Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

Our week of work had begun with a win against Middlesbrough on Monday evening. This was a pleasing and reassuring performance; an easy 3-0 win – the second in succession – and it meant that we needed just one more win at West Brom on the Friday to secure our sixth League Championship. My Friday started well. The first four hours flew past. But then, as I noted hundreds of Chelsea supporters heading up to the West Midlands, the time slowed to a standstill. It was as if everyone else’s burst of freedom compared miserably to my last four hours of work. It seemed that I was the very last to head north. At 3.30pm, I eventually left work. As I reached the village where Parky lives – only a ten-minute drive away – “Three Lions” by The Lightning Seeds was booming out of my car. We were looking to bring the Premier League trophy home. It seemed wholly appropriate. Soon after, Glenn and PD arrived. Glenn had kindly agreed to drive up to The Hawthorns. We poised for a photo outside Parky Towers, with “Vinci Per Noi” fluttering in the breeze. There was a hint of rain in the air. At around 3.45pm, we set off.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

There was a threat of rain throughout the drive north and this added a little gloom to my thoughts of what might happen over the next few hours. For a few moments, I wasn’t optimistic, but I kept my feelings to myself. Elsewhere in the Chuckle Bus, the mood was good. I blamed it on the cider.

Glenn made good time, and we were soon turning off the M5 at around 6pm. As always, we use the parking facilities at the Park Inn – where I am reliably informed that Chelsea used to stay for their games at West Brom in days gone by – and we soon met up with a few familiar faces. We guzzled back two pints of lager and chatted to a plethora of fellow Chelsea fans. There were long lines at the bar. While I was waiting to give Parky a hand with his drinks, I spotted Kirk Brandon, lead singer from the ‘eighties bands Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny. I had known that he was a Chelsea supporter for a while and he was featured in a recent Chelsea magazine. I popped over to say a few words. I had only just recently seen him support Stiff Little Fingers in March in Bristol. We had arrived fashionably late to just catch the very last song “Do You Believe In The Westworld?” Little did I think that I would soon be chatting to him before a Chelsea game. I didn’t ask him if he had a ticket; I hoped he had. Many in the bar didn’t. Parky chatted away about his time in London in the ‘seventies, watching as many punk bands as he could. Kirk seemed genuinely pleased to chat to us. I mentioned to him that I am friends with SLF frontman Jake Burns – albeit only on Facebook, though our paths almost crossed in Chicago in the summer – and for a moment it was all a bit surreal. I sent Jake a little message to say that I had been chatting to his mate and he soon replied “good luck for tonight.”

We set off for the ground. We were about to liberate the Premier League trophy.

It was a murky old night in West Bromwich. We marched past the hamburger and hot dog stalls. We bypassed the souvenir stalls. However, I had seen on a TV programme earlier in the season that Albion have produced a set of programme covers this season which feature albums and bands. Once I spotted six of their academy players lined up a la Madness, with the headline “One Step Beyond”, I knew I had to buy a copy. I quickly flicked inside. It looked a substantial read. In the centre of the programme was a complete set of programme covers from this year. Album covers by Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Phil Collins and the Sex Pistols – plus others – were tweaked with a football twist. It was very effective. I especially liked the Sex Pistols cover. It was for their FA Cup tie against Derby County, but references an infamous loss that West Brom suffered against Woking many years ago, when Tim Buzaglo scored the winner.

“Never Mind The Buzaglos, Here’s The FA Cup.”

There were handshakes with many in the concourse – which oddly has wooden laminate flooring, interesting fact #574 – and then out into the seats. The cumulative intake of gallons of alcohol throughout the day had resulted in plenty of song. The four of us Chuckle Brothers were right behind the goal, down low. My camera would struggle focussing through the netting all evening. My pessimism had subsided – maybe it was the lager. Surely, so close, we would win this.

We had heard the team and although N’Golo Kante was not starting, we had no issue with Cesc Fabregas playing alongside Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere, the side picked itself.

In a previous edition, I have talked about the home supporters relatively new usage of the twenty-third psalm, and I spotted that the words were now stencilled on the low stand to our left.

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie. In pastures green, he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.”

Only a few minutes before the game began, I received a text message from Dave – often featured in despatches – in France to announce the birth of his first child, a son, only an hour previously. What fantastic news. And this was on a day when my pal JR – in Detroit – was celebrating his son’s first birthday. The signs were good. We surely could not fail.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the PA boomed out “Liquidator” and both sets of fans roared.

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

Our end was packed to the rafters. We had heard that many Chelsea had gambled on tickets in the home areas. This would be our first chance to win the league at an away ground since that momentous early evening game in Bolton in 2005. Tickets were like gold dust. But I loved the idea of Chelsea swarming the ground. Just like the old days.

And then the football began in earnest.

Chelsea, the all-blacks, were soon on the back foot when a looping header from Salomon Rondon caused Thibaut Courtois to back-peddle and tip over. Barely twenty seconds had elapsed. To our left, sharing the Smethwick End, the home fans were having an occasional dig at us – “WWYWYWS?”, how original – but were also singing about their two most hated local rivals.

“Oh wanky, wanky. Wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers” for those to the west and “shit on the Villa” to those to the east. Birmingham City must feel peeved; “no song for us?”

After that initial threat, Chelsea dominated possession. But it was clear from our very first attack that West Brom were to defend deep, resolutely, and space in the final third was at a premium. We only had a succession of half-chances, maybe only quarter-chances. In the away end, the night of song continued as a new ditty aimed at our double Player of the Year was repeated again and again.

“N’Golo. Oh. Always believe in your soul. You’ve got the power to know – you’re indestructible. Always believing.”

It rumbled around for some time.

Altough not aired, I prefer this other one which will hopefully gain traction before now and the FA Cup Final.

“His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. He wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball.”

The home team only occasionally threatened us, with the runs of James McLean drawing boos whenever he approached the away quadrant. It is safe to say he is not the most liked opposition player.

We tried to release Moses – “Is Vic there?” – but only occasionally did he get a ball across the box. We were dominating possession, but we were playing Chelsea Rules and not Arsenal Rules; we needed a goal. The West Brom players were targeting Eden Hazard and he was clumped several times.  Shots were blocked. Shots were miscued. At last a clean strike from Cesc, but it drifted past Ben Foster’s far post. Next up, Pedro unleashed a shot wide. It was all Chelsea, but with little to show for it. A rare Albion attack ended the first-half. It amounted to nothing.

The noise in the Chelsea section, loud at the start, had gradually subsided throughout the first-half.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

At the break, out in the concourse, we were still confident of getting a victory.

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

I remembered back to Bolton in 2005 and we certainly struggled in the first-half during that momentous match. During this game in 2017, we had performed better, but only marginally. Oh where was Frank Lampard when you need him?

Soon in to the second period, Moses lost his marker and zipped a firm low shot at goal, but Foster reacted well to fingertip the ball away. Then a shot from a twisting Costa. It was backs-to-the-wall stiff for the Baggies. We watched, urging the boys on. Please let us, somehow, find a way through. Hazard struggled to produce much quality on the left. I kept urging Cesc to unlock the door. But our dominance was increasing. Surely we would score? The first fifteen minutes of the second-half flew past. I looked over to the scoreboard to my right.

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

We went close when a deflected shot squirmed wide. Another Moses shot. Another Foster save.

“For fuck sake.”

The nerves were starting to jangle now. Time moved on.

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

A rare West Brom chance soon followed, when Rondon broke, but great defending saved the day. Then, just after substitute Nacer Chadli – ex-Spurs, oh no – was clear in on goal but stroked the ball wide of Thibaut’s far post. It was a sign for the away end to wake up and increase the volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” – how sweet the sound.

Seventy-five minutes.

A gamble from the manager. Willian replaced Pedro. Michy Batshuayi replaced Hazard. This surprised me, I have to be honest. Although Pedro had tired a little and although Eden was not at his best, the introduction of Batshuayi especially seemed a risk. He had begun his season well, with a smattering of goals against Bristol Rovers and Watford, but had rarely featured since. Over the next few minutes, the frustration grew as Batshuayi gave away one foul, then another, then another. A wild shot from Dave did not bother Foster.

This did not look good. The mood in the away end was detiorating. Not sombre, but just a little quiet. It looked like we would have to wait until Monday. I felt for Glenn, who would be working.

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

Just after, with more Chelsea possession, and the defence suitably packed, a ball was headed back towards Gary Cahill. His rushed shot from twenty yards, spun away into part of the penalty box which was free from defenders. Maybe, just maybe, the West Brom defenders switched off momentarily. We watched as Dave raced towards the ball and was just able to whip a ball in, hard and low. The action was only fifteen yards away from me. We watched as Batshuayi flung himself at the ball. For a split second, the ball was within the frame of the goal, but of course I had no idea if it would result in a late winner.

Twelve yards away from me, the ball rippled the side netting.

We went berserk.

I turned to the bloke to my left and we just roared and roared, jumping as one.

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

What a moment. The away end was a boiling pot of ecstasy. The noise was deafening. The relief flowed over all of us. I struggled to hop up on to my seat in order to photograph the scenes of wild abandon to my left. I was only able to take a couple of shots of David Luiz, his face pulsing with joy, arms out-stretched.

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

The rest of the game is a blur. Kurt Zouma replaced Moses, but the away end was bouncing in adoration of the manager and team.

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

“Campioni, campioni” – or at least, this is what it should have been – “ole, ole, ole” – a mixture of Spanish and Italian. How apt.

We bounced in a minute.

Over in the far corner of the Birmingham Road Stand – the home end – a few Chelsea fans were obviously causing havoc, and were lead out. We have all sat or stood in home areas over the years – I have done so at Everton, Liverpool, Leeds United and Arsenal among others – but it must be impossible to keep schtum when your boys have just won the league. For a few fleeting moments, The Hawthorns was transported to 1983.

There were five minutes of time added on.

At the whistle, I was slightly subdued. I then pointed to the sky.

“Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks for game one in 1974.”

Game 1,140 had ended with us with our sixth league championship and our fifth of my lifetime. Our fifth in thirteen seasons.

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

For half-an-hour or so, the players and management team raced over to join in our party. My eyes were on Antonio Conte. His face was a picture of joy. Elsewhere, the players were enjoying every second. I struggled to capture it all on film because hands were pointing, arms were waving, a line of OB were in the way. But I managed to capture a few nice moments. I loved that Antono Conte, John Terry, Pedro and then N’Golo Kante – his song booming – were given the bumps.

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

Willian was serenaded with “his song” and he gleefully danced a little jig, his hands covering his mouth, as if sniggering.

This felt fantastic.

The pitch was flooded with Chelsea personnel. In the middle, Antonio Conte alongside Angelo Alessio – I remember seeing him play for Juve in the late ‘eighties – but also with a cast of thousands. Everyone involved. Everyone happy. Frank Lampard was somewhere, though I did not clock him. A song for Roman.

All of us, there.

Together.

Almost lost in the middle of everything was a small green flag :

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

We bounced out of the away end. Handshakes and hugs all round. We strolled down that old-style exit ramp which lead down to a nearby road. Time for another cheeseburger with onions.

It tasted champion.

At the Jeff Astle gates, I took one last memento of the night. As we drive past exit 1 of the M5 on every Chelsea trip north in the future, we will gaze east and spot the angled floodlights of The Hawthorns.

And we will smile.

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Back at the Park Inn, the mood was of relief but mainly of pride and joy. Two more pints, a gin and tonic. The Bristol lot gave me a little plastic cup of champagne. We posed with flags and banners. I was able to wear my “Chelsea Champions 2016/17” badge which Big John gave me on Monday.

It felt fantastic.

This felt better than in 2015. Miles better. It felt better than in 2006. I’d say it was on a par with 2010, only behind that evening at The Reebok in 2005. This one was just so unexpected. At the start of the season, there were probably four – maybe even six – teams that could win the league. I, perhaps optimistically, guessed that we would finish third. Remember, in 2015/2016, we finished tenth. After Arsenal – or ground zero – I would have been ecstatic with a top four.

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

Parky, Glenn G., PD, Nick H., John R., Mark Boswood., Zac, Big John, Kevin A., Kevin H., Ian, Long Tall Pete, Liz, Julie P., Tim P., Rich, Kev, Brian, Charlie, Tim R., Mark Barfoot, Callum, Jason, Carol, Welsh Kev, Alan, Gary, Pam, Becky, DJ, John C., Maureen, Allie, Nick, The Youth, Seb, Scott, Neil S., Andy, Sophie, Jokka, Chopper, Neil P., Glenn D., Mark C., Ludo, Rick, Steve, Burger, Julie F., Rob, Peter, Jim, Trizia, Paul, Dan, Millsy.

And a special mention to those non-Chelsea supporters who wished me congratulations :

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

And – especially – for Harry Lotto, born 12 May 2016 and Jared Easter, born 12 May 2017.

Tales From Turf Moor

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 February 2017.

It seemed wholly appropriate that our visit to the most austere town on our travels this season was coinciding with the worst weather of the campaign thus far. There had been a short burst of winter sun as I had climbed towards Blackburn on the M65, but the bleakness soon returned. Lo and behold, as I raced on past signs for Accrington and then Clitheroe, I spotted snow on the distant Pennine Hills beyond Burnley.

We were well and truly “up north.”

We had set off from Somerset at 6am. Five hours later, I fitted my car inside a parking space outside Burnley’s bus station in its compact town centre. We gingerly opened up the car doors. Within seconds, we were scurrying to grab coats, scarves, and hats from the car boot. An arctic wind was howling and for fuck sake it was cold.

I had driven through the town centre and had noted a few pubs which seemed to be overflowing with locals. Rather than chance our arm there, we quickly decided to cut our losses and head towards the stadium, where – like at Swindon Town – there is a cricket club adjoined to the football club which allows away fans a drink or two.

Burnley. Such is the nature of the town that it allows no added affectation to its football club. Even the town’s stadium, Turf Moor, is named as abruptly as possible. But for all of the hackneyed jokes which would undoubtedly be aimed at the much-maligned town during the day by the visiting hordes, I approved. This was a grand old football team – twice Champions – playing in a grand old football town – population just 75,000 – and there is much to admire of the way the area has supported its club over the years.

I even approved of the quick ten-minute walk from the car to the stadium; it was a walk deep into Football Land.

Locals rushing by. The proud claret and blue. Ancient mill chimneys in the distance. Narrow streets and terraced houses. Police cars flitting past. A grafter selling scarves and trinkets. An ornate and historic bridge carrying a canal over the busy road. Echoes of an industrial past. A Balti take-away. The thin floodlights of Turf Moor. A couple of pubs. The rain starting to fall. A working men’s club. The grey of the main stand. Grizzled old locals selling lottery tickets. Programmes. Flags billowing in the wind.

We settled in at the cricket club and watched from the warmth of the first-story bar as the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. There was the usual chat with an assortment of friends from near and far. We all expected a tough game against Burnley, who had won nine of the thirteen games played at Turf Moor previously.

“A win would be bloody great though. Twelve points clear. What a message to the rest.”

Outside the away end, I was dismayed to see that the montage of past Burnley players was no longer present. I had hoped to pay my silent respects to the lovely image of Ian Britton, bless him, which was originally just along from the away turnstiles. It did not seem plausible that it was a full ten months since I had attended his funeral at the local crematorium. Instead of the montage, the stand was now covered with more formal photographs of former players.

The lads supped one last cider in a marquee outside the away concourse, and we then made our way inside. Memories of my only two previous visits came flooding back.

January 2010 : an equally bleak day, just after the John Terry / Wayne Bridge fiasco, when JT scored a late winner. There was snow on the way home after that one I remember.

August 2014 : my one-thousandth Chelsea game, and Chelsea league debuts for Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The night of “that” pass from Cesc to Schurrle.

We had predicted an unchanged side on the long car ride north; Antonio did not let us down.

Thibaut – Dave, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

What a cosmopolitan set.

In contrast, the home team was singularly Anglo-Saxon and solidly no-frills 4-4-2.

Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward – Boyd, Barton, Westwood, Brady – Barnes, Gray.

It was noticeable that the exotic Tarkowski, Darikwa and Gudmundsson were banished to the bench.

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

The sleet was still falling as the players went through their drills. I took the time to ask a steward why there is always a section of seats which are empty in the away end at Turf Moor. She answered that it is for the team members of both clubs that are not involved, plus other club officials, and sometimes wives and girlfriends. Glenn and I were down in the front row, and we were immediately soaked.

For the opening game of the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had over 4,000 seats and the entire end. At the time, Burnley wanted to concentrate all of their support in three stands. For this game, the end was shared with Chelsea having to “make do” with around 2,400.

As the game began, it was the home fans in our end – to my left – who were the noisiest. As before, they shared taking pot shots at us with songs of derision for their bitter local rivals from Blackburn.

“And its no nay never, no nay never no more ‘til we play bastard Rovers, no never no more.”

Lots of hatred between these two cities, eh? The venom was there alright.

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

They rolled up with a song calling us “rent boys” and I wondered why it had taken fifteen years to reach Burnley from Liverpool and Manchester.

To my right, John Terry was spotted in the cordoned-off area. Many fans posed with him for selfies. He looked cold, too.

We began very brightly indeed with tons of crisp passing and quick one-touch possession. It was a joy to watch. Pedro, Moses and Kante were always involved. After a fine passing move, an Eden Hazard shot should have caused Heaton in the Burnley goal more trouble. Just after, a Burnley attack disintegrated and we quickly exploited gaps in their defence. Hazard played an early ball wide to Victor Moses, who rode an ugly tackle before playing the ball in to Pedro, who arrived just at the right time to steer the ball low past Heaton. The Chelsea end exploded.

I screamed and stretched my arms out wide and could not help noticing Thibaut, just a few yards away, jump up, turn towards us in the away stand and do the same. His face was a picture. A lovely moment.

The Pedro strike was reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his very best. However, it was noticeable that it was Victor Moses, in lieu of his strong run and pass, that drew the plaudits and applause rather than the goal scorer.

Soon after, very soon after, parts of the away end decided to sing – ugh – “we’re gonna win the league” and I turned around to spot who was perpetrating this monstrosity and glowered accordingly.

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

At least wait until April when we are on the brink.

Back in 2005 – when we were ten points clear in early February – I think we sung it first at Southampton in early April. Even then, I wasn’t too happy.

There then followed the equally obnoxious “we’ve won it all.”

Another “ugh.”

At least we were saved from hearing the nastiest chant of them all – “Chelsea till I die.”

I could not help but notice that David Luiz, for once, was beset with problems with his distribution. I let it go the first couple of times, but as the half progressed, I became increasingly annoyed that he found it increasingly difficult to hit Diego or Eden or Victor. It was all Chelsea in the opening quarter, though, and I hoped for a crucial second.

The sleet continued. This would not be a day of too many photographs; a shame since I was virtually pitch side.

Burnley began to attack with a little more conviction – Ashley Barnes shot wide – but we always looked dangerous on the break.

Then, after twenty-five minutes, Burnley won a free-kick just outside the box. I watched as Thibaut arranged the all blue wall. We waited. Robbie Brady, with a fine curling effort whipped it over the Chelsea players and it screamed into the top corner of the net, just fifteen feet away from me. Courtois’ dive was in vain. It had might as well have been in Spain. He was nowhere near it. Brady was in ecstasy – like a proper Clitheroe – and the home fans roared.

For a few moments, we were reeling. Thibaut blocked a save at close range and Gary Cahill flung his whole body to block another goal-bound shot.

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

Glenn and myself walked back to join up with the lads at half-time and shelter from the sleet and rain.

“Eden has been quiet.”

Our support had died a little during the closing moments of the first-half. I think my support had died from the feet up. They were bloody freezing.

Glenn quickly shook Cesc’s hand as the substitute raced past us before taking his position on the bench. His face was covered in a black scarf. He looked freezing too.

The second-half resumed. More rain. More sleet. More plunging temperatures. My toes were tingling with the chill. Everybody had their hoods up, their hats on. One nearby steward wore a bobble hat and a baseball cap.

“Johnny two hats.”

His icy cold stare back at me suggested that his brain had already seized.

With Chelsea attacking our end, and with me yards from the pitch, I was looking forward to tons of action right in front of me. Instead, it was Courtois who was called in to action at the start of the second-half. He saved well, down low, after a ball evaded the lunges of both Cahill and Luiz. I am not sure if this was some sort of reaction to Luiz playing with his hair tied back, but his passing continued to disappoint. Maybe there are some sensors within that usual free flowing frizz, but against Burnley in the wet and the cold, his mechanics were off. He defended well, but his distribution was shocking.

Chelsea – not surprisingly – dominated possession. We kept the ball well, but just could not break the two banks of four. Time and time again, the ball was pushed out wide for either Moses, Pedro, Hazard or Alonso, but we failed to play in any balls to hurt the defence. The twin pillars at the back – Keane and Mee – won virtually every high ball. Diego simply could not reach.

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

Conte replaced Matic with Cesc Fabregas and we prayed for a Schurrle repeat. Matic had not been at his best, though to be honest many players were not performing too well. But they never stopped trying. They never stopped running into space, to try and tease an opening, nor did they shirk any tackles. There were no complaints from me about the effort from the boys.

Willian replaced Moses. The crosses still came over, but were dealt with admirably. It was all Chelsea again in the final quarter of an hour, and I was convinced that we would nab a late winner. I looked hard at Fabregas and saw him spot runners before lofting balls towards his team mates. I was enjoying the game from this fresh viewpoint; despite the extreme temperatures, this was a good enough game, full of tough tackles and earnest endeavour. The skilful stuff was missing, but if football is a chocolate box, there has to be room for the occasional nut brittle.

Batshuayi came on too late for my liking. It was another “three minute hero” appearance, but he hardly touched the ball. On a day when we needed to flood the Burnley box, I found his late appearance a little baffling. Surely better to support Diego with Batshuayi if the crosses continued to come in. Although it was difficult to tell from such a low angle, we wondered if Conte had changed to a 4/4/2 since Dave seemed to support Willian in an advanced position. He even found time to put in a few crosses from out wide on the right.

Wayward efforts from Pedro and Hazard just about summed the game up.

It was not to be.

Instead of a gap of a dozen points, we were now ahead of the pack by ten points.

We slowly walked back up the icy steps of the away end, gathered together, then headed back to the car. The walk back began to get some life back in to my frozen limbs. Inside the car, off came the wet jacket and pullover, the blowers were turned to turbo, and I began the five-hour drive home. The draw, we admitted, had been a fair result. No complaints at all.

“Hey listen, we’re not going to win every bloody game you know. Tough place Burnley. Especially on a day like this.”

I had enjoyed it. Despite the wind and the rain and the sleet and the snow – or maybe because of it – it had felt like a good old-fashioned football day out in good old, ugly Burnley. Not every away game is the same, thank heavens, and I relished the whole adventure.

Next week we visit another classic football town, Wolverhampton, that used to have a grand old team of their own a few years ago.

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From Friday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

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Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

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Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

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Tales From The Last Chelsea Weekend Of Season 2009-2010

Chelsea vs. Portsmouth : 15 May 2010.

When I was growing up back in the ‘seventies, the only three teams to win The Double were Preston North End, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. I always used to think that the chances of any team replicating these feats were pretty remote. Back in those days, the FA Cup was won by a wider selection of teams than the current era of The Big Four. It was with some amazement when I looked on as Liverpool won the double in 1986 ( and winning the league at The Bridge in the last game of the season to boot. )

Since then, it’s all got a bit crazy.

Manchester United won their first double in 1994 ( and beat us in the FA Cup Final ). Arsenal again won it in 1998 and United won their momentous treble in 1999. Arsenal then repeated winning both League and Cup in 2002 ( and guess who they beat in the Final? ). With all of the power in English football now being narrowed to three or four financially potent clubs year on year, I can only see Doubles becoming more commonplace.

Time, then, for Chelsea Football Club to make our mark.

Throughout the week – what a week, one of the best ever – with my mind full of the thought of being Champions once more, I was buzzing with excitement not only for the FA Cup, but for thoughts of The Double.

The Double.

Just the sound of it makes me go all light-headed.

We had the day planned perfectly – the tickets, the pubs, the logistics, the accommodation, the timings – and when I left work on Friday, the whole weekend lay ahead…a tantalising thought.

FA Cup Final Day 2010 began for me with my ‘phone alarm sounding at 6am. After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided to keep the lucky Henri Lloyd polo theme going – navy blue, this weekend. I left at bang on 7am and I soon received a text from His Lordship.

“Buzzin mate. Are we there yet?”

The last five seconds of a Depeche Mode song came to an end on the CD player and then the familiar synthesised opening sequence of their version of “Route 66” started. The route from my home to Wembley Stadium is becoming my own version of The Mother Road these days. The UK version though – west to east – not the US one, headed west from Chicago to LA, more than three thousand miles all the way.

In three years, this would be Chelsea’s eighth visit to the sparkling and shiny new Wembley.

We live in interesting times, alright.

The weather wasn’t sure. It couldn’t make up its mind. I collected Parky from his house – three Chelsea flags on posts on the front lawn – and flew a similar flag from my rear window.

We were on our way.

The weather brightened but then soon clouded over. Parky opened up a can of Fosters at 8.30am and he toasted our club as we headed past the Madejski at Reading. The mood in the car was super-confident and we were both buzzing. Just a wonderful feeling of anticipation pervaded our conversation. We were parked-up at Chesson Road, just of the North End Road, at 9.30am and soon met up with two visitors from six thousand miles away. Bob Clark and Andy Wray were in town, visitors from The Golden State, and we met up at Bob’s hotel. We then caught a red London bus up to Marble Arch – a lovely route past Harrods and Hyde Park Corner – and we reached The Tyburn at about 10.30am. The sun was out and the vibes were perfect.

Several members of The Bing – Daryl, Ed, Rob, Neil and Alan – had just arrived and we greeted each other and ordered breakfasts and pints. There were a couple of Pompey fans in the pub and I wished them the best of luck.

“I think we’ll need it” said one.

We then sauntered up to The Duke Of York and stayed there from 11.30am to 1pm. The place was busier than previous years and again we spotted a few Pompey fans. Two ladies of a certain age were ridiculously attired in bizarre headwear ( one had an Appache head dress on ) and they both had the Full Monty of Pompey shirts and scarves. It’s all well and good supporting your team in the club colours, but there’s no need to look like Christmas trees. We looked on aghast. A few more troops arrived – Mike and Steve, then Alex, from the New York Chapter.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – lemon
Bob – navy blue
Millsy – white
Daryl – royal blue

Deano was inside the boozer and he had a spare. I made a few phone calls but couldn’t shift it. I’m not sure if it was used or not. I was going easy on the beer intake and didn’t fancy missing the pre-match this year. Andy left us and made his way to The Green Man at Wembley. At about 1pm, we agreed to make a move and we walked the half-mile to Baker Street tube.

We passed quite a few pubs and each one had an assortment of Chelsea fans spilling out onto the pavements. And there, opposite the tube at Baker Street, was the daddy of them all… The Globe. There were about 300 Chelsea out on the pavement, ringed by police, celery flying. We spent our pre-match in 1997 at The Globe, but it gets too manic for our liking. The tourists on the double-decker busses were looking on and I wondered what was going through their minds.

We caught the tube up to Wembley Park, the tube station which sits at the northern end of “Wembley Way” ( or rather Olympic Way to give it the correct title. ) I thought back to my first ever visit. I am not sure of the exact timings, but I am pretty confident that in around 1972 or 1973 ( before my first game at The Bridge in fact ), I managed to talk my father into visiting Wembley Stadium after we had paid a visit to an uncle in Southall. In those days, Olympic Way wasn’t pedestrianised and so my father, in his Vauxhall Viva, parked up outside one of the many warehouses and exhibition halls and we walked up to the grand old stadium, site of so many incredible football games from its debut in 1923. I remember scampering around, walking up to the base of the Twin Towers, like it was yesterday. The abiding memory is of the dirty cream colour of the towers and the battle-ship grey of the stadium walls. It was certainly in need of a lick of paint, but it looked wonderful. It had presence, even to a seven year old.

We – SF Bob, NY Mike, NY Steve, NY Alex and myself – slowly walked towards the stadium, the arch dominating the skyline. The arch is obviously much higher, but nothing can beat the Wembley towers for visual impact in my mind. All that history, all those memories from 1923, 1953, 1970, 1997 and more. The White Horse Final, Sir Stanley Matthews, Ian Porterfield, Bobby Stokes, Alan Sunderland, Ricky Villa, the Scousers scaling the walls in 1986, Robbie Di Matteo…

Outside the imposing Bobby Moore statue, which overlooks the whole area, I briefly met my Pompey mate Rick and his excited eight year old son Matthew. From the darkness of our sixth form days when our teams were in Divisions Two and Three to an FA Cup Final together. What a wonderful moment as we smiled and shook each others hands.

Then, inside the stadium and the walk up to the top level…I was saddened to see that none of the escalators were working. I was wondering if the Tory governmental cuts were already having an effect. We had seats right behind the west scoreboard, as central as it is possible to get. I was inside at just after 2pm. I scrambled down to the front of the upper tier and painstakingly tied “VINCI PER NOI” to the balcony. I didn’t think either team had many flags and banners and I wondered why none of the large Chelsea banners which are ever-present at The Bridge had made it to North London. Looking back, my banner may well have been the longest Chelsea banner present. It was it’s first appearance at Wembley, actually. I hoped Carlo might spot it. At the other end, more Pompry fans were inside early and I noted a couple of their flags –

“Against All Odds.”

“You Can’t Break Our Spirit”

“PFC 6.57”

The sun was shining now, but the place was quite subdued. There was none of the manic noise of 1997. I looked around and thought about how football has changed in my lifetime. When I was growing up, it was all about the atmosphere and the songs, the sense of belonging, the sense of making our own noise. In 2010, each fan was given a flag to wave, but the atmosphere seemed contrived. My mate Alan said as much to me as we chatted, waiting for our other mates to arrive. It’s a familiar irritant – the football may be better, but not the singing. Maybe we’re getting complacent. I don’t think the vastness of the new stadium at Wembley helps.

Unlike last year against Everton, when we arrived late and missed all of the pre-match – I swore never to be so disrespectful to the FA Cup Final ever again – I was able to sit back and take it all in. My match day companions Alan and Tom were in too. At about 2.45pm, the marching band appeared and a young female singer beautifully sang the Cup Final hymn.

“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee.
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Hold now your cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee.
In Life. In death. Oh Lord – abide with me.”

I love this hymn and my bottom lip is usually quivering during the singing of this. However, in 2010, it seemed nobody else shared my sense of occasion and hardly anyone was joining in. This is again different to Cup Finals past. I remember bellowing it out in Cardiff in 2002. Oh well. Thankfully, once the teams entered the field and were presented to Prince William, lots joined in with “God Save the Queen.”

The Chelsea team provided no surprises for us. The new kit looked fine, at least from a hundred yards away. The pitch looked awful. All of my mates were alongside me now. We hoped for no repeat of Louis Saha. At kick-off, I noted many empty seats and some remained unused all game. The attendance was around 1,000 below capacity.

What a crazy first-half.

Chelsea enjoyed so much of the ball and constantly tried to move the ball into the danger areas. Our attacks were frequent and our chances came regularly. The Chelsea fans were in reasonably good voice but were not able to sing together as one unit. Portsmouth were not as loud as I had expected, despite their more rigorous flag-waving. Shots reigned in on the Portsmouth goal – and I almost lost count. A Frank shot flashed wide, then he saw a shot graze the angle of bar and post and Didier Drogba had two attempts blocked by James. On a rare break up field, a Portsmouth shot was diverted and Petr Cexch pulled off one of the saves of the season. Stupendous stuff from Big Pete.

Our support was heavily reliant on the “Campeones” chat and at times we were in good voice.

Ashley Cole had a great run deep into the Pompey box and he set up Salamon Kalou who was waiting in the area, just outside the six yard box and the whole goal at his mercy. We got ready to celebrate. He shot, but it hit the bar and the groan was heard all over the South-East. Soon after, JT hit the bar with a brilliant header. On 38 minutes, Didier hit a swerving shot which David James clawed the ball onto the bar, but the ball bounced tantalisingly close to the goal line. I envisaged the TV crews going into meltdown to see if the ball crossed the line. Texts were adamant that it was a goal, though later in the day, texts had the opposite view. Soon after, Didier hit the post again. This was just ridiculous.

Chelsea 5 Portsmouth 0 – if only!

It seemed that lots of spectators were late in getting back to their seats for the start of the second half, the corporate areas especially.

The first period of the second-half was rather worrying. Our domination had subsided and Pompey were enjoying a marked improvement in fortunes. Our end was quiet.

Michael Ballack was injured and was replaced by Juliano Belletti. It seemed that he had only been on the pitch for a few seconds when he had lost his man. My mate Alan sensed the danger and shouted –

“Don’t dive in! Don’t dive in!”

Belletti made an awful challenge and referee Chris Foy had no choice but to point towards the spot.

I decided not to take a photo of the penalty which followed – some kind of superstition I think. Thank heavens Peter Cech kicked the ball away with his trailing leg as he dived to he left. Seeing the ball bounce away is an image that will live long in my memory. That got us bouncing and the Chelsea end began roaring the team on.

“And it’s super Chelsea – Super Chelsea FC.”

Soon after Cech’s fantastic save, a free-kick was awarded and we waited for Drogba.

How he loves Wembley.

I steadied my aim and held the camera, zoom lens to the max.

As he shot, I snapped. We all saw the ball drift in to the goal off the far post and we erupted in a wild roar. Alan and myself grabbed each other and bounced.

“They’ll have to come at us now – Come on my little diamonds.”

For a moment, I felt dizzy, with blood rushing through my body – what a buzz.

Our end was did a bouncy and reminded everyone who was champions.

Soon after, Kalou shot wide and it hadn’t been his best of days. He was substituted by Joe Cole. Didier was put through, one on one, but James made another great save. The ball rebounded back to Joe Cole but his shot was subsequently blocked. We peppered the Pompey goal, but we had a scare of our own when a rare Portsmouth attack ended up with the ball being struck low across the six yard box. Thankfully no attackers were near.

A new Chelsea song –

“We’re Making History.”

Late on, we moved forward again and Joe Cole took the left back wide with a great run off the ball. Frank Lampard was able to exploit the space left and he drove into the box. Frank was fouled and we held our breath again. This time I was a little more willing to capture everything on film.

I snapped just before Frank scuffed the penalty wide. It was typical of Frank’s game as he had not enjoyed the best of performances really.

I thought Alex had been magnificent, covering space so well. Big Pete with two fantastic saves. John Terry solid at the back. The inevitable Drogba Wembley goal.

Towards the end, a few hundred fans in the top tier began clapping and urged everyone not to worry.

At the final whistle, I was quite dazed.

We then stood back and tried to take it all in. It was the same feeling as 2009. Just lovely to see everyone so happy.

The Portsmouth fans – and Uncle Avram – were warmly applauded. They received their medals.

We then waited for our heroes in blue. John Terry seemed to want to share centre-stage with the rest of the team and there was quite a wait until everyone was in position. For the sixth time in our ever-growing history, the Football Association Challenge Cup was tied with blue and white ribbons and for the sixth time, a Chelsea captain raised it high.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

The air was filled with silver and blue streamers and – almost immediately, perfectly – “Blue Is The Colour” filled the North London air. This lovely song immediately transports me back to my youth – maybe to around 1972, when houghts of The Double would have been just silly. We all joined in, singing every word, loving the shared experience.

“Cus Chelsea – Chelsea Is Our Name.”

Then, the Black Eyed Peas –

“I’ve Got A Feeling – Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night.”

You bet.

Next up – “One Step Beyond” and the stands were vibrating as 25,000 Chelsea fans bounced.

We made our way back to the Duke Of York and had a lovely relaxing time, drinking, chatting. I had a few more beers and Parky bought me a gin and tonic.

A double – of course.

We caught a cab back to Earl’s Court and ended-up at Salvo’s. After a little deliberation, we decided not to head back to The Bridge, but instead stay for a few hours at this homely Italian restaurant, much beloved by us all. Bob, Parky, Steve and Mike were then joined by Rob, Andy, Sophie and Woody – then Danny. We drank some Peronis and watched the Cup Final replayed on about three different channels – in English, in Italian, in Spanish. We chatted about the season, but also about the future and we raised our glasses to our great club.

We each had some food and it was a lovely, relaxed time. I had visions during the week of throwing beer down my neck in celebration of our historic win, but it in all honesty it was all rather sedate and civilised.

As we said our goodbyes at about midnight, Salvo appeared with a bottle of champagne and sprayed us all with it. It was a crazy gesture – I was stunned – but we were all cowering as the champagne ended up all over our designer clothes. It was a funny and spontaneous end to quite an amazing season.

In a scene reminiscent of Baltimore in the summer, Bob, Parky, Rob and myself settled down to a night in a crowded hotel room. We slept fitfully through the night and by 8am, we were all awake.

On the Sunday, I was still in a Blue Daze.

We had breakfast – The Breakfast Of Champions – and made our way to The Bridge. Inevitably, we found ourselves with the New York Blues, then Pete from San Francisco – and then even more inevitably we ended up in The Imperial – Matthew Harding’s preferred pub – on the Kings Road. We had some more drinks and watched the Chelsea coaches leave the West Stand entrance. At about 1.20pm, we popped outside and waited on the pavement for our heroes to appear.

The first bus appeared over the bridge and I began snapping.

There it was, emblazoned on the bus.

“The Double 09-10.”

At last, it had all sunk in.

Oh boy.

The busses slowly approached us and my camera clicked away. Rob was upstairs getting great video film of the players’ wild celebrations. JT and Frank were at the front and it was magical to see the looks of excitement and joy on their faces.

The front of the bus passed me and I just looked up at the rest of the players, Chelsea scarves knotted around their necks.

“Come On My Boys – Come On My Boys – Come On My Boys.”

Back in the pub, there was Cathy and Mo, who were there right from the very start.

What a blast.

What a weekend. What a week. What a month. What a season.

The best pre-match ever in Baltimore, the last minute winners at Stoke and Burnley, the trip to Madrid, men against boys at The Emirates, the Watford game on my Mum’s birthday, the disappointment of Inter, the car drive home from Ewood Park, the Wednesday night in Portsmouth, the phenomenal trips to Old Trafford and Anfield, the 8-0 against Wigan, the Cup Final, the goals, the goals, the goals.

Our most successful season ever.

Chelsea Football Club – I salute you.

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Tales From The Champions

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic – 9 May 2010.

What else could I call this?

Oh Boy – What a game.

From the quiet cave of Anfield, subdued apart from three thousand Chelsea loyalists, to the bubbling cauldron of noise and emotion at HQ.

Just a spectacular day.

I will be honest, I was still more nervous than I perhaps ought to have been throughout the build-up to the Wigan Athletic game. A lot of people were telling me to relax, but how could I? This was a potential disaster waiting to happen. The more I thought of the match, the more worried I became. There have been numerous examples of teams failing at the last minute and I couldn’t face my Chelsea being the next. I think it is safe to say that I was just glad that there was no Wigan player called Mazeroski.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am on Sunday and the first task of the day was to decide on match-day apparrel. This often takes a good many minutes as I weigh up the choices. I kept thinking back to the Bolton championship game in 2005 and I remembered that I wore a white Henri Lloyd polo on that incredible day…I superstitiously decided to mirror this choice, but this time the chosen colour was royal blue. I kept the Bolton theme going by wearing a pair of HL jeans that I bought in a store outside The Reebok before the game last autumn. I needed all the good luck charms I could muster. My new Barbour jacket worked a treat at Anfield last week, so that got the nod, too. The weather looked dull and overcast as I set off at 8am.

Parky, sporting some new Forest Hills, was collected at 8.30am and we were on our way. We shot through the familiar towns of Devizes, Marlborough and Hungerford on the A4. Passing through the Savernake Forest, thousands of bluebells were spotted in woodland glades alongside the silver birch trees. It was a spectacular sight. Gill texted me –

“Jack Kerouac?”

I replied –

“Writing And Arithmetic.”

I had been in touch with Jamie ( crowtrobot ) who was lucky enough to be over for Game 38. Jamie was nervous, just like me.

On parking up at Chelsea, the weather was cold but a breakfast soon sorted ourselves out. Frankie Two Times was in the cafe too and he updated us with details of his recent health scare. He’s doing much better now thank heavens. Daryl, Ed andNeil then appeared, all wearing the requisite polo shirts. Daryl was wearing a lovely Fred Perry – and there was an element of superstition about this choice, too.

“If it was good enough for the first game of the season, it’s good enough for this one too” he said.

There was an element of classic Chelsea about it too as the white shirt had green and red trim…shades of the much-loved red / white / green of the 1970’s away kit.

We got the nod that US visitors Ashley and Jamie were close by, so we sauntered off to The Goose. There was a sizeable crowd waiting for Reg to open up. In we went, bang on mid-day. Over the next hour or so, all of my mates showed up and joined the throng. By 2pm, Reg had decided to limit the amount of people entering as it was so full. We had our little corner of the bar, beneath the TV set showing the Leicester vs. Cardiff game ( which nobody was watching…) and the pre-game rituals were taking place. The laughs, the stories, the jokes.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – black

Ed – lime green

Of my mates, Parky and Andy were the most stressed, whereas Daryl and Simon seemed rather chilled out and confident. I still wasn’t sure.

“Bottom of the ninth, Mazeroski swings…”

Jamie and Ashley – plus also Jason and his girlfriend – were being entertained by Lord Parky, the resident CIA-Social Secretary, and the beers were flowing nicely. Talk also included plans for the FA Cup Final pre-match, but also of the friendlies in Holland and Germany. Wes showed up a bit later, thus missing the other Americans who had left to sample the pre-match, and he was buzzing as per normal. He grabbed me and shouted “let’s do this.” I showed a few mates some photos from Anfield, but also from the Chelsea Old Boys game I had seen in Southampton on Monday…great photos of former players such as Johnny B., Tore Andre Flo, Clive Walker, Canners, Ian Britton and Colin Pates.

At about 3.15pm – a bit earlier than normal – we set off for The Bridge. There were lines of fans waiting to get into the packed pubs around Fulham Broadway and I guessed these unlucky souls were without tickets. There was an air of carnival, but I only felt the tension. I quick word with Mark on the CFCUK stall, wearing his lucky trainers.

By 3.40pm, Steve and myself had taped ‘VINCI PER NOI’ up against the back wall of the Matthew Harding Upper, right in my NW corner. Bizarrely, there were still marks from the tape which I must’ve used all those years ago. I used to bring the banner along in the Vialli / Zola era, but ‘VINCI’ was last seen at Stamford Bridge in around the year 2000. My goodness, the years have flown.

Unfortunately, the banner was hid for most of the game by a few fans who had decided to stand. Oh well. I was hoping that Carlo might spot it at some stage.

The Bridge, though under grey skies, was a riot of colour and more flags then usual were dotted around the balconies.

Den Haag.

Newry.

Cornwall.

Polska.

The rumours were true, though – Wigan hadn’t sold all their tickets and I was pretty annoyed with the gaps in that section. There were even clumps of empty seats in the “complimentaries” ( players families, friends, etc ) in the middle of the Shed Upper. Work that one out. Also empty seats in the “Abramovich” tier of the West…

Building up to the game, I had yearned for an early goal – by ten minutes would be perfect. Wigan, in a truly horrendous kit, had the best of the early exchanges though. The Bridge was on fire, however, with everyone seemingly buoyed by extra pints.

“We love you Chelsea – we do.”

On just five minutes, a Drogba free-kick was cleared but the ball was played back in. A touch back from Malouda and Anelka was waiting.

A shot.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

What a start – Oh my, I wanted to explode. After the shouting, the screaming and the back-slapping had died down slightly, Alan turned to me…

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We then struggled a little bit and I thought Wigan got back into the game. However, just as the crowd was cooling down a little, along came a burst into the box and we were given a penalty, though my view was impeded. Not only that – a red card.

This isn’t happening. This is going exactly to plan.

Frank took the ball. However, Alan had told me that Didier had allegedly been promised a penalty in order for him to get a shot at The Golden Boot. In the imediate build-up to the penalty, there seemed to be “words” between Frank and Drogba.

I caught Frank’s emphatic stab on film and the resultant celebrations. This was wonderful wonderful stuff. The texts started to fly in.

The Bridge was then bouncing like never before…whole sections of stands were joining in…it resembled a sight akin to a bouncing Mexican wave. Heady stuff indeed.

The rest of the half seemed a blur, but we were well aware that Drogba was sulking. I had to remind myself that he was our Player Of The Year. I wasn’t impressed. At the half-time break, I couldn’t help but think that there was still an air of uncertainty amongst my fellow fans.

Two-nil up, Wigan down to ten men and we’re still not convinced.

“Proper Chelsea” I thought.

I heard one soul utter “we only need to let in one goal and…” His voice trailed off, but we all knew what he meant.

At the break, Roy Bentley and Ken Monkou made the half-time draws. Great to see Roy again – was it really a year ago that his antics on the pitch after the Blackburn game gave us so much joy?

The Chelsea eleven re-entered the pitch well ahead of the opposition and – for the first time I can ever remember – had a pre-second half huddle. I imagined that it had kicked-off a bit between Drogba and the others at the break ( maybe out of earshot of the manager ) and now JT was bringing them all together.

“Let’s do this together, boys.”

Well, the second half was an absolute blur. At the end of it all, we were having trouble remembering who had scored or how they had scored. It was the third goal that really made it safe. A lovely one-two between Kalou and Frank and a slick finish. I think I celebrated this goal the most as I just knew we couldn’t be caught. Photos of Kalou, minus his shirt, posing right down below me and in front of Cathy and Dog in the corner.

The Anelka goal – the fourth – was just mesmeric…the deep cross from Ivanovic and the first-time volley. The place erupted again. The players raced over to celebrate in the same corner and the expressions on their faces are a joy to behold.

OK, we were now on 99 league goals and ( despite my nervousness ) I had toyed with the notion of a 5-0 win to give is a ton. It soon came…a great angled header by Drogba from a lovely Lampard cross. Drogba was euphoric.

One hundred league goals!

“Boring Boring Chelsea – Boring Boring Chelsea.”

And so it continued…Ashley was clipped by former blue Mario Melchiot and Drogs was handed the ball. I raced down to the front and steadied myself. Just time for aquick word with Big John.

“I think we’re safe” he said.

Snap.

6-0. The place erupted again. Up to 101 now…

We couldn’t repeat the 7-0 of the very last home game could we? Well, a bit of interplay between Juliano and Joey set up Drogba to push home from close range. On this goal, I just smiled and laughed…this was just crazy.

The songs continued.

Then a break, a shot from Moses – the shot of the game – and a World class save from Petr, who had been a spectator for virtually all of the game. Then – a beautiful moment – and a chant which some fans will not have heard ever before…

“That’s Why We’re Champions.”

Memories of 2005-2006. We’ll be singing that again next season.

Then, the final act of 2009-2010 and the beautiful finish from Ashley Cole after a deep Joe Cole cross.

Eight.

8-0.

Un-believable.

I had received a flurry of late texts and was mid-text at the final whistle. While the rest of the crowd roared, I sent a simple text to a few mates – mainly Chelsea, but also Manchester United, Liverpool and Rotherham United too.

“My team. My life.”

I crouched down, weak with joy, and my eyes were momentarilly moist.

Payback for Moscow.

I hugged a few friends – especially Alan, who is now up to about 140 consecutive Chelsea games, home and away, Europe and all. We love our club and we love our friendship too. I’ve known Alan since March 1984 and we know what it means to be Chelsea. There was Rousey behind, going crazy, there was Tom alongside, quiet and contented, there was Mick behind with his ailing father, there was Kev and Anna, new aquaintances since the California trip in 2007, Russ and his daughter, Old Joe and his sons.

All of us together.

I had taken around one hundred photographs during the game and I then took an equally high amount in the aftermath.

The songs, the banners, the laughter, the build-up to the trophy being handed over to JT.

The colour, the noise, the red of the Chelsea Pensioners, the royal blue in the four stands, the Wigan fans staying behind, the anticipation…

The booing of Scudamore…Game 39 will not be forgotten.

The youth team with the FA Youth Cup – winners for the first time since 1961.

The back-room staff, Ray Wilkins – a big roar – the manager – a bigger roar, the reserve players.

The first-teamers, Michael Essien – a massive roar – the slow build up.

The veterans, Petr Cech, Didier Drogba.

The East End Boys, the Blood Brothers, the vice-captain Frank Lampard and the captain John Terry.

The walk.

The handshake.

The glint of the gold and the silver of the trophy.

The roar.

The sky exploded with white, silver and blue streamers and the next few minutes was joy unbounded. The players did a triumphant lap of honour and it was wondrous. I thought about what must have been going through the minds of Jamie, Wes, Ashley and Beth – especially Beth.

I thought about my mates dotted around the stadium.

We live for days like this.

An hour or so later, we were drinking in The Lily Langtry and the place was mobbed. We had heard that the OB had closed a lot of the pubs around The Broadway and all of the fans were out on the road drinking from cans. It was a crazy scene.

Across the way, a hundred fans outside The Prince Of Wales were goading us in The Lily for a song.

“CAMPIONES – CAMPIONES – OLE – OLE – OLE.”

Later, heading out of London, I called Steve in California and we spoke for a few moments. I commented that the day reminded me so much of the game which clinched promotion from the old Second Division in 1984. We beat Leeds 5-0 that day and there was wild euphoria in SW6 all those years ago. I experienced the same feelings twenty-six years later. It was a phenominal scoreline. As I spoke to Steve, 6,000 miles away, I turned a gentle corner on the M4 and the sky ahead was lit with a sunset of incandescent beauty. To my north, the sun’s rays caught the Wembley Arch. It was a magical moment.

Life…it truly does not get any better.

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Tales From Anfield Road

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 2 May 2010.

I awoke – ahead of the alarm, never a good sign – at 5.30am and after pouring myself a coffee for the journey, I set off for Liverpool bang on 7am. This had the historic feel of the momentous trip up to Bolton in April 2005.

A day of destiny.

On that never-to-be-forgotten day, I drove up with Glenn and Frank, but this was going to be a solo trip north. Unfortunately, the first signs were not good. The weather which accompanied me for the first hour or so was sombre and grey with rain showers. I had an Elvis Costello CD on the go – a mixture of old classics, plus a few new songs which my mate Pete ( a United fan, no less ) had compiled especially for me. I had never realised how far Costello looked towards America in his musical leanings. As I headed past Bristol on the M5, my car was reverberating to the sounds of blues and country. The trees lining the motorway were now full of leaves and for a few moments, with Costello’s guitar providing twangs usually associated with America, I could easily have been headed north of Atlanta, heading up through Georgia towards The Smokies. These trees – in Gloucestershire – though, were not suffocated by kudzu, that bizarre plant of the south-eastern states which envelops and masks anything that gets in its way.

My mind was being easily distracted from thoughts of the game and I was very happy about this. On the rare occasions it entered my mind, I quickly moved onto something else…I didn’t need the worry, the anxiety, the possibility of failure. I thought about allsorts as I raced north. It was a shame that Parky would not be accompanying me on this one, but I knew that a few other mates were heading north too. Alan and Gary on the coaches, Daryl and Rob in a car, Beth with Gill and Graeme.

The last of the Costello songs ended as Tewkesbury Abbey came in to view. I then kept the American vibe going by putting on some John Lee Hooker.

“Boom Boom Boom Boom.”

Better some blues, I thought, rather than the red of Costello, a Liverpudlian in terms of place of birth and football team alike.

Thankfully, the rain stopped at Worcester and, soon after, a streak of blue was spotted in the sky. Although the sun soon broke through, this was a false dawn as it stayed pretty cloudy for the rest of the day. I spotted the first “Liverpool car” at Droitwich, then my first “Chelsea car” on the M6 around Wolverhampton. I stopped at Keele services for a coffee refill and noted the place was filling up with Adidas shirts of both the red of Liverpool and the royal blue of Chelsea.

My mind was still doing a grand job in blotting out any thoughts of the game. I thought back to a funny tale from my early childhood. My grandfather once went on a coach trip for a week – to North Wales I believe – in around 1971 and was told by my father to “bring Chris back something to do with football.” I would have only been six, but it was obvious that my love of the game was clear for all to see. To my horror ( and to my parents too, no doubt ), my grandfather brought me back a red Liverpool duffle bag, with white liver bird crest. I am sure I rolled my eyes heavenwards and my parents gave my poor grandfather ( who wasn’t a football fan at all, unlike his late wife ) the third degree on why ( oh why! ) didn’t he bring back a Chelsea bag. I think his response was along the lines of –

“Oh, I’m sorry – I just thought it was OK to bring back anything to do with football.”

Even at the age of six, football equalled Chelsea in my eyes.

So – for the next few years, whenever we went swimming at the old baths in Frome, my swimming trunks and towel were taken in using this red Liverpool bag and I was forever having to defend the actions of my poor grandfather. The friends, who obviously recognised my status as a keen Chelsea fan, couldn’t understand it either. I seem to remember that I stuck a couple of Yogi Bear badges on the bag and unconvincingly claimed that it was Yogi’s team, not mine.

So – Liverpool and Chelsea…it goes back a long way!

This was my fifteenth trip to Anfield and I had only seen us win a league game on one occasion before, that momentous game in 1992 which resulted in Chelsea’s first victory at Liverpool’s stadium since 1937. Since 1992, there had been a further three victories, but I had not been present.

Of course, the build up to the game in the media was dominated by Liverpool’s relationship with Manchester United…and their pivotal role in the destination of this year’s title. It could be a case of most Liverpool fans wanting Liverpool to lose and all United fans wanting Liverpool to win.

A funny game, football.

I reverted to type and whacked the old stalwarts New Order on the CD as I drove the last hour into Merseyside. I know I have mentioned it before, but that view as I headed over the Manchester Ship Canal is the classic North-West away game moment for me…let me recreate it again. Manchester, full of worried and paranoid United fans, just 15 miles to my east and Liverpool, full of depressed and confused Liverpool fans, just 15 milers to my west. And ahead – Winter Hill and The Reebok, scene of that game at Bolton in 2005.

I headed west on the M62, the road linking the old adversaries of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds ( whatever happened to them? Ho ho ho ) and was soon hurtling along Queens Drive, the road which provides the final few miles of my trips to Anfield and Goodison. I’m always superstitious and, in lieu of last season’s CL triumph at Anfield, I parked in the same road as on that momentous night when Ivanovic became an instant Chelsea legend.

I was parked up at 10.45am. Job done. But now, with the stands of Anfield clearly visible at the top of Utting Avenue, the nerves began again. Their was a chill in the air.

After popping into The Arkles, already full of Chelsea, I then headed down to meet Chopper from New York in The Flat Iron. It gave me a moment to mull over the immediate environment around Liverpool’s home ground. The area to the north is dominated by Stanley Park – the intended site of their new stadium ( start date 2075 ), but on all other sides there are stereotypical terraced streets, with houses of various colours, some red brick, some painted, some clad in various materials. It’s a solid working class area. The area around Goodison is the same. Maybe I imagined it, but the streets looked bleaker than normal. I found Chopper at the bar in The Flat Iron, nursing a pint of Strongbow. He was glad to see me. He was wearing a variety of neutral colours ( purple sweatshirt, green baseball cap ) and was just a bit paranoid about being “outed” as an away fan. The pub was OK, though, half and half home and away fans. Only the Liverpool fans were wearing colours though. We spoke about Liverpool – its role as one of the World’s great ports, but now a UK Detroit, on the decline forever.

We then moved further away from Anfield, down to The Cabbage Hall, where an entertaining time – as always – was spent with Cath and Dog. At 12.45pm, we wanted to move on. I fancied stopping just outside The Kop, just to gauge the mood of the restless natives, but everyone was so quiet. We moved all of the way around the stadium – what a lot of gloomy faces. As we moved past the south-west corner, I mentioned to Chopper that at the 1992 game, I remembered seeing a “half-time” turnstile ( for people locked out at the start of any games, this would open up if anyone were taken ill during the first-half, or if the stadium authorities believed The Kop to be safe to squeeze any more into its packed interior ). In all my travels, I had never seen such a feature at any other ground.

At the Hillsborough Memorial, we took our caps off and stood silent for a few seconds.

A chat with a few faces outside the away turnstiles and then inside. The place was buzzing.

Alan, Gal and myself had prime seats, row 8, just to the left of the goal. After all these trips to Anfield since 2005, what a familiar place it is. That scoreboard – and clock – in the corner of The Kop seemed to hover menacingly. How often have I begged for that clock to stand still at so many games. Beth was in, but way over by the Scousers in the main stand. Graeme and Gill were spotted a few rows below. Cathy and Dog a couple of rows behind. I took some snaps of the boys “kicking in” out on the green carpet of the pitch.

Before the game, our Chelsea away flag was held overhead as a reaction to the home fan’s ritual singing of “that song.” I’ve never heard it sang so quietly.

The teams re-entered the pitch and I took many shots of the Chelsea players hugging, high-fiveing each other, shaking each others hands and offering encouragement against the backdrop of those brightly coloured Liverpool flags and banners at the base of The Kop.

Just a great scene-setter.

The game began and I quickly glanced over our formation.

We began poorly and gifted too much early possession to Liverpool. However, the Chelsea choir were in great voice. The home fans were eerily silent. The pace of the game was slow and – bit by bit – the significance of the game became oh-so apparent.

Lose – and we’d be out of it.

A couple of early Liverpool corners and two identical Drogba headed clearances. That’s the spirit. On 13 minutes, Aquilani hit a rasping drive right towards me which just clipped the bar. Liverpool continued to pass the ball around at will and our midfield were second-best. The defensive line – JT and Alex especially – were being tested again and again, but were repelling every attack.

Cathy did a Zigger Zagger and we all joined in.

“Oi oi oi.”

We urged Malouda to get involved but he seemed to be playing a deeper role. He needed to find his form of late. We had a few sporadic attacks, but nothing to give us much cause for comfort. Half an hour had passed and we were anxious. Our singing continued and we called on The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” to inspire the team. Our end was rocking. Elsewhere, it remained deathly still. What was going through the minds of the Scousers? We tried to rattle Gerrard with a song about his recent alleged misdemeanours.

“She’s only sixteen, she’s only sixteen – Steven Gerrard, she’s only sixteen.”

I can’t claim he even heard this, but soon after, he had more worrying things on his mind. A bizarre backpass ( we knew not from whom until half-time ) and Drogba pounced. He went wide of Reyna and stroked the ball into the empty net with The Kop looking on, aghast.

I lost it. I probably celebrated like at no other time since Frank’s goal in Moscow. I’m sure it looked great on the TV. Loads of screaming faces, loads of arms pumping.

Who needs drugs when football can do this to the brain?

Chelsea came on a bit stronger after the goal and peppered The Kop goal. Of course, we couldn’t see the fine detail involved in the tangle of legs which resulted in Kalou ending up on the floor inside the box, but texts from TV Land suggested he fell over his feet.

Typical Kalou.

At half-time, I couldn’t stand still and so went on a bit of a wander down to the front. A chat with Lovejoy, a few words with a couple of others. Then a tap on the shoulder and Kent Blues Graeme appeared alongside me. We shared a few words and returned to our seats.

Soon into the second-half, Kalou went on a beautiful run deep into the Liverpool box, right in front of me, but his ball across the goalmouth travelled the length of the six yard box without a touch. Oh boy.

Quite a few rows behind me, a gaggle of Chelsea fans sang “Three Little Birds” but it wasn’t a very loud or sustained effort. I was just about to comment to Gary that Frank was having a quiet game, when the ball was played out to Nico and we realised that the angle was perfect for the ball to be played into the “corridor of uncertainty” in front of the ‘keeper. In it came and we all held our breath. Frank arrived, stuck out a leg and in the ball went.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS.”

We lost it again. I immediately knew that it was so similar to the “cross – anticipation – shot” goal from Drogba in the CL game last season. My adrenal glands went into overdrive and we again cheered manically. I managed to scramble onto my seat, above the flailing arms, to take a few snaps of an exultant Lampard. I had to fight to keep my hand steady…snap, snap, snap. Frank’s face was a picture. Shades of Bolton 2005.

OK – Party Time, Liverpool 2010. Let’s this baby started.

“We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.”

We were on fire – the players, the fans, the entire away end bouncing as one. I lost count of the number of timers that we raided down the left wing. Kalou was on fire and Malouda’s second-half performance was much better. Down below me, I chuckled at a young boy wearing a 1981 original home shirt. It seemed a long way away, but 1981, eh? Clive Walker, Ian Britton, Micky Fillery and Colin Pates.

“Come along, come along, come along and sing this song – we’re the boys in blue from Division Two, but we won’t be there for long.”

Then – a new song for the Liverpool fans, so obsessed with their past.

“We saved your history.”

We had a few chances, Liverpool wilted. Never have 40,000 fans made less noise.

Before I knew it, the whistle went and the players came over to celebrate with us. A few more snaps – I looked for Frank and JT, our two leaders, as always. I was beaming and really didn’t want to leave. But I had a long drive ahead and I needed to be away. I bounced down Utting Avenue and took a short-cut back to my car. While I answered the first of many incoming texts from friends far and near, I found myself walking down a terraced street, but it was lined with tree after tree full of white blossom. It was a beautiful, idyllic, almost surreal scene.

I thought to myself – “Heaven must be a bit like this.”

Please excuse the sentimentality – I was in Liverpool after all.

Even my getaway was perfect as a lot of the Scousers were still inside Anfield, applauding their team for a magnificent season of mediocrity. I was soon on the M62 at 4pm and headed south. I was so pleased and contented, that I didn’t want Manchester United to spoil it. I avoided their match and listened to more music…Cocteau Twins, Keane…but then gave in to the last five minutes of the United game. Sigh.

I raced home, getting home in just over three hours. I popped into Frome where I knew that a few old schoolfriends ( Leeds United, Manchester United, Liverpool, Bristol City and Portsmouth ) were meeting up after the usual five-a-side at Frome Sport Centre. I made sure I was the first to arrive. I wasn’t finishing second at anything.

We had a great time, talking about football as always – it was the first time all six of us had been together since about twenty years ago, as the one Leeds fan has moved to the Far East.

The laughs and smiles continued for a while, but I then realised – with United winning – “oh hell, we have to go through this all over again next week.”

So – it boils down to this…

One Game – One Win – One Champion.

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Tales From The Wild Side

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 25 April 2010.

Not so much a matter of cups being half-empty or half-full. Against Stoke City, our cup overflowed.

But – really – if only I had known that we would triumph so remarkably, I would have been able to enjoy the prolonged pre-match a little more.

I awoke early on Sunday morning and was sick with nerves. Outside, the weather was surprisingly damp and drizzly. My mood had taken a downward swing after United’s predictable win against Spurs and I knew that the Stoke game would be a tense affair. Steve Azar was still in town – what luck! – and I got him a seat next to myself as Glenn couldn’t make it due to work. We texted each other soon after 8am –

Chris – Up early, already Jack Kerouac. Nervous as hell. Joining us for breakfast?

Steve – I’ll be there. We need to defend those corners.

Chris – What, at breakfast?

I kept thinking that an early goal would settle us nicely. One at around 11am would be perfect. I picked up Parky at about 9am and we spent the first hour nervously chatting away about the Spurs game ( we both thought that it was bad policy for the Chelsea team to be watching the Manchester derby – it certainly affected us. This was foolish and a black mark against the manager ), the Stoke game, the Liverpool game, the Cup Final, the whole nine yards. Sartorially, we were like two peas in a pod.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – black
Chris – navy blue

I joined the M4 at Hungerford. Depeche Mode were on the CD and the chat quietened down. The music added to the drama and those drum beats banged away at me. There were the usual familiar sights on the approach into town. At around 11am, the rain worsened, but we joined Steve for a Full Monty breakfast in good time. It was to be Steve’s last “proper” breakfast for a while. Again, the talk was full of our predictions for the day ahead. Despite the problems with air travel, many Americans had flown over and it was going to be another hectic one. We zipped past three NYBs waiting for The Goose to open at midday as we headed down towards The Bridge. Thankfully, the rain had subsided.

For about an hour and a quarter, Parky, Steve and myself – to be joined by Beth, who was in the UK for a week after swapping her flights rather dramatically – stayed in the hotel foyer along with the legendary triumvirate of Ron Harris, Charlie Cooke and Peter Bonetti. It was a lovely time and I could see that Steve was enjoying the chat with Chopper and The Bonnie Prince. A few photos – of course! It was of course great to see Beth again and I was very pleased to receive my copy of the CIA DVD from the summer tour. Ironically, I had spent Saturday evening viewing my own personal camcorder film of California 2007.

We then spent two hours in the beer garden of The Goose. There was a cast of thousands, chatting away. A few familiar faces from the NYBs – the Caminski Family, Mike, Chopper, Carrie, Henry, plus many few more…the biggest surprise was right at the end, when Napoli Frank showed up. I first met Frank on the way to a Mets game in 2008 and he left a big impression on me…a real character. One of the NYBs joked that Frank is such a typical New Yorker that he is on the city flag. Anyway, a big old hug for Frank and plenty of laughter – we last saw each other in Baltimore. For five NYBs, this would be their first ever game at Stamford Bridge…for a couple, their first ever Chelsea game.

Meanwhile, in a corner, The Bing were chatting away.

Lacoste Watch –

Rob – brown

News came through that the rumours about the Old Firm playing a game at Fenway on July 21st appeared to be true and we spent a good twenty minutes shaking our heads at this crazy decision. Boston won’t know what will hit it. I was still nervous – of course! – about the game and I almost didn’t want to go to the game…like a school exam, I never wanted it to come. I walked down the North End Road with Parky, Wes and Steve, our paces quickening. Steve spotted Cathy and Dog.

Smiles for familiar friends.

Daryl and Simon were being cautious about our chances. I shared a few worries and my stomach churned once more. Into the stadium and blue skies overhead, with white fluffy clouds too. Real Chelsea weather – we always play better in the sun. I noted gaps in the away corner, maybe only 700 Stokies. We had noted a couple in The Goose…no worries.

Our team, without the suspended JT, was very attack-minded, but I wasn’t sure about Kalou in for Joe. Ballack was holding.

OK – game on. Let’s go.

We began very brightly and I immediately said to Steve that Ballack was covering lots more ground than usual. With him playing a more withdrawn role, he appeared to have more time and space and he seemed to be revelling in it. Our chances came thick and fast. On 11 minutes, a Lampard shot was parried by the Stoke ‘keeper but Ashley Cole miscued. Ashley began as if he hadn’t been away. Great to see him back, but we were sad that Yuri had been dropped. On 18 minutes, Herr Ballack shot high after a corner. We were peppering the Stoke goal. A great cross from Paolo was glanced goalwards by Drogba, but a great save. Drogba then blazed over from two similar wide positions. Surely a goal would come. This was great stuff.

On 20 minutes, we went ahead…what a touch by Drogba out on the right – that was just amazing – and an equally fine cross low into the danger area. Kalou stooped and we went wild. Steve had an up-close-and-personal performance of our goal celebrations –

Alan – “They’ll have to come at us now, duck.”

Chris – “Come on my little diamonds, duck.”

On 31 minutes, Drogs set up Frank with a sublime touch and the resultant shot was fumbled into the path of Kalou. He doesn’t miss from there! I turned around and noted that Anna ( who was over in California in 2007 ) was right behind me after getting a drink. I gave her a hug and a kiss – and so her bloke Kevin didn’t feel left out, I did the same to him.

Happy days.

We were purring. A wonderful sweeping move, from Malouda down in the left-back position all of the way through the midfield, with Paolo taking a defender wide with a run outside, the ball was lofted out to Kalou who was pulled down – penalty! Frank blasted it home and the New York Blues – right behind the Shed goal in the lower tier – went into orbit. I imagined Napoli Frank smiling from ear to ear. This was just blissful stuff and I felt all off that nervous worry dissipating in the Spring sun.

At half-time, Neil brought six of the 1970 team out onto the pitch to perform – for one afternoon only! – a special rendition of “Blue Is the Colour” and I heard Ron Harris’ voice dominating the singing. The crowd joined in and it was fantastic. The six of these Chelsea legends – Chopper, The Cat, Charlie, Huddy, Holly and The Sponge – then walked around the pitch, with applause cascading down. As they reached The Shed, a song began –

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star.
Scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.
And Chelsea won – as we all knew they would.
And the star of that great team was Peter Osgood.”

A lovely moment.

In the second, there was a slight lull, but we then began again…Kalou shot over, Ashley had a great dribble into the box but couldn’t connect when it counted, a few free-kicks from distance. Stoke rarely threatened, but Tuncay looked busy.

“Come on – don’t give them a goal.”

Ivanovic was having another magnificent game. He really has been our most consistent performer this year. Alan likens his upright stance to Gary Locke. I always think his ‘eighties hair-style gives him the appearance of Joy Divisions’s Ian Curtis ( a man whose hairstyle, it was once said, was imposed upon him )…we love Ivan, Ivo, Branno – whatever we call him – to bits and he is a true Chelsea great. He would have fitted well into that 1970 team. I can just see him alongside Ron Harris.

Ouch.

On 65, Nico shot wide, but soon after, Kalou beat the offside trap to score his third and our fourth, though he needed two bites of the cherry to do so. Like Anelka last year against Sunderland, an “inside the six yard box” hat trick.

On 71, Joe Cole’s first run at the nervous Stoke defence resulted in the miss of the season for Malouda…oh boy, how did he manage to miss-cue from a yard? The substitute Sam Hutchinson then sent over a stupendous cross for Frank Lampard, whose exquisite flick over Bergovic was just amazing. It reminded me of Zola’s last ever goal for us, that other deft lob from the same angle, although further out. Five-nil. Superb. It was appropriate that a player called Hutchinson was involved on a day we remembered the 1970 cup win, some forty years on.

Late on – as we joked about 7 – two more goals…another beautiful through ball from Didi dissected the Stoke defence and Daniel Sturridge swept in his first-ever league goal for us. Then, a ball from Ballack to Joe – buzzing now – and a first-time cross for an exuberant Malouda to belt into the roof of the net.

Screams of delight from us all.

Oh my.

After the 7-2 against Sunderland and the 7-1 against Villa – now the biggest ever top flight Chelsea win. And, it goes without saying, my biggest ever Chelsea win in almost 800 games. Steve didn’t want to leave and so as the crowd slowly filtered out, we stayed for a few more minutes, breathing deeply, taking it all in. Way after the final whistle, on the PA, Bob Marley was wailing again…

“Don’t Worry – About A Thing.”

We spent an enjoyable time in The Goose, smiling, laughing and sharing the joy of the lucky souls who had flown over for this one game only. What a performance. I know nothing is certain in this crazy season, but this massive confidence boost is just perfect. A nervy 1-0, with the crowd on the team’s back, would have helped for the points total, but not on any other level.

It had been superb having Steve over and it was a bittersweet moment as we said our “goodbyes.”

Heading out of London on the M4, at Brentford, I spotted a massive ( 20 metres by 20 metres ) advertisement for Pepsi-Max featuring an image of Frank Lampard, streaked in paint, exhorting us to “Max Your Wild Side.” How appropriate. I wonder if the Americans, heading back to Heathrow, spotted it. I wonder if Beth will.

OK – if win it at Anfield on Sunday lunchtime and United lose at Sunderland later that afternoon, expect my car to swerve uncontrolably around 6pm on the M5 Southbound…around Stroud, I reckon.

These are the days of our lives.

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