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.

IMG_5505 (2)

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.

img_2784

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.

IMG_3479

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.

11377360_10153360183102658_6247124301156700723_n

11235271_10153360220207658_6520028661981443290_n

10957752_10153360194212658_6253778694773791703_n

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.

IMG_9687

Tales From The Blue Carpet

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 10 May 2015.

With our fifth League Championship secured, the main focus before our match with Liverpool – our most bitterest of rivals over the past ten seasons – was on the guard of honour which the visitors were aiming to provide for us. There was also the matter of their captain Steven Gerrard’s last ever game in SW6, but I preferred the focus to be on us, the Champions. Three more games. Three more wins please. I wanted nine points and nine points only.

With time to kill before the 4pm kick-off, I idly spent an hour or so in and around Stamford Bridge, bumping in to a few friends outside the stadium and in a couple of bars. It is a strange fact of my life that I can run in to more acquaintances in half-an-hour outside any stadium where Chelsea are about to perform than half-an-hour in my nearest town centre. I grew increasingly frustrated by the sight of tout after tout crowding around the entrances to the tube station and stadium. I also muttered many uncomplimentary swear words under my breath – and sometimes over it – about the huge amount of people sporting joint Chelsea and Liverpool game-day “friendship” scarves. The most tell-tale sign of a wet-behind-the-ears first-timer, these scarves are stain on the English football scene. If visitors fancy a poignant reminder of their first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge, I would rather they bought a simple match programme. The need for ridiculous adornment leaves me cold.

And angry.

But you knew that.

Outside The Chelsea Pensioner, formerly the Black Bull, visitors were seen to be checking to see if their names were on the match day guest list. How things change. Back in the promotion campaign of 1988-1989, I used to frequent this lovely and perfectly-placed pub on the Fulham Road before games. In those days, my drinking partners were Alan and Gary – as of now – but also Paul from Brighton and two brothers, Mark and Paul, who I have not seen at Chelsea for maybe fifteen years. In those days, there were no guest lists. I walked past the quaint Fox And Pheasant, with drinkers nestling pints as they laughed in the bright sunlight. I took a photograph of several pastel-coloured houses, lined-up in a tight terrace, with the towering roof supports of Darbourne and Darke’s East Stand visible above.

This was a quintessentially Chelsea match day scene. Here was football-life and non-football life existing cheek by jowl. How cosmopolitan. How Chelsea.

Back on the North End Road, I popped in to The Cock Tavern, scene of my first-ever pint on a match day at Chelsea. This pub, much changed and much-gentrified since April 1984, is another lovely pub. We are truly blessed at Chelsea.

In The Goose beer garden, even more faces, even more laughter.

Lo and behold, who should be standing next to Alan and Gary, but Mark from the Black Bull twenty-six years ago. It was great to see him again. He was with his son. I gave Mark a big old hug.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I glanced at Jose Mourinho’s programme notes.

“You supporters, I think you also had some responsibility for my return, so I want to share my happiness and my pride with you all and I want to thank you.”

“I also want to honour a dear enemy: Steve Gerrard. We need dear enemies to be better, to be pushed to the limits, and no one in this country was that dear enemy better than Steve Gerrard – a super player and a good man, for sure.”

In came Filipe Luis, Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jon Obi Mikel and Loic Remy. Big things are expected of Loftus-Cheek. It was lovely to see him start.

Over in the far corner were the three thousand away fans, but with a few empty seats. Some of those empty seats were not filled the whole afternoon. I spotted some of the balconies had been given a lick of royal blue paint, with the simple words “We Are The Champions” at regular intervals.

And then I spotted a huge – long and wide – royal blue carpet stretched out from the tunnel towards the centre-circle.

“Bloody hell Alan. No expense spared there mate. I’ve never seen such a big bloody carpet. Nothing like rubbing their noses in it.”

Soon enough, the eleven Liverpool players walked out and lined the way for the Champions. This must have been hell incarnate for them. Within only a few seconds, the Chelsea players strode by, led by captain fantastic John Terry. The roar from the home supporters was magnificent. I noted that both sets of players soon veered off the blue carpet, as if embarrassed by the size of it. If something similar was ever done under the chairmanship of Ken Bates, I would have expected stern words before the game :

“Don’t get mud on that bloody carpet, I’m taking it back to the shop on Monday.”

Roman, I expect, can afford carpet.

The first-half was relatively pleasing, with Chelsea enjoying most of the possession. Within a few seconds, a flying tackle by Cesc Fabregas left Raheem Sterling in a crumpled mess on the turf. The stoppage of play allowed the Bridge choir to unleash our favourite Demba Ba song towards the listening Liverpool captain. We were back in the schoolyard once more.

After just five minutes, a lovely Fabregas corner found the leap of John Terry, whose powerful downward header flew past Mignolet and Gerrard on the line.

The place was rocking.

Alan : “ehhh, THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD, like.”

Play was at times overly pretty – from both sides – with many back-heels, self-indulgent dribbles and silly intricacies. Liverpool were not without merit, but we held the advantage.

The MH were in good voice. The serenaded the owner, who waved, in embarrassment no doubt. Then, a cheeky request –

“Roman, Give Us A Song. Roman, Roman, Give Us A Song.”

The sun was out and there was carnival atmosphere brewing.

I whispered to Alan :

“Must say it is lovely to see Liverpool and Manchester United squabbling over fourth place this season.”

An injured Zouma was replaced by Gary Cahill.

Towards the end of the first-half, there was a challenge on Fabregas by Gerrard out on the touchline in front of the West Stand. The newly-watered pitch proved problematic for the Scouse captain, who fell. He quickly scrambled back to his feet, but the moment was not lost on the home support.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…”

There were also songs for our own players of course. The widely loved Willian song has consistently been the most loudly sung ditty all season; ironic, really, because it has taken a while for the typically Mourinho-esque qualities of our combative Brazilian to be appreciated by some. Then, of course, making a late run in our affections over the past two weeks – is that all? – is the Magic Hat song, which was sung with gusto too.

With the songs raining down on the players, we hoped for more goals.

Ricky Lambert, enjoying – or rather enduring – a rare start, was roundly booed for a silly tackle on Thibaut Courtois, for which he was booked. With hardly believable rumours about us buying the Liverpool striker next season floating around the pubs before the game, the Chelsea supporters aired their views :

“What A Waste Of Money.”

It was redolent of the anti-George Graham chants in 1996.

Alas, a Jordan Henderson free-kick down below me in the north-west corner was pumped high towards the far post where the ridiculously unmarked Steven Gerrard nodded in past Courtois.

“Bollocks. Him.”

Gerrard’s celebrations were oddly muted, but the away fans roared.

Had I just photographed his last ever goal for Liverpool?

Who cares?

Level at the break, we hoped for more Chelsea goals to come.

Just after the second-half began, Filipe Luis completely lost his sense of geography, allowing his man to set up a chance for Coutinho.

“Bloody hell, how did he miss that?”

The second-half was rather a disappointment. If I am honest, Liverpool edged it. Coutinho, just like at Anfield earlier in the season, was their best player. Lalana looked busy. We, on the other hand, looked flat. Willian was possibly our best player, causing considerable damage down their left. Eden Hazard drifted in and out. Shots were rare.

With the need for three points guiding him, Mourinho replaced Loftus-Cheek – a fine debut – with the dependable Nemanja Matic. However, we still struggled. Liverpool peppered our goal with a few half-chances. It was hardly inspiring stuff from Chelsea.

As Cesc waited to take a corner below, the MH serenaded him. Although his back was towards us, he seemed to be reveling in the love.

With just over ten minutes remaining, there was one more moment of theatre. There was an announcement of a Liverpool substitution.

As soon as the much-derided figure of Steven Gerrard began walking across the sun-kissed Stamford Bridge pitch towards the Liverpool bench under the towering East Stand, I was surprised to hear – and feel – the immediate recognition of his services to the game of football, and our bitter rivals in particular, through a spontaneous round of applause which seemed to start in the Matthew Harding, but was soon followed throughout the stadium. This was a genuine surprise and I was honestly pleased with this. Despite all of the sarcasm and derision aimed at Gerrard over the years, here was a little acceptance in our ranks of the role played by him for Liverpool and England.

Yes, the own goal in Cardiff in 2005, the back-pass in 2010 and the slip in 2014, but also some heavyweight battle royales – with and against our Frank – over the years too.

I stood and clapped. To be quite honest, I had told a few friends before the match that I was in some doubt whether or not Brendan Rodgers would put the Liverpool captain through the rigours of a game at Stamford Bridge, knowing full well that a certain song would accompany Gerrard all day long. His form has not been great all season; surely there was no need for Gerrard to play. His appearance in the starting eleven surprised me. A grudging respect to them for that; he could so easily have shied away. As Gerrard strode off the pitch, he raised both arms and applauded the home sections, with a quick glance towards the spectators in the Matthew Harding.

File under : “Fackinell. I Never Thought I Would See That At The Bridge.”

Of course, the biggest irony of all is the comparison between this match and the encounter with Norwich City in the last home game of last season. In that match, Frank Lampard, Gerrard’s erstwhile rival and arch protagonist, was replaced by David Luiz at the interval. Therefore, there was no stage-managed substitution for Frank. There was no chance for us to clap him from the pitch. Admittedly, of course, there was a certain uncertainty about his future. But Lampard never played for Chelsea again. He did not play any part in the season’s finale at Cardiff City the following week. His last moments in Chelsea blue involved him sloping off the pitch at half-time against Norwich City. Indeed, at the end of the Norwich game, with a good three-quarters of the crowd either on their way home or on their way to the pub, Frank Lampard meekly walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch in a lap of appreciation with his team mates. With barely 10,000 watching from the stands, there was no great last hurrah, there was no great final round of applause and no great anything. The last ever appearances – the last ever moments –  of Frank Lampard in a Chelsea shirt at The Bridge and of Steven Gerrard in a Liverpool shirt at The Bridge could not be more dissimilar.

Gerrard 1 Lampard 0.

And that hasn’t happened too often.

Cuadrado replaced a quiet Remy. Hazard was moved up top.

The game drifted on. Despite a heart-in-the-mouth moment at the end when a lucky deflection took the venom off a Liverpool shot and enabled Courtois to safely gather, there was little drama. We had edged the first forty-five minutes and Liverpool the second.

A draw was a fair result.

IMG_9550