Tales From The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From The Big House.

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From The International Champions Cup.

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

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Tales From A New Dawn.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 25 August 2012.

My very first Chelsea game was over thirty-eight years ago. The opponents on that life-changing afternoon were Newcastle United. Since then, our paths have crossed with alarming regularity, including some very memorable battles in the old second division. Our third Premiership game of the new 2012-2013 season would be my 31st Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. I have only seen Liverpool on more occasions at HQ. In those thirty previous games, our record was excellent; just four defeats. Our 2-0 loss to the Geordies in early May was our first league loss to them at home since a 3-1 defeat in November 1986.

There was a sense of revenge in the air. That game will be remembered, of course, for those two wondrous Cisse strikes. Strangely enough, while I was over in New York recently, I got chatting to a Newcastle United fan at the New York Yankees game on my last night. She had been at the game in May, one of the 1,500 away fans who had been rewarded for their support by a rare away win at Chelsea. I told her that there aren’t many times that I want to check out an opponents’ goal as soon as I reach home, but that was one occasion. We haven’t seen a goal like Cisse’s second strike at The Bridge for quite a while. Its trajectory seemed to defy all laws of physics. It was a cracking strike.

After our maximum six points being garnered from our two league matches, and our play improving over the past three games against City, Wigan and Reading I was truly relishing this one. Newcastle United would be a stern test. It had the makings of a classic. And this brought me a great deal of joy; I love the fact that teams outside of the big four or five have their moments. How boring it would be if our only tests each year were the same opponents.

With the evening kick-off, there was no need to leave until lunchtime. Out shopping in Frome in the morning, I bumped into Dave and Karen, fellow Chelsea fans and season ticket holders for around six or seven years. Regretfully, Dave informed me that they didn’t renew for 2012-2013. A few years ago, there used to be six season ticket holders travelling up from Dodge each game; Dave, Karen, Frank, PD, Glenn and myself. Only the latter two remain.

I collected Young Jake from outside Trowbridge train station at 1pm and Old Parky from his house soon after. There was a look of joyful glee on Jill’s face when I collected Parky; she often calls me her respite carer.

“Don’t worry, Jill, I’ll take care of the old bugger today. Send the cheque to my office.”

We chatted away as I headed east. Parky was fortified by a four pint pack of Foster lager. I made use of the new “Starbucks” drive-in at Membury Services near Swindon; another American innovation that has found its way over the Atlantic. The weather was bizarre; fine one minute, rain showers the next. We must have had twenty individual rain showers on the drive in.

As I drove past Slough to the north and Windsor to the south, it was obvious that London was in the middle of a pretty intense rainstorm. The sky was wild and wonderful. A great towering cumulonimbus cloud dominated the vista in the centre, but huge billowing white and grey clouds were everywhere I could look. We spotted occasional lightning forks. It was like a gatefold album cover from some hideous prog rock group in the ‘seventies. I almost expected to see dragons, serpents or bare-breasted Nordic goddesses.

Calm down Parky.

But then it got serious. The rain became heavier. We got drenched as we had a quick pit stop at Heston. The last twenty miles into town were painful. The rain came down in a never-ending deluge and the traffic slowed. The spray made visibility difficult. We drove past Brentford’s Griffin Park and saw that the floodlights were already on, even though it was only 3.15pm. Heading around Hammersmith, the rain bounced back up off the road and we saw great puddles of surface water.

“Honestly can’t see the game taking place, Parks…all this rain, bloody hell.”

The streets and pavements were virtually deserted. The sky was a brooding, dark shade of grey. It felt like a mid-winter evening, not a summer afternoon. The lightning strikes grew more frequent. There were even thunderclaps.

At least there were no text messages to say that the game had been postponed. We spoke about the last time that a match was called-off on the day of the game at Chelsea; we have been lucky, it was as long ago as 1998. Jake needed to meet Mick down at the Copthorne Hotel and so I decided to drive down to Stamford Bridge as the poor tyke would get soaked if he was to walk from The Goose. I turned left at the bottom of the North End Road and onto the Fulham Road. Where was everybody? Again, the streets were deserted.

It was, without doubt, a very eerie sensation. As I headed past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall, the rain continued to fall. There was an apocalyptic air to what was before me; these familiar streets, usually so full of brightly coloured pedestrians and football supporters, were virtually devoid of people, save for a few poor souls sheltering under shop fronts and secluded nooks and crannies.

Dark skies, incessant rain, the wind howling and solemn streets devoid of life.

Like a terrible vision from the future.

Is this what Fulham Broadway will be like when Tottenham next win the league?

We dropped Young Jake outside the main entrance -“go, go, go!” – and I then drove around the block, past The Black Bull, The Finborough and up to the Brompton Road. Then, miraculously, the rain eased. By the time I drove past West Brompton tube, the newly-arrived passengers were briskly walking towards the gaggle of pubs as if the thunderstorm had not happened.

I then saw a sight which saddened me and stirred me in equal measure. Chelsea fan Kyle Broadbent tragically passed away during the week. He was just 26. Although I did not know Kyle, the eulogies being posted on Facebook during the week were enough for me to know that he had touched so many lives and was loved by many people in the Chelsea fraternity. Draped over the metal railings of the “Prince of Wales” pub, I spotted a damp, limp flag which simply stated –

“Kyle Broadbent 1986-2012.”

Several of his friends had walked that morning in his honour from Euston Station, some three miles away, to Chelsea. It seems that Kyle often went on wild and wondrous walks at various Chelsea games; it was his thing.

Oh boy. What to say?

Rest in peace, Kyle.

Miraculously, the rain stopped just as I parked up on Bramber Road. A few minutes later, Parky and I were with the usual suspects in The Goose. Another pint of Peroni. I’ll get a new nickname at this rate; “One Pint Axon.” I guess it’s better than “Half Pint Axon.”

The scores were being monitored on the TV screen. The place was packed. A little group of around ten away fans were spotted a few yards away. No malice, times have moved on. However, I don’t think Chelsea have any real problems with Newcastle. Everton fans are sometimes spotted in the pub. West Brom, Blackburn too; no big deal. None of our main rivals would take these same liberties, though.

It simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

For once, The Goose was rocking with loud and boisterous singing, no doubt inspired by the presence of the away fans. We all joined in. We couldn’t let the Geordies win that battle. With our trip to Monaco for the UEFA Super Cup coming up, Andy and I spoke about our memorable coach trip to the 1998 game in Monaco when we beat Real Madrid 1-0.

The coach broke down on three separate occasions on that trip; it was, however, a great excursion which was full of many great memories. A few lads from Burnham-on-Sea in my county of Somerset were on the coach and soon got stuck into many flagons of “Rich’s” cider. One of the lads, attending his very first football game, unfortunately bore a striking resemblance to the notorious killer Fred West and his experience on the night of the game proved to be the funniest moment of the whole trip.

Fred West – I can’t remember his name – was out on the Nice seafront in the small hours after the match had long finished, chatting with a few ladies of the night. After things got a little boisterous, one of the street-walkers approached Fred and, to his absolute horror, pulled her skirt down to reveal that “she” was in fact a “he.”

With that, Fred started to recoil in horror, only for the same individual to pull out a shotgun, which was fired into the air.

The image of a startled Fred West sprinting back to the hotel had his friends roaring with laughter. I bumped into one of Fred’s mates at the Reise game at Anfield in 2009; Fred hasn’t been to a football game since.

Ed bought Parky a double Jack Daniels and Coke. I wondered if he should have bought me a shovel, to allow me to scoop Parky out of my car when I would eventually drop him off later that night.

We left the pub just as the Tottenham let in a late – a very late – equaliser.

Happy days.

At “the stall” I had a quick chat with a few acquaintances. Mark W had lost a lot of the new edition of “CFCUK” during the deluge’ leaving Dave to try to hawk a few dry copies of the August edition. Cliff A gave me a flier about a “test the water” meeting to look at setting up a Chelsea Supporters’ Trust. The meeting is scheduled to take place after the Stoke game; watch this space. I accompanied Steve M on the walk to the ground; we spoke about the great time we had in the States.

Despite the torrential downpour which had hit south-west London, the pitch looked stunning. There was no surface water at all. Well done the ground staff. Neil Barnett introduced the new signings Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta before the game. There were team changes from Wednesday; the big surprise was Raul Meireles partnering Mikel at the base of our newly-evolving midfield.

The game was indeed a cracker.

Despite the concerns over the summer about the new players taking a while to settle, we produced a very mature performance, with all players interacting well, against one of the fancied teams of the division.

The Bridge was soon rocking to the newest song of the moment. Out on the pitch, our play flowed in a way that was missing for vast tracts of last season. We simply purred. We began the livelier, with a few chances being carved out, with only sporadic Newcastle retaliation. In the 22nd minute, Fernando Torres spun into space and prodded the ball past a Newcastle defender. An outstretched leg, a fall, a penalty.

Three games, three penalties.

With Lamps side-lined, we pondered the options. Mata has missed a few penalties of late and so it was no surprise when Eden Hazard stood up.

A short run, a confident finish.

1-0 to the European Champions.

Alan and I had our “YHTCAUN – COMLD” exchange in a Geordie accent and, indeed, spoke in Geordie accents for the vast majority of the game.

The 1,500 away fans in the corner were clearly not impressed with the volume of our support and hit us, predictably, with the boring “Your Support Is F***ing S***.”

We yawned.

Fernando Torres, clearly now enjoying his permanent role at the front of our team, touched the ball past Coloccini and fell. Much to our horror, not only was a free-kick not awarded, but the Spaniard was booked.

Revenge came soon after. Although Alan was full of moans about Phil Dowd’s decision to allow five minutes of extra time at the end of the half, we were smiling in the 50th minute. A quite delightful move, which resulted in a Hazard back-heel into the path of an on-rushing Torres, ended with a delicate flick from the outside of Torres’ right boot. The ball simply flew into the net and The Bridge erupted.

Two goals in two games; Fernando Torres, you know what you are.

We all agreed how well we had played amidst our half-time chat. Out on the pitch, Neil Barnett was with former striker Joe Allon – famous for his jump over the Shed End advertising hoardings during a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon in 1991…but not much else.

Newcastle came at us in the first part of the second period. Our flow had been interrupted by the half-time break and the visitors’ new found thrust. But, in all honesty, we were hardly troubled the entire game. Ryan Bertrand hardly put a foot wrong. Both Mikel and Meireles covered a lot of ground and were the unsung heroes.

Three moments to cherish from the second period.

As the heavens opened again, a delightful back heel from Eden Hazard which almost reached Torres. I think we can expect similar moments of inspiration from our new Belgian as the season progresses. I noted that he has a very low centre of gravity – always an advantage for a dribbler – and, once he sets off on a forward run, he almost hugs the turf.

Fernando Torres was a man reborn and often ran at the Newcastle defence. His close control is one of his brightest assets. When he was on the edge of the Newcastle box, he fooled everyone by crossing the ball with his right foot from behind his standing left foot. Lovely stuff.

Eden Hazard, now full of running, teased Coloccini down below me and left him for dead over ten scintillating yards. His change of pace was amazing.

Newcastle had two or three goal scoring chances at the Shed End. We were slightly edgy, knowing that a goal from the visitors would bring them right back into it.

We held on. It had been a lovely game, which augers so well for the rest of the season.

With no trip to Monaco for me next weekend, I now have to wait three whole weeks for my next game; a feisty trip to our neighbours at Loftus Road. Who knows, by the time we reconvene there, we might still be top.

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Tales From The Sticky Black Tarmac.

Everton vs. Chelsea : 22 May 2011.

At 8.30am, I left my village. For the last time of the season, I sent a text to Alan –

“Jack Kerou’Whack.”

On passing through Bradford-On-Avon, I had to slow down to accommodate several cyclists on a Sunday morning race. It was a little reminder that the summer was on its way and that there were other sporting pursuits taking place. To be honest, it has felt that the football season had already finished, especially since we had the “lap of appreciation” after the Newcastle game. On this last day of the season, the focus was elsewhere; the relegation dogfight, played to its nail-biting conclusion for the fans of Birmingham City, Blackburn, Blackpool, Wigan and Wolves. I collected Parky and we were on our way north for the final time of season 2010-2011.

This would be my eleventh trip to Goodison Park and it remains one of my favourite away stadia. The reasons for this have been well detailed before, but it’s quite simple really; a historic stadium, with two stands from the early part of last century still intact, a cramped inner city location, with an atmosphere all of its own, rich with tons of memories of past games.

We chatted away on the drive north and the time flew past. We spent a while talking about the football / music crossover which has been such a feature of the game in Britain. And at Chelsea in particular. From the songs from West Indian ska bands of the late sixties, beloved by Ben Sherman-wearing youths on the terraces of The Shed, to punks and skins of the late’seventies (Kings Road posing in the morning, football in the afternoon), soul boys in the early eighties (wedge haircuts and skintight jeans), through to the house music phenomenon of the late ‘eighties, all baggy jeans, bright colours, ecstasy in the dance clubs and on the terraces.

There just isn’t anything similar for any other sport in the UK. Music and football – the perfect combination. It’s just a magnificent celebration of working class culture. This relationship, in my mind, reached its zenith in the summer of 1990 with the New Order / England song “World in Motion.” We then had the Chelsea vs. Manchester City battle-royal between Blur and Oasis during the Brit Pop years, with laddish attitudes evident in every song, borne from the terraces, and enthralling a nation. At Chelsea games this season, we still see “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” banners. And no team has as many pop star fans as us, from Suggs and Woody from Madness, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode, to Damon from Blur and Gorillaz…the beat goes on.

At 11am, we called in to collect Julie and Burger from their home in Stafford. Time for a quick coffee and then onwards to Merseyside, whack. They are both busy with work, but still loving life in the heart of the Midlands. We managed to spirit two tickets for them out of the ether and they were happy to be aboard The Axon Express for the final game of the season. A few alcoholic beverages were shared between Burger and Parky and Julie spent a little time looking through the CIA book of my match reports from last season.

At 12.30pm, bang on time, I pulled into the car park of the Stoneycroft pub on the Queens Drive. A pint of Becks Vier. A relaxing time, with good people. Andy, Woody and Rob – travelling up from Nuneaton – soon joined us and we sat down for a Sunday carvery, with food piled high on our respective plates. The chatter subsided as we got stuck into the mountains of nosh in front of us.

“Bloody hell, it’ll take me twenty minutes until I reach the meat.”

“Bolton” said Andy.

“Best carvery in the Premiership.”

He then spent a few moments rekindling his love affair with the Toby carvery at Sunderland. Burger bought some Amarettos for the non-drivers. We all agreed that it felt strange to be at a game which was effectively meaningless. I guess we were all there for the craic though – nothing different, there.

We then drove on up to the Liverpool FC car park on Stanley Park and quickly found ourselves inside The Arkles pub. The pub was pretty full and I spent a little time with the other Nuneaton lads.

Lacoste watch –

Chris – lavender.
Chopper – sky blue.
Neil – royal blue.

WeroLoco from Calexico in California had been in touch and we eventually met outside. I had told him to look out for my travelling companion, identified by his trusty crutches.

“Are you Lord Parky?”

I quickly met WeroLoco’s mother, sister and girlfriend. His mother and sister were not planning on going to the game, but we advised them to pick up the two spare tickets which were being offered up by a Chelsea fan. We then sped off across Stanley Park, a force ten gale blowing, and reached Goodison Park just at the right time, with ten minutes to spare.

I made my way into the cramped Bullens Road stand and a large sign inside said “Everton Welcomes Visiting Supporters.” I had a seat in the upper tier and I was reminded of the first time I had seats in that particular section. This was a game in December 1998 and was memorable for being my girlfriend Judy’s boy James’ first ever football game. Now James is – and was then – a United supporter, but I had decided that it was high time that he got to see my team play. He was only ten. To be truthful, the game was poor (no goals, but a double-sending off, first Dennis Wise and then Richard Dunne), but it was lovely to take football-mad James to a game. I don’t have any kids of my own, so this was a very special moment. Despite his allegiance to United, I loved it when James joined in with a few Chelsea songs. It was my privilege to take James a year later to Old Trafford for the very first time. Don’t worry, he was with us in the Chelsea section and I even caught him chanting “Chelsea” at that game, too.

Just before I made my way to my seat, alongside Alan and Gary, my mate Ajax gestured to me and pointed out an actress from Coronation Street – I don’t watch the show, so didn’t recognise her – Brooke Vincent, who is seeing Scott Sinclair (according to Gary…again, I didn’t know.)

We had seats 1-3 in row L, so we were right in the corner, not too many seats away from the game in 1998. In with just a couple of minutes to spare.

Ah, Goodison – the wooden floorboards, the mammoth main stand opposite, the blue paintwork, the detail of the Leitch stands, the Toffee Girls, the “Z Cars” theme.

So, no Drogba, but Torres upfront with Anelka and Malouda.

“I’ve never seen us lose here, Gal.”

And when I said it, Gal’s look said it all.

The game began in bright sunshine and the wind had thankfully subsided. I was well aware that many seats in the Chelsea section were not occupied; I’d imagine several hundred had decided not to travel. Behind us, in the top corner, tens of seats were unoccupied.

The game was played out before me, but this was not appetising fare. An Everton corner was swung in from the far side and a header thudded against the bar. We had been warned. Soon into the game, a healthy chant echoed around the away section –

“We want you to stay. We want you to stay – Ancelotti, we want you to stay.”

And then, not so loud – “Carlo! Carlo!” – and a brief wave.

We struggled in the first period and Leighton Baines was in typical raiding form down the left. A woeful finish from Beckford and a strong Everton penalty claim were Everton’s highlights. A bursting Alex found support from Torres and the ball was played into Anelka but his shot was blocked by Klunk. Generally speaking, we were our usual slow and sluggish selves and only a couple of long distance Anelka shots late on were our further comforts.

At times during the first-half, the whole stadium was silent.

The sending off livened-up the second-half and, at least, the game seemed to be a little more feisty and engaging. I caught John Terry’s nice strike on goal on film – this rattled the left-hand post. His first Chelsea goal from “distance” still awaits.

The Everton goal was a joke, but nobody was laughing. Beckford just waltzed through from deep and shimmied past the convergence of four – it could have been nine – Chelsea defenders.

“After you Paolo.”

“No, after you JT.”

“Your ball, Alex.”

“Micky Droy’s ball.”

“Chopper’s ball.”

“My ball.”

“Sorry Marcel.”

“John Sillett!”

“Get him, Frankie Sinclair!”

“Hack him down, Berge.”

Goodison Park erupted. Our hearts sunk and our support got quieter. I’d say that only JT showed any spirit. Frank Lampard was absolutely woeful – and I’m genuinely concerned for him. I have a fear that his form, so dependent on his vitality and energy, could continue its rapid decline. Torres was looking disinterested and I was begging for him to lose his markers and spin his markers occasionally. We clearly need to change to accommodate him. Mikel – slow and ponderous. Malouda – hiding.

Pass, pass, pass – to infinity.

We had to wonder who had the spare man. It couldn’t have been us.

The final whistle and it was over.

I had my camera at the ready and hoped to take a few photos of the boys down below us. Maybe even one of Carlo. Malouda was playing wide left and Ashley Cole, too. They applauded us. But the only three players who walked over to applaud us were – go on guess, it is obvious – John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech.

Respect to them.

In a poignant moment, I watched as JT stooped to take off his two boots and shirt. He clapped us, but looked very disappointed. He walked towards the fans in the lower tier and presented the boots and the shirt to fans down below. He pounded his chest with his right palm, and then slowly walked across the Goodison Park turf. One man with his thoughts.

The Everton fans were scowling and he pounded his chest once more.

As I walked down the stairs, I noted the rather nice working of the Everton motto “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum / Nothing But The Best” on a large sign. I mused that the Chelsea performance was far from it.

We met up outside the away end, the Evertonians buoyant, the Chelsea fans silent.

After a while to get out of the car park, we eventually edged onto Queens Drive at 7pm. The post-game discussion was brutal but brief. We had already put the game behind us. On the way home, I briefly glimpsed the hills beyond Manchester and wondered what sort of celebrations were going on at Old Trafford. The relegation equation was finally resolved and we were all sad to see Blackpool relegated.

A few Everton cars passed us – and quite a few had “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” rear window stickers (they looked classy to be honest) but I came up with a different translation –

“Forever Seventh.”

We dropped off The Burgers at 7pm and we had another coffee in their delightful rear garden, the sun slowly fading. We wished each other all the very best for the summer, with the season in August not so far away. There is the friendly at Fratton Park, my two games in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, plus the Rangers game too. Lots to relish, lots to look forward to.

As we left Stafford, at about 7.30pm, I received a text from my oldest Chelsea friend Glenn, deep in rural Somerset.

“Carlo sacked.”

We fell silent for a few seconds and I had that awful dry feeling in the back of my throat that seems to appear whenever my mind and soul encounter sad news.

My initial reaction was : typical Chelsea, typical classless PR.

Poor Carlo.

For a while, Parky and I were quietly mulling over the future and the spectre of Roman’s obsession with the Champions League. In Roman we trust? I’m not so sure.

Confused. Sad. Tired. Frustrated.

The last junk food refill of the season at Strensham and the last Red Bull. It is just as well that Bruce Buck didn’t pull up alongside me on this occasion. I may not have been so pleasant as after the Stoke city game a month or so back.

We raced south and we listened to a Jam album. I’ve never met a Chelsea fan who doesn’t like The Jam – and it seemed appropriate for us to be belting out the lyrics to this most English of bands on this most typical of Chelsea evenings.

“A police car and a screaming siren
Pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing, a stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamplights blinking

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tom cat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Days of speed and slow time Mondays
Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
Watching the news and not eating your tea
A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up at 6 a.m. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearse in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summers day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude
Getting a cab and travelling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

I dropped off Lord Parky at 10.45pm and I was home at 11.15pm.

And next season, we’ll do it all again.

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