Tales From The Old And The New

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 23 November 2021.

Back in February 2020, not long after Chelsea were given a masterclass in elite football by Bayern Munich, I had walked back up the North End Road with my friend Jaro. He had been in town for both the Tottenham game – good, very good – and the Bayern game – bad, very bad – and we said our goodbyes at the intersection with Lillie Road. He was heading back to his hotel before an early morning flight to whisk him back to his home just outside Washington DC. In the intervening twenty-one months, who could have predicted what would have happened to the world and to Chelsea Football Club?

It was 5.40pm, and I stepped into the Italian restaurant next to “The Goose” on a cold London evening. It was a mere ten yards from where Jaro and I went our separate ways all those months ago. This time Jaro was in town with his son Alex and they had just arrived to secure a seat for a quick bite to eat before the Champions League group phase game with Juventus. My travel companions Parky and PD came in to see the two visitors – handshakes and hugs – before they popped into “The Goose” for a drink or two.

I settled down, perused the menu, and ordered a beer and a pizza.

Time to relax a little, time to start talking football, time to think about the game. But first I thanked Jaro for his friendship over the weirdest time of our lives. He has been a good friend of mine in this period – on-line chats, occasional phone-calls – and I wanted him to know it was appreciated. Alex’ only other visit to Chelsea was for a league game with Newcastle in the early months of Frank Lampard’s short tenure as manager. To say both were excited about being back in London again would be a grave understatement.

The evening would unfold in due course, but I had a little teaser for them both before the evening got into full swing.

I poured a small Birra Moretti into a half-pint glass.

“Right. Bearing in mind tonight’s game and the two teams involved, what is the significance of this beer?”

Puzzled expressions. I added another few words.

“This beer is a thirst quencher, right? Well maybe it could be called a first quencher.”

Still puzzlement.

I then realised something else.

“Ah, it’s in a half-pint glass. A half. That’s a clue too.”

Jaro and Alex were stumped. The conversation moved on a little, and I realised that they weren’t going to be able to solve my little riddle.

Out of interest, it is worth saying that a few tables down from us, a lad was wearing a long-sleeved red Bari training top. This acted as another clue for those playing along at home, if not for Jaro and Alex.

To re-cap.

Birra Moretti.

First-quencher.

Half.

Bari.

Give up? OK, here goes.

Despite the game at Stamford Bridge being the sixth game between Chelsea and Juventus in the Champions League, the very first encounter took place in the southern Italian city of Bari in August 2002 in the Birra Moretti Cup. On the same night, Chelsea played half a game against Juventus (drew 0-0, lost on penalties) before losing 0-3 to Inter in another forty-five-minute game. I remembered watching it all unfold on Chelsea TV.

In those days, Juventus of Turin, of the whole of Italy, were European royalty. I still find it hard to believe that Juventus of Turin and Chelsea of London have both won the same number of European Cups.

The pizza was damned fine. The little restaurant was full of Chelsea supporters. We chatted about pandemics, Champions League Finals, heart attacks, Chelsea and Juventus.

In the dim and distant past, when Jaro was a teenager back in Poland, Juventus must have tugged a little at his heart strings. I remember that he told me that he had got hold of, I know not how, a Juventus scarf, which must have been quite a capture in communist Poland. He had since mislaid it. However, in packing for this trip he had stumbled across an old suitcase and – lo and behold – the old Juventus scarf was unearthed after many a year. Jaro thought that this was undoubtedly a good sign ahead of his trip across the Atlantic.

Outside, yes, a cold night. I was glad that I had worn an extra top beneath my jacket. I didn’t see a single Juventus fan on the walk down to the ground with PD. Jaro had spotted little knots of them in the afternoon as he circumnavigated the stadium not once but twice.

We all made it inside Stamford Bridge earlier – much earlier – than usual.

I was inside by 7.15pm, a good forty-five minutes before kick-off. I spent a few minutes at the rear of the Matthew Harding upper tier, right above where I sit, and took a few shots of the scene. In my quest to photograph every square yard of Stamford Bridge, inside and out, for my pleasure if nobody else’s, it was a well-spent ten minutes. Over in the far corner, the travelling Juventus supporters were positioned in two tiers. The Champions League logo – a large plastic flag – was lying still over the centre circle.

As I walked down to share a few words with Frank from Oxford, who sits in the row behind me, and then to re-join PD, the players of both teams entered the pitch for their choreographed drills and pre-match routines. Very soon the entire pitch was covered in people. Not only the starting elevens, but the substitutes too. A few coaches, maybe a few of the medical staff. Around ten chaps forking the pitch. UEFA officials swarming everywhere. God knows who else. Easily a hundred people were on the pitch. It was ridiculous.

I immediately spotted Jaro and Alex in the second row of The Shed, right by the corner flag. At this time of year, I know that many US supporters travel over – making use of cheaper than usual international flights at Thanksgiving since the vast majority of Americans only travel domestically to see family members – and I knew that many were close by in Parkyville.

These Autumnal group phase matches – part and parcel of our game now – can be viewed as an unnecessary burden by some. Are they an integral part of the calendar and a key part in the selection of the fittest and finest teams to head into the latter stages in the new year? Or are they simply money-spinning stocking fillers before Christmas, ostensibly nothing more than extra games, the source of extra revenues with the accompanying extra chatter, extra debate, extra noise?

I think we know the answer.

The saving grace, of course, is that this format allows match-going fans of a certain disposition – step forward, you know who you are – the chance to watch their idols play in three, hopefully, interesting and exotic cities each time qualification is gained. For that reason alone, I am glad that the bloated Champions League format exists though, deep down, the simpler knock-out style of European competition pre-1992 has many admirers too.

The minutes ticked by. PD and I were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Alan from South London in The Sleepy Hollow.

A text from Tullio in Turin : “let’s go to work.”

Despite my soft-spot for Juventus, I fended off the need to buy a half-and-half scarf. Out in Turin, the nearest I got to it was a “I was there” jacquard scarf depicting the date of the game and the venue.

This would be my thirteenth Juventus game. I hoped it would be unlucky for them and not for me.

The first dozen :

1987 : Juventus 3 Panathinaikos 2.

1988 : Juventus 1 Internazionale 0.

1988 : Juventus 3 Napoli 5.

1989 : Juventus 1 Fiorentina 1.

1992 : Juventus 0 Sampdoria 0.

1995 : Rangers 0 Juventus 4.

1999 : Juventus 2 Fiorentina 1.

2009 : Chelsea 1 Juventus 0.

2009 : Juventus 2 Chelsea 2.

2012 : Chelsea 2 Juventus 2.

2012 : Juventus 3 Chelsea 0.

2021 : Juventus 1 Chelsea 0.

In the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled. There were around one thousand away fans opposite me.

The Chelsea team was almost the same one that ended the game against Leicester City.

Mendy – Rudiger, Silva, Chalobah – Chilwell, Kante, Jorginho, James – Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic, Ziyech

The stadium packed to capacity, save for a few late arrivals, the teams appeared.

First Chelsea, with blue tracksuit tops, then Juventus also in blue tracksuit tops.

I remember hating the sight of Juve, back in 2009, showing up at Chelsea in a bronze away shirt. Thankfully on this occasion they opted for the Notts County “hand-me-downs” of black and white stripes, but there was something about their uniforms that didn’t strike me as being particularly “Juve”. Were the stripes too narrow? Were the shorts not baggy enough? Did I miss seeing “Ariston” and the “Robe di Kape” labels? No. Of course it was the black socks. Ugh.

I clapped the former two Chelsea players Juan Cuadrado and Alvaro Morata.

Neither looked happy to be back.

“We hardly knew you.”

The game began. Nobody was expecting Juventus to come at us like their life depended upon it, but our dominance in the first five minutes was astounding. It took them until the sixth minute, I think, for them to get the ball out of their own half.

With both Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku on the bench, it was left for Christian Pulisic to take over from Kai Havertz as the central false-nine, and Alan commented early on how high King Kante was playing on the right.

A “sighter” from the currently impressive Ben Chilwell was fired over the bar. We enjoyed a lot of early possession, and it settled the whole stadium.

“Champions of Europe, we know what we are.”

Juve attacks were rare, and efforts from Chalobah and Hudson-Odoi caused panic in The Old Lady’s defence. Our youngsters were raiding at will, and the watching bianconeri in The Shed must have been impressed with our fluidity. The ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szvsazvxsaeneszxeyezcsy was involved early and involved often. He ably stopped a fine free-kick from our man of the moment Reece James.

When we were awarded a corner, Alan commented that he wanted Morata to find himself inside the six-yard box and to awkwardly jump and head a ball past his ‘keeper.

“Knowing our luck, the fucker would be offside, Al.”

As Hakim Ziyech trotted over to take a corner in front of the away support on twenty-five minutes, I noticed more than a usual number of Italian flags being waved. It struck me as a little odd. It’s something that club teams tend not to do on travels around the continent. I have certainly not seen this from Juventus before, nor other Italian teams, where local identity and allied tribal imagery is usually much more important. Maybe somebody had them on sale in a local Italian restaurant.

The ball was floated in, Antonio Rudiger rose, the ball ended up at the feet of Trevoh Chalobah.

Smack.

Goal.

One-nil.

“YES.”

The Bridge erupted.

I captured the slide down in front of the away fans.

Unlike “Song 2” by Blur – of all bands – being used by the Juventus PA out in Turin in September when Chiesa scored, there is no song used by Chelsea when we score and long may this continue. It would be just another nail in the coffin.

We are Chelsea and we make our own noise.

Woo Hoo.

While we were waiting for the game to restart, there was a rumour of a VAR check, but nothing was really made clear.

“Whatevs” as the kids say.

A text from Tullio : “volleyball.”

The defensive highlight of our game then thrilled us all. Locatelli unlocked our defence with a fine chipped lob to Morata, and with Mendy flummoxed and on his arse, the Spaniard was denied a certain goal when the back-peddling Thiago Silva hooked the ball away.

The applause rang out from all four stands.

The old man had thwarted the Old Lady.

However, I equally enjoyed the Rolls Royce-like burst from Silva down our left flank when a Juventus attacker threatened him. His effortless glide past the hapless striker was an absolute joy to watch.

Efforts from James and Rudiger towards the end of the half made sure that the Juve ‘keeper was kept busy. I can’t remember Mendy, the Morata cock-up aside, ever being in danger.

Sadly, there was an injury to Kante, and he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

At the break, much positivity.

“Pulisic is quiet though, Al.”

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking us in the Matthew Harding. We continued our domination.

I loved it when I spotted Thomas Tuchel fist-pumping and demanding some noise from the adjacent fans in the East Lower; it’s the family section, someone should tell him.

On fifty-five minutes, a cross from Ben Chilwell down below us was headed on its way. It fell to the feet of the lurking James on the angle. A chested touch to control and take out the defender was followed by a low pile driver that flew into the net.

I captured that bastard on film.

What a strike.

Despite bubbling over, I managed to snap the subsequent shrug from Reece and then the triumphant pose in front of the MHL.

Two-up on the night, we were now top of our group.

A couple of minutes later, a cracking move involving Rudiger, James, Ziyech and some lovely close-in dribbling from Loftus-Cheek set up Our Callum. Once this final ball was played in, there was that glorious feeling knowing that a certain goal was just about to be scored.

Bosh.

3-0.

I reached for my camera and tried my best to capture Callum’s wild euphoria. He was mobbed by all. Great scenes.

The atmosphere was good, but not at a stratospheric level. The Juve fans kept singing throughout. It’s what they do. I gulped when I spotted a “+39” banner in their section.

Sadly, Ben Chilwell was injured and had to be assisted off. He was replaced by Captain Dave, a rare sight these days. Other late substitutions followed. Timo Werner for Pulicic, then Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi.

The Chelsea choir to the luckless ‘keeper : “You’re just a shit Fabianski.”

Juventus enjoyed their best spell of the game, and the otherwise out-of-work Mendy did ever so well to save from the American Weston McKennie. However, as the game drew to a conclusion, I always fancied us to score a very late goal. Ziyech grew as the game continued and drew another fine save from “triple points score in Scrabble” as Chelsea continued to pile on the pressure.

On the ninety-five-minute mark, we were rewarded.

We watched in awe as James sent over an absolutely perfect ball – with just the right amount of spin, dip and fade – towards Ziyech. We were a little lucky in that a Juve defender mistimed his interception, but the Moroccan’s cross was so good that not even Werner missed it.

Goal.

On a splendid night in deepest SW6 when so many Americans were present, there was only one phrase needed.

“Totally foursome.”

It was a night when three academy players scored three goals against a tough Italian defence. It was a night when our youngsters – aided and abetted by one masterly old’un – totally dominated against La Vecchia Signora. It was a night when our new guard drew praise from everyone.

How ironic that Juventus means “youth.”

Move over, Juve, there are new kids on the piazza.

We headed out into the cold London night.

A text from Tullio : “no words.”

In the style of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, and its incredibly tough way of ranking players – I have never seen a ten, even nines are ridiculously rare – here are my player rankings.

Mendy : 7 – a night-off, but one fine save when called-upon.

Rudiger : 8 – solid as ever, and an occasional threat in the opposing box.

Silva : 9 – calm, cultured, a masterclass in defensive nous.

Chalobah : 8 – a fine game, took his goal well, never embarrassed.

James : 9 – a thunderously fine performance, solid defensively, always a threat going forward, man of the match, man of the moment.

Kante : 7 – a little bit of everything until an injury took him out of the game.

Jorginho : 7 – understated but so efficient, he kept the team focussed.

Chilwell : 7 – a good overlapping threat, sadly his night ended with a bad injury.

Hudson-Odoi : 8 – at last he is fulfilling his great potential, always a handful.

Pulisic : 5 – a quiet game, not involved in many key moments.

Ziyech : 8 – arguably his match thus far, he grew in confidence and stature as the game continued.

Subs : Loftus-Cheek 7, Azpilicueta 6, Mount 6, Werner 7

Chelsea : top of the Premier League.

Chelsea : top of the Champions League.

Frome Town : top of the Southern League Division One South.

Next up : Manchester United at home.

Life : good.


Tales From The Memory Game

Chelsea vs. Malmo : 20 October 2021.

Ahead of the game with Malmo, we had assembled in “Simmons” as per our normal midweek match at Stamford Bridge. When we arrived at around 6.15pm, it was pretty quiet. For once, Chelsea supporters were definitely in the minority. In fact, with most of the Chelsea fans present being of around the same age, not only were we outnumbered, we felt a little out of place too. The rest of the fellow revellers were in their teens. Since school desks make up a fair proportion of tables in this cosy bar, I had a wry smile to myself. There was a Guernsey reunion – an old school one at that – with my friends Daryl, Neil, Chris and Simon meeting up for a few beers, along with Simon and Daryl’s two lads. This was the first time I had seen Neil since before lockdown in 2020 and it was great to see him again. Daryl and Neil, brothers, went down to Kingstonian in the afternoon to watch the Chelsea and Malmo under-nineteen teams do battle, a game that Chelsea won 4-2 after being 2-0 down.

Daryl said that while he was at the game, our Europa League match against Malmo in 2019 was brought up. Rather sheepishly, he admitted that he had forgotten that the score was a 3-0 win. I smiled and replied that I had completely forgotten the score too.

How is it that we can remember scores in games against Notts County and Luton Town in 1980, but not from a few years back? I had a similar – brief – conversation with Nick The Whip on the walk from “The Goose” too. Nick is in his ‘seventies – though looks younger – and has a fantastic encyclopaedic knowledge of all the Chelsea games that he has attended, and I am always staggered by his memory. In the brief few minutes we spent walking along the North End Road, he mentioned a couple of games we played against Bury.

Yes, he’s that old.

“But I can’t remember last season’s games.”

Me and Nick both.

My very vague memory of the Malmo game was of their fans. They made a very impressive din, full of noise, and I remember flares too. We wondered how many of their fans would show up in London on this October evening. Surely more than the twenty or thirty Zenit fans in the first group phase game.

I guess it’s only natural that some games remain in the memory more than others. This would be my one hundred and fourth European game at Stamford Bridge. So many fine games. So many battles. So much emotion. Seven have featured Barcelona, five against Liverpool, four against Valencia, Porto and PSG. It is so annoying that the one visit of Real Madrid was played in a vacuum last season.

But here’s a quick exercise in memory recall. Off the top of my head, I would name these ten games as my favourites, in chronological order, not to prove any particular point but to stir some lovely memories of some magical nights under the lights in SW6.

Chelsea vs. Viktoria Zizkov 1994 : the first-one, a hand-shake with Matthew Harding in the pub beforehand, a wet old evening, but an absolutely wonderful occasion.

Chelsea vs. Bruges 1995 : a very noisy night as we swept past Bruges and some say the noisiest in modern times at Stamford Bridge despite a gate of only 28,000.

Chelsea vs. Vicenza 1998 : another wet night, but a stunning performance with three goals from Poyet, Zola and Hughes sending us through to our first European Final since 1971.

Chelsea vs. Milan 1999 : our first Champions League group phase game at home and despite a 0-0 draw, a very intense atmosphere and an equally impressive display against a crack opponent.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona 2000 : we were soon 3-0 up amid hysterical scenes and the noise was again on another level. But oh that away goal.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona 2005 : probably my favourite ever game at Chelsea in terms of excitement, pride and enjoyment. Nights hardly get any better.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool 2008 : a superb win, and the drama of Frank Lampard’s penalty, as we made it to our first ever Champions League Final.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool 2009 : the ridiculous 4-4 draw, just a crazy night against our rivals, that had us all checking our calculators to see how safe we were.

Chelsea vs. Napoli 2012 : another stupendous night, and an incredible recovery considering we presumed ourselves dead and buried after the first leg.

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt 2019 : a surprise choice, but a big night for me since I had gambled on us getting to Baku. My elation after Eden’s penalty was off the scale.

I first saw Malmo in the flesh on a stag-weekend in Dublin in 1991, but as I have already recalled that game on two separate occasions, I’ll pass this time.

We were in the ground at around 7.45pm. There had been light queues at the turnstiles and for the first time this season, nobody had bothered to check my COVID19 status. I looked over at The Shed and was impressed with the 1,000 away fans and their decent selection of banners. Many were draped in team scarves.

How cute.

This was a game that we had to win. After the loss against Juventus, there was no other option available. I had no problems with the manager’s team selection. Both Timo and Romelu needed goals to get themselves back in the groove, so I had no issues with them starting.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilcueta – Kante – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Lukaku – Werner

Another near full house, and a superb effort from all involved. This was another busy spell with five games in fifteen days.

I loved the atmosphere at the start of the match, and it’s not always the case for these group phase games. Although I could visibly discern that the away fans were bouncing around and singing heartily, the sound didn’t carry particularly well. There was, after all, only a thousand of them. The Matthew Harding was in very fine form, even if we overdid the “Champions of Europe” thing a bit. The noise rattled around Stamford Bridge and, who knows, maybe it helped the team because we certainly began well, with plenty of attacking verve.

A few chances had threatened Dahlin in the Malmo goal before, on nine minutes, Thiago Silva crossed from deep into the box. Andreas Christensen did well to adjust and stab the ball in. A first Chelsea goal for our great Dane against the Swedes.

The rain started to fall heavily.

PD leaned over : “another wet walk back to the car?”

On twenty-one minutes, a swift break found the quick feet of Werner, who played in Lukaku. The Belgian toyed with his marker as he advanced into the box and was just about to take aim on the edge of the six-yard box when his legs were taken from under him. A definite penalty. But Lukaku was on the floor for ages after the foul.

We all wondered if Jorginho would deviate from his Plan A. Deviate he did; rather than a stop, a skip and a prod to his right, the ‘keeper went to the right as the ball went central / left. Easy.

And this was easy.

Lukaku hobbled to the half-way line and I hoped he could run off his injury but he was quickly replaced by Kai Havertz, the hero of Porto.

Malmo would only have one real attack and one goal attempt during the first-half. We completely dominated. I hoped that the away fans had enjoyed their sightseeing in London during the day because I doubted that they were going to get any pleasure from their team. However, to their credit, their fans never stopped singing and offering encouragement. Fair play to the fair haired ones.

A Rudiger run from deep sent us all dizzy with excitement – “shoot” – and this is now his trademark. I love it.

Behind me in the Matthew Harding Upper, I heard an Arsenal chant.

And it annoyed me.

“What do we think of shit?

“Tottenham.”

“What do we think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

I glowered. For fuck sake. This must not continue.

Go to your rooms.

A shot from Chilwell, a shot from Havertz, we were all over Malmo.

We heard that Manchester United were 0-2 down at home against Atalanta. This engineered a related song from the lower tier.

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s a sex offender.”

Late on in the half, Timo Werner pulled up and we collectively grimaced. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who joined Kai and Mason in a rather lightweight attacking trio. I could hear all the internet nerds getting high and mighty.

“See. I told you Tuchel should not have started Werner and Lukaku. Where’s my Playstation?”

As the half drew to a close, I commented to PD and Rich from Edinburgh “we should be more than two goals to the good here.” And it was true. We had completely dominated. Malmo looked poor, so poor.

At the break, the Malmo manager said “move over, Dahlin” and replaced the ‘keeper with Diawara.

Lo and behold, the second-half began with a rare Malmo break. As the move broke down on our left, the ball was played to Our Callum, who ran and ran and ran. He avoided an easier ball into the middle to Mount and instead found the overlapping Havertz. With the pink clad ‘keeper out of his goal, a delicate dink sent the ball into the goal off the far post.

Silky.

Diawara had not yet touched the ball.

We were three-up and I was hoping for six.

From the Matthew Harding choir :

“You’re shit but your birds are fit.”

We continued to dominate, and on fifty-seven minutes a great bit of “nibbling” from Rudiger wrestled the ball from a Malmo midfielder. The ball ran to Haverzt, who played it back to Rudi. An industrial challenge gave the referee no option but to award another penalty.

Jorginho stepped up, and again the spot-kick went centre / left, although the skip probably sent the ‘keeper the wrong way. I think it is safe to say that after mixing it a little of late, opposing ‘keepers had best throw away their notes on Jorginho’s penalty techniques. Because nobody knows what he is going to do now.

Meanwhile, United had clawed it back to 2-2 at Old Trafford.

Shots from Hudson-Odoi and Kante were smashed goalwards.

Saul Niguez replaced King Kante.

Marcos Alonso and Reece James were late substitutes too.

Instead of six goals, or even five, the chances were squandered and it looked like no further goals would ensue.

Bastard Ronaldo had scored and United were winning 3-2.

That’s for all those in the lower tier, tempting fate earlier.

When that man Rudiger blasted into row ten of the Matthew Harding Upper, many spectators upped and headed for the exits.

At the final whistle, Chelsea 4 Malmo 0.

“We should have scored seven or eight.”

I had enjoyed the game. It was another tick on my journey back to football.

It was just a bit ironic, though, that on a night when Tuchel was hoping to kick-start the Lukaku and Werner scoring tandem, it was last season’s top scorer Jorginho who led the way with two penalties.

Outside, the spectators scurried away into the night and – yes – we got soaked once again.

Fackinell.

On the drive back home to the West of England, PD battled against torrential rain, huge puddles of surface water, debris on the roads, and fallen trees. I eventually made it home at about 1.30am.

We play Norwich City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and I’m bringing my boots. With our lack of a decent strike force, I fancy a shot at leading the attack.

See you there.

Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From The Minerva

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2020.

The third game in eight days was another away day in the North of England. After gliding past Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, we were drawn against Hull City who are enjoying – or not – a middling season in The Championship.

On my four previous visits to Kingston upon Hull, I had driven up and back from each and every one of them on the day of the game. But it’s a tough, tough ask. It’s around a ten-hour return trip by car. For this game we decided to stay the Saturday night. As the weekend quickly approached, the trip took over my thoughts. There was plenty to keep me pleasantly occupied.

I needed to plan a pub crawl, probably based around the marina. On my last visit to Hull during the 2016/17 season – the match report was titled “Tales From A Day Of Sobriety” – I had left Parky and PD in a large “Spoons” in the city centre, while I pottered off on a little walk around the city centre and the marina. I spotted a few pubs and I made a mental note of their whereabouts. I hoped for a larger, more expansive, tour this time around.  There would be no sobriety on this visit.

I was also looking forward – with a kind of schoolboy giddiness – to seeing us in our beautiful blue and yellow FA kit once again.

And there was the matter of the hotel that I had booked. I had sorted out some digs close to City’s KCOM Stadium for the princely sum of £29 for two rooms. I was intrigued, for the want of a better word, how that would pan out.

The game? That would take care of itself.

Let’s go to Hull.

My alarm was set for 4.30am on Saturday morning and I woke a few minutes ahead of it. After a strong coffee, I was ready. This was going to be another long day, but it would be a day that we live for. I fuelled up nearby and collected the father-and-son combination of P-Diddy Daddy-O and Scott at 6am.

Everything was dark until we stopped at Strensham Services on the M5 for a McBreakfast at 7.30am. From then on, the day slowly broke. I made excellent time and the morning flew past. I rarely drive up the M1 for football and I was enjoying the change of scene. After passing East Midlands Airport on the A42, I spotted the familiar cooling towers to the east at Ratcliffe on Soar as I joined the M1 and these signalled, to me anyway, that my journey to “The North” was in full flow. There would be cooling towers-a-plenty on the road to Hull.

Unlike the M6 to the west of the midlands which is predominantly flat, the M1 undulates as it takes everyone north. It’s not a photogenic road. For miles upon mile, the motorway is flanked by huge distribution warehouses, retail parks, the flattened hills of former coal-mining areas, and cooling towers. Past Mansfield, past Chesterfield. Signposts for the footballing cities of Sheffield and Leeds.

There were bittersweet memories of my second and third visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

In January 2014 – my match report was titled “Tales From A Road Less Travelled” – I collected friends Andy, Alan and Seb in the midlands en route – and headed up to Hull. The game resulted in a standard 2-0 win for Chelsea, but marks the last game that I attended before my mother became incapacitated through rheumatism. By the time of the next visit in March 2015, barely a year later, my mother had sadly passed away and it was my first away game since her death. On that visit, a 3-2 win on our way to a title, I felt rather numbed by everything. I called that one “Tales From The Beautiful North” and it summed up my melancholy mood. It was a delicate, tender blue day. Memories, no doubt, raced back to the half-term holiday of October 1973 when I first visited Hull with my parents, a day trip from visiting friends in Grimsby, a ferry over the Humber from New Holland, the huge bridge far from completed.

Bridges and elevated sections took us over the rivers which would eventually drift into The Humber. We veered off onto the M18. As we hit the M62, my eyes focussed on the far horizon in several directions. A bleak vista was dominated by cooling towers and wind turbines. It all started to resemble a bleak scene from a sci-fi film.

The winds howl over these flat lands.

Another bridge took us over the wonderfully named River Ouse. Out and away, Hull was not too far now. I drove on past the huge Humber Bridge, the World’s longest until 1998, and I was soon on Clive Sullivan Way, named after a rugby league icon.

In the pub on Tuesday, my pal Tim from Bristol spoke of his last visit to Hull in 2016. If anyone remembers, it was our first game of the long unbeaten run, win after win after win. But on that day, just as he reached the city’s inner suburbs, he spotted a rag and bone man, with cart and horse, like a latter day “Steptoe & Son.” He then spotted a bare-chested man riding a horse through the streets.

Bloody hell, a real city on the edge.

As I drove through the surprisingly wide streets of Hull, I found myself behind a van carrying scrap. I half expected Dublin-style horses to gallop past.

Welcome to Hull.

At around 10.30am we had reached base camp, our hotel on Anlaby Road.

Well. What can I say? It was a pub, with rooms, but hardly worthy of a single star, not so much a hotel as a notel. I soon posted my thoughts on “Facebook.”

“Well, our £7.50 a night hotel has lived down to expectations.”

Much banter followed.

We booked in, and at 11am the barman poured the first pints of the day for us. Friends much further south were yet to set off. You can’t say that we aren’t keen.

There was a little chat with a couple of locals. The pub had openened at 10am, one silent chap was already on his second or third pint. Another grisly local warned us –

“There was some fighting in town last night, Chelsea.”

But we ignored him.

I fiddled with my camera bag, making sure my match ticket was secure.

He looked over and said :

“Ha, is that your first-aid kit?”

Now that made me laugh. All part of the spice of life, eh? Indeed, the place was starting to grow on me.

Like a fungus.

Outside, I took a photo of PD and Scott in front of a chalkboard of the week’s coming attractions, blank apart from karaoke on Sunday. I was just surprised that karaoke was spelled correctly.

At about 11.45am we caught a cab into town.

The cab driver was gruff.

“I fucking hate Chelsea.”

I feared that he might be a Leeds United fan. But no, far from it. In spite of a northern accent, he was from Fulham, a Fulham fan, but living in Hull for forty years. I felt that life had dealt him a tough hand of cards. From the cosmopolitan bustling city of London to the dustbowl of Kingston upon Hull, until recently one of the UK’s forgotten cities.

“I go and watch City a bit. It’s sold out today, isn’t it? Only £12.”

I was warming to him now, it’s funny how football can break down barriers.

We dropped into the second of the day’s seven pubs. It was a familiar haunt. We had visited “The Admiral Of The Humber” in 2015 and 2016. PD was hoping to spot a local that he had chatted to on both occasions. In 2016, there was a funny anecdote.

The Hull City fan had spoken about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

Alas, no Harold Shipman this time. A couple of Chelsea supporters dropped in, but it was mainly “locals only.” It was a lovely Saturday afternoon mixture of football lads in designer gear, scarfers, a chap in a Dukla Prague away kit, and a table full of overly-made up middle-aged women that do lunch, dinner, tea, an evening meal and breakfast if you ask them nicely.

The three of us were now getting stuck into our second and third pints and the laughter was booming. We chatted about our hotel.

Chris : “I was a bit concerned when all the windows in your room were wide open. I wondered if it meant that the room needed some fresh air. That it would have been otherwise musty.”

PD : “That was to let the rats out.”

Chris : “No, that was to let them in.”

On a wall inside the pub, getting busier and busier now, was a copy of The Housemartins’ “Hull 0 London 4” album.

As the jokes continued, PD and Scott were grinning themselves to death.

At 1pm, we hopped into another cab to embark on the next stage of the pub crawl.

“The Minerva” was to be the highlight of the day and we stayed a good hour. On rather a different scale, it reminded me of The Flatiron Building in New York; a squeezed building, triangular in shape, it sat right on the quayside looking across the river to Lincolnshire. As soon as we arrived, three fellow Chelsea supporters arrived too, faces familiar, names unknown. The pub was a joy. Little rooms, a couple of snugs, a good selection of ales and lagers, antique décor, and it looked like it served excellent food too. The further you went away from the tip of the building, more rooms kept appearing. On a wall was a framed copy of one of Spencer Tunick’s “Sea of Hull” photo shoots which kick-started Hull’s year as the UK’s “City of Culture” in 2017.

I just thought everybody was blue with the cold in Hull.

I could have stayed in “The Minerva” for hours. But I wanted to pack as much in as possible. We still had a few more to visit; “The Barrow Boys”, “The Humber Dock”, “Bar 82” and lastly a real ale pub called “Furley” where I bumped into Kev who sits around ten feet away from me in “The Sleepy Hollow.”

Phew. Seven stops on this pub crawl. It was just right. Perfect even. Friendly locals, no trouble, what it is all about. The pubs and bars on the cobbled streets near the marina were excellent.

“Hull on Earth?”

No.

Or, as the locals would have pronounced it : “nurrrr.”

I like Kingston upon Hull. There, I said it.

Time was moving on now, so we hopped in to a cab, which took us back along the same Anlaby Road that our hotel was on, from the city centre, past The Admiral Of The Humber, and it deposited us a few hundred yards to the south of the KCOM Stadium. Night was falling, and there was a rush to get inside for kick-off.

Surely this was football to a tee. I had awoken at 4.30am and yet thirteen hours later I was rushing to get in on time.

But get in on time I did.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

The stadium was packed, a full-house. I half expected to see swathes of empty seats in our end, with tickets purchased – just £12 remember – for loyalty points alone. A great show of support, four thousand strong.

Frank Lampard chose this starting eleven :

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Barkley – Kovacic – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pedro

I like Hull City’s stadium. I like the rising roof, and the blue lighting of the metal at the rear of the lower deck. For the first time since my first visit I was positioned towards the main stand. On that day in 2008, I celebrated my seven-hundredth Chelsea game with a pre-match “Nando’s” – still my only ever visit – and I detailed the day in “Tales From The Roman Road”. On that Wednesday, I travelled along two roman roads to Hull, the Fosse Way and then Ermine Street. It was fortuitous that I did as many Chelsea missed the kick-off due to traffic problems on the M1. The detail of the match was scant.

“What a goal from Frank – I amazingly captured this on film…just beautiful. A great start. However, Hull did well not to capitulate and had a fair share of the ball in that first period. Cousin hit the post, Cech made a few good stops. We had a few chances too, of course, but the usual suspects didn’t appear to be playing too well. We were begging for a second goal.

At the break, I handed out a few doughnuts to the boys – the Game 700 Meal overspill.

A much better team performance in the second-half. Hull gave Frank too much space and I thought he ran the game. He has been great this season. All of the first-half under performers stepped up in the second 45 – Anelka after his goal especially…the chances came and went…one miss from Malouda especially. However, it ended up 3-0 with the much-maligned Frenchman touching home.

I couldn’t understand a lot of the Hull songs to be honest. You had to admire their cheek, though, because they serenaded us with a song about fucking off back to our shit hole. The cheeky young whippersnappers.”

So, back to 2020.

The Chelsea team lined up in all white and it annoyed me. Was the limited colour clash of Hull City amber socks and Chelsea yellow socks enough to enforce a change? Or were Chelsea beholden to play in the second kit at least once in this cup run? Either way, I was not impressed. The home team were kitted-out in amber, black, amber, but with tigerish stripes on the top section of the shirts, how Cincinnati Bengals.

Chelsea were attacking the opposite end in the first-half. We were all stood, of course. As always. On just six minutes, a great ball out by Mateo Kovacic found Dave in acres of space. He quickly pumped in a cross, possibly over-hit, but it fell for Mason Mount to stab at goal. It rebounded out and Michy Batshuayi, lurking nicely, was on hand to follow up. A deflected shot gave the Hull City ‘keeper George Long no chance.

It was our first real attack.

Get in.

Alan, no more than ten rows in front of me : “THTCAUN.”

Some incisive passing from Kovacic set up good chances for Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, but Long was able to pull off two fine blocks. There had been an earlier half-chance for Michy. Callum was involved on the right, Pedro not so much on the left. But throughout much of the first-half it was the Chelsea story of the season; more passing than required, less shooting than required.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, sideways, sideways, sideways, sideways.

It was as if we were attempting to crabwalk.

Even so, we were on top. Not exactly coasting, but looking the more likely to score the next goal. Just before the whistle for half-time, a deep cross from Marcos Alonso was chested down by Dave who then shot at Long in the Hull goal but he pulled off another fine save.

Around me – despite us winning – I had endured voices of discontent during that first-half. And where we could, and should, have been cheering the boys on, there were periods of quietness in our ranks. Sometimes there is hot and cold in our support, often during the same game.

Hot and cold.

Noise and quiet.

Stillness and mayhem.

Frost and fire.

It would be nice to be warmed constantly by our support during every single game. For every fine pass to be applauded as loudly as ever wayward pass is booed.

“Yeah right.”

Me, looking at my phone at halftime: “COMLD.”

Sorry Alan. Better late than never.

The second-half began, and the home team came out of their shells a little. They had offered a few attacks in the first-half but not a great deal. In the second period they looked a little livelier. They definitely had the edge of the opening period. Jarrod Bowen, who reminded me of “Eriksen from Tottenham but not much longer”, was a threat and he raced on to a through ball before punching a shot just over Caballero’s bar.

Our play had deteriorated. Not much bite, not much ingenuity. Shot-shy.

Just after an hour, Barkley steadied himself before sending over a deep free-kick. Fikayo Tomori, who had formed a steady relationship again with Kurt Zouma, rose unhindered at the far post to head down, a perfect finish, past Long. My photos of the free-kick and the header are not great, but at least I was on hand to snap away as the players celebrated just yards away from me.

There is always a great fascination to see the body language of our players as they celebrate together. Smiles, hugs, knowing winks, loving looks. I must confess I go overboard at such moments, but these photographs take care of themselves really.

Time for some substitutions.

Billy Gilmour for Our Callum.

Willian for Our Mason.

Fine work from Willian, and a reverse pass to Pedro, but the winger edged it just past the far post. The same player finished weakly from the other side of the penalty area.

With twelve minutes remaining, I captured the free-kick by substitute Kamil Grosicki that hit our wall and ballooned up and into our goal.

Bollocks.

With me unable to watch a potential replay in ten days’ time, I was grimly aware that another Hull City goal would cause me grief for more than one reason. After cheaply giving the ball away, Bowen fed Grosicki but his shot was thankfully wide.

Tariq Lamptey replaced Pedro late on. We survived an even later home corner.

Hull 1 London 2.

Phew.

The soft Southerners, thankfully, had not been a soft touch.

Into Round Five we went.

We took our time exiting the stadium. Out onto Anlaby Road once more, and we walked past our hotel on the search for nosebag. A Greek restaurant was fully-booked, but I soon spotted the sign for “Tandoor Mahal.”

Perfect.

I was on the “Diet Cokes” now – my Sunday morning drive on my mind – but we settled in and enjoyed a lovely meal.

Prawn puri, lamb dhansak, boiled rice and peshwari naan.

I filled my boots. It was one of the best curries that I have eaten for a while. Top marks.

On the adjacent table was Lee, a Hull City supporter of around the same vintage as little old me, and we spent ages talking – lamenting – how football has changed over the past thirty years. We soon found that we had so many things in common. He was with his young daughter, and he really wanted to stay out with us, but after an elongated leaving ceremony he reluctantly said “cheerio.”

He wanted me to mention him in this blog.

So, there you go Lee. See you next time.

At about 10pm, we wandered back to our digs, passing some locals, who we engaged in some witty banter as is our wont.

“Where are you off lads”?

“Back to our hotel.”

“Oh no. It’s not The Carlton is it”?

“Oh yes.”

“Oh God.”

There was time for one last nightcap at the hotel before bed. Next to us at the bar were three Chelsea fans; a young couple from Birmingham and a chap from Stafford. I was, at last, comforted that other Chelsea supporters had chosen the same hotel as us.

It had been a long day. At just before 11pm, I called it a night. Anlaby Road had treated us well.

Next up, an away day – up the Fosse Way once more – to Leicester City.

I will see you there.

Featured album :

“Eden” : Everything But The Girl 1984.

 

Tales From The Quiet Neighbours

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2019.

It seemed to be all about sequences.

We were playing the fifth of seven consecutive games in London. We were playing the seventh match in a row of fourteen that did not include a Saturday game. And we were due to play the tenth game in a run in which there had been alternate wins and losses in the previous nine.

Oh, and in the pub, having mentioned that Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri, Scott Parker – their three managers so far this season – were all former Chelsea personnel, I could not resist yelping

“Bloody leave us alone Fulham.”

Ah yes, the pub. Parky, PD and I had set off early on the morning of the game in order to get ourselves lodged into a pub between 10am and 10.30am. I had completed some research and it looked like “The Rocket” in Putney would be open at 10am. Those following along with these rambles this season will know that we have often enjoyed some splendid pre-match drinks in a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham – “The Eight Bells” and “The King’s Head” mainly – but our plan was to avoid those two because they would be undoubtedly rammed with supporters, probably of both clubs, as they were so near Craven Cottage. As has been the case on every single visit that I have made to Fulham Football Club, the plan in 2018/19 was to drink in Putney.

We were parked-up at just after 10am. There was light drizzle. The sky overhead was grey and threatened more rain. As we headed towards “The Rocket” on the south bank of the River Thames, we met up with Andrew from Columbus in Ohio who was visiting for three games. I had last met Andrew in Ann Arbor in 2016 for the Real Madrid friendly although he was over for the Palace home game last March. We located the pub easily but I was gobsmacked when the barman uttered the infamous line “we are open yes, but we are not serving alcohol until midday because of the football.” We could hardly believe it. And this was a “Wetherspoons” too; hardly the classiest of joints.

I uttered the first “fackinell” of the day. There would be a few more later.

In days of old, before more modern means of communication, the telex address used by Fulham Football Club was “Fulhamish London” and I immediately thought of this. A “Wetherspoons” pub not opening until midday because of football? How Fulhamish.

For those whose interest is piqued; our telex address was the far less whimsical “Chelstam London SW6”.

We back-tracked a little, closer to where we had parked-up in fact, and settled on “The Duke’s Head” – again on the banks of the river – where we had visited on many other occasions. We were inside when it opened at 10.30am.

Phew.

The troops started to arrive. Brad and Sean from New York appeared, as did Nick and Kim from Fresno. From closer to home, Alan and Gary from London, Duncan and Daryl from Essex, then Jim from Oxfordshire. We were spilling over onto three tables now. Mehul and Neekita from Detroit met up with us again, fresh from seeing the West Ham versus Newcastle United match on Saturday. I met two chaps from the US for the first time; Steve from Ohio, another Steve from New York. There was the usual chatter, banter and laughs. Brad and Sean had watched John Terry and Frank Lampard go head to head at Villa Park the previous day. This would be their first official Chelsea away game. And they were loving every damn minute of it.

With the US friends huddled close by, I spoke about some events which took place in the first few years of the twentieth century.

“I suppose we need to be thankful that Fulham said “no” to playing at Stamford Bridge, or none of us would be here today.”

And there was a moment of silence and clarity.

A few people seemed to gulp.

Indeed, we were grateful.

“If they had said “yes” there would have been no Munich, Peter Osgood may never have been a footballer, and Gianfranco Zola might never have been a crap manager for Watford and Birmingham City.”

“Blimey, that last bit didn’t pan out the way I was expecting” replied Andrew.

We laughed.

The chit chat continued.

“Another beer, lads?”

When Andrew had posted the obligatory “airport photo” on Facebook on leaving the US, alongside his passport and a pint of Peroni, there was a Chelsea badge styled on The Clash’s “London Calling” album cover. My great friend Daryl had produced these, so I introduced the two lads to each other.

“Chelsea World is a small world” part two hundred and fifty-seven.

I hinted to the lads that I had already come up with a title for the match blog.

“Remember when City started to threaten United and Alex Ferguson called them ‘the noisy neighbours’? – well, Fulham are far from noisy.”

It was a shame to leave the cosy confines of this great pub, but time was moving on and, at just past 1pm, so were we. Outside, the weather was murky. I had visions of being blown to bits on the walk across Putney Bridge, but the predicted high winds were still gathering elsewhere and the rain was only a slight hindrance.

On walking towards Craven Cottage – past the All Saints Church where we stood on Remembrance Sunday in November, past the Fulham Palace, and up into Bishop’s Park – I bumped into Kenny, who reminded me that I said that I would include him in the blog at Wembley, but then didn’t. This time, I am making amends for it, and as the date becomes closer, I will include Kenny’s sponsorship link for the London Marathon. I first met Kenny on tour in the US in DC in 2015, and he was also in Ann Arbor the following year. To say that he has lost some weight since 2016 would be a massive understatement. He deserves our support on 28 April. Watch this space.

In Bishop’s Park, we came across a selection of food stalls – some looked fantastic – and quite a few match-goers stopped to soak up some pre-match alcohol. Bizarrely, however, there were a few stalls that would not have looked out of place at a Farmers’ Market. One stall was selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

How Fulhamish.

We reached Stevenage Road at about 1.40pm and I had just enough time to take a few “mood shots” outside Craven Cottage. The red-bricked turnstiles, the rear of the cottage itself, the Johnny Haynes statue, the carved stone plaques, the black and white timber, the crowds rushing past, the match-day scene in all its glory. Craven Cottage rarely disappoints. The main stand on Stevenage Road – renamed the Johnny Haynes Stand after their most-loved player – is a Grade II listed building and is so protected from demolition. And it is a beauty. I have mentioned it before – and I mentioned it to Sean in the pub before the game, in a little segment devoted to the guru of stadium design Archibald Leitch – that the dimensions of Fulham’s oldest stand are exactly the same as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972. The two stadia in Fulham could not be more different, now nor in the past. Of course Craven Cottage is a gem, but part of the reason why the old Stamford Bridge was so loved by us Chelsea supporters was that it felt like a proper stadium, and to be blunt, there was so much of it. It was a rambling beast of a stadium with huge rolling banks of terracing, two forecourts, ranks of turnstiles, cobbled alleyways, ivy-covered offices, huge floodlight pylons, everything befitting the name “stadium.” Craven Cottage has always been slight. It has always been small. It has always only had that one stretch of entrances on Stevenage Road, that long expanse of warm red-brick.

On the old East Stand at Chelsea, the large painted letters “Chelsea Football Club” – in block capitals, mirrored on a wall of The Shed today – used to welcome all to Stamford Bridge and at the rear of the cottage to this day are the words “The Fulham Football Club” – in block capitals too. Like big brother, like little brother. Of course it is a cliché now that Fulham hate us but we are ambivalent to them. In fact, if pressed, most Chelsea have a soft-spot for Fulham, which infamously winds them up even more…bless ‘em.

There was the most minimal of security checks and I was in. Such is the benign nature of Fulham Football Club that home fans in the Riverside Stand use the same turnstiles as the away fans. And there is only one stadium in the realm of UEFA that has a designated “neutral zone”, a nod to Fulham’s non-segregation history of the Putney End.

And that is as Fulhamish as it gets.

I made my way to the back of the stand. I had swapped seats with PD as I had visions of my allotted place at the front being a tough place for cameras, and there was also a very strong threat of rain. Rain and cameras certainly do not mix. As it happened, I was in row ZZ, the very back row.

Row ZZ, but I am sure that I would not be tired of this game.

Fulham versus Chelsea, a very local affair, and a pretty friendly rivalry if truth be told.

“London Calling” boomed but it seemed odd that Joe Strummer’s most famous song was being used by Fulham. Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan and if Chelsea are The Clash, then Fulham are…well, Neil Sedaka.

“I live by the river.”

The teams walked out from beneath the cottage to my right, the red-bricked chimney pots of the terraced streets behind. I quickly checked the team that manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen. The big news; Kepa was back in. Again, OK with me, move on.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

The management team took their positions in the dug outs in front of the stand to my left. It was announced before Christmas that Fulham would at last move ahead on extending the Riverside Stand in May, thus increasing the capacity of their tidy stadium from 25,700 to 29,700, and opening up the rear of that stand so that there would, at last, be an unrestricted walk from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney Bridge. The images of the new stand looks sensational. During the game, there would be rolling adverts on the perimeter of the pitch for the boat race in April, with Craven Cottage a prime site to bring in some extra income.

I did not attend the game, but I can remember Paul Canoville scoring at Craven Cottage in 1983 on the same afternoon as the boat race. I bet the pubs in Fulham were a very odd mix of clientele that day.

Chelsea in all blue. Fulham in white and black.

I soon noticed that the Fulham support were brandishing those damned cardboard noisemakers.

File under “Fulhamish” once more.

With Tottenham and Arsenal eking out a draw at Wembley on the Saturday, here was a fantastic chance to tighten things at the top. A few weeks ago, we were all adamant that we would finish sixth. As Kepa walked towards us, he was loudly clapped, and he responded similarly.

“It’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

The game began.

Chelsea began well and were backed with some noisy and boisterous singing. The Putney End at Fulham goes back a surprisingly long way, and the last section consists of metal platforms which are extended past the natural bank of terracing below. It allows for a formidable bounce once the away stand gets going.

There was an early outing for the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant, but this sadly finished with more than a few adding the “Y” word at the end…maybe that battle is not yet won, after all.

Gonzalo Higuain was involved early, but dawdled with a chance in front of goal and took an extra touch. He then headed well wide. Down below us, a typically selfless block from Dave stifled a goal scoring chance for Fulham. We were on top, but only just. There was almost a calamity when Kepa rose for a ball, with the red-headed Ryan Babel bowed beneath him. He could only fumble and we watched with a degree of horror as the ball came free of his clutches and bounced. Thankfully, the former Liverpool player was oblivious to the loose ball, our ‘keeper quickly clutched the ball and the moment of panic had gone.

Just after, the move of the match thus far developed below us. Rudiger to Willian, then to Dave. He whipped in a low ball towards the near post. Higuain met the cross and dispatched the ball effortlessly past the Fulham ‘keeper Sergio Rico with one touch. He jumped high in front of the seated denizens of the Hammersmith End.

SW6 0 SW6 1

“One team in Fulham, there’s only one team in Fulham” sang the Chelsea hordes.

We were on our way. Or were we?

After only a few minutes, Fulham tested us. Mitrovic swung a left foot, swiveling, and forced a really excellent save from Kepa, but a corner thus followed. In front of the filigree of the balcony, the grey slate of the roof and the red brick of the chimney stacks of the cottage away to my right, the ball was played short and then long, very long. The cross found the unmarked Calum Chambers at the far post. His down and up shot bounced past Kepa and Fulham had equalised.

SW6 1 SW6 1.

The noisemakers were heard. Just.

“Where was the marking?” I screamed.

Two or three minutes later, Jorginho managed to win the ball and knocked it outside to the shuffling Eden Hazard. Jorginho had continued to support the attack and Hazard easily spotted him. Just like Higuain, he did not need more than one touch. I was right behind the course of the ball as it was slotted high into the net. It was almost too easy.

SW6 1 SW6 2.

I watched as the scorer raced over to celebrate with Emerson, and I am surprised that any photographs were not blurred, such was the bounce in the metal flooring below me.

“Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh” sang those to my right.

“You fickle bastards” I shouted.

Then, just after, a lovely chipped through-ball from Jorginho met the run of Higuain perfectly. The disappointingly wild shot – blasted over – from the striker could and should have made the ‘keeper work. Hazard then ran and shot right at the ‘keeper. Virtually the same move as our opening goal – almost identical – involving a pass from Willian, a low cross from Dave, enabled another first-time shot from Higuain but this time the Fulham ‘keeper scrambled low to his left to save.

At the break, I had memories of the 4-1 win at Craven Cottage in the early winter of 2004, when we – Alan, Gary, Daryl and I from the 2019 party – had met at the Duke’s Head and had witnessed one of the games of the season in Jose Mourinho’s first triumphant campaign at the helm. Would there be a similar score line this time around? I hoped so.

In truth, we struggled for most of the second period and even though we created a few half-chances, there was growing frustration in the Chelsea ranks as the game progressed. Eden struck another low shot at Rico. Willian went close at the near post. There was a strong penalty appeal down below us, but it was waved away. Azpilicueta held his head in his hands and squatted in an odd show of disbelief. I could hardly believe it as the referee Graham Scott repeated Dave’s actions in a clear case of Micky-taking.

“Never seen that before. What a twat of a referee.”

Willian went close but hit the side-netting. A ball was pumped across the face of the goal by Hazard – “too good” I complained to the bloke next to me – but there was nobody close to get a touch.

We found it difficult to create much more. If anything, Fulham finished the far stronger of the two teams. Mitrovic thumped one over and the noisemakers were called into use again.

Sarri rang the changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Pedro for Hazard.

Loftus-Cheek for Barkley.

All were surprising in their own way.

By now, the rain was falling in SW6 and the wind blew the rain in gusts. The River Thames was cutting up, visible in two slithers to my left. The rather odd corporate boxes at Fulham have been likened to large filing cabinets, and they inhibit the views of the outside environs at Craven Cottage. A few chimney pots and a few rooftops close by to my right, a tall block of flats further away. The river and some trees on the far bank to my left. The top floors of the Charing Cross Hospital above the roof of the Hammersmith End. Craven Cottage is hardly claustrophobic but there is not much to see of the outside world.

On the pitch we were, bluntly, holding on.

Kepa saved low from Cairney and then again from Bryan. The nerves were jangling in the Putney End.

With the clock ticking, we were chasing shadows as Ayite found Mitrovic with a quick cross. The strong striker’s instinctive header was met by a very impressive leap from Kepa and the ball was pushed away.

Fackinell.

I had memories of a late Fulham equaliser from Clint Dempsey in 2008. Remember that?

Fulham had thought that they had repeated this feat in the very last move of the match when their young starlet Ryan Sessegnon tucked the ball in, but I – and possibly three-thousand or more Chelsea supporters – saw the raised yellow flag of the linesman on the far side. The clacking noisemakers were soon silent.

With that, the final whistle.

Phew.

We met up outside the turnstiles on Stevenage Road.

“Made hard work of that, eh? I grumbled.

“Did we ever” replied PD.

The rain lashed against us on the walk back to the car. We walked silently through the park. I had the worst-ever post-game hot dog and onions. At last there was the comfort of my warm and dry car waiting for me on Felsham Road. We eventually made our way home. This game on the banks of the Thames will not live long in the memory. But at last we had two back-to-back victories. But, I have to say that Fulham look like they are down, though. And I think that is a shame. I love our little derby. I love a trip to the southern tip of the borough. I wonder who their next manager will be. He’s due to be appointed very soon.

Teddy Maybank, anybody?

On Thursday, we play Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League at Stamford Bridge.

See you there.

 

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From Via Del Governo Vecchio

Roma vs. Chelsea : 31 October 2017.

I will never forget my first visit to the Eternal City of Rome.

July 1986. My twenty-first summer. I was there for barely twenty-four hours but it left a lasting impression.

Hot on the heels of my month of Inter-Railing around Europe in 1985, I again chose to spend the summer of the following year along similar lines. Whereas my ’85 Grand Tour had concentrated on central Europe – from Marseille in the south to Stockholm in the north and with many places in between – the 1986 edition had a decidedly Mediterranean feel to it. My travels took me to France, Spain, Italy and the Greek island of Corfu. And, typically, football was never too far away. On my quick dip in to Spain for the very first time of my life, I visited Barcelona and I made a bee-line for Camp Nou. It was the undoubted highlight of my day in the city. On the same trip, I visited the San Siro in my few short hours in Milan and that stadium thrilled me too. However, as I took a train from Pisa to Rome, for once football was not wholly dominating my thoughts.

Rome. Just the thought of such an ancient and interesting city had my nerves jangling and my heart racing.

I had visited Italy in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980 and 1981 – all family holidays – and again in 1985, but this would be my first visit to the South of Italy. I can remember standing up in one of those old-style Italian train carriages with an aisle to one side and individual compartments, watching with increasing scrutiny at every passing sight on the way in to Rome and its marbled Termini station. The one thing that certainly sticks in my mind are those gorgeous and iconic pine trees which seem to flourish in the Rome hinterlands. I always used to think that they were olive trees, but the angled trunks and branches – seemingly altered by the wind, blown out of shape – and the floating canopy of leaves above are stone pines.

I arrived in Rome on a sunny afternoon. I deposited my ruck-sac at the train station and caught the subway down to The Colosseum. I was overwhelmed. It was, I suppose, the most famous stadium of them all. I had ticked off another one. From there, I embarked on a walking tour which saw me head past the ruins of the Roman Forum, the ostentatious Vittorio Emmanuelle monument, and then deeper in to the epicentre of the city – dusty, occasionally dirty, but deeply atmospheric – and over the deep gorge of the River Tiber and on to St. Peter’s Square and The Vatican, by which time the sun was setting and my desire for new sights and experiences had been fully satiated. That night, I slept rough in one of the waiting rooms at the train station alongside many other backpackers – I was on a typical shoestring budget – and as I awoke early the next morning, after a “wake-me-up wash” with cold water, I had one Roman sight remaining. Not The Pantheon. Not the Trevi Fountain. Not the Spanish Steps. Not Piazza del Popolo.

Yes, you have guessed it.

The Olympic Stadium.

I took a metro to the Vatican again, and chose to walk the two miles or so north to the stadium, thus saving money on buses. I recollect walking through the complex of buildings which were purposely constructed for the 1960 Olympics. I don’t remember seeing the infamous Mussolini obelisk on Foro Italico, but I certainly recall the heroic statues of ancient Romans which surrounded the practice running track adjacent to the main stadium. I was lucky enough to spot a chap who was working in the grounds of the stadium, and he allowed me up into the seating area. It will surprise nobody that I took a few photographs. The whole stadium was a lot shallower than today. There was a slight roof on the main Monte Mario stand opposite, which housed proper seats. Elsewhere were bench seats; a clean and cool light cream if memory serves, with curved terracing at both ends. The sun beat down. Everything was quiet. The games came racing back. Liverpool beating Borussia Moenchengladbach in the 1977 European Cup Final. The 1980 European Championships Final; West Germany defeating Belgium. I remembered the infamous Roma vs. Liverpool European Cup Final only two years previously. I let my imagination run away with me for a few moments. Soon, the chap was shouting for me to leave, but those fleeting glimpses inside the still bowl were wonderful.

There is always something about a dormant stadium.

With my visiting complete – more cultural sights would have to wait for further visits, of which there have been plenty – I returned to Termini and caught an early afternoon train to Brindisi and on to Corfu.

My first twenty-four hours in Rome were complete.

But Rome stirred me then, and I just knew that it would stir me in 2017 too.

I only managed two hours of sleep before I was awake for the drive to Stansted Airport in the very small hours of Monday morning. I collected PD at 3am and Parky at 3.30am. There was little traffic on our trip East. Buoyed by coffees, I was loving the excitement of yet another European Away. It would be PD’s first-ever trip abroad with Chelsea; it was long overdue. The first trip should have been way back in 1995 when I booked around twelve lads on a coach trip to Bruges for our ECWC game. Then, notoriously, England rioted in Dublin and the over-reaction went in to overdrive. Fear of any sort of repeat by Chelsea resulted in a lock-down of many travel itineraries and the independent travel company that I booked with pulled out of the trip, costing us all around £100 each. Having to make a number of telephone calls to my good mates in order to pass on the bad news was undoubtedly a low-point in my life as a Chelsea fan.

I managed to catch a little sleep on the Ryanair flight to Rome’s miniscule Ciampino airport. We landed at around 12.30pm. Outside, waiting for the transfer bus to take us in to the city, the sun played hide and seek with some dark clouds for a few minutes. A local wearing a Manchester United baseball cap collected our bus tickets (…insert cliché here).

At last, we were on our way into the city.

The ride in from Ciampino in the East was not the most grandiose of journeys. Down-at-heal local shops and markets. Sketchy apartment blocks daubed with graffiti. Slow-moving traffic. But then the welcoming stone pines. I smiled. We were deposited at Termini, and we immediately caught a cab to our apartment in the heart of the city. The route took us over Via Magenta which housed the hotel where we stayed for the Roma match in 2008, and also for the Napoli game in 2012, when we split our trip between the two cities. The cab took us very close to Via Gaetta, where my good pal Steve from Philadelphia stayed whilst an overseas student at the local university in the mid- ‘nineties and where one of his roommates would become his wife. I quickly texted him, and I sensed the yearning to be with us over the thousands of miles in his reply. The hotel where we stayed in 1999 for the Lazio game was just around the corner.

As we raced down the cobbled streets, memories continued to race through my mind. Halfway down Via Nazionale, I spotted the shop that a few of us raided in 2008 for a few items of Italian menswear – a couple of CP crisp cotton shirts for me, both of which, amazingly, I can still wear without buttons flipping off – at ridiculously cheap prices. I wasn’t so sure there would be a repeat this time around. The noise of the cab bouncing over cobbled streets and the ever-present screech of wailing police sirens created a familiar aural backdrop.  PD was laughing at the driving style of the cab driver; he was living up to the stereotype for sure. Down into Piazza Venezia, I spotted the bar where a few of us drank brandies in the dead of night before the Lazio game. On that occasion, after a night of alcohol abuse, we made our way home as dawn was breaking and I remembered one moment fondly. About six of us, walking up a slight incline, were bellowing out “Carefree” and the Roman walls were echoing to our tuneful wailing. We turned a corner, only to be met with two carabinieri sitting in their car. One of them just brought his finger to his pursed lips and pleaded for quiet.

“…sssssssssshhhhhhhhhhh.”

We were silenced.

Rather than get out of his car and start whacking us, we appreciated this approach.

We passed the staggering Vittorio Emmanuelle monument once again to our left, and I spotted the infamous balcony of the building to the right – now opened-up after decades of guilty closure – where Mussolini spoke to his followers. Then the roads narrowed as we approached the area around Piazza Navona. I was buzzing. I made a call to our host and Christina met us outside the huge wooden doors to our apartment on the intimate and paved Via Del Governo Vecchio. We made our way in. A towering courtyard met us. The place was an old palazzo. We were stunned. The boys thanked me for booking such a great residence. We were all buzzing.

From Frome to Rome.

We had arrived.

After a quick freshen-up, we were soon out and about. It had just turned 3pm. Just a few doors down, we enjoyed the first of many cold beers – Peronis were only 2.5 euros each – at a small and intimate bar called “La Prosciutteria Navona” and the friendly waitress soon served us up a mixed platter to share.

We piled into a lovely selection of cold meats, cheeses, olives, aubergines, courgettes, bread, tomatoes and fruit.

“La Dolce Vita” never tasted better.

It was a lovely afternoon. Perfect weather. The excitement for what lay ahead was palpable.

Our two pals Kevin and Richard – Chelsea and Hearts fans from Edinburgh – joined us. They had arrived on the Sunday and were enjoying their first visit to Rome. This was Rich’s first Chelsea European Away too. Their apartment was a ten-minute walk away, across the nearby Piazza Navona. We sauntered past a variety of bars and cafes on Via Del Governo Vecchio and chose a bar which served San Miguel on draft at 5 euros a pop as the narrow road opened up onto Piazza di Pasquino. My good pal Foxy – last featured in Tales From China – soon joined us. He had flown in from Amsterdam. We gulped down a few beers and then had a wander, our version of the famous Italian “passaggiata.” We were for ever on the lookout for local bars – and not Irish bars, thanks very much, screw that – where we could continue drinking at low prices. It was hit and miss. One bar close to the touristy Piazza Navona had the audacity to ask for 7.5 euros for the same small bottle of Peroni that we had enjoyed at the first bar.

Swerve.

We dipped into an internet café, and cheaper beers were quaffed.

Lastly, but by no means least, at around 6.30pm, Alan and Gary joined us. Their hotel was up near Termini. Like myself, both were lacking sleep, and Gal looked knackered. After a few crisp lagers, he soon perked up.

The eight of us then returned to the first bar – our “local” – and the drinking continued. I tasted a very nice lager from Sardinia – “Ichnusa” – for the first time. I toasted Gianfranco Zola. The laughs and banter increased as the evening turned to night. Not long into proceedings, Foxy remembered the famous European Cup semi-final between his team, Dundee United, and Roma back in 1984. Following on from their sole Scottish Championship win in 1983, which included ex-Chelsea players Eamonn Bannon and Ian Britton, Dundee United went on an amazing European run the following season. In the first-leg of the semi at Tannadice, United beat Roma 2-0. Sadly, for Foxy – and for me, I have a massive soft-spot for Dundee United; I blame the girl from Lochee that I met on holiday in Italy in 1979 – the return leg in Rome was lost 3-0 under deeply suspicious circumstances.

“I hate Roma” said Foxy, not once, but twice, but many times during the night.

That 1984 European Cup Final was so nearly Dundee United vs. Liverpool. Instead, Liverpool beat Roma in their home city on penalties, and the natives violently ambushed many of the visiting scallies after the game, providing part of the back-story for Heysel the following season.

It was 9pm. We moved on and enjoyed a meal a few doors down the street. We all commented that a fantastic pub crawl could take place within the seventy yards of Via Del Governo Vecchio alone. I wolfed down a pizza with gorgonzola, mozzarella and radicchio and then we hit the Limoncello.

Or, rather, the Limoncello hit us.

There had only been a little chat about the game throughout the night. We expected a tough old game for sure. On our previous visit, Roma had handed us a deserved 3-1 thumping. This would be Chelsea’s third tie against Roma; we played them in the 1965/66 season too and the game at the Olimpico saw Chelsea players tackled crudely by the Italian players on the pitch and bombarded with coins by the Roma fans off it.

The meal finished, we headed on to two more bars, the Limoncello chasing our Peronis and almost catching them up.

What a night. What a laugh.

Alan recorded a small clip of us all singing – too slowly, out of tune – a song for Antonio, and posted it on Facebook. I suspected my number of Facebook friends to plummet overnight.

In one of the bars – Café Bianco – I got chatting to two Juventus chaps, and one of them showed me a photograph on his phone of his friend Sergio Brio, who played in the very first Juve game that I saw in 1987. It was great to be able to converse, however slightly, with the locals.

After around nine hours of revelry, it was time to call it a night. We had not seen a single Chelsea fan on our travels around our little piece of Rome. But it had been a hugely pleasurable time.

Just the eight of us. Just enough.

“Friends. Romans.”

“Countrymen.”

Carry on, Chelsea.

On the day of the game, there was a leisurely start. We had a lovely breakfast at a quiet café a few doors down and then met up with Kev and Rich. We popped into a menswear shop on the walk to Piazza Venezia – lots of lovely Paul & Shark, but no purchases this year – and we then took a cab up to Via Cavour to collect our match tickets. The driver was a Napoli fan, he hated Roma, and he looked a bit of a loon. Without much of ado, the tickets were firmly in our mitts. For a few hours we based ourselves at a nearby bar, and were able to enjoy a few lunchtime drinks as the Chelsea fans headed down the steps to collect their tickets too. I lost count of the number of people we recognised.

A special mention for my mate Charles, who had flown in that morning from Dallas for a three day visit to Rome. He soon collected his match ticket, too, and joined us for a few beers. It was a very relaxing time. Over the course of the morning, we had heard how some Chelsea, including some that we knew, had been attacked during a cowardly attack at the nearby “Shamrock” Irish bar – please refer to my last comments about Irish bars – by around forty Roma ultras. This was typical of the locals. I can just imagine a few Roma fans driving around the city on their scooters, keeping a watching eye on all of the Irish pubs where English fans traditionally congregate in most foreign cities, and then reporting back. Thankfully, no Chelsea fans were injured, save for a few bumps and bruises. Apparently, some flares were thrown inside the pub, but the locals did not enter.

It did not help that the pink sports paper “La Gazzetta” had reported the day before that “two thousand hooligans” were on their way to Rome.

Two thousand?

Ridiculous.

We made our way to another bar, then met up with Mark, Les and Andy from the local towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham. Mark was one of the “Bruges 12” from 1995. It was especially good to see him. We then posed for photographs with The Colosseum looming in the background, mirroring photographs of myself in 1986 – with map in one hand and provisions for the evening in another – and Alan and myself in 2008.

There was time for a wandering walk back to our part of town, time for a meal – gnocchi with gorgonzola for me – and for some Peroni in frosted glasses. A quick change, then out for one or two beers at “the local.” We then caught two cabs up to the Villa Borghese where, as in 2008, we were told to assemble to catch the buses up to the stadium for our own safety. The city traffic was solid. PD and myself arrived just in time to hop on the same coach as Kev, Rich and Parky. Perfect timing. This contrasted heavily with 2008 when we were kept on the buses for an hour before setting off. It was around 7pm. We were given a police escort on the twenty-minute drive to the stadium. I remembered back to 2008; on the day of the game I did not see a single person wearing Roma gear until we reached the stadium. This time, I had only seen three or four. There was loud singing all of the way to the Olimpico on our bus. I hoped that it would continue at the stadium.

Our tickets were presented to the security along with our passports, with checks on both sides of the turnstiles. A quick frisk and we were in. Thankfully, my camera was waved through.

It was soon clear that the gate would be much bigger than the 35,038 at the 2008 match. Our away following that night was a paltry five hundred. The stadium was filling up all over, not just in the Curva Sud. I was of the opinion that 55,000 to 60,000 would be present. The Chelsea fans were in a thick wedge in the 5,700 capacity north-west distinti. The numbers of our tickets sold ranged from 1,750 to 2,500. It felt like around 2,250. A fair bit of noise before the game. Quite a few flags. I left my “VPN” in the apartment; I didn’t fancy it getting pulled for being too provocative, in Lazio sky blue too.

The team had been chosen. Sadly, Kante was not even on the bench. A big game for Hazard. A big game for Fabregas too, who had not played club football in Italy, despite advances from some of their top clubs. The returning player Rudiger was chosen to play to the left of Luiz and not Cahill. Dave was chosen to play as a wing back.

Courtois.

Cahill – Luiz – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

The stadium filled. I wondered if my guess was on the low side. We were treated to two Roma anthems; odd songs which reminded me of the days of variety from the years between the wars.

The Curva Sud was full. The flags were constantly waving. The rest of the stadium was all Limoncello yellow and Roma red.

We were ready.

Our end was looking pretty healthy. In 2008, we were allotted the whole section, but only filled thirty rows of a small section. This time, we reached from row 1 to row 75 in a broad wedge.

The teams, the flag, the anthems. The PA announced the first names of the Roma team, the fans roared their surnames.

The game began. Within twenty seconds, Pedro was sent through by Bakayoko, but finished weakly. Within as many seconds later, a cross from Kolarov down below us from deep on the Roma left was aimed at the head of Edin Dzeko, but the ball spun off him, right in to the path of El Shaarawy.

I feared danger. I was right.

The ball flashed past Courtois.

Just thirty-nine seconds had passed.

As the Roma players celebrated in front of us, the PA bloke pissed us all off.

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

I was reminded of the “Tomas – MULLER” bollocks in Munich.

Rather than quieten, our support responded ever so well. Alvaro Morata looked up for the fight early on. Eden Hazard broke, but dallied too long, and his weak shot was easily parried by Allison in the Roma goal.

Over in the adjoining Curva Nord, the Roma fans were having a dig at us.

“Chelsea, Chelsea – vaffanculo.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea – vaffanculo.”

Eden cut in from the left again, but his fine run ended with a weak shot right at the ‘keeper. It would be a familiar story throughout the first half. Pedro fed in that man Hazard, and another shot at the ‘keeper. All around me, the singing from the away supporters was fantastic.

One was the song of the night :

“Score, score, score, when you get one you’ll get more. We’ll sing you an assembly when we get to Wembley so come on you Chelsea and SCORE, SCORE, SCORE.”

I was proud as fuck.

Despite Roma not needing to go on the attack at will, we edged possession and kept testing their back line. Some fans around me were negativity personified, but not me. I kept urging the team on. We weren’t playing badly at all. Unbelievably, Morata blasted over from eight yards out after a clearance was charged down by Pedro and the ball fell at our Spaniard’s mercy.

We kept going.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

A rare attack from the home team followed. Courtois saved well from the danger man El Shaarawy after a rash challenge by Luiz set up Dzeko to play in his team mate.

Then, with our support still making tons of noise and with hopes of an equaliser, our hearts were broken. A ball pumped forward by Nainggolan was allowed to drop by Rudiger, who looked for all intense and purposes that he had got a call from Dave to leave the ball. In the confusion, El Shaarawy again pounced and clipped the ball past Courtois.

“Ah fuck it.”

Watching them celebrate in the same place was sickening. Our support immediately quietened.

A shot from Alonso was hit at Alisson. A familiar story. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. Bakayoko headed over from the corner.

Doom and gloom at the break. I certainly felt that we were well in it until the second goal, but held little hope of retrieving anything from the game.

Dzeko went close in the first few minutes of the second period.

Willian replaced Cahill and Pedro went to right wing back, with Dave pushed inside. A nice little move eventually found Morata – quiet after his initial burst – but he screwed it wide.

Just past the hour, we watched in horror as Cesc Fabregas lost possession on the halfway line and Kolarov played in Perotti. Nobody took responsibility and the Roma player ran and ran. He slammed a strong shot past Thibaut.

Roma 3 Chelsea 0.

Shades of 2008. The mood darkened. The mood darkened several shades further when we watched in absolute shock and horror as all three of our central defenders raced over to close down Dzeko on a raid from deep, leaving Perotti free on the other side of the box. We heaved a massive sigh of relief when he ballooned it over. But what shocking defending. This was turning in to a night of infamy.

“Infamy. Infamy.”

“They’ve all got it in for me.”

Danny Drinkwater came on for a very poor Fabregas. Michy came on for Morata. It was a lost cause. Only two stupendous saves from Thibaut stopped the result becoming a rout, the second an astounding point-blank block from Manolas. The game drifted away.

Only the amazing news from Madrid, where Qarabag held Atletico to a memorable 1-1 draw provided any sort of comfort. Out came an abacus and we soon calculated that if we get a win in Azerbaijan, we will qualify for the next stage. For all the talk of Antonio Conte being under pressure – totally unwarranted in my humble opinion – imagine the pressure that Diego Simeone is under. His Atletico team is without a win in four games in our group.

And, if nothing else, it means our trip to Baku will mean something; it always was a bloody long way to go for a nothing game.

We were kept in for an hour after the game. It was OK. We have known worse. It was ninety minutes in 2008. Our gallows humour kept us going. There was predictable mayhem getting on the buses which took us back to Piazza della Republicca.

In a small café on Piazza Venezia, we stopped for a couple more beers and a porchetta pannini.

We briefly talked about the game.

I spoke of the difficult task once we had gone 2-0 down, away to a fine team. It would always be difficult to bounce back from that.

PD, on his away debut, had me beaten all ends up –

“They did it to us.”

I sighed.

“Yep. You’re bloody right, mate.”

I was dazed and battle-fatigued. We spoke for a few more minutes about the current malaise, but soon concluded that with Kante back, our solidity should improve. The manager? I trust him without doubt. I am behind him 100%.

The bar was looking to close.

It was 1.30am and it was time to head off to bed.

On the Wednesday, we enjoyed a city-tour on a double-decked bus. There were blue skies overhead and the weather was fantastic. The defeat of the previous night hurt, of course, but we have seen worse. We met up with three good friends by the Colosseum; they had been in the pub that was attacked on the Monday night. One was bloodied on the night by a piece of glass. Like us, they were hurting from our defeat but were still smiling.

What a carry on.

A cab, a bus and a plane took us back to England.

It had been a fine trip to Italy once more, but I realised that after six visits to my favourite European country with Chelsea, I was yet to see us win. Four losses and two draws. Maybe I shouldn’t go next time?

No, I’ll keep going.

I’ll carry on, regardless.

We landed at a cold Stansted an hour late at 7.30pm with a heavy old bump. I reached home at about 11.30pm.

On Sunday, we are back to basics and back to our bread and butter.

Chelsea host Manchester United.

See you there.

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Tales From Tyne And Wear

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 7 May 2016.

The four of us were in town. I had traveled up from the West of England with PD and Parky. Kev had traveled down by train from Edinburgh. The plan was to enjoy a little pub crawl in Newcastle, where we would be staying that night, before heading off by metro to the game in Sunderland. First up – my choice – was “The Strawberry” right outside the Gallowgate End at St. James’ Park. Away fans rarely get a look in on match days, hence my desire to visit it on this particular day. What a fantastic pub; small and cosy, with Newcastle United photographs and memorabilia on every wall. We continued our little trip, heading down the hill towards the station, and called into “Rosie’s Bar” and then “The Mile Castle.”

We bumped into a few Chelsea fans at the train station, then grew frustrated as our journey was delayed by a slow-moving train.

“Don’t think we’ll make the kick-off, boys.”

The walk from the Stadium of Light metro station to the ground took around ten minutes. We found ourselves walking through the alleyways between red-bricked terraced streets. The white steel supports of the Stadium of Light were shrouded in mist. It might have been May, but it seemed like the month of November. There was no time to waste. We could hear the crowd’s muffled sounds from inside the stadium’s white casing. Deep inside there was a voice begging Chelsea not to score until we were in. It was a deep irony that even though I had been awake before the alarm at 3.40am, I would still miss the bloody kick-off. The eight or ten flights of stairs were eventually navigated and – deep breaths – we were in. I glanced up a TV screen inside the concourse. We had missed just eight minutes.

Phew.

I am a very rare visitor to Sunderland. I never ever made it to Roker Park. This would only be my third visit to the Stadium of Light. My first visit was in 1999, when a Kevin Phillips hat-trick helped inflict a 4-1 defeat on the boys. In 2009, the last game of the season, we won 3-2 in a game which brought me a fair bit of pride at the time; it marked the first time that I had watched all thirty-eight league games, home and away, the full set. On that day, while we were battling Sunderland, their fierce local rivals Newcastle United were losing at Aston Villa, a result which relegated the Geordies. I can well remember the home fans booming with joy when they heard the Newcastle result. Damian Duff, if I am not mistaken, assisted in the loss, scoring an own goal.

In 2016, seven years on, fate had transpired to replicate the set of fixtures.

Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea.

The joke during the week had been that Chelsea would win at Sunderland, Newcastle would win at Villa – of course – and we would get back to a jubilant Newcastle town centre, where friendly locals would buy us drinks all night.

That was the idea.

Before these two twin games, we heard that Norwich City – the other protagonists attempting to avoid the relegation trap door – had narrowly lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United. I wasn’t exactly sure of how that left things. At one stage it appeared that our weekend on Tyne and Wear might well be a “so long farewell” to the region’s two teams. Now, with Norwich looking unlikely to avoid the drop, the script had further changed.

I shuffled along the row to stand beside Alan and Gary, with Parky soon joining me. Our away end seemed pretty full. It was a good showing. In the previous two visits, the away section was in the southern end; the single tier. In 1999, to the left, in 2009, to the right. Since then, shades of St. James’ Park, the away crowd has been banished to an upper tier, behind the goal to the north. It was a fine view to be fair. The crowd was virtually a sell-out. A few pockets of empty seats around and about, but a good show by the locals.

Sunderland in their famous red and white stripes, black shorts and black socks.

Chelsea – keeping it simple – in the traditional blue, blue, white.

Time to quickly scan the starting eleven.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana – Matic, Mikel – Willian, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

In 2014/2015, this would have been regarded as our strongest starting eleven. This season, we have been wondering why the same eleven have rarely showed up en masse. What a year it has been.

Just as I was settling, getting my bearings, warming up my vocal chords, we pushed deep in to the Sunderland box, and Diego Costa picked up a loose ball down below us. An instinctive shot at goal – one touch – had Mannone beaten. As easy as that, we were 1-0 up.

Alan : “They’ll have to came at wo’now, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

How nice of the boys to wait until we had settled in before scoring.

The game opened up a little, with Chelsea in the ascendancy, but there were a number of half-chances for both teams. Ivanovic zipped a low cross right the way past the goal, but there was no Chelsea body close enough to convert. Down at the far end, the Chelsea defence was well-marshaled by John Terry, and Courtois was able to gather any high balls lofted towards him.

However, a free-kick was not sufficiently cleared, and it fell to USPA (Unknown Sunderland Player A). Although a long way out, USPA steadied himself, and took a swipe at the ball. We watched mesmerised as the ball flew into the Chelsea goal.

Bloody hell. What a goal. I didn’t applaud it, but I felt like doing so.

“Cracking goal. The way he kept it down.”

It brought me no satisfaction to see USPA – Wahbi Khazri, I think I prefer USPA – celebrate with the home fans, who hadn’t been as loud as I had expected until then. It ignited them, but we were soon back on top. Just a few minutes later – deep in to injury time in fact – Sunderland’s defenders were at sixes and sevens, allowing Dave to set up Matic. He had not had a great first-half, in the same way that he has not had a great season, so it was odd to see him calmly advance and slot home. We celebrated wildly, while he was mobbed by his team mates below us.

Phew. We rode our luck a bit, but in we went at the break.

2-1 up.

Those free drinks back in The Toon were on my mind.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, it was 0-0 at Villa Park.

We began the second-half in relatively fine fettle. We dominated possession, and looked at ease. However, time and time again, we seemed intent on taking one extra touch, and one extra touch especially in front of goal. We were getting behind the Sunderland defensive line, and creating a few chances. Hazard seemed to be full of tricks, and set up Diego Costa, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Another lovely move, reminiscent of our play from last season, involving Hazard and Fabregas, and then Diego Costa, had us all on our feet, expecting a goal.

It went something like this.

Eden Hazard.

Pass.

Cesc Fabregas.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Pass.

Diego Costa.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Shot.

Smothered by Mannone.

“Bollocks.”

Although I was stood in the first half, now I was sat, resting my feet. It had been a long old day. I had already been awake for more than twelve hours. I was awake before the alarm sounded, and awake even before the dawn chorus. Our early-morning flight from Bristol to Newcastle seemed ages ago. Our singing wasn’t great as the game went on. There was one song which dominated, and – if I am honest – it is starting to annoy me a little.

Frank Lampard. Two hundred. West Ham United.

Sunderland weren’t giving up, and they grew stronger. I noticed that Branislav Ivanovic was on the floor on the half-way line, and it was easy to spot that a few Chelsea players were distracted. As the move developed I sensed fear. Patrick Van Aanholt – when he first broke in to our team, I rated him more than Ryan Bertrand – was able to pull the ball back for Fabio Borini – another former Chelsea player – to strike. Courtois, not exactly flavour of the month in the away section, seemed to react slowly, and the ball half-heartedly, apologetically, squeezed past his late dive.

2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Hiddink replaced Ivanovic with Baba Rahman, with Azpilicueta switching to right back.

Within a few seconds, we were all regretting the substitution. A rash, poorly-timed challenge by Baba, set USPB – DeAndre Yedlin –  up to cross from the right. We again sensed fear. A deflection set the ball up perfectly for Jermaine Defoe to smack home.

The Stadium of Light boomed. I watched as the folks sitting in the front row of the main stand to my right– plus those on the Sunderland bench – jumped to their feet and raced a few yards ahead, energised and electrified. I knew how they felt. On Monday, we had felt the same against Tottenham.

Hiddink replaced a very quiet Willian with Oscar, and Mikel with Traore. We still kept pressing, but a goal never ever seemed likely. Baba continued to make hopeless, ill-timed challenges. I want him to do well, but he looks so green it hurts. Our play stalled. We lost all drive. The mood among the away support was deteriorating with every minute. Bloody hell, Chelsea.

Things would get worse still.

I had missed Gary Cahill’s booking in the first minute.

I witnessed John Terry’s booking on the eighty-seventh minute.

As yet another Chelsea attack looked like petering out, the ball was cleared and was bouncing in no man’s land on the halfway line. I saw John Terry racing towards the ball, along with Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson. My thoughts were this :

“Good on you John. At least you care. Good to see you trying your damnedest to keep the ball alive, to keep the ball in our possession, go on my son!”

Both players leapt for the ball, both legs were high. My honest appraisal at the time was this :

“50/50 ball. Maybe our free-kick.”

Both players stayed on the floor.

My next thought.

“Not like JT to stay down. God, hope his Chelsea career hasn’t ended right there.”

I then saw referee Mike Jones brandishing a yellow card at John Terry, scrambling to his feet, and then – the enormity of it all – a red card.”

Oh no.

Thoughts whizzed through my head.

There had been no news about a contract extension over the past few months. The silence had been deafening. No news from the club. No news from Antonio Conte. No hint of another year. Silence. Damned silence.

A red card. A two game ban?

That’s it.

We had – surely – just witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for Chelsea Football Club.

I watched through my telephoto lens as he walked, stony-faced, past Hiddink and down the tunnel.

Photograph one.

Photograph two.

No more.

No more John Terry.

My heart sank.

The game ran its course. It was a horrible loss. After the euphoria of the draw against Tottenham on Monday – football at its best, Chelsea at our best – we stood disbelieving at the lack-lustre show from the team in the second-half. Outside, with the wind bitterly biting at us from all directions, we met up, and began a slow march in to Sunderland town centre. Alan and Gary were due to catch the subsidized Chelsea special back to London at 6.45pm, so we decided to share a couple of pints with them in a central pub. Sunderland fans, of course, were boiling over with joy. We edged past the lovely statue of Bob Stokoe – Wembley 1973 – and then out on to the main road. The bridge over the River Wear, a poor man’s version of the grander one over the Tyne, was shrouded in mist. Whereas Newcastle is a grand city in every sense of the word – architecturally pleasing, an iconic and photogenic setting on that deep gorge, with fine shopping, nightlife, attractions – Sunderland pales by comparison. Its town centre resembles a ghost town. It is no wonder Geordies look down their collective civic noses at their near neighbours.

Inside “The William Jameson”, we raised pints to John Terry.

Reports came through of him throwing his armband down, of a two game ban, of this being his last game.

How typical of this mess of a season. It was the perfect metaphor for the campaign. And how typical for John Terry too. Undoubtedly he has enjoyed a wonderful career at Chelsea; a fantastic leader, a respected captain, and well honoured in his time at Stamford Bridge. And yet. And yet. John missed our most famous game – Munich 2012 – due to an indiscretion in Camp Nou. He missed the Europa League Final too. His most famous moment, in some circles, was the infamous slip in Moscow. It has not been a career without blemishes. There have been indiscretions. And how typical, how Terryesque, that his Chelsea career would end with a sending off. There would not even be a grand finale at Stamford Bridge against Leicester City.

Bloody hell.

Newcastle had only managed a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. Sunderland were now in the ascendency. A win for them against Everton on Wednesday would keep them up.

All of a sudden, I wanted the season to end. The trip to Anfield on Wednesday hardly enthused me; it would surely prove to be one of the least anticipated trips with Chelsea for ages. There would be the bittersweet last game of the season against the new champions, but I was ready for the summer.

We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed back in to Newcastle. There were laughs on the return journey, and the four of us were soon enjoying pints in a number of town centre pubs. Newcastle is such a fantastic city that our poor loss against Sunderland soon drifted away from our collective thoughts. “The Bridge Hotel” overlooking the river, and live action on the TV of Leicester City’s celebrations. “Akenside Traders” and an ‘eighties sing-song, and some Burnley fans celebrating a promotion. A quiet pint in the “Pitcher & Piano” overlooking the floodlit Millennium Bridge. Then up in to town and yet more drinks at “Sam Jack’s” and laughs with a few Chelsea fans out on the town. Then down to “The Rose & Crown”, with a karaoke, and a chat with a Leicester City fan – so happy – and a Brighton fan – so low after only a draw at ‘Boro. The lagers gave way to gin and tonics. Our chats became blurred. After a day in Tyne and Wear, we were getting a little tired and weary. The night continued but there were no free drinks for us Chelsea fans this time. In fact, I think I bought the Leicester City fan a drink, but it’s all a bit hazy.

Ah, the madness of a night on the toon.

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Tales From Hertfordshire

Watford vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2016.

We were parked up at just before 6pm. There was a chill to the air and I was expecting the night to get colder still. The pedestrianised Watford High Street was eerily quiet, and the many large pubs which lined the wide street seemed to be largely devoid of punters. On Facebook, it seemed that the Chelsea faithful were located in just two pubs; “The Flag” near the town’s train station, and the central “Moon Under Water.” We aimed for the latter.

It was full of Chelsea. On walking to the packed bar, I was able to spot many friends and acquaintances. Pints in hand, Parky, PD and I headed over to meet up with the other members of the Away Club. The ever-present Alan and Gary were joined by Dave, back visiting us again from his home in the South of France. Beers were sunk, stories told, plans were forged for upcoming games.

I chatted to Noel, who lives so close to Milton Keynes Dons’ stadium that he was able to walk to and from the game on Sunday. I’ve only ever been able to do that once in my life, back in 1985, when I lived ten minutes away from Stoke City’s old ground. We both agreed that it is a very strange sensation.

“All these Chelsea fans were in my local, I couldn’t get to the bar.”

Noel’s “Bletchley Blues” flag is seen everywhere. I can even remember photographing it in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

The pub did house a few odd looking locals, but Chelsea were in the ascendency. A few songs rung out.

The furore following John Terry’s frankly surprising statement, seemingly unprovoked, about the club’s reluctance to offer him a deal for 2016/2017 has obviously been one of the hot talking points since Sunday. We briefly touched on it. Was it a bargaining tool for John Terry to shame the club in to action, or just the stark admittance that this was the beginning of the end for him in Chelsea colours? A few of us thought that Terry, in the interests of team harmony, should have kept quiet. The last thing that the team wants is a John Terry sideshow between now and May. Of course, the crux of the matter is that on form and leadership alone, he should be offered a new deal. Replacing him, our heartbeat since 2004, will be almost impossible. However, it is everything else that is murky and unclear. His motives. His character. His misdemeanours. Not everything is black and white. Nor blue and white. Let us not forget how he was sorely tempted to become a Manchester City player in the summer of 2009. John Terry has always been a surprisingly complex character for someone who is, on the surface, a fundamentally old-fashioned blocker and tackler and an unreconstructed leader of men. I have a feeling that this story will run for a while yet.

However, if this is his last few months as a Chelsea player, the difference between his send-off and that of Frank Lampard’s could not be more marked.

Thankfully, Watford’s Vicarage Road is only a twenty minute walk away from the town centre. The difference in the feel to the surroundings between our last game, in Buckinghamshire, and this one, in neighbouring Hertfordshire – just thirty miles away as the crow flies – could not be greater. On Sunday afternoon, there were wide roads, a modern stadium, purpose built restaurants, wide open spaces. On this Wednesday evening, there were narrow terraced streets, with a stadium nestled in among the fabric of a town, with hardly an inch to spare.

But I enjoyed the contrast.

Dave and I laughed at the ridiculously long lines at each and every fish and chip shop en route to the stadium.

“Oh, they love their battered haddock in deepest Watford.”

We were soon outside the away entrance, which had evidently had a lick of paint since my last visit in 2009. The whole place looked a lot smarter. There were more familiar faces everywhere I looked. The concourse inside the away stand was still ridiculously cramped, but that had been freshened up too. I suppose Vicarage Road is like a smaller version of Selhurst Park, cramped and intimate, with the turnstiles at street level high above the pitch below, in some sort of natural dip in the land. Vicarage Road holds just over 20,000 now, and is a neat enough stadium. The three rather odd structures to the left of the away end were demolished and replaced by a new structure in 2014.

It is named after Watford’s former chairman and most famous fan Sir Elton John.

Along the black rear wall, running the entire length of the stand, there are words to one of Reg Dwight’s most famous songs.

“You can tell everybody this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it’s done. I hope you don’t mind. I hope you don’t mind. That I put down in words. How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

It is not known if Watford thought about stenciling in “Saturday night’s alright for fighting” above the away seats.

There were plenty of moans from myself and others regarding our seats. There are around seven hundred people in Chelsea’s away season ticket scheme, of which Parky, Alan, Gary and I are all members. This is my tenth such season. In our annual application process, we indicate to Chelsea whether or not we would prefer seats in the front, rear or middle of the respective away allocations. Generally, we get our seats in the desired area; the middle. On this occasion, not only were we around eight rows from the front, but we were way beyond the touchline in the bottom corner. What a bloody joke.

Oh well, at least I’d get a good view of Willian hitting the defender on the near post at every corner.

As the teams entered the pitch, the opposite end, the home Rookery Stand, was awash with yellow and black flags. I presume this is a Watford “thing” insomuch that fans are encouraged to bring them to games, rather than Watford giving them out for free at each home game. Watford seem to have jettisoned the colour red in their kit these days, which is a bit odd since over half the seats at Vicarage Road are coloured red.

There was surprisingly no place for Eden Hazard.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Willian, Fabregas, Oscar – Diego Costa.

Although we looked comfortable on the ball in the opening moments, chances were not forthcoming. We moved the ball around, but Watford were proving to be a tough nut to crack. Like so many teams these days, they were working hard for each other, and tackling hard. Watford suddenly looked the more likely to score, with several good passages of play, and our defenders looked nervous and edgy, with the twin threat of Ighalo and Deeney causing us concern. From such close quarters, I was impressed with how John Terry is able to twist and move to block his attacker. Only rarely was he embarrassed on the floor.

We were drifting, though, with no real urgency in anyone’s play. Courtois did well to keep out a strong header from Prodl and then saved again from Capoue. The mood inside the away end, or at least the bottom corner, was of growing concern. It seemed to some that it would be a case of damage limitation from Hiddink.

Then, our best chance. The ball was played up to a snarling Diego Costa, who controlled the ball well, and sun away, in that devilish way of his, before dragging a low shot wide.

This seemed to inspire the Chelsea faithful. And although, there was noticeable support for John Terry from within our ranks, we chose to sing a song in praise of our other modern day legend as the first-half drew to a close. For many a minute, we sang and sang and sang.

“Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

[PAUSE]

Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred against the Pikeys.”

At half-time, my phone quickly alerted me to the fact that Frank, watching in New York City, had commented on social media about this, thanking us for the support. I was also informed that one of the 2,200 had been texting Frank throughout the chanting too.

At times like that, it really does seem that we are all in it together.

I noted an immediate increase in intensity in our play in the second-half. Apart from a fine block tackle, Fabregas had been largely missing in the first period. However, he set up Oscar, whose shot was saved. Mikel thundered in from the rebound but his shot was blocked too. Watford countered with a couple of attacks, but I wondered where a goal was coming from. I kept thinking of a last minute Salomon Kalou winner in 2007. I wondered if we would have to wait as long as that.

I was very frustrated when Diego Costa broke down the left, but only Oscar was in a dangerous position. Many yards behind, three midfielders were hardly busting a gut to join the attack. It seemed to be a perfect metaphor for the evening.

The frustration grew.

Watford’s home support was pretty tame.

“Watford FC” soon segued in to “Fuck PSG.”

Oscar shot wide from a Costa pass. A clean strike from the otherwise unimpressive Matic was hit straight at Gomes. Another shot from Oscar. Our chances were slowly piling up, but nobody seemed to be too impressed.

Watford’s players were wilting at the merest hint of a challenge from the Chelsea players. Alan was not impressed.

“You lot go down quicker than Elton John’s chauffeur.”

With twenty minutes to go, at last a substitution, with Eden Hazard replacing Matic. A lovely passing move ended up with a firm strike from Ivanovic testing Gomes, who saved well. Then, we had a great view of Willian teasing his marker, and getting an extra yard to play in Hazard, but his touch was heavy and the chance passed us by.

Then, with time marching on, the best chance of the entire game. John Terry ran at the defence – memories of a winner at Burnley just after the Vanessa Perroncel story broke, could he do it again? – but rather than shoot, he passed to Hazard. His cross was met well by Diego Costa. His header appeared destined to make the net ripple. Memories of Salomon Kalou in 2007. We gulped, we stretched on our tiptoes. Gomes clawed it away.

“What a save. Fackinell.”

And it was. It was a stunning save.

I turned in disbelief.

Ugh.

The game offered no more chances, no more drama. It was an off night for us. Many had felt unfulfilled. For large parts of the game, I suspect that many had hoped for a little bout of narcolepsy to kick in. It hadn’t been exciting. It was a disappointing let down.

“Three points tonight would have got us up to eleventh. Bollocks.”

There was quite a wait for us in the lower section of the away end. With only a very small exit, it took ages for the 2,200 away fans to disperse. Parky and I soon met up with PD, and we then joined the thousands heading back in to town. It seemed everyone was making the same trip, through the tight terraced streets, with cars squeezed together on the pavements, and past several fish and chip shops, fried chicken shops, many Indian restaurants, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and pubs. Everything for a night out, it seemed. There was even a seedy sauna. In fact, just before we were back on the High Street, there was a Gentlemen’s Club called “Diamonds And Strings”, with several girls poised outside. As the three of us brushed past, one thrust a flier into my hand, advertising a Wednesday event called “Fantasy Night.”

Fantasy night?

“How about Chelsea finishing in the top half of the table this season?”

That’ll do me. Where do I sign up? How much to get in? How much will that cost?

In PD’s car, there was the briefest of summaries of the players’ performances.

“I think Mikel was as good as any to be honest. Zouma and Terry solid, Dave too. Ivanovic a little bit off tonight. Courtois didn’t have much to do. Fabregas bloody rubbish. Matic too slow. Willian off the pace a bit. Diego Costa tried his best to be fair. Oscar OK. Played better when Hazard came on.”

Just as PD made had made great time on the drive up to Watford – barely over two hours covered the 111 miles from a pub car park outside Melksham to a car park just north of the Watford High Street – he did even better on the return drive. I was home by 12.30am.

It hadn’t been the best of evenings following the team, but it never feels like a waste of time nor money. If or when it does, a part of me will be lost forever.

Manchester United at home on Sunday.

See you there.

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Tales From 2015/2016

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

What were my expectations for this game? It would be easy to simply say “a win.” But in this most ridiculous of football seasons, where north is south and where black is white, it seems that I am constantly having to re-calibrate my hopes on a match by match basis. Here was another game that illustrated how this campaign has been turned 180 degrees. Watford, newly arrived in the top flight after an eight year hiatus and with a new manager to boot, were enjoying a recent burst in form, taking them up to the heady heights of seventh place in the table.

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

Up is down. Big is small. Wet is dry. Bill Gates is Apple. Coke is blue. Puma has three stripes. The Confederates are from the North. The Pope is agnostic. A bear shits in a bathroom.

It is as difficult to unravel as an Agatha Christie whodunit with half the pages missing.

I had traveled up to London on a very mild but also a very grey and nondescript Boxing Day morning with Lord Parky and P-Diddy. My Christmas Day had come and gone with little cheer. Having lost my mother in February, the first Christmas without her warm smile was always going to be a tough one. My Christmas Day was somewhat of an emotional wasteland for me. As I drove towards London, its grey shadow lingered long in my thoughts. To be honest, I was struggling to conjure up too much enthusiasm for the game at Stamford Bridge against Watford. My thoughts were more focused on Monday’s away game at Old Trafford – always one of “the” trips each season – what with the current malaise affecting that particular club too. Add all of the conjecture about Mourinho joining United in to the mix, and you have a highly intriguing scenario.

Monday will be a cracking day out.

Prior to the game with Watford, I spent a couple of hours in the company of Peter, a pal now living in the United States. I last met him on his own turf, in Washington DC, for the game with Barcelona during the summer. We were joined by two Stamford Bridge game day virgins Chris and Kate – also from the US – all giddy with excitement about seeing the boys in the flesh in SW6 for the first time. I gave them a few insights into our club as we set off to meet up with the usual suspects in The Goose.

The pub seemed quieter than usual. As soon as we had settled, there was a roar as Stoke City went a goal up against Manchester United. A second soon followed. After United’s poor run of form, a trip to the Potteries is the last place that they would have wanted to visit. The stakes for Monday were raised further.

I met up with Jeff from Texas, who had just flown in that very morning. It was lovely to see him again. This was a similar scenario to our game at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day in 2008 when Jeff and two friends had driven straight from Heathrow to Birmingham. This time, Jeff was with his wife, another Stamford Bridge game day virgin. In order to save money for this trip, Jeff – who is a school teacher – took on a second job throughout the summer, mowing lawns, possibly with a dog called spot. I heartily approved of this. It annoys me at times how so many of our US fans moan about not being able to travel to England to see us play – hell, some even moan about Chelsea not playing in their part of the country during US pre-season tours – so “fair play” to Jeff for working a second job to see us in England. It immediately reminded me of the story that my good friend Andy told about his schooldays. Andy would often go without school meals during the week in order to save money for the train fare down to London from his Midlands home to see Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge.

Top work from Andy in 1979 and top work from Jeff in 2015.

Outside the West Stand, and underneath Peter Osgood’s boots, I met up with three or four more acquaintances from the US, those that I have befriended through Facebook or met on pre-season tours, but these were only part of a bigger “Chelsea In America” ensemble – those who have been saving their lunch money over the past few years – and I was very happy to take a group photo of them all. There were a good few Stamford Bridge virgins among this little group too, although some were on a repeat visit.

Peter, Chris, Kate, Su, Tim and Dan posed with Howard, Marion, Ralph, Richie, Arnold, Al, Fonzie, Joanie, Chachi, Potsie and Pinkie. Laverne and Shirley were still in the pub.

Happy days.

After taking the photo, I repeated something that I always say to first-time visitors –

“And if we lose today, you’re not fucking coming back.”

Some would be at Old Trafford on Monday too, the lucky bleeders.

Inside Stamford Bridge – I was in early – both sets of players were going through their re-match drills. Unsurprisingly, Watford brought their full three thousand.

Neil Barnett introduced Guus Hiddink to the Stamford Bridge crowd and he drew a fine reception. Hiddink seems a good man, a steadying influence after the storm which accompanied Mourinho’s closing months, and if memory serves he was well-liked by all of the players during his tenure in 2008/2009.

I whispered to Alan : “When we sang ‘we want you to stay’ to Guus at Wembley in 2009, who would honestly have thought that we would be welcoming him back almost seven years later. And that he would be replacing Mourinho.”

The team was virtually unchanged from the win against that very poor Sunderland team. Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma.

Chelsea dominated the first quarter of an hour with the opposition, in all black, hardly crossing the halfway line. An early chance for Diego Costa from inside the six yard box was headed over. I wondered if the watching guests from the US – in the Shed Lower, Parkyville – would be rewarded with a first-half goal. We came close with a couple of efforts and the mood inside The Bridge was good, although the atmosphere was not great. Watford then seemed to awake from their slumber. They perhaps subconsciously remembered that they were, statistically, the better team. They came to life with Ighalo looking dangerous on two occasions.

Watford, famously sticking two fingers to the football world, and playing a traditional 4-4-2, had originally seemed content to hump long balls forward towards Ighalo and Deeney. It had been a nod towards their own particular footballing heritage under Graham Taylor in the ‘eighties when their rudimentary long ball game was a particular component of that footballing era. In those days, the two strikers were Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett. Even in the more traditional ‘eighties – before we had heard of “false nines”, “double pivots”, “transition phases”, “attacking mids” and “tiki taka” – Watford’s style of play was the most basic of all. I always thought that it contrasted, ironically, so well with the more pleasing football played by their great rivals Luton Town under David Pleat. Both teams romped to promotion from the Second Division in 1981/1982, when we were still trying to harness the very unique talents of Alan Mayes in our own 4-4-2 variant.

Watford were indeed posing us problems, and our midfield – Fabregas in particular – was finding it hard to shackle their movement. However, rather against the run of play, a corner from in front of the US guests found the high leap of John Terry at the far post. The ball bounced down, not specifically goal wards, but towards where Diego Costa was lurking. A quick instinctive spin and the orange ball flew high in to the net past Gomez.

The crowd roared as Diego reeled away, accepting the acclaim from the crowd, and especially those in Parkyville. Throughout the game, there had been no significant boos for any player to be honest. Perhaps there was just the slightest murmurs of disdain for Costa when the teams were announced. But nothing on the scale of the previous game, which the media took great pleasure in highlighting. Maybe the protest at the Sunderland match was well and truly behind us now. I am pleased, if this is the case. Under Hiddink, we need to move on.

Oscar came close, but then Watford attacked us again. A free-kick was deflected over and from the resultant corner, Matic was correctly adjudged to have hand-balled inside the box. Deeney converted, low past Courtois.

“Here we go again.”

Just before the half-time whistle, a fine run by Pedro down the Chelsea left was followed by a low cross which just evaded the late run of Diego Costa.

It had been a frustrating half. Our early dominance had subsided and we were back to questioning various aspects of our play.

There was a surprising substitution at the break, with Hiddink replacing the admittedly lackluster (aka “shite”) Fabregas with none other than Jon Obi Mikel.

Soon into the second period, Watford peppered our goal with two shots in quick succession. Capoue was foiled by Courtois and then a follow-up was bravely blocked. I thought to myself “under Mourinho, one of those would have gone in.” Sadly, just after I was to rue my thoughts. The ball found Ighalo on the left, but hardly in a particularly dangerous position. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he had decided to shoot. I looked on in horror as his shot deflected off a defender and into the empty net, with Courtois off balance and falling to his left.

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

To be fair, we upped our play and began to look livelier. A key move began in inauspicious circumstances, though. Watford played a long ball out to their left and Ivanovic had appeared to have lost his man. However, with grim determination and resilience – the Brana of old – he recovered remarkably well. A sturdy tackle halted the Watford attack. Brana played the ball simply to Oscar. Oscar passed to Willian. Our little Brazilian livewire played – probably – the pass of the season into the box, and into the path of Diego Costa, who was thankfully central. He met the ball and adeptly cut it past the despairing dive of Gomez.

2-2.

The crowd roared again. Diego Costa ran towards the sidelines. My photographs captured the joy on the faces of the fans in the East Lower, but also the look of – what? Disdain? Annoyance? Umbrage? – on Costa’s face as he turned towards the Matthew Harding and remembered the boos against Sunderland.

Regardless of the politics of booing, we were back in the game.

After capturing both of Diego’s goals on film, I clasped my camera and wondered if I might be able to photograph a possible third.

We went close on a couple of occasions, and it honestly felt as if a winner was on the cards. Watford were offering little now. It was all Chelsea. Hiddink brought on Hazard for Pedro. Thankfully there were no boos. We need to move on. Dancing and moving in that mesmeric way of his, Hazard soon got the bit between his teeth with a couple of dribbles down below me. He was clattered by Behrami, and referee Marriner quickly pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

Alas, Oscar decided to take the kick and his dramatic slip resulted in the ball being ballooned high over the Watford bar.

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

Then it was Watford’s turn to go close at the other end. It was a pulsating game of football, if not the most technically brilliant. Apilicueta was maliciously scythed down but the Watford miscreant was not red carded. Then, so stupid, a wild tackle by Diego Costa – also on the half way line – resulted in a yellow. I half-expected a red. It would mean that Costa would not be joining us at Old Trafford on Monday. It undoubtedly took the shine off a much better performance from Diego Costa, who was back to – almost – his best. Mikel, by the way, was exceptional in the second-half. It was his shot, late on and from a good thirty yards out, which whizzed past Watford’s post in the last meaningful moment of the game.

I had to be honest.

As a game of football, I had enjoyed it. It was a decent game.

As a Chelsea fan, however, there are still questions to be asked of our troubled team.

Back in the car, my views were shared by my two mates.

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

Before I knew it, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were soon fast asleep. I drove on, eating up the miles. Thankfully I made good time and I was back home by 7.30pm, with my mind now realigned towards Old Trafford.

Oh, and Southampton, where Arsenal were being dicked 4-0.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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