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.

IMG_0549

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.

IMG_7360 (2)

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.

IMG_5655

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.

IMG_4927

Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

On most mornings, prior to myself leaving my home to collect the usual suspects en route to football, I invariably post on “Facebook” some sort of Chelsea-related message allied with the phrase “Let’s Go To Work.”

This reflects the rather business-like nature of football these days. It underlines the sense of focus that is required to progress at the top level of football. Over the past few seasons, especially under Jose Mourinho, I have considered it to be most apt. It is the phrase that the Milanese allegedly use, on occasion, rather than a standard greeting such as “good morning.” It cements the predominant work ethic in Italy’s industrial north. I can’t separate this from the old Italian saying “Milan works, Rome eats.” And while other teams and clubs have been doing a lot of eating recently – growing flabby and lazy, lacking focus and determination – Chelsea Football Club has been working hard.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

To be quite frank, as I stumbled around in the early-morning, for once, a trip to support my beloved Chelsea – never usually a chore – actually seemed like a work day. The decision by the board to dispense with the services of manager Mourinho on the afternoon of Thursday 17 December had meant that, in my mind, the game with Sunderland would not be an enjoyable event. In recent memory, there had been the toxic atmosphere of Rafa Benitez’ first game in charge after the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. I suspected something similar three years on. Yes, this seemed like a work day. A day when my appearance at Stamford Bridge was expected. It was part of my contract. There would be no chance of phoning in for a “sicky”. I had no choice but to don my work clothes, collect fellow workmates and “clock on.”

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

There was even a small part of my mind that was glad that I had a duty to collect Glenn and Parky and to drive them to London. I was also glad that my local team Frome Town were away, at Kettering Town. Who knows what thoughts might have been racing through my mind had this just been about Chelsea and me, with the Robins playing a home game just three miles away.

In all honesty, it is very unlikely that I would forgo a Chelsea home game for a Frome Town game, but that the fact that I was even thinking these thoughts is pretty significant.

I collected Glenn and on the drive over the border from Somerset to Wiltshire, we spoke about the troubles and travails of Chelsea Football Club. There was talk of player power, a lack of summer signings, Mourinho’s intense and relentless demands, and dissension in the ranks. Not many stones were left unturned. There was concern that there would be boos for some players. There was never a chance that this would be part of my modus operandi for the day. I recalled, with Glenn, the one moment in my life that I had booed a Chelsea player. Back in 2000, the board chose to sack the loved Gianluca Vialli, and “player power” – yes those words again – was muted as the main reason for his demise. In the much-used phrase of the moment, Vialli had “lost the dressing room.” Frank Leboeuf was seen as one of the main instigators. In the home game which followed Vialli’s demise, against St. Gallen, as Leboeuf came over to retrieve the ball from a ball boy, a section of the crowd collectively decided to let him have it. I momentarily joined in the booing. If people think that I like Mourinho, I simply loved Vialli. However, the look of disbelief on Leboeuf’s face – of bewilderment and shock – quickly made me rue my actions. There would be no more boos from me.

As I have often said, “it’s like booing yourself.”

But I knew that there would be boos for some Chelsea players later in the day. And although it would not be for me, I wasn’t pompous enough to say that others would be wrong to vent however they felt fit. I usually grumble if there are boos at half-time if there has been a poor performance, but this day would be a bit different.

There were rumours of some players under-performing on purpose. I was not sure of the validity of these rumours, but this would not stop a certain amount of negative noise. I wondered if players would be individually targeted. Or would there be a blanket booing?

“Is that fair though? Not all players should be tarred with the same brush.”

I quickly listed those who I believed should be exonerated from any talk of players conniving against Mourinho.

“Willian stands alone, fantastic season. No problems with him. John Terry has tried his best, as always. And you can’t complain about the two ‘keepers Courtois and Begovic. Zouma too. And Dave. No complaints there. Even Ivanovic, who has had a pretty crap season, but nobody could accuse him of not trying. Cahill and Ramires, not the best of seasons, but triers. Pedro borderline, not great. Remy always tries his best. No complaints with Kenedy. You can’t include Loftus-Cheek as he hasn’t played too much.”

I then spoke of the others. If there was some sort of clandestine plot, then these under-performing players would be my main protagonists, based purely on lack of fight and application.

“No, the ones that you have to wonder about are Hazard, Fabregas, Diego Costa, Matic and even Oscar. Those five. So it’s only those five in my book.”

We very quickly spoke about our options for a new manager. Glenn made a very insightful comment about the world of top class football managers.

“Maybe there will be some sort of reaction against Chelsea. These managers obviously speak to each other. If they see that Mourinho didn’t last, maybe they will shy away from it. Too much a poisoned chalice. Too much pressure.”

Inside the pub, and outside in the beer garden, the troops assembled from near and far. The weather was mild for December. And the debate about Mourinho was mild too. Several of us spoke in little groups about the state of the nation. And all of it was level-headed and intelligent. It was good stuff, and I only wish that I could remember more of it to share here.

Rather than limit the discussion to a stand-off between Mourinho and players, which undoubtedly the media seem to want to focus on, we broadened it to include the whole club, embracing the various strands of its operation. We spoke about the ridiculous tour to Australia and the Far East right on the tail of last season. We chatted about a poor pre-season and questioned why the players were flown in to our three games in the US from a base in Montreal in Canada. We moaned about Mourinho’s increasingly weary outbursts and his tendency to blame others. For sure, his complex character was discussed. We questioned a very ineffectual set of summer signings. I condemned the over-long obsession with John Stones. We were annoyed with our manager’s continued reluctance to play our heralded youngsters.

“What has Loftus-Cheek got to do to get a game?”

“Say what you like about Benitez, but at least he played Ake.”

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

“Out of all the wonderful players that have come through this club over the past twenty years, surely we could find someone of greater credibility and standing than Emenalo. Our club, the director of football and other key positions, should be stacked full of former players.”

There was one point that took a few minutes to discuss.

“What I don’t understand, is that if Mourinho was having problems with some key players – maybe those five named above – why did he constantly pick them?”

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

Fabregas was only recently dropped, yet has struggled for months. Matic awful all season long. Costa has lacked focus. Hazard has either suffered a horrendous drop in confidence – quite possible – or has not been up for the fight. Either way, he was rarely dropped. Oscar has not shown the fight.

More questions than answers.

The gnawing doubt in the back of my mind was that, despite his former prowess in cajoling the best out of his players, Mourinho had lost that gift. It’s possible.

But here was my last word before the game.

“Regardless of the relationship between Mourinho and the team, on many occasions it seemed to me that the players were simply not trying. And that doesn’t just mean not running around like headless chickens, but not moving off the ball, not tracking back to offer cover for the defenders, not working for each other. They have been cheating us. The fans. Inexcusable.”

That was where the “palpable discord” existed in my mind. Between players and fans.

However, before we knew it, the beers were flowing and our little group of Chelsea lifers from London, Essex, Somerset, Bristol, Wiltshire and Edinburgh were smiling and laughing.

At around 1.45pm, it was announced by Chelsea FC that former boss Guus Hiddink would be rejoining us. I reverted to old habits on “Facebook.”

“Welcome Back Guus. Let’s Go To Work.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. Glenn was in earlier than me and had commented that some players had been booed when the teams were announced for the first time at about 2.15pm.

The team? Much the same as before, but without the injured Hazard.

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

I was pleased to see that the Mourinho banners were still up behind both goals. To drag them down would have been unforgiveable. It was clear that he would remain a presence, spiritually, at our stadium for years.

IMG_4807 (2)

In the match programme, John Terry said that there had not been any player power. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies :

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

Just before the teams entered, the teams were announced again.

Yes, there were boos. But there were claps and applause too.

The last three names to be announced – 22 : Willian, 26 : Terry, 28 : Azpilicueta – drew most applause, quite thunderous. Zouma was applauded well. I was saddened to hear Ivanovic booed. Others clearly did not share my view of him. Unsurprisingly, Fabregas, Matic and Costa were booed, though of course not by a large number. Many had chosen to stay silent. After all, the naming of the players at this stage every home game is usually met with varying degrees of indifference.

To be honest, as the game began, the backlash was not as great as I had feared. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting too used to all of this. Too used to the serial sackings. Too used to ups and downs and the slash and burn mentality of the current regime. I certainly didn’t feel the venom of the 2012 sacking of Di Matteo.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich, watching alongside Hiddink and also Didier Drogba in his box in the West Stand, had agonised long and hard about the dismissal of Mourinho. For a moment, I had thought that we would ride it out, but no. In the end, there was an inevitability about it all.

The ground was rocking in the first few minutes in praise of our former manager. As we attacked The Shed, I joined in almost without thought.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

With an almost eerie sense of timing, Branislav Ivanovic rose to head home a Willian corner as the name of Mourinho continued to be sung. In reality, from Sunderland’s perspective, it was that bad a goal that we could have conceded it. An unchallenged header. As easy as that.

We were 1-0 up after just five minutes. There was a roar, but this soon died down.

Soon after, with Chelsea playing with a little more spring to their step, a loose ball fell at the feet for Pedro to smash high in to the Sunderland net. After both goals, the name of Jose Mourinho rung out.

The Matthew Harding, capturing the moment, the zeit geist, burst in to spontaneous song.

“Where were you when we were shit?”

Self-mocking but sarcastic and poisonously pointed, it summed things up perfectly.

Oscar, undoubtedly much improved than during all previous appearances this season, was enjoying a fine game. His long run deep in to the Sunderland box, with the defence parting like the Red Sea, was sadly not finished with a goal. Elsewhere there was more high-tempo interchange, and our play was noticeably more cohesive. How is that possible after months of a more conservative approach?

I wish I knew the answer.

Sunderland hardly crossed the halfway line. It was virtually all one way traffic. Diego Costa, a little more involved in a central position, came close on two occasions.

Our visitors began the second-half with a lot more verve. However, from a counter-attack, Pedro – also showing a lot more zip – raced away before playing in Willian. He touched the ball forward but the Sunderland ‘keeper Pantilimon took him out. We waited as former Chelsea full-back Patrick van Aanholt was attended to, but Oscar coolly despatched the penalty. Again a burst of applause, but this soon died down. In truth, the game continued on with very little noise.

To be honest, a silent protest is difficult to ascertain at Stamford Bridge, since many home games are played out against a backdrop of sweet-wrappers rustling and birds chirping.

Soon after substitute Adam Johnson, booed for other reasons, sent in a free-kick and Courtois could only watch as his parry was knocked in by former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini. Sunderland then took the game to us, and went close on a few occasions. Shots from Borini and the perennial Defoe whizzed past our far post.

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

Oscar shimmied to make space and hit a fine curler just past the post. Oscar was turning in a really fine performance. We briefly discussed his Chelsea career. He has undoubted potential – skillful, a firm tackler – but that potential is yet to be reached.

It is worthwhile to mention that there was not wide scale booing throughout the game. I was happy for that. However, when Mikel replaced Fabregas and Remy replaced Costa, boos resounded around The Bridge. I looked on as Costa slowly walked towards the Chelsea bench. He looked disgusted. He made a great point in looking – scowling, almost – at all four stands as he walked off. No doubt the noise had shocked him.

It was, if I am honest, as visceral as it got the entire day.

Ramires came on for Oscar. There were no boos. Maybe the Stamford Bridge crowd were changing their opinions, being more pragmatic, more forgiving.

There were a few late chances, with one being set up by a run from Jon Obi Mikel deep in to the Sunderland box. Yes, it was one of those crazy days.

At the final whistle, there was relief.

Out on the Fulham Road, there were still cries of “Jose Mourinho” but the mood was lighter than before the game.

Back in the car, we were just so happy with the three points and that another tough day was behind us. We quickly recapped on the day’s events, but then looked forward to the next couple of games, when we can hopefully continue some sort of run. It worked out rather well with Guus Hiddink in the latter months of 2008-2009, so let’s hope for a similar scenario.

On hearing that unfancied Norwich City had beaten The World’s Biggest Football Club, I went back on “Facebook” one last time.

“Van Gaal out. He never even won the league last season.”

IMG_4817

Tales From Wembley

Chelsea vs. Everton : 30 May 2009.

So, the final on Saturday had all of Britain glued to their TV sets. I am sure they weren’t disappointed.

Well done Diversity – worthy winners.

…bad luck, Susan Boyle!

I jest…

With the Champions League Final taking place on the Wednesday, the media coverage of this year’s FA Cup Final has been very low-key. The fall-out to United’s non-performance in Rome was still being discussed everywhere on Friday. Our game with Everton wasn’t getting much of a mention.

For the record, this was Chelsea’s ninth Cup Final. We were losing finalists in 1915, 1967, 1994 and 2002, but winners in 1970, 1997, 2000 and 2007. My life as a Chelsea fan began with the 1970 win versus Leeds, though I remember nothing of the game…it was the discussions in the school playground after which led me to choose Chelsea…surely more success would follow. If only I knew!

I am sure everyone is aware of our lack of success in the league from 1955 to 2005. Growing up as a kid in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I had to endure year after year of taunts from friends as Chelsea flitted in and out of the top two divisions. It was a tough upbringing and not even the FA Cup could bring me any respite. In fact, we were even worse in the cup than the league. From our appearance in the 1970 final to our next appearance in a final in 1994, we did not reach one single FA Cup Final. As a comparison, here is a list of the London teams who reached the FA Cup Final in this period.

1971-Arsenal
1972-Arsenal
1975-Fulham and West Ham
1978-Arsenal
1979-Arsenal
1980-Arsenal and West Ham
1981-Tottenham
1982-Tottenham and QPR
1984-Watford
1987-Tottenham
1988-Wimbledon
1990-Crystal Palace
1991-Tottenham
1993-Arsenal

Doesn’t that make grim reading? Look at some of those teams…Fulham! QPR! Wimbledon! In this period of time, my team Chelsea did not even reach one FA Cup semi-final!

Yes it was as bad as that.

Every year, I watched the FA Cup Final on TV in early May and wondered if I had not read the small print on my Chelsea Fan Contract…years of under-achievement guaranteed. Throw in three relegations for good measure, too…what a period in our history.

A terrible 0-4 defeat to Manchester United in the 1994 Final rubbed salt in the wound, but all of this hardship – 26 years with no trophies – was forgotten on a never-to-be-forgotten day in 1997 when we beat ‘Boro 2-0 and celebrated like never before. I still get goose-bumps at the thought of that wonderful weekend. In fact, immediately after this game, for quite a period, I felt as if my relationship with my club had been irretrievably changed…I was now supporting a successful team and my brain and body did not know how to cope. I felt very odd. For so long, we wore the “no trophies but passionate support” mantle as a badge of honour and now…I don’t know…it seemed different, somehow.

Wembley 1997 was up there with the very best though…only behind Bolton 2005 in my book.

All these dates in our history…

And here’s more history – as you know, I have been harking back to 1983-84 all season and for this final game, my mind went back to May 1984. After the game against Barnsley, I did something very silly – I went and got myself a job in a local dairy. I hated the first few days to be honest…I was forever humming words from a Smiths’ song…”I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Our last game was at Grimsby but I was not going…I had made no plans, though I suppose with my first ever job starting on the Thursday, I could have gone up by train. Not to worry – I had enjoyed a good run in 1983-1984; a best ever eleven games.

Two other strange echoes from 1984…

Everton reached the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final was held in Rome.

Back to 2009. On Thursday, over a period of an hour, my Cup Final Weekend plans took a hammering…first we were to learn that Saturday evening’s Depeche Mode gig was cancelled and then we heard that Friday’s Morrissey gig was cancelled too!

Gutted!

I was going to stay with Alan for the weekend, but these plans changed…I would now be going up with Karen, Dave, Glenn and PD.

The Frome Five set off at 8am and it was already a lovely sunny morning. Unfortunately, PD is not renewing his season ticket next season but all of my other mates are doing so. There wasn’t too much chat about the Final on the way up…the only thing I remember discussing was the likelihood of Mikel coming in for Ballack…and the likelihood of Everton packing their midfield, leaving only Saha up front.

“And he’s rubbish” I said.

We marked the likely starting line-up’s performances this season.

Cech 6
Bosingwa 6
Cole 7
Terry 7
Alex 8
Mikel 6
Essien 6
Lampard 9
Malouda 6
Drogba 7
Anelka 8

Nearing London we hit some bad traffic caused by a crash by Twickenham. We reversed down the motorway slip-road along with many more cars ( quite illegal ) and headed in via some back roads around Heathrow and then the M4. We were parked up by 10.15am, but were behind schedule. The others were meeting in a pub at Marble Arch, but we had our usual breakfast in Fulham. We walked to West Brompton – that breeze was nice! – and caught the tube to Marble Arch. Then a quick walk up to The Duke Of York where the rest of the lads were now based. We arrived at 11.45pm.

What a pre-match…fantastic times!

Simon, Milo, Rob, Gary, Alan, Daryl and Ed were already there. And…Neil?

The first bit of good news involved Neil who was originally unable to get a ticket. His nephew Ed had fatefully bumped into a bloke at a gym on Thursday who “knew someone who knew someone” who had a spare. An hour later, Neil was booked on a flight from Guernsey. I was made up for him.

Detroit Bob had been in touch and he was sat around the corner with a pint of Strongbow…I first met him in Chicago in 2006. I introduced him to the boys and I downed a pint of Staropramen. Russ from Frome showed up and he had a ticket from a mate working at ITV. Then Mike and Alex from New York rolled in, minus Chopper, who was ill in bed.

I pinned my Peter Osgood flag up against the pub window and a few photos were taken. The sky was clear, the sun was shining and the beers were going down smoothly. I chatted to Mike, Bob and Alex, but felt a bit bad about it. All of these friends from America can’t be ignored, but I hardly spoke to Alan and Gary, for example. A special word for these two stalwarts. It has been a long season and the game at Wembley would be my 55th game, matching my total number of games in 2007-2008. However, Alan and Gary had been to all 59 games. A fantastic performance.

Lacoste Watch

Daryl – canary

Alex had been lucky enough to go to the Boca vs. River Plate game in Buenos Aires and he regaled me with amazing stories from that game. We spoke a little about the summer tour…Mike and Bob are doing all four, Alex just Baltimore. I had brought the visitors from The States a little gift from Somerset – a little bottle of scrumpy cider apiece.

Good times.

Walnuts and Whitey showed up – alas without tickets – and then Andy and Smithy.

With everyone now assembled, I ushered everyone together and took a few photos of The Bada Bing Firm, with invited guests! The only absentees were Parky, who was getting hammered at The Bridge, and San Francisco Pete, who never made it to the pub despite promptings!

The plan…ha!…was to leave between 1.30pm and 1.45pm so I could get in to the stadium in good time to put up my Peter Osgood banner. One drink lead to another and we eventually left for Marylebone at just before 2pm. On the walk to the station, I chatted to Rob about the game in Baltimore and he was keen to go. He had been drinking amoretto all day…”Amoretto, Chelsea Amoretto” was sung with gusto!

Massive crowds at the station forecourt and a frustrating time. The station echoed to Chelsea songs. Good vibes, but let’s get going! We eventually got through and got into an empty carriage. The train didn’t move for ten minutes as the carriage filled-up. We pulled away at about 2.30pm, but thank heavens, it’s only a ten minute trip. I had awoken at 6.45am with a sore throat, but I didn’t care.

I led the singing with a classic “Zigger Zagger” ( oh, my throat! ) and the carriage was rocking.

On the quick walk up to the stadium, I noted only Chelsea fans heading towards the game. Just a gaggle of Evertonians – ticketless, miserable – heading in the opposite direction. It was now 2.50pm and so much for my plans! Quickly inside and up several escalators, bumping into Andy from Trowbridge and Fun Time Franky from Frome at the top. In the two minutes inside Wembley, Frank had managed to lose his ticket. Nightmare!

I heard the national anthem – I was fed up I had missed all of the pageantry this year – and made my way into my seat in row 11 of section 544 high above the far corner flag. There were eight of us in a row. Great seats. I glanced around. I had got in at 2.55pm. I wouldn’t be able to pin my Ossie flag up…not yet anyway. I noted the balcony in the Everton end absolutely festooned with flags, yet our balcony was only a third-covered. Our big flags though – JT, Frank, Matthew Harding – were out in force. I saw that Mikel was playing…good.

At 3pm I took a photo of Saha and Fellaini waiting for the kick-off whistle.

After 12 seconds, I took a photo of the ball being pumped upfield.

After 25 seconds, misery.

What a start. Oh boy. Here we go. We’ll have to do this the hard way. So be it. To be fair to everyone, we didn’t panic and stroked the ball around confidently. I had no doubts that we would win. I sent a text message out to a few people to this effect.

Malouda was getting lots of space down the left and after a fine cross, Drogba lept with no challenge from the defenders. I was perfectly positioned to see the ball drop straight into the Everton goal…I was watching the trajectory of the ball and it was a joy to behold.

Get in! I grabbed my camera and took two impromptu shots of Glenn and Daryl. They are classics!

We continued to dominate for the rest of the half and our support, out sung by the Evertonians, grew louder. It was definitely a case of “game on!”

During the interval, I grabbed my Peter Osgood flag and marched down to the front. I carefully threaded some string and hung the flag up, high above the NW corner flag. I sent a few texts out and asked people to keep an eye out for it. Way across the stadium in the lower tier, Mike from New York took a photo of it. Pete from San Francisco, too. I kept scanning the crowd to see if I had missed anything, any detail, any flag or banner…I couldn’t help but notice a block of about 25 empty seats in the Chelsea upper tier on the other side to me. I’d love to know how and why they never got sold. Very strange.

Everton came back into the game a little after the break, but our defence was rarely troubled. Essien had been replaced by Ballack and our dominance continued. With about twenty minutes to go, the ball broke to Frank and I wanted him to move it out to Malouda. What do I know? He stumbled, regained his balance and unleashed a belter past Howard.

The net bulged.

The Chelsea end, yellow and blue, erupted. I tried to take a few snaps of Frank celebrating, but the lens found it difficult to focus with all of the arms in the way. Hugs with Tom and Glenn. We were back in front in a repeat of the semi-final…1-0 down, 2-1 up. Lovely.

Soon after Lamps was booked for a silly dive – the only blot on another exceptional performance by him. JT may be our captain, but I think this season Frank has become our leader. The Malouda whizzbang shot looked like it didn’t cross the line, but it apparently did. Not to worry.

We waited for Howard Webb to blow the final whistle and it was a lovely moment when we heard that shrill sound.

I then took many more photos of the following thirty minutes…during the course of the day, I took around 275…I will put a lot of these on my Facebook page.

It was odd to see us playing in yellow, but on that perfect sunny day in North West London it just made it even more special.

“Yellows!”

What a wonderful time we had, clapping and singing, shouting our praises. I like to think that the appearance of Peter Osgood made all the difference – it was but a fleeting appearance as my flag had to be taken down as it was spoiling the view of the denizens in the Club Wembley seats.

JT lifted the cup and I snapped away. Silver and blue streamers floated down from the sky.

Snap, snap, snap.

“Blue Is The Colour” echoed around and, unlike 1984, the acoustics were very very loud. I love that song. Then “Blue Day” – memories of 1997. Then “The Liquidator” – the place rocking now. Lastly, “One Step Beyond” – I look back and there are Simon, Daryl, Alan and Gary doing a Nutty Boys Shuffle, with Milo doing a “Britain’s Got Talent” solo dance in the row in front.

Hilarious. Smiles all around.

At about 5.30pm, we eventually left, but I lost the others, too busy texting somebody or other. Out in the sun, smiles from Chelsea and songs from Everton. Detroit Bob bumped into me and then I found myself right behind Russ in the queue for the train. Good times. Russ had a ticket in the Everton end and had to bite his lips on many occasions.

The three of us caught the 6.15pm train back to Marylebone. I said to Bob that it was deathly quiet…I began singing

“We won the cup, we won the cup – ee-aye-adio, we won the cup.”

Apart from Bob, not a single Chelsea fan joined in.

“You should be ashamed!” I said. Not a flicker. Is this the club we have become?

We met up at the Duke Of York at 6.45pm…two more pints of Staropramen…lots of hugs and handshakes. Chelsea historian Ric Glanville was there – always a pleasant chap – and I had a few words. Chopper joined us and he was his usual ebullient self. Still blue skies overhead. However, Glenn and myself had a big dilemma. Our drive home was waiting for us at West Brompton. Damn! We finished our pints and shook hands with everyone.

“Love ya.”

We sloped off at 7.15pm. Detroit Bob was with us and he was headed down to The Bridge. By the time we had reached Marble Arch tube, he had talked us into crashing at his hotel on the North End Road…let the pub crawl continue! Glenn spoke to his wife Sara and all was cool. We took a 74 bus down to Earl’s Court and popped into The Prince Of Wales and then The Lillie Langtry where we met Dutch Mick and his crew. It was still only 8.30pm. We caught a bus down to The Bridge, expecting the place to be jumping.

What a let down. We popped into Frankie’s – formerly The Shed Bar – and there were only about twenty people inside. We had a beer and left. The whole of the Fulham Road appeared quiet and subdued.

A big disappointment! In 1997, the place was buzzing…there was a sofa in the middle of the road at Fulham Broadway I remember.

By this time, Glenn was past it, so we tucked him up for the night in Detroit Bob’s hotel, then back to The Lillie for a couple more. We ended up, inevitably, at Salvo’s at 11.30pm. More Peronis, more pizza, the game highlights on TV…Bob was still yakking but I was getting tired. As a nightcap, Salvo poured us out some grappa on the house and we eventually left at 2am.

It had been a great day.

4489_104041702657_6801580_n

Tales From The Final League Game Of The Season

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 24 May 2009.

I awoke at 5.15am with a long day ahead of me. To be brutally frank, I was in a mixed mood leading up to this game. It has been a long season for us all and I have mentioned before that I am limping over the finish line. The fact that the fixtures computer spewed out an away trip for Chelsea in far-away Sunderland on the last weekend of the season seemed to be typically cruel. However, in all of my years of supporting the club, I have never attended all of our league games in one season. Last season, I did fifty-five games in total, but didn’t go to a handful of away games. Ironically, the last league game I missed was the away fixture at Sunderland last March, when I succumbed to a flu bug and couldn’t face the 600 mile round trip. So, for this reason alone, I had to be there. Staying at home was not an option. I set off at 6am.

“For the last time this league season : Jack Kerouac.”

Into Frome for a McBreakfast and their large coffee buzzed me to life. I fuelled up at Beckington as the bright sun began burning away the early-morning fog.

I was on my way. I drove up The Fosseway for the fourth time this season and was in no rush. I had again arranged a lift from Nuneaton with my mate Andy and, boy, was I grateful. My head was a bit fuzzy on the way north…my mind flitted from thoughts about the past season, the game at Sunderland, the FA Cup Final and the trip to America in the summer. My mind seemed to lack focus. To be expected I guess – all these games, all these plans flying around my brain. I had only visited Sunderland once before…that horrible 4-1 defeat in December 1999. Strangely, just after that, we all regrouped on the Monday at Heathrow and flew off for a Champions League game in Rome. How it so easily could have been the same this year!

I thought back on season 1983-84.Our penultimate game was a match against Barnsley on Bank Holiday Monday. I travelled up with my parents for this game, who went off to do some shopping or sightseeing around London during the day. Promotion was already secured, but still over 29,000 attended the game. It was a lovely feeling to know that I would know some friends at the game, even though no plans had been made. I merely made my way into The Benches and sat with Alan, Paul and Mark, my new friends at Chelsea. I think I am correct in saying that Keith Dublin, our second black player, made his debut in the game. David Speedie opened the scoring from yet another piece of Pat Nevin magic, but Barnsley equalised through David Geddis. With ten minutes remaining, a Dale Jasper shot was swept in by Nevin and the crowd, in a repeat of the Leeds game, surrounded the pitch. I have quite a few blurred photos from this game and they capture the excitement of the day very well. In the last move of the game, Nevin dribbled through the Barnsley defence and everyone just knew we were going to score again. Kerry Dixon seemed to get in the way of the shot, but Wee Pat smashed it home from an angle. Brilliant! Another pitch invasion and then the final whistle. Another home win for us. The players came out onto the balcony of the East Upper again and I was on the pitch in a repeat of the Leeds game. I made a point of walking to both goalmouths and loved seeing the stands from the pitch. I eventually left the ground, scene of many fantastic memories during that unforgettable season. Meanwhile, Sheffield Wednesday were held 0-0 at home by Manchester City and so Chelsea went into the final game, at Grimsby, on top of the pile.

Twenty-five years on, I drove through Coventry and picked up Lovejoy just before 9am. Then, the short drive to Nuneaton to meet Andy. We collected Woody at 9.45am and headed north. Talk was of the FA Cup Final, but also of the fight against relegation. I fancied Newcastle to nick a point at Villa and stay up. So did Andy. I made the point that in days gone by, on such a day, over 10,000 Geordies would have invaded Villa Park. These days, a different ball game – the most any team gets for an away fixture is 3,000, or 5,000 at Wigan or Blackburn, whose home fans don’t always turn up. After an initial flurry of chat, I gave way to some sleep – quite a surprise on the way to a game. The season was obviously taking its toll.

Lacoste Watch –

Andy – racing green
Chris – beige

The weather was perfect and Andy made good time. Lovejoy was in the front passenger seat and I was able to admire his beautifully constructed barnet. It surely is a thing of beauty and it all stays intact via a series of strings and pulleys. At 1pm we pulled into a pub in Sunderland and stayed for an hour or so. Three pints of “Coors Light” and the third Toby Carvery of the season. It was the business. I wondered if Andy has named his dog Toby for this reason alone. After we devoured our food, we were able to observe the eating habits of the locals as they spooned various foodstuffs onto their plates.

“That one has just meat and about twenty potatoes!”

“Go on girl, get stuck in!”

“Look at that, the greedy get – two Yorkshire puddings!”

“Good job they bloody wear stripes.”

“What a bunch of fat gets.”

Andy was able to park up no more than twenty yards from the away end. Sunderland used to play at Roker Park but moved into the oddly-named The Stadium Of Light in around 1997. I wanted to take a few shots outside so disappeared off for a few moments. The stadium, which holds 48,000, has been built on the site of the old Monkwearmouth Colliery, high on a hill overlooking the River Wear. Out in the car park, two remnants of old Roker Park remain…two forty foot sections of Archibald Leitch ( yeah, him again ) balconies from the old stadium have been placed amid flower beds and the effect is quite striking. Just love those cross-hatch supports. Outside the main entrance, there is a wheel from the colliery in Sunderland red.

I find it a bit odd that Sunderland chose such an ill-fitting name for their new stadium. It is the same name as Benfica’s stadium and appears to be named for that reason alone. However, “light” in Portuguese is “luce” which is the area of Lisbon where the stadium is built. So – are you all still paying attention? – a stadium in Sunderland named after the anglicised version of the name of an area in which a stadium in Lisbon is built. Work that one out! I find it odd they chose the new moniker of “The Black Cats” to coincide with the move out of Roker, too. That a club with such a rich history should reinvent itself is a bit bizarre.

I bought a programme for a change and it was a good read. They put the “away fans” figures in the programme and it was interesting to see how other London teams fared at Sunderland this season –

Arsenal – 2,715
Tottenham – 1,378
West Ham – 807
Fulham – 251

Into the stadium and I quickly found Alan and Gary nursing pints. Alan said that Sir Bobby Robson, ailing with cancer and in a wheelchair, was seen entering the stadium. He was given a rousing reception by both seats of fans. I bought a pint of “Fosters” and played “spot the face” amongst the Chelsea support. Of my immediate mates, Alan, Gary and Andy had not missed a league game all season, while Lovejoy missed just one.

Out into the stadium, blue skies overhead. I was in a seat right next to the Sunderland fans in the corner, the noisiest section of the entire stadium. They were wearing red and white shirts like they were going out of fashion. I think we have to acknowledge that their hated rivals Newcastle were the first set of fans to take to wearing replica shirts en masse at games, circa 1994.

Can’t see the fascination, myself.

A big surprise that Frank didn’t play…we wondered why. I also wondered why we were back to wearing the “old” shirts…and why we were wearing blue socks.

I spotted several lads, mainly in their late forties and early fifties wearing Ben Shermans, braces, jeans and DMs…I guess an “old school fancy dress away game” had been planned amongst a certain section of our support. In addition to Cathy and Mo, I bumped into two other Chelsea fans – Kevin and Ian – who will be in Baltimore and Dallas.

Of course, the Sunderland fans to my left made a right racket throughout the game, but their focus was on the games at Hull, West Ham and Villa too. They celebrated wildly when goals at the KC and Upton Park were scored. Our support wasn’t fantastic. To be honest, I felt a bit dazed. It was weird for nothing to be “on” this game for us. It was just a case of us being there, to get the game done. A quiet first half ended with Malouda rattling the crossbar.

What a fantastic strike from Anelka…loved the way he just refused to pass on his meandering run from inside his own half. With Ronaldo not even on the bench, his Golden Boot was assured. Then some poor defending allowed Sunderland to equalise. The stand shook as the home fans celebrated. And then again when news leaked through of Villa’s goal against Newcastle. Not to worry, substitute Kalou whacked home a great goal which I captured on film. This restored our lead.

The home fans in the corner sang throughout the game, but I couldn’t decipher much of it. Ashley Cole’s wife came in for a bit of predictable abuse.

“Your wife’s a Geordie slag.”

“Yeah – as if you’d turn her down” bellowed Gary.

I was then the target of some “banter” from a few of the natives…one of whom seemed to make a deal of the way I was provocatively wearing some sunglasses.

I was deeply hurt.

Ashley tucked in a third and my protagonist left…what a muppet. Still time for Kenwyne Jones, who I rate, to make it 3-2. And so it ended. Another away win for us. The players came over to applaud us.

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

Game 38 – tick.

I had worked out I had travelled 9,300 miles from my home in Somerset to follow the boys during the league campaign this season. Definitely a proud moment for me.

We were soon out and away, the natives still bouncing with the demise of Newcastle United. Andy drove down the A19 on the way south, a route which gave us lovely views of the North Sea, but then of Middlesbrough, the other relegated team on this most brutal of days.

And so, the end of our league season…

…third place for us. No complaints.

I have to commend Fulham for nicking a European place, especially since they got it at the expense of Spurs. Fulham in Europe – crazy!

And next year’s teams have been decided. Up come Wolves, Birmingham and Burnley…I’m pleased about Burnley. I remember how they almost became a non-league team in 1987 and survived on the last day of the season with my boyhood hero Ian Britton scoring one of their two goals. They have been out of the top flight since 1976. With Burnley, Stoke City, Birmingham City and Wolves in the division, the league is starting to resemble something from my childhood in the early-seventies.

Funny – in 1983-84, I was looking forward to loads of new stadia to visit in the new season. In 2009, I’m still desperate for new stadia. Next season, it will be just Burnley…oh well, better than no new grounds at all.

We got back to Andy’s at 9am and I dropped off Lovejoy at 9.30pm.

“Be lucky.”

As I drove south, I felt increasingly tired and even picked up a banging headache during the last few miles. I reached home at 12.30am, totally knackered.

One game to go.

See you at Wembley.

4489_104038867657_5616392_n