‘Boro shirt in those tough times of 1986. Keith was a work mate in Trowbridge at the time of the 1997 and 1998 Wembley games who got undue stick from me. Then, weirdly, there was a lad called Andy from Saltburn, who I first bumped into at a youth hostel in Washington DC in 1989, only for him to come strolling into a bar in Orlando a month later. This football world is a very small world indeed.

I was parked up at around 1.15pm. Not only was my spot equidistant between pub and ground, but also free. After a couple of text messages, we met up with two Chelsea mates in “The Resolution” – which we visited in 2016 – and formed a little Chelsea enclave in a solidly home crowd. It felt like the whole town was buzzing. ‘Boro were enjoying a decent season and were undoubtedly “up for the Cup” on this sunny day. Many ‘Boro lads were in their finery; the boozer was awash with Adidas trainers, Armani jeans, Paul & Shark tops, CP sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Stone Island patch was everywhere. But despite all this, the locals were welcoming.

We chatted to Matty – a dead friendly local from Darlington, er Darlo – and a few of his mates. Pride of place went to Robbie, yet to miss a ‘Boro game in forty-two years. That meant that he was at Twerton Park in 1986. Respect.

With an hour and a half to go, we set off for the stadium. It was only a twenty-minute walk. While the others headed inside for a bevvy, I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time. Statues of Camsell and Mannion proudly stand next to those very same gates from Ayresome Park that were locked by bailiffs in 1986 with the club’s future on a precipice.

I especially wanted a photo of the blue steel of the famous Transporter Bridge over the Tees. I was able to frame this impressive structure within the circles of a couple of public art installations that resembled dream catchers.

The ‘Boro faithful were dreaming of Wembley again as they rushed past me.

The waters of the river lapped the banks as the stadium was bathed in sun ahead of me. I slowly made my way to the away turnstiles. I passed a photo of old Ayresome Park on a section of the perimeter wall with a row of seats from the old stadium in front. Sadly, I never made it to Ayresome Park, nor Roker, and friends tell me it was a fearsome place in other decades; the play-off game in 1988 especially. With hindsight, the two stadia of Sunderland and Middlesbrough – despite being the two lesser clubs of the north-east behind Newcastle United – were far more impressive than St. James’ Park.

I made my way in and soon chatted to some of the 677.

DJ outside.

Al, Gal, Andy, Tim in the concourse.

Others inside the seats.

Waves and thumbs up to a few.

This was my fifth visit to the Riverside. It’s OK, but oh so bland. Five visits and three different sections for us away fans, being pushed east each time. Our small section was above a corner flag.

The other four games were easy wins. I hoped for one more.

Oh yeah, the game. Other matters had dominated my thoughts until then. The sun shone brightly before eventually falling behind the west stand roof. It was a warm evening on Teeside.

The PA was ridiculously excitable.

“The Chelsea team are now in the tunnel.”

Shocker.

“The ‘Boro team are now in the tunnel.”

Bloody hell. You need to get out more, mate.

As the teams entered, red and white shiny mosaics to my left. Lots of noise.

“Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.”

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Silva – Sarr

Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Mount

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

There was applause for Ukraine. There was no silliness from the 677. Phew. Matty had told us all about the ‘Boro right back Isaiah Jones, who was evidently one to watch. Funnily enough, I remembered him from a Queen of the South vs. Hearts game I watched on BBC Scotland last season. Don’t ask.

So, Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea and 30,000 vs.677.

I was pleased to see ‘Boro still employing the white band on their jersey. It’s their thing.

The game began. It was warm enough for me to take off my coat and top; just a T-shirt would suffice until the second-half. I was stood next to PD and Parky. From getting out of my car at 1.15pm, I would be standing until well after the game, gone 7pm.

We began brightly. We used space well as we attacked and the mood inside the away section was positive. There were songs from the start though none immediately, for Roman Abramovich. Matty had told us that their weak link was their goalkeeper Joe Lumley and he was getting tested early on. The home team responded with a few corners.

On the quarter of an hour, the ball broke to Hakim Ziyech down our right. I saw Mason Mount itching to be found.

“There’s the pass. Mason wants” I yelled and I am positive that my voice was heard.

Ziyech pushed the ball into space perfectly. Mount advanced and spotted the fine run of Romelu Lukaku. The cross was perfect, low and fast, right on the money. Lukaku swept it in.

Get in.

We were one-up early on and the 677 roared. I leant forward and shared some positive stuff with Eck.

“Perfect move that. A ball into space. A great run from Lukaku. We don’t do that enough.”

Of course Middlesbrough were guilty of leaving their defence exposed but it was so good to see us executing a classic counter-attacking move. Beautiful.

The home team did not lie down. They almost constantly attacked us down the right via that man Thomas. A few more corners, with Lukaku going all Drogba and heading away on one occasion.

There was a good election of songs emanating from the 677. We were holding our own.

On the half-an-hour mark, we watched as Mateo Kovavic broke purposefully in that urgent way of his. He spotted Mount, breaking square, and the ball was then pushed out to Ziyech. The winger came inside.

A shout from Eck.

“Hit it Hakim.”

He did. And how. The shot dipped and swerved and away from Clumsy Lumley and into the net.

GET IN.

Were we safe? It absolutely felt like it. Time for more celebrations and the continuation of more songs.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank, said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

Lukaku almost made it three from close-in, but was denied after a ‘Boro defender cleared his goal bound shot off the line.

“How did that not go in?”

It had been a class first-half. Thiago Silva was calmness personified. Rudiger attacked every ball, and sometimes every defender, as if his life depended on it. Eck and I agreed that Mason hasn’t really pushed on this season in quite the way we had expected but was enjoying a fine game. The home fans were occasionally quiet and when these moments happened, we seized our chance to be heard.

It was a pleasure to see Shari and Skippy from Queensland in Australia around the half-time break.

“Bonzer.”

As the second-half began, my Lacoste top was zipped up. The night was getting a little cooler now. The second period promised much but delivered little. I fancied more goals from us, but we rarely hit the free-flowing stuff of the first forty-five minutes.

To be fair to the home fans, they dug in and absolutely sang their hearts out as the second-half got going. I think we were all impressed.

For a while, they sang a song and we did our version. They were our cheerleaders. Minus the pom poms.

But there were also reminders of 1997.

“When Wise Went Up.”

“One Di Matteo.”

And then a new one.

“We’re on our way, we’re on our way.
To Paris, we’re on our way.
Seven seater, car or train.
Tommy’s gonna fly the plane.
All I know is Chelsea’s on our way.”

And then as an answer to “Pigbag.”

“Fucking Useless.”

I remember little of the second-half apart from the banter between away fans and home fans, with the occupants of the BBC studio to our left getting a few hefty helpings too. I could hardly believe it when 677Steve in South Philly texted me to say that he couldn’t hear us on the TV broadcast.

Luke was leading a new chant :

“Chelsea’s got no money, we’re gonna win the Cup.”

Four substitutions from Tuchel.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Kenedy for Ziyech.

Harvey Vale for Lukaku.

Only in the last ten minutes were there audible chants for and against Roman.

Chelsea : “Roman Abramovich.”

Middlesbrough : “Fuck off Abramovich.”

Timo had a couple of late chances and as the game petered out, Mendy made his first real save of the night. The home team had been poor, but we had shown commendable spirit throughout.

The pounding that the club has received from outside of late has undoubtedly engineered a magnificent team spirit with Tuchel now a much loved, much admired and respected leader.

After a period of me struggling to warm to him, I am now resolutely a paid up member of Team Tuchel.

We are privileged to have him.

We slowly walked back to the car as the night grew colder still. The car park was grid-locked so we spent a while in a local “Pizza Hut” where we bumped into Roy – Brighton, Palace – and Margaret yet again. After almost six hours on my feet, I could relax. When I eventually set off at 9pm, the traffic was clear. While PD and Parky slept, I drove south. I was diverted on the M1 into the outer reaches of Leeds.

Ah, 1970.

I refueled my car at Tamworth Services. A couple of Red Bulls got me home.

I reached my house at around 2am.

It had been another good day.

Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

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

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

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

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

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

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

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

But we were still the loud ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-1.

Back in the game.

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

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

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

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

GETINYOUBASTARD.

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

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

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

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

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

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

More howls.

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

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

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

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

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

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

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

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From Modern Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 22 September 2019.

I really don’t want to mention VAR every bloody week, but…

It comes to something when a Chelsea supporter such as myself feels genuinely aggrieved when Tottenham get a good goal chalked off when one of their players is adjudged to be offside by around twenty millimetres.

As I watched “Match of the Day” on the Saturday night, ahead of our game with Liverpool on the Sunday, I saw Manchester City dismantle a hapless Watford by eight goals to nil. But I knew that the Leicester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur game might well wrestle more attention. I had heard that VAR had played an integral role in that game as the scores dripped into my consciousness during Saturday afternoon and early evening. I watched as a Leicester City goal was called back for offside and, although I am generally against VAR, I thought to myself “fair play with that decision, I can’t complain at that.”  However, it was the Tottenham goal that made me see red. I watched the goal being scored and wondered where on Earth the offside had occurred. I couldn’t see it at first glance. And then, good grief, it was shown that a Tottenham player was marginally – see above – offside. Yeah, we don’t like Tottenham, we love seeing Leicester City – if not us – beat them, but for fuck’s sake.

Modern football, eh?

Everyone knows my thoughts.

Saturday evening and Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. There was an early start as we wanted to be up in London early enough to secure a table at “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. I collected PD at eight o’clock, collected Glenn’s season ticket, and then picked up Young Jake – he’s getting on a bit now, he’s thirty-one – and headed east. The weather seemed to pose a conundrum. It was going to be warm but with a threat of rain. Rain jackets were selected.

The pre-match ran to plan. Three pubs, a Sunday Roast, chat with friends from near and far, plenty of giggles. It was glorious. Although there were moments when the sky was dark and brooding, the rain had mainly held off.

Inside Stamford Bridge, though, my light jacket was placed on my seat back. It was certainly not needed. It was warm and muggy – a bit sticky – and not particularly pleasant.

Here we were, then.

As many friends had commented, Liverpool presented us with a real test. In the car and pub, we had all agreed that we’d be more than happy with a draw against the league leaders. There had been a couple of wilder projections involving a Chelsea win, but I was not in that camp.

I wasn’t getting carried away.

There was good news in Frank Lampard’s team selection. N’Golo Kante was in, as was Mason Mount. Alas, Toni Rudiger was not available. But this was a good enough team for sure.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Mount

We had briefly discussed Liverpool; a very able defence, a quick and nimble front three, but a seemingly average midfield. It was, we surmised, a team that was greater than the sum of its individual parts. Previous Liverpool teams, God knows, had certainly possessed greater individual players. But here was a team that certainly worked to a plan with great determination.

I commented to Alan “I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Prior to the teams entering the pitch, we had embarrassingly witnessed the Eden Hazard flag float over the heads of the spectators below us in the MHL. That wasn’t a good sign; somebody must have made an error. We hoped and prayed that the manager’s choices were better.

There were, of course, three thousand away fans in the far corner, but hardly a flag or banner to accompany them. What? No six stars to be seen anywhere? Others had made poor flag choices too, it seemed.

The game began. It was a lively start. Liverpool probably edged possession, and we were on the back foot a little. We did have periods of positive play. However, with approaching a quarter of an hour played, Liverpool were presented with a little too much space in the middle of our half and the ball was played through to Sadio Mane who was chopped down by Andreas Christensen.

I was comforted by the fact that the position of the free-kick seemed too central to get an angle past the wall, and too close to goal to chip the ball over and down. Sadly, we watched as a well-constructed free-kick saw a Mo Salah back-heel set up Trent Alexander-Arnold to smash the ball past Kepa. The silence all around me was deafening and other clichés. I didn’t like the way that he ran towards the Chelsea supporters to celebrate. Git.

There was a tedious reply from the home stands : ”Murderers.”

I thought we’d all moved on. I hadn’t heard it at a Chelsea / Liverpool game for a while.

There was, however, a rasping “Carefree” soon after and we did our best to get behind the team.

An enforced substitution took place, with Marcos Alonso taking over from Emerson at left-back. We kept plugging away. Now that Tammy Abraham has secured his place as Frank Lampard’s preferred striker, I have mentioned to friends that we can now concentrate on meshing him into the team, playing to his strengths, and perhaps releasing him early as he gets to understand how his team mates work around him. Indeed, there was a signal from Tammy to a midfielder to release the ball into the inside-right channel but as the ball was played he momentarily paused. It was a chance lost. However, not long after, a carbon copy ball was played from deep by Christensen, and the striker’s run into space was perfect. He advanced but annoyingly shot straight at Adrian.

Approaching the half-hour mark, we worked the ball down our left and a cross from Willian hit the danger area. Abraham made a lunge at the ball, and after the effort hit Fabinho, Adrian clawed it off the line. The ball was begging to be pounced upon. Dave swept it in and we screamed our pleasure.

GET IN.

I watched the captain’s joyous run down towards the corner flag, and he was soon mobbed by his team mates. The Bridge was jumping. There were photos aplenty.

Lovely.

And then, a sword to the heart. We spotted on the TV screen above the Micky Mousers that there was a VAR review.

“Why?”

“What for?”

We waited.

We held our breath, what an odd sensation.

Strangely, the away fans seemed to be celebrating before an announcement was made. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

The TV screen told the story : “NO GOAL.”

A little part of me died again. But what could I do? I stood silent, surprisingly calm, but in truth I was just weak with what had just happened.

If I was Spanish, I might have reached for a white handkerchief.

Not long after, what looked like an innocuous challenge between Dave and a Liverpool player – the ball was hanging in the air, both players jumped – went against us and the resultant free-kick was swept in towards the six yard-box. Roberto Firmino rose unhindered and powerfully headed past Kepa.

We were now 0-2 down and seemingly out of it. What a rotten few minutes for us and for Honest Dave especially. I really felt for him.

The rest of the first-half is pretty much a blur. We were deflated, players and supporters alike. It was a horrible sensation.

The Liverpool supporters aired an old song, and if it was because of the VAR incident, they exhibited far more intelligence than they are usually credited.

“Luis Garcia, he drinks sangria.”

Memories of that bastarding night at Anfield in 2005, that ghost-goal, The Kop, and no goal-line technology, the sardonic bastards.

Fuckers.

Just before half-time there was another enforced substitution; Kurt Zouma on for the injured Christensen.

“It gets worse” I thought.

At half-time, VAR dominated our thoughts and our conversations. Information eventually reached us. The incident leading up to our “goal” that was adjudged to have been offside involved an early pass to Mason Mount, quite some time before the goal was turned in. Of course, us spectators in the stadium are, ironically, the last to know about all of this.

I vented to a few people.

It seems to me that there is a huge discrepancy between how VAR is judged by fans that go to games (JD opined “I don’t know anyone who likes it”) and those who tend to watch at home or in bars and pubs on TV. It seems that the chasm between match-goers and those who consume football via TV has grown even wider thanks to VAR.

And that is a shame. The football family should be as one.

My views on all this have been well documented over the past ten years or more. I was even against goal-line technology because I knew damned well that this would just be the tip of the iceberg. I knew full well that before long there would be intrusive video replays holding up the flow of the game. But even I could not have foreseen the madness that has developed this season.

Chaos theory ain’t half of it.

Sigh.

It almost seems that VAR was created for those watching at home. It almost seems that VAR has been brought in under the guise of “fairness” but is just a thinly-disguised extra for the watching millions. I have long said that very soon we will have commercial breaks during VAR hold-ups. It happens in North America, where the native sports tend not to have the sense of flow of our national sport. I can see it happening during the 2022 World Cup, for sure.

The mood at half-time was rotten.

In other seasons, that ball to Mount would have passed without incident. There would have been no appeal for offside, just as there was no appeal by any Liverpool players on this occasion. The moment, that split second, would have been lost in the ether of time. But on this day, the move was deemed illegal, the goal was cancelled, our celebrations quashed.

Some tedious fuckers might whine that “well, actually, he was offside.”

But these little moments are being given far too much weight, far too much importance.

VAR produces decisions which – and here is my final word, for now – seem to be against the spirit of the game.

We’re on a slippery slope here, and some of us are losing the will to stay on our feet.

At the break, losing 0-2, I was reminded of a similarly grave situation at half-time against the same opposition in the Cup in 1997. Losing 0-2, we witnessed one of the most amazing come-backs as we won with style and guts, eventually winning 4-2.

Into the second-half, I truthfully hoped for damage limitation above anything else. We were soon on the back-foot, and only a sublime stop at full stretch from Kepa stopped that man Firmino from increasing the Scousers’ lead. It was a bloody magnificent save. A similarly excellent save soon followed, but an offside flag had ruled out any real concerns. Kepa was at last showing that he had strong wrists.

We then started playing, and the crowd responded. A cross from Dave on the right was delicately touched forward by Abraham, but we watched as it drifted well wide. Before I knew it, it suddenly dawned on me that we were totally dominating possession and Liverpool’s attacks had almost petered out.

With twenty minutes to go, Kante collected the ball centrally. I bellowed for his team mates to move into space, to offer options, but our little prince did not require assistance. He turned into a little parcel of space, cut through with a Hazard-esque shimmy and struck a shot – almost a toe-poke, certainly no back-lift, shades of Ronaldinho at the same end in 2005 – and we watched as it floated beautifully past Adrian.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

The manager replaced Tammy with Michy.

The crowd roared and roared.

On one occasion, with what seemed like the entire crowd as one, a “Carefree” united us all and it was spine-chilling stuff.

Bollocks to VAR.

This is fucking football.

We raided again and again.

Headers from Alonso – drifting wide, losing a marker, but ultimately offside – and then from Batshuayi – just past the far post – brought hope but also agony.

Another effort from Michy, a back-to-goal flick. Wide.

But this was how football should be played. Honest, with determination, with integrity. It was becoming a pulsating match to be part of.

“Liverpool fans are dead quiet, Al.”

We hadn’t heard from them throughout the second period.

We kept coming.

There was one moment when we knocked in a ball, and Liverpool were all over the show, collectively ball-watching, hopeless.

There for the taking.

COME ON CHELSEA.

Right on ninety minutes, Alonso – who was becoming an increasingly important and involved player on the left, often a spare man, a welcome addition to our attack – played in Mount. His first-time effort was snatched and flew high over the bar.

Oh we groaned.

We begged for another goal and kept trying.

It was a fine effort, a great game.

Alas, the whistle blew.

As I filed out – “see you Wednesday” – I could not help but be touched and moved as the home support clapped the manager and players, who – along with the nearby Liverpool players – were applauding back. We were not fooled. We knew that this emerging team had given its all. We were taught a lesson in the first-half, but once we found our feet, we produced a thoroughly pleasing performance. It was beautiful to see us supporting the team despite the loss.

Well done everyone.

On the walk back to the car, there were a few conversations.

To Duncan and Lol : “Fucking hell. It comes to something when I am genuinely upset that Spurs had a perfectly good goal cancelled.”

To Louise, Denise and Stacey : “We know what Frank is doing. We’re together. We’re on the same page.”

To Mark : “VAR is killing football, mate. Seems like the TV viewers need to be entertained. But we don’t go to football to be entertained. We go to support our team. We spend our money and we travel God knows how many hours getting to games and we just want to lose ourselves watching football.”

On Wednesday night, I’ll try to lose myself once more.

Stay tuned to this channel for our game with Grimsby Town.

Cheers.

 

Tales From An Unhappy Monday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 February 2019.

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

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

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

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

Six thousand of them.

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

In April 1920, he had his wish.

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

Above, a full moon soared above the East Stand.

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

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

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

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

“The Only Way Is United.”

“One Love.”

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

“Manchester In The Area.”

“Everything My Heart Desired.”

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

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

Chelsea in blue, blue, white.

The game began.

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

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

“You are my Solskjaer, my Ole Solskjaer.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

Alan Shearer was fucking dearer.

So please don’t take my Solskjaer away.”

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Bollocks.

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

“Morata would have scored that.”

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

United celebrated over in the far corner.

Bollocks.

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

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

Bollocks.

So, undone by two horrific defensive lapses.

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

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

Sadly, Mark Hughes was unavailable.

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

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

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

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

There was a shot from Hazard which flew over.

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

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

Quite.

Barkley replaced the poor Kovacic.

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

The lower tier of the Matthew Harding had had enough.

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

And then, the final twist of the knife.

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

We looked over at the far touchline.

Oh boy.

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

“Oh for fuck sake.”

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

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

It was an unreal substitution.

The strange case of David, Davide and Dave.

Oh for fuck sake.

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

We were out of the FA Cup.

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

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

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

Won

Lost

Won

Lost

Won

Lost

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

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

We are chaos theory incarnate.

See you on Thursday.

Tales From A Moral Victory

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 8 January 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2001/02 League Cup : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 1

2014/15 League : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 3

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

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

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

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

Perfect.

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

I tut-tutted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think it is, Chris.”

I laughed, trying not to agree with him.

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

The teams came on.

TOTTENHA9 vs. CHELSW6.

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

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

Why?

Because it just was not worth it.

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

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

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

This always looked like a problematic moment.

This is what happened in my mind.

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

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

Bloody hell, I hated modern football further.

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

“Oh When The Spurs.”

“Come On You Spurs.”

Y.

As in Yawn.

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

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

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

“We’re doing OK.”

I then spotted a “Krispy Kreme” stand.

At football.

For fuck sake.

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

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

It was hugely better than the November match.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

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

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

Why? What? Who? When?

It made no bloody sense.

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

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

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

“Bloody enjoyed that lads. See you Saturday.”

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

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

I was home at 2am.

It had been a good evening.

Tales From A Day On The Road

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2018.

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

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

A five-hundred-mile round trip lay ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley.

Pedro – Morata – Willian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first an announcement about the tragedy at Leicester.

So sad,

The teams stood at the centre-circle.

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

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

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

We will remember them.”

Parky and I repeated the last line.

“We will remember them.”

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

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

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

The game began.

Alvaro Morata was the only outfield Chelsea player wearing gloves.

Insert comment here.

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

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

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

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

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

“GET IN.”

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

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

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GET IN.”

His knee-slide was euphoric.

“Bloody superb goal.”

The away end was enjoying this. Smiles all around.

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

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

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

“Make it seven.”

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

Two English midfield lions running at a defence.

Long may it continue.

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

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

“Not this time, Cesc.”

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

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Just beautiful.

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

“Loved that. Great performance.”

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

“Weirdest game of hopscotch I ever played.”

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

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

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

6am to 11pm.

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

Thanks Chelsea.

 

 

Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

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

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

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

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

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

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

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

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

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

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

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

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

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

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

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

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

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

This was a dream start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

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

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

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

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

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

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

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

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

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

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

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

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

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

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

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

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

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

We continued to dominate.

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

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

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

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

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

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

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

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

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

“One Kerry Dixon.”

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

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

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

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

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

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

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

Matthew would certainly approve.

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