Tales From A Positive Step

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 3 April 2019.

We live in interesting times.

The negativity surrounding the unconvincing 2-1 win at Cardiff City on Sunday still seemed to be dominating the thoughts of many before the Wednesday evening game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. The match in South Wales certainly triggered many reactions and emotions. Taken at face value, we squeaked home – oh so fortuitously – against poor opposition and, on any other day in any other season, that might well have been the end of it. But not this season, not at this moment in time. Debate raged among the Chelsea support about our manager’s aptitude, while the media tended to focus on the loud protests against Maurizio Sarri at the game.

The negativity was at times overwhelming on Sunday and in the following few days.

I was just sick of it.

And then I looked at the league table. Chelsea were in sixth place, tucked in behind the others. And then I looked at Tottenham’s recent form guide which stood at four losses in the last five league games, and I managed to have a sideways look at everything. Was everything quite so apocalyptic? Was this really a horrific season? The Tottenham run of form really shocked me. Not so long ago they were, allegedly, being touted as being in the title race, and not just by those who were soon to frequent the Tottenham High Road once more. It seemed that all was goodness and light with our rivals from N17; a team on the cusp of glory, a respected young manager, the new stadium about to open, young English players making the national team and everything so positive. And yet, there was not a great deal of difference between our relative league positions.

This is not to disguise the fact that Chelsea Football Club is enduring an awkward season. Our troubles are well known and well documented. I won’t bore everyone to death. But it did make me think. At Chelsea, is our glass – like Tottenham’s trophy cabinet – always half empty?

At work on Wednesday, I did an early shift and worked 7am to 3pm. One lad – Andy, a relatively new colleague, I do not know him too well, but he is certainly approachable and not full of nonsense – was working the 6am to 2pm before heading up to London for football too. But he was a Tottenham fan, a season ticket holder, and was hugely excited about their first league game at their new and impressive stadium. I suspect that our individual  approaches to the two games in London were wildly different. My game was –  I was quite sure – going to be all about putting the leg-work in, showing up, trying to support as best I could, enduring the possible poor quality on show, trying not to grumble too much and make some noise. Another game ticked off and hopefully a win.

More than anything else, I just wanted no more negativity. The loud chants against Sarri at Cardiff showed our support, to me anyway, in a bad light. I’ve never been an advocate of loud “demonstration-level” booing and suchlike during games. It just adds to the pressure on the players, on the management team, on the substitutes.

And – to reiterate – we are a top six team in the toughest league going.

As my father used to say “if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Too simplistic? I don’t care.

We are supporters. To me that means that during the ninety-minutes of the framework of the game, we support.

PD again drove to London and I was able to grab a little sleep en route. The pre-match routine was the usual : pints of Peroni at The Goose, bottles of Staropramen at “Simmons.” There was talk with Rob about The Old Firm, there was talk with Walnuts about Stiff Fingers, there was talk with Simon about his son’s trip to Austin in Texas. The football would take care of itself later.

The team was announced and there were wholesale changes from Cardiff.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Hazard

I might have chosen Rudiger and not Christensen, but there were generally few complaints from anyone.

The big story concerned Callum Hudson-Odoi. It would be his first league start and about bloody time.

(Am I the only one who detests the “CHO” moniker? Back in 2006, I warmed to Sean Wright-Phillips’ SWP as it linked itself to SW6. But as for “CHO” and “RLC” – nah. File alongside “Chels.”)

It was a cold night alright. On the cover of the match programme – did the editor know something that we didn’t? – was a highly stylised photograph of our Callum. The scene was set for great things from him on this evening in SW6. Inside the stadium, the three-thousand away fans were virtually all present with a fair few minutes to go. There were noticeable gaps elsewhere. In The Shed and in the Matthew Harding I spotted random empty seats which just meant that people had decided not to attend. In the top upper corners of the East Stand, always the last to sell, whole swathes of blue seats could be seen. These seats were never ever sold in the first place. This was going to be our lowest league gate for quite a while.

Brighton were dressed in a solid racing green shirt and it seemed odd. I had to think back to the last team to show up at Chelsea in a similar colour. My mind raced back to a match with Plymouth Argyle in 1988, but that was it. Over in The Shed goal stood their ‘keeper Mat Ryan – dressed in all black –  and, to me, he looked quite short, quite ridiculously so. Lev Yashin used to wear all black because he claimed that it made him look bigger, more intimidating. The reverse seemed to be the case on this occasion. At the other end, Kepa was dressed in bright orange and looked much taller (he’s two centimetres taller, but you get my point).

Another football folklore tale debunked?

What next?

Bert Trautmann’s ailment in the 1956 FA Cup Final was a sore throat and tickly cough?

The game began, Chelsea attacking The Shed. It was a quiet start to the game, both on and off the pitch. I was pleased that there was no negative noise aimed at anyone, though the change in a more agreeable starting eleven surely quelled any unrest from the natives.

While Brighton fans sung of Wembley – they play Manchester City in the up-coming semi-final – and of our support being awful (which it undoubtedly was), their team seceded from taking part in the more combative parts of the game. There was no desire to challenge, no desire to tackle, no desire to do much at all, except sit deep and let us have the ball. A corner from Eden Hazard found Giroud whose near post header cleared the bar. Our Callum cut in and shot from the right but it was deflected over. A half-chance for Giroud, whose swivel and shot came to nothing. On twenty minutes, a long cross found Solly March who did well to dig out a shot from a tight angle but only found the side netting. Until then Kepa, I think, had not touched the ball at all.

Alan and I spoke about the current state of the nation.

“If anyone had said, back in August, that come the first week of April, we would be in contention for a top four finish and with a strong shout of reaching the Europa League Final, while the manager and his players found their feet – a slow curve – I think most people would have been relatively content.”

“I think the players share some of the responsibility; it’s not just the manager’s fault that we have been lacking desire in some games.”

“The Chelsea story this season is multi-layered.”

“It’s certainly not a page turner.”

Inside, silently, I reminisced about another season under a different Italian manager.

I thought back to 2000/2001.

Claudio Ranieri was an odd choice, in some ways, and he was certainly a relatively untested Italian who had replaced Gianluca Vialli, who was a loved and respected Italian manager. There are obvious comparisons with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Eventually, Ranieri got it right – but with no silverware – and laid the basis for our ridiculous haul of trophies from 2005 to 2012. In retrospect it is hard to believe that Ranieri was given the best part of four seasons at Chelsea. It would not happen today.

Everything was a little humdrum although Callum was showing promise on the wing. However, the chances slowly increased. A run from deep from Eden got the juices flowing but he ran out of space. There was a weak header from Giroud. Callum was probing well and his quality cross towards Dave was sadly not matched by the subsequent header. Eden blasted over from a central position, but the chances were stacking up. Down below me, Yves Bissouma gave Dave the run-around but his cross into the box luckily did not fall to a waiting Brighton attacker.

There was still hardly much noise from anyone in the home sections.

On thirty-eight minutes, Callum skipped past a defender in front of Parkyville and his low cross was turned in at the near post, with the most clinical of touches, by Olivier Giroud. From my angle, I wondered how on earth it had ended up in the net. He was mobbed by his team mates – with Parky looking on, can you see him? – and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Dallow, Spicer : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Pinkie, Cubitt : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Brighton’s defenders had resembled loafing oafs in all-night chemists.

The goal was replayed on the TV screen and the fleet-footed shimmy from our young winger was just magical to watch. More of the same please.

We pressed on and there were a couple of jinking runs from Hazard, one from in his own half, others on the edge of the box. These, I would imagine, might well have drawn the ire of manager Sarri, but with the defence choked of space and with no runners, nor space to run into anyway, Hazard obviously felt that the best way to navigate the Brighton defence was via old-school dribbling rather than the pass-and-move mantra of the gaffer.

And this is where it has all broken down this season.

I suspect that when – if? – it is played correctly, the movement of our players in the manager’s system will mirror that of the White Helmets motorcycle display team, with synchronised runs and dummy runs, bluffs and counter bluffs, runners gliding into space and with runs using obtuse angles. It’ll be like a Busby Berkeley musical on grass.

In the meantime, we have to do what we have to do.

One Hazardous run was halted abruptly but David Luiz banged the ball against the wall. Late on in the half, after another dance into the box by Eden, there was an embarrassing air-shot from our Callum.

In that first-half, with lovely promise shown by Callum, our Ruben seemed to play within himself. I hoped for greater things in the second period. At the half-time break, I turned to Alan and became a ground hopper bore.

“You realise Slavia Prague’s rebuilt stadium used to be called the Eden Stadium?”

Ah, Prague. The joy of European travel. I know that I decided not to go to Czechia – new name, same place – for our up-coming game, but a boy can dream can’t he? I loved Prague on my two – ridiculously brief – previous visits (en route to Jablonec in 1994, en route to Munich 2012) and I spent a few wistful moments dreaming of the Czech capital. It is, like Budapest, a ground-hoppers’ paradise. In fact, if I was going, I could visit all of the five major stadia on a beautifully straight diagonal waking tour.

From south-east to north-west –

Slavia Prague.

Bohemians.

Viktoria Zizkov.

Sparta Prague.

Dukla Prague.

And then there is, at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, the Strahov national stadium – where it was rumoured that we might have to play Zizkov in 1994 – and alongside it, the second-largest stadium ever built. This once held a monstrous 250,000 and was a vast area surrounded by a single-tier of terrace that was home to the “Spartakiada” for many years. It is now home to Sparta’s training ground and has enough space for nine full-size football pitches.  I can vividly remember a Friday night in 1976, right after an edition of “Open All Hours” on BBC2 if memory serves, when I watched the coverage of this annual show of communist strength via synchronised gymnastics that Busby Berkeley, and probably Maurizio Sarri too, would have been proud. It simply blew my mind. It is an image that has stayed with me for over forty years. Maybe I need to visit Prague again, maybe on a weekend over the coming summer. All of those stadia, all of those teams. Watch this space.

Later in the half-time break, I politely asked Alan to get me a Dukla Prague fridge magnet.

“It’s all I want for Christmas.”

Blimey, too many obscure musical references.

Back to London. The second-half started with us attacking the Matthew Harding. Hazard wriggled into the box, Luiz slammed a low cross towards the goal. Ten minutes in, a deep cross from Jorginho found the leap of our Callum – who looked offside to me – but his header fell into the arms of Yashin Junior.

“Oh Hudson-Odoi.”

At last we made some noise.

On the hour, Ruben played the ball in to Eden, who wriggled himself into space and sold Lewis Dunk a wonderful dummy before curling a wonderful effort wide of the ‘keeper and into a gaping net.

GET IN.

I was lucky to capture his run, jump and fist pump towards us.

Three minutes later, Jorginho to Hazard to Ruben. There was a quick appraisal of where he was, where the goal was, where the ‘keeper was, and our Ruben took one touch, opened up his body and despatched a firm shot – a little more loft and pace than Eden’s effort – which dropped beautifully high into the Brighton goal. It was sensational. I was again lucky to shoot the resulting elation from him and his team mates.

Brighton were rocking.

Teetering on their heels, they had offered nothing all game and were now well and truly out of it.

The game continued, but against an increasingly odd backdrop as thousands decided to leave early. I suppose it is, at least, better to leave for home when Chelsea is winning 3-0 than when we are losing 3-0. Regardless, the sight of acres of blue plastic was a jolt to the senses. Brighton sang about “Sussex by the Sea” and we watched as we continued to attack. Ruben’s strike seemed to give him confidence and a shot was drilled wide. A wide cross from Eden found a stretching N’Golo Kante who could only push it over the bar from close in.

The substitutions were made.

Davide for Dave.

Mateo for Ruben.

Willian for Eden.

Brighton, oddly, came to life a little in the last quarter, but the match was won and lost by then.

At the final whistle, the stadium was only two-thirds full. But it had been a reasonable game. I thought that in the immediate aftermath, fans were lavishing a lot of praise on Ruben, who had been fine and had scored a fantastic goal and yet had hardly influenced the game as much as some would believe. Maybe I saw a different match. But there were many more positives than negatives. This 3-0 win against Brighton just seemed a lot more wholesome than the 2-1 win against Cardiff.

Phew.

On the walk back to PD’s car, after demolishing yet another hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill”, I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz.

We were of the same opinion about Ruben.

We looked ahead to our run-in.

“We can finish top four, of course we can. But our little sequence of games against these mediocre teams, and I am going to include the Europa League teams too, are not going to prepare us for our two horrific games at Anfield and Old Trafford. They will be so different. And I’m not convinced we can step up in those games.”

On Monday evening – continuing a run of nineteen consecutive games without a Saturday game  – we meet up again at Stamford Bridge for the visit of West Ham United.

I will see you there.

Tales From The Mancunian Way

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.

Sunday Four O’Clock.

This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.

Manchester Remembered.

It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”

A Drive Down Memory Lane.

The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.

One Final Visit.

On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.

They need not have worried.

On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.

[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].

On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.

The Mancunian Way.

With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.

“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”

“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”

She hid it inside another bag.

Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.

The Lower Tier.

I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.

As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”

I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.

Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

“Fuck, yeah.”

One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.

I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.

“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season –  if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).

Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.

I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.

We exchanged waves.

Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”

We would soon find out.

The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.

RIP.

I had almost forgotten to check our team.

Here it was.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Four.

The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.

After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.

Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.

Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.

The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.

We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.

I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”

After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.

City 3 Chelsea 0.

We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.

City 4 Chelsea 0.

We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.

But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring

There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.

Altogether now; “fackinell.”

At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.

She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”

I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.

Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.

As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.

Oh God.

Six.

Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.

City 5 Chelsea 0.

My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.

In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.

Oh bloody hell.

I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.

A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.

Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.

I sighed.

With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.

City 6 Chelsea 0.

The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :

“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”

I grimaced.

And then – this really is their Joy Division, right?  – reprised a song from last season’s game :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”

Silence from us. Ugh.

The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”

Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.

“Behave yourselves.”

For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.

And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.

I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.

Gallows humour got me through :

“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”

I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :

“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”

We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.

6-0.

Fackinell.

Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :

“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”

Our last four games this season?

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0

Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0

Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0

A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?

As for Maurizio Sarri.

To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?

I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.

Numbers.

The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.

Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.

I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.

That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.

Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.

See you there.

For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer

Thanks!

 

Tales From The Golden Mile

Blackpool vs. Chelsea : 7 March 2011.

At last, one of the most eagerly awaited domestic away games was upon us. Chelsea last visited Bloomfield Road for a League Cup game in 1996, but our last league game in that famous resort town was in the mid-‘seventies. A return visit was long-overdue. Ever since The Tangerines gained promotion last May, this away fixture has really caught the imagination of the Chelsea faithful. Why is this? Well, the usual case of “new ground” tells only half the story. Blackpool has been a monster on the holiday map of the UK since cheap railway excursions brought thousands of people in to the town during the Victorian era. It remains England’s most famous resort, much favoured by Northerners and Scots – to say nothing of stag and hen parties. The town has a reputation as a bold and brash – and cheap and cheerful – resort with its famous Golden Mile, sandy beaches, Tower, Pleasure Beach, trams, concert halls, three piers and autumnal illuminations. If you throw in a few casinos and lap-dancing establishments, for some, Blackpool by the sea equates to our Las Vegas. Stop sniggering at the back.

Of course, we just knew that we wouldn’t get Blackpool away on a late summer or spring weekend, but it came as a kick in the teeth when our game at Bloomfield Road was rescheduled for a Monday night. However, there was no doubt that Chelsea would be in Blackpool in good numbers and some went up on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For some, it would have the feel of a European away game.

It was a frosty morning in deepest Somerset as I left my house at about 10.30am. I loaded my car with the usual match day necessities and turned the ignition on. After the slightest of pauses, a favourite song from my youth began and it brought a smile to my face…

“I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”

As I drove the 15 miles to collect Parky, I was filled with a feeling of chilled-out pleasure, the whole day ahead of me, a trip in support of my team – and no worry of work on the Tuesday as I had booked the whole week off. Of course, our recent resurgence, plus a lovely Sunday which saw both Manchester United and Tottenham drop points, only added to the sense of anticipation.

Fantastic.

I collected a smiling Lord Parky at 11am and we were on our way north. Parky’s last visit to Blackpool was way back in 1988, that second summer of love when the dance halls of England were reverberating to acid house for the first time. As we ploughed north, I spoke of my previous visits to Blackpool.

In the immediate post WWII period, my mother became friendly with a Lancashire girl, Muriel,when she spent a week near Rye in Sussex. They were two of the many “land girls” who were gainfully employed by the government to bridge the gap in the agricultural workforce caused by the missing thousands still stationed abroad after the conflict. Muriel was from Burnley and, after marrying Joe, went on to run a bed and breakfast hotel in Blackpool on the bracing Lancashire coast. Mum and Muriel remained friends and so, on a couple of occasions in the late ‘sixties, my parents and I stayed with them at their B&B. This would have been a massive car trip for Dad, in pre motorway days, and I have vague memories of the journey north. The approach into Blackpool, with Dad asking if I can spot the tower, must have been as exciting as it gets for a three year old. There is grainy cine film of myself cavorting on Blackpool beach, wearing a bizarre swimming costume, and playing with my father, trousers rolled up in classic English paddling mode, as the tide gently lapped at the golden sands. There is also film of me riding a famous Blackpool donkey and on a ride at the famous Pleasure Beach. Of all my childhood memories, the time spent at Blackpool with my parents are some of my sweetest. At the age of three, I doubt if my fascination with football had begun, but I do remember very well the moment that Joe had pointed out the stands and floodlights of Bloomfield Road, at the end of a typical terraced street. I can therefore, without much fear of contradiction, say that the home of Blackpool F.C. was my first ever sighting of a football ground.

Blackpool stayed off the radar for more than three decades, with holiday destinations getting more and more exotic with each passing year. By the time that I next visited Blackpool, in 2001, there had been achange to my holiday destinations; more and more were becoming football, er Chelsea, based. Trips to Barcelona and Bratislava had replaced trips to Blackpool and Bournemouth. In fact, my last European beach holiday was to Corfu, way back in 1992. Since then, virtually all European holidays have been with Chelsea. Give me the buzz of a football city rather than a hot beach any day.

In the 2001 to 2003 period, Chelsea’s European trips almost dried up. Neither myself nor many of my mates travelled abroad in these “UEFA cup years,” and so to keep our team bonding intact, we instead supplemented our week-to-week meet-ups with three end-of-season trips to Blackpool (2001 – Manchester City away), Scarborough (2002 – Middlesbrough away) and Brighton(2003 – Liverpool at home).

Seven of us (Alan, Glenn, Russ, Daryl, Neil, The Youth and I) had a lovely time in Blackpool in 2001. It certainly helped that our mini-bus excursion to Maine Road resulted in an easy2-0 Chelsea win against a poor City team. This was our last ever game at City’s old home ground, but the memory was scarred by an angry pitch invasion from the City lads just before the final whistle. I took a few photos of these stereotypical Mancs, all Gallagher-esque posing and designer jackets, eyeballing us all in the away stand. For once, we didn’t retaliate. With a line of Manchester police to protect us, we just stood and stared them out. Our mini-bus was parked in the grim streets just outside the away end and we had a quick getaway. We would never return to that famous old stadium. This also proved to be the last ever Chelsea game for Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise. Back in Blackpool that evening, after a quick change from match-going jumpers, jackets, jeans and trainers to smarter attire, we had a legendary pub crawl deep into the night.

Almost ten years have since passed. Where does the time go? I suppose the smart-arse answer to that is “the time goes winning trophies.” Is it any wonder that the time has flown by? Three league titles, three F.A. Cups and two League Cups. Thank you very much and more of the same please.

Judy and I paid a quick visit to Blackpool, mainly to see the famous illuminations, after the Wigan game in the autumn of 2009. I was reminded of how brash the town was, but never expected to be soon returning with Chelsea. However, that’s it for me – just two visits to Blackpool in around 43 years.

For once, the trail north – M4, M5, M6 – seemed to be clear of heavy traffic and I made good time. The Smiths were followed by Everything But The Girl and then The Killers.

On the final approach to Blackpool, with blue skies overhead, we spotted the famous tower and then drove straight past Bloomfield Road before parking in the town centre. Most of the locals seemed to be wearing scabby tracky-bottoms – they must be getting their fashion advice from the nearby Scousers – and I had the feeling that the town had nosedived further since 2009. At a few minutes past 3pm, we had joined Alan, Daryl, Neil and Gary in The Walkabout. They had travelled up on Sunday morning. Daryl explained that the highlight of the previous day had been the sight of big Tommy Murphy, one of Lovejoy’s mates, taking to the floor during a Northern Soul segment at a local bar. The image is still burning in my mind; wish I had been there to see that! I had a good chat with Neil, who has experience of travel in Asia, ahead of my trip out to Malaysia and Thailand with Chelsea in July. We were then joined by Mike and Danny from New York amidst talk of Eric Cantona and the New York Cosmos, Danny’s scrape with Newcastle United hoolies in the early ‘eighties and the Coney Island like charms of Blackpool.

We dipped into another pub on the short walk down to the ground and bumped into a few more Chelsea mates. General consensus was of a heavy Chelsea victory – maybe by four goals to nil. Blackpool, to be honest, had the feel of a ghost town at this stage. We had hardly seen any home fans in and around the town centre and I guess their fans had been busy at work.

Just outside the away entrance, a jovial Blackpool steward regaled Parky and me with his memories of the last top-flight Blackpool vs. Chelsea game way back in the autumn of 1970. Blackpool had stormed into a 3-0 half-time lead, but – much to the amusement of his best mate, a Chelsea supporter – we came back to win it 4-3. Famously, Ron Harris includes this particular game in his recollections of past matches. The story went that the Chelsea players had hit the town the previous night and were heavily feeling the effects of their drunken binge during that woeful first-half. However, after four second-half goals, surely the boss Dave Sexton would have been happy. Well, Sexton was fuming at the final whistle and laid into all of the Chelsea players in no uncertain terms. After a few minutes of vitriolic abuse, Peter Osgood could take no more and chirped –

“Leave it out boss. If they hadn’t run out of lager, we would’ve scored eight.”

Bloomfield Road has been slowly redeveloped over the years and the large Kop to the north of the stadium was taken down quite a few years ago. It is now a trim, but pretty bland, single tiered stadium, albeit with a thin line of executive boxes under the roofs of the west and south stands. The east stand, hastily erected during the summer, is a temporary structure and this was where the 1,600 away fans were assembling. I took a few photos of Ashley Cole, Fernando Torres, John Terry, David Luiz – the new hero – and Frank Lampard as they finished their pre-match routines. I had a good seat in row K. The temporary seats were surprisingly padded but everyone stood. The beery Chelsea fans were in good voice and the tight away stand was rocking.

In the home end – the new-look Kop – the Blackpool fans held aloft a banner…

“Jesus satisfied 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Ian Holloway has satisfied millions with 11 tangerines.”

Big Pete, one of the CSG stalwarts, was standing a few rows behind and his 6 foot 6 inch frame was augmented by a massive David Luiz wig. He looked a picture, though he probably blocked the view of the poor people in the rows behind. Alan, Gary and I were again sat near Mark, Nick, Robbie and Charlie – familiar fixtures at away games. It made me realise that all of the staunchest of Chelsea supporters were in Blackpool; we had all made the effort, paid the hotels, paid the train tickets, paid for the petrol, taken time off work, made the effort. May it long continue.

Drogba in for Anelka, Bosingwa in for Ivanovic, Zhirkov in for Malouda. Game on.

The new David Luiz song – “You brighten up my life, I’ll let you shag my wife, I want curly hair too” – was soon aired, but Blackpool began the stronger team. A bursting run from The Captain found Didier, but his attempt was smothered by Kingson. Andy Reid, the rounded Blackpool winger who reminds me so much of former Forest player John Robertson, was enjoying lots of space in the midfield and there was growing concern that our midfield was again sluggish. Blackpool, full of energy and team work, certainly dominated the first twenty minutes.

Despite the long wait and the sense of anticipation, clearly Blackpool’s charms had not impressed some of the Chelsea support. We reworked the standard Blackpool chant – “This is the best trip, I’ve ever been on” – with a more discouraging set of lyrics…

“We want to go home, we want to go home – Blackpool’s a 5hit hole, we want to go home.”

Print that on your T-shirts!

Then, a Frank Lampard corner away to my right and my camera focussed on the run by Luiz towards the near post. I almost missed the subsequent unhindered leap by John Terry, but saw the ball bounce down and into the Blackpool goal.

Phew. The applause was surprisingly reserved – not sure why.

The songs continued and we clawed our way back into the game. A rising drive from the left foot of Jose Bosingwa was ably palmed over by Kingson. However, Blackpool was still giving as good as they got. Stephen Crainey, the left-back, was augmenting Reid’s forays into our defence with several timely runs. Jason Puncheon waltzed past Luis and struck a low shot, which PetrCech fingered onto his near post. This was a near miss and further galvanized the home support. Just on half-time, however, the best move of the match which involved four of five players in a flowing passage resulted in a left-footed shot from Ramires which was turned around the post. Despite a slim lead, we knew we had rode our luck.

At the break, there was general disquiet amongst the Chelsea faithful.

Our twin strikers were not really working together and the midfield were not playing as a unit. This was another substandard show from Messrs’ Lampard and Essien. Ramires was again the star of our midfield four. Chances were exchanged as the match progressed, but it was not until Salomon Kalou entered the fray on the hour that we began to look livelier. Drogba, suffering with one or two knocks, had been hobbling around for a few minutes and we all expected Anelka to get the nod. Instead, Kalou breathed new urgency into the team. Firstly, he won the penalty with a strong run deep into the box.

Frank calmly despatched the penalty and we were two to the good.

This goal was celebrated with the releasing of a purple-blue flare towards the back of the Chelsea contingent. The smoke drifted across the pitch, but soon dissipated. This was followed up with a stand-shaking bouncy. Good times.

That man Kalou then delightfully played in Frank, and our number eight ably converted with the minimum of fuss. As he reeled away, I was reminded that both of our goal scorers, JT and Frank, were tied at 471 in total Chelsea games. These two stalwarts, our true Blue Brothers, have been at the very epi-centre of our successes since 2001 and we would be supporting a very different Chelsea Football Club without them. They embody our spirit and character. Although Frank has not been himself this season, he always chimes in with key goals and JT is JT. He was one of our best players yet again. Fernando Torres was pretty quiet all game and his best chance was a nonchalant flick with the outside of his right foot which did not threaten the Blackpool goal. His goals will come. Young Josh – “he’s only thirteen,” the away fans bellowed – entered the game and enjoyed some nice touches. With Malouda’s fresh legs exposing tiredness in Blackpool’s defence, we fully expected a couple more goals for The Champions, but it was Blackpool who enjoyed the last goal of the game, a low drive from Puncheon leaving Cech stranded. To be honest, we went to sleep in the last few minutes and the Blackpool support was encouraging their team on. A few chances flew past Cech’s goal, but we shakily survived.

The other lads were headed back into the town, but Parky and I soon found our way back to my waiting car. We rolled out of town at 10.30pm and Chelsea had three much needed points tucked inside our back pockets. It hadn’t been a great performance, but – oh boy, I’m sure everyone has worked out the mathematics – those three points gained on a blustery night on the Lancashire coast could be vitally important come May.

After a coffee stop on the outskirts of Stoke and with music from The Stranglers and then Echo And TheBunnymen keeping me going, I eventually reached home at just after 3am.

We reconvene in nine days’ time for the visit of Copenhagen to Stamford Bridge.

See you all there.

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