Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, like.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From Three Seasons In One Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 1 February 2020.

We were parked up on Shakespeare Street, a red-bricked terrace street about half a mile from the King Power Stadium, at about 10.15am. I have been parking here for all the visits to Leicester City ever since my first visit to their new stadium in 2015. For many years, I never made it to Leicester. My first visit was during 1984/85 – more of that later – but for the next thirty years I didn’t make it, for various reasons. Before I was a season ticket holder, I was never sure of a ticket. Since I became a season ticket holder, I wasn’t always able to attend due to financial constraints, circumstances and then personal choice. I was on holiday in the US for our FA Cup game in 2004, I was trapped in my village after a sudden snowfall for our FA Cup game in 2018. For our League Cup game a few seasons back, I simply chose not to go.

But Shakespeare Street serves us well. It is to the south of King Power Stadium, so after the game it affords relatively quick access onto the city’s ring road and then further escape routes. I was tipped off about it by my friend Tim, who I have known – through work – since 2003. Tim and I had arranged to meet at “The Counting House” pub before the game and I quickly texted him to let him know I was already parked up.

We had set off from Frome at 7am. It was a fine trip up from the south-west of England. It was great to have Parky with us again. From Mells to Frome to collect PD, to Bradford-on-Avon, to Holt for Parky, through Melksham, past Chippenham, past Malmesbury, past Cirencester, past Bourton-on-the-Water, past Stow-on-the-Wold, through Moreton-in-Marsh, through Wellesbourne, past Warwick, past Coventry, to Hinckley.

And Leicester.

A straight line.

Along the Fosse Way, the Roman road, to see Roman’s legions in the heart of England.

It is one of my favourite roads.

Under the familiar railway bridge, PD and Parky strode slowly on. The sun caught the iron of the bridge against the rich blue of the sky above. It was cold, but not bitterly so. We reached “The Counting House” at 10.45am and it was already open. It was packed, predominantly with Chelsea. We sat outside.

One single pint of lager apiece, not much time nor need for anything else.

Tim and his son Oliver soon arrived, last featured in these reports for the 2015 game. We chatted a little about football, a little about work, a little about football again.

Tim’s company has recently taken some office furniture for us down to Geneva which would eventually end up at the UEFA HQ in Nyon.

Oliver was trusted with taking the photographs.

“You’re not charging me are you? I know what your father is like.”

Another work acquaintance – a fellow P&O work colleague – Sally then arrived and it was lovely to see her once again. Sally covered me while I was on holiday to see Chelsea in the US in 2009 and although we have both left P&O we have kept in touch. I have not seen her since 2009. Where does the time go? And who could possibly have predicted that both of our teams would have become league champions in the ensuing years.

After Chelsea’s twin successes in 2004/5 and 2005/6, success was in no way guaranteed. That we have won the league on three further occasions is magical. For Leicester City to have won it in 2015/16 is beyond words.

I gave Sal a hug.

At just before midday, Tim, Oliver and I set off.

There was talk of the old ground, Filbert Street, just a few hundred yards to the north. In the 2015 match report, I mentioned the 1985 visit.

“I spotted the large electricity pylons and associated electricity sub-station that I had recognised from my visit to Filbert Street in February 1985. The station was just to the south of Filbert Street. It is just to the north of the King Power Stadium; the two sites are very close. I also spotted the new stand roof at Leicester’s Welford Road rugby union stadium too. I remember being escorted past that stadium, a very thin police escort at that, after the game at Filbert Street all those years ago.”

By some odd quirk, the game in 1985 was on Saturday 2 February. The two games almost exactly collided.

Yes, I have strong memories of that match in 1985. In fact, I always have vivid and intense memories of those first one-hundred Chelsea games that I attended.

I travelled alone, by train, from Stoke to Derby and then a change of trains to Leicester. A solitary walk to Filbert Street and its gorgeously lopsided stands; two huge, two miniscule. I had plenty of time on my hands. I circumnavigated the ground, nestled alongside terraced streets. I met Glenn inside, in the seats alongside the pitch; he had travelled up from Frome with a Crystal Palace fan, though in the subsequent years neither of us can remember his name. We had loads there. It kicked-off in the top tier of the double-decker behind the goal. There were pockets of Chelsea inside the home areas, no doubt intending to “mix it.” Chelsea in the yellow Le Coq Sportif. Eddie Niedzwiecki in a red jersey. We drew 1-1, an early Gary Lineker goal but David Speedie equalised with a penalty. After the game, there was indeed a minimal police escort, but a lot of Chelsea kept peeling off to front up with mobs of locals. Those narrow terraced streets, like at so many old grounds, were so difficult to police. Passing a park, now Nelson Mandela Park, I looked back to see fights breaking out everywhere. I remember standing on a platform at the station, saying “goodbye” to Glenn as he headed back to Frome, while I waited for a train back to Derby. The atmosphere in the train station was still feral a good hour after the game. There was still a huge malevolent buzz in the air.

A different era.

Outside the King Power, I bumped into the two Neils from Nuneaton. Thoughts of the 1984/85 era came to our minds again. On the previous day, I was stunned and saddened to hear that Dale Jasper – a Chelsea player in 1983/84 and 1984/85 – had passed away at the early age of just fifty-six.

It was a shocking piece of news.

Because Dale Jasper only played a few games, around fifteen, and because he was so young at the time, he will always remain encapsulated in my memory as “young Dale Jasper”, even though he was eighteen months older than me.

A few close friends were choked when we heard the news on Friday.

One of the 1983/84 team – my dream team, my dream season, my favourite ever year – was no longer with us. And it seemed impossible that young Dale Jasper was the first of the gang to die.

There was a lovely eulogy to Dale Jasper by Pat Nevin on the official CFC website. Pat, like me, likened him to Glenn Hoddle. In an era of rough and tumble, the lithe Jasper could certainly control a ball and “ping” a pass. I saw his debut, the iconic and infamous 3-3 at Ninian Park in 1984, and he was also present at the equally iconic and equally infamous game at Highbury later that year. He played in the “Canoville” game at Hillsborough, the 4-4, in 1985, but also gave away two penalties in the League Cup semi-final at Roker Park in the same League Cup campaign.

Dale Jasper certainly packed a lot into his short Chelsea career.

He later played for Brighton & Hove Albion and Crewe Alexandra.

He was on the same Facebook group as myself. I occasionally “liked” one or two of his comments, though we were not Facebook friends. I just wanted to share the love for a player that I admired, albeit briefly.

The two Neils and I spoke about Dale Jasper.

RIP.

These photos from inside and outside Filbert Street show the double-decker, shared between home and away fans, and Wee Pat racing over to sign an autograph for some lucky Chelsea fan.

In 2015, I sat away from the rest of the Chelsea support.

“Due to the club’s cock-eyed decision to let tickets for this potentially key fixture to be sold with no loyalty points system in operation, Parky unfortunately missed out. I therefore needed to ask for a favour from Tim for an extra ticket. Within ten minutes of my call, Tim sorted me out a ticket in the home stand. On the basis that I could trust myself among the home fans rather than Parky, we agreed that it would be circumspect for him to have my ticket alongside Alan and Gary in the away corner. And I was in Tim’s seat, incognito. Everyone was happy.”

That was a great game – remembered for an incredible sunset – and I was, fortuitously at the right end to capture celebrations of our three second-half goals. It was a fantastic night. That fifth title was within touching distance.

Back to 2020, I made it inside the stadium – no more than fifteen yards away from my seat in May, but behind the corner flag this time – with about fifteen minutes to go.

I approached Alan and Gary.

“Alright lads? Been a tough week.”

For not only had the Chelsea family lost Dale Jasper on Friday, we also lost Chris Vassallo on Wednesday. I only knew Chris over the past five years; I seem to remember chatting to him in Tel Aviv in 2015 for the very first time. But every time we brushed past each other, he would offer his hand and say “alright, Chris” and I would do the same. He seemed a lovely bloke. Always there. As kick-off approached, I looked hard to see if I could spot his close friends Ali and Nick. I spotted them, quite a few rows back, and patted my chest.

The teams arrived.

I took a photo and posted it on “Facebook.”

“Remembering Chris and Dale. Let’s go to work, Chelsea.”

The big news was that Kepa was no longer our ‘keeper. In came Willy Caballero. I was quite surprised that Tammy Abraham had been declared to be match-fit. Pedro retained his place ahead of Willian. Another slight surprise.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Pedo – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

What a fine first-half. In fact, very soon into it, I commented to Alan “much better than last season’s game” which was truly, truly horrific.

The low winter sun was causing Kasper Schmeichel a few problems as Chelsea dominated the game from the off. We passed well, and used the flanks. The away crowd were right in to the game from the off, with plenty of noise booming around the north-east corner. There was the usual expected “bants” between both sets of fans, though the geezer in the adjacent Leicester section with the drum needed to be constantly reminded of his “hobbies”.

Frustratingly, there was an “air shot” from Callum Hudson-Odoi and this drew moans and groans from all. This seemed to affect his confidence a little, and his play was a little within himself. A cross from our left from Dave then just evaded Tammy Abraham. More groans. But then, lovely, an immediate chant of support.

“Oh Tammy Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

Top marks.

Despite Callum’s troubles on our right, Reece James took up the gauntlet. He was soon attacking at will down that flank after being released by various team mates. One sumptuous cross into the danger area was just perfection but Tammy read it slightly late.

A ball was played in, by Pedro I think, and Tammy twisted inside the box. There was a slight hint of a trip. He was certainly sprawled on the turf.

After a while, the Chelsea crowd – not Alan, not Gary, not me, not Parky – screamed.

“VAR. VAR. VAR. VAR.”

Give me strength.

After the usual lengthy delay, the call did not go our way.

The Chelsea crowd changed their tune.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR.”

Alan looked at me and I looked at Alan.

“They can’t have it both ways, Al.”

Sigh.

“Fuck me, how do these morons find their way to work in the mornings?”

I can only hope that these people, if they voted on the European Union referendum in 2016, voted with a little more conviction and a little less fickleness than with which they now vote for VAR.

Midway through the half, the Chelsea noise diminished slightly, there was a classic Leicester City chance for Jamie Vardy but Caballero saved brilliantly well. It was their sole chance thus far. Pedro was involved often in this period, and one halting run ended up with a subtle lob towards goal, but Schmeichel back-peddled well and tipped over. Callum was trying to get into the groove. But one step forward, two steps back. The diagonal from Rudiger, and from others, to Reece and Callum was a common occurrence.

There was a hint of rain, but mainly the sun shone.

We kept driving at the Leicester defence. Reece James was solid, he had focus, and he was our finest player of the half. Another cross from Reece, right on the money, and another whisker away from Tammy. A rushed shot from Callum ballooned over the bar. More groans.

But the home team were now coming into the game. Efforts from them caused a little worry for our defence.

There was a classic chance for Vardy just before the break.

“Here we go.”

Amazingly, he fluffed his lines.

Just after, a Leicester City corner was met by a strong unchallenged leap by Hamza Choudury, but his equally strong header was down but wide.

Phew.

In the first minute of the second-half, a corner to Chelsea from the same side of the ground as the Leicester effort before the break. Mason Mount hit it deep, and the ball fell at virtually the same place as the Leicester cross. Rudiger rose, repeated the Choudhury downward header, but this time the ball ended up in the goal.

GET IN.

Alan : “Thay’ll ‘ave ta come at us nah.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

There was a magical reflex save from close in by Caballero from Ben Chilwell – arms and legs at all angles – but Leicester were back in this game.

As Harvey Barnes l approached, I yelled.

“Don’t let him come inside ya.”

With that, he did. The shot took a deflection and it curled and spun past the dive of Oor Wullie.

Bollocks.

Barnes’ little pirouette in front of us made me ill.

I turned to Al.

“Game of two halves.”

We were letting our hold slip in this half and our attacking play quickly slowed.

On 56 minutes, Dale Jasper’s age, I hoped for a chant in his honour.

There was nothing, nothing at all. There had been nothing all game.

No words.

Ten minutes later, a cross from the Leicester City rose high, and I watched Caballero react to it. He watched the ball fall and he raced, unsure of himself, towards it, but it fell way in front of him. I watched as he raced back. The ball was recycled – is that the buzz word these days? – and it fell at Ben Chilwell’s feet. He slammed it home. Caballero was close to it, but not close enough. I am, if I am honest, not sure if he had not carried out his wild sortie he would still have saved it.

I certainly felt sorry for Willy, who until then had been more than fine.

But I did turn to Alan and say :

“I am sure Kepa would have stayed in his six-yard box.”

And I absolutely felt sorry for Frank, his gamble – which is what it certainly was – had backfired.

Oh these defensive lapses, Chelsea.

Fucksake.

There was another fine Caballero save. This drew some praise.

[Inside my head] : “We seem to have run out of ideas. Maybe we need to lump it to Rudi again.”

Seven minutes after we went behind, Dave was fouled on our left. Mason Mount floated it in. This was another long, deep cross, and Toni Rudiger rose again. Unlike the first goal, a sudden downward stab, this was a lofted floating lob that dropped wonderfully into the yawning goal, with Schmiechel nowhere.

We celebrated that one truly, madly, deeply.

Get in.

Frank Lampard rang some changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Willian for Pedro.

Then, very oddly.

Barkley for Abraham.

Well, answers on a postcard.

Gary and I quickly discussed false nines and we didn’t like it.

“Regardless of the formation, every team still needs a goal scorer.”

Then, I felt dirty for even thinking it…

[Inside my head] : “Surely this isn’t a Mourinho-esque swipe by Frank at the board for not backing him in his search for an elastoplast striker in the January window?”

“Nah.”

Our play ran out of ideas. Willian did well at first then dipped. Barkley struggled. In the last few minutes, the home team were gifted two golden chances.

A Johnny Evans header, wide.

Phew.

A shot from Harvey Barnes, wide.

Phew.

Then, the ball was played in to our box and Rudiger seemed to turn and flick his hand towards the ball. Everyone around me feared the absolute worst, we honestly did.

No penalty.

Phew.

At the final whistle, some positives surely.

A good game, a point apiece was a fair result. Leicester City are no mugs, a fine team. Drawing at the team in third place is absolutely alright.

On the way out, I chatted to a few mates. Our first-ever Winter break is upon us. Mark is off to Las Vegas, Scott is off to Australia. I am not honestly sure where Chelsea are ending up – a place in the sun surely? – but I am off too.

I am off to Buenos Aires on Tuesday for some sun and some football.

We reconvene in over two weeks for the visit of Manchester United.

See you there.

Postscript : 1985 / 2015 / 2020 Updated.

Attendances.

1985 – 15,657.

2015 – 32,021.

2020 – 32, 186.

Capacities.

1985 – 29,000.

2015 – 32,500.

2020 – 32,312.

Away Fans.

1985 – 4,000.

2015 – 3,000.

2020 – 3,000.

Seat Tickets.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game.

2015 – £40 in advance.

2020 – £30 in advance.

Club Owners.

1985 – English.

2015 – Thai and Russian.

2020 – Thai and Russian.

The Chelsea Players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish.

2015 – Czech, Serbian, Spanish, English, Belgian, Brazilian and Ivorian.

2020 – Argentinian, English, Danish, German, Spanish, French and Italian.

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin.

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa.

2020 – Kante and two others to be decided upon on a weekly basis.

Chelsea Kits.

1985 – all yellow.

2015 – all yellow.

2020 – black and orange.

Chelsea Songs.

1985 – “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in.”

2015 – “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

2020 – “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

After The Game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere.

2015 – Normality.

2020 – Normality and a cheeseburger with onions.

1985

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUMHLnVJLpg

2015

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrSivwfgFnc

2020

Parky, Gary, Alan and myself featured after our first goal.

https://www.chelseafc.com/en/videos/v/2020/02/01/_-antonio-rudiger-brace-earns-chelsea-a-point-on-his-100th-blues-Zxa2w0ajE6xzyOKeMoOqaZEbI7CrShWt?fbclid=IwAR0-UYXfbmQWYffN3oyCA_Jej4c_llJAMztwJ8_ak-cCf6CH8_76MA9Iijg

 

Tales From The Minerva

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

The game? That would take care of itself.

Let’s go to Hull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The winds howl over these flat lands.

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

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

Bloody hell, a real city on the edge.

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

Welcome to Hull.

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

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

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

Much banter followed.

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

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

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

But we ignored him.

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

He looked over and said :

“Ha, is that your first-aid kit?”

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

Like a fungus.

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

At about 11.45am we caught a cab into town.

The cab driver was gruff.

“I fucking hate Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PD : “That was to let the rats out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hull on Earth?”

No.

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

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

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

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

But get in on time I did.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

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

Frank Lampard chose this starting eleven :

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Barkley – Kovacic – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pedro

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

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

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

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

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

So, back to 2020.

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

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

It was our first real attack.

Get in.

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

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

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

It was as if we were attempting to crabwalk.

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

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

Hot and cold.

Noise and quiet.

Stillness and mayhem.

Frost and fire.

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

“Yeah right.”

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

Sorry Alan. Better late than never.

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

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

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

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

Time for some substitutions.

Billy Gilmour for Our Callum.

Willian for Our Mason.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

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

Hull 1 London 2.

Phew.

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

Into Round Five we went.

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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

He wanted me to mention him in this blog.

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

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

“Where are you off lads”?

“Back to our hotel.”

“Oh no. It’s not The Carlton is it”?

“Oh yes.”

“Oh God.”

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

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

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

I will see you there.

Featured album :

“Eden” : Everything But The Girl 1984.

 

Tales From A New Decade

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2020.

Another decade, another game.

Another game at a snotty kick-off time.

Last season, right after getting back from Budapest, I drove from Somerset to East Sussex and parked at Lewes train station and took the free train in to Falmer where Brighton play their games. It was a perfect arrangement. Talking to my good mate Mac – a long-standing Brighton season ticket holder – at our league game at Stamford Bridge in the early autumn, we found out that Mac and his mates drink in Lewes before games. It looked a fantastic little town. A nice mix of pubs in a good setting. We made plans for a lovely pub crawl before the away game on New Year’s Day. And then the knobheads got involved and ballsed it right up.

The kick-off was changed to 12.30pm.

I hate modern football.

Sigh.

“Maybe next season.”

Brighton is a pretty hefty away trip for The Chuckle Brothers. As a result, New Year’s Eve was a very quiet one for PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me; we all stayed in ahead of the 7.30am start on the first day of 2020.

We were up Brighton Early.

And this represented the first away game that all four Chuckle Brothers would be attending since the season opener at Old Trafford in August.

The roads were super-quiet as I dropped down over Salisbury Plain, past Stonehenge, through Salisbury and its wonderful spire, past the football cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, past Arundel and its impressive castle – where the cricket season always used to start with a game between a Duke of Norfolk XI and a touring team, not sure if it still does these days – and then towards the undulating South Downs and the coastal towns of Littlehampton, Goring, Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Hove. I kept peering to my right to see if I could catch a glimpse of the sea, but everything was out of sight, elusive, mist and sea fog combining to paint everything a subtle grey.

Our game at Luton Town on New Year’s Day in 1980 was drawing a few references on Facebook according to Glenn as I ate up the one hundred and forty miles.

“3-3 draw, right?”

Forty years ago.

“When we were young.”

And I realised that these games of my youth seemed to hold greater resonance than other, recent, games. And I didn’t even go to that one.

Any others worth remembering?

The game on New Year’s Day in 1991; at home to Everton, a 1-2 loss with Pat Nevin playing for the visitors. The importance of this? The last game that both of my parents and myself attended together. We were in the West Stand seats, not so far away from the first game together in 1974.

The one five years ago; that horrific 3-5 loss at White Hart Lane which surely put an end to Jose Mourinho’s more attack-minded ideas in the first part of the 2014/15 season. Lessons were learned that day, and apart from a goal fest at Swansea, our football became tighter and less expansive for the rest of that season. Mourinho. Wonder what ever happened to him?

At 11am, I arrived on time in Lewes. It was just as I remembered it; Tudor houses on the high street, a smattering of cosy pubs, cobbled alleyways, cramped streets, even the train station looked like something out of an Ealing Comedy-era film. I half-expected a steam train to pass through the multi-platformed station. I yearned for a pub crawl.

“Maybe next season.”

We soon alighted at Falmer; it is barely a five-minute journey from Lewes. PD and LP headed off to the away end. Glenn and I made a beeline for a bar outside the East Stand. We met up with Mac and one of his mates bought us pints.

“Top man, cheers.”

I like that Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club is all about community. The bar outside the stadium – as is the bar in the away end – sells solely “Harvey’s” lagers and ales. Their brewery is in Lewes. A fine touch. It was grand to share some chat with Mac and his pals again. Unfortunately, as is so often the case these days, the talk was largely dominated by VAR.

Bleurgh.

We mentioned the 1970 replica shirt that Chelsea would soon be selling as an acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the second most iconic game in our history. I loved that one of Mac’s friends – I am sure that he will not mind me saying that he must be in his ‘seventies – commented that replica shirts should only be worn by players on the pitch.

“I knew I liked you.”

I commented that many of my mates, hardly any of whom buy replica shirts, have highlighted the blue with yellow-striped shorts as key purchases for holidays in Spain, Turkey, Florida and Thailand this summer. They will fly off the shelves, no doubt. I love the idea, as do many evidently, of a plain T-shirt (not cheap, just plain, you know the score) and football shorts in Majorca, Bodrum, Orlando and Koh Samui. For English football fans of a certain disposition, this is classic bar clobber.

The “elderly” Albion fan reminded us all that Brighton had never beaten Chelsea, in league nor cups. I replied that in the two league games that I had seen at their new stadium in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Brighton had generally played well and had been rather unlucky to lose both.

Mac mentioned that the al fresco bar was open as early as 9am.

Glenn warned me : “God, don’t tell the others. We would have to have left at 5.30am.”

I laughed.

“Right, time to go Mac. Stay up, let’s plan for Lewes next season.”

Inside the away end, many were guzzling pints of “Harvey’s.”

I made my way to our seats. Another great location; we were in the second row. After my Arsenal photographs, I was hoping for some half-decent ones this time too.

For the third visit in a row, the stadium was enveloped in mist. This muted the blue of the stadium. But I was reminded how much I like this new build; each stand is linked, but each stand is different. Sloping roofs, different tiers, various levels, curved roof trusses, quirky viewing platforms, infilled corners. It’s a joy.

The teams entered the pitch and the locals heartily joined in with “Sussex By The Sea.”

“So put your best leg forward, my lads.
And time each ball you see.
If you sing the old song.
Well you can’t go wrong.
Of Sussex By The Sea.”

It’s not as stirring as “Z Cars” at old-style Goodison but it does have a certain charm.

I ran through our starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

There were more than a few spares knocking about on Facebook leading up to this game, and there were a few seats unoccupied near us as the game began. I know that it was New Year’s Day and all, but we should be packing Brighton away 100%. It’s so close to our heartland.

Chelsea in the black and orange.

Mmm. I just hoped that the players were easier to pick out by their team mates on this misty and murky – graphite? – afternoon than I could manage. At least the tangerine socks were a reference mark.

Murkiness or not, I soon spotted Mac in his seat behind the Brighton bench with a couple of the lads we had met before the game.

The match began with us attacking the home fans at the northern end.

We looked confident, and played the ball with ease, but it was the home team that enjoyed the first effort on goal with a shot that rattled wide of Kepa’s post. Heading into the tenth minute, and after we had toyed with the Brighton defence on a couple of forays down our left, we won a corner on our right. Willian dropped a cross on to Kurt Zouma’s head – it was a fine leap – and his knock-down allowed Tammy to stab at the ball. His effort was blocked by Aaron Mooy but Captain Dave was on hand to swipe at the ball from very close range.

GET IN.

I caught his leap on film, easy.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our next chance fell to a raiding Tammy Abraham, but with Willian pleading for the ball, he chose to shoot. The effort was deflected off target. I nabbed that shot on film too, easy pickings.

Brighton’s towering defender Dan Burn looked in huge discomfort after a challenge with young Reece James and was stretchered off.

We seemed to dominate the game but with few clear chances. I liked the directness of Christian Pulisic, who returned to the fray after missing a couple. These Christmas games – I am counting the Tottenham one – are tiring for fans and players alike, so it is no wonder there has been a little squad rotation. Kante looked good, Mount not so. Zouma and Rudiger coped with everything that was thrown at them, though Toni had a right old go at Kurt after the latter decided to head a deep cross out for a corner. We didn’t hear a shout and we were yards away. A bit naughty that, Toni. I don’t think Kurt did anything wrong at all.

And it was quiet enough to hear a shout. By God was it quiet. Not only from the home fans but from us too. We had 3,000 there – more or less – and there were a couple of noticeable instances during that first-half when it seemed the entire stadium was taking part in a sponsored silence.

During the second sustained silence, I couldn’t take it any longer.

I bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA” and people probably heard me in Glyndebourne, Rottingdean, Ditchling and Walmington On Sea.

It certainly caused the colony of seagulls that were permanently perched high on the roof truss to my right no end of fluster. Four of them flew off and into each other, three others fell off their perch, and two others shat on the spectators in the tiers below.

Truly, the lack of noise was shocking. When I finally decide to give up in “X” years’ time – the cumulative effect of the “drip, drip” negatives of ridiculous kick-off times, knobhead fans, VAR bullshit, 39th game rumours, World Cups in Qatar, players on weekly wages that I could possibly retire on, et-bloody-cetera – the first-half at Falmer will be nestled in there somewhere.

I just looked around and wondered how so many fans, supporters, devotees, loyalists could make such little noise.

Inside my head : “Estudiantes versus Defensa Y Justicia in Del Plata can’t come fucking quick enough.”

On the pitch, a rare shot on goal from the home team caused us to worry.; a swipe from distance from Leandro Trossard was one-handed away by Kepa.

Phew.

Pulisic kept running at the home defence and I remember a couple of efforts in that first-half.

As the game re-started, Pulisic again looked eager and dangerous, twice running directly at the home defence and causing problems. A Reece James effort was deflected for a corner. The industrious Kante – one blind-sided run was fantastic but not spotted – struck at goal but did not trouble Mat Ryan, and for a while it looked that we would increase our lead.

I noticed the similarity between Lewis Dunk and the really stupid one – Neil – from “The Inbetweeners.”

After a beer or two at half-time, and with Chelsea attacking us, thankfully the noise increased a little.

“Here for the Chelsea.”

Another bloody chant I can’t stand.

“We’ve won it all.”

Ditto.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace.”

The fact that this hints that there is a good Crystal Palace out there somewhere makes this chant redundant.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea. Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

On the pitch, the minutes ticked by and we began to fade, while Albion grew stronger. We were begging for a second goal to make it safe.

On sixty-five minutes, the manager surprisingly replaced Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi and not long after, Mount was replaced by Mateo Kovacic. It seemed that we were going for the point; pragmatic football, how Mourinho. Whatever did happen to him?

A Brighton free-kick way out on the right was hit low into the box, and after a couple of bobbles, the ball ended up six yards out with a Brighton player about to pounce.

“This is it. Bollocks.”

Thankfully the shot from Aaron Connolly was miraculously clawed away by Kepa, who tends to specialise in these low swoops to his left and right. It was a top class save and was warmly applauded.

With six minutes of time to go, and with many around me whispering concerns that we were deteriorating badly, and very likely to concede, a corner was lobbed into the box. Dunk rose in a similar position to Zouma in the first-half but the header ended up further out, and bouncing. Substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh rose to the challenge and carried out a ridiculous bicycle lick which surprised everyone and flew into the net.

Bollocks.

The home support made a right racket.

A raiding Hudson-Odoi lifted a curler just over the bar and we groaned three thousand groans. Tammy was having a mixed game, playing well in patches, as if his confidence ebbs and flows at will. His hold up play can be good at times, but he needs to build on that. I liked the look of Reece James, and he will get much better. We kept trying to score a second, but it was Kepa who saved our blushes with another excellent save late on from Neal Maupay, this time stopping a shot with his left boot.

Phew.

At the end, there was applause for the team but everything was muted, and toned down a little. Toni Rudiger noticeably shooed away our applause with a palm raised as if to say “not worthy” (pictured).

But this was a fair result. I have to be honest, I quite enjoyed it, and I am not honestly sure why. We seldom played as well as in parts of recent games, yet I still loved the experience of an away game, the thrill of an early goal, the cut and thrust, the closeness to the pitch.

After, we killed time with a beer or two in the roomy away concourse to let the train station queues die down. The consensus was certainly “fair result”. I never really get too involved on “social media” immediately after a game but a comment by a Chelsea supporter in which the performance was termed a “debacle” certainly stirred me to comment.

You can guess my thoughts, eh?

A new decade, but no debacle.

At about 3.45pm, we caught the train back to Lewes. On the drive home, we stopped at Arundel for a leisurely – two hours, how European – meal with a drink or two. There was a little chat about the game, in the train, in the car, in the pub. This project is still on course, Frank is learning as he goes, just as we had known from day one. There will be mistakes, but this is to be expected. Frank is no fool. I am confident.

“Nothing to see here.”

Of course, we loved it that Tottenham lost at Southampton, and we did not mind one iota that Manchester United lost at Arsenal.

We ended the day in fourth place and five points clear of the rest.

As the other three slept, I drove on and on and on. I reached home, eventually, at just after 9pm. We had all agreed that it had been a top day out.

Next up, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and thoughts of 1970, where it all began for many of us.

See you there.

 

Tales From Sunshine On A Rainy Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 9 September 2017.

With the international break behind us – I watched a total of around ten whole minutes from England’s two matches – we were thankfully back to proper football; football that means something, football that raises our spirits, football that brings us all together. An away game at Leicester City was in fact just what the doctor had ordered. From my home in the South-West of England, my route would take me right into the heart of England, mainly following the course of the old Roman road The Fosse Way, and through some achingly beautiful countryside. A perfect road trip lay ahead. It would, in fact, be our first domestic game outside London since the league championship clincher at West Brom last May. And it was an ideal game to get back into the swing of things; difficult but not insurmountable. However, the month of September would be a testing time for sure, with seven games lined-up, and it seemed that the football season was beginning to heat up.

Our visits to the King Power Stadium over the past few seasons have tended to be defining moments in each campaign. In 2014/15, a dominant performance and a 3-0 win set us up for the league clincher four days later. In 2015/16, a dismal evening of “betrayal” and a 1-2 defeat resulted in the sacking of Jose Mourinho the following day. In 2016/17, Antonio Conte declined the services of Diego Costa and with vultures gathering overhead, a potentially huge banana-skin was avoided as another 3-0 victory pushed us away from the pack and towards an eventual second title in three seasons.

Of course, that Leicester City were the surprise champions in that middle season, and that N’Golo Kante and now Danny Drinkwater, had since swapped the royal blue of Leicester for the royal blue of Chelsea added a certain extra piquancy to the game.

The Chuckle Brothers were buzzing for it.

Our journey had taken us from Somerset to Wiltshire to Gloucestershire to Warwickshire and to Leicestershire. We had set off with sunny skies overhead, but with warnings of scattered showers throughout the day. We stopped for a pint at a pub at Charlecote, just off the Fosse Way, and soon into our hour-long drive in to Leicester, the heavens opened. What a downpour. The surface water made driving difficult. Thankfully, the storm soon passed and although huge billowing clouds were gathering on the horizon, the remaining miles were covered with no further rain. As we parked up at our usual place on Shakespeare Street – William, not Craig –  the sun was out and warming the air. Coats were worn, but rather reluctantly.

We were soon inside the away end.

“Time for a quick beer, Parky?”

We had chatted about the possible starting eleven on the journey, and the team that Antonio Conte chose contained few surprises.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Fabregas

The Chelsea crowd, three-thousand strong in the corner, seemed full of voice as the minutes ticked down to kick-off.

An extended toot of the fox hunter’s horn sounded and the teams appeared. There was disdainful chatter about Everton’s “dirty grey” shirts a fortnight ago, but our “white” away colours hardly look pristine. The shirts and shorts were decidedly off-white. Only the socks looked crisp. It just looked odd.

Leicester City, in all blue these days, were on the back foot in the first few moments of the game. A forceful run from Bakayoko set up the prowling Morata, who steadied himself before curling a shot at Schmeichel. We looked impressive, and there was some good early pressure. A superb ball from Fabregas, playing a little deeper than his usual position – maybe it was a different formation that I had thought – released Morata but the ball did not drop favourably, allowing a smothering save from the Leicester City ‘keeper.

A new song – for me anyway, though I suspect others have been aware of its presence – swirled around the away section.

“Marcos. Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me.”

I approved, and joined in.

Another new song then appeared from the ether.

“He came from Real Madrid. He hates the fuckin’ yids.”

My heart sank. It sank further as I looked around and spotted, sadly, hundreds joining in.

Suffice to say, I did not.

I whispered to Alan :

“Well, that will get a load of people nicked.”

That word is just not welcome at Chelsea games. Its presence shocked me to be honest. Over the past few seasons the Chelsea crowd has almost policed itself and kept that word to a minimal level. I remember back to around 2006 or 2007 when “The Bouncy” first appeared en masse at Chelsea. Originally a Rangers song, its first edition at Chelsea included the “Y” word. Over a couple of seasons, this was replaced and the set up was changed to “we’re gonna bounce in a minute.” It was an intelligent way of changing the focus. There is another famous Chelsea song that begins “We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea” but I always stop myself from singing the next line after “Barcelona, Real Madrid…”

I know some sing it. I choose not to. I just don’t fancy getting CCTV’d singing that word.

People can bleat as much as they like about Tottenham singing it. That is simply their choice, their concern, their problem. There is a strong argument about that club now using it in a positive light as a defence mechanism after decades of negativity from outside. There are easy parallels within the black community and the equally divisive “N” word. And I do feel slightly queasy about non-Jewish Spurs fans singing it. But my thoughts are that Chelsea fans should not even be thinking about using the “Y” word, especially with our sadly dubious record with racism over the decades, let alone be singing it.

As I looked around at our support joining in, giggling, I wondered if the camera might be turned on them. Beside the use of the “Y” word, it is a pretty dull song anyway. And it doesn’t really scan. There are too many syllables for a start; always a bugbear of mine. Chelsea fans from the US especially – bless’em – seem to have immense difficulty with this. They seem to love shoe-horning too many syllables into any standard song.

Alan quickly came up with an alternative.

“He came from Real Madrid. I’m glad he fucking did.”

I laughed.

I offered an alternative.

“We bought him from Madrid. For sixty million quid.”

It scanned. The right number of syllables. It rhymed. No offensive racial slur.

It’ll never catch on.

The game continued with Chelsea dominating possession. Kante – who was warmly applauded by the home fans before the game when his name was announced – patrolled the middle of the pitch, with Bakayoko providing a fine foil alongside. We pinged the ball around nicely. Morata looked at ease, with a lovely first touch. He brought others into the game well and it was a pleasure to see. Alonso offered great width down the left. Indeed, as the game progressed it honestly seemed that we had an extra man on the pitch, which is always a good sign. Rudiger again impressed, as if he has been playing for Chelsea for years, not weeks.

A Luiz free-kick produced an easy save for Schmeichel. Our attacks continued. The Leicester defence was being continually stretched.

Leicester are always a threat on the break though. The once impressive Mahrez – I am surprised that he is still playing for them – played in Jamie Vardy. His rapid shot thankfully screamed past the far post. If memory serves, he scored from a similar position in 2014. Another chance fell to the home side but thankfully Thibaut Courtois parried the shot from Islam Slimani.

With half-time beckoning, an intense rain shower forced some to don jackets, though some headed inside for cover. Under my hood, I watched as a fantastic cross from Cesar Azpilcueta picked out Alvaro Morata. The cross was right on the money. Morata leaped and seemed to hang in the air. He headed it past Schmeichel.

GET IN.

It was a suitable reward for those who had stayed in the stands.

Thankfully, the rain subsided as the second-half began. After five minutes, a Chelsea move developed but my attention was on Morata, twisting and turning and trying to get away from his hefty marker Maguire. Out of nowhere, a shot flew past Morata and Maguire and miraculously crept in at the far post, past a late dive from the ‘keeper. I had not seen who had struck it, so imagine my surprise when I looked over to see players running towards that man Kante, who – typically – was not celebrating at all. Kudos to him for that.

With Chelsea winning 2-0, the pressure seemed to be off, and our third win on the bounce was on the cards.

On the hour, my attention was again diverted. Over on the far side, new signing Danny Drinkwater was warming up on the touchline, and as far as I could see he was getting a pretty good reception from his former fans. I had predicted, perhaps, a slightly more acerbic reception. A roar then went up from the home stands, and I saw the referee pointing to the spot. Vardy slammed it past Thibaut.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 2.

The game changed.

We had to hold on to our lead for around half-an-hour.

Pedro, one of our quietest players, was replaced by Willian.

Antonio Conte then replaced Moses with debutante Davide Zappacosta.

I whispered to Alan : “It’s always good to have a Frank in the team.”

The changes disrupted our play a little, and Leicester enjoyed more of the ball. For a while, we were on the receiving end of a little pressure and the mood grew tense in the away end, or at least in my row. We did not help ourselves. A lot of our play seemed sloppy and our choices of pass seemed to be off-kilter.

A big cheer greeted the sight of Eden Hazard replacing Cesc Fabregas. He immediately lifted us. Just to see him caress the ball, and look up, assessing options, was enough to warm us. He began on the left but then appeared down in front of us on the right. For a while, it was all of the play was nicely in front of us. Zappacosta was involved, but looked a little nervous. He seemed to take forever to settle himself for a shot but the ball was drilled wide.

Leicester had rung the changes at the start of the half with King and Gray coming on and Craig Shakespeare then introduced the former City striker Iheanacho with fifteen to go. They kept pushing for a goal. I was convinced that we would let in an equaliser. But we were still pushing ourselves. I had a brief thought that a Mourinho team of around 2005 would be just moving the ball around the back four for minutes on end. There was an appeal for handball by Maguire from a Morata header. Willian curled one just past the post. There was another save from the same player as the game reached its conclusion.

There was an element of relief at the final whistle. Phew.

It had been a workmanlike performance, peeking in the first-half, but it was one which confirmed the aberration of the first forty-five minutes of the season. This is a fine team, and we will surely enjoy a fine season. The players – all of them, well done – came over to thank us for our support. I predictably focused on the manager. There was the usual applause for us, but with a straight face, quite solemn. He knew we had eked out a good win, but there was still room for improvement.

A good day at the office? Oh yes.

But the month of September has only just begun and we have a heavy schedule.

On Tuesday evening, Champions League football thankfully returns to SW6.

I will see some of you there.

IMG_8779

Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

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

“Let’s Go To Work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

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

And then the football began in earnest.

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

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

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

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

It rumbled around for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

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

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

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

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

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

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

“For fuck sake.”

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

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

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

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

Seventy-five minutes.

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

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

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

We went berserk.

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

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

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

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

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

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

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

We bounced in a minute.

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

There were five minutes of time added on.

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

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

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

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

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

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

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

This felt fantastic.

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

All of us, there.

Together.

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

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

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

It tasted champion.

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

And we will smile.

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

It felt fantastic.

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

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

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

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

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

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

Tales From Turf Moor

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 February 2017.

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

We were well and truly “up north.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a cosmopolitan set.

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

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

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

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

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

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

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

Another “ugh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

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

“Eden has been quiet.”

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

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

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

“Johnny two hats.”

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

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

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

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

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

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

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

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

It was not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From Planes, Trains And Cable Cars

Porto vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2015.

Our troublesome season was continuing and, after away games in the West Midlands and the North East, I was on my travels again. It was a heady time following The Great Unpredictables. There were three away games in rapid succession in the space of seven days in three different competitions. It was another case of “planes, trains and automobiles” in my support of the team and I was loving it. Chelsea and I were almost as one. In fact, on two consecutive nights, I slept in Newcastle and Porto. Never before have my sleeping arrangements been so intrinsically linked to the fixture list of Chelsea Football Club.

After returning from Newcastle on the afternoon of Sunday 27 September, I met up with Parky in the departure lounge of Bristol airport. We toasted our return visit to Portugal, almost exactly a year after our last one, with a pint of lager, and chatted to a few Chelsea fans that had been in Newcastle too. Bristol airport had acted as home for less than four hours.

Sunday was spent in Newcastle, Bristol and Porto, with no time to breathe in between. It had been one of the oddest days of my life.

The flight was slightly delayed, but the pilot made good time. We landed with a rather disconcerting bump at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro (yes, really) airport at around 8pm. Outside there was mist and fog. We quickly caught a cab into town, not wishing to waste any time. After checking in to the Dom Henrique hotel – just to the north of the immediate city centre – we met up with Kev, who had been alongside me in Newcastle, and who had travelled out from his Edinburgh home earlier in the day. He had completed a quick “reccy” of the waiting city.

“Not much around here. The centre has lots of bars. And it’s all uphill from the city back to here.”

Throughout the trip, there would no doubt be frequent comparisons between the cities of Lisbon and Porto, especially since the three of us were together in Lisbon in September 2014. There were immediate similarities in my mind. Both on the north bank of a river. Both with historic centres. Both with many interesting tourist attractions. Both football cities. Both with modern stadia. Both with a famous footballing heritage.

Benfica, Sporting, Belenenses, Porto and Boavista.

As we tumbled down through ornate squares, past historic churches and civic buildings, it had the feel of a cramped version of Lisbon. There were notoriously narrow streets, with barriers and traffic lights, which mirrored those in the Portuguese capital. At the epicentre of the city, the small square on the river, Praca da Ribeira, we exited the cab. As we walked towards the river, the sight which greeted us was jaw-droppingly spectacular. Away to our left was the illuminated Ponte Luis I bridge, yellow-tinted and wonderful, with a monastery, also illuminated, above. The river gorge was deeper than I had expected. On the other side of the river were the reflections of several of the wineries which housed barrels upon barrels of the city’s famous port, waiting for consumption by the visiting Chelsea away support.

We sat in the small square, ordered some beer – Super Bock yet again, Lisbon all over again – and I quickly ate a plate of calamari.

We chatted, we laughed, we toasted a few fine days away from the daily toil. We saw no other Chelsea fans. It did not matter. On the walk away from the square, at just after midnight, we dropped in to a small bar, and decided to sample some of the city’s most famous product.

“Three ports, please.”

I immediately knew the error of my ways. This silly request is akin to going in to a pub and asking for “three drinks” or a supermarket and asking for “some food please.” We were given a small port apiece, with a waiter keen to widen our knowledge of the drink on one hand and rip us off spectacularly with the other. The first one – I am not sure if it was tawny, rose or ruby – was stronger than I expected. I called it smoky and fumy. The second one was crisper and lighter. We were in our element, giggling away.

Kev : “I’m getting blackberries. Tobacco.”

Chris : “I’m getting wet leather. Gravy browning.”

Parkao : “I’m getting…pissed.”

At the end, when we asked for our bill, we stopped laughing.

It was thirty-eight euros for just six small drinks.

“Fackninell.”

However, it had been a laugh. One of the waiters was a keen Porto fan and he spent a few colourful moments recreating the glory years under Jose Mourinho, the returning hero. His view was that Porto had seen the best aspects of Mourinho’s notoriously difficult character – imagine the complexities in texture, aroma and taste of one of the city’s stronger ports – while fans in London, Milan and Madrid had witnessed the more unpalatable nature of it.

One thing was certain in the eyes of the waiter.

Wherever he goes, it will always be about Mourinho.

A final nightcap in the hotel bar rounded off a fantastic first night in the city on the banks of the River Douro.

On the Monday, we had a whole day of leisure. The two other main protagonists from Lisbon 2014, Alan and Gary, were not arriving until the morning of the game on the Tuesday. This took the pressure of having to arrange a place to meet up later. Kev, Parkao and myself hunted out the nearest metro station, Trindade, and purchased a three day “Andante” pass for just fifteen euros. Each of the city’s train stations are ultra-modern blocks of concrete, sleek and stylish, and they contrast with the city’s older dustier buildings.

It was quickly evident that Porto was a beguiling and dramatic city, with an enchanting mix of old and new buildings tumbling down to the dramatic Douro River. We caught the metro over to the southern bank of the Douro, and the train passed over the top of the dramatic Pont Luis I bridge, designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, with the semi-circular arch so reminiscent of the tower in Paris.

Down below, the city was as dramatic as any that I have seen, with the wide river disappearing off to the ocean to the west and the ridiculously photogenic – “Portogenic”- city centre to the north, full of towers, tiled houses, churches, and a bewildering mix of pastel shaded buildings blinking in the sun. There was, of course, pure blue skies overhead. There were no clouds. It was already heating up. We caught a cable car down to the riverside, while I snapped away with my trusty camera to capture the ever-changing vista all around me. Down below were acres of wine warehouses, with EasyJet orange roof tiles, helping to create a tantalising mix of colours and forms.

Light blue skies, faded orange roofs, tiled walls and the deep blue of the river.

Get the picture?

We were falling in love with the city.

We followed this up with an hour-long river boat tour, which took us under several bridges of various shape and character to the inland east, then out to the rougher waters towards the Atlantic, where a sand bar could be spotted on the horizon. On the south bank, there were large signs announcing the various port wineries.

Sandeman.

Calem.

Taylor.

Grahams.

Cockburns.

And the sun beat down.

We slowly walked along the riverside. It was an intriguing area. Souvenir stalls, leather goods, pottery, roasting chestnuts, port wineries, an Art Deco building looking rather the worse for wear, trees casting shadows, port boats bobbing up and down in the river, the water lapping at the river wall.

For three hours, we simply sat back in deck chairs outside a bar, and took it all in. Across the river, the city of Porto rested in the afternoon heat. It was a magnificent site. It will be, quite possibly, one of the sites of the season. Although obviously different in scale, it was almost as if Lisbon had been compacted, tipped on its side and gravity allowed to take its course, with all of the city’s important buildings now on show, teetering on the edge of the river. There was almost some sort of forced perspective. It was almost as if the view that we enjoyed of Porto was only in two dimensions. That there was no depth. That everything that Porto had to offer was now on show. It was as if there was simply nothing left of the city to see that could not already be seen. I almost expected to see the concrete of the Estadio Do Dragao peeping over the Archbishop’s Palace, keen to join in.

We dipped in to a cool restaurant above Praca da Rebeira and enjoyed some tapas with a beer in a frosted glass.

Black pudding, apple chutney, potatoes with chilli.

We returned to our hotel, and met up at around 7.30pm in the magnificent bar on the seventeenth floor. We sipped on lagers as we watched the night fall in every direction. The city’s lights were blinking at us. We could even see the distant ocean. It was a beautiful sight indeed.

The moon slowly rose into the night sky.

Super Moons and Super Bocks.

After alighting at Sao Bento metro station, we quickly dipped into a bar before descending further down towards the centre. We spotted a few familiar faces outside “Ryan’s Bar” and so dropped inside for one. It is one of the great ironies, and has been for many a year, that despite an antipathy among certain elements of our support towards Ireland – anti Irish, anti-Celtic, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Republicanism – the rowdier elements of our travelling army in Europe always tend to congregate in Irish bars.

We bumped into Chicago Michelle and Chicago Joe, and headed down to the bars in the central square. We settled at a table outside and spoke of Newcastle and there were laughs as we discussed all things Chelsea. The heaters outside were on, and the air was getting chillier. There were few other Chelsea fans in the city. Brighton Tony and his crowd, but not many more.

Back at “Ryan’s Bar” the place had filled up with more Chelsea. We chatted away in to the night. I was intrigued by a new song, unheard of until then.

“When we find ourselves in trouble, Jose plays the 4-3-3. He’s not quite Makelele, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.

Jon Obi, Jon Obi, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.

He’s not quite Makelele, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.”

Boozy photographs ensued, but this was a quiet night. I’d guess only around seventy were in “Ryan’s Bar” – Chelsea Central – on the night of Monday 28 September.

We returned back to our hotel at around 2am.

Game Day was a fine day indeed.

After a lovely breakfast, Parkao and I headed over to the designated hotel where we were required to show up with our “ticket voucher” and passport in order to collect our sacred match ticket. We headed up past a line of art deco buildings – lovely, most unexpected – and spotted a few Chelsea fans encamped outside a bar at the bottom of the hill. None other than Alan and Gary, newly arrived, joined us. We had heard that Chelsea had sold 1,100 tickets. Not a bad show, to be honest, though slightly less than against Sporting in 2014.

A grand total of around twelve – twelve! – suited Chelsea officials met us in the hotel lobby and we were soon handed our tickets.

“Phew.”

Kev was on the lookout for a match ticket, and we constantly reassured him that there would be touts at the stadium at least.

We then spent the rest of our time at leisure – and pleasure – in the charming central area. A drink outside Sao Bento, then a walk down to the Pont Luis I once again, where more photographs of the city ensued.

The area by the river was now far livelier than on the Monday. Chelsea flags were draped over walls and from balconies. A few Chelsea shirts were worn, but in the main it was the usual Chelsea dress code of polo shirts, Adidas trainers, Stone Island badges, various shades of Lacostery, and suchlike. We bumped into what seemed like hundreds of friends. There were Chelsea songs, and these drew inquisitive looks from tourists, if not locals, who are surely used to their bars being taken over on European matchdays.

There were songs in praise of former players and the mood was of great fun and enjoyment. Bottles of Super Bock were able to be purchased for just one euro. Alan purchased a small bottle of port and we all had a small nip.

“Under the hot sun, Englishmen drinking lager and port. What could possibly go wrong?”

Tons of laughs and giggles. There had not been a single mention of the game by anyone (and woe betide anyone who did.)

A few battle-hardened Chelsea fans could not resist harking back to the 1940’s with a couple of dirges. Why the local populace had to be treated to “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts” is beyond me.

An elderly woman had volunteered to tie a Chelsea flag – John, Ben, Charlie and the wonderfully titled “Micky Foreskin” – to her high balcony overlooking us all, and at the end of the afternoon, she was asked to lower a basket from her vantage point. In it, the Chelsea fans below placed a bottle of port for her, as a token of thanks.

This was a lovely time. The hours sadly raced by.

Kev, Parkao and myself needed sustenance so excused ourselves.

Steak for Parkao, chicken for Kev, chicken for me. Beers for all of us.

Heaven.

Porto and Chelsea. Two clubs undeniably linked and only, really, since Jose Mourinho swapped clubs in 2004. I thought back on players that had played for both sides.

Carvalho, Ferreira, Maniche, Deco, Quaresma.

Was that it?

Kev and Parkao were stumped.

A friend in the US texted me with some more.

Falcao….oh dear, of course…Bosingwa…Hilario.

Quite a few in only eleven years.

At around 6.30 pm, we headed up to the stadium, the air cooling, and thoughts of the match beginning to emerge. We changed trains at Trindade. At the next stop – Bolhao – more Chelsea fans boarded the already crowded train. There was a large push from outside and a commotion. A familiar face from many a Chelsea game, Wycombe Stan, suddenly appeared in front of me, no more than two feet away. Next, a few shouts.

“They took my wallets.”

There was an almighty commotion and a couple of Chelsea fans gave chase. Then, a heart-breaking moment.

Stan exclaimed “they took my wallet too, and passport.”

I felt sick.

The doors closed before Stan could move. We told him to report the robbery to the local police as soon as possible. The mood had changed. The locals were devastated that we had been abused in their city. We were gutted for Stan and the two others. At the stadium, at around 7pm, we had quickly heard that one of the Chelsea fans had successfully caught up with one of the assailants and had even rescued Stan’s passport. I tried to get a message to him. Within ten minutes, we had heard that the passport was with Goggles, one of the Fulham Police who accompanies us on away escapades.

We had a moment to ourselves.

Of course, in the drunken fumes on a foreign metro, a football fan in an alien city, distracted, is an easy target for those who haunt the subway stations in search of easy prey. I was lucky. Both my passport and wallet was in my back pocket, too. It could so easily have been me. Though I am not belittling the infamous Paris metro incident in any way, I knew that the robbery that I had just witnessed at close hand would not be reported in any newspaper anywhere in the world the following day.

It did not help, let’s admit it, that many Chelsea fans similarly traveled around Porto with passports in back pockets throughout the day, since the new collection procedure required passports to be shown. This is unfortunate, at least, and quite worrying for future pick-ups in Kiev and Tel Aviv, where British passports are surely gold on the black market.

Something for Chelsea Football Club to think about for sure.

Outside the clean and light concrete curves of Porto’s fine stadium, Kev spotted a ticket office. While we chatted to fellow fans about the metro incident, Kev disappeared. He returned so quickly that I presumed that he had been quickly knocked-back. But no. He presented us with a fifty euro ticket, in the northern home end, job done.

“Superb, mate. Makes a complete mockery of us having to show passports to pick up our tickets though, eh?”

At the line to enter the stadium, an over-zealous steward spotted my camera. I quickly remembered that in Lisbon, I was allowed to take my wide angle in, but had to leave my zoom lens at an office. In Porto, despite pleading, I was not so lucky. I had to hand everything in.

Bollocks.

Inside, we were located in the upper deck of the stand opposite the main stand. Sadly my phone died after just three photographs. The last time that I was at a game and without a camera? Moscow in 2008 (…the battery died) and I quickly realised that there was a bad vibe about this.

I had also forgotten to bring my glasses (originally there was a plan to head back to the hotel, but the drinking session on the banks of the Douro put paid to that…) and the scoreboards were out of sight. I was left to work out the team by myself.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta.

Mikel, Ramires.

Willian, Fabregas, Pedro.

Diego Costa,

So, no John Terry. I was amazed to be honest. Surely the manager realised that the defence needed to be shored up with the presence and wise head of our captain? And no Eden Hazard, either. Nor Nemanja Matic, the hero in Lisbon.

The usual mosaics before the game and long shouts of “Pooooorto.”

With the ends open to the elements – though under a high roof – the city below could be seen in the huge space between fans and roof support at the south end.

The Chelsea support was in fine form all of the way throughout the first half with heavy rhythmic clapping accompanying the constant “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army – We Hate Tottenham.”

Chances were not too plentiful but we enjoyed a fair share of the ball and matched Porto for goal attempts. However, with only around five minutes of the first-half remaining, Brahimi toyed with the back-peddling Ivanovic. The under-fire Serbian seemed reluctant to challenge, allowing a rising shot to be struck goal wards. Begovic did well to get a strong palm to it, but the ball fell to the ridiculously named Andre Andre. Where is Micky Foreskin when you need him?

I turned and shouted “Ivanovic. Again.”

We reacted well, though. The effective Ramires was cut down outside the box. I was right behind the flight of the ball as Willian, also impressive, struck a curler past the motionless Casillas.

The away support roared.

It was the last action of the first-half. At half-time, the mood on the concourse was suitably buoyant. We had deserved a share of the points. The Willian song was being repeatedly sung, along with some impromptu dancing from a few. I don’t think they noticed that their lagers were alcohol free. It is one of the strangest ironies that Heineken are one of the Champion League’s biggest sponsors, yet cannot be consumed on match days. I was concerned, though, that I had not managed to spot Alan and Gary anywhere within our ranks.

The second-half was a different story. We soon conceded a weak second when Maicon rose to meet a low corner at our near post. It silenced us and our support. For the rest of the game, as we watched from high as Chelsea struggled everywhere, our singing slowed to almost a stop.

A fine strike from Diego Costa rattled the bar, and this was tough to see. A goal then would have spurred us.

Hazard replaced Mikel and soon went close.

Matic and Kenedy came on for Ramires and Pedro.

Porto, to be fair, looked more like scoring and a header hit our woodwork with Begovic beaten. Our play was slow and Porto easily matched us. Agonisingly, a last minute move found Kenedy roaring through, but his stretched touch was defected away. The final whistle blew right away.

How disappointing it had been.

At the end of the game, a few minutes after the last of the Chelsea players had disappeared in to the tunnel opposite, I meandered down to the concourse under our section. The mood was quiet and sombre. At half-time, the mood had been much different. I bumped into a few friends – Tim from Bristol, Orlin from Bulgaria – and we shared a few bleak words. Then, I heard some singing and chanting from those supporters that had remained in the seats. From their words, it was obvious that John Terry, the exile from the night’s battle, was out on the pitch. I immediately wondered if others were warming down alongside him. I clambered back up the dozen steps, with the songs ringing his praises continuing. What greeted me was a rather odd, surreal and peculiar sight.

Alone in the vast emptiness of the Dragao, a lone figure dressed in 1986 Chelsea Collection jade jogged slowly inside the nearest penalty area, then stopped to stretch by the goal. John Terry was there, alone with his thoughts for several minutes. There were no home fans left; I had commented to Parkao how quickly they had left once the celebrations had ended. There was only 50,000 empty blue seats, a man in a light green tracksuit top, and around one thousand Chelsea supporters, high above. The songs continued.

“John Terry, John Terry, John Terry.”

“And the shit from the Lane have won fuck all again. John Terry has won the double.”

And then this one :

“We want our captain back.”

I watched intensely to see if our captain would acknowledge this telling statement from the Chelsea hard-core. In a way, it did not surprise me that John chose not to wave or clap, though I am sure he heard us.

My immediate thought was that his acknowledgement of our song demanding to see him return to our starting eleven would be incorrect in the current climate. It would create an extra dimension to the possible rift between him and the manager. I admired him for that.

Instead, he continued his stretching, with no show of emotion.

I have no idea why JT chose to go through his post-match stretches out on the vast pitch, alone. Had there been words with other players? Did he chose to do so out of the way of the immediate post-mortem taking place in the changing room? Did he want to be close to the fans and not anyone else? Had there been an almighty tiff with Mourinho? I was puzzled.

As John Terry turned to head inside, there was a final singing of his name. He jogged away from us. I was left with my thoughts. Was there nothing to worry about here? Was this the simple act of John Terry choosing to go through his stretches away from those who had been taking part in the game, not wishing to get in the way? Or was this a stage-managed “I am the victim” moment from our captain, chosen for impact, like a Chelseaesque version of the famous Princess Diana photograph of her on that marble bench outside the Taj Mahal in 1992?

I suspected that the truth would eventually materialise at some stage over the next few days, weeks, months.

We were not kept waiting inside the cool concrete of the stadium for too long. I collected my camera and we slowly walked down to the adjacent metro station, past a line of police standing under the now waning super moon. We had spoken about heading back to Praca da Ribeira, but our mood had changed. Instead, we alighted at Trindade, and slowly retraced our steps to our hotel. There was time for a couple of ice cold beers and a bite to eat up in the stunning bar on the seventeenth floor, with Porto’s beguiling orange lights providing a magnificent panorama all around us. There was, in a moment honouring the fun that was had almost exactly a year ago in Lisbon, time for a morangoska cocktail.

I summed things up.

“Porto is a great city, very dramatic, but Lisbon is grander and I give it the edge. It has it all. But Porto is a fine city, we have enjoyed it, but – if nothing else – we won in Lisbon and we lost in Porto. So, Lisbon for me. And the morangoska cocktails were better in Lisbon.”

The day after the game, we were up early. We enjoyed one final breakfast and Parkao bought a couple of famous Pastel de Nata custard tarts in a nearby café. We caught the subway out to the airport and met up with a couple of others who were on the same flight back to Bristol. The post mortems continued. Our four day escapade in Porto was coming to an end. We were going home.

As soon as we landed at Bristol, my phone brought some very sad and disappointing news. There was a reason why my usual match day companions Alan and Gary had not been spotted at the stadium. In the rush to get up to the stadium from the riverside, Alan had been robbed, with the assailant taking his wallet and both of their match tickets. My heart sunk. For a few moments, my view of Porto deteriorated further.

In the ranking of all of these great European cities that I have visited with Chelsea over the years – I think that my current favourites are Prague, Seville, Munich, Lisbon and Turin – Porto was losing ground quickly.

“You could have been a contender, Porto, you could have been a contender. But you blew it.”

Lisbon 2014 was definitely better.

Especially on the pitch.

These are strange times at the moment. As many Chelsea supporters said to me in Portugal, “something is definitely up.” The problem is that nobody is really sure what. On Saturday, against a tough Southampton team, we will continue the search for the answers.

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Tales From Tinsel Town

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wor now like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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Tales From The Hawthorns

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 May 2015.

The end of the season was nigh. It really did not seem so long ago that we still had ten league games left to play. And yet now there were just two games remaining. The Monday evening game at The Hawthorns seemed to conjure up mixed emotions. There was real sadness in the fact that this would be the last away game of the season. But happiness came with the realisation that we could bestow some love and appreciation on the team – the champions – once more. A trip to The Hawthorns is one of the easiest of the season for me. As I collected Parky from The Pheasant, I was relishing the chance to be among the tight little knot of three thousand loyalists in the away end later in the evening. There was a lovely buzz, growing with each passing hour, at the thought of a Chelsea game in the evening.

This would probably be the last time that The Pheasant gets a mention in these tales. Over the summer, my place of work changes from Chippenham to Melksham – same company, sparkling new premises – and we have already sorted out a new Parky pick-up point; a newly-built pub opposite my new place of work on the A350 called The Milk Churn. Parky had enjoyed a spirited send off at The Pheasant. He had already supped four pints while waiting for me to finish my shift.

There was an undoubted tingle of excitement, then, as we headed north to the trip to the stadium which sits on the boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country. I missed the match – another midweek fixture – at West Brom last season, but there were strong memories of the last three games that I had attended there. Four seasons ago, there was a 3-1 win under Carlo Ancelotti amid glorious self-mocking chants of “We’re Gonna Win Fuck All” from the smiling Chelsea contingent. Three seasons ago came a 1-0 defeat and chants of “Sacked In the Morning” from the home fans aimed at the fated Andre Villas-Boas (no wonder the home fans disliked him with a name like that). Two seasons ago, there came a 2-1 loss and the last league game for the much-loved Roberto di Matteo, who lost his job after the following game in Turin.

“The Chelsea manager’s graveyard” they called it, and with good reason.

Over the past three visits, we had endured two losses and a draw. The Hawthorns has clearly not been the happiest of hunting grounds at all. However, this season West Bromwich Albion have hardly set the world alight. I can’t think of another Premiership team that has endured such a nondescript season. There have been no relegation scares, only lower-mid table mediocrity. The both of us were confident of a Chelsea win.

“Two wins to finish off the season, ninety points surely” uttered Parky as he opened a bottle of cider as we headed through Gloucestershire.

Our pre-match at West Bromwich Albion is always the same; a few beers at the “Park Inn” hotel just off the M5. The hotel’s bar was over-run with Chelsea fans of a certain generation and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces. Parky and I found ourselves chatting to a little group of home fans as we downed some lager. One West Brom fan was the spokesman for the group. He mentioned the last time that he had ventured to Stamford Bridge – in the 1988-1989 season – when a last minute Graham Roberts penalty saved our skins. We bantered back and forth about that game – it was on New Year’s Eve – and he reminded me that Roberts later played for West Brom, though he was well past his prime. This link seemed to inspire the cheery Baggie.

“I’ve always felt, like, that – going back – West Brom were a bit like Chelsea. Flair players. Maybe not always winning much. But…”

I smiled, benignly, wondering where this was going. The standard comparison of my youth was more like Chelsea and Manchester City – ooh, the irony – but this was the first time that I had heard of this unlikely pairing. He continued on.

“And there’s a link with West Brom and Mourinho, you know.”

Now I was intrigued.

“Mourinho began as a driver didn’t he, for Bobby Robson, at Barcelona?”

I thought to myself “translator, not driver but keep going mate, I’m intrigued to see where this is going.”

“Well, Bobby Robson played here, at West Brom, in the ‘fifties. We played some pretty good stuff. I bet you that Robson mentioned his time at West Brom to Mourinho. The tactics, like.”

This was fantastic stuff. Expect a plaque to be erected at The Hawthorns over the summer stating that Chelsea’s success under Jose Mourinho was conceived and nurtured by Bobby Robson at West Brom in the ‘fifties.

The team line-up was shown on the bar TV.

“Diego Costa in, Loftus-Cheek playing, Remy in midfield, Izzy Brown on the bench.”

We left in good time for the 8pm kick-off, but the inevitable scrum at the turnstiles resulted in a delay. The rain had just started to fall. To my right was a large rainbow lightening the gloom. My enduring love of stadia – Simon Inglis calls it “stadiumitis” – flitted in to my mind.

“A rainbow over the site of the former Rainbow Stand, nice.”

As we waited in line, a familiar face at Chelsea was to be found singing songs to himself. A decidedly odd character at the best of times (I don’t think I have ever seen him sober), he was now putting to song every single thought that was entering his head.

“We are the Chelsea, we want to go in.”

“Let us in, let us in, let us in.”

“Getting wet, getting wet, getting wet.”

Oh boy.

To my left were two touristy-types, looking quite out of place, adorned with Chelsea track-suit tops, Chelsea coats and Chelsea scarves, obviously hot-foot from the megastore. Everywhere else, Chelsea colours were at the bare minimum, as per normal.

I edged towards Al and Gal, right behind the goal. I had just missed the guard of honour. Bollocks. There was just time for me to join in with both sets of fans clapping and singing along to “The Liquidator.”

“We are West Brom.”

“Chelsea.”

Chelsea in all yellow. It always reminds me of our 6-3 win at Goodison way back in August. Good noise from both sets of fans at the start. At West Brom, the noisiest section is right next to us in the shared Smethwick End. The three of us were just yards away from them. I was surprised at the amount of empty seats in the corners.

After a few early exchanges, the ball fell to Berahino outside the box. With no Chelsea player able to get close and charge down his shot, the ball tantalisingly curved away from Thibaut Courtois and inside the post. I was, annoyingly, right in line with the flight of the ball.

After less than ten minutes, we were a goal down, and the baying home fans just yards away were letting us have it.

Groan.

Out came their colourful array of songs, but then one which made me chuckle.

“WWYWYWS?”

I turned and looked at one in the eye, pointing “here.”

He waved away my gesticulations.

Thoughts wandered back to the 1985-1986 season with me in the Rainbow Stand; a 3-0 win in front of just 10,300, including 3,000 Chelsea.

“Where were you when you were shit, mate?”

As the game developed, we struggled to find any rhythm. Overhead, the skies grew dark and dirty.The home fans were buoyant. Their chants rang out. They suggested that we’d all be Albion fans by next week, which was at least original.

Then, a few moments of craziness, which the viewing millions in Belgravia, Brisbane, Bombay and Badgercrack, Nebraska probably saw – and understood – better than the three thousand in the Smethwick End. At the other end of the pitch, with Chelsea attacking down the right, the play was stopped. Initially, I thought the play was stopped for an offside. There appeared to be an “altercation” in the penalty area. For some reason, Diego Costa was booked, although Gal was convinced that he saw an elbow aimed at our number nine. While that melee was just about to be resolved, I looked up to see Cesc Fabregas drive the ball back towards the crowd of players in the box. I can only presume that he had heard a whistle and was returning the ball to the referee.

It was struck too well. It bounced back off a player. We thought nothing of it.

Red card.

The away end went ballistic.

To be honest, nobody was sure what had happened.

I still don’t.

Down to ten men, we seemed to play with an extra drive and with extra spirit. We troubled the home defence, but not the home goalkeeper. At the break, there was a general consensus that we’d claw a goal back.

Our hopes were smashed after just a minute of play when, down at the other end of course, we saw a defender – John Terry – attempt to rob Berahino of the ball from behind as the dangerous striker advanced on goal. I could only hope, from one hundred yards away, that it had been ball before leg. The referee had decided otherwise.

Berahino scored from the penalty.

The Baggies’ stadium was in full on “Boing Boing” mode now.

Their unique club anthem, with Black Country affectations, boomed out.

“The Lord’s moy shepherd, oil not want.

He makes me down to loy.

In pastures green, he leadeth me.

The quiet waters boy.”

The Chelsea team, clearly frustrated, were struggling to create chances, but we were running up against a packed defence. The otherwise poor Loic Remy twisted into a little space and shot low, but his firm drive came back off the base of Myhill’s post. On the hour, Courtois tipped over a Morrison effort, but from the resultant corner, the ball fell at the feet of Brunt, who smashed a drive past everyone and in to our net.

Three fucking nil.

Oh boy.

The home fans could hardly believe it and, frankly, neither could we.

However, with the home fans still bubbling away with chants and taunts, the evening changed.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, the Chelsea fans collectively decided to act. Yes, we were getting stuffed at West Brom, but we had enjoyed a magnificent season and we weren’t going to let one game stop our sense of fun. Harking back to an afternoon at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, out came a song from our recent catalogue.

“We’re Top Of The League.”

And it continued, like at Selhurst, and continued.

At some point, it morphed into “We’ve Won The League.”

At times, both versions were sung together.

After thousands of miles following the team all over England, Wales and Europe, this was the simple answer – an exhausted answer – to the people who mock us.

“We’ve Won The League.”

Diego Costa was replaced by Juan Cuardrado. Nathan Ake replaced Loftus-Cheek. Izzy Brown replaced Remy.

And still we sang.

I joined in at the start and tried my best to keep it going for as long as I could. After a few breaks, I re-joined the rendition…“think I’ll have a sore throat in the morning.”

We had a few chances, but the focus was now not on the players, the focus was on us.

And still we sang.

The home fans quietened. It is easy to say we left them dumbfounded by our noise, but they had sung well all evening. They were merely taking a break. I expect that they thought we might tire, but we kept it going. It was truly wonderful. I remember a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant at Anfield – captured on TV, with a quick glimpse of me – from a 3-0 loss in 1986 going on for about fifteen minutes, and drawing a comment from the BBC commentator Barry Davies and boos from The Kop, but this one at The Hawthorns in 2015 went on for thirty minutes.

The result was simply brushed aside. I am sure that plenty of sweaty new fans in Nerdistan were getting all anxious about a surprising loss – “damn, Berahino isn’t this good on FIFA15” – but the three thousand foot soldiers in the Smethwick End were having a party.

At the final whistle, the home fans roared. Well done to them. Three losses and a draw in our last four games there now. The Hawthorns is indeed turning in to a private nightmare for us all.

I quickly spotted the lone figure of Jose Mourinho making his way across the wet grass of the pitch, his brown suede shoes pacing out in a strong path. It reminded me of his “chin up” walk at Arsenal in 2007.

With his players staying a respectful distance behind him, our manager simply walked towards us, signalling “number one” with his index finger pointing to the sky. He stopped by the goal line, and clapped us. He hasn’t always been our biggest fan this season; I always wondered if his well-publicised complaints about our home support were aired to inspire us or were they the mark of a manager who just wanted to vent? I don’t know. At The Hawthorns he wanted to just say “thank you.” Perhaps if we had kept quiet, with no thirty-minute serenade, maybe we would not have seen this iconic walk from our manager. We will never know.

For maybe thirty seconds or more, he stood in front of us, and we lapped it up. The players clapped too. It was a beautiful Chelsea moment. He turned and met his players.

We said our goodbyes to each other – “see you Sunday” – and exited amid a party-like atmosphere. Never has a three-nil loss been so widely ignored amid scenes of complete and proper joy. We walked down the exit ramp, leading down from the stadium and out in to the night, with songs continuing.

Football, eh?

With the floodlights piercing the sombre Black Country night, a West Brom fan bundled past and admitted to his mate –

“If they had to win, they’d have fookin’ spanked uz.”

I smiled. He was probably spot on.

I slowly walked back to the car. These trudges back to the Park Inn after a defeat are becoming common place, but this one was thankfully a little easier.

On Sunday, Sunderland, and the party continues.

See you there.

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