Tales From The Rising Sun

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 May 2018.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun public house on London’s Fulham Road on 10 March 1905. Some one-hundred and thirteen years later, the main bar of the same pub, now named The Butcher’s Hook, was filling up slowly ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, and I was alongside two friends from my home town in Somerset, Glenn and Francis. I had planned a little pub-crawl based around the stadium, but PD and Lord Parky chose to spend the pre-match in The Goose. Glenn, Francis and I had started off with a drink in the Copthorne Hotel – a gentle start to the afternoon at about 1pm, and a very brief chat to Ron Harris and Gary Chivers – before stepping over the road at the pub on the corner of Fulham Road and Holmead Road. I remember when it used to be called the Stamford Bridge Arms in the ‘eighties. I recalled one summer morning when I called in to the ivy-covered offices between the forecourt and the East Stand to get my membership card sorted for the upcoming season and seeing Robert Bates, our Ken’s son, stopping in for a lunchtime pint in the very same pub. On this occasion, decades later, while I supped on one of only two pints of lager that I was allowing myself, we spotted Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s Director of Communications, chatting to some others a few feet away. Jason Cundy was nearby too. It certainly felt like we were on a very important piece of terra firma.

Glenn had spoken to Francis about the day that he saw his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1978, and how the forecourt has changed since then. And I can remember Francis and I posing for a photograph on the same forecourt in front of The Shed turnstiles ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in 1991. That was Francis’ first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – a fantastic 4-2 win, we watched from the old West Stand seats – and he has seen quite a few Chelsea vs. Liverpool matches since, sometimes alongside me, sometimes elsewhere. For those who have not sussed it yet, Fran is a Liverpool fan – and a very fine close friend – and I am always happy when he is able to watch his team at Stamford Bridge.

In seven games from 1991 to 2012, he was yet to see a Liverpool victory.

1990/91 : Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

1991/92 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

1992/93 : Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

1995/96 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

2004/05 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0

2007/08 : Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2

2012/13 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1

1990/1991, 1991/1992, 2007/2008, 2012/2013 and 2017/18.

I was happy to have him alongside me once again. We joked about it in the weeks which lead up to this game. In the car on the way to London, PD had enquired of Francis what he did for a living.

“Trading standards, mate. Keeping an eye on con men, rogue traders, that sort of thing.”

“Scousers?” I suggested.

The Chuckle Bus roared.

After our little visit to where our club was born, we darted around a few more pubs on what was turning out to be a blisteringly hot day. We spent a pleasant thirty minutes in the crowded beer garden of “The Jam Tree” which was is known as one of the venues where “Made In Chelsea” is filmed. The pub was plainly cashing in on its fame; a burger was priced at £17. Next up was “The Imperial” along the King’s Road, and I was back on the Cokes, sadly. We bumped into our pal Dave, who had chanced upon a last-minute ticket. From there, brief stays in “The Rose” and finally “The Tommy Tucker” before heading along the Fulham Road to the stadium. With Tottenham losing at The Hawthorns, here was a fantastic chance for us to close the gap on both of the teams ahead of us.

(And still some Chelsea fans bemoan the fact that this has been – apparently – a poor season.)

Glenn had reeled-off the line-up in one of the pubs and it was almost the same starting eleven as at Swansea City, with the returning Alonso in for Emerson.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Giroud

As we approached the West Stand – “thrilling since 1905” still grates – everything seemed normal. The sun was beating down. There were no clouds. Programmes were purchased. There was a buzz of expectancy. There were fans milling around, though we had not spotted – to our knowledge anyway – any away fans. These days, there is a relaxed air at most games. However, over the past couple of weeks, one incident outside a football stadium has shocked many. Before the Liverpool vs. Roma Champions League game at Anfield, and right outside The Albert pub, in front of The Kop, some Italian ultras carried out a seemingly unprovoked attack on one or two Liverpool supporters. We would later learn that one of them, a fan of around my age, was knocked unconscious and was in a subsequent coma. Imagine my horror when I was to learn shortly after that he is the brother in law of a work acquaintance – no, more than that, a good friend – that I have been talking to in Dublin for over fifteen years. Sean Cox is her husband’s brother. And although there has been untold Chelsea vs. Liverpool banter between the two of us over the years, as you can imagine, the chill of knowing that an act of wanton violence can have such a devastating effect on someone that I know was quite awful.

I spoke to my friend just after the return leg, and she seemed desolate. Such was the pain that her husband did not even bother to watch the match, something that he would never normally do. On at least one occasion, he has been at Anfield the same time as me. He is quite a Liverpool fan. How his future will develop, I can’t imagine.

Inside the sun-kissed stadium, everything was just perfect. As ever, there were three-thousand Liverpool supporters over in the away end, though just two flags; one praising Virgil van Dyke, the other with – surprise, surprise – five yellow European Cups.

Some chap called Michael Buffer, he of the “let’s get ready to rumble” boxing clarion call, read out the teams. It was just dreadful. It seemed so out-of-place. I cringed as the twat said “and in the blue corner.”

Fuck off.

Whoever at Chelsea thought this was a good idea needs shooting. Was it you, Steve Atkins?

A good ten minutes before kick-off, Neil Barnett spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson, and we clapped as an image of him appeared on the TV screens. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Then, with the players appearing on the pitch, a tribute to Roy Bentley appeared in The Shed. I briefly met Roy Bentley on three occasions, and he seemed a thoroughly lovely man, his deep Bristol burr providing lasting evidence of his birthplace, and who can remember his little jig in front of the Matthew Harding at the last home game of 2008/2009, which I reported on at the time :

“Before the players came back on, an extra special moment. Ron Harris, Dennis Wise and John Terry – three of the four trophy winning Chelsea captains – were on the pitch to honour the eighty-fifth birthday of the fourth, Roy Bentley, the championship winning captain of 1955. It was a truly magical moment. Roy Bentley is a lovely, lovely man and I was able to meet him briefly in November at the CPO. The photo I have with him is one of my most-prized Chelsea possessions. He was in great form. He did a little jig as he made his way to the Lower Tier of the Matthew Harding. He was hilarious and Ron, Dennis and JT were in stitches. We all were.

“Looks like he’s been on the sherry” chirped Alan.

He had been presented with a shirt with “Bentley” on the back, but he threw it into the crowd…shades of Mourinho.

God bless you, Roy.”

Underneath us in the Matthew Harding Lower, a large banner remembering Ray Wilkins was passed over the heads of fellow spectators. These have certainly been sad times at Chelsea Football Club.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of Roy Bentley, our first Chelsea Champion. And the Liverpool fans applauded and clapped too.

Thank you.

The match kicked-off with lots and lots of noise. Francis always reads these blogs and has noted my comments about a decreasing amount of atmosphere at home games with note. I told him that the noise was far better than normal. After all, this was Liverpool. The highlight of the first few minutes was a sublime cross-field pass to Victor Moses from Gary Cahill, which drew a warm “well I’ll be fucked” salvo of appreciation.

However, Liverpool seemed to edge the first part of the game, and Roberto Firminio caused Thibaut Courtois to save early on, but it was the keen and incisive Sadio Mane who caught the eye. He seemed to be involved in many of their attacks. Victor Moses sent over a teasing ball, but no Chelsea players could add the needed touch. Eden Hazard managed to tee-up Marcos Alonso in the inside-left channel but his powerful effort was straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper Loris Karius. There was a simply magnificent tackle by N’Golo Kante on Mane, and this drew great applause from the supporters. The noise had subsided slightly, but this was much better than the usual levels at recent games. Over in the far corner, I tried to get my head around a few new Liverpool songs, no doubt harking on about European adventures of yore. I honestly found it hard to decipher much of it.

Another Mane shot. Another Courtois save.

The sky was still cloudless. The sun had certainly risen well on this Sunday.

The Liverpool red is darker than usual this season. Very often, thankfully, it ran up against a deep royal blue wall.

The often chastised Tiemoue Bakayoko was enjoying a solid start to the game and I was really elated to hear some warm applause for even the most basic of plays from our often beleaguered midfielder.

That, my friends, is what being a Chelsea supporter is all about.

On the previous Monday, myself and around one hundred Chelsea supporters had attended an evening with Gianfranco Zola at a pub in Ascot. It was a fantastic evening. I remembered what the great – little – man had said about Eden Hazard. He had been asked how he could improve his game. Gianfranco said that he would ask him to release the ball earlier when in a deep position, and then really save his tricks and crisp passing for the final third, when everything matters. I could not have put it any better. In this game, as in so many others, there were spins and twists from Eden when he was barely over the halfway line. I wanted him to improve.

We then came close when a Moses cross was met with a dive and a header from Bakayoko, but it flashed wide. Soon after, on thirty-two minutes, the same player sent over a cross after doing well to make space in front of Parkyville. His cross was aimed at the large frame of Olivier Giroud. We watched as the big Frenchman rose and guided the ball home. It was not dissimilar to the Morata goal versus Tottenham.

The ground reverberated with noise.

I tried to spot where the scorer was running, and soon realised that he was headed over to the Chelsea bench, by-passing Antonio Conte, and aiming straight for David Luiz. The players hugged.

A nice touch.

Francis, who had chosen that moment to turn his bike around, appeared back in the top tier just as the whole stadium was roaring a very loud and very defiant “CAREFREE.”

Phew. Get in.

Cesc Fabregas whizzed a shot across goal. Mo Salah, quiet thus far, was booked for diving.

There were a few rousing choruses of “Antonio.”

Will he stay beyond this season?

Probably not. Another great manager chewed up and spat out by my club.

I hate modern football.

At half-time, I was more than happy with the game. We had not created a host of chances, but everyone was on their game, the sun was out, and the stadium was as noisy as it has been for a while.

The second-half began, and the game – damn it – became a real test of my nerves. Liverpool tended to dominate possession once again, but as Fran kept saying, were unable to do much with it. Moses, always a threat out on our right, fizzed a low ball across the box but I was not convinced if he had intended to shoot or cross. A more delicate ball in to the waiting Giroud might well have been a better ploy.

Maybe Gianfranco Zola had managed to get a message to Eden Hazard at half-time. One move in particular, captured on film and featured below – along with two other Hazardous Dribbles – was just breath-taking.

Although he was hemmed in by three red-shirts, he miraculously dribbled into them and out the other side before slamming a shot towards the Liverpool goal. It was saved, just. It reminded me of when Zola was hemmed in over in the south-east corner in his very last Chelsea appearance and slalomed between four or five Liverpool defenders.

From the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose to head down and Toni Rudiger bundled the ball in but from a clearly offside position.

All eyes were on the clock now.

65 minutes.

72 minutes.

75 minutes.

Liverpool were given lots of space, and we defended deep, not allowing Salah or Mane any space to exploit. The three defenders were simply exceptional. Our performance mirrored that of our 2-1 win at Wembley versus Tottenham at the start of the season. The defence never looked troubled. Liverpool never really threatened us. We covered the pitch with great professionalism, and great desire. But I was still struggling with all of this.

I kept thinking to myself :

“This win will probably mean nothing. We will still probably finish fifth. This isn’t a cup tie. It isn’t a league title-decider. It isn’t a CL decider like that Zola game in 2003. It’s just a normal league game. But I love it that I am kicking every ball, heading every clearance, tackling every 50/50. This is a fucking great game. Blow up, ref!”

In the end, there were two late chances, one for the royal blues, one for the scarlets.

A high and deep cross from that man Victor Moses was aimed past the far post. Marcos Alonso, at a ridiculously tight angle, was underneath it, and let fly. The volley flew inches past the far post.

Then, Dominic Solanke – not applauded by any Chelsea supporter when he appeared on seventy-four minutes – saw a rather timid effort dollop over the bar.

Four minutes of added time were signalled.

As the last of these was reached, my protestations to the referee to “blow up you cunt” surprised even me.

At last, the final whistle blew.

GET IN.

My mate Rob, who sits a few rows back, soon appeared and we hugged and bounced for what seemed like ages.

“Loved that. Great game, Rob. Nervous as hell though.”

“It’s why we keep coming, mate.”

As we bounced out and down the Fulham Road, I made arrangements for Francis to attend next season’s game too.

Eight visits, no victories.

“A nice bit of history, la.”

All was well with the world as we headed home to Somerset and Wiltshire. The season has three games left, and all of them are Cup Finals.

See you on Wednesday.

Tales From Diamonds In The Mist

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 20 January 2018.

This would only be our third ever league game at Brighton and Hove Albion. The other two matches were during our now distant dips into the old Second Division in 1983 and 1989. Now, newly-promoted into the top tier for the first season since 1982/1983, Brighton were about to host the current champions. On the face of it, this was another fantastic away game, and I hoped that the early kick-off– 12.30pm – would not spoil my enjoyment of the day; alas, there would be no chance of a pre-match or post-match get-together at a local boozer. Additionally, due to the awkward location of the stadium, we would need to plan our day with a great deal of care. But we’re good at that sort of thing. As Saturday approached, all was planned.

Parky and I attended our pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which marked the team’s first game in England since the glories of Munich and also the first appearance of Eden Hazard on these shores. To be honest, the game wasn’t fantastic. We went 1-0 up, only to lose 3-1, and it perhaps signalled that our season as European Champions would be no procession. On that day, around four thousand Chelsea supporters were given the top tier of the main three-tiered stand, and I was taken by the home team’s new stadium which had opened the previous season. At the time, a top tier was being added to the stand opposite. Once completed, I knew that it would look fantastic. As we set off for Sussex at 7am, I was certainly looking forward to seeing the updated stadium, now increased to a tidy thirty-thousand capacity. Back in 2012, there was panoramic views of the stadium and the rolling hills of the South Downs to the north.

In 2018, we would be locked in to the stadium – low down behind a goal – but I was sure that I’d enjoy the view.

There was so much damned negativity swarming around the team over the past few weeks, that I was just happy to be able to attend the game, try to ignore the moaning millions, and get right behind the team. And there was the added bonus of – virtually – a new stadium. This away trip would tick lots of boxes. I couldn’t wait.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive the Chuckle Bus and, no surprises, he made good time despite the grey and murky weather outside.

Past Warminster, through Salisbury, past Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, then Arundel. We were parked-up in Patcham – just a couple of miles from the stadium – at our mate Walnuts’ bungalow. As in 2012, his wife Sue would drop us off at the stadium, and collect us too. Located at the site of the city’s university at Falmer which is a few miles to the north of the city centre, there is limited parking space at Brighton’s stadium.

On my infrequent visits to Brighton, I have always liked its charms. Pleasant housing estates are scattered over some surprisingly steep hillsides as they tumble down to the coast. The architecture is grand in some areas, yet quirky and eccentric in others. It’s a typical British seaside town with a definite twist. For decades, Brighton has always had a slightly decadent air. Think of “Brighton Rock” featuring our very own Richard Attenborough as “Pinky.” Think of businessmen taking mistresses away for a weekend of fun in Brighton. There certainly remains a laissez-faire attitude to this day. Nudist beaches by the marina, and a certain pride in its sexual freedoms. Politically, there is no place like it in modern Britain.

There was a memorable night out in Brighton on the Saturday before the history-making league game with Liverpool in 2003. Many of my current Chelsea mates were involved and we went down for the weekend. Some of us took the train to the horse racing at Lingfield Park on the Saturday afternoon – I had two winners – while others chose to visit the myriad of attractions by the beach. We then hit the town in the evening. What followed was a deeply memorable night of beers which included some impromptu fun and games with a couple of hen parties.

The bride to be : “I have a list of forfeits. One of them is to get a pair of underpants.”

Me : “Blimey. This is all very sudden.”

The bride to be : “Ha.”

Me : “I’m going to be missing some underwear though. I think we should swap.”

The bride to be : “Deal.”

It was with some deal of pleasure that the bride-to-be’s thong was acquired. In light of the importance of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game on the following day – the winner taking the all-important fourth Champions League place – I christened it a “thong for Europe.”

In our bed and breakfast the next morning, Alan suggested that I should wear it as some sort of “good luck” charm.

I was ahead of him. I already was.

What a laugh.

Good old Brighton. I am still yet to have a wander around the town’s compact and eclectic central streets. I hope they stay up this season, so I can truly explore the area on future visits. There is certainly unfinished business in Brighton. For starters, I need to locate a missing pair of underpants.

Just like in 2012, there was light drizzle as we approached the stadium on a long slow walk, past the train station and with university buildings in every direction.

There was a large photograph of former goal-scoring hero Peter Ward on the curved façade of the main stand. The stadium was as I remembered it; crisp, clean, spacious.

I spotted the Bristol Crew and could not waste the opportunity for a rant.

“All the negativity around the club does my head in. For fuck sake, we’re a good team, let’s get behind the team and enjoy the moment.”

They assured me there would be no negativity from them.

“Proper job, my babbers.”

Inside, I soon started snapping away from my vantage point in the front row, right in line with one of the goalposts. The stadium is indeed excellent. I like the way that the corners have been infilled with quirky viewing galleries, and corporate boxes tucked into every spare space. The three-tiered main stand is surprisingly tall. It just looks the part. It’s no identikit stadium this one. The seats were padded, not that the three-thousand Chelsea would be sitting. The lads soon arrived; Alan, then Gary, then Parky. Just along the row were fellow Chucklers PD and Glenn. Gary reminded me that he had worked inside some suites within the main stand several years ago in his job as a French polisher.

Alan : “You polished some wooden tables, some wooden wall panels, some wooden cabinets, and you polished off hundreds of packets of biscuits.”

I watched as the players went through their routines. There was the first sighting of Ross Barkley in match-day uniform. I wondered if we would see his Chelsea debut. The away end slowly filled. The drizzle continued.

The team news surprised nobody, save for the goalkeeping change forced by a late knock to Thibaut. We were so pleased that Antonio Conte chose the 3/4/3 variant.

Caballero – Azpilicueta / Christensen / Rudiger – Moses / Kante / Bakayoko / Alonso – Willian / Batshuayi / Hazard.

There was a rousing “Sussex By The Sea” and the teams entered the pitch. In the away end, just behind me, a new bright yellow “crowd-surfing” banner – “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” – made its first ever appearance. The iconic striker Cyrille Regis was remembered before the game began, just as much for his ground-breaking legacy as his footballing prowess I suspect, and there is nothing wrong with that. There was warm applause for the former England international.

A couple of seagulls soared inside the stadium. Perfect.

Despite a misty old day in Falmer, we wore the murky grey camouflage kit. There was still slight drizzle as the game began, and the roof above did not keep us remotely dry. I took a few early photos, and could not believe how monochrome everything looked. I hoped that our players could pick each other out.

I need not have worried at all. After just three minutes, Victor Moses advanced inside the box and played the ball back to the waiting Eden Hazard, who touched the ball to his right and lashed the ball home, across the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

After another three minutes, the ball was played into Willian, who smacked a firm shot just inside the post. Being so low, I could not really appreciate the intricate passing which lead to the goal – there was a text from a pal in the US lauding its beauty – but I certainly knew from the moment that Willian struck the ball that a goal would result; I was right behind the trajectory of the shot. We were 2-0 up and purring. What a relief after our constipated efforts to score of late.

But to be fair to Brighton, they did not cave in. They didn’t crumble. Despite virtually no discernible support from the home areas – there were no empty seats in the house – the home team launched a series of attacks on our defence.

A wild Wily Caballero challenge on Ezequel Schelotto was waved away by referee Moss. The way that he vacated his six yard box, racing out, the keeper was more like Wile E. Coyote.

Brighton certainly stretched us in the wide areas, and there were a number of crosses which were zipped into our box. Our defending, certainly in the central areas, was of top quality. There was fine positional play, plenty of blocks, and calmness under pressure.

Schelotto was proving to be a troublesome presence and when he pushed the ball past Tiemoue Bakayoko, the Chelsea midfielder stretched out a leg. I certainly thought that a penalty was going to be given, as did those around me. Moss again waved it away. This annoyed Schelotto, who was booked for dissent. As the referee beckoned the Brighton right-back towards him, the player intimated that the referee should walk towards him. I’ve never seem that before.

“Send him off for that ref.”

I repeated a request from the Norwich City cup replay on Wednesday as Schelotto teased Marcos Alonso :

“Don’t let him fucking cross.”

Alas, there was no hint of a tackle or block from Alonso and a fine cross. Thankfully, there was a sensational save from Caballero under his bar from the head of Tomer Hemed.

We all shouted out to him.

“Nice one Wily, son.”

The drizzle continued. Our support was so-so. Perhaps my position in the front row meant that any noise did not reach me, but I have known noisier away days.

But this was certainly a fine game, open and enjoyable. We went close with a few efforts at the other end. Eden Hazard was our catalyst, our diamond, and his close control was at times sensational. He was ably assisted by Willian, himself a box of tricks. It was lovely to see Bakayoko enjoy a steady game alongside N’Golo Kante. If I was to be critical, it would be of the two wide wing-backs who were gifting some space to the Brighton attackers.

Still, there were smiles at the break.

“Good stuff lads.”

The second-half began. There was a clash of heads involving Andreas Christensen who stayed down for a while. Brighton did not let up with their willingness to attack us, and we all thought that towering centre-back Davy Propper had scored with a firm header. The ball caromed back off the post with nobody in striking distance to touch home.

After his knock, Christensen had to be substituted. He was replaced by David Luiz.

Willian struck a magnificent free-kick – which everyone thought Luiz had taken with his first touch – and I managed to capture this on film. I was celebrating another fine goal, only to see ‘keeper Ryan saving superbly. It was indeed a stunning stop. At the other end, Caballero spread himself to block an effort from Schelotto. Brighton still came at us, though without the pace of the first-half. A word about Michy Batshuayi; strong in some areas, weak in others, it was a typical Michy performance. But – thankfully, rejoice! – there was no barracking of any player. Top marks to all.

With fifteen minutes to go, Davide Zappacosta replaced Alonso. Soon after, Willian picked out his partner in crime Hazard, who set off on a merry dance. He waltzed past several players and it looked to me that he soon realised that the only way for a goal to be scored was for him to continue on and on until he came within range. His run continued, before he decided to cut the ball back into the opposite corner. That was it, the game was won.

GET IN.

He danced over to the corner and a little leap was followed by a beaming smile. His play had been just magnificent all day long.

With ten minutes to go, and with the home crowd starting to thin a little, Charly Musonda replaced Willian. He looked up for it and was soon involved in Willian’s position wide on the right. With just one minute of normal time remaining, he picked out the run of Moses with a fantastic lofted ball. The ball was brought under immediate control and touched home. A slide from Victor and the away support were jumping.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0 Chelsea 4.

Blimey, it did not seem like a 4-0 win. I have to concede that the home team had battled well, and certainly did not deserve such a thumping. I fear for their survival this season, but I for one hope they survive. Like so many promoted teams of recent years, they lack a proven goal scorer. As for us, we rode our luck a little – it is a well-repeated phrase of mine that it is perhaps better to be lucky than it is to be good – but surely we deserved the win. Our play was at times fantastic.

And, let us not forget, another clean sheet too.

With its decadent charms, clean sheets are still a rarity in Brighton.

IMG_4041 (3)

 

Tales From The Highest High And The Lowest Low

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 31 October 2015.

While lining up at the crowded turnstiles underneath the Matthew Harding Stand, it was clear that many fans had miss-judged the weather. Here we were, on the very last day of October and the weather was gorgeous. Thankfully I had left my jacket in the car – I made do with just a long-sleeved shirt and pullover – but the sun was causing me a little discomfort. There were surely no complaints from the three visitors from Southern California that had joined us in The Goose ahead of the game. One of the three, John, had presented me with a lovely tee-shirt from the main Chelsea pub in Los Angeles – The Olde Ship in Santa Ana – and I was well aware that there would be a few keen Chelsea supporters assembling at around 4.45am on a Californian morning in this pub which, along with Legends in New York City, is the most famous Chelsea pub in the United States, to watch our game against Liverpool. John’s mate Andy had been alongside me at West Ham the previous weekend; this time it was the turn of John, Janset and Rich. We had also enjoyed the company of four of the New York chapter in the pub too; Mike, Frank, Eugene and Tim.

I remember saying to somebody, I do not remember who exactly, when questioned about the outcome of our lunchtime game, that I was convinced we would not lose. There had been positive signs – if you looked hard enough for them, baby steps and all that malarkey – in our two most recent games, and I was hopeful that the team would rebound after some poor performances this season with a key win.

Of course, the rumour mongers were out in force, and some sections of the media and the Chelsea support were talking about the game against Liverpool as the pivotal moment in Jose Mourinho’s future as manager. I found this odd, in the extreme. There would be, after all, an equally important match at home to Dynamo Kiev on the following Wednesday.

The team that Mourinho had selected had been met with a general degree of pleasure in the sunny beer garden. It was now time to get behind them.

I made it inside with around five minutes to spare. The match programme featured a photograph of a stern John Terry on the cover, red poppy woven in to his shirt. Down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag – featuring club crest flanked by poppies – was being held aloft centrally. The players entered the pitch.

The sun beat down, causing small and defined areas of bright sunlight on the pitch.

I was supremely hopeful that this would be a Chelsea day to remember.

Soon in to the game, the ball was played down into an area of intermittent light and shade in front of the Liverpool fans. We had encountered a small section of the away support at Heston Services; with their jagged accents and penchant for tracksuit bottoms (not shell suits please, nobody wears them anymore, not even scallies) they were easily spotted. They love their trackie bottoms, the Scousers. For the club that kicked-off the casual subculture in 1977/1978, their standards have certainly dropped over recent years.

Trackie bottoms and YNWA scarves.

Tut tut.

We held on to the ball for quite a few moments and the ball was played purposefully between several Chelsea players. One moment – iconic, to be honest – immediately came back to me. In our history-defining game against Liverpool in May 2003, with a place in the Champions League at stake, and with a young and successful Russian billionaire ready to pounce, Gianfranco Zola entered the fray as a late substitute. His magical dribble in that far corner, beating off challenges from what seemed like the entire Liverpool defence, was a sublime last memory of the little magician. It would be his last ever appearance in our colours; ironically it was the first game in which we wore our 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 “Fly Emirates” shirt from “Umbro.” How odd that his last appearance for us would be in a shirt that we would eventually wear on that fateful day in Bolton in 2005. If only he had been with us on that day.

Anyway, I digress.

The ball was passed to Cesar Azpilicueta, deep in an area that I sometimes call “Zola Land”, and our solid defender picked out the run from Ramires perfectly. His diving header sent the ball low past Mignolet in to the Liverpool goal. I was right behind the flight of the ball.

It was a superb goal.

Needless to say the packed stands of Stamford Bridge roared. I jumped up, yelling, screaming face to face with those next to me.

A fantastic start. I was hoping for further goals.

It was 12.49pm.

I stood, arms outstretched, and joined in the deafening wall of wild sound engulfing the stadium.

At 12.51pm, my ‘phone rang. It was from my friend Ian, whose young son had attended the Southampton home game four weeks previously. My initial thought was that he was calling me to say that young Ben was happy that we had begun the game so well. Then, my second thought brought a different reaction and a sense of foreboding. Ian’s mother has been suffering with cancer for the best part of twelve months. I steadied myself.

I blocked out the noise of the crowd with my right palm, and answered.

I was saddened to hear that Ian’s mother had passed away just two hours earlier.

I was unable to fully hear, so I dashed out and spoke to Ian from the quieter concourse. Supporters were still arriving as I spoke to Ian for a few moments. I can’t remember what we said to be honest. It was all a blur. I passed on my condolences, no doubt, but there were tears from Ian and I felt numb.

I re-entered the seats and I was in a horrible daze.

My mother was taken from us in February and now Ian – my best friend – has lost his dear mother, who I last saw on Ian’s wedding day in 2006, on the last day of October.

2015 I hate you.

I didn’t speak for many minutes, the game continued on down below me, but I could not concentrate. I sat in solitude among over forty thousand, and sent a few texts to a few of Ian’s friends. My mind was elsewhere.

To be so high at 12.49pm and so low at 12.51pm was such an awful feeling.

Ugh.

As I began to look up and take a little interest in the match, it seemed that Liverpool were enjoying more of the ball, but each and every one of their attempts on our goal were – thankfully – right down Asmir Begovic’ throat. Right on half-time, a lack of pressing meant that the ball found Coutinho in space. As he shaped to shoot, I sensed a goal.

1-1.

All was quiet at the break. My head was still elsewhere.

Soon in to the second-half, the woeful Eden Hazard was replaced by the fresh legs and zest of the boy from Fluminense Kenedy. He immediately impressed with some one-touch football and a shot on goal. We were enjoying our best spell. Willian, the one current player excused from the negative comments being directed towards our team, continued to be our most determined player. His willingness to close down and enforce errors on Liverpool was commendable. There was a desire within Ramires too.

Lucas, who was seeing a lot of the ball in the middle, had already been booked, and appeared to scythe down Ramires in the centre circle. I am not as strong a believer in conspiracy theories against us as many others, but even I was questioning the marital status of Clattenburg’s parents after that. The Stamford Bridge crowd howled their displeasure.

Mikel, who was doing OK in my book, was withdrawn for Fabregas.

Oscar – having a hot and cold game, nay season – won the ball well with a great tackle and spotted Mignolet off his line. His speculative lob from fifty yards was almost inch perfect, but the Liverpool ‘keeper back-peddled and tipped it over.

With that chance gone, Liverpool heaved a sigh of relief and then dominated as we lost our shape. The introduction of Falcao did not fool anyone.

Two late goals from Coutinho – again – and from substitute Benteke sealed our fate.

Our defending was awful for both goals. We were pulled apart.

On Halloween, here was a horror show of defensive miscreants.

To my utter disdain, more than a handful of Chelsea supporters left after the second goal, with a full twenty minutes of play left. When I mentioned this frankly despicable fact to the chap in front, his reply was spot on.

“Keep walking.”

After the Benteke goal, even more left.

Sigh.

At the end of the game, all was quiet. I slowly walked out on to the Fulham Road, my gaze focussing on the red portions of the half-and-half scarves on show. It turned my stomach.

I am usually in a rush to get back to the car, but I can never remember an occasion when my strides have been so heavy and so slow walking up the North End Road. It truly was a depressing and demoralising old day. The football, though, only counted for a small portion of my sorrow. I met up with Parky at the car. He too, was sad to hear that Ian’s mother had passed away. He had met Ian, just the once, ironically, at my mother’s funeral in March. We were soon on our way home, facing a bright autumnal sun fading fast in the west.

At Twickenham, there was a rugby game taking place.

In Egham, close-by, just around the M25, Frome Town were playing a FA Trophy tie.

We avoided the football on the radio as I drove home after another dispiriting Chelsea performance. We were melancholy. In truth, I was still reeling from the phone call from Ian. There was an attempt to grasp at straws of comfort. Despite the exodus of a couple of thousand fans after both goals, thankfully at the final whistle, Stamford Bridge was not a sea of empty blue seats. Most fans had stayed until the end. There were hardly any boos. I am thankful for that.

We are in this together, and we share the pain together.

See you on Wednesday.

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Tales From Row Five

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 November 2009.

I had to wait twenty-five years for my first win at Arsenal, and now I get two in six months.

This was a great day out – of course! A fine example of myself stating the bleeding obvious.

I needed this to be an enjoyable day. Work is a bit stressful at the moment and I wanted to put all of those worries behind me, if only for twelve hours. I’m not a big fan of Sunday 4pm games, but it felt like my whole weekend was building to this one encounter. I was restless throughout Saturday. I watched the results roll in. The tension was building. At last, Sunday morning arrived.

Amidst terrible rain showers and angry dark skies, I drove up to London with Parky. We had arranged to meet up with the boys at a pub called The Shakespeare’s Head at Holborn tube. Daryl was already there as we strolled in at 12.45pm. Mark and Jon were at the bar. We wondered if Gumby would show up.

We have been using this as our pre-Arsenal watering hole for quite a few years now. I thought back to the first of these – a mammoth FA Cup Quarter Final in March 2003 – which ended 2-2. We had a great turnout that day – Chelsea in general, some 6,000 strong, but also my mates too…around ten of us attended. Daryl reminded me that when Frank Lampard bundled in a last minute equaliser, causing some of the most manic goal celebrations I can ever remember, Frank commented after that he couldn’t believe the potent smell of so many alcoholic fumes coming from The Clock End.

I can vouch for that – we were steaming.

As I say, I had been looking forward to this game all week. Yep, another example of TBO. As a few more mates arrived, we got into the groove. Beers were ordered and the pre-match chat began in earnest. Simon’s son Milo had sprained his ankle playing rugby ( he had no sympathy from us ) and, like Parky, was on crutches. They looked a right couple. I made the point to Daryl that this was a bigger game for Arsenal than it was for us. I would be happy to come away with a draw, but The Goons really had to win. Tuna arrived – his mother quite a bit better now – and he was so happy to be given the ticket which we had managed to muster for him. He tucked into a steak and kidney pudding and was quite the picture of blissful contentment. Last to arrive was Alex from the New York Blues, who had been in town for a few days following a quick trip to Madrid to see Real on Wednesday. He is quite a character and the place was full of resounding laughter from us all. It was a perfect pre-match.

At about 3.15pm, we set off for the game with the weather holding firm. We looked a rag-tag bunch of shapes and sizes and I had to laugh at the two of the boys on crutches…Milo picked up his crutch and cheekily poked Parky in the ‘arris. Youngsters these days!

The first train heading north at Holborn tube was jam-packed and only half of us made it onboard. We were pressed up against each other and it’s a good job we are friends. Although we were outnumbered by charmless Goons, we made our presence felt, including a boisterous Bouncy. It was with some relief when we soon arrived at Arsenal tube, but there was a very slow trudge up to street level. Outside, the rain was pelting down and I got drenched.

I reached my seat at about 3.45pm – I was impressed with my time-keeping for once. There were loads of familiar faces nearby. Unfortunately, Alan, Gary and myself were located in row five, which is pretty low down. It wasn’t a great view at all. It reminded me of my view for the 0-1 loss at the same stadium in 2007. There was heavy rain on that day, too. I hoped there would be no repeat.

Compared to our balconies at The Bridge, bedecked with many flags and banners, I could only spot two at Arsenal. Pathetic.

They really are a boring club.

Just before kick-off, we found out we had drawn Watford in the FA Cup…happy with a home draw, but I was yearning for a new away ground. Forest Green Rovers anyone? That would have been nice.

As the game began, I found it very difficult to concentrate. The main problem was my vantage point, where the game seemed to be played on one plane. I tried to fathom out the formation – Mikel holding, Joe in the hole. I took a few early snaps in case the light deteriorated badly. And I tried my damnedest to locate Beth and Danny. It took me a while, but I eventually found them. The home support made a lot of noise in the first ten minutes, but this soon faded.

Arsenal had the majority of the ball in the first period and we were off the pace. The fans around me kept shouting for our midfield to close our opponents down and to deny them space. But, really – did they ever really bother Petr Cech in our goal? Maybe a few half-chances. I noted how small and elf-like Arshavin ( or “Tom Cruise” as Gary called him ) really is. He seemed to have a lot of the ball, attacking our solid right back Ivanovic. We were rarely troubled. Gary singled out Sagna for more name-calling.

“Oi – abacus head…go play with your beads.”

However, we hardly threatened them either. Joe Cole was especially quiet. With the half-time whistle approaching, we struck.

Ashley Cole, who had been getting the usual rough ride from sections of the home support, whipped in two great crosses and the game inexplicably changed in our favour. I had noted two great crosses from Burnley’s Chris Eagles at West Ham on TV on Saturday night. Right in the danger zone. Brilliant balls in towards the six-yard box. Superb.

Well, these two from Ash were a bit different, but the results were the same.

The first cross found an outstretched leg of Didier and the ball flew up and in off the bar. We screamed – almost disbelieving our good fortune. After things had settled down a little, I gestured towards a gleaming Danny.

The second cross had the same result and this time we went ballistic…hugs with strangers, screams, full-on celebrations. It meant that the Goons would go in at the break heartbroken.

It was beautiful.

Of course, the away end was a-buzz with rumours that our second goal had been deflected in off William Gallas, but that would have just been too much!

I bumped into a joyous Danny at the break out by the concession stands, with the Chelsea support buoyed by the two late goals, baying behind us.

In the second-half, we enjoyed a lot more of the ball and I thought that the spine of the team – JT, Mikel, Drogba and Anelka – were superb. The defence was brutally dominant. As Drogba lined up to take a free-kick, I commented to Gary that it was from the same position that Sheva blazed over in that 2007 match.

Drogba approached the ball – I snapped my camera – and the ball flew in.

Yet more fantastic emotions overwhelmed me, but I managed to stay calm enough to snap a few shots of the resultant melee at the corner flag, a mere ten yards away. The players were screaming their delight and so were we.

I looked up at Danny – I spotted Alex nearby – and the smiles on their faces were beautiful. It was just one of those great moments.

By now, of course, the home support was drifting away and we were serenading them all with a few choice songs. Gallas was the main target of our disdain –

“Stayed with a big club – you should’ve stayed with a big club.”

“Five years – and you’ve won “nothing.” “ Ahem.

“Empty seats, empty seats, empty seats.”

We even sang of winning the league…

“We shall not be moved – we shall not, we shall not be moved.”

Of course, all of this was eerily similar to our game at Arsenal in May. Much laughter – much joy. This must have really hurt them, though – I think they really thought they could win this one.

I met up with Beth, Danny and Parky outside. There was a slow meander back to the tube, but there was a bounce in our step…it seemed that we were untouchable. How United must have hated the result too.

Five points clear – having a laugh.

We finished off back at Earls Court and the four of us had a quiet “de-brief” around the table of our favourite Italian restaurant. Danny had enjoyed his week with us in Chelsea Town immensely and I can’t wait for his reports. The games against Wolves and Arsenal were his sixth and seventh Chelsea games…and I rather scornfully pointed out that all seven have resulted in Chelsea wins. By the time of my sixth and seventh games, way back in 1975, we were playing the likes of Bristol Rovers in Division Two.

Not that I’m jealous, of course…wink.

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