Tales From The Sticky Black Tarmac.

Everton vs. Chelsea : 22 May 2011.

At 8.30am, I left my village. For the last time of the season, I sent a text to Alan –

“Jack Kerou’Whack.”

On passing through Bradford-On-Avon, I had to slow down to accommodate several cyclists on a Sunday morning race. It was a little reminder that the summer was on its way and that there were other sporting pursuits taking place. To be honest, it has felt that the football season had already finished, especially since we had the “lap of appreciation” after the Newcastle game. On this last day of the season, the focus was elsewhere; the relegation dogfight, played to its nail-biting conclusion for the fans of Birmingham City, Blackburn, Blackpool, Wigan and Wolves. I collected Parky and we were on our way north for the final time of season 2010-2011.

This would be my eleventh trip to Goodison Park and it remains one of my favourite away stadia. The reasons for this have been well detailed before, but it’s quite simple really; a historic stadium, with two stands from the early part of last century still intact, a cramped inner city location, with an atmosphere all of its own, rich with tons of memories of past games.

We chatted away on the drive north and the time flew past. We spent a while talking about the football / music crossover which has been such a feature of the game in Britain. And at Chelsea in particular. From the songs from West Indian ska bands of the late sixties, beloved by Ben Sherman-wearing youths on the terraces of The Shed, to punks and skins of the late’seventies (Kings Road posing in the morning, football in the afternoon), soul boys in the early eighties (wedge haircuts and skintight jeans), through to the house music phenomenon of the late ‘eighties, all baggy jeans, bright colours, ecstasy in the dance clubs and on the terraces.

There just isn’t anything similar for any other sport in the UK. Music and football – the perfect combination. It’s just a magnificent celebration of working class culture. This relationship, in my mind, reached its zenith in the summer of 1990 with the New Order / England song “World in Motion.” We then had the Chelsea vs. Manchester City battle-royal between Blur and Oasis during the Brit Pop years, with laddish attitudes evident in every song, borne from the terraces, and enthralling a nation. At Chelsea games this season, we still see “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” banners. And no team has as many pop star fans as us, from Suggs and Woody from Madness, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode, to Damon from Blur and Gorillaz…the beat goes on.

At 11am, we called in to collect Julie and Burger from their home in Stafford. Time for a quick coffee and then onwards to Merseyside, whack. They are both busy with work, but still loving life in the heart of the Midlands. We managed to spirit two tickets for them out of the ether and they were happy to be aboard The Axon Express for the final game of the season. A few alcoholic beverages were shared between Burger and Parky and Julie spent a little time looking through the CIA book of my match reports from last season.

At 12.30pm, bang on time, I pulled into the car park of the Stoneycroft pub on the Queens Drive. A pint of Becks Vier. A relaxing time, with good people. Andy, Woody and Rob – travelling up from Nuneaton – soon joined us and we sat down for a Sunday carvery, with food piled high on our respective plates. The chatter subsided as we got stuck into the mountains of nosh in front of us.

“Bloody hell, it’ll take me twenty minutes until I reach the meat.”

“Bolton” said Andy.

“Best carvery in the Premiership.”

He then spent a few moments rekindling his love affair with the Toby carvery at Sunderland. Burger bought some Amarettos for the non-drivers. We all agreed that it felt strange to be at a game which was effectively meaningless. I guess we were all there for the craic though – nothing different, there.

We then drove on up to the Liverpool FC car park on Stanley Park and quickly found ourselves inside The Arkles pub. The pub was pretty full and I spent a little time with the other Nuneaton lads.

Lacoste watch –

Chris – lavender.
Chopper – sky blue.
Neil – royal blue.

WeroLoco from Calexico in California had been in touch and we eventually met outside. I had told him to look out for my travelling companion, identified by his trusty crutches.

“Are you Lord Parky?”

I quickly met WeroLoco’s mother, sister and girlfriend. His mother and sister were not planning on going to the game, but we advised them to pick up the two spare tickets which were being offered up by a Chelsea fan. We then sped off across Stanley Park, a force ten gale blowing, and reached Goodison Park just at the right time, with ten minutes to spare.

I made my way into the cramped Bullens Road stand and a large sign inside said “Everton Welcomes Visiting Supporters.” I had a seat in the upper tier and I was reminded of the first time I had seats in that particular section. This was a game in December 1998 and was memorable for being my girlfriend Judy’s boy James’ first ever football game. Now James is – and was then – a United supporter, but I had decided that it was high time that he got to see my team play. He was only ten. To be truthful, the game was poor (no goals, but a double-sending off, first Dennis Wise and then Richard Dunne), but it was lovely to take football-mad James to a game. I don’t have any kids of my own, so this was a very special moment. Despite his allegiance to United, I loved it when James joined in with a few Chelsea songs. It was my privilege to take James a year later to Old Trafford for the very first time. Don’t worry, he was with us in the Chelsea section and I even caught him chanting “Chelsea” at that game, too.

Just before I made my way to my seat, alongside Alan and Gary, my mate Ajax gestured to me and pointed out an actress from Coronation Street – I don’t watch the show, so didn’t recognise her – Brooke Vincent, who is seeing Scott Sinclair (according to Gary…again, I didn’t know.)

We had seats 1-3 in row L, so we were right in the corner, not too many seats away from the game in 1998. In with just a couple of minutes to spare.

Ah, Goodison – the wooden floorboards, the mammoth main stand opposite, the blue paintwork, the detail of the Leitch stands, the Toffee Girls, the “Z Cars” theme.

So, no Drogba, but Torres upfront with Anelka and Malouda.

“I’ve never seen us lose here, Gal.”

And when I said it, Gal’s look said it all.

The game began in bright sunshine and the wind had thankfully subsided. I was well aware that many seats in the Chelsea section were not occupied; I’d imagine several hundred had decided not to travel. Behind us, in the top corner, tens of seats were unoccupied.

The game was played out before me, but this was not appetising fare. An Everton corner was swung in from the far side and a header thudded against the bar. We had been warned. Soon into the game, a healthy chant echoed around the away section –

“We want you to stay. We want you to stay – Ancelotti, we want you to stay.”

And then, not so loud – “Carlo! Carlo!” – and a brief wave.

We struggled in the first period and Leighton Baines was in typical raiding form down the left. A woeful finish from Beckford and a strong Everton penalty claim were Everton’s highlights. A bursting Alex found support from Torres and the ball was played into Anelka but his shot was blocked by Klunk. Generally speaking, we were our usual slow and sluggish selves and only a couple of long distance Anelka shots late on were our further comforts.

At times during the first-half, the whole stadium was silent.

The sending off livened-up the second-half and, at least, the game seemed to be a little more feisty and engaging. I caught John Terry’s nice strike on goal on film – this rattled the left-hand post. His first Chelsea goal from “distance” still awaits.

The Everton goal was a joke, but nobody was laughing. Beckford just waltzed through from deep and shimmied past the convergence of four – it could have been nine – Chelsea defenders.

“After you Paolo.”

“No, after you JT.”

“Your ball, Alex.”

“Micky Droy’s ball.”

“Chopper’s ball.”

“My ball.”

“Sorry Marcel.”

“John Sillett!”

“Get him, Frankie Sinclair!”

“Hack him down, Berge.”

Goodison Park erupted. Our hearts sunk and our support got quieter. I’d say that only JT showed any spirit. Frank Lampard was absolutely woeful – and I’m genuinely concerned for him. I have a fear that his form, so dependent on his vitality and energy, could continue its rapid decline. Torres was looking disinterested and I was begging for him to lose his markers and spin his markers occasionally. We clearly need to change to accommodate him. Mikel – slow and ponderous. Malouda – hiding.

Pass, pass, pass – to infinity.

We had to wonder who had the spare man. It couldn’t have been us.

The final whistle and it was over.

I had my camera at the ready and hoped to take a few photos of the boys down below us. Maybe even one of Carlo. Malouda was playing wide left and Ashley Cole, too. They applauded us. But the only three players who walked over to applaud us were – go on guess, it is obvious – John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech.

Respect to them.

In a poignant moment, I watched as JT stooped to take off his two boots and shirt. He clapped us, but looked very disappointed. He walked towards the fans in the lower tier and presented the boots and the shirt to fans down below. He pounded his chest with his right palm, and then slowly walked across the Goodison Park turf. One man with his thoughts.

The Everton fans were scowling and he pounded his chest once more.

As I walked down the stairs, I noted the rather nice working of the Everton motto “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum / Nothing But The Best” on a large sign. I mused that the Chelsea performance was far from it.

We met up outside the away end, the Evertonians buoyant, the Chelsea fans silent.

After a while to get out of the car park, we eventually edged onto Queens Drive at 7pm. The post-game discussion was brutal but brief. We had already put the game behind us. On the way home, I briefly glimpsed the hills beyond Manchester and wondered what sort of celebrations were going on at Old Trafford. The relegation equation was finally resolved and we were all sad to see Blackpool relegated.

A few Everton cars passed us – and quite a few had “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” rear window stickers (they looked classy to be honest) but I came up with a different translation –

“Forever Seventh.”

We dropped off The Burgers at 7pm and we had another coffee in their delightful rear garden, the sun slowly fading. We wished each other all the very best for the summer, with the season in August not so far away. There is the friendly at Fratton Park, my two games in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, plus the Rangers game too. Lots to relish, lots to look forward to.

As we left Stafford, at about 7.30pm, I received a text from my oldest Chelsea friend Glenn, deep in rural Somerset.

“Carlo sacked.”

We fell silent for a few seconds and I had that awful dry feeling in the back of my throat that seems to appear whenever my mind and soul encounter sad news.

My initial reaction was : typical Chelsea, typical classless PR.

Poor Carlo.

For a while, Parky and I were quietly mulling over the future and the spectre of Roman’s obsession with the Champions League. In Roman we trust? I’m not so sure.

Confused. Sad. Tired. Frustrated.

The last junk food refill of the season at Strensham and the last Red Bull. It is just as well that Bruce Buck didn’t pull up alongside me on this occasion. I may not have been so pleasant as after the Stoke city game a month or so back.

We raced south and we listened to a Jam album. I’ve never met a Chelsea fan who doesn’t like The Jam – and it seemed appropriate for us to be belting out the lyrics to this most English of bands on this most typical of Chelsea evenings.

“A police car and a screaming siren
Pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing, a stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamplights blinking

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tom cat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Days of speed and slow time Mondays
Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
Watching the news and not eating your tea
A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up at 6 a.m. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearse in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summers day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude
Getting a cab and travelling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

I dropped off Lord Parky at 10.45pm and I was home at 11.15pm.

And next season, we’ll do it all again.

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Tales From Planet Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 15 May 2011.

On the Saturday evening, I met up with two of my oldest friends for a few pints and a curry in Frome. I’ve known Pete since our paths crossed in my first ever “proper” football game in autumn 1974 and I’ve known Adie since 1978, when we both played for the school team. Talk was of various memories from schooldays, current news and updates, but football undoubtedly dominated our conversation. Pete supports United, Adie supports Leeds. They love their football, but they don’t touch my levels of devotion. That’s not me being boastful – that’s just the way it is. Neither Pete nor Adie have been to Old Trafford or Elland Road; they still admire the game, but – I guess – don’t buy into the tribal nature of the game. This is the aspect that I find most appealing of all. Take away that and football becomes just a sport.

I think they regard me as some kind of Chelsea obsessive and I guess they are right. Amongst my Chelsea mates – Daryl, Gary, Alan, Andy, Neil, Glenn, Simon – I’m just normal, though. Just one of the lads. One of the team.

Pete and I always have a laugh when we are together, but our friendship was tested in 2005 when the phrase “you bought the title” was used by Pete. I got a bit defensive and we batted many emails back and forth over that summer. We’re the very best of mates though – football won’t get in the way of that. At the Indian restaurant, we raised our pints of Kingfisher lager and I congratulated him on Manchester United’s title.

Adie is more laid back in his support of Leeds. He exudes calmer character traits and I am sure he would be amazed at how wound up and passionate I get at Chelsea games. He’ll see it in the flesh over the summer, though, as he will be with me in Bangkok for our game on July 28th. Adie has been living in Thailand since 1996 and – at last – I am going to be able to take him up on his offer to visit him. We had briefly run through my itinerary at the bar before Pete arrived and I promised to call in on him with guide books and maps for a fuller discussion of my holiday over the forthcoming week or so. He was heading back to Chiang Mai, his current home in northern Thailand, at the end of May.

At 11pm, I left them drinking in the ultra-posh “Archangel” pub in Frome’s historic town centre and I headed home; I had a drive to London on Sunday and needed some sleep.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United – always an evocative game for me. My first ever Chelsea game was against The Geordies way back in 1974. 836 games later, we were to meet again. This would be my 29th Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game (and we’ve lost just three times), a fixture second only to the visit of Liverpool (34 games). Despite our loss to them in the League Cup last autumn, we have a phenomenal record against them. You have to go way back to 1986 for the last time that Chelsea lost to the Geordies in the league at home. Since then, the goals have rattled in. Oh boy. There have been some lovely highlights over the years, in fact.

October 1980.

I travelled up with my father, his former boss, and my two school friends Pete (yes, him again) and Kev (a Spurs fan.) We were mired in the old second division, but were beginning to find some form. On a memorable afternoon, Chelsea walloped the previously fancied Geordies 6-0, with Colin Lee nabbing three. My two mates, only seeing their second or third football games, were suitably impressed with the whole day; the East stand seats, close to the action, the noise of The Shed, the size of the old stadium and the attacking verve of that Chelsea team, which included the two flying wingers Peter Rhoades-Brown and Phil Driver. I remember that I had written in to the Chelsea match day DJ Pete Owen for a record request as a mark of thanks for my father who had been so kind to drive me up for my allotted “two games per season” since 1974. My mate Pete was suitably impressed when Pete Owen prefaced my request with the words “and now a request from one of our regulars, Chris Axon.” My mother would usually write in to Pete Owen’s “Pre-Match Spin” on our visits and it was a common occurrence for me to hear my name being read out at Chelsea. For a kid of ten or eleven, imagine the thrill of that. It brings back goose bumps now, to be honest. Lovely memories.

On the Saturday night, at the curry house, Pete had spoken about an instance from that game in fact. We had seats in the East lower, right behind the Newcastle bench. Towards the end of the game, with us scoring at will, the Chelsea crowd were giving the Newcastle manager, Arthur Cox, some stick. Amongst the hoopla, Pete began shouting –

“Cox out! Cox out!

After a micro-second, he realised what he was saying and glanced across to see if my father had heard. I suspect he had, but I suspect he had a little chuckle to himself and let it pass. I always remember thinking that Pete had enjoyed himself so much that he might have turned his affections towards us. I remember him saying, rather sheepishly –

“Nah, United are my team, but I’ll have a soft spot for Chelsea, with them playing in the second division…they’ll be my second team.”

I should have asked Pete if he still feels that same way.

April 1995.

Before our game with Newcastle United, my friend Glenn was presented with his CPO certificate by none other than Dennis Wise. I was allowed into the tunnel area to watch and it was fantastic to be down in that most sacred of areas. I remember Dennis was either suspended or injured at the time, so he wasn’t kitted out. We had to assemble down by the tunnel at about 2.30pm and, while we were waiting, we found ourselves right next to the Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. Even though it was close to kick-off, he was more than happy to pose for a quick photograph with me and it was a brilliant moment. Growing up in the ‘seventies, Keegan was a big hero of mine. Then, Dennis Wise appeared and chatted to Glenn for a few moments before Neil Barnett called us forward and Glenn strode out onto the pitch. Another lad from Frome being announced on the PA. Another brilliant memory. After that, the day was a bit of a blur. We quickly dashed around to join up with some mates in the North stand and saw the two teams eke out a dull 1-1 draw. But some nice memories of the pre-match for sure.

November 1995.

Newcastle were unbeaten and flying high, playing some scintillating football with players such as Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley in the team. They were at the top of the table and firing on all cylinders. We were just changing to a wing-back system with new signings Terry Phelan and Dan Petrescu filling the wide positions. This was a brilliant game of football and new signing Dan Petrescu gave us a deserved win with a bullet at the North stand end. We were watching in the temporary seats at the South end and the place was rocking. It was a fantastic Chelsea performance, but the best was to come after the game had ended. In 1994, a book called “Blue Is The Colour” was written by Khadija Buckland, a native of West London, now living in Chippenham. Glenn and myself got to know her via her friendship with Ron Harris (in those days, we always used to call in on Ron at his pub in Warminster after games at Chelsea) and, after a while, we arranged to take Khadija up to Chelsea so she could sell her book in the executive areas of the East stand. Anyway, to cut to the chase, as a reward for taking her up, she had arranged for Glenn, my Geordie mate Pete and me to gain entrance to the players’ bar after the game with Newcastle. We shuffled around by the entrance to the tunnel and waited by a door. I remember that pop star Robbie Williams quickly left the bar and we were then escorted in by Khadija.

Wow. Talk about the inner sanctum.

In a small room behind the old changing rooms (which I am sure no longer exists, what with the enlarging of the home dressing room area), we stood at the cosy bar, while Dennis Wise, his girlfriend and mother were chatting in a small group. A few players flitted in and out. I always remember Mark Hughes; arriving quietly, standing at the bar alone, silently sipping a lager. I went over to ask him to sign the programme and I was genuinely awestruck.

Some very special memories.

May 2011.

After swerving to avoid a pheasant and then a deer as I sped out of my sleepy Somerset village, I collected Glenn and Parky and we were on our way. There was sadness in the air due to this being our last pilgrimage to SW6 of the season, but also a shared joy of being able to travel up together, have a laugh, have a chat, have a giggle. Glenn and I had recently been out for a few beers around Frome too and one of the bars which we frequented – “The Old Bath Arms” – had a very special guest a few days ago. Johnny Depp has bought a house in the town – OK, just outside – and he had called in for a quiet pint. Apparently, a local ended up explaining the “leg before wicket” rule in cricket and I would have like to have witnessed that.

“Sorry, man, say that slower.”

By 11.30am, we had joined up with Cathy, Dog, Rob, Daryl, Neil and Alan in the beer garden of The Goose. Cokes for me, lager for the boys. Photos of the lads – one last glorious photocall for the season. A classic array of Fred Perry, Fila, Lacoste, Hackett, Napapijri and Ben Sherman. In the background, a few supporters were sporting the new Chelsea shirt and we didn’t have many positives to say about it. Too much white, too busy, why bother?

I had a chat with Cathy about our plans for Thailand and Malaysia. Only two months to go now; can’t wait.

The Snappy Dressers.

Neil – royal blue.
Lord Parky – purple.
Chris – mint green.

It was a usual pre-match and for those of you who have witnessed The Goose, you’ll know that it was laden with jokes and laughter.

With the news that Rangers were three up at Killie after just five minutes of play, we clinked a few glasses. Though I am way less enthusiastic than in the past, Rangers always get my approval in Scotland. Rangers were “my Scottish team” as a child, though if I am honest, Dundee United certainly came into my affections in the early ‘eighties due to the fact that several ex-Chelsea players went on to play for them (Peter Bonetti, Jim Docherty, Eamonn Bannon, Ian Britton) and the fact that I had a crush on a girl from Dundee while on holiday in Italy in 1979.

Carla B. – where are you now?

We made our way to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. All the usual sights we know so well. To be honest, there weren’t too many fans wearing the new shirts. I still can’t believe that the club has the audacity to change the kit every bloody season.

The big news was that young Josh was starting his very first league game. I noted plenty of empty seats in The Shed Upper, even though the game was a “sell-out.” The 1,500 Newcastle fans were in good voice, but that’s no surprise. They are a good set of lads. I well remember during that 1995-1996 season, they were everybody’s favourite second team and it actually hurt when they imploded and handed the title to the hated Manchester United. Since then, I’ve grown less fond of them, due to their rather lofty opinions of themselves, but – generally speaking – as a few friends have said, I’d rather spend a few hours with a Geordie, rather than a cocky Mancunian or a sneaky Scouser. They don’t take themselves too seriously and I quite like that.

I won’t dwell too much on the game as we all know that it was sub-standard fare. Frank’s corner, for once whipped in with just the right amount of venom, was ably glanced on by the forehead of Torres and Brana nimbly volleyed in past Krul.

I knew what was coming –

“They’ll have to come at wu’now.”

“Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Josh – playing quite deep – played some lovely balls in behind the Newcastle full back for Ashley Cole to run onto. This is clearly going to be his trademark ball. I look forward to seeing it more and more next season. Just after I made the comment to Alan that “I can’t really see them causing us many problems”, JT foolishly fouled an attacker and a free-kick was awarded. The shot deflected off Gutierrez and they were level.

Lee Mason, the referee, seemed to have it in for us. I rarely berate or bemoan the officials, but even I was joining in with the loud booing he was receiving. It honestly felt like we were playing against twelve Geordies.

At half-time, Neil Barnett introduced our most loved former player and he came onto the pitch for a few minutes, waving his stick, loving the attention.

“Roy Bentley – 87 on Tuesday.”

The second half came and went. Tons of possession but very few threats on goal. Carlo made a triple substitution on 64 minutes, with Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda coming on. It was a poor game and we all knew it. The Bridge was quiet, roused only to boo the referee. On 74 minutes, Drogba set up Ashley Cole with a very delicate flick but – for some unfathomable reason known only to him – Cole played it back towards Didi when he really ought to have laced it with his left foot. The look on Drogba’s face was priceless –

“Why you do that?????”

On 83 minutes, a free-kick from the right and I had my camera poised at the melee in the box. I snapped as the ball evaded Krul and Alex nodded home.

Relief. Phew.

Then, a last minute corner to them and the saddest sight; a poorly defended cross and Steven Taylor completely unmarked to head home. The Newcastle directors were up and celebrating in the West middle – Ashley was grinning, the horrible git – and the Newcastle players ran over to celebrate with the Toon Army.

The whistle went soon after…and a few souls booed.

It was with great sadness that I watched, open-mouthed, as 90% of the supporters drifted out of Stamford Bridge before the Chelsea players went on a slow lap of appreciation. After quite a wait, the players followed John Terry, with his twins, out onto the pitch. Carlo got a good – if not great – reception and I noted Drogba waving back at the MHL as he walked past our corner. A wave of goodbye? Who knows? Torres, holding two very small children, was very quiet. He’s quite a shy lad, isn’t he?

The star – by far – was the blonde haired son of Branislav Ivanovic. He was constantly dribbling the ball…first up towards the Shed, then back towards us. By this stage, both of the nets had been taken down by the groundstaff. However, they hastily erected the nets at the Matthew Harding end and – cheered on by around 1,500 souls in the Lower tier – the lad dribbled and poked the ball into the goal.

A massive roar. He pumped the air with his fist and then ran back and jumped into his father’s arms. It was a lovely moment and Branislav was clearly overjoyed. It was wonderful to witness this delightful moment between father and son. We all agreed there and then, that this was the best moment of the entire day. He then did it twice more.

The roars and cheers echoed around the stadium for the last time this season.

It was time to go home.

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Tales From Lord Parky, Burger And Chel.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 8 May 2011.

As the days passed, the sense of anticipation rose throughout the week. By Saturday, I could hardly think of anything else. This comes as no surprise I am sure. I think everyone was thinking the same thoughts. Everyone nervous. Everyone excited.

Sunday arrived and I was ready.

I cleared the debris from the last Chelsea trip from my car and made sure that I had all the necessary match day essentials.

Ticket – check.
Camera – check.
Wallet – check.
Phone – check.
Bottles of Peroni for Parky and Burger – check.
Cans of Coke for me – check.
CDs – check.
Head full of memories from past matches at Old Trafford – check.
Hope eternal – check.

At about 9.45am, I set off from my village in Somerset, now overflowing with late spring greenery and vibrant colours. I collected His Lordship and we were on our way. It looked like it would be a day of sunny intervals and scattered showers, with the sky full of clouds. For a change, no music on the road north; we just chatted away about all sorts. After a McBreakfast at Melksham, we hit the M4, then the M5, then the M6.

Heading towards Birmingham, a car sped past with the number plate “KI55 UTD” and I commented

“Kiss United Goodbye more like, mate.”

At 12.45pm, we swung into Stafford and called in to collect Burger. There had been a flurry of activity earlier in the morning with a ticket up for grabs. However, the ticket in question was quickly snapped up by another Chelsea fan and so Julie was unable to come with us. A coffee apiece and we were on our way.

Burger quickly updated us with news from his hectic life – I hadn’t seen him since Everton away in the F.A. Cup – but talk soon swung around to talking about our great shared obsession; Chelsea Football Club. As we sped up the M6, my two passengers opened up some bottles of beer and I had provided a Midwest Blues Chicago 2006 koozie for Burger. Our paths didn’t actually cross during that crazy Chelsea weekend, but I first met Julie and Burger at Stamford Bridge the following December. We were in deep conversation about the Chelsea trip to Baltimore and Texas in 2009 and I completely missed the turning for Manchester. So, we had to fly over the Thelwall Viaduct and on to the M62 and approach Old Trafford from the north and not the south. This was the same way that I approached Old Trafford on my first ever visit over a quarter of a century ago, when a Somerset coach driver got a little lost on his way to the stadium.

In April 1986, I was a student at North Staffs Poly in Stoke and I had arranged for the Yeovil Branch to collect me, plus my college mate Steve and his twin brother Sean, outside the old Victoria Ground on the way through. Steve was a Derby County fan but was relishing the trip to Old Trafford. He had christened me “Chel” on a boozy night out earlier that season, though this wasn’t, believe it or not, due to my love of Chelsea.

It was, instead, a nod to the London nickname for people called Derek.

“Awright, Del?”

“Chris – we should call you Chel.”

For a few nights, Steve was “Stel” – but only “Chel” stuck.

I wonder why.

The coach reached Manchester in good time – I can remember spotting the towering United Road stand across the warehouses of Trafford Park – but the coach driver then seemed to get lost on his final approach to the stadium. We eventually parked up at the adjacent Old Trafford cricket ground, home of Lancashire, and we were given a police escort on the 15 minute walk to the home of Manchester United. I remember that I got inside with only a few minutes to go and soon lost contact with Steve and Sean. I was positioned right at the back of the small terrace area in front of the infamous K Stand. In 1985-1986, United had begun the season very strongly and had won all of their first nine or ten games – including a narrow 2:1 win at The Bridge in October – but had since slumped, allowing their old enemies Liverpool back in the mix. We had been in the top six all season, along with West Ham and Everton, but had recently slumped ourselves. We had recently lost 1:4 at home to West Ham and 0:6 at QPR. United, as far as I can remember, had enjoyed a recent resurgence, though, so the United faithful – all 45,000 of them – had assembled at Old Trafford to see their team defeat the declining Chelsea.

I remember straining to be able to see any of the ensuing action as the game unravelled before me. Life on the terraces back in the eighties was certainly wild and “carefree” but it wasn’t the greatest place to watch for me, not being the tallest. I’d often watch on my toes, steadying myself with my hands resting on the person in front of me, then end up getting jostled and moving feet and yards in the ensuing scrambles, with fellow fans literally moving as one organic unit. You would often get surges as shots went in and it was like being in a football mosh pit. After many games, I’d be physically exhausted. The tightest of away ends were Anfield and Old Trafford and the buzz was unbelievable.

Actually, despite the usually rubbish views, I miss it badly.

We weathered the storm in the first-half, but – attacking our end – Kerry Dixon broke through soon into the second-half. It was Kerry against Chris Turner, the United ‘keeper, and Kerry coolly slotted the ball past him. There were wild scenes amongst the 4,000 away fans, but the home fans were far from happy. I kept looking around and the seated United fans were only a few feet away. It felt like the whole ground was rocking to the sound of “United – clap, clap, clap – United – clap, clap, clap” as the home team attacked us. I seem to remember a few missiles – possibly darts – raining down on us and I remember thinking –

“F***ing hell – we’re like sitting ducks here.”

Doug Rougvie, good old Doug the Thug, thighs like tree-trunks, gave away a penalty – a penalty at the Stretford End? Surely not! – and Jesper Olsen equalised. With thoughts of getting out alive – who knows what was waiting for us in the dark hostile streets of Stretford – we then broke in the very last move of the game. Speedo squared for Kerry and the rest is history.

We went ballistic; jumping, screaming, pushing, hugging, falling, yelping, punching the air.

The referee soon blew up and the United hordes were silent: we were euphoric. It then dawned on me that we had compounded issues on the hooligan front and my walk back to the waiting coach would be even more precarious than had it stayed at 1:1. I soon met up with my mate Swan, from Radstock, and we safely returned to the coach…one of my most memorable walks back from a stadium ever. To say I was buzzing would be a massive understatement.

We even had a police escort – sirens wailing, lights flashing, policemen on motorbikes – all of the way back to the ring road and Steve and Sean hadn’t seen anything like it. Chelsea had a right old name back in those days and they were loving it.

“Bloody hell, Chel, does this happen at every away game?”

I suspect that I just gave him an old-fashioned look.

No words were spoken, but a lot was said.

I can’t remember what clobber I was wearing at Old Trafford in 1986 – it was the season that sportswear fully gave way to a new code which included fully-buttoned paisley shirts and leather jackets, worn with Burberry and Aquascutum scarves around the face, like urban guerrillas – but I am pretty sure I had a pair of Hard Core jeans, which were de regueur in the 1985-1987 period.

It was the era of scally perms too – check.

At 2.30pm – back to 2011 now – I parked up in the same suburban street as in the Champions League a month or so ago. I was parked about a mile from the stadium, but only about 500 yards from where the Yeovil coach had parked way back in 1986. I wondered if any of those Somerset lads would be at the game; I hadn’t seen Swan since around 1987. With the coffee and beers taking a toll, my two passengers quickly exited the car in need of relief. With nobody looking, they quickly took it in turns to disappear inside a hedge which bordered the garden of a small block of flats.
We were in Manchester. It was the least they could do.

The Battle Of The Polo Shirts –

Parky – Fred Perry.
Burger – Rene Lacoste.
Chris – Henri Lloyd.

Out onto the Chester Road, past the Gorse Hill pub and a few more United pubs. The red replica shirts were everywhere.

“Come come, nuclear bomb.”

The Bishop Blaize – always full of song, the United version of the So.

Burger – his first visit – and I took a few photos. Down Sir Matt Busby Way – it sounds grandiose, but it’s just a narrow terraced street with open ground and a car dealership on one side – with fanzine sellers shouting their wares.

“Red Issue – out today.”

“United We Stand – only two quid.”

“Get your Red News today.”

Further down, Dave Johnstone was there –

“The Chelsea fanzine, only a pound, hurry up.”

David Moyes, the Everton manager, hustled past and Parky yelled “Moyesy” as if they were long lost friends.

I wanted to take Burger down to the Munich memorial and we stood, in silence, for a few seconds. I turned towards Burger and Parky and said “I wonder how many United fans can name the players who died in Munich, you know?” I then reeled off a few names, my back to the memorial, just to prove a point…

“Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Billy Whelan…”

We then walked back up to the road and I stood amongst the United fans for a few moments. I know it’s a cliché, but the United tourists – the “Daytrippers” as the local lads call them, with derision – were out in force. I issued Burger and Parky with a little task for the next few minutes –

“Ruin as many photos as you can.”

With that, Parky spotted his chance and slowly ambled through a group of United fans from Asia just as their leader was about to take a photo.

Classic.

This group had even brought their own inflatable thundersticks. No wonder the lads in the Paul & Shark pullovers and Berghaus rainjackets from Crumpsall, Clayton and Ordsall mock some of their own fans. In the rush for global supremacy, the local populace feel as though the identity of their club is being changed irrevocably, with tourists paying high prices for match tickets at the expense of the local working classes.

Sound familiar?

“Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.”

It used to annoy me – back in the ‘eighties – that whenever Chelsea’s “potential” was spoken about, we were often cited as having the fan base and stadium location to become the “Manchester United of the South.” I just wished that our two clubs would never be compared in this way because, even then, United attracted the glory-hunters and idiots. You know the type – people who purport to follow United, but can’t name their opponents at the weekend. I squirm when I think that there are JCLs at Chelsea now who now resemble the United stereotype.

Shudder.

One more thing…outside the East stand (aka the old K stand), there are two statues. One, facing out, is a lovely bronze statue of Sir Matt. Facing him, twenty yards away, is another statue – of Best, Law and Charlton. It’s the “meeting place” at Old Trafford and, pretty much, the epi-centre of all things United. What a shame then, that there was a massive advertisement for Audi draped behind Sir Matt and four Audi cars, on display stands, right behind the Holy Trinity statue.

There is a famous saying – if United had a heart, they’d sell that too.

I know that United’s fans have complained about similar displays of crass commercialism in the past and I can sympathise with the United hard-core on this. There was, for example, a similar sponsor’s advertisement which adorned a banner on the East stand frontage which tried to commemorate the memory of the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash in 2008.

“Ten” said Burger.

“Ten what?”

“Ruined photos.”

“Good work.”

We barged in to another Asian photo opportunity and I whispered “Come On Chelsea.”

“Eleven.”

We met up with a gaggle of Chelsea lads and then went inside. Parky and Burger were in the corner, I was in the little section of 500 in the South stand. There was a Scouser on the turnstile –

“Hope you win today, lad – and Torres scores.”

Inside, up the stairs and two bottles of “Singha” in the cramped and stifling bar. It was like a bloody sauna. I met up with a few friends – too many to name – and we watched on as Arsenal lost at Stoke City. Although the game was massive, I completely agreed with Alan’s take on things –

“I’m surprisingly not too bothered actually. Whatever will be will be. Just glad we’ve put ourselves back in contention, we’ve done ourselves proud.”

The team flashed upon the screen – I would have found room for Ramires (possibly instead of Mikel) and would have played Anelka instead of Kalou (who, as the world knows is an impact player, best suited to coming off the bench.) My confidence was being tested.

Alan, Gary and I had seats in the second from last row; right at the top of the stand (the same stand that was bombed by the Luftwaffe in WW2) and my mate Millsy was just behind us. He had a lovely experience against West Ham; he took his son to his first ever game and the two of them were picked out in the crowd by the TV cameras at the end of that most emotional match. What a lovely memento of Game #1.

At 4pm, we were roaring – to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

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

At 4.10pm, the game kicked-off.

At 4.11pm, Park had played the ball through to Hernandez and we were 1-0 down, the United fans in a frenzy.
For the rest of the game, we were second best. The midfield was woeful in the first period, with only Mikel showing the occasional bit of form. We were slow and lacked fizz. The second, from Vidic, made our task even more difficult.

Rooney came in for torrents of abuse and showed his class by giving us a “Winston Churchill” – he loves playing the victim, typical Scouser.

We expected a more enthusiastic show from the boys in the second period, but – although we did play better – the step up wasn’t great. To be fair, Ramires played well and gave us lots more options out wide. Frank’s close-range stab brought cheer, but nobody seemed that convinced we would fully recover, despite the chants of “we’re gonna win 3:2.” To be truthful, it was only through miraculous blocks – Alex was great – and woeful finishing that we didn’t concede more. I thought Rooney would score on many occasions, cutting in from the left, working the ball onto his right.

United’s support was quieter, though, during the last 20 minutes…we definitely had the fans worried, if not the team. Torres came on and screwed a shot wide. We knew it was not to be. The Chelsea fans around me began leaving and the United fans began roaring again in the final five minutes.

“Giggs – Giggs Will Tear You Apart Again.”

Groan.

I texted a curt “well done” to four United fans at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Burger had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

Just after we reached the car, the heavens opened, thus providing a perfect Mancunian ending to the time spent in United Land. We gobbled down some Cornish pasties and slowly nudged our way onto the A56. Thankfully, the traffic moved relatively quickly and we were soon on our way south, hemmed in, no doubt, by 20,000 United fans.

We were philosophical – as you would expect – and the day had been enjoyable, despite the result. Burger had thought that the singing from his section was good, but I knew it was a lot better in 2010. With good reason. We stopped for a toilet break at Knutsford – the place absolutely teeming with AON shirts – and as Parky and Burger got out of the car, I asked them…

“Toilet, boys? Need a pee? You’ll need to find a bush or a hedge won’t you? Who are you, the Chelsea Hedgehunters?”

We dropped Burger off in Stafford at about 8.30pm – Julie had watched the game in their local and was sad, but happy to see us. It had been a tough old day. The chat and laughter, so therapeutic, continued on as we headed south, through Birmingham and beyond. As a mark of respect for the recently deceased Poly Styrene, His Lordship had brought along an X-Ray Spex CD and – despite an already sore throat – I belted out a few old favourites from 1977 and 1978.

Then, the last few miles, and a compilation of songs from the early 1980’s – our era, don’t you know? I love the song, but I just grimaced when it came on –

“When routine bites hard,
And ambitions are low,
And resentment rides high,
But emotions won’t grow,
And we’re changing our ways,
Taking different roads.
Then love, love will tear us apart again.
Love, love will tear us apart again.”

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Tales From The Unbeaten Run.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 30 April 2011.

Another amazing game, another wonderful day in London, another busy day with friends. If there is a slight chance that these days, these games and these match reports get to sound eerily similar and contain the same happy themes, I for one will only be too glad. It would be churlish for anyone to complain. Chelsea Football Club – or, at least this current team – continue to surprise me with their spirit and determination. Who knows where this will end this season? Just two weeks ago, we travelled to West Brom with no thoughts of the title. Now – who knows?

Admittedly, we got two massive pieces of luck against Tottenham, but we were due our little piece of good fortune.

The Journey.

Just outside of Frome, I dropped in to a farm shop and bought a few pints – in a clear plastic container – of Somerset Scrumpy for Michigan JR, who had expressed an interest in this lethal drink last week against West Ham. Soon after, I collected Lord Parky at just after 10am and it was a perfect drive in. We commented that we could hardly believe that there were only four games left in 2010-2011. The time has flown by these past few weeks. The end is in sight, damn it. The skies were lovely and clear. A slight breeze. Not so much traffic. Good vibes. We briefly discussed the team and possible formation. We wondered if Carlo would go with a 4–4–2 and employ Ramires wide right to counter the threat of Gareth Bale. However, 4-4-3 has worked these past two weeks, so big decisions for Carlo.

The Music.

New Order from 2001 and The Killers from 2004.

Lloyds.

We were parked-up at a quiet Chesson Road at bang on midday. With five-and-a-half hours to go until kick-off, we were well ahead of the game. Just as well, we had lots to do. You know how it is. We raced down to Fulham Broadway and met up with some friends from North America. Beth was there with Dave from Toronto (formerly from Essex) but also the lovely Texas JR – and his wife, Grace – from San Antonio. JR is the elder statesman of CIA and is well respected. I brought ten old Chelsea programmes, dating from as far back as 1947, to show the guests from across the pond. JR was lapping it up, commenting on former players Roy Bentley and Len Goulden. Next to arrive was Ben (nuhusky13) from Boston, via Poughkeepsie, along with Steve and Darren Mantle. A big welcome to him; this would be his first ever game at The Bridge after arriving on Friday. He was clearly buzzing and it was lovely to feel his enthusiasm. Steve and Darren had a treat for him – they went off to find Dave Johnstone and help realign some of the match day flags and banners which give The Bridge such a distinctive feel.

The veterans from last week, Anna, Dennis and JR, then arrived and joined us for a few drinks. I don’t often go into Lloyds, but it’s not a bad place. Lloyds is just one of the 25 or so pubs and bars which are within a 15 minute walk from the stadium. We’re pretty lucky with respect to that. Lots of cafes and restaurants too – many have gone upmarket of late, but that’s typical of England.

Ben came back to join us and he had another Stella. However, I was concerned that we needed to move on. I gathered the troops and we set off.

The Hotel.

Thankfully, we just managed to grab a few special moments with Ron Harris in the hotel bar. I took a couple of photographs of Ben with Chopper and then sat down beside them briefly. Ben is a fellow Yankee fan and I had been wearing my NYY cap. I placed it down on the table in front of us.

“There you go Ben. You’ve made it to Stamford Bridge. You’re sat next to Ron Harris and there’s a Yankee cap right in front of you.”

Ben quickly replied – “It would be better if Chopper was wearing the Yankee cap.”

Everyone laughed and – for a split second, I toyed with the idea of getting Ron to put it on. I quickly decided against it. I slipped off to the bar and left Ben to chat with Chopper. I’m not sure what was said, but I am sure Ben has some extra special memories of those five minutes. Again, he repeated the comment that “this just wouldn’t happen” in America. It would be like myself sitting down next to Yogi Berra for a quick natter at my first ever Yankees game.

“Yogi – hiya, mate. I’ve got this Chelsea cap…”

We met Gill and Graeme again – always a pleasure – and then we just happened to be at the right place at the right time as Kerry Dixon arrived downstairs. Another photograph with Ben. Lucky boy. Just before we left the hotel, Hilario appeared and posed for a photo with Gill. It was now 3.15pm and we needed to move on again.

The Pelican.

Parky, Michigan JR, Ben and myself slipped down to another boozer, The Pelican, positioned halfway between the Fulham and Kings Roads. I had arranged to meet my good pal Pete – from San Francisco – who I first met at the Chelsea vs. Bluewings game in LA in 2007. Sadly, Pete lost his father last week and I just wanted to personally pass on my condolences. I needed to make a phone call, so just popped outside for a split second. I looked up and saw the face of an old mate, Roger, suddenly appear. I used to work with Rog about 15 years ago in Trowbridge and we went to a few games together. I had lost contact with him and – get this – he presumed I had stopped going. What a lovely moment. He was on his way to The Imperial but spent ten minutes with me, catching up. He now lives down in Exmouth. Great to see him.

In Chelsealand, it’s never a small world.

The Goose.

We eventually made it to The Goose at 4pm and I was just happy to have completed my circuit. Another Coke, photos with Ben and JR in the packed beer garden, chat with the boys. The usual mix of replica shirts for some, designer gear for others. None of my mates were wearing The Crocodile – Lord Parky in a black Fred Perry, myself in a light orange Boss – but I have to say that I saw many lads sporting the classic polo of Rene Lacoste on this most summery of days. Even after all these years – in football circles, 1981 to date – there is nothing like the sumptuous quality of a Crocodile.

Ben was now in Chelsea Heaven, sipping on another Stella. A quick chat with Neil about baseball – Mickey Mantle, no relation of Steve and Daz, I guess – just to make him feel at home.

Good times.

No – the greatest of times.

Let’s just take a moment to reflect.

A sunny day in London. In the beer garden with ten or so of my very best mates. Lads I can trust and rely on. Mates who share a common bond, but also the same sense of humour, the same outlook on life, the same joy of sharing our friendships with others. Six years ago to the day, we were all together at Bolton watching our beloved club of illustrious underachievers, much maligned for decades, finally put the ghosts of 1955 behind us and lift the League title once again. On the day that our captain, derided by many, loved by us, would be playing his 500th first-team game. Ah, these are good times. Don’t let the nay-sayers tell you otherwise.

I walked JR and Ben down to the Fulham Broadway at about 4.45pm and pointed them in the direction of HQ. Fulham Broadway – formerly Walham Green, to give it the former name – is our own little Piccadilly Circus and Times Square rolled in to one. It’s where five roads converge and it’s where I watched on with joyous glee as our 1997 and 2000 F.A. Cup victories were gloriously celebrated. It’s where thousands of Chelsea fans alighted at the old red-brick tube station and then imbibed gallons and gallons of beer and spirits at the immediate vicinity’s three or four pubs. From there on in, the Fulham Road is closed to thru-traffic and you get a real sense of place walking past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall and the CFCUK stand to the right, Bob the T-Shirt’s stall to the left, Chubby’s Grill to the right. Fanzines and scarves, charity collections, voices, songs, laughter.

There had been rumours of a Spurs presence on the North End Road, but nothing materialised. JR had asked me in the pub where away fans drink and I had to tell him that I really didn’t know. Up by Earls Court, maybe. As I approached the West stand, I realised that I hadn’t seen a single Spurs fan all day.

No last minute downpour this week.

I reached my seat at 5.15pm. Not a cloud in the skies. A very slight breeze. Chelsea weather. A bloody perfect day.

Neil Barnett spoke of the anniversary of the 2005 title – with a few pointed barbs aimed at the away fans, 1961 and all that – in the far corner and the two Lampard goals were shown on the big screens. Surprisingly, the crowd didn’t really react and this saddened me.

“Oh God – I hope we are up for it today. This is Tottenham. Nothing else matters.”

Zoom lens out, I tried to locate Ben, JR, Beth and co, but no luck.

The teams were announced and I took a few moments attempting to work out if we were going back to a 4-4-2.

The Game.

We began brightly, but the first real chance fell to Pavlyuchenko, who shot wide after Ivanovic slipped. Didier, playing wide it seemed, played in Frank but his shot was deflected wide for a corner. I took a photo of Didier about to slam a viciously dipping free-kick which slammed against the bar from a good 35 yards out. Gomes got a touch, but only just. However, a little bout of tardy marking from a throw-in presented Sandro the ball and he unleashed an unstoppable effort which crashed past Petr Cech. As the ball dropped down inside the net, I could hardly believe it. The away team ran off to celebrate with the Spurs management team and it was a hideous sight.

“OK – let’s keep going. We have ages to equalise. Keep calm.”

Fernando Torres, playing in a variety of central positions – sometimes in the hole, sometimes on the shoulder of the last man, sometimes in the channels – was full of energy and seemed revitalised after his goal last week. Some of his passing was sublime. However, a lot of the balls needed him to be on the end of…

Essien headed over and, from the corner which followed, a glancing header from Drogba bounced up at Torres, who could not react quick enough and headed over from close in.

“Oh when the Spurs…”

On 34 minutes, a lovely shimmy from a rampaging Ivanovic fooled the entire 41,000 but his brave run into the box was snuffed out. Yet again – despite tons of possession – we appeared to be over-passing and the crowd were again restless. After a bright half an hour, Torres was now quiet. With the half-time break approaching, the ball broke to Lampard.

“Go on Frank – shoot.”

Thankfully, he took my advice and hit a low swerving shot straight at Gomes. The Spurs ‘keeper, always prone to horrendous gaffs, did not stop the ball and it seemed to go through him. Despite a desperate lunge to keep the ball from crossing the line, the crowd were up and celebrating, claiming the goal.

Time stood still.

I looked at the linesman, who didn’t seem to be doing anything. The Chelsea players seemed to be hounding the referee. What was going on? I wasn’t sure, but there was a sudden roar from the Chelsea fans. A massive sigh. We’ll take it.

Amazingly, Malouda was through – one on one – just after but couldn’t connect. As the players strode off at the break, the home fans were baiting the Tottenham ‘keeper, with echoes of chant with which we serenaded David Seaman in 1995 –

“Let’s all do the Gomes” (with flailing arms).

The texts had arrived at the break to say that the goal hadn’t completely crossed the line. Oh well – even better! After the World Cup debacle in the summer, Fat Frank was entitled to a little luck.

As the Spurs ‘keeper took his place in front of the baying Matthew Harding Stand at the commencement of the second period, the Chelsea fans applauded him wildly and he looked bemused…or confused. I don’t know – the bloke looks flustered and confused all the time if you ask me.

Another bludgeoning run from Ivanovic caused problems for the Spurs defence, but he was stopped short with a decidedly dodgy tackle. I took another photograph of a Drogba free-kick from way out and this one again dipped. This was straight at the nervous Gomes, but he just stuck out his hands and never really attempted to save it “properly.” The ball bounced down, but nobody could get on the end of it. We sensed Gomes’ fear and we wanted his blood.

“Let’s all do the Gomes.”

Ramires on for Essien. Maybe a knock, but happy with Ramires joining the fray.

On the hour, the Chelsea crowd – at last – sang as one and the noise roared around The Bridge.

“Carefree – Wherever you may be. We are the famous CFC.”

Torres, jinking here and there, such lovely close control, was looking good, so it was a shock to see him replaced by Kalou.

I had a feeling that the referee had been told that the Chelsea goal “wasn’t” during the break and so would be loath to reward us any 50-50 decisions in the second period. On 68 minutes, we broke into the penalty area – contact.

But no penalty.

The Bridge – me included – was incensed. We howled and howled.

I remained confident that the goal would come. I was nervous that Jermaine Defoe came on as a Spurs substitute and I was hoping that Modric would not feed him. However, Spurs rarely threatened Pet’s goal in that second-half and we continued our assault on Gomes’ goal. A Lampard shot flew wide after nice interplay between Didier and Nico, now on as a substitute.

The clock was ticking.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

A move down below me and we suddenly had extra blue shirts everywhere. We watched on as the ball was played in to Didier and he had his typical run with the ball – shielding it well. Anelka made a move, but almost got in Didier’s way…oh boy! Thankfully, Didier remained in control of the ball and sent the ball in to the six yard box.

An outstretched leg – Kalou – and the ball was played into the goal. The ball hit the back of the net – what a gorgeous sight – and The Bridge went wild.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

Such noise. Such joy. Tottenham – we’ve done you again! I picked up my camera and snapped the Chelsea players down below me. The expressions on their faces were euphoric. David Luiz was screaming with ecstasy. A lone Chelsea fan raced across and jumped on Frank Lampard. The celebrations continued, but the stewards were now trying to get the fan off the pitch. Luiz and Lampard pleaded with the stewards to be lenient with the fan – there was obviously no malice – and were doing their level best to calm the fan down, too.

Calm down? Easier said than done.

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

Down below, three rows in front of me, Big John began banging the metal hoarding of the MH balcony and the whole Matthew Harding, and then what seemed the entire ground joined in.

“BANG BANG – CLAP CLAP CLAP – CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP – CHELSEA.”

The final whistle and we were bouncing. Another Chelsea win over Spurs at The Bridge. Lovely, lovely stuff.

The Chelsea PA played the new crowd favourite “One Step Beyond” and for a minute or so we all bounced along…as it played out, the last bars fading, we were left with the sound of the Matthew Harding singing, deep, resonant, defiant…to the sound of “Tom Hark.”

“We hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham.”

I spotted JT, his 500th game over, and he was caught up in the moment. Screaming at us – screaming with joy.

Smiles all over my face at the end – “see you at Old Trafford, Al” – and my immediate thoughts were with young Ben, over there in the Shed Lower. I really wondered if he was still in orbit. I bounced down the Fulham Road and Big Pete told me that Kalou’s goal was offside.

“Even better. Happy days.”

Back at the car, I handed over the container of Scrumpy to JR and I realised that he had just enjoyed a week that he would never ever forget. He took a swig of the potent, smoky brew and said –

“Wow.”

Wow indeed.

The Journey Home.

We pulled out of Chesson Road at 8pm and Parky could hardly speak. What a fantastic week it has been. A coffee stop at Heston and some Stranglers for the rest of the journey home. Since 1990, we have now played Tottenham at home in the league on 21 occasions and we have remained undefeated in every single one of them.

1990 to 2011 – and so it goes on.

I reached home at 10.45pm just in time to see the “Match of the Day” team dismissive of our 4-3-3 shape and apoplectic about our two goals.

You know what? I couldn’t care less.

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Tales From A Day Of Blackouts And Blowouts.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 23 April 2011.

A quite magnificent day.

This is a good week for us here in England; Good Friday and a day off work, Chelsea at home on St. George’s Day against West Ham, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and another day off work, then just three days of toil before the Royal Wedding – another day off – and finally the second home game of the week against the old enemy, Tottenham. All of that, plus the added bonus of tons of American visitors in town to share this great week with my usual match day companions.

The Easter weekend began on Friday with another visit to nearby Rowde for a Chelsea Legends night. Back in November, Ron Harris and Charlie Cooke were down in the West Country. This time, it was the turn of Peter Bonetti and Bobby Tambling to accompany Chopper. Our two highest appearance makers and our highest ever goalscorer.

It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

Suffice to say, we had a lovely time and I particularly enjoyed talking to Bobby Tambling out in the sunny beer garden about a variety of football-related topics. He is from Hayling Island, down near Portsmouth, and he told me the story about the 1953 F.A. Cup Final. He was a boyhood Blackpool fan, lured by the two Stans Matthews and Mortensen. In probably the most famous F.A. Cup Final of all, Bobby told me that he watched the game through a shop window and was mortified to see Blackpool losing 3-1. He decided to cycle back to his house but was met by the news that Blackpool, inspired by typical wing-wizardry from Matthews and a hat-trick from Mortensen, had turned it around to win 4-3. He had mixed emotions; happy his team had won, but deeply frustrated that he had missed the comeback. It was lovely to hear him recount this story, his boyish enthusiasm shining through. Bobby now lives in Cork in Ireland with his lovely wife Val and he told another football-related story. He was recently coaching some youngsters and he decided he needed to illustrate his teachings with some practical illustration. He took aim and chipped a ball through for the kids, but felt immediate pain in his groin. Val was still giving him loads of grief for this “silliness” but I just had to admire his love of the game. I hope that I am still playing at the age of seventy.

I collected Lord Parky at 10am. To celebrate St. George’s Day, we listened to the light and breezy English pop of The Sundays’ 1997 album “Static and Silence.” I first became a fan of this band way back in 1989 when they brought out the gorgeous “Can’t Be Sure” single. This has some lovely lyrics, laced with humour, and almost Smithsesque in their content.

“Give me a story and give me a bed.
Give me possessions.
Oh love luck and money they go to my head like wildfire.
It’s good to have something to live for you’ll find.
Live for tomorrow.
Live for a job and a perfect behind, high time.
England, my country, the home of the free, such miserable weather.
But England’s as happy as England can be.
Why cry?”

By 12.15pm, the two of us had walked down the North End Road – warm weather, getting warmer – to “Lloyds” at Fulham Broadway and had met up with The Wild One, plus three first-time visitors from across the pond; JR, Dennis and Anna, all from Michigan, all members of the Motor City Blues. JR kindly bought us pints and soon began questioning me on a few Chelsea topics. Beth had warned me that she had a “little gift” for me, but with increasing disbelief, I was swept away with the contents of her Chelsea carrier bag.

I was presented with two magnificent bespoke bounded albums containing all of my various match reports from seasons 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.

Oh boy – I was speechless.

So, a fantastic gift from you to me and I thank you all. I began posting on CIA in 2006 at the time of my trip over to Chicago for the MLS All-Star Game and immediately felt “at home” on CIA. This has always been a two-way street; I love sharing my passion for this wonderful club and, in turn, I get a massive buzz from all of your enthusiasm too.

We toasted each other – “Friendship and Football.”

We spent a nice relaxing time at “Lloyds” before it got too busy. We were joined by Gill and Graeme, who I know get just as much satisfaction out of their new trans-Atlantic friendships as me. Parky and I wolfed down a burger and chips as the American guests flitted around, buying CFCUK fanzines and St. George pin badges.

Another pint.

Then, we moved on to Stamford Bridge. The weather really was heating up now and many fellow fans had decided on shorts. I took a few candid shots of the three Bridge virgins as they rounded the corner and set eyes on the West Stand for the first-ever time. I remember my first sighting in 1974. These are magical moments.

Then, some photos of The King, Peter Osgood, bathed in sunshine, standing proudly outside The West Stand. A lovely time.

Our next port of call was – of course – the hotel bar area where we met up with Bobby and Val Tambling again. Bobby just chatted away to JR, Dennis and Anna as if they had known each other for years; he is a naturally charismatic fellow and a lovely ambassador for our club. Ron Harris then appeared and also gave the American guests some lovely memories with his friendly comments and humorous asides. Of course, these two Chelsea greats (Mister 795 and Mister 202) posed with JR, Dennis and Anna for some photographs.

Another pint.

In the background, the Manchester United vs. Everton game was on a TV, but I was ignoring it in the main. There were a few “oohs” and “ahhs” but the game was scoreless. Then, Parky uttered the horrible words “they’ve scored” and the jolly pre-match atmosphere changed. I had ironically predicted that “United will probably score in the last five minutes” and I wasn’t too far out. So, that makes our task even more difficult this season but let’s not get too downhearted.

Gill had just bumped into Frank Lampard and was all of a shake. The manager was having his pre-match team talk in an adjacent meeting room and a few players were flitting about. One day I’ll provide a plan of all the rooms, walkways and hidden nooks and crannies of the hotel for you all. The daily pre-match routines do tend to vary a bit each game, though. Frank had even given Gill a quick kiss and I joked with Graeme that I would soon be on the ‘phone to the “News of the World” to report that Frank had a secret rendezvous with a “mystery blonde.”

Gill whooped with laughter.

Next, the neat silver hair of Carlo Ancelotti appeared at a window – he was on the ‘phone – and Anna was convinced that he had waved at her.

A quiet respectful chorus of “Carlo” echoed around the bar area.

It was now 2.45pm and time was moving on. We all decamped up to The Goose, a fifteen minute walk away. Andy Wray and his wife were on their way and soon joined us. The Goose was absolutely rammed and, with the heat and the cigarette smoke in the beer garden, not as enjoyable as on other days. There was simply nowhere to move. I was now on the Cokes and had a slight headache, too; drat. Not only were my usual mates standing in groups, but there was a 15 strong group from Herr Grupenfuhrer Neat’s New York Blues to attend to. Amidst all of this, Beth was chatting to Andy, JR, Anna and Dennis and I am sure they were having a blast. I quickly showed a few of the lads the album from last season and they were suitably impressed. Not only are the match reports included, but the album contained many of my photographs, too. Of course, a lot of my mates are featured and this was met with much merriment and Mickey-taking.

I asked Walnuts, who lives in Brighton, if the rumours were correct about us opening up Brighton’s new stadium at Falmer were correct. He wasn’t sure, but promised to keep me informed.

I disappeared off for twenty minutes to take the albums back to the car, grab a headache tablet and I had a little moment to myself amongst the mad activity of the afternoon. It had been a lovely day thus far, but there was a fear that the match would be a massive ant-climax.

How wrong could I be?

By the time I had met up with His Lordship back at The Goose, there spots of rain in the air. I could hardly believe this; English weather…maybe The Sundays were correct! Parky had heard rumours that West Ham had launched an attack on The Malster and I hoped that nobody was hurt; specifically, our CIA friends who were planning to call in and see the Fancast team. As we walked down the North End Road, we heard unfamiliar songs and we soon spotted a line of OB guarding around forty West Ham fans standing on the pavement outside The C0ck and Hen. As far as I could see, none were wearing colours. They were youngsters, maybe the latest incarnation of their “Under Fives” and I envisaged that they may well have been on the Thames boat which had transported a hundred or so West Ham fans from the East End. I guess they had split up into ones and twos and then mustered enough in the pub to create a scene. Anyway, they were full of bravado. I just rolled my eyes at one song which they were singing –

“Chelsea’s a 5hit-hole, I wanna go home.”

West Ham aren’t known for their irony, so I just cringed at this.

Urbane, cosmopolitan, expensive, sophisticated SW6 versus raggedy-arsed Gor Blimey Land.

Simply no contest.

I could tell Parky was itching to hang around and see what developed, but I moved him on. Outside the old tube station, a West Ham fan – foolishly wearing a replica shirt – was obstructed by an indignant Chelsea fan and bumped off him. I only saw two West Ham fans wearing colours the entire day; old habits die hard. Mind you, when we go East, Chelsea never wear colours. Too risky. At the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall, a St. George’s flag was flying proudly atop the flagpole.

As we lined up the turnstiles to the MHU, the clouds darkened and the rain increased. Everyone was in short-sleeved shirts and even flip-flops.

Inside with five minutes to go; phew. I noted that quite a few West Ham had not yet made it in; maybe they had indeed decided to go home, back east to the land of pie and mash, discount supermarkets, used-car salesmen, fake designer wear and old-fashioned violence to anyone outside of the “manor.”

I kept an eye out for the steward who had troubled me against Birmingham City with his warnings about using my camera. I planned a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse with him; I had packed a compact camera too.

The teams – Ivanovic for Ferreira, but thankfully no Scott Parker for them.

Neil Barnett had announced that Scott Parker had won the Writers’ Player of the Year award and this was warmly applauded by the Chelsea supporters. I can’t imagine the bitter West Ham fans doing likewise.

Ah – the John Terry & Wayne Bridge Non-Handshake Act Two.

I didn’t agree with the booing of Wayne Bridge all afternoon, but there you go.

At kick-off, all of the itinerant wastrels from the East were inside and making quite a din. There was every colour under the sun on show except much claret and light blue.

We began strongly in the first twenty minutes. After just two minutes, Florent Malouda was played in and only had Robert Green to beat. His weak shot was straight at the much-maligned ‘keeper. With the rain now falling heavily, a lot of spectators in the front rows of the West Stand scarpered to watch, presumably, on TVs in the stand. Wimps!

Kalou wasted a good chance when clear and then Ba forced a save from Petr Cech on 23 minutes. This was West Ham’s first effort on goal, but they then enjoyed a period of possession. Soon after, a break and despite a desperate run from Ashley Cole to stop the cross, the ball was played in and Petr Cech nimbly pushed the resulting header around the post.

On 27 minutes, Didier did well to create space and he advanced down the right, but selfishly blasted over. This was met with groans from the frustrated home crowd.

On 28 minutes, the loudest thunderclap I have ever heard rumbled around The Bridge. The rain was falling relentlessly and the early evening atmosphere was quite strange. There was a weird feeling. An intense, heavy, gloom hung around. Meanwhile, the pastel coloured away fans were singing away and I don’t think Chelsea were retaliating with the required amount of volume and venom. I was hoping that the American guests weren’t disappointed.

After 31 minutes, a West Ham corner was flighted in and after a kick and a lunge, Petr Cech fell on the ball just before it crossed the line. The natives were restless, especially when a wild shot from Branislav Ivanovic careered off for a throw. Then, Kalou lost possession with a very loose ball and we were very lucky not to concede a goal; a courageous block from David Luiz saved us.

Then, salvation. We attacked down the left on 44 minutes and a delightful ball from Didier Drogba was played between some defenders to Ashley Cole (“f***ing ball of the season” I said to Walnuts) and our left-back played the ball across the West Ham goalmouth. Before I could blink, the ball fell to none other than a previously subdued Frank Lampard and he joyously slammed the ball in to the roof of the net.

We hollered our joy and I saw Frank reel away, leaping in front of 3,000 enemies. It was a lovely moment. I jumped down and looked at Alan.

Alan : “They’ull ave ta cam at us naaaa.”
Chris : “Cum on moi little doimonds.”

At half-time, two treats. Chelsea boxer Darren Barker was introduced to the crowd by Neil Barnett just as a massive fork of lighting lit up the sky just behind the towering East stand. Then, Bobby Tambling was on the pitch, initially carrying a massive blue umbrella to fend off the rain. However, the wind took it and it reversed itself. After a couple of attempts to right it, Tambling said “f it” and threw it to one side. As he strode around the pitch with Neil Barnett, he got absolutely drenched. I bet Ron Harris was grinning up in the executive area.

After the break, more Chelsea possession. A lovely Drogba cross found Malouda who cutely set up Kalou. In space, he took his time but drilled the ball well wide.

On 54 minutes, Michael Essien pulled up and was soon replaced with Yossi Benayoun. After 60 minutes, a great Drogba free-kick was played with pace into the danger area, but evaded all of our lunging bodies. Two minutes after, an almost identical ball from Didier was played in to Frank Lampard but he miraculously couldn’t get the desired touch.

The chances were coming thick and fast now. A thunderous shot by Frank from way out was parried by Green and Malouda slammed the loose ball wide.

“Chim, chimeny, chim, chimeny, chim, chim, cheroo – We hate those ba5tards in claret and blue.”

On 68 minutes, David Luiz gathered the ball 25yards out and steadied himself. He unleashed a venomous dipper which rocked the bar.

At the other end, an equally vicious blast from Ba was well stopped by Petr Cech, who then did well to gather the follow up.

On 69 minutes, Nicolas Anelka came on for Kalou.

Robbie Keane (oh, how we all love him at Chelsea) came on for the injured Noble and was soon sent in with only our Great Dane to beat. Unlike on so many previous occasions, the Irish fecker shot wide and we were spared the sight of his pathetic summersault.

On 77 minutes, Fernando Torres came on for the revitalized Drogba and we shouted his name. He was industrious for seven minutes, full of movement and guile. He soon selflessly set up Anelka but his shot was blasted straight at Gabbidon.

Then, it happened.

It is with regret that I did not have my camera to capture this, but here are my memories. A perfectly paced ball by Anelka was played centrally into space for an onrushing Torres to run on to. The offside trap had been breached.

We stood up. We gulped. We hoped.

Just as he was about to dispatch the ball with his right foot, the ball held up in a Stamford Bridge puddle and we immediately groaned all of those usual Torres thoughts. Unperturbed, Torres kept his footing, moved the ball onto his left foot and – off balance – calmly swept the ball into the net. I think this slight pause caused by that puddle heightened the drama and intensified our emotions.

Stamford Bridge went into orbit. The noise was thunderous. Delirium. Absolute delirium.

I glanced down and, amid screams, I reached down for my camera, resting atop my bag. I felt my brain doing something very strange – it felt like it was about to explode with joy. This goal obviously meant a lot. Too much, maybe. At that moment in time, Torres’ goal seemed like the most important goal I would ever witness.

I then blacked out momentarily and fell back on my haunches. For a split second – I guess – I was gone. I tried to jump up, but my legs were like jelly. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was. I clambered to my feet and – so embarrassed…I thought everyone must be looking at me – I steadied myself and unscrewed by camera lens cover.

Snap – an unsurprisingly blurred shot of Torres and team mates on their feet in the far corner. I think I had missed the massive pile of bodies.

Wow. That has never happened to me before. I have felt very light-headed at moments of joy (Gallas against Spurs in 2006, for example) but I’ve never blacked out before.

As I explained to Alan and Walnuts about what had just happened to me, The Bridge was rocking and the noise didn’t let up.

West Ham were silent.

The rest of the game was a massive blur. Just time for a diving JT chest pass (a first?) and then, on 90 minutes, the coup de grace.

A pass into space from our boy Fernando and Malouda slammed the ball in. Camera at the ready I took ten photographs of the joy amongst our players as Malouda welcomed a smiling Torres to join him. Both were mobbed by the rest of the team and the day was complete.

What an amazing end to the game. I can only imagine what was going through the minds of Anna, Dennis and JR. On my first ever visit to Yankee stadium, my hero Don Mattingly hit his 100th home run (on film!) and I was a very happy man.

But this…this was something else!

Out through the joyous crowds, past the So Bar, onto Vanston Place, we were all singing…it didn’t take long for a new song to be borne.

“Fernando Torres – He sent West Ham down.”

I soon caught up with His Lordship as we sauntered back to the car. We did well and left Chelsea Town at 8pm.

A text from JR : “Does it get any better?”

As we drove past Windsor Castle on the M4, I glimpsed at the famous round tower and spotted a St. George’s flag atop its flagpole. We stopped at Reading for a little indulgence… coffees and a couple of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Parky did a lucky dip of my CDs and pulled out “Soft Cell.” He then fell asleep and I drove on, heading west, not thinking about the title, just thinking of being Chelsea.

However, just two miles from Parky Towers, there was a rumble and I knew that I had a flat tire. We pulled over and, in the darkness of a Wiltshire night, I quickly changed the wheel. It had been a blow out and I thanked the lucky stars I was only doing thirty miles per hour. This delayed my return home; after dropping Parky home, I reached my house at 10.50pm. I only had to wait a minute to see Fernando Torres’ goal on “Match of the Day” and I just thought –

“Perfect timing.”

We’re still in with a shout of the title, you know. It’s a long shot of course, but please prepare yourselves for yet more drama next weekend when we play Tottenham at home.

Love it.

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Tales From The Debutants.

Chelsea vs. Birmingham City : 20 April 2011.

We are in the middle of a busy period. It seems as if the season is in some sort of rush to get itself finished. With just six games of Chelsea’s 2010-2011 campaign remaining, I was well aware of the need to relish every second, every minute, and every kick of every last game of this season.

On the Tuesday, Manchester United dropped points at St. James’ Park. Maybe this crazy season wasn’t finished just yet. During another busy morning at work, I found just enough time to daydream of a Chelsea win over a struggling Birmingham City, allied with a favourable result between our North London “friends”. I told anyone who would listen –

“We could be second tonight.”

Thankfully, I had booked myself another half-day holiday and I left the delights of work at 12.30pm. Easter week is always notoriously busy and we always struggle to fit five days’ work into four. It was with guilty pleasure that I left the rest of my workmates to it. For this midweek game against Birmingham, it was the same scenario as against Manchester United a mere fortnight ago; pick up Parky, home to change, then up on the A303 and M3. A lot has happened in two weeks; too much, to be honest. Out of Europe, for sure, adrift in the league, maybe.

The sky was hazy, but the temperature warm as we headed east. By 4.15pm, I had parked up. I left Parky to head into the pub and I briskly walked down to The Bridge as I had people to meet. My goodness, it was muggy. It felt like the warmest day of the year. As I took a left outside The So Bar, I headed towards the West Stand and passed a chap in his late forties wearing both replica shirt and shorts. This isn’t a good look, mate. Take a look at yourself.

Inside the Megastore, I met Chelsea debutants Mike, Ashley and Brandon. Mike had contacted me a while back on the off-chance of getting tickets for the game. Luckily, tickets became available and “Bob’s your uncle,” as we say. This was Mike and Ashley’s first ever visit to the UK and they arrived via a quick tour of Europe, involving a few days in Barcelona, Madrid and Dublin. Seven hours after landing at Heathrow, they were at Stamford Bridge and clearly excited by the prospect of their first ever Chelsea home game. Brandon now lives In Madrid and was accompanying them on this trip. They were only town for a few days and had an itinerary all sorted.

Chelsea was obviously the centre-piece.

I briskly took the three Americans up to the hotel foyer to quickly meet – you all know where this is going, right? – Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. We posed for photos with these two affable Chelsea legends and it was all very friendly and relaxed. Peter spoke about his time in America in the mid-‘seventies, including a season spent in the heat of a Missouri summer with St. Louis Stars in the NASL. Brandon thought it odd that The Cat called football “soccer” but I think he was just being friendly, bridging the gap between our great two nations, separated by the same language, as the saying goes. Peter Bonetti once played against Pele in The States and knew him from their time at the 1970 World Cup.

Then, decision time. As this was the three Americans’ first ever visit to The Bridge, I didn’t want to force their hands. I was heading back to The Goose, but was well aware that the three guests may want to stay closer to the stadium and get wrapped up in the pre-match buzz there. I was happy with their decision to join me back at the pub. On the walk back down the Fulham Road and up the North End Road, I did my tourist-guide bit with tales of the old Shed, the Osgood statue, The So Bar, the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and the tube station. All Chelsea landmarks. Our bricks and mortar. Our history.

As I handed over the two season ticket cards to Ashley and Mike, I joked that they had left America single, but they were now newly arrived in England and passing themselves off as a married couple, Karen and Dave Lambert, from Frome in Somerset. How very murky. Their friends will be shocked. They would be sitting in the Shed Upper. Brandon would be alongside me in the MHU.

We made it back to The Goose at about 5.30pm and it was again nice to be able to relax a little before a midweek game. In addition to my little tour party, there was a sizeable gathering of the US clans taking place in the pub and beer garden. Beth was in mid-conversation with Cathy, a rare visitor to The Goose, and the New York Blues were represented by some Neat folk, plus Linda and Napoli Frank (who I had inadvertently bumped into in The Megastore, much to our amusement.)

The pints of lager and lime were going down well and Parky was flitting around like the socialite that he is. My boys – Alan, Gary, Rob, Andy, The Youth, Ed, Daryl, Russ – were in another corner. Busy, busy, busy. Conversations were flowing and it was great. I reconvened with Ashley, Mike and Brandon and we reignited some football-related conversations. We briefly touched on the strange phenomenon, at least in my eyes, of the franchise aspect of American sport teams and specifically the movement of a team from one city to another. The loathed MK Dons aside, this simply doesn’t happen in the UK. We specifically spoke about how Ashley and Mike’s home town of Seattle has reacted to the demise of the Sonics NBA team. They believe that the upsurge in support of the Seattle Sounders MLS team is linked to the flight of the Sonics a few years back. Ashley spoke of a friend who was a lifetime Sonics fan, whose dream was to work for the club in some way. He studied hard and eventually got an internship with the Sonics and loved it. He was heartbroken when the owner sold the club and moved the franchise to Oklahoma City. He was offered a job at the new city and reluctantly took it. I commented that it must be like marrying your school sweetheart, raising a family, but then getting a divorce and having to work for her new husband.

I hope that the franchise system never comes into our sporting landscape in the UK.

We also briefly touched on football hooliganism, but that’s a story for another day.

I took a few photos of Linda and Frank with two lovely trophies which they were due to present to Didier Drogba before the game. I believe Beth’s crew have a similar presentation against West Ham United.

The First-Ever Transatlantic Lacoste Watch.

London.

Andy – racing green

Chris – pink

Philadelphia.

Steve – lime

Just before we all set off for the walk to the ground, Rich from the Philly Blues popped in. Even more American visitors are planned for Saturday, when we will be hoping to celebrate a St. George’s Day victory over West Ham. I walked down the North End Road, past the pubs and fast-food cafes, with Rob and he said that some West Ham are taking a River Thames boat down the river for the game on Saturday.

“Yeah, which bridges are they going under?”

We both had the same thought.

There is new signage on the West Stand wall now – the tagline is “All Blues” and there are photos of the new 2011-2012 Chelsea kit. In fact, the new kit featured on the cover of the programme too. I loathe this premature arrival of new kits before the current season is finished. I don’t doubt we will wear it against The Geordies on Sunday 15th. May. Pathetic.

Brandon was already chatting to Alan when I arrived in my seat with about five minutes to go before kick-off. I had my cursory look around. Like me, many fans were in short-sleeved shirts. The clouds were still hugging the stadium in a claustrophobic clasp. Still very muggy. Birmingham City had about 700 fans and just four flags. I pointed out all of the US flags to Brandon. Despite a gate of over 40,000, there were many empty seats dotted around. I suspect we were 3,000 down on capacity. I got my lens out and quickly spotted “The Lamberts” in the Shed Upper.

So, the same team as against West Brom, apart from Paolo in for Ivanovic. I hope Ramires quickly returns. Birmingham were in a white–white–blue reverse of our kit.

We only had to wait two minutes for a goal. Alan had just commented to me about it being a long time since Chelsea scored a first-half goal at home in the league, when Paolo Ferreira sent over a perfect cross for the leaping Didier Drogba to get the feintest of flicks (snap!) and Florent Malouda to sweep the ball home.

Get in.

Mike, Ashley and Brandon – Welcome To Chelsea!

I’ll be honest; I was enjoying chatting to Brandon during the first-half about all sorts of things and found myself drifting away from the game. We spoke mainly about football but various other topics found their way into our chat. It was fun talking to an avid fan with a different perspective to mine. I hoped that having a Madrid resident next to me might somehow jolt Torres into goal scoring action later in the game. The atmosphere, despite our early goal, was quite subdued and there seemed to be a strange air throughout the evening. It didn’t seem like a game at the business end of the season.

On 26 minutes, what a lovely goal from Salomon Kalou. It was most unlike him, wasn’t it? A forceful run and an even better early strike. I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball hit the back of the net before the ‘keeper Ben Foster was even able to move.

Not so Kalou-less.

On 35 minutes, Didier cut in from the left and hit a daisy-cutter which the Birmingham City ‘keeper did well to turn around the far post.

Birmingham had a few sporadic attacks, but Cech was mainly untroubled.

The main problem for me was that for the second time in about a month, an over officious steward warned me not to take any photographs. It was a case of “cat and mouse” with him for the rest of the game. A similar fate befell Cathy against Wigan.

Vince – a former season-ticket holder – was sat in front of the three of us and I explained to Brandon that he lives out in East London, deep in West Ham territory. Sadly, his young son is a West Ham fan. Vince’s son could become the secretary general of the United Nations, find a cure for cancer, become CEO of a company which outsold Microsoft, beat Stephen Hawking at chess, record a platinum selling album, win five gold medals at a future Olympics and bring the warring factions in the Middle East together in peace; Vince would still feel that he had failed as a father.

West Ham. I ask you.

At the break, Tommy Baldwin was walked around the pitch by Neil Barnett. I explained to Brandon that he was known as “The Sponge” by fans and players alike in his time at Chelsea. Just as I had finished talking, the automatic sprayers came to life and the two of them had to sprint away from the water. With typical quick-witted gusto, Alan remarked “go on, soak it up, Tommy.”

Soon into the second-half, from a Drogba corner, a David Luiz header went wide.

The highlight of the second period was the introduction of debutant Ryan Bertrand for Ashley Cole on 56 minutes. He fitted in well and, after just five minutes in a first team shirt, sent over a cross from down below me by the north-west corner post. His pinpoint cross was headed down and in by Florent Malouda.

3-0 and coasting. The Malouda and Kalou Show.

Malou and Kalouda.

A strange old night in SW6.

To be honest, after our ridiculous bad luck at St. Andrews in November, it was only right that there would be Chelsea goals in this game.

On 66 minutes, a double substitution; Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka came on for the two goalscorers.

On 74 minutes, we conceded a very silly penalty when David Luiz uncharacteristically chopped at a Brum attacker – going away from the goal – and the referee had no choice but to award the penalty. It was easily despatched.

3-1.

Not to worry – we conceded just as we heard that Tottenham had recovered from being 1-3 down at home to Arsenal to get it back to 3-3. This cheered us up!

Anelka, playing deep, lost possession on the halfway line and Larsonn had the whole half at his mercy. Thankfully, he was short on confidence and chose to shoot early and his tame effort skidded well wide.

The last action of the match took place after Birmingham were penalised for a back-pass inside their box and the free-kick was only eight yards out. The crowd bellowed for Torres, but Drogba – enjoying a fine game – blasted high over the bar.

3-1 to The Champions – job done!

Brandon and I watched as the team left the pitch, but noted that yet again JT was the last man off, stripped to the waist, beating his chest.

Outside, we met up with “The Lamberts” and they were very contented. Thankfully, they didn’t use the word “awesome”, but I was in no doubt of their happiness.

The four of us soon said our goodbyes – but I made sure that Mike does his match report once he has time.

We dropped into The Goose to catch a glimpse of the Real vs. Barca game from Valencia and to let the traffic subside. Another pint for Parky and a refreshing Coke for me.

We left London at 10.30pm and I was home by 12.45pm.

Yep – up to second place now and who knows? Despite the doom-mongering of a few weeks ago, we’re still in contention.

Current Form.

Chelsea : 5 – 1 – 0

Manchester United : 3 – 1 – 2

Arsenal : 1 – 5 – 0

Five games to play. Let’s go.

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Tales From Pastures Green.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 20 April 2011.

Just another Chelsea Saturday? I guess so.

Just another Saturday of pounding the roads, fun-filled conversations with mates, pre-match drinks, camaraderie with a cast of thousands, songs, junk food, goals, music on the car CD player, memories, triumph, pathos and self-deprecating humour.

Really: what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

The first decision of the day – what to wear? This can take ages, but I was in a hurry. I went dark. Navy blue Victorinox T-shirt, dark blue HL jeans and a pair of black Clarks Wallabees.

I had to zip into Frome first thing to get a few things done. The town is enjoying a little renaissance at the moment; bohemian shops, a thriving arts scene, regular bands at a few venues and a thriving café culture. I love it. My hair cut takes fewer and fewer minutes to finish these days; sigh. A little bit of shopping. Rush, rush, rush. With that all accomplished, I set off and collected Lord Parkins of Parkyshire just after 11am. For the record; a lovely white and muted olive green Fred Perry, jeans and a pair of Adidas.

Still after all these years, we’re football fashion obsessives. If anybody sees us giving in to the easy option of Samsung Wear, please give us both a slap.

The game at The Hawthorns was a special one for Lord Parky. On 15th. April 1961, he attended his first-ever Chelsea game. His father is an Arsenal fan and the Parkins family were living in North London at the time. Parky, as a six year old, was taken to Stamford Bridge and fell in love with the colour blue. Chelsea defeated Arsenal on that spring day some fifty years ago and a life of Chelsea support was borne.

50 Years – good on you, mate.

So, you all know the score by now…the road up to the West Midlands is so familiar. With no Pompey in the top flight, this 115 mile jaunt to West Brom is my nearest away game now. It’s an easy place to get to. I don’t mind West Brom. As I drove through Gloucestershire, we mulled over the sad fact that – unlike 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 – this season was not going to be rewarded with either a league title or a cup final appearance. In fact, we just have seven games left this season. We went over plans for each of those – there will be a big American invasion for the West Ham game, but Parky and I fancy something different for the Spurs game; we are looking at a pub-crawl up the Kings Road in the heart of trendy, glitzy, Sloaney Chelsea, rather than the more working class, football orientated North End Road.

As I drove north, there were a few incoming text messages from fellow fans, from near and far. We aimed for The Park Inn, just off the M5, and we reached there at around 1pm. It dawned on us that it was a case of “Lord Parkins parkin’ at The Park Inn.”

Mike from the NY Blues phoned me to say he was “just at the Park Inn” and we waited his arrival. It soon dawned on me that he was “just parkin” – at a nearby boozer – and our paths never crossed the entire day. Burger had been in touch, on the lookout for tickets. There were a few familiar Chelsea faces in the hotel bar area, mixed in with a smattering of home fans. It dawned on me that the current West Brom shirt is a classic. Simple and effective. The designers at Adidas should take note. I had a brief word with Big John – “a lot of Chelsea fans are wailing like spoilt brats at the moment” – and we then retired to a low sofa and finished off some pints of Becks Vier, some savoury nuts and some salt and vinegar crisps. The sun was slowly breaking through and a gaggle of Chelsea were perched on a grassy bank just outside the hotel.

Our season was over, our team are rubbish? Try telling that to the three thousand who had loyally driven up to sample the delights of West Bromwich.

A Chelsea game? We’ll be there.

For the West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea game in March 2006– the first Chelsea game since the passing of Peter Osgood – there was a pre-planned meet at this hotel and there were hundreds of Chelsea there. At the game, we all held up photographs of the iconic Peter Osgood header versus Leeds United and there was a beautifully respected minute silence before the game for Peter Osgood and also a young West Brom fan that had recently been killed in a car accident. During the game, referee Mark Halsey sent off our flying Dutchman Arjen Robben. Back in the hotel bar after the game, we spotted Halsey walking through a room of Chelsea fans (he had obviously stayed there the night before) and we roundly booed him. Although he had a smile on his face, he flicked a “V” at us and said “F Off!”

Not the behaviour we expected to be honest. Alan and I always think Halsey has had it in for us since that day!

I seem to remember Ron Harris saying that Chelsea used to stay at this hotel back in the ‘seventies when playing at venues in that West Midlands area.

On the 15 minute walk to the stadium, we passed a cricket game in progress and then a little group of teenagers sharing a jumbo spliff. A few vans were selling hot dogs, burgers, steak sandwiches and bags of pork scratchings. At the stadium, we turned right past the main stand and we were soon in the Chelsea area.

This was my sixth visit to The Hawthorns with Chelsea. I had a lovely seat, a third of the way back, just behind the goal. The stadium has changed over the years, but has kept the same cosy feel. It’s odd that the club has decided to “do an Ibrox” and enclose the corners with unsightly grey steel, but I guess they have attempted to keep the noise in. A throstle – the club symbol – is perched in the north-east corner against all that steel. It was almost camouflaged.

The West Brom fans, sharing that south end…the Smethwick End…were in full voice and I was impressed with a couple of new songs in their repertoire, including a club song which was based on the famous “The Lord Is My Shepherd” hymn. I couldn’t decipher all the lyrics, but I heard

“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.”

Maybe I have heard this before, but I certainly can’t remember it. After a few shouts of the surely surreal “Hodgson’s Barmy Army”, they asked us the age old question “WWYWYWS?” and I turned towards them and pointed “here.”

I then mentioned to Gal, stood alongside me, a game in January 1986 when a crowd of only 10,300 saw Chelsea (in all red) defeat West Bromwich Albion in a top flight game. I well remember us leaving the ground that day – we had seats in the old Rainbow Stand – singing “We’re Gonna Win It All!” and actually believing it…we were in contention in all of the three major trophies and the team was playing some super football, with Dixon, Speedie and Nevin at their zenith. A week later, Kerry was injured against Liverpool in an F.A. Cup tie that we lost and we were soon defeated by QPR in the League Cup too. I always class that game at The Hawthorns as the high water mark of that iconic 1983 to 1986 Chelsea team.

So, West Brom…where were you in January 1986?

The Chelsea team began rather sluggishly despite buoyant support from the travelling hordes. In my mind, we were back playing a 4-3-3 with Florent Malouda upfront with Drogba and Kalou. I really wasn’t sure, though. A Malouda effort whistled wide after just two minutes, but West Brom then enjoyed a period which caused us harm. Our midfield trio were giving up too much space and West Brom broke and Morrison prompted Mulumbu to hit over.

On 16 minutes, our worst fears were realised. A fine move from the home team and the ball was played in to their player of the moment Odemwingie. Our defence was caught rather flat-footed and Odemwingie sublimely chipped an advancing Cech. With that, the home fans to my left were bouncing like fools and the stadium was rocking.

“Oh God – here we go again.”

Not to worry. Our midfield got more involved and we were soon asking questions. On 21 minutes, a lovely ball from Ashley Cole was played inside the full-back and Florent Malouda crossed into the danger area. A scramble in the West Brom defence and the ball broke to Drogba who crashed the ball in.

Soon after, Drogba made a trademark run from deep, fending off Baggy challenges, and shot from distance. Carson could only parry the shot into the path of the much-maligned Kalou who expertly despatched the rebound into the far corner. It really was a fine finish. Gal, to my left, had been giving Kalou a predictably tough time and, amid bouncing, I just gave him a big old hug. With this, 3,000 home fans to my left sat down.

A Frank Lampard free-kick was whipped in with pace and swerve, but Carson reacted well and palmed the shot over. We were now rampant and our support was rocking. Just before half-time, Frank broke and calmly despatched the ball into the goal just inside the left-post. Straight after, the more buoyant support towards the rear of the stand began a lovely, self-deprecating chant and we all soon joined in:

“And now you’re gonna believe us, and now you’re gonna believe us, and now you’re gonna believe us, we’re gonna win F-All.”

Proper Chelsea.

We were buoyant at the break and fully expected more goals and even…whisper it…one from “you-know-who.” I briefly met a clearly jet-lagged Beth during the interval.

As the game restarted, the away fans baited the home club with a song in honour of the much-loved and respected hero of our 1997 and 2000 F.A. Cup triumphs –

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one Di Matteo – one Di Matteo!”

Two quick offsides soon into the second-half set the tone. A Drogba lob from way out was just over. I lost count of the number of times that we broke at will down that left flank. The interplay between Malouda and Cole was excellent and, again, I had to admire the unharnessed energy of The World’s Best Left-Back.

To be honest, the second-half was a blur. It was all Chelsea. Prompted by an excellent Mikel and Essien, plus a rejuvenated Lampard, we broke at will and had numerous chances to further our 3-1 lead. We were guilty of over-elaboration at times and I bellowed “come on – we’re not Arsenal.” A deflected Kalou shot, after a fine dribble and shimmy inside the box, was deflected up onto the bar.

Torres was warming up and we yelled for his introduction. Instead, Carlo reverted to type and the first substitution was very safe; Bosingwa for Ivanovic. Come on Carlo, get Torres on…give him a run. I still have faith in the manager but he does himself no favours at times. Two stooping Kalou headers went wide. Chance after chance. Tons of possession.

At The Hawthorns, there is a large bakery opposite the north stand (the company I work for once did the transport for them and I parked on their site at a game in 2003). Throughout the second half, they must have been baking a massive batch of hot-cross buns, because there was a sweet aroma of dough, orange peel and cinnamon which wafted around the stadium. It was quite lovely, in fact. It sure beat the usual aromas associated with football matches…’orse**** and ‘amburgers.

Yossi was introduced for Frank Lampard and we presumed that Torres wouldn’t be far behind. The Torres chants continued. It was plain for all to see that we are still with him.

At last, but with just eight minutes remaining, Carlo brought on Torres for the excellent Drogba.

What followed was car crash football, with the home fans mocking Torres’ price tag, and two or three moments of pure anguish.

On 88 minutes, a lovely ball in to Torres on the edge of the box. A sidestep past Carson and the Spaniard slotted the ball in.

Oh boy – at last – the draught is over – let’s celebrate!

No! A linesman’s flag and offside. I had lost count of the number of offsides during that second-half and this was the killer. What bad luck.

Torres then slipped – or was he fouled? – in the box and the West Brom fans howled.

Then, a free-kick and John Terry had a close chat with Torres. I kept my photo focussed on Torres as he spun away from his marker. Oh, how I wanted to capture his first Chelsea goal on film. The ball was played to the edge of the box. I snapped just as Torres kicked and missed – a football air shot – and the entire Chelsea support groaned.

The groan could be heard in Pakistan, Australia, Kenya and the USA.

At the other end, West Brom had a couple of late chances, but they had been totally overrun. A cross was met with a header which Cech easily saved. The last Chelsea attempt on goal was from an unlikely source. John Terry juggled the ball and unleashed a great volley which Carson did well to save. One of these days, JT will score a blinder.

I just can’t believe we didn’t score any goals in that rampant second-half.

The players came over to thank us for our support. JT took off his lime green shirt and, despite the protestations of an overzealous steward, gave it to a fan at the front. I slowly made my way out. As I waited for Parky to emerge, I chatted to a few mates. Parky, full of smiles, said that David Luiz had given his shirt to one of our disabled fans and the fan was overcome with joy.

On the walk back to the hotel, we devoured a bag of pork scratchings and apple sauce.

Such decadence.

We watched the first-half of the Mancunian semi-final in the hotel bar, but then headed south. We avoided the radio – if we listened, we would jinx it. Instead, we listened to The Style Council, Sex Pistols and Soft Cell. The cloudy skies over Worcestershire soon brightened up as I drove past Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester. The Malvern Hills to my west were simply stunning.

I had packed a couple of bottles of Peroni as a mark of celebration for Parky’s 50th anniversary. As I drove, he drank. A familiar scenario.

The F.A. Cup semi-final result was not known to us until I got back to Parky’s village at about 8pm.

It was the end to a perfect Chelsea Saturday.

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