Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

“It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.”

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

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 The Class Of ’98

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 12 February 2018.

This was another working week which would begin and end with a Chelsea match. As with a memorable week last May, with a game against Middlesbrough on the Monday and a game against West Brom on the Friday, we were faced with two matches on the same two days. First up were The Baggies at home. We were desperate for a win to put an end to our little blip. A win would then see us nose ourselves ahead of Tottenham and into fourth place. The visitors were rock bottom of the Premier League. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, we hoped. Nothing at all.

“Three points are king tonight, lads.”

I didn’t honestly care if we would scrape to a 1-0 win. I just wanted a win to take some pressure off the manager, the players and not least us, the supporters. The two recent losses to Bournemouth and Watford had certainly been lingering heavily on everyone’s minds the past week. Not only a nadir, but a nadir oh dear.

Other weighty issues had dominated my thoughts after the Watford loss. The chest pains that I mentioned during the Watford match report thankfully subsided throughout the past week, but on Friday I popped into my local community hospital to book an appointment to see a doctor. I needed reassurance that there was no problem. After explaining the symptoms, I was given a few tests. I explained to a doctor that my late father had suffered a history of heart problems. Without further ado, the doctor decided to take no risks and sent me in an ambulance to Bath to undergo further tests.

As can be imagined, this was quite a shock. At the time, I felt relatively OK. But I was – I suppose – relieved that I was in good hands. Thankfully, after a couple of hours spent in the A&E department of Bath’s Royal United Hospital, and after my fourth ECG of the day and some blood tests, I was released with an all-clear. No abnormal heart condition. Just high blood pressure, but that can be treated. The conclusion – from myself anyway, and possibly from the medical staff too – was that I had suffered from too much stress at work. As I reached home that night, I promised myself to try to improve my health via diet and exercise. And not get overly-stressed at work. Writing this again now, I am sure it was all to do with work.

[ A voice from the gallery : “Are you not going to make a comparison between you lying on a hospital bed and a critical stage in Chelsea’s season? You like a metaphor.”

“Blimey. No. That’s a bit excessive. A bit gruesome. Nah. ]

The Chuckle Brothers were back in town.

“Here we go again, boys.”

It was a bitterly cold night in SW6. Glenn and I darted up to the stadium to meet up with a couple of friends. We briefly chatted to Ray Wilkins, a massive hero for us both in our childhood. During the day, Glenn had decided to throw caution to the wind and join me in an antipodean holiday in July, loosely based on our friendly with Perth Glory in July. We gabbled away with travel plans as the cold Winter air brought shivers.

Back in “Simmons” the clans had gathered. I quickly popped into “The Cock Tavern” to meet up with Al and his son Nate from Toronto, both attending a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. Al has been following these reports for a while and wanted to meet up. Their enthusiasm about seeing us play was clearly evident. I used the well-worn line –

“Of course, if we lose, you’re not allowed to come back.”

Back in “Simmons” there was talk of the scrum down for away tickets for Barcelona. There was talk of the current ailments. There was support for the manager.

The temperature had dropped further as we walked to Stamford Bridge.

No surprises, the away end was full of empty seats. My guess was at about eight hundred at most. We were inside early, and I hoped that the empty seats in the home areas would eventually fill. Thankfully, in the main, the stadium filled. Yes, there were empty seats throughout the stadium, but no yawning gaps anywhere.

The team?

Thibaut.

Dave – Andreas – Toni

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Davide

Pedro – Olivier – Eden

Happy with that. Happy that the new boy Giroud was starting. Alvaro was on the bench, as was Emerson.

For all of the negativity surrounding the club of late, it was just lovely to hear “Blue Is The Colour” being played with five minutes to go. That song just makes me smile. It takes me right back to those formative tears as a Chelsea supporter. It strikes a real chord.

The lights darkened and the teams then appeared from the shadows. Over in the south-west corner of The Shed, a “FORZA CONTE” flag was held over bothy tiers. Very soon into the match, the home supporters rallied behind the manager.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

This was never honestly going to be a noisy night but I was warmed by the support that was cascading down from the stands. This was music to my lugholes.

Let’s go to work.

Very soon into the game – within two minutes or so – Daniel Sturridge was forced to limp off after an early twist or strain of a muscle. The bloke looked dejected as he made his way down the tunnel. I almost felt sorry for him.

Over the first fifteen minutes, West Brom caused more problems to us than we did to them. They had a couple of meek efforts on Thibaut’s goal. We got out of it unscathed. We managed to get into the game with Pedro as lively as ever. Giroud was involved, showing a willingness to create space for others to find him, and linking up well with others.

The noise levels were still pretty good. We kept urging the team on. This was pleasing.

Dave sent in a couple of fine crosses into the West Brom box, and they almost paid off. Quick comparisons of Giroud with Morata and Batshuayi were hard to resist. The new boy looked more robust than Alvaro and had more guile than Michy. For a big man, his touch looked fine. The best chance of the game was gifted to Giroud by Hazard, but his side-footed effort was straight at the ‘keeper Ben Foster. Pedro was fouled, but a tame free-kick from Eden hit the wall.

With Chelsea looking to move the ball quickly after a West Brom attack, a defender pushed the ball on to Victor Moses. As one, I heard the entire Matthew Harding Stand mouth the word “attack”; it was almost Pavlovian. Sadly, the wing-back floundered further up field. How frustrating.

On twenty-five minutes, I whispered to Alan :

“We’re not playing too badly to be honest. Lots of possession, but not a great deal of incision.”

At that very moment, Eden turned and moved the ball on to Giroud, who subtly touched the ball into the path of Eden, who stroked the ball into the goal.

Blues 1 Baggies 0

GET IN.

Soon after, there was a daring overhead effort from Giroud at the far post. The new boy was certainly truing his hardest to endear himself to us. He was then sent sprawling onto the turf and ended up with a wide white bandage over his forehead. A header from the same player went wide. It was all Chelsea now. West Brom appeared to deflate. Jonny Evans was booked for a nasty, late tackle on Giroud, who writhed in agony in the centre-circle. He had been consistently fouled throughout the first forty-five minutes. At this rate, I expected him to appear at the start of the second-half with an eye patch, a neck brace and his arm in plaster.

What a treat for us all at the break. Neil Barnett announced that three of the players due to take part in a “legends” game against Inter in May were to appear together on the Stamford Bridge pitch.

Step forward Gianfrano Zola, Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli.

What memories.

They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary  of our wonderful ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team and I idolised those players in a way that I simply do not do with the current squad. And I could probably write a book about the various reasons for that.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.

The second-half began with a couple of scares at The Shed End, but a fine block from Dave and a poor miss by Rondon meant that we did not concede. An Evans header from a corner flew well wide. As with the first-half, we weathered the early storm – nay rain shower – and got into the game. At times Giroud seemed too eager to play the ball to team mates rather than maintain possession and battle on. Maybe the ghost of Diego Costa lingers on.

The manager chose to replace the battered centre-forward on the hour and on came Alvaro Morata. Things became a little nervy, and the crowd was well aware that we were still leading by the slenderest of margins. There was a nervousness in the stadium. Things were not falling our way. A fine move involving the twin threats of Eden and Pedro allowed Alvaro to blast at goal.

Just after, Moses worked the ball in to Cesc and his attempted flick deflected off a defender and in to the path of the wing-back who had gambled on the return pass. His finish was cool.

Pensioners 2 Throstles 0.

Moses was clearly boosted by this goal. If ever there is a “confidence player” in our squad at the moment, it is Victor Moses. He quickly followed up with a fine shot on goal.

With twenty minutes to go, Eden broke past his marker, right at the edge of the penalty area, and sent an unstoppable shot low into the goal. There was so much venom in his shot, that the ‘keeper did not move. Similar to his effort at Watford, he used the defender as a block for the hapless ‘keeper. He just didn’t see it.

Bouncy 3 Boing Boing 0.

A rasping shot from Morata brought a save from Foster. The Spaniard was lively in his thirty minutes on the pitch. More of the same please. There was another shot from Moses. It stayed 3-0.

We were back in fourth place.

Crisis over? Maybe.

Out on the Fulham Road, a hot dog and onions went down well, and we scampered back to the waiting car.

I messaged Al from Toronto.

“We won. You can come back.”

It had been a good night.

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Tales From Roman’s Legion

Chelsea vs. Roma : 18 October 2017.

It was a very mild evening in SW6. Way before the Champions League game with Roma kicked-off at 7.45pm, I had made a bee line for the ticket-office to hand in our declaration forms for the away leg in under a fortnight. There was a nice pre-match vibe already. I had spotted a few Italians around Stamford Bridge; an Italian accent here, a deep red here. The giallorossi would be out in force in SW6. Maybe not the numbers of Napoli in 2012, but a strong presence all the same. Of course, on an evening of autumnal Champions League football in one of Europe’s most famous cities, between teams from two of the continent’s major capitals, not just English and Italian accents could be heard. Walking around the West Stand forecourt, taking it all in for a few moments before meeting up with mates in a local boozer, I soon heard German accents, the Dutch language, French and Spanish, indiscernible Eastern-European accents, voices from Asia, and North America too. On European nights, the irony not lost on me, Stamford Bridge is invaded by tourists in greater numbers than normal league games. And, again, I draw the distinction between tourists – in the capital on work or pleasure, taking in a game – and overseas supporters – in London for Chelsea. But in those twenty minutes of fading light and the creeping buzz of pre-match anticipation, there was one sight which, sadly, predictably, wound me up. Out on the approaches to the stadium, the “match day scarf” sellers were doing a roaring trade. More than a couple of sellers had even managed to source flags with a completely incorrect shade of Roma red, but the punters were still lapping it all up. As I was preparing to take a photograph of Kerry Dixon on The Shed Wall, five young lads – they weren’t from England, it was easy to tell – were all wearing the risible half-and-half scarves. It made me stop and think. These people, these tourists – it almost feels like a dirty word at Chelsea among some supporters these days – flock to games, but are seemingly blissfully unaware of the rank and file’s dislike of these modern day favours. We bloody hate the damned things. And every time that I see one, it winds me up. I feel like approaching each and every one of them.

“You ever heard of the internet? It’s pretty popular these days. Ever delved into UK football culture? Do you know it exists? Ever heard of the common dislike for all seat-stadia, the gentrification of support, the alienation of the traditional working class support, the nonsense of thunder sticks, jester hats, face paint and noisemakers? Ever wonder why many match going fans avoid replica shirts like the plague? Ever thought that buying half-and-half scarves annoys local Chelsea fans to high-heaven? Ever thought how preposterous it looks to buy an item combining both bloody team’s colours and badges? Do you enjoy looking like a prick? Ever thought that a far more discreet pin badge might do just as well?”

In the boozer, there was a gathering of the clans, with familiar faces everywhere I looked. I can walk around my local town centre for half-an-hour without seeing anyone I know, yet I had already bumped into five or six people on my walk to the stadium without even trying. At the bar, nursing a pint of lager, was my friend Jim, who was in London for a rare game. I first met Jim at a Paul Canoville / Pat Nevin / Doug Rougvie event in Raynes Park in 2014 after chatting on Facebook for a while. Like me, he dotes on the 1983/84 season. I had forgotten, but his parents used to look after the members’ area in the East Lower in those days. I mentioned that my mate Jake, who had travelled up to London with PD, Parky and myself, was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a Champions League game at Chelsea for the first-time ever. To my surprise, Jim replied that this was his first CL game too. His last European night was the ECWC semi versus Vicenza in 1998. What a night that was. For a few moments, we reminisced. I remember watching with Alan, Glenn and Walnuts in The Shed Upper. The drama of going a further goal behind. Poyet’s close-range equaliser. Zola making it 2-2, but with us still needing another, the explosion of noise which greeted Mark Hughes’ winner. I was reminded that it was a strange time for me.

“It was five years to the day that my father passed away. There were tears from me in The Shed that night. Then, the very next day – with me on a high about going to the final in Stockholm – I was made redundant at work. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.”

Jim watched the drama unfold in the “open to the elements” West Lower. We wondered why Chelsea wore the yellow and light blue away kit that night. Jim just remembers the emotion and the noise. As was so often the case in those days, he sung himself hoarse. While I was getting made redundant on the Friday, Jim recounted how he had an eventful day at work too.

“I was working for British Rail at Marylebone at the time. They were a man down. The bloke who announced the train times hadn’t showed up. I had never done it before, but they asked me to do it. I could hardly speak.”

Jim would be watching the Chelsea vs. Roma game in 2017 in the East Stand Upper, for the very first time since the annihilation of Leeds United on “promotion day” in 1984.

Yes. That season again.

I was right. There were three thousand Roma fans in the away quadrant. They were virtually all male – 99% easily – and they seemed to be of a younger demographic than that of a typical Chelsea away crowd in Europe. Plenty of banners, plenty of flags, and plenty of shiny puffer jackets. I spotted many banners using the stylised font which was prevalent in the Mussolini era of the 1930’s, which can still be seen in many locations in Rome.

Alan and myself spoke briefly about our plans for Rome on Halloween.

“Well, all I know is that we should easily out-do our away following in 2008. We only had about five hundred there that night.”

The memory of a wet night in Rome, a hopeless 3-1 defeat, and being kept in the Olympico for ninety minutes after the game haunted me. Apart from the game itself, it was a cracking trip though. Rome never disappoints. The return to the eternal city can’t come quick enough. We have 3,800 tickets. We should take a good 2,000 I reckon. I know of loads who are going.

I had not seen the team; too busy chatting, too busy enjoying a drink. PD had driven up, allowing me a couple of lagers, and a chance to relax a little.

Alvaro Morata was playing. We all hoped that he hadn’t been rushed back too soon.

The shape had shifted and Luiz was playing as a deep-lying shield in front of the defence as at Wembley against Spurs. Hazard was playing off Morata. In defence, Zappacosta replaced the hamstrung Moses. In the middle, the impressive Christensen was alongside Cahill to his left and Dave to his right.

It was odd to see a Roma team with no Francesco Totti. The Mohican of Nainggolan stood out in a team of beards.

Especially for Jake and Jim, the Champions League anthem rung out. There was hardly an empty seat in the house. Stamford Bridge was ready.

Chelsea in blue, blue, white.

Roma in white, white, burgundy. OK it’s not burgundy. Torino is burgundy, or officially pomegranate. And although the Roma club are known as the “yellow and reds”, the Roma colour is not really a simple red. It’s the hue of a chianti, a deep red, almost a claret.

It was a bright opening, and the away fans – another moan, you knew it was coming, I am nothing if not consistent – were making most of the noise. They have that song that United sing, a rather mundane one, but it went on and on.

After an early chance for Morata, Roma began to ask questions of our re-shuffled defence. Perotti ran at ease – “put a fucking tackle in!” – but shot over. With Edin Dzeko leading the line, they dominated possession and moved the ball well. However, rather against the run of play, Luiz played an unintentional “one-two” with Jesus – blimey – and he stroked the ball past the diving Roma ‘keeper Becker and into the bottom corner. It was a bloody lovely strike. We howled with joy. Over in Parkyville, Luiz ran towards the corner and dived onto the wet grass. Stamford Bridge was a happy place.

Alan : “Havtocom atus now.”

Chris : “Cumonmi lit uldi mons.”

We enjoyed a spell and Zappacosta began to put in a barnstorming performance on our right. There is a directness and an eagerness about his forward runs that I like. Hazard, running free, dragged a low shot wide. Roma struck at our goal, but all efforts were at Courtois, thankfully. A fine block from Nainggolan was the highlight. David Luiz, loose and unfettered, was like a stallion charging around the park, trying to close space and set others on their way. The desire was there, if not the finished product.

On the half hour, Morata carried the ball into the Roma half, and shot towards the Shed goal. A lucky deflection saw the ball arch up from Beard Number One and aim straight towards Hazard, who had burst forward to support the number nine. His first-time volley crashed past Becker.

Thirty-love.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

We had ridden our luck and were 2-0 up. Blimey.

Despite the fact that we were leading – OK, luckily – only once did it really feel like the Stamford Bridge of old (Vicenza, 1998) with the stands reverberating and making me proud to be Chelsea.

With five minutes of the first-half remaining, our lead was reduced. Kolarov burst in from the left – a surging chance of pace surprising us all – and smashed a ball high into the net. It was a fine goal. Roma were back in it, and probably it was just about what was deserved.

The reaction of the Roma fans surprised me. The roar was phenomenal and they were soon jumping all over each other. It wasn’t even an equaliser. Fucking hell. Fair play to the buggers. That’s what I love to see, Tons of passion. Tons of noise.

“Bella bella.”

And then they let me down. It seems that West Ham’s shocking use of “Achy Breaking Heart” has been mirrored by the Italians. A city of history and splendor, a city of culture and style, the city of Bernini and Fellini, of “La Dolce Vita” and of an unmistakable elegance had been ignored and its travelling hordes were now impersonating a redneck nation living in trailer parks, wearing Nascar baseball caps, shagging their cousins, worshiping guns and shopping at Walmart.

“Et tu, Brute?”

At half-time, Scott Minto was on the pitch, reminiscing about his Chelsea debut; the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994, our first European game since 1971, and also my first Chelsea European game too. It was noisy as fuck that night, despite a gate of barely 22,000.

The first-half had finished, I noted, with Chelsea possession at the 39% mark. It felt like it too.

Roma continued their domination into the second period. We were struggling all over. Fabregas was hardly involved. A rare run from Morata – not 100% fit in our book – resulted in a half-chance but his shot from wide was well-wide with the ‘keeper out of his goal.

On the hour, Pedro replaced Luiz, who had taken a knock earlier. We spotted that he had handed a piece of A4 to Cesc Fabregas, a message of instruction from Antonio.

Soon after, Beard Number Two sent over a fantastic cross towards the far post and Dzeko thrashed a stupendous volley past Thibaut. It was a stunning goal. I didn’t clap it, but I patted Bournemouth Steve on the back as if to say “fair play.”

And how the Romanisti, the CUCS, the legion of away fans, celebrated that. It was a den of noise.

“Bollocks.”

Alonso weakly shot over. Bakayoko gave away a cheap free-kick on seventy minutes and the free-kick from Kolarov was headed in, without so much as an excuse-me, by that man Dzeko. He again raced over to the away fans, and it was a tough sight to see. The away fans were a mass of limbs being flung in every direction. Bloody hell, they were loud.

A third consecutive win was on the cards. Conte was safe though, right? Who bloody knows these days. Against these Romans, perhaps Roman’s thoughts were wavering.

Thank heavens, a fine Pedro cross from the right was adeptly headed towards goal by Eden Hazard. The ball dropped into the goal. It was our turn to yell and shriek.

“YES.”

His little run down towards Cathy’s Corner was a joy to watch.

Rudiger for Zappacosta. Willian for Hazard.

I was surprised that Morata stayed on.

Still more chances for Roma. Nainggolan went wide, Dzeko made a hash of an easy header. I noted that the away support deadened after our equaliser. There was not much of a peep from them for a while. Two late headers from Rudiger, and the heavily bandaged Cahill, were off target. A winner at that stage, though, would surely have taken the piss. We knew it, we all knew it, we had been lucky to nab a point. How we miss N’Golo Kante. Despite the numbers in midfield, our pressing was not great. We look a fragile team at the moment, and at the back especially. We all knew that we would miss John Terry, right?

However, we certainly have three winnable games coming up; Watford, Everton, Bournemouth. Three wins and we will be back on track.

And as for the draw with Roma, at least it sets up the away leg in just under a fortnight.

That will be a fantastic occasion. All roads lead to Rome, and Roman’s Chelsea legionnaires will be there in our thousands.

Andiamo.

IMG_9716

 

Tales From An Afternoon Of Predictable Unpredictability

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2017.

My eyes were firmly focussed on Andre Marriner, the referee, as the Crystal Palace supporters continued their euphoric and boisterous backdrop of noise, and as the last few seconds of the five minutes of added time ticked past. In those five minutes, rather than allowing a late reprise for Chelsea, it was the home team who enjoyed most of the possession. A few Chelsea fans around me had left minutes earlier. I waited for the final shrill toot of the whistle. Such was the noise from the Palace fans, I heard no whistle, but just the simultaneous movement of hand to mouth from Marriner, the celebratory thrust of Palace players’ arms into the air and the roar from the crowd at a raucous Selhurst Park.

There was deflation. Another three points dropped, Chelsea. Three losses out of just eight league games. Two consecutive losses. Losing to Manchester City was tough, of course, but we all knew that we had encountered a very fine team two weeks previous. But Crystal Palace were different; without a win in seven games and not even a single goal to their name. There was bewilderment within me, and all around me too. There was no point in trying to move away from my viewing position way down at the front of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand. The aisle ways were full of exiting away fans. Besides, I wanted to see how many of the team, the squad, would come over to the away fans to acknowledge our patronage and support. A few moments passed. I saw a few murky grey Chelsea shirts head down to the players’ exit on the far side, tucked between the towering curved roof of the Holmesdale Road stand and the slight slope of the ancient main stand. Those players were gone, out of my consciousness for a few moments. I spotted four Chelsea players continue their handshakes with a few of the opposing victors in our half of the pitch, and waited to see who would decide to walk over to our corner. Surely the captain Gary Cahill. Surely Cesar Azpilicueta.

I picked up my camera from beneath my seat. An over-zealous steward had warned me not to take any more photographs after he saw me take a close-up of a haring Davide Zappacosta in the first few minutes of the second-half. By then, though, I had taken more than enough for my match day quota, shielded from prying eyes by Ed and Parky, my two blockers. There is an increasing war of nerves between myself and stewards at away games these days. With the game over, and the stewards drifting away, uninterested, I brought the camera up to my eyes, and waited for the remaining Chelsea players to walk over.

Marcos Alonso, Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta.

There were pained expressions from all four of them.

They clapped us. We clapped them. There were no boos. There had been no boos as the game had reached its conclusion. For some reason – I suspect they are plain and obvious – our away support tends not to lower ourselves to collective boos. Of course there had been a rising tide of moans and groans, accompanied by every Anglo-Saxon curse known to mankind, throughout the game from frustrated supporters, but there was nothing orchestrated on a larger scale. My view has always been the same. I go to watch Chelsea to support the team. I try to be as positive as possible. Of course my frustrations get the better of me at times, but I always do my damnedest to find positives where I can, and to encourage those who need it most. In all of my time as a Chelsea supporter – Crystal Palace was game number 1,155 – I can only remember booing a player once; Frank Leboeuf in 2000, down below me as he came over to receive a throw-in the Matthew Harding wraparound, when it was thought that he was one of the main perpetrators in needling out Gianlica Vialli as manager. I was not the only one who booed him on that occasion. Leboeuf, previously a crowd favourite, looked visibly shocked that so many were booing him. I immediately felt terrible. What a fucking twat I was. I vowed never to do so again.

By all means berate players, if deserved, in private chats in pubs, clubs, bars and cars, but never at a game. Always be positive. Always provide backing. That surely has to be one of the Chelsea fundamentals.

At Chelsea games, we are supporters, not critics.

Right?

I took a few photos of the four players, standing, immobile, their faces still distraught.

I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered what words from Antonio Conte would be awaiting them on their return to the waiting changing room.

It had, from the very first few minutes, been a below-par Chelsea performance. The home team, managed by the old man Roy Hodgson – it was only ten weeks ago we bumped into him in Beijing at the Chelsea hotel – and coached by former favourite Ray Lewington, were first out of the traps, with Zaha and Townsend full of skill. An early goal, a Cabaye shot deflected in off the hapless Azpilicueta, surprised none of us. Whereas we all expected to win the game easily, I would hazard a bet that 95% of us knew that Palace would score their first goal of the league season against us. There was just something in our collective psyche that warned of this. That it only took eleven minutes was even more predictable. In my mind, before the game, my thoughts were –

“Concede an early goal, but win 3-1.”

How the Palace fans celebrated that league opener.

We slowly – slowly – got back in to the game as the first-half developed. A header by Tiemoue Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner was wildly celebrated and set off the September Song. However, a second goal from Palace, by the impressive Zaha, right before the break brought further gloom.

There were changes soon into the second-half with the very disappointing Michy Batshuayi going off to be replaced by the zip of Pedro. Charly Musonda then replaced the equally frustrating Willian. It was all change. Our attack had been invaded by mini-men. Eden Hazard was asked to lead the line, but at times the game totally evaded him. I kept thinking that if Hazard is truly to be regarded as one of the attacking greats of the modern game, then this is just the sort of match that he needs to grab by the horns and cause mayhem. He did nothing of note. Sure, Fabregas hit the bar, and Musonda volleyed over, but our play was erratic all day. We missed Kante, holding things in midfield. Oh how we missed Morata. Long diagonals to Zappacosta worked well, and he seemed pacey and engaged, but an equaliser never ever looked like coming. Our passing was off. We were second best in a few areas. In those closing moments, with the game stretched, Palace had further chances. Our support, mirroring the malaise of the players, was average at best. There is usually a good sing-song at Selhurst. On this day, it was all rather flat and lethargic. The lazy sexist comments aimed at Sian Massey, running the line, were just painful. Must do better.

The players walked a couple of paces towards us. There was still applause from the Arthur Wait stand. Marcos had tried his best, but had found little space out wide in order to play penetrating balls in. There had been the usual effort on this mild, but bleak, Saturday afternoon in South London for our Spanish left-back. Gary Cahill had a mixed game. There had been brave blocks and strong headers, but he often looked all at sea when the ball was played on the deck. As captain, he bore the defeat heavily on his shoulders. Thibaut walked closer, taking off his bright orange jersey, and eventually gave it to a fan in the crowd. He has never had all of the Chelsea support with him during his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, but our tall  Belgian often stays behind to thank us for our support. Does it mean anything? I think so. Alongside him was Cesar Azpilicueta, our Dave, his face showing the pain of defeat. It was an expression that was matched by myself. Everyone loves Dave. He had a typical 7/10 performance and was unlucky with his deflected own-goal. I wanted him to make a block on Zaha during his run into the box for the second goal, but for once his limpet-like man marking did not get him close enough to the Palace striker. Whereas others in the Chelsea support would be quick to castigate Azpilicueta, I was happy to give him some slack. He rarely lets us down.

Joining the four was Tiemoue Bakayoko, who took off his shirt and rolled it up before launching it into the away support. It landed in the grasping hands of a fan a few yards away. Without Kante alongside him, Bakayoko was asked to cover simply too much ground. Alongside him, Fabregas had a mixed game too, a few fine passes, a few crunching tackles, but the game then by-passed him at times.

The five players turned and retreated back across the pitch.

Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Let’s all admit it. We all presumed that we only had to show up at Selhurst Park to get three points. Going in to the game, on the drive up to London and through the terraced streets of South London – why is Selhurst Park such a bastard place to get to and from? – we were adamant that we would be victorious. With six games coming up in just eighteen games in October, here was a game that, even with a slightly weaker team, we should have surely won. There were no complaints from the four of us about the team selection prior to kick-off. But the manager must feel pain that his preparatory work amounted to nothing.

And it was complacency at its best, and worst, from many.

After the game, all the experts had their say – I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, some of the post-game hyperbole was embarrassing – but there are a few truths which can’t be ignored.

Our lack of options up front, especially, must be a worry. I spoke to Ed during the game about the halcyon days of 1997/98 when our first team squad boasted Mark Hughes, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Ginafranco Zola battling for places in attack. How times change, eh? Conversely, we have an over-abundance of central defenders, with Christensen, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger vying for three places. Christensen has not put a foot wrong so far. Let’s see if the manager takes the plunge.

We have to trust the manager. He has proved to be a fine tactician in his short Chelsea career thus far. It’s time for a reaction from our beloved players. And what is better than a potentially classic Champions League game against Roma on Wednesday to look forward to. As we drove home on Saturday night, we quickly warmed to the excitement of another European night under the lights at Stamford Bridge.

We are lucky people. I can almost hear the anthem. See you there.

Tales From A Night Of Hurt

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

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The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2016.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

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Tales From Happy Monday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 April 2013.

The Easter weekend of 2013 was turning out to be a bitterly cold one. After our meek capitulation at Southampton on the Saturday, Chelsea were not able to give us any added warmth on that particular afternoon. As Easter Sunday passed, thoughts turned to the Easter Monday F.A. Cup replay with Manchester United. In all honesty, I wasn’t too worried. After years of supporting the club through thick and thin, it would be “typical Chelsea” for us to follow up a poor performance against one of the division’s lesser teams with a sterling victory against one of the giants. And yet, it would also be “typical Chelsea” for our fine performance in the first game – which seemed like ages ago – to be unrewarded with a defeat in the replay.

Inevitably – everyone knows how my mind works by now – I thought back to previous games in the F.A. Cup with United. In recent memory, there have been two. And the vibes were not great. In 1998-1999, we did well to eke out a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, despite getting Robbie di Matteo sent off, but then lost in the replay. I didn’t attend the second game; it was the days of doing shift-work and so I had to listen in on the radio at work. I wondered if a similar scenario might exist in 2013. I certainly didn’t fancy a repeat of the horrendous F.A. Cup game of 1998.

We, of course, were F.A. Cup holders; a phrase which we had been unable to utter for a full 27 years. Manchester United were the reigning League Champions. Ruud Gullit was our manager, Dennis Wise was our captain. Our team included some well-loved players; Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Mark Hughes. We met United in the third round. It was our first game as defending F.A. Cup holders. What followed was probably one of the most humiliating trouncings that I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge.

At one stage, we were losing 0-5.

Yes, that’s correct.

0-5.

That we scored three very late goals to give the score line a vague hint of acceptability did not fool anyone.

We had been found out.

Not long after, we lost to United again in the League. We also lost to Arsenal in the League and League Cup in quick succession. Soon after, Ruud Gullit was given the sack, with rumours of contract negotiations causing problems in the relationship between the chairman Ken Bates and our dreadlocked manager. As a fan base, we were saddened and confused. That our first manager to bring us a major trophy in 26 years could be dismissed within nine months seemed crazy, cruel and heartless.

Does this ring any bells?

Thought so.

In truth, the team was brilliant one minute, awful the next. I’d say that the football that we played in the autumn of 1997 was the best ever. The midfield of Poyet, Di Matteo, Wise and Petrescu was magnificent. Upfront, we had Hughes and Zola. Great times. But how they can soon change.

Travelling up to Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday 2013, I was sure that there wouldn’t be a 0-5 score line confronting me at any stage of the upcoming game, regardless of Rafa Benitez’ inadequacies.

In the pub, there was a lovely little Tokyo reunion; Mike was over from Brooklyn, Foxy was over from a ship off the coast of New Zealand, via Nottingham. It was great to reminisce about that most magical of foreign trips, regardless of the end result.

Parky was with us too. He has had a rough week or so. His spirits are always up, though. I have to admire his resilience. He came out with a piece of “Classic Parky.”

“Yeah, they wanted to see me in the hospital. I stayed in there a few hours. They gave me a check up. They hooked me up to the scanner. Apparently I cost £2.20.”

On the walk down the North End Road – the cold wind added to the freezing temperatures – we spotted five or six Manchester United fans. To the uninitiated, there would be no clue; they were not wearing scarves, shirts, caps, or even small pin badges. But we knew. The way they were dressed, the fact that they were silent, the fact that they looked a little concerned.

They were United.

The days are gone, really, of having to run the gauntlet at away matches, but there is no point in advertising to the world of your allegiance at certain away games. Anyway, they made their way unhindered. The Shed would be full of 6,000 Mancs for this one; I feared that their noise would drown ours.

As I checked the starting line-ups, my spirits were raised. Juan Mata and Eden Hazard started for us. I checked out the opposition; Manchester United fielded a decidedly unglamorous team, and their personnel suggested a more prosaic form of football, far from their swashbuckling style much admired throughout the footballing world. Crucially, Wayne Rooney was injured and Robin Van Persie was on the bench. This confused me. United have virtually won the league and they are out of Europe; why would Alex Ferguson not start the most prolific striker in British football?

The Shed balcony was adorned with the red / white / black flags of United. There was one which mocked Steven Gerrard’s lack of league titles. He has, of course, twelve less than Ryan Giggs.

The first-half was a strange affair. It was a decidedly slow game; a game of cat and mouse. Chelsea enjoyed most of the possession, but on the first day of the baseball season, it appeared that both teams were attempting a no-hitter. Apart from a slow daisy-cutter from Mikel, the first real shot on target, which warranted a save, took place on 31 minutes; an effort from Demba Ba which De Gaea saved with an outstretched leg. Soon after, Ramires set up Ba again, but his shot was blocked. It took United 37 minutes for their first real effort on goal; an effort from Nani. A lovely dribble from Hazard, a lay-off from Oscar, but Hazard blazed over. Then, a wild, swerving shot from Chicarito was booted clear by Cech.

It had been a strange half. Ashley Cole had pulled up on twenty minutes, of course; we hoped that Ryan Bertrand would cope better than on Saturday.

At half-time, with no match action to distract me, I stood and froze.

The second-half began in a lively fashion. A cheeky back-heel from Ba provided the first attempt on goal. Soon after, the game changed. Mikel won the ball right on the left touchline in our half and the ball was eventually played through to Juan Mata – the king pin – who was in acres of space in the middle of United’s half. Oscar had continued to move up the left wing and I pleaded for Mata to push the ball through for him inside the full-back. Instead, Mata caught us all on the hop. He played a ball which nobody expected, chipping the ball up and into the penalty area. He had spotted the slightest hint of a move by Ba; great vision. With one amazing piece of dexterity, Ba let the ball fall over his shoulder and he cushioned the ball so it flew over De Gaea’s flailing – and failing – body.

The crowd exploded.

I screamed.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Over in the far corner, Demba fell to his knees in silent prayer and was then mobbed by his team mates.

Rio Ferdinand, who had been booed relentlessly, had been the victim of Ba’s magnificent finish. How we laughed.

Chelsea enjoyed a nice period of possession. The United fans – despite their numbers – were not so loud. We had a special message for our friend in the middle of United’s back-four :

“Rio Ferdinand – fcuk off to Qatar.”

On the hour, a most brilliant piece of football. A blistering cross from the right, a fine leap from Chicarito.

I cringed and grimaced.

It was the equaliser for sure. Damned United.

But, no. Petr Cech threw out an arm and the ball was deflected over the bar.

It was the save of the season, no doubt. The applause for our great goalkeeper was loud and heartfelt.

Free beers for him in the bar after.

The chances for Chelsea then came and went in quick succession.

Juan Mata forced a save which rippled the side-netting, but the linesman did not give a corner. Eden Hazard was clean through, but dragged his shot wide. Ramires belted one off target. At the other end, Valencia well wide. There was intriguing physical battle between Ba and Ferdinand. Our play was more direct than with Fernando Torres in the team.

More chances. Mata over, Mata wide.

No matter.

I was surprised – really surprised – that we had reached 80 minutes with no substitutes being made by Benitez. Ferguson had already brought on Van Persie and Giggs.

Oscar shot meekly wide; he is having a tough time of late.

I have to say that I thought that Ryan Bertrand performed admirably at left-back after replacing Ashley Cole. His positioning was much better, his marking tight. One of the other poorer players at Southampton, Branislav Ivanovic, was much better too. Maybe Southampton was just a bad day at the office. Two late chances for Van Persie were wasted and we held on.

As I made my way down the Fulham Road, my phone was going crazy with incoming texts. We were back at the new Wembley for the twelfth time in under six years.

It is our second home and, quite possibly, our third home too.

As I drove home on the westbound M3, I happened to glance over at the Thorpe Park roller coasters which are easily visible from the motorway.

I had a chuckle to myself.

“Don’t waste your money on that. Just get a Chelsea season ticket.”

At 4.40pm on Sunday 10th March, we were virtually out of the F.A. Cup.

At 2.30pm on Monday 1st April, we were back at Wembley.

No joke.

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