Tales From The Thick And The Thin.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2016.

Even though we had gathered from near and far for the final game of this oddest of seasons to cheer on the boys one last time, to stand and applaud the astounding achievements of Leicester City, and especially their cheerful, funny and charismatic manager Claudio Ranieri, the huge presence of John Terry loomed over every moment. Our captain, dismissed at Sunderland the previous Saturday, would not be playing, but all of the talk – or at least a sizable chunk of it – in the pub beforehand was about his future.

In the words of Joe Strummer, “shall I stay or shall I go?”

As recently as last Wednesday, while we played out an entertaining draw at Anfield in the evening, there had been no move, no gesture from the club about his future. On Thursday, still nothing. Then, in the early afternoon of Friday 13 May, it was announced that the club, leaving it ridiculously late, had handed John Terry a lifeline and the chance of a one-year contract extension. Immediately, I felt joy and triumph, but then as we witnessed John’s tears at the Player Of The Season “do” on Friday, I personally wondered if the contract would ever get signed for a variety of reasons. There was an announcement that he would need to consider the deal. It looked like – guessing from outside – that his role in one final year in royal blue would be greatly changed, greatly diminished. The conjecture continued among friends on the Saturday and Sunday. Nobody was sure. I hated myself for thinking it, but I had a gnawing doubt about him returning.

There was rumour and counter-rumour, talk of brinkmanship, conspiracy theories and heaven-knows what else.

Regardless of John Terry, this would be Guus Hiddink’s last game in charge – unless a manager yet-to-be-named royally messes up and the Dutchman gets a third stint at the helm – and although there have been a few poor performances under his tutelage, Guus has steadied the ship since taking over before Christmas. We have steadily risen throughout his spell in charge. There have been a few memorable highlights. A fantastic win at Arsenal, an iconic draw against Tottenham, plus some notable victories elsewhere. As seasons go, it has been “interesting.”

I loved the US tour – a few days in Charlotte, North Carolina was the highlight – but not the bizarre aftermath when we seemed to self-destruct. Those days of autumn were, honestly, some of the oddest times I have experienced as a Chelsea supporter. Although the relegation seasons of 1974/1975, 1978/1979 and 1987/1988 were much worse, those maddening days under Mourinho, with the entire football world watching and laughing, were excruciating. Yet I loved the away jaunts to Portugal and Israel – Jerusalem was, well, my Jerusalem, the very best of 2015/2016 – and I enjoyed the bonhomie and camaraderie of my extended Chelsea family throughout the campaign. The simple pleasure of a lovely pre-match meal with Glenn and Dave before the Bournemouth home game, a riotous pre-match in Norwich with a cast of thousands, being able to watch the PSG home game alongside my mate JR from Detroit, and two lovely visits to Tyneside were some of the most memorable moments of this crazy season. But there have been others, too many to mention.

On this last day of the season, the fun continued on. In the hotel, it was lovely to see Beth, Tom and Andy from the US once again. It was the first time that my dearest and oldest Chelsea mate Glenn had met Andy since that night in Munich, when we met up after the game at “The Shakespeare” pub near the train station, and then shared his hotel room; a place to crash after the best night of our lives.

In The Goose, I had a good old chat with Paul – once of Knoxville, Tennessee but now living in Los Alamos, New Mexico – and also a brief chat with Austin from Houston, Texas.

Pints were shared.

“Friendship and football.”

There were a few Leicester City fans in The Goose. They were causing no harm and we let them be. Only at the end, after the beers stirred their vocal chords, did they start singing.

“Leicester City – Five Thousand To One.”

I wished a few my heartiest congratulations. I like two of the T-shirts that I saw them wearing :

“les-tah.”

“Dilly Ding Dilly Dong.”

One final walk down to Stamford Bridge.

Ah, I’ll miss this.

Unfortunately, I managed to get my timings all wrong and I sadly missed all of the pre-game pageantry. One last pint of “Peroni” in The Goose, and some elongated “goodbyes” to friends, resulted in me arriving at my seat in the Matthew Harding just as the teams were shaking hands with each other. I had therefore missed the guard of honour that the Chelsea players had bestowed on the new champions of England. A massive John Terry banner was being held aloft in The Shed, and I missed the chance to take a photograph of that too. The banner depicted JT in a typical pose, his right palm beating his heart, something that I noticed him doing around five years ago as a mark of solidarity with us fans. Along with the John Terry chest-pass, it is trademark. If and when the powers that be decide upon a John Terry statue at Stamford Bridge, I would suggest that it will be of his hand-to-heart pose. It certainly strikes a chord.

At times, the ensuing football match seemed nothing more than a side-show.

This would be my fifty-fourth game of the campaign. Although I have seen more games during four other seasons ( a 58, a 57 and two 55s), this would be my highest ever percentage. Fifty-four out of fifty-six.

96.4%

I don’t think that figure will ever be matched by myself again. I only missed the CL games in Kiev and Paris. Happy with that.

With the sun shining down, and the stadium packed to the rafters, but with my head full of thoughts about the craziness of the current season, with the close season looming, I found it difficult to get too involved with the game being played out before me.

Hiddink had chosen a strong team, but I was a little annoyed that Ruben was a substitute.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Baba – Fabregas, Matic – Pedro, Willian, Hazard – Traore.

We were wearing the new kit for the first time, and I really wasn’t impressed. I don’t mind the Adidas stripes down the sides of the main body of the shirt, but I think the collar looks messy, like someone has pulled it out of shape, and the lions all over the shirt look infantile.

Not for me.

The last Chelsea shirt I bought was in 2005.

I can’t see myself ever buying another one.

It wasn’t a bad game, and Chelsea began well. A nice move involving Willian, Matic and Pedro resulted in the ball just missing the target.

Leicester had their full three thousand, though I was a little dismayed to see many – too many – of their fans wearing blue curly wigs. Shocking.

On twenty-six minutes, there was a hearty round of applause for John Terry, and a sea of “number 26” cards were held aloft in the Shed Upper.

Vardy, the unlikeliest of heroes for Leicester this season, caused a couple of moments of panic in our defence.

Pedro then caused Kasper Schmeichel to scamper on all fours to keep out a loose ball, before Traore was unable to convert as the ball broke again. The Leicester City ‘keeper was certainly the busier of the two. It had been a decent enough opening period.

There hadn’t been a great deal of noise throughout the first-half. The Leicester City fans seemed a little subdued. Maybe it still hadn’t sunk in.

Soon into the second period, Hiddink replaced Pedro with Loftus-Cheek and Traore with Tammy Abraham.  On the hour, debutant Fikayo Tomori replaced Ivanovic, with Dave moving in to central defence alongside Cahill.

The game, which had quietened down with all of the substitutions, suddenly came alive. Eden Hazard, the shadow of the man against Liverpool thus far, raced past his markers and played in Abraham. The ball fell to Matic, who was upended just as he was looking to gather himself to shoot.

Fabregas slotted home.

One-nil to the former champions.

I had always fancied our chances in this game, and I was confident that we would hold on. Leicester tried to retaliate but their possession amounted to nothing. I joined in the applause as Riyad Mahrez was substituted by Ranieri with ten minutes to go. I remembered his goal against us in December on that night of “betrayal.” Sadly, just after, a Danny Drinkwater shot from way out – a blot into the blue – caught us all unawares and the game was tied at 1-1.

I spotted a handful – no more than twenty – Leicester fans get to their feet in the West Upper, but there were no handbags.

The funniest moment of the day? Hearing that Tottenham had lost 5-1 at Newcastle United. How we laughed.

The Chelsea fans – who had been generally quiet all game – were roused to honour Claudio Ranieri as the game continued on.

“One Ranieri, there’s only one Ranieri.”

Tammy Abraham caused us all to inhale quickly as he spun tidily and whipped a curler towards Schmeichel’s goal. It only narrowly missed the far post.

Referee Craig Pawson blew the final whistle of the 2015/2016 season and that was that.

A few fans – in fact more than a few – disappeared as soon as the whistle sounded, but many stayed. We applauded the Leicester team as they walked over to celebrate with their fans. The John Terry flag appeared at the Matthew Harding, draped over both tiers. I stood with Alan and Glenn as the team reappeared. John Terry, of course, lead them out. There was a noticeable gap between him, with his two children, and the rest of the squad. Suddenly it was all about him.

He was wearing a white training top, which made him stand out.

He beat his heart, he clapped us. He walked down to the MH and shook hands with a few fans, and handed out a shirt or two. There were calls of his name. He seemed to be very touched. There was still a gap, a respectful space, between John Terry and the rest of the players.

The sun shone down.

Glenn sped off for a burger from his favourite burger girl at “Chubby’s Grill.”

“See you back at the car.”

I shook Alan’s hand.

“Have a good summer. See you in Vienna.”

The players walked down to The Shed End. I had decided to stay on, to watch the last few moments of this ridiculous season. Neil Barnett then, unexpectedly I thought, announced that John Terry wanted to say a few words. I remembered JT’s rousing speech after the last game of the season against Blackburn Rovers before Munich in 2012. That was good, but this one was one for the ages.

He praised Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City for their deserved title win.

“I’m delighted Leicester have won it and I’m just glad Tottenham haven’t.”

He thanked us for our support in such a difficult season.

In many respects, at this stage this seemed like a “goodbye speech.”

He thanked us for sticking with us “frew the fick and the fin.”

“We’ll be back next year and we’ll be fighting for the title.”

This was music to my ears, the use of “we” and the notion that he would be with us.

With a new manager, new to the English game, having JT as a “bridge” between the old and new regimes would be priceless.

He thanked us for our support in an emotional few weeks.

His voice croaking now.

Oh boy.

I felt the emotion.

I looked up at the TV screen and he was holding back some tears.

He thanked Guus Hiddink, almost the forgotten man in all of this, and much applause from the fans.

“A great man.”

He praised the first team staff.

The crowd responded : “John Terry, we want you to stay.”

He then – his voice croaking a little more and I turned to one side, almost croaking too – said that the club and him wanted the same thing.

“I wanna stay. The club know that. The fans know that.”

There were words for the young boys, for Tammy, for Ruben, and then a few more words of thanks.

“Blue Is The Colour” began booming.

I watched, now confused beyond belief, wondering if John Terry would be playing for us again or not. For all of the positive words, the cynical me still wasn’t sure. I walked to an exit, but stood mesmerized, unable to leave Stamford Bridge, as I watched the man with the white training jersey shake hands with a few last well-wishers and then disappear down the tunnel.

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Tales From A Long And Winding Road.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2016.

There was a moment, not long in to the trip north, when the heavens opened and a spell of intense rain fell. The sky darkened, to an almost surreal dark green hue, and the light diminished. The spray from the cars ahead made visibility a struggle. I heaved a heavy sigh. After the second-half slow-down, and eventual capitulation at Sunderland, I had already made it quite clear that I was not relishing the long trek up to Liverpool for a Wednesday night game. I had picked up an annoying cough since just before the weekend, and as I battled the rain and the spray and the darkness, I kept barking every few minutes. There was a hint of a headache. I was not in a good place. If the rain continued on, this would surely turn out to be one of the most tedious away trips of them all.

I had taken a half-day holiday, and alongside me were Young Jake and Old Parky. They could both tell that I was getting stressed at the thought of another four hours on the road. Up on Merseyside, a few friends would be waiting for me. Jason had flown in to Liverpool from Dallas the day before, especially for the game, and I had managed to get him a ticket in the away end. It would be his first-ever Chelsea away match. If I was feeling sorry for myself a little, I was certainly feeling for him too. Let’s be honest, after our poor show at Sunderland, I think most Chelsea supporters – apart from those ridiculously optimistic ones, of which I know around four – were fearing the worst against a Liverpool team that, on their day, could shine. Jason would also be missing John Terry too, banished to some excruciating nether world. I was also mindful that our end might possibly be full of empty seats. I had memories of our 4-1 loss at Anfield on the Wednesday after we beat them in the 2012 Cup Final, when our end had swathes of empty seats. Our end was maybe only half-full. As far as first away games went, for Jason this could well be a most rotten one.

Thankfully – and I really was thankful – at around Cheltenham, the sky miraculously cleared and the sun eventually started to burn its way through the layers of foggy cloud.

By the time I had reached Birmingham, the day was turning out to be very pleasant.

I had become suddenly, yawningly, tired though. At Hilton Park Services, just out of Walsall, I decided to have a thirty-minute power nap. Jake and Parky were banished into the services as I reclined the seat. I closed my eyes. I was away. Only my bloody coughing woke me. Feeling instantly refreshed, I made light work of the remaining ninety miles or so. These away trips can be so tiring. Thankfully, I was pencilled in to do a late shift starting at 2pm on the Thursday; there would be no doubt that I would be sleeping for England once I would eventually return.

We were parked up near Albert Dock at just after 4.30pm, some five hours after I left work in Melksham. We met up with an excited Jason at a bar adjacent to “The Beatles Story” in the Albert Dock complex. I last saw him when he came over for a game in SW6 in 2013. He was having a fine time in Liverpool; he had popped up to have a look around Goodison Park on the Tuesday. This was the same bar that we chose for pre-match beers before the Everton cup game; it serves excellent Warsteiner lager.

“Four pints please.”

As at Everton, we were joined by Kim and Eddie, and it was lovely to see them both again. As before, music and football dominated the chat. We spoke about places for Jason to visit on the Thursday, and a few ideas were suggested. We chatted about The Beatles. Eddie was rather taken aback when it transpired that the five of us – Kim, Parky, Jake, Jason and myself – were not really fans of Britain’s greatest ever pop band. Coming from Merseyside, and a musician himself, his astonishment was real.

What a tragedy. What a mystery.

Time was moving on and I wanted to make sure that I was parked-up in good time. I wanted to make sure that Jason wasn’t rushed on his first visit to Anfield, and – more importantly – got to squeeze as much as possible into his two hours with the Chelsea hard-core.

Our walk through a housing estate would have caused me a severe anxiety attack back in the ‘eighties, but there was thankfully no antagonism or nastiness from any loitering youths. Strangely enough, we found ourselves on Robson Street, near the very bus stop that I had first alighted at Anfield on my first trip in May 1985, over thirty-one years ago. I easily remembered walking down the terraced road, with the almost mystical Kop at the bottom of the street. In 1984/1985, I only went to five away games due to finances, and the visit to Anfield was one of the highlights for sure. Liverpool were European Champions in 1984 and reigning League Champions too. They were in their pomp. Growing up as a child in the ‘seventies, and well before Chelsea fans grew tired of Liverpool’s cries of history, there were few stadia which enthralled me more than Anfield, with The Kop a beguiling wall of noise.

No gangways on The Kop, just bodies. A swaying mass of humanity.

Heading up to Liverpool, on an early-morning train from Stoke, I was excited and a little intimidated too. Catching a bus up to the stadium outside Lime Street was probably the nearest that I came to a footballing “rite of passage” in 1985. I was not conned into believing the media’s take that Scousers were loveable so-and-sos. I knew that Anfield could be a chilling away ground to visit. Famously, there was the “Cockneys Die” graffiti on the approach to Lime Street. My first real memory of Liverpool, the city, on that murky day over three decades ago was that I was shocked to see so many shops with blinds, or rather metal shutters, to stave off robberies. It was the first time that I had seen such.

The mean streets of Liverpool? You bet.

We walked down Venmore Street – I am adamant it was the same street I walked in 1985 – with the new main stand dominating Anfield. It will be a huge structure once completed, adding 10,000 more to the stadium’s capacity. There has been extensive housing clearance around the stadium for a while. Venmore Street has grassy areas now, and only The Albert pub underneath the new stand has been left standing, solitary, for ages, it’s terraced neighbours razed to the ground.

Back in 1985, the local scallies – flared cords and Puma trainers by the look of it, all very 1985 – were prowling as I took a photograph of the old Kop.

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Back in 1985, traveling down to Chelsea from Stoke, I was well aware of the schism taking place in the casual subculture at the time. Sportswear was giving way to a more bohemian look in the north-west – flares were back in for a season or two – but this look never caught on in London.

I always maintained that it was like this :

London football – “look smart.”

Liverpool and Manchester football – “look different.”

We walked around past The Kop – and mirrored the route that I undoubtedly took in 1985.

The Centenary Stand, in 2016, was the site of the Kemlyn Road Stand – complete with newly-arrived police horses – in 1985. You can almost smell the gloom. Note the mast of the SS Great Eastern, which still hosts a fluttering flag on match days to this day.

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We were now outside the site of the old away end at Anfield. Back in 1985, the turnstiles were housed in a wall which had shards of glass on the top to deter fans from gaining free entry. Note the Chelsea supporters’ coach and the Sergio Tacchini top.

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To complete this visit down memory lane, and to emphasise how bloody early I was on that Saturday morning in May 1985 – it was an 11.30am kick-off to deter excessive drinking and, ergo, hooliganism – here is a photograph of an empty, waiting, expectant Anfield. I guess that this photograph of the Chelsea squad in their suits was taken at an hour or so before kick-off. This is something we never see at games now; a Chelsea team inspecting the pitch before the game. I suspect that for many of the players, this would have been their first visit to Anfield too. Maybe that half-explains it.

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Incidentally, we lost that game at Anfield 4-3, but it was a fantastic Chelsea performance. The attendance, incidentally, was only 33,000 – way below capacity at the time. Maybe we should take to inquiring of the Scousers “Where were you when you were good?”

Inside the stadium, with the new upper tier peering over all, I was pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea fans were already in attendance. My worries of an embarrassingly small “take” were proving to be unfounded. In the concourse, I introduced Jason to a smattering of the loyalists. The mood among us was not great.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Hiddink had tweaked the team since Saturday.

Begovic – Baba, Mikel, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Traore.

Eddie, the Liverpool supporter – he has a season ticket in the Kemlyn, er Centenary Stand – was convinced that Klopp would put out a “B” team ahead of their Europa League Final, but it looked pretty strong to me. It included the England’s most boring international of recent memory, the plodding James Milner.

The Chelsea fans were assembled, and the home fans too.

Liverpool supporters always mock our plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, and they poke fun at our supposed plastic and manufactured atmosphere. Well, just before the teams came out on to the pitch, we were treated to “We Will Rock You” in an effort to get the locals energised and I rolled my eyes.

The teams.

Red.

Blue.

The atmosphere heightened.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I looked around. Familiar faces everywhere and not too many empty seats. A fantastic effort on a Wednesday night.

Liverpool, as they always seem to do at Anfield, began very brightly and that man Coutinho seemed to be everywhere. I really like him. He’s a fine player. We were immediately concerned about Baba’s waywardness – “Have you turned your GPS on Baba?” bellowed Alan – but through a mixture of poor finishing, and strong defending we survived the early onslaught. Sturridge was wasteful early on with a ridiculously high free-kick, and we loved that. We never really warmed to him at Chelsea, and since joining Liverpool, there has been no love lost. Soon into the game, we rounded on him.

“Chelsea reject.”

Rather than smile it off, he pulled a stern face, and encouraged us to sing up, waving his hands in mock encouragement. He was the target of our abuse for ages.

“Well this is going to end one of two ways” I laughed.

Begovic was particularly active, saving well, but many of their shots were right at our ‘keeper. A heavy touch from Firmino when through was met by howls of derision. Our goal was, if I am honest, living a rather charmed life. Chances from Lallana and Lovren were wasted. After around twenty minutes, we kept possession for a lovely spell, and seemed to get a foothold in the game, as so often happens at Anfield. We began to get Eden Hazard involved, and how he warmed to the task. He danced and weaved past defenders with ease and came close with a long shot that Mignolet saved. Our support was strong throughout the opening period, and grew noisier, while poking fun at the docile home fans.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

A blue flare was set off to my right, and the away end was filled with sulphurous fumes. I spotted a banner in praise of John Terry.

“Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up.”

We were on top now, and playing some lovely stuff. Matic was the Matic of old, breaking play up and moving the ball on. We grew stronger with every tackle won. What a Jekyl and Hyde season. Why were we not so fired up against Sunderland?

The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who waltzed out wide, and then exchanged a pass with Baba, before cutting in, like a slalom skier, and dancing past innumerable Liverpool defenders – I use the term with a little reticence, since none of them bothered to put in a tackle – and slotted home, the ball nestling just inside the far post

One-nil to Chelsea and The Kop go mild.

Fantastic. What a sublime goal. He’s having a goal of the season contest all to himself as this campaign closes. We celebrated wildly.

Ah, this game could turn out to be alright in the end.

Traore, full of running, but with a tendency to cut back on himself rather than push on, then came close to making it 2-0. Baba, playing better now after a shaky start, was in place to hack away after a timely block.

One-up at the break and time for a photo with Jason, who was watching right down the front.

At half-time, Star Wars paratroopers and a dance routine.

First, Queen and now Star Wars. This was turning into a “Room 101” evening for me.

Queen, shite, Star Wars, shite.

The second-half, with Chelsea attacking the loud and proud away fans, will be remembered by myself for the number of times that Eden Hazard, looking every inch, every centimetre, the player who so beguiled us last season, took flight and attacked the cowering Liverpool defenders. I brought my camera up to my eyes and captured several of his wonderful flights of fancy.

The puff of the cheeks, the body getting ready to explode with pace, the eyes wide open and in focus, the acceleration past a defender, the sudden stop, the change of direction, a feint, the move again, the flick, the touch, the energy.

It was truly mesmerising.

Baba of all people went close.

I thought of two mates in the US.

Steve, soon heading off to see a Liverpool vs. Chelsea pairing, of sorts, in Pennsylvania; Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole now team mates at LA Galaxy, playing at Philadelphia Union.

JR, his wife Erin expecting the birth of their first child and the birth very imminent. If we could hold on for an unexpected win, and the baby was born on Wednesday 11 May, maybe they might be tempted to name the baby Eden.

Sturridge was having a ‘mare in front of The Kop. Maybe we had got to him after all.

This was turning into a great game of football. We broke at will on a few more occasions, and Pedro – the latest of our masked men – should have done better on two occasions.

Mikel was coolness personified as he chested down a cross before releasing a great ball out.

“Jon – Obi – Mikel” sang our support, with no hint of irony.

To be honest, there had not been the all-out songfest in praise of John Terry that some had perhaps expected.

Liverpool slowly clawed their way back, but the noise was quiet. I remembered my first visit to the same stadium in 1985. We had all been brought up on the notion of Anfield being red hot, but I remember coming away all those years ago being very underwhelmed.

Kenedy came on for a quiet, again, Willian. He began in a blaze of glory with a spectacular dribble, but faded.

News came through that Sunderland were beating Everton.

Newcastle United and Norwich City were no more.

The Chelsea choir were celebrating :

“He’s going down, he’s going down. Rafa’s going down.”

So much for my bloody cough. Despite the risk of irritating my throat further, I was joining in with all of the songs; there is no rationality to it, is there?

Baba blocked an on-target Coutinho effort.

Traore came close before being replaced by debutant Tammy Abraham. The play swayed from end to end, with both teams looking to score. Abraham, clean through, could not finish. Pedro was wasteful again. I was convinced that we would hang on for a win – for you, Jason, for you JR – but with extra-time being played, a cross from the Liverpool left was parried by Begovic, but we watched aghast as the ball fell for a Liverpool player to head home.

Bollocks.

At least it wasn’t Sturridge.

The Liverpool fans were now noisy as hell and I wondered where they had been all game. Of course the goal hurt, and I think our play definitely deserved a win, but I would have taken a draw before the game, as would many. I had thoroughly enjoyed the game. What a surprise. It had been a cracker. And Eden Hazard; at times, unplayable.

Outside in the concourse, we said our goodbyes.

Parky, Jake and I walked back to the waiting car, at the top of the hill, equidistant between the two football cathedrals of Goodison and Anfield. Out onto the East Lancs road, around the city and the long trip south.

And it was a long trip south. We were diverted off the M6 on two separate occasions, and I took a silly error-ridden detour through Birmingham city centre. It was a proper Chelsea-themed magical mystery tour.

The evening’s game at Anfield would represent only the second time in my life that I had completed all away league games in a single season.

Nineteen out of nineteen.

I did it in 2008/2009 and I have done it in 2015/2016.

I dropped the lads off, feeling so tired now, driving on auto-pilot. This long and winding road – The Away Club 2015/2016 – finally ended as I turned into my drive at 3.45am on Thursday.

It was time to sleep.

 

For Harrison Patrick Lotto, future Chelsea supporter, born 12 May 2016.

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Tales From A Theatre Of Hate.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 2 May 2016.

Hate. It’s a strong word, isn’t it?

I would like to think that I try not to use it too often in my day to day life. I’d like to think that I manage to scrabble around and use alternatives if I can. It’s not a nice word. I would imagine that at some time or another, especially as children, either in the presence of parents or schoolteachers, we were all scolded for using the word “hate” at one time or another.

“Please don’t use that word.”

It’s ugly, but yet overused.

It seems to be especially overused within sport, and football, in particular. Rangers hate Celtic, City hate Rovers, Swansea hate Cardiff, Liverpool hate United, Villa hate Blues, Pompey hate Saints, Millwall hate everyone. Further afield, Toro hate Juve, Real hate Barca, PSG hate Marseilles and River Plate hate Boca Juniors.

Of course it is not a recent thing. Back in 1981, I remember buying an “I Hate West Ham” badge outside Stamford Bridge – I would imagine that my parents were not too impressed – and I can remember the glee of learning a previously unheard-of song aimed at Leeds United to the tune of “The Dam Busters” on The Benches in 1984, which involved that word. For the past twenty years we have been urged to stand up if we hate Tottenham.

Ah, Tottenham.

Of all the clubs that we meet on a regular basis, it seems that a sizeable number of Chelsea supporters have reserved an extra special portion of hate for that one club above all others. I am no different; I still rank them as the team and club that I dislike the most. There, I didn’t say it.

Dislike? Oh, I dislike them intently.

For the outsider, with maybe a distanced and more objective view, perhaps this loathing is seen as surprising. Chelsea Football Club has, after all, undergone such a rich period of dominance over Tottenham since the late ‘eighties, that it might be argued that our disdain for them needs to subside, to wane, to fall.

Prior to the game with Tottenham on Monday 2 May 2016, Chelsea had not lost to them at Stamford Bridge in the league since February 1990.

Twenty-five games unbeaten.

A quarter of a century of dominance.

“Dad, what was it like the last time Spurs won at Chelsea?”

“I don’t know son. Ask your grandfather.”

There are other gems too.

Since losing 1-0 at White Hart Lane in 1987, Chelsea remained unbeaten against Tottenham in all games, all venues, all competitions, until a loss at their stadium in the League Cup in 2002.

That’s over fifteen years of dominance; I think it topped out at around thirty-two games all told.

From 1987 to 2006, we were unbeaten in the league at White Hart Lane.

Nineteen years.

We beat them 4-1 at White Hart Lane in the league in 1989.

We beat them 6-1 at White Hart Lane in the league in 1997.

We beat them 5-1 at Wembley in 2012.

We single-handedly robbed them of a Champions League place in 2012.

We beat them 2-0 at Wembley in 2015.

Dominance ain’t the word for it.

(For a matter of balance, I should mention two painful Tottenham triumphs that simply do nothing more than re-emphasise our ascendency; apart from that 5-1 loss in the League Cup in 2002, there was the 2-1 League Cup Final defeat in 2008 and the 5-3 loss at their place on New Year’s Day 2015. There have been recent losses too but those stand out. Big deal, right?)

In fact – since I am enjoying this so much – I should further elaborate on the Stamford Bridge record since 1990; it had actually reached twenty-eight games, since there were two draws in each of the domestic cups and one win in the League Cup too.

So : twenty-eight games unbeaten in all games against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Monday 2 May, we were praying for the run to stretch to game twenty-nine.

On any other normal evening of a Chelsea vs. Tottenham game, the narrative would end right there. This year – this crazy season – there were other weightier concerns.

If we were to avoid defeat to Tottenham, then Leicester City would become champions of England, since Tottenham – of all teams – needed all three points to stay in contention.

It’s almost too difficult for me to cram every subplot in, but there were stories swirling around this match that almost defy description.

Leicester City, managed by former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, whose 2-1 victory at the King Power Stadium in December proved to be Jose Mourinho’s last game for Chelsea.

Claudio Ranieri, with whom the Chelsea crowd fell in love from 2000 to 2004, but who was unceremoniously replaced by Jose Mourinho after Roman Abramovich’s first season as owner of the club.

A night of ecstasy and perhaps a degree of revenge for Claudio?

Tottenham Hotspur, enjoying a fine season – I hate writing that for sure – with a title bid – and that – with just three games left to play; still in the hunt and looking for their first win at The Bridge since the days of Paul Gascoigne, James T-shirts, baggy jeans and baggier hairstyles.

Chelsea, trying to salvage a little lost pride in a catastrophe of a season, with one huge effort.

“They must not win.”

At Bournemouth, we pleaded with the players to beat Tottenham.

In reality, most of us would be grateful for a draw.

On the drive up in the car, we all agreed.

“A draw. I’d take a 0-0 now.”

We reached the pub at around 5pm, and for the first time for ages and ages, there were a few policemen outside. Once we were inside, and once we had met up with all the usual suspects, we wanted to know what was occurring. Where were Tottenham? Had they turned up en masse? Were they drinking at Earl’s Court? Were they staying there, at arm’s length? It was soon apparent, as I scanned the surprisingly quiet pub, that the evening’s game had enticed a few faces of Chelsea’s older hooligan element out. There was no hint of trouble though. Maybe they were a peace-keeping force, rather than aggressors, protecting a few pubs which might have been under risk of attack. Whatever, it was quiet. If there were nerves concerning the game, nobody was showing signs of it. I chatted with Kathryn and Tim, visiting from Virginia, while we half-heartedly glanced at the Burnley game on the TV screen. I first met Kathryn and Tim on the US Tour in 2012, and they were besides themselves with joy at the thought of witnessing a proper London derby.

“Just think of the millions, no billions, of people who will be watching this game around the world, and we will be lucky enough to be inside.”

Burnley won, and were up. I was pleased. I will be visiting Turf Moor, under happier circumstances than three weeks ago, once again next season.

The team news came through; the headline was that John Terry was in.

Superb.

The pub got busier and busier and then, after 7pm, fans began to leave to head off to the stadium. There were plenty of laughs as we strode down the North End Road, with a police car’s siren screaming in the distance.

“By the time you see me next, Kathryn” said Parky “I will have had a hip operation and I’ll be fighting fit.”

“I heard you’re getting a wooden leg fitted, Parky” someone said.

“Yeah, like his wallet” I replied.

Inside the stadium, there was a great sense of occasion. It is probably a cliché, but it certainly felt like a European night.

A Liverpool, a Barcelona, a Monaco, an Atletico Madrid.

Three thousand Spurs fans were in residence in the far corner. There was one poxy flag, presumably aimed at Arsenal.

“Tottenham Hotspur.

1 Cup First.

1 League First.

1 Double First.

1 Euro Trophy First.

1 Team From North London.”

It was a mild night and a perfect night for football. The nerves were starting to bite now, though. Although the addition of John Terry to our team – his first game since West Ham I believe – a few other changes caused a raised eyebrow.

Asmir Begovic in. Thibaut has his Charles de Gaulle impersonation classes on Mondays.

Gary Cahill in. Alongside JT. The old one-two. Need to watch Kane.

Dave and Brana. Solid.

Mikel and Matic. A defensive shield.

No Eden Hazard. Why? Instead a three of Willian, Fabregas and Pedro.

Diego. Phew.

The stage was set. Hardly an empty seat anywhere.

The world was watching.

They were watching in Bangkok, in Calcutta, in Los Angeles, in Milan, in Oslo, in Glasgow.

They were also, most certainly, watching in Barrow Upon Soar, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Hinckley, Coalville, Market Harborough.

And Leicester.

The noise was fantastic. Spurs were leading with their dirge-like “Oh….when…the…Spurs” and we were singing songs about Willian, air flights, phone calls, John Terry, and doubles.

Spurs began better, but we then had a little spell where we looked to have the upper hand. Such is the way of football these days, with teams likely to have five and ten minute segments of possession, rather than the midfield stalemate with tackle after tackle, which epitomised the football of my youth, with goal scoring chances often the result of punts up field. The art of football these days is generally more controlled, more clinical, more restrained.

It’s all about making that possession count.

Soon into the game, and after the opposition began getting an upper hand, Kyle Walker scythed down Pedro, but Mark Clattenburg waved play on. Azpilicueta raced forward, but a Fabregas shot was wide. Thankfully, Clattenburg went back to book Walker, who was roundly booed the rest of the half. This was turning into a feisty game. Chances were at a premium. Tottenham now appeared to be in control. Sadly, on thirty-five minutes, our fears materialised. Pedro, tapping away at the ball, trying his best to keep possession, was roughly dispossessed – unlawfully in Alan and my eyes – and the ball was worked forward towards that mane Kane. One touch took him past Begovic, but from my seat, I thought that our ‘keeper had managed to claw it away. Alas not. Kane – he was always my biggest fear – side-stepped Begovic and slotted the ball home.

Chelsea 0 Tottenham 1.

Now it wasn’t about Leicester City, it was about us.

Things got worse.

Only a block by Gary Cahill denied Spurs a second goal. Around me, our noise fell away.

Just before the break, Ivanovic, playing high, lost possession and Eriksen fed in Son. This was ominous. We watched, silently, as the Spurs player swept the ball in. In immediate view, the Spurs fans were sent into a frenzy.

Hate.

Chelsea 0 Tottenham 2.

At half-time, I witnessed some of the longest faces that I have seen at football for some time.

No words.

As I made my way back to my seat at the start of the second period, it took me a few moments to realise that Eden Hazard had replaced Pedro. Unlucky, I thought, that. Pedro had offered a little extra zip in the first-half.

Both Alan and myself would have taken off the poor Matic, moved Fabregas back, and played Pedro, Willian and Hazard together.

Still, what do I know?

I’m serious.

Eden breathed life into our play with his very first shimmy and gallop forward – oh, how we have missed you – and the crowd, so low at the break, reacted spectacularly.

“Just one goal, Al.”

The Tottenham players continued to commit their very own version of the seven deadly sins on our players and the cautions mounted up. This added to our noise and our passion. This added to the heat. And it added to the hate. With every passing minute, the temperature inside Stamford Bridge rose. I found myself standing for most of the second-half, something that I haven’t done at home for ages.

Nerves? You bet.

The noise was bellowing around Stamford Bridge.

Just before the hour mark, Willian played in a deep corner. For once, Tottenham could not clear. I clicked my camera just before Gary Cahill swiped at the ball, and we were lost in ecstasy as we saw the back of the net crumple on impact.

Screams, shouts, wildness.

Chelsea 1 Tottenham 2.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Now, the noise really increased. I am sure that I am not exaggerating by saying that it matched anything I have ever heard at Chelsea in over forty years. I cannot remember a noisier half of football, or a more sustained barrage of noise. People talk of Bruges at home in 1995, and that was loud.

But this was deafening.

“CAREFREE.”

I became mesmerised by the clock.

“Thirty minutes to go yet.”

A few chances to us. It felt odd to see us attacking The Shed in the second-half. Kathryn and Tim, not too far from Parky, in The Shed, were surely lapping this up.

More chances.

Hazard like a slippery little eel, twisting and turning, now up for the fight.

“Fifteen minutes to go.”

Oscar replaced Matic. I approved, but we needed the little Brazilian to show some fight, some mettle. He did not let us down.

The noise continued.

“Ten minutes to go.”

We still dominated. What a recovery.

“Death or glory, Chelsea – get into the bastards.”

I thought back to that Iniesta goal in 2009. It tied the game at 1-1, and a similar strike – out of nowhere – would do the same, but the result would be just as emphatic.

The clock was ticking…

Another trademark twist and turn from Hazard – how does he spin so instantly? – drew breaths of amazement. He exchanged passes with Diego Costa, who had grown with the game, and met the return pass instantly.

We watched, our mouths open, our eyes wide, as the ball arced instantly past Loris and into the net.

BOOM.

Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2.

I grabbed hold of my glasses, painfully aware that I did not want another Munich 2012 moment, but then screamed, my arms wide, looking high into the night. I turned and exchanged screams with the lads behind me. A chest bump and then an embrace with Alan.

The place was bumping.

Oh my.

There had been seven minutes left before Hazard struck. Not exactly Iniesta territory, but not far away.

The last seven minutes of normal time, and the last six minutes of extra time are a blur. It is hardly surprising. Tottenham looked crestfallen. Their cock had fallen off their ball. The noise roared around The Bridge. For the last few minutes, my eyes on the game and then on my phone, I prepared a message to send out at the final whistle.

We had one last song for our foes, screamed with such venom.

“Two-nil, and you fucked it up.”

More Tottenham bookings followed. With each one, I could hardly believe that a new player had been booked. How Tottenham did not have a player sent off is a fucking mystery.

At 9.55pm, Mark Clattenburg whistled the end of the game and I pressed “post” on Facebook.

“Congratulations Leicester City. Congratulations Claudio. Tottenham Always The Bridesmaid. Twenty-Six Years. See You All At Sunderland On Saturday.”

It is easy to get complacent about football, and to take for granted what people like me get to witness on a yearly, monthly or – if we are lucky – a weekly basis, but at the end of this particular game of football involving two bitter rivals, sometimes it is just enough to stand back, exhausted, breathless, bewildered, and be grateful that football can send us into such states of joy and ecstasy.

Football. Bloody fucking hell.

The smiles were wide as we said our goodbyes.

Exiting the stairs, three of us tried to squeeze in the syllables of Claudio Ranieri into a song in honour of Leicester City’s magnificent achievement. Out into the night, the joy was palpable. It seemed like a win. It seemed – even – better than last season’s League Cup Final win against the same team.

Oh boy.

In years to come, this game will be remembered as the iconic moment of this most ridiculous of seasons.

2015/2016 : what a crazy bloody hateful mess.

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Tales From A Stroll In The Dorset Sun.

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 23 April 2016.

As I was chatting to a few good friends outside the entrance to the away stand at Bournemouth’s neat and tidy Vitality Stadium, I made a comment about our priorities for the remaining five games of the season.

“You know what, I could even forgive them for the last two games if they were saving themselves for Tottenham.”

It was said semi-seriously, maybe part in jest, but it made more sense the more that I thought about it. United might have Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, but Chelsea will be overdosing in Schadenfreude should we royally bugger up Tottenham’s bid for the title at Stamford Bridge on Bank Holiday Monday.

In this craziest of seasons, I was looking for a huge crumb of comfort.

The match at Bournemouth was always going to be a very special highlight of this 2015/2016 season. In the same way that the Chelsea faithful were relishing a beano to Blackpool in 2010/2011, but were then let down with a Monday evening game in March, this was an away game for all to anticipate with relish. That the footballing Gods gave us a trip to Bournemouth in April, on St. George’s Day no less, just seemed too good to be true. While others booked up hotels for the weekend, and hoped and prayed for match tickets to materialise, the Fun Boy Four purchased train tickets, arriving via Southampton in Bournemouth at 11am, and waited expectantly. This was going to be a brilliant day in the sun.

And then things went awry.

For the second successive Saturday morning, fate contrived that I had to work.

Bollocks. No pre-match giggles for me.

Thankfully the journey to Bournemouth is only an hour and a half and I would hopefully be away by 12.30pm. However, the last thing that I wanted was to get caught up in traffic, and get frustrated as I drove around in ever decreasing circles looking for a place to park. Thankfully, my pal Steve came to the rescue. He lives on the border between Poole and Bournemouth, and kindly suggested that I could park at his house and he would then drive me over to the stadium.

Job done.

I left work, thankfully, ahead of schedule at 11.45am. It had been a cold Friday, but Saturday broke with warmer weather, and on the drive south, the sun came out. This was going to be a cracking, albeit truncated, day out with the Champions.

My last visit to see a Chelsea game at Bournemouth was way back in 1994, when I witnessed a 1-0 win in the League Cup, back in the days when the early rounds were two-legged affairs. I watched alongside a visiting uncle from Australia, and one of his friends, in the home end. A Gavin Peacock goal gave us the win. In those days, the stadium was known as Dean Court. Today, it’s the Vitality Stadium, and although the new stadium is on the same site as Dean Court, the axis has been rotated 90%. I remembered it as a small, and tight stadium, and the new place is much the same.

My other previous visit was a personal low point in my days of following Chelsea Football Club. Back in 1988/89, with us newly relegated to the Second Division, I watched aghast from a particularly packed away terrace – with awful sightlines – as we lost 1-0 to Bournemouth, a team managed at the time by Harry Redknapp. I can still remember the solitary walk back to Pokesdown railway station after that game wondering where on earth my club was going. They were sobering times.

The gates at those two games were 8,763 in 1988 and 9,784 in 1994. The gate in 2016 would only be a few more thousand in number. I suspect that the Chelsea contingents in those two previous games were more than the miniscule allocation of 1,200 that we were given this season. This is ridiculously small, but it is in line with the league ruling. No wonder it was a hot ticket. With around 650 on the away scheme, there was only an extra 550 up for grabs for the rest.

Although, historically, Bournemouth was located in Hampshire, the 1974 boundary changes threw it in to the neighbouring county of Dorset. The area was well visited by myself in my childhood. There were day trips to the glorious beach at Sandbanks, now one of the most desirable locations in all of the United Kingdom – still home to Harry Redknapp – and two holidays in nearby Southbourne in 1979 and 1980. My father was born in Wareham, not more than fifteen miles to the west and many summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Purbeck. Although I am a native of Somerset, the area around Wareham is very close to me. It is a wonderful part of the world, with castles and beaches, country pubs, holiday parks, and perfect villages.

My drive south took me past some wonderfully named towns and villages : Longbridge Deverill, Melbury Abbas, Fontmell Magma, Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Sturminster Marshall, Lytchett Matravers.

Just out of range were my two favourite place names of all : Toller Porcorum and Piddletrenthide.

Dorset has all the best names.

It also has AFC Bournemouth, changed a while back for no other reason than being the first club in an alphabetical list of all ninety-two professional clubs in the football pyramid. Before that, they were called Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Only as recently as 2008/2009, the club was relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League and were in administration. Their recent rise has been mesmeric.

My aunt Julie, who lived all of her life in and around Bournemouth, played a major part in my recent Chelsea story. She kindly left me a sum of money in her will after she sadly passed away in 2004, and this enabled me to travel out to the US with Chelsea during that summer. Since then, my life has been enriched greatly after meeting many good people – Chelsea folk – from the US, and I owe a lot of this to dear Julie. She always spoke to me about Chelsea and would be pleased as punch to know that I was returning to her town to see the boys play her home-town team. I can remember how upset she was when it looked like Bournemouth might be relegated from the Football League back in the ‘nineties.

As I drove in to Bournemouth, if felt slightly odd that I was apart from my usual match day companions. They kept me updated with their progress though; they were having a blast.

Steve dropped me off at around 2pm, and it was great to be back in the tree-lined streets leading up to the small stadium, situated alongside other sporting grounds in the Kings Park. The slow walk to the stadium was an arboreal treat.

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I spotted a few Chelsea faces, and walked around the stadium, taking it all in. The locals were bedecked in red and black, and there was an expectant buzz in the air. Maybe I miss-read their smiles, but I think there was an air of “I can’t really believe we are playing Chelsea” in and around the stands.

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Everything was neat and tidy. For once, I bought a programme. Inside there was a facsimile of the 1994 edition. It seemed so old-fashioned in comparison to the fine production standards of the 2016 version. The sun was warming the air. A while back, the club changed their kit from all red to the red and black stripes of yesteryear, which were taken from the classic lines of the Milan kit. Outside the away stand, the club training facility was spotted, all sleek and modern, with Italian styling, like their own version of Milanello.

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On the red brick wall surrounding the northern boundary, keeping out the prying eyes of suburbia, there were large posters – evidently weather-resistant – of past teams and past eras. Bournemouth have certainly had their fair share of different kits over the years, but the red and black resonates throughout.

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Lastly, there was a nice remembrance of times past. The Jubilee Gates from 1960. The image conjured up potting sheds, Woodbines, the home service, The Goon Show, and men sitting in deckchairs on Boscombe beach wearing not only shirts, but ties too. Another era.

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Just before I entered the away turnstiles – how I love the click click click of those typically British contraptions – I will admit to being worried about the game ahead. This was just too nice a day, too nice a setting. It almost seemed like a pre-season friendly. Would we be fully focused? Would AFC Bournemouth hand us the A to Z on attacking and incisive football on this hazy day on the south coast? Hiddink had selected a strong team with Eden Hazard recalled, but there was surprisingly no room for Rueben Loftus-Cheek. Elsewhere, Jon Obi Mikel was preferred to the raw American Matt Miazga. Asmir Begovic replaced the suspended Courtois. Sadly there was no place for John Terry. One wonders if we will see him play again this season, and indeed if this season will indeed be his last in our colours. If fit, surely deserves a start against Tottenham.

I was half-expecting many of the Chelsea faithful to be stuck in the town centre as the kick-off approached, unable to coordinate the final leg of their match day plans. In the final twenty minutes, there was a late surge and most people were in. I met up with all the usual suspects. Everyone had had a blast in the busy town centre pubs. Bournemouth, with golden sands, high cliffs, sunken gardens, and white-faced hotels everywhere, is a very fine seaside resort.

Chelsea were playing in all white, and we had a great view of the action, along the side of the pitch, and with a similar vantage point as that cold night in Blackpool in 2011.

Bournemouth began marginally brighter, but we took the lead on only five minutes when a well-worked move, involving Hazard and Costa, found Fabregas. His fine forward pass, which dissected the centre-back and full back, found Pedro who adeptly lifted the ball over Artur Boruc. We were one-up, and it was time for Alan and myself to go through our Tommy Docherty-inspired celebration.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The game continued with some crisp passing from both sides, and with the Chelsea fans in good voice. All of that beer and cider had the desired effect. Joshua King wasted a good opportunity, slashing the ball over the bar, and Bournemouth then got the bit between their teeth, especially exposing our right flank. They had a few chances, and could easily have scored if their finishing had been better. A nice Chelsea move, again involving Fabregas, then picked out the previously quiet Hazard. He let fly with a speculative effort, which Boruc was unable to stop from reaching the net. It was – read it and weep – Hazard’s first league goal of the season. It was late April. Oh boy. However, the ‘keeper really should have done better. This was against the run of play to be honest. We were 2-0 up but Bournemouth were giving us a few moments of concern.

We spotted Cesc’s pink and yellow boots. It looked like he was wearing one of each.

“Rhubarb and custard” said Gary.

My pal Kevin was stood behind me and was talking to me about the bet that he had put on before the game.

“I got a bet that we’d win 3-0, so let’s see how this goes.”

In the very next two seconds, Elphick rose higher than anyone else and nodded a slow header past Begovic’ despairing dive.

I turned to Kev, smiling, as his betting slip became Chelsea Confetti.

“Ha. Perfect timing mate.”

Soon after, Bournemouth came close on two occasions, while Pedro skied a shot from a similar angle as the opening goal. I will be honest; we were lucky to be 2-1 up at the break.

After I returned to my seat alongside Glenn, Alan and Gary during the break, I could smell the sulphurous fumes of a flare which had evidently been let off by our support. The OB were swarming around, but there was no animosity anywhere.

As the second-half began, I was really pissed off to see so many empty seats in our section. So much for everyone wanting a ticket for Bournemouth. Immediately behind me, and right behind Kevin, there were around fifteen seats which had been vacated. Now, let’s get this straight. I acknowledge that going to football never has been “just” about the football and the pre-match and post-match drinks are as much a part of football culture as songs, pies, Adidas trainers, banter and boredom, but for fuck sake.

Leaving a Chelsea game at half-time?

Please fucking explain that to me.

Everyone likes a drink or two, but surely drinks could wait for forty-five minutes? The pubs would close in seven or eight hours’ time. Why the need to fuck off before 4pm? I especially thought of many good friends, and quite a few bad ones, who had missed out on a ticket for this game and would be watching on with a mixture of feelings from afar.

This was a very poor show.

Ironically, the absentees missed a much-improved performance from us in the second period. Diego Costa ran and ran, holding the ball well, challenging for the ball, leading the line well. Pedro was all hustle and bustle, a fine game from him. But the star was Cesc, teasing openings for our forwards, and looking at ease in the middle of all of our attacking plays.

There was a song or two for JT.

“John Terry – We Want You To Stay.”

“Sign Him up, Sign Him Up, Sign Him Up.”

Baba, seeing a lot of the ball in front of us, set up Matic who drilled a low ball across the box. Diego Costa stretched, but could not get enough of the ball. Stanislas curled a fine effort past Begovic’ far post, but we were hogging the ball, and threatening the home team at every opportunity.

Hazard skipped in to the box, but decided not to shoot – why? – and the chance went begging.

There was a little banter between the two sets of fans, but a song from us annoyed me.

AFC Bournemouth, a small club who almost went out of business not so long ago, and who exist on gates of 11,500, were being picked on by the mouthier elements of our support –

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

Again. Embarrassing.

Take the piss out of Tottenham, West Ham or the like with that song.

But not AFC bloody Bournemouth.

Kevin spoke about the embarrassing moment at Villa Park three weeks ago when the younger element of our support were taunting the home fans with “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.”

Equally embarrassing.

With twenty minutes remaining, that man Fabregas picked out Willian and our little Brazilian waited for the ‘keeper to advance before guiding the ball past him.

3-1, get in.

Costa played in Pedro, who attempted a cheeky bicycle kick. We were pouring forward now and the home fans were starting to head home. Then, the mood changed.

Out of nowhere, from behind me and to my right, came a new chant.

“Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham. Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham.”

I joined in.

I had to.

It summed up everything.

It begged a question of our team’s application. The perception was that we could play well if we felt like it. If we fancied it. If we were in the mood. Well, against Tottenham the players had better be in the mood. We have a twenty-six-year record to protect and, should Leicester City falter, we needed to extinguish Tottenham’s title hunt.

Ugh, even writing it.

”Tottenham’s title hunt.”

The noise was deafening, and it really developed when the play was over on our side of the pitch. There seemed an immediate schism between team and support; not something that I would normally advocate, but on this occasion, at this moment of time, at this stadium in Dorset, it seemed absolutely correct.

“Beat fucking Tottenham.”

And I immediately noticed the exact words used.

“You’d better beat Tottenham” and not “we’d better beat Tottenham.”

That divide. That gap. The supporters were laying everything at the feet of our under-performing players.

When Eden Hazard poked home a deserved fourth, the applause seamlessly merged into the same mantra.

I bet the players were thinking “oh, here they go again.”

They heard us. It would be hard for them not to. The players looked sheepish. Not one looked towards us.

The message was loud and clear.

Don’t let the club down on Monday 2 May.

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Tales From Lancashire And London.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 16 April 2016.

I was inside Stamford Bridge earlier than usual and it seemed to take ages to fill. There was one section, though, that would remain empty. Despite all of their recent successes, Manchester City were unable to fill the three thousand seats allotted to them. A large swathe of around six or seven hundred seats in the Shed Upper stayed empty. I’ve always had a grudging respect for City – especially when their supporters were tested in the lower divisions fifteen or more years ago  – but at times their current support is woeful. We always take three thousand to Manchester, except when there was a hastily re-arranged midweek game in 2012, and we too left five hundred unsold.

There was hardly a crackling atmosphere in the stadium beforehand. As kick-off grew nearer, the stands filled. There would be empty seats, but not many. I had managed to sort out two tickets for a couple of acquaintances – from the USA and Finland – in the West Upper, and I wondered what their match-day experience would be like. They would know what to expect though. Joni, formerly from Helsinki and now living in Austin, Texas, had watched from the whispering gallery before.

With about ten minutes to go before the game would kick-off at 5.30pm, Neil Barnett took to the microphone and said a few words regarding the sad loss of former midfielder Ian Britton. There was a black and white image of Ian on the large TV screen above the City fans in the far corner. I checked my match day programme, and indeed there was a small article regarding Ian’s death on page eleven. However, there had been considerable debate among the Chelsea support since Ian’s passing on 31 March, and rising disdain that black armbands were not worn at neither Villa Park nor the Liberty Stadium. It had transpired that the club had assisted Ian’s family financially with his care over the past few years, but there was still the feeling that the club had not acted quite correctly on the detail over the past two or three weeks.

As Neil finished his words, I joined in with a rousing show of remembrance for Ian, one of my most very favourite players. As the clapping died down, and the noise drifted away, it still felt that this was still not enough. There was talk of a minute’s applause on the seventh minute, but was that it? I wasn’t even sure if black armbands would be worn against City.

It still seemed a little disrespectful.

Ian Britton had played 289 games for Chelsea between 1972 and 1982. Someone had worked out that only thirty-three players had played more games for Chelsea Football Club than Ian Britton. Ian had played more games for us than Ray Wilkins. More games than Jimmy Greaves. More games than Tommy Baldwin. More games than Eidur Gudjohnsen.

At Ian Britton’s funeral it seemed that Chelsea had not done enough either.

It felt right that I should attend the funeral. I have often written about key moments in my life as a Chelsea supporter, and I have tried to piece together certain touchstones, or staging posts, along the timeline of my support of the club. Looking back, to my first game of March 1974, and the little article from “Shoot!” magazine that I carefully pinned to my bedroom wall featuring the dimpled smile of the young Dundonian, there is no doubt that I owed it to Ian Britton – and to the eight-year-old me – to attend Ian’s funeral. I have recently detailed why he meant so much to me, but to recap he was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1982. That was reason enough.

The funeral would take place at 3.30pm on Monday 11 April, meaning that it would be a long old day should I decide to drive up and back on the same day. Instead, I had other plans. On the Sunday, I drove up to Morecambe and stayed one night in The Midland Hotel, a recently renovated art deco masterpiece, looking out at Morecambe Bay. It felt odd that I would be enjoying the ambiance of a hotel that I have wanted to visit for years on one day, yet on the following day I would be paying my last respects to a hero of my youth. It felt strange. The highest high and the lowest low. On the Sunday evening, the western sky provided a magnificent panorama, with the sun setting across the bay. I raised a glass of “Peroni” to Ian Britton, as the sky turned from blue to orange, or maybe tangerine.

Chelsea blue, Dundee United tangerine.

“Bless you Ian.”

On the day of the funeral, I slowly edged along the seafront past the lovely statue of comedian Eric Morecambe, and headed south to Burnley. I was caught in a little traffic, but entered the grounds of Burnley Crematorium in good time. With around an hour to go before the funeral was due to start, people were already massing in the car park and outside the chapel. I quickly spotted Cathy and Dog, then Rodney, a fellow fan who I had not previously met in person, but who had very kindly kept in contact with me regarding the arrangements for the day.

On the lapel of my dark grey suit, I wore two badges.

Chelsea.

Dundee United.

The sun was out. There was a wind blowing. But it was a fine day.

Hundreds of Burnley fans had shown up in force. I spotted Brian Flynn, the former Burnley player. I had the briefest of chats with Neil Barnett, then a few words with a couple of Ian’s former Chelsea team mates.

There would be no official representation from Chelsea Football Club.

Just let that sink in one moment.

As we waited outside, more people arrived. More Burnley favours. I spoke to John Reilly, wearing a Dundee United scarf, who was a team mate of Ian during the 1982/1983 Scottish Championship winning team.

Ian’s team mates from the ‘seventies had done him proud.

Ray Wilkins, Graham Wilkins, Steve Finnieston, Clive Walker, David Stride, Tommy Langley, Kenny Swain, Garry Stanley, Paul Canoville. Chris Mears, the son of former chairman Brian, was also present.

And then, in the distance, the eerie lament of the bagpipes. The cortege had assembled outside Turf Moor at 3pm, where there is a lovely photograph of Ian Britton after scoring that goal in 1987 on a montage by the old stand wall, and it had now reached the leafy grounds of the cemetery. A row of black cars followed the hearse. Suddenly this all hit home. We were here to say goodbye.

I did not possess a ticket for the ceremony, so I chose to stay a respectful distance away from the cemetery and watched, silently, as the coffin was hoisted onto shoulders and in to the chapel. I bit back some tears and turned away, looking out at the bleak Lancashire hills.

Memories of that “Shoot!” clipping, memories of goals, memories of my childhood.

I turned back, and could not help but notice that some of the people that had previously been stood outside were walking towards the doors of the chapel. I wondered if there was room for a few more. Within a few seconds, I found myself standing at the rear of the chapel, alongside some heroes of my youth. I immediately felt a sense of guilt;

“Oh damn, I really shouldn’t be here.”

Outside there were hundreds, yet I was inside.

But I couldn’t leave. I was stood right next to Garry Stanley and Kenny Swain. I bowed my head.

The first few minutes belonged to “Blue Is The Colour.”

I silently mouthed the words.

The service lasted an hour and a quarter. It was a privilege to be present. There were a few wet eyes, I am sure, but it was an uplifting occasion. There was a photo – that photo from 1987, the most famous photo in the history of Burnley Football Club it seemed – at the front of the coffin. The funeral celebrant David Carson had been present at the Orient game in 1987. It gave the service a sense of authenticity.

Friends and family members shared memories of Ian. Throughout, his sense of humour and his positive attitude shone through. Ian’s great friend Mark Westwood told many stories of Ian’s early years at Chelsea. There was laughter as tales were shared. One episode gave me a wry chuckle. After a game at Luton Town, the Chelsea players were sat in the away dressing room, awaiting to catch the coach back to Stamford Bridge. Who should poke his head around the door, but comedian Eric Morecambe – yes, him again – and he immediately spotted young Ian Britton, who happened to be wearing a full length leather trench coat.

Morecambe quipped “are you standing up?”

This was met with laughter in the Luton dressing room in 1976 and in the Burnley crematorium in 2016. However, the comedian’s next line was better still.

“I’ve always wanted a full size leather wallet.”

Ian had won promotion with Chelsea in 1977, had won the Scottish Championship with Dundee United in 1983 and had scored the most important goal in the history of Burnley in 1987, but Ian had also been the butt of two Eric Morecambe jokes.

Life doesn’t get any better than that, sunshine.

Wonderful.

It was not a particularly religious ceremony and pop songs were played during the service.

“Day Dream Believer.”

Vicki Britton, Ian’s daughter-in-law, told stories of Ian’s devotion to his family and John Smith, a Burnley fan and close friend, really did a very fine job in sharing a lot of what made Ian so special. There were more laughs. It was a very nice ceremony.

“Saturday Night At The Movies.”

At the committal, we all stood. This is where it all got serious again.

Goodbye Ian.

“Simply The Best.”

After the service, we reassembled at Turf Moor, home of Burnley Football Club, where Ian had often been a guest on match days. His last appearance had only been a few weeks before he was admitted to the hospice where he spent the last couple of weeks. Hundreds were in attendance. I was able to chat, in a more relaxed fashion, with a few of Ian’s former team mates. I spoke briefly, my mouth suddenly dry, to Ian’s brother Billy and his son Callum. It was important that I passed on some personal thoughts. They were very grateful.

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I looked out at a quiet and silent Turf Moor, where I had enjoyed my one thousandth Chelsea game at the very start of last season. Who could possibly guess that I would be back so soon under wildly differing circumstances? There was a recollection, still vivid, of that pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle at the left-hand goal. It was the same goal where Ian Britton had scored against Orient in 1987.

There was clearly so much love for Ian Britton at Burnley Football Club. As we tucked in to a classic northern dish of meat and potato pie and mushy peas, the sense of place, of the club’s identity, really hit home. I think I have always had a little soft spot for Burnley – Leighton James, Brian Flynn – and I certainly hope that they get promoted this season so that I can pay a return visit to Ian Britton’s home for the past twenty-five years or more.

In a quiet corner, I spotted a small array of bouquets. In addition to one from Ian’s family, there was one from Burnley Football Club, there was one from Blackpool Football Club, there was one from Dundee United Football Club.

There was nothing from Chelsea Football Club.

Let that sink in too.

So, although Chelsea did the typical Chelsea thing of aiding Ian via financial support over the past few years – admirable, of course – they did not do other, smaller, respectful, subtle things on the day of the funeral.

Is that any surprise to anyone?

Chelsea flashing the cash, but fucking up the fine detail?

Not me.

Over the past few days leading up to the game with Manchester City, it had been a case of looking back at the past, assessing the present and anticipating the future. There had been Ian’s funeral and warm and fuzzy memories of the past when I had true admiration for my childhood idols. Those days seem distant. There had been a solemn appraisal of the current problems of the team, and with it the gnawing acknowledgement that I’d hardly like to spend much time in the company of too many of the current squad. I would even be pressed to name my current favourite Chelsea player if I was honest. There is, to coin that famous phrase from the goon Emenalo a “palpable discord” between the current players and myself. It would be too easy to class them all as pampered and cosseted mercenaries, but I find it increasingly hard to have any real affection for too many of the buggers. Far too many seem aloof and distant. Too many seem to be passionless automatons. Has anyone seen Thibaut Courtois smile? Has anyone seen Oscar laugh while playing football for Chelsea? Where is the joy, where is the passion, where is the fun in our team? As for the future, it didn’t take long for me to book up a flight to Vienna for what is likely to be new boss Antonio Conte’s first game in charge of Chelsea Football Club. It will be “game one” of season 2016/2017, and I will be there, revisiting the scene of John Spencer’s run and swerve and shot against Austria Memphis in 1994/95, which ranked as one of the very best Chelsea games in my life. It was a proper Chelsea Euro Away and I bloody loved it. Ah Vienna.

At the time – 1994 – with Chelsea on the up at last, European football returning for the first time in over two decades, and with exciting ground redevelopment on the horizon, I remember thinking “there is no better time to be a Chelsea fan. What a buzz.”

Now, as a comparison, in 2016, it seems that Chelsea fans would rather miss out on European football in the guise of the Europa League next season, and most seem underwhelmed to be renting Wembley for three years while Stamford Bridge is renovated further. The football team is better placed, surely, than in 1994, but still it seems that everything was so more enjoyable back then.

Anyone care to explain all that?

As the teams strode out on to the pitch, with billowing clouds overhead, and the sun shining down, we were set for a game between two teams that had, together, seriously underperformed during the current season. Regardless of Chelsea losing ten games – ridiculous enough – who could have imagined that City, backed by all that wealth and with such attacking riches, could have lost nine?

Crazy.

For Chelsea, Courtois was back in goal and at the other end Diego Costa was upfront.

In between, there were the usual suspects.

Thankfully, three games too late, Chelsea – and City – were wearing black armbands in memory of Ian Britton.

At The Shed, there were two new banners, in praise of Gianfranco Zola and Bobby Tambling. A nice touch.

On seven minutes, I began clapping in memory of Ian Britton, but I was seemingly alone.

I thought we had moments, little pockets, in the first-half, but Manchester City looked more dangerous. The free-spirited runs of Kevin De Bruyne and the fat-arsed Lesbian Samir Nasri caused us anxiety every time they broke. It was, incidentally, nice to see De Bruyne getting applauded as he walked over to take a corner within the first few minutes of the game, and to see him reciprocate. To reiterate, this is something Chelsea fans simply do not get enough credit for. Last season, Lampard, this season De Bruyne. It goes on.

We were unlucky to see Pedro’s shot slammed off the line by Otamendi, but further chances were rare as the first-half developed. Rueben Loftus-Cheek showed moments of good control and penetration, but elsewhere we found it hard-going.

Courtois did ever so well to thwart De Bruyne.

Still no smile though.

After a little cat and mouse, sadly some defensive frailties allowed Sergio Aguero to pounce on a De Bruyne cross.

City, in a horrific Stabilus lime kit, were 1-0 up.

At the break, I commented to near neighbour Dane “we’re not out of it.”

Tellingly, Dane replied “not yet, no.”

The game was over – and our second successive league defeat – just ten minutes in to the second half when another break caught us out. This time, Nasri played in that man Aguero, who never looked like missing.

He didn’t.

2-0, bollocks.

The game then died, and the atmosphere – which had never been great – died with it.

Up in the lofty heights of the West Upper, Joni was furious :

“Biggest problem I have is that I hear City fans. Not ours. What’s with that?”

Well, I think it is pretty standard across the board these days, no matter where you go. Quiet home fans, noisy away fans.

The second-half wearily continued with only rare moments of passion or fight.

A spirited run from Pedro.

A series of blocks by Mikel.

But, it was a sad old game.

With ten minutes remaining, Fernandinho raced through and was blocked by Courtois. A red card followed, and that man Aguero calmly slotted home the penalty past Asmir Begovic.

Chelsea 0 Manchester City 3.

Ugh.

This mess of a season continues and although I plan to attend the remaining five games, it will not be fondly remembered. Already, I am looking towards the future.

Vienna. Season 2016/2017. Game One.

It can’t come quick enough.

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Tales From The Away Club.

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2016.

Swansea away still seems fresh. It manages to tick a few boxes. I still count it as a new ground, in essence. I do not know, yet, every nook and cranny of the Liberty Stadium and its environs. And it is such a rare treat to have an away ground relatively close to home. It’s only around two hours away. Not as close as Southampton and now Bournemouth, but still an easy drive. And I also relish the chance to drive on roads other than the eastbound M4 and the northbound M5 and the M6 on Chelsea match days.

The day had started with bright blue brilliance in the skies overhead as I gathered the two Chuckle Brothers. We were on the road at 8am.

“Jack Kerouac” and on our way to Jack City.

However, typically, by the time we had crossed the River Severn, the skies had clouded over and rain soon followed.

There is nothing gloomier, nor murkier, nor more depressing than a rainy day in South Wales.

With memories of childhood holidays in Tenby and visits to relatives in Llanelli, I motored past the Celtic Manor hotel and golf course – site of a recent Ryder Cup and a more recent G8 summit, through the Brynglas tunnels, past Castle Coch. Actually, this is a familiar road after all, it just does not feel like it. It’s a decent road.

We made good time, and thankfully, just as the curve of Swansea bay was sighted – and then the towers and chimneys and pipes and foundries of the threatened Port Talbot steelworks – the sun had returned. We were going to be OK, weather-wise. Dave, who had left Paddington on an early morning train at 7.30am, was collected right outside the Swansea train station at just before 11am.

We were going to head down to The Mumbles and while away a couple of hours in a few pubs, but I happened to stumble across a sighting of “The Waterfront” pub, which overlooks the Swansea Marina, albeit not a very well established part of it. Elsewhere there would be yachts and boats moored, but our view consisted of an old dock bereft of pleasing detail, with new apartments on one side, but cranes and derelict land on the others. There were no boats to be seen, nothing to soften the blow, just the flotsam and jetsam that you often witness in such areas; a piece of wood, a plastic bottle, Radamel Falcao.

We spent almost three hours in the pub. It was quiet, save for the raucous laughter emanating from the Chuckle Brothers’ booth in one corner. Lord Parky was in especially rare form, leaving Dave curled up in a foetal position on the sofa at one stage, crying with laughter.

The bar reminded us of our pre-match get together along the coast ahead of the game with Cardiff City almost two years ago.

On the waterfront, in a bar, having a giggle.

We had heard that there was a snarl-up on the M4 around Swindon causing delays and consternation for many coming from the Home Counties. Al and Gary – on one of the club coaches – were being diverted via the M5 and would not be arriving for a while. There would be the usual jokes about the Welsh among the Chelsea faithful as they headed west.

“Whose coat is that jacket?”

The time flew past and, alas, it was time to leave the pub.

Sometimes – some might say most times, certainly this season – the football gets in the way of a fine day out.

Of course it has been a tough season. I would imagine that the, ahem, “newer” fans have found it particularly odd. But I think that as a whole, generally speaking, we have coped relatively well with this catastrophe of a season. There have been periods of rancour, but I think we’ve held it together reasonably well. Everyone copes in their own way. There are still huge doubts in my mind about the actual reason for our horrendous start to 2015-2016, but as the season closes, with a new and seemingly energetic manager waiting in the wings, I suppose that I should be looking forward and not back.

But the four of us have had a blast this season.

“Norwich away was superb, Southampton too. Arsenal was great. Palace was good. Enjoyed West Ham away, not the result. Even Everton was good to an extent.”

All away games.

The schism between home and away games grows ever wider.

You know the score.

Add trips for me to Newcastle, Porto and Haifa, and – yes – it has been a good season. The highlight of the whole season was my day trip to Jerusalem with Alan and Kevin. Memories from that day will last a lifetime. So, I don’t think that I will ever tire of away games. And we still have two enjoyable and fun trips coming up. There is the St. George’s Day beano to Bournemouth in a fortnight. And then Parky, PD and I are flying up to the Sunderland game too, when it certainly looks as though we might be saying a “so long, farewell, pet” to top flight football on Tyneside and Wearside. That will be a shame.

There is also a midweek trip to Anfield.

Sigh. Not so enjoyable that one, eh?

I was soon parked up at my usual place, but in typical Chelsea fashion only made it to my seat, in the front row of the upper block, with two minutes to spare. I noticed a few empty seats around me. Maybe some were saving their beer tokens for Bournemouth. After a very long and tiring coach journey, Alan and Gary were able to pop across the road for a portion of fish and chips, washed down with a can of lager. I couldn’t resist :

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

And then the laughter stopped as the game began.

What a let-down.

Guus Hiddink had certainly rung the changes and had given many of our supporters what they had requested; the kids were in.

Begovic – Baba, Ivanovic, Miazga, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Oscar – Pato.

On the bench were some new names to the Premier League.

Ola Aina.

Kasey Palmer.

Charlie Colkett.

Right from the very first moments, Swansea seemed a lot more dangerous. They are a team that I constantly need to check; one minute they can be flirting with relegation and the next minute they are in mid-league safety. Our four previous visits in the league to their neat Liberty Stadium had resulted in firstly two draws and then two wins. The five-nil win that we all enjoyed in January 2015 now seems like it came from a different team, a different club, a different world.

It was a very poor first-half from us, and the away support seemed unwilling to get behind the team. Maybe it was because we had such good, unobstructed views, but neither Gary, nor Alan, nor Parky nor myself stood the entire game. This is very rare in The Away Club. We usually stand all of the way through.

Asmir Begovic – not sure why he got the nod over Courtois – was called in to action and thwarted a couple of Swansea attacks. He looked alert and impressed me. Our attacks lacked focus, and we hardly threated Fabianski. Begovic saved well again, a fine block from Sigursson, then watched as Rangel sent one wide. We were on the ropes and the home fans – unlike us – were in full voice. On twenty-five minutes, dogged determination from Jefferson Montero on the Swansea left resulted in him getting a yard of space. His cross was meekly headed out by Miazga, looking a little nervous this week, and the ball fell for Sigurdsson to volley past Begovic.

The Swansea fans roared and we sat silently.

Although the noise does not boom from all sections of the Liberty Stadium, the two or three thousand in the adjacent east stand certainly get behind their team well. We were treated to the usual “Hymns and Arias” and also an extended version of “Just Can’t Get Enough” which seemed to go on for ever and ever.

Then – the cheeky buggers – in a deep and scornful accent :

“Yur for the Swansea, yer only yur for the Swansea.”

Begovic, by far the busiest goalkeeper, then reacted well to deny further Swansea attacks.

At the other end, just on half-time, Fabregas – so quiet – spotted Oscar – so quiet – who turned and managed to get a shot on goal. The ball rebounded to Pato – so quiet – but his stab was well wide.

There were hearty grumbles in the crowded bar areas below at the break.

“Rubbish.”

“No energy.”

“No intensity.”

There was a real surprise at the break. Off went Miazga, and Mikel slipped back to play alongside Ivanovic at the heart of the defence.

That was odd.

Had Miazga been that poor? Or was the move needed to instil more pace? Kenedy came on, with Oscar dropping alongside Fabregas. Kenedy then spent the second-half running into dead ends, blind alleys and falling over.

Loftus-Cheek, full of a more productive type of running, then went close, then Pato slotted home but was ruled to have controlled the ball with his arm rather than shoulder. It looked like handball to me. Pato looked neat and tidy to be fair. There were worse players on the pitch in Chelsea blue. Just after, our best chance of the game thus far fell to Pato, who was played in by Pedro – another one prone to falling over for no apparent reason – but the Brazilian’s deft flick sent the ball agonisingly wide.

Begovic made a magnificent save at full length from former Chelsea player Jack Cork.

The Swansea support was quiet at times. And then it would roar itself back to life.

Our support rallied a little towards the final quarter. We tried our best to inspire the players. There were mediocre, at best, performances throughout the team but I thought that Jon Obi Mikel was excellent in the unfamiliar role of central defender.

Bertrand Traore replaced Alexandre Pato.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek was replaced by Radamel Falcao, hooked up from Swansea Bay earlier in the day.

Swansea, their first attempt for a while, really ought to have scored a second but Montero headed over when it appeared easier to score.

At the end of the game, Falcao had a half-chance, but by that time the home fans were bouncing – “The Jacks Are Staying Up” – and there was no real threat of a Chelsea equaliser.

This was a poor performance, with a distinct lack of passion and desire. I lost count of the number of “50-50” tackles that we lost. I lost count of the number of “second balls” that were squandered. We only had a couple of shots on goal, damn it.

Bloody hell, Chelsea.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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

In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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

As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2sQG_f1fLU

I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.”

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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