Tales From Platform 11 And Platform 25

FC Red Bull Salzburg vs. Chelsea : 25 October 2022.

When we heard the dates for the games in Group E of this season’s Champions League, my first task was focussed on sorting out Milan. I am, after all, used to just attending one away game of this stage in the competition. But after discussion with the Paul and Parky, I then turned my attention to the away match at FC Red Bull Salzburg. It took a while to resolve but I eventually sorted out a trip for us all.

2022 (Milan and Salzburg) would join 2015 (Porto and Haifa) and 2017 (Rome and Baku) as the only years that I would complete two of the three group phase games. I am in awe of those that continually attend all three, and in absolute awe of those who rarely miss any European away games.

Quickly, then, after the home game with Manchester United on the Saturday came a trip out to Austria on the Monday.

I collected my fellow troops late on Monday morning and we headed up to Heathrow where a British Airways flight to Nuremburg in southern Germany would take off at around 3.45pm. There was much traffic in the last section of the trip east and we arrived a little later at Terminal Five than planned, but all was OK. I had hoped for something a little more substantial on the outbound flight than a packet of crisps and a glass of water but “hey ho.” A fortnight after I was looking down on the port of Dover en route to Turin, I was looking down on it again, though from a much higher elevation. We had left a little later than planned but the pilot clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. We touched down at Nuremburg airport at 6.45pm.

We caught a cab to our digs – a really nice apartment in the middle of an industrial estate – and then soon headed for some drinks. We stopped at a little neighbourhood bar en route to a U-Bahn station for the first drink of the trip, and I had to conjure up some German for the first time in ten years. Amazingly, I realised that the very last time that my little tootsies had been on German soil was the day after a certain game in Munich in 2012. Nuremburg city centre was pretty quiet. We had further drinks in three bars and the lagers, of course, went down well.

I was last in this old city in the summer of 1985. I had stopped off on a month-long Inter-Rail trip to primarily visit Zeppelin Field where Hitler held those rallies in the horrific days of the Third Reich. I traipsed all over the southern half of the city on a Sunday afternoon. Eventually I found it all. The Grosse Strasse was still in place, as was the Congress Hall, and the tribune and podium remained. I clambered up on to the very podium where Hitler addressed his followers. It was, I have to admit, a very eerie sensation.

It pains me to report that a Chelsea mate, a Jew, was abused after a recent game by some of our so called supporters.

Words fail me.

I spoke to Paul and Parky about Hitler’s plans to build the biggest stadium of them all, just to the west of the Grosse Strasse – “Deutsches Stadion” – which would have held 400,000 in a huge horse-shoe shape, but this monster was never built. It would have been the biggest stadium ever.

I saw their eyes glaze over before me.

Sadly, my hunt for a German sausage, a crusty bread roll, with some sauerkraut and a dab of mustard did not materialise. We made do with a chicken kebab.

The wurst was still to come.

…more eyes glazing over.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, we took the U-Bahn into town and caught the 8.12am train south to Munich. It was a quick and easy service and only took an hour or so. I tried to snooze a little. Outside there was mist and fog, with limited visibility.

But I was awake to see a gorgeous image that I think will remain in my memory forever. Looking out to my right, in the middle of a field shrouded in mist, a lone white church tower stood, with sunlight crashing against it.

It took my breath away.

I quickly thought about my two previous games in Austria.

1994/95 : Austria Memphis 1 Chelsea 1 and two words – “John Spencer.”

2016/17 : Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0 and another two words – “shite friendly.”

There was a quick turnaround at Munich’s Hauptbanhof, a place that I remembered not only from post-match meanderings in May 2012, but from my wanderlust years of my youth. My most common trip in those days was Milano Centrale to Munich Hauptbanhof, via a change at beautiful Verona. It afforded me a fine sleep between Verona and Munich. I must have travelled that route ten times or so.

Our onward leg left from Platform 11, right on the southern edge of the main section of the station, which – I have to remark – was not as large as I remembered it. Nothing on the scale of Milan’s beauty anyway.

Platform 11 brought back a funny memory or two from late September 1987.

Ian, Trev and I – three college mates, as featured in the Milan episode – had spent the evening at the city’s famous Oktoberfest. We were blitzed. Four had consumed massive steins apiece. We were walloped. I am not sure how, but I walked away with two “Spatenbrau” steins, the others had one apiece.

Fellow travellers were slumped, snoozing, comatose, all over the station, a scene that was repeated after the 2012 game where Glenn and I tip-toed among Bayern fans on the way to the left-luggage lockers.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, in a beer-induced haze, my two companions first lost their left-luggage keys, but eventually found them. Trev was out of money so decided to catch an overnight train to Paris and head back to the UK early. Ian and I would travel to Hamburg. But I then realised that I had lost my wallet and Inter-Rail card and that Trev must have had them both; he was already asleep and far from impressed when I woke him. It was lucky that I had awoken him to be honest. He was on the wrong train so I quickly hooked him off. By sheer luck, I had rescued him just in time. We all then decided to catch an overnight train to Vienna to get some sleep after the Hamburg train never materialised.

We slept like babies.

When we woke, all was still. Ian and I presumed that we had miraculously arrived in Vienna. Trev, bless him, thought that he was newly arrived in Paris.

I looked outside.

We were still stuck on platform 11 at Munich.

Fackinell.

My only explanation for this is that the Germans, bless them, had put on train compartments for revellers to sleep in overnight during Oktoberfest.

But none of us never found out for sure.

Later that day we headed up to Stuttgart and Dortmund to see a football game that had already taken place.

Drink. What a perilous friend.

Back to 2022, we arrived at Salzburg train station at just before 11am. The last few miles of the jurney had been simply magnificent. The Alps to the South were just splendid. What a joy to travel in support of our team.

Salzburg. I was last here with my then girlfriend Judy, en route to a few days in the Alpine resort of Kaprun in late 2010. I had dropped into Salzburg from Vienna once in the ‘eighties by train, I think I never left the train station, but stayed an afternoon in the city on a day trip with my parents in 1977 from Seefeld in the Austrian Tyrol.

We picked up our match tickets at the quaintly named Fanny von Lenhert Strasse – I heard we had sold all 1,500 – and then quickly nabbed a cab to take us to our digs, a one room apartment a mile outside the city centre. Within an hour of arriving in Salzburg, we were sat at a table in a local restaurant drinking a pint of Stiegl, awaiting the arrival of plates of pork schnitzel with parsley potatoes.

The beers went down well. I remembered the beer from 2010.

The food was gorgeous too.

Fantastic.

We walked into town and soon spotted some friendly faces outside a sun-kissed bar in the square next to the train station.  It was about 1pm.

“Corner Am Banhof” was to be our base for around two hours. It was bliss. Although our friends Alan, Gary, Daryl, Nick and Pete were down in the old town, where I had visited with mater and pater forty-five years ago – I remember a castle atop a hill and Mozart’s birthplace and lots of antiquity – we found it hard to move. Leigh and his son Darren invited us over to share a table and their two friends from Norway had brought them a bottle of “Fisk” to consume; a heady drink consisting of eucalyptus, liquorice, menthol and vodka. The bottle was shared.

“It’s like getting pissed on Lysterine.”

A local woman, with a shapeless hat, kept pestering us for cigarettes and money.

Leigh’s son Darren asked me if I knew who she was.

“Badly Drawn Girl.”

Friends of Leigh and Darren from Basingstoke called in, suffering a little from a Stiegl brewery tour on the Monday.

Talk of alcohol, talk of football, talk of alcohol again.

The sun beat down. My face was heating up.

“You love the Limoncello, Leigh.”

“Love it? He bought the T-shirt.”

Leigh, wearing a vivid yellow Stone Island T-shirt, beamed in the autumnal sun.

Many friends drifted in and away. A group of Chelsea supporters were sat across the way. I felt sorry for the lone bartender. She was pulling pints of “Stiegl” at record speed.

It was time to move on. We had heard that some friends were massing at the “Shamrock” in the old town so another cab was hailed. We usually avoid Irish bars, preferring local ones, but the weight of friendship was pulling us. Inside, there were more familiar faces.

Fifteen minutes, we sauntered into the “Shamrock” and yes, faces everywhere.

Cathy and Dog, Josh and Andy from LA, the Gloucester boys, Big Rich, George from Prague, Charlotte, Donna and Paul from Somerset, Skippy from Brisbane, the famous Druce brothers.

The drinks flowed. Smiles and laughter. We stayed around two hours.

Andy led the march to a cab rank and we hopped in. Andy, now a family man, used to be ever present at games at the Chelsea pub in Orange County but can’t attend so many these days.

“I miss the sticky floors.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

It took forever, maybe forty minutes to travel just a few miles. We were dropped off outside the Red Bull Arena to the west of the city centre with about forty-five minutes to go before the game was to begin at 6.45pm. This would be the second Red Bull Arena that I would have visited after the one in Harrison in New Jersey in 2015.

The Red Bull franchise, for the want of a better word, has many enemies in the world of football. Since taking over at Austria Salzburg in 2005, the club changed colours from violet and white to red and white – a sure way to upset existing fans, eh? – and have hoovered up titles ever since; thirteen since 2005.

A breakaway club – SV Austria Salzburg – was soon formed and there are factions within the current sporting landscape of the city.

I was reminded of a conversation that I had in a Viennese bar en route to Bratislava in 1997. I was chatting to an Austria Memphis fan – sponsorship has long been part of this nation’s football scene, this club is now known as Austria Vienna but was temporarily named after a cigarette brand – and he spoke of a pre-season tournament that used to take place between teams in Europe that played in violet, that rarest of football colours. The three teams that I remembered were his own Austria Memphis, Anderlecht and Fiorentina. I suspect that a fourth team was Austria Salzburg.

Reb Bull Salzburg fans hated the way Red Bull Leipzig stole some of their best players since its formation in 2009; seventeen all told. This can’t be how football will be run in future generations, can it? There is no more hated club in Germany than Red Bull Leipzig. The fans of Locomotive Leipzig must loathe the club like no other team.

I guess that Red Bull Salzburg are equally loathed in Austria.

I am sure it wasn’t by design, but we ended up virtually circumnavigating the stadium which was built in 2003. We set off outside the east stand, bumping into fellow Chelsea on the way, before finally ending up outside the away entrance in the south-western corner. A factory was pumping flumes of smoke into the bright blue sky near the stadium, and as we walked underneath the dark stands, walkways above allowed fans, presumably enjoying pre-match festivities in adjacent corporate blocks, to traverse into the seating area. They resembled skywalkers. There was something bleak and futuristic about this, almost dystopian, an odd image that I had to capture on film.

Fritz Lange’s “Metropolis” as a football game? Maybe. He was born in Vienna. Maybe he knew something.

Chelsea played a pre-season game against this team at this stadium in July 2019; a 3-0 win. I am sure nobody I know went.

We were inside with about half-an-hour to go. The Chelsea support was split into two. We were based in the rather dark and dingy lower corner at the southern end. I took many photos of friends as they waited for the game to begin.

I approached Tim, DJ, Neil and Pete.

“Not sure I am ready to do this game on my blog. I am bollocksed.”

The result of around five hours of solid drinking was having an effect.

The three of us spotted space where the Famous Five – Nick the Whip, Pete, Alan, Gary and Daryl – were stood so we joined them. There was rail seating and of course everyone stood. There was netting ahead of us, obscuring the view, with fences to the front and screens to the sides. We are so used to no segregation in the UK that it still comes as a slight shock to see what others in Europe put up with.

Before kick, the dimming of lights, the boom of the PA, then mosaics and a huge “Salzburg” banner at the opposite end.

I had again, as in Milan, opted on my pub camera for this trip. In this dark corner, I was sadly resigned to the fact that my photos wouldn’t be too great for this game.

Chelsea were wearing those poxy navy socks; why? The home team were in a meek and weak grey kit, like something from an Alex Ferguson dystopian nightmare, circa The Dell 1996.

Our team?

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Jorginho – Sterling

Gallagher – Aubameyang – Mount

Or something like that.

It was probably easier to surmise the shape upstairs in the other section. Very soon into the game I mentioned to Pete that we were exhibiting the exact same stance, leaning on the metal barrier in front, but with our fingers smothering our faces in fear of a misadventure.

An early chance for Kai Havertz. Reacting well to collect a miss-timed headed back-pass, he stretched but crunched the Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn who lay on the deck for a while.

Chances at either end were exchanged in the first quarter of an hour and it was an even game. Maybe Pete and I were right to be a little concerned. It had been a lovely trip this far, and although these European forays are never all about the football in itself, the onus was on us to secure a win here and, with it, our passage into the knockout phase in 2023.

The home fans were raucous. But we were in good voice too.

“And it’s Super Chelsea.”

The referee, from Switzerland (um, is that akin to us having a Scottish ref in charge at Chelsea, answers on a postcard…) was wearing a red shirt, black shorts and red socks. This elicited a super bit of trivia from Nick who has been going to Chelsea since the ‘fifties and always, always, has a cupboard full of interesting facts about our wonderful club.

“We wore those colours at Maine Road in 1966, the game when Osgood flicked some V-signs at the City supporters.”

“Love it.”

A Salzburg shot flew over the bar at our end.

A forest of wanker hands to the home areas, thank you very much.

On twenty-three minutes, a move broke down at the other end and the ball fell to Mateo Kovacic. With the quickest of reactions, our Croatian man guided the ball high past the Salzburg ‘keeper from twenty yards out.

What a finish. He gets too few goals, but they are often classy efforts.

Alan, to my right :

“Zey vill have to come at us now.”

Me :

“Come on meine kleine diamonds.”

Chelsea were 1-0 up.

Phew.

“He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

From a Conor Gallagher corner, a glanced header from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang soon followed, but there was a sublime stretch and save from their ‘keeper. After a magnificent flowing move from south to north, Havertz set up Aubameyangr but our whole section groaned when the chance was spurned.

More chances were exchanged but Chelsea were in the ascendency, often with long passing moves aimed to find spaces in the packed Austrian defence.

A save down low from Kepa.

A save from another Gallagher cross and a meek Havertz header, close in.

Just before the break, our best move of the game thus far, with the impressive Havertz dancing in from the left touchline and the ball ending up with Aubameyang, but yet another fine save by their ‘keeper.

At the break, I had a little wander and began watching the second-half at the back of the section for a different perspective. The area next to the home fans to our right afforded such a poor view.

Soon into the second-half, Salzburg equalised when Junior Adamu latched onto a searching ball from out on their left cut out everybody. It was a fine goal and reignited the home fans.

Two quick chances followed for Aubameyang – another fine save – and Jorginho, a header swiped away on the line.

At the half-way stage of the second-half, Christian Pulisic twisted and turned the ball inside to Havertz, who dragged the ball back.

I shouted “Kai – SHOOT!”

He did.

His left foot conjured up some magic, the ball flying into what the Americans call the “upper 90.”

I hugged Daryl – I was now at the other end of our line – and we celebrated a really fine goal.

“It’s still nice to know that after all the years I have known you, and after witnessing so many Chelsea goals, it still elicits the same response.”

We were now 2-1 up.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the excellent Kovacic.

A fine save, now, from Kepa down low. A clearance from Thiago Silva off the line. Phew.

Armando Broja for the frustrating Aubameyang.

A few more chances came and went, with Kepa now the busier of the two ‘keepers.

Two late substitutions.

Hakim Ziyech for Sterling.

Mason Mount for Gallagher.

Thankfully, there were no late scares. With us winning 2-1 and Milan beating Dinamo Zagreb 4-0, our qualification for the next phase, and holiday roulette, was secured. A first-place finish is teasingly close.

Right after the match, we sped outside, over a grass verge and straight onto a waiting bus that took us straight back to the centre of the city. As the bus reached its destination, there was a spontaneous round of applause for the driver. This was just excellent. What great organisation.

Five of us, Team Druce and us Three Chuckle Brothers wandered off into the city. We hoped to get some food, but two places were shut. We caught a cab after a drink in the first restaurant of the day and ended up a few doors down from the “Shamrock” in the old town, or rather right on the very edge of it.

“I saw more of bloody Salzburg in 1977 with my parents.”

More “Steigls”, more laughs. The night continued on. We stayed for two hours. At around 1am, it was time to call it a night. We got a cab back to Ausstrasse and soon fell asleep.

I was awake at around 9am on the Wednesday with not the slightest hint of a hangover. I just love those Austrian and German beers.

We wandered down to the city centre, killed some time with some food, alas no wursts, and caught the train to Munich at midday.

At Munich Hauptbanhof, there was an hour wait. Our pre-printed itinerary said that our return train to Nuremburg would depart at just after 3pm from platform 25, this one on the northern edge of the main station.

At just before 3pm, we saw a train marked up for Nuremburg pull in to platform 22.

We hopped on it.

Easy.

Well, not quite.

After an hour or so, with me trying but failing to nod off, I noticed we were making very slow progress. We were on the wrong train.

This one, instead of arriving at 4.45pm ahead of our 7.50pm flight home, would get in to Nuremburg at 6.16pm.

Bollocks.

We had obviously missed an announcement about our booked train, much faster, leaving from another platform.

From 4pm to 6pm, we sat still and silent, consumed about our plans once we hit Nuremburg. It was the slowest two hours of my life. The train tantalisingly stopped right outside the final destination for ten minutes.

Tick tock, tick tock.

It eventually pulled in at 6.25pm.

I almost expected a German army officer in plain clothes to wish us “good…luck.”

We hurriedly raced out into the evening air and I shouted to the first cab driver.

“Flughafen. Schnell. Schnell. Schnell.”

As I said it, I knew it sounded ridiculous.

Thankfully, the cab only took ten minutes to reach the airport and by 7pm, we were through security and waiting for our – now typically delayed – plane. We were there with an hour to spare.

I heard the theme to “The Great Escape” in my head.

“And relax.”

But still no German sausages. Damn it. Next time.

The flight left a little late, but we were back at Heathrow in good time. We left there at just before 10pm, and I was home just after midnight. It had been the easiest part of the entire trip home.

This had been a lovely trip.

And I have enjoyed writing this one.

Why does its title reference a train station in Germany, though?

Because it’s Munich. I just like talking and writing about Munich.

My friend JD always lists the number of stadia that he has attended seeing Chelsea games outside the UK, and the one in Salzburg was number seventy-six. That’s some number, eh?

While I am in the mood, and everyone knows that I love a list, my current foreign experiences with Chelsea are as follows (and I include games in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland here as these countries are outside of our home league which includes England and Wales) :

Camp Nou, Barcelona, 4.

Stadio Olimpico, Rome 3.

Allianz Stadium, Turin 2.

Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, California 2.

Estadio Dragao, Porto 2.

FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland 2.

Johann Cruyff Arena, Ajax 2.

Mohamed Bin Zayem Stadium, Abu Dhabi 2.

Nissan Stadium, Yokohama 2.

Olympic Stadium, Baku 2.

Parc Des Princes, Paris 2.

Yankee Stadium, New York 2.

Allianz Arena, Munich 1.

Allianz Stadion, Vienna 1.

Bank Of America Stadium, Charlotte 1.

BayArena, Leverkusen 1.

Benito Villamarin, Seville 1.

Birds Nest Stadium, Beijing 1.

Bukit Jalil Stadium, Kuala Lumpur 1.

Cowboys Stadium, Arlington 1.

Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon, 1.

Giants Stadium, Meadowlands, New Jersey 1.

Groupama Arena, Bucharest 1.

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh 1.

Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow 1.

La Romareda, Zaragoza 1.

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 1.

M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore 1.

Mercedes-Benz Arena, Stuttgart 1.

Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor 1.

Nef Stadium, Istanbul 1.

Olympic Stadium, Kiev 1.

Optus Stadium, Perth 1.

Prater Stadium, Vienna 1.

Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok 1.

Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm 1.

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey 1.

Red Bull Arena, Salzburg 1.

Richmond Park, Dublin 1.

Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa 1.

San Siro, Milan 1.

Stade Louis 2, Monaco 1.

Stadion Strelnice, Jablonec 1.

Stadio Olimpico, Turin 1.

Stadio San Paolo, Naples 1.

Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto 1.

Steaua Stadium, Bucharest 1.

Subaru Park, Chester, Pennsylvania 1.

Telhelne Pole, Bratislava 1.

Toyota Park, Chicago 1.

Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo 1.

US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis 1.

Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen 1.

Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid 1.

Weserstadion, Bremen 1.

Windsor Park, Belfast 1.

Total Stadia : 56

Total Games : 71

UEFA Games : 43

FIFA Games : 4

Friendly Games : 24

Tales From Division Two, Serie B And The Champions League

Chelsea vs. Milan : 5 October 2022.

It honestly didn’t seem too long ago that Parky and I had pulled up at a Berkshire pub on the way to a mate’s wedding reception in August. It was here that we were to learn of our fate in this season’s Champions League draw. What with Milan and Inter (never Inter Milan, a moniker that befuddles every Italian; a name that sounds as jarring to them as Everton Liverpool does to us) both partaking in the competition this season, the likelihood of the UEFA Gods allowing me the chance to – at last – see Chelsea at the San Siro was a little stronger than normal. Much to my pleasure we were drawn in the same autumnal group as Milan. My wish had come true. And now here we were; on the cusp of two games against the rossoneri in less than a week.

It also, really, didn’t seem that long ago since our first ever game – if you dismiss the qualifier against the now defunct Skonto Riga – in the Champions League against Milan in September 1999.

But let’s go further back than this.

Our paths first crossed in UEFA’s Inter-Cities Fairs Cup competition in 1965/66. In the first game in Milan on 9 February 1966, Milan defeated Chelsea 2-1 at a game that only attracted 11,000 at the San Siro. This low gate has always surprised me. I found out this week why it was so low; it was played on a Tuesday afternoon due to the threat of fog in the evening. In the return match at Stamford Bridge a week later, over 59,000 – that’s more like it – assembled to witness a game that ended 2-1 too. This match was notable for producing the largest income from the gate that the club had ever experienced. It was also the first game that any British club had produced a programme with colour photographs. In those days, there was no “away goals count double” after a tied aggregate over both games, nor even extra-time after the second one. Instead, a third game play-off was used. Milan “won” the venue on the toss of a coin and so both teams reassembled at the San Siro on 2 March. This game ended 1-1 in front of a more reputable 40,000.  The teams still couldn’t be split. In the end, and as ridiculous as it now seems, the passage into the quarter final stage was decided by another coin toss. On this occasion, Ron Harris chose correctly and Chelsea advanced.

On the drive up to London in PD’s car, Parky wondered if Chopper had used a double-headed coin and we all had a little chuckle.

With Chelsea meticulously avoiding European competition entirely from 1971 to 1994, the thoughts of playing games against such an elite club as Milan would have been thought of as mere folly. Way back when we were in the old Second Division in two spells, such encounters were off the radar, another world away.

In 1998/99 we finished third and thus entered the following season’s Champions League. Our match at home to Milan, twenty-three years ago, is remembered with deep affection indeed. Although the match ended as a 0-0 draw, it was the most entertaining goalless game that I can ever remember seeing. But the thing that I recollect most was the heightened sense of occasion that we all experienced on that evening in SW6.

I remember getting to the ground early and waiting by the players’ entrance to see if anyone famous was loitering around. My diary, sadly, notes that the only person that I saw of note was Des Lynham. Alan and I got in early to pin my “VINCI PER NOI” banner on the wall at the back of the Matthew Harding Upper. I watched alongside Alan in the same seats that I would be watching the same two teams in 2022.

That Milan team included such Italian greats as Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Demetrio Albertini, plus the imported strikers Andriy Shevchenko, newly-acquired from Dynamo Kiev that summer, and Oliver Bierhoff.

The Milan players that night wore a shirt with thin red and black stripes – how ‘sixties – and this was met with my approval. I wasn’t a fan of the black shorts and socks though.

Milan always wore red and black striped shirts with crisp white shorts and white socks. In my eyes, it was a classic kit, so clean, so fresh. I especially liked the Kappa kit from the Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten era with Mediolanum as the sponsor. I am sure we can all remember Gullit, on joining us, saying how much he loved playing in kits with white socks. I was always the same; it always looked good. Maybe it was my Chelsea bias.

What Milan were doing in black shorts and socks that season is the stuff of nightmares. However, they were not the only giants playing silly buggers at that time.

I loved the kits of the top three Italian teams in the ‘eighties and further back.

Milan : red and white striped shirts, white sorts, white socks.

Inter : blue and black striped shirts, black shorts, black socks.

Juventus : black and white striped shirts, baggy white shorts, white socks.

I had seen Juve versus Fiorentina in Turin in the May of 1999 and the sight of them playing with black shorts and black socks just did not seem right; in fact, it looked atrocious.

Ah, that match in 1999 was wonderful. Our team was jam packed with crowd favourites such as Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet, Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly, Dan Petrescu and we paraded new signing Didier Deschamps. My diary from 1999 notes that Zola, the little maestro, hit a post and Bierhoff a bar – “similar to Peacock, ’94 Cup Final – and that it was “a superb night of football.”

The return leg, in late October 1999, is of course the stuff of legend, and inspired one of the most well-loved chants of the modern era. I am still gutted – traumatised – that I wasn’t there to witness it. I was on the wrong shift at work and unable to switch.

I hoped that my time would come again. Seeing Chelsea at the Giuseppe Meazza is right up there.

There had been, incidentally, a mid-season friendly at the San Siro in February 1997 – a 2-0 Milan win – that a few die-hards attended.

Since those days, the two clubs have met but only in a raft of pre-season matches in the United States. Milan are, surely, Chelsea’s most frequent opponent in such tours.

The seven games are listed here.

2 August 2004 : Chelsea 2 Milan 3 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

24 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 0 – Foxborough, Massachusetts.

31 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 1 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

24 July 2009 : Chelsea 2 Milan 1 – Baltimore, Maryland.

28 July 2012 : Chelsea 0 Milan 1 – Miami, Florida.

4 August 2013 : Chelsea 2 Milan 0 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

4 August 2016 : Chelsea 3 Milan 1 – Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was lucky enough to attend three of these.

The game in 2005 at Giants Stadium wasn’t particularly enthralling, but I was able to witness Didier Drogba’s goal at close hand. The main Chelsea supporter section was up the other end. Milan then equalised. I must admit it felt special to be touring the US with the reigning English Champions. This was a fine weekend for me. New York Yankees on the Saturday, Chelsea on the Sunday. Perfect.

The match in 2009 at the Baltimore Ravens’ NFL stadium was probably the best quality match of the seventeen that I have seen in the US. Unfortunately, I was still waiting outside for a friend to arrive at the start and thus missed Drogba’s fine opening goal. A Yuri Zhirkov goal gave us a 2-1 win after Milan equalised. For many, Baltimore was a high water mark of our many US “summer seasons.”

The encounter in 2016 was the first sporting event to take place at the state-of-the-art Minnesota Vikings NFL stadium. This was another decent game. Bertrand Traore scored for us but Milan equalised. However, two late goals from Oscar gave us a fine 3-1 win in a game that marked N’Golo Kante’s first outing in Chelsea colours.

Back to 2022.

We were parked up as early as 4.20pm. It was time for another act in the Chelsea and Milan story.

There was a fair bit of time to kill. I had a wander. I chatted to the usual suspects at Steve’s programme stall and Marco’s “CFCUK” stall. I didn’t mind admitting that I was a little fearful going into the evening’s game. We had amassed just one point out of six and now faced the two hardest games of the group in quick succession.

“Deep down, we need four points from the Milan games but this will be a tough, tough ask.”

I popped in for a pie and chips on Fulham Broadway, then met a few more of the even-more-usual suspects at “Simmons” which was quiet when I walked in at 6pm. It grew busier but not with the football set. Instead, there were young Londoners on a night out. I bumped into a chap from Louisiana, quite by chance, who had been at the Palace game on Saturday.

The music blared. I supped a couple of pints. In the back of my head I was still fearful of getting turned over.

We all set off in good time to reach our seats by about 7.30pm.

The ground slowly filled. There didn’t seem to be anything like the sense of occasion that had accompanied the game in 1999. However, the “half-and-half” scarf grafters on the Fulham Road had evidently done quite a trade. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many scarves. Most, it saddened me to see, were folded with the red of Milan visible. I presumed that there would be around 3,000 from Lombardy in the designated away section, but knew that there would be other Milan fans dotted around.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Kouilbaly – Silva – Fofana

James – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

It looked a decent set-up.

The Milan team of course included former Chelsea players Olivier Giroud and Fikayo Tomori, plus their big hope Rafael Leao.

The Milanese – a good many had been plotted up at Earl’s Court – were now beginning to make some noise. Their flags were out. The boys of the Curva Sud were ensconced in the southern end at Stamford Bridge, though the twin tiers of The Shed must have felt miniscule compared to the towering tiers at the San Siro.

A certain song was heard before the kick-off…

…”in the San Siro, with ten minutes to go.”

I remember watching the highlight’s on a mate’s TV in a portakabin – the traffic office – where I worked at a warehouse in Trowbridge, not knowing the result, but celebrating wildly when Wisey scored. The portakabin was rocking that night in deepest Wiltshire.

The teams arrived on the pitch. I still miss that walk to the West Stand across the pitch; that added drama.

The players soon lined up.

The anthem.

The players broke but were then called in so the pour souls who lost their lives in Indonesia recently could be remembered in silence. Again, Kepa had to race from his goal mouth to make the start. The minute’s silence was meant to commence with the referee’s whistle, but there wasn’t one. By now, the crowd were stood in complete silence. After a good few seconds the referee’s whistle blew. With that, the home fans began singing “Chelsea” while the players looked befuddled. I didn’t know what was going on. It was the most poorly executed silence I had ever seen.

Milan were in white shirts with a slight red trim, white shorts and black socks. At least they were in their club colours. Seeing Milan in bright orange, dayglow green or a jarring yellow just would not have seemed right.

Milan had the best of the opening five minutes with a couple of free kicks being swung in from their left. I immediately liked the look of Leao. We coped well with defending these and then built our presence as the game developed.

On just five minutes, a super move. Silva to Aubameyang to Mount, and a fine save from distance by the Milan ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.

The Milanisti were in fine voice.

“Forza Meelan ale ale, Foraza Meelan ale ale, Forza Meelan ale ale, ale ale ale.”

There was a magnificently-timed slide by Silva to rob a Milan attacker on the half-way line. I wish we had seen him earlier in his career. I had seen him in Baltimore in 2009 playing for Milan; if only we had picked him up at that time.

The defender then rose well at a Chelsea free-kick from Mount on our right to force a fine save by the Milan goalkeeper. Soon after, his diving header at goal from a corner on our left caused all sorts of panic and mayhem in the Shed End goalmouth. Milan never seemed to be in a position to clear the ball and, to this observer at least, a goal seemed on the cards. There were a few stabs at the ball, but after a some swipes, a Chelsea leg – and boot – tucked it home.

GET IN.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

Wesley Fofana had pushed it home.

Huge celebrations.

That anticipation of the goal was magical. I just knew we’d eventually put it away.

Alan : “like a goal in weekly parts.”

Chris : “love that mate, that’s going in the blog.”

Alan : “be even better if it had been scored by a player called Marshall Cavandish.”

Bloody hell, despite my pre-match fears we were 1-0 up. We really grew in confidence and dominated the rest of the half. On the half-hour, I wondered if Giroud had even touched the ball. A shot from Mount was deflected wide. There was a fine move and an even finer lob from Mount but the goal was disallowed for offside.  Sadly, Fofana was injured and fell to the floor twice. On the second occasion, he did not recover and was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah on thirty-eight minutes.

I was very happy with all this. We were absolutely dominating play and the away team had not carved out a single effort on goal. With a few minutes remaining in the half, Leao produced a powerful run between two defenders down below but was beautifully shepherded out by Chalobah.

There was a strong run from Sterling but it came to an anaemic ending as a block halted his shot. We all wondered why he hadn’t shot earlier. Then, just before the break, the best attack of the half from the away team. There was another strong run from Leao but the resulting shot from Charles de Ketalataere was blocked and the rebound was slashed over by Rade Krunic.

All was well at the break, then. There were happy faces all around.

Apart from, well it pains me to say it, the atmosphere was pretty poor. I am not sure if this was because many of the usual match-goers had decided to give it a miss. The tickets were only £35. Maybe the mix of spectators had caused it. I always note a far more cosmopolitan crowd – dare I say the word “tourists”? – at European games. The only section of the crowd that was bothering were the Milan fans in the far corner.

Sigh.

Modern football, eh?

The second-half began. By now I was chatting away to a young Chelsea fan from Kent – hello Jack, hope you like the blog – and he seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about modern tactics and the strengths of our players. But then it made me a bit misty-eyed for the days when our collective understanding of tactics – no “high press”, no “low block”, no “between the lines” in 1999 – was not that great but we just used to sing our hearts out and get behind the team.

Another sigh.

There was a very optimistic overhead kick from near the edge of the box from Trevoh Chalobah that didn’t bother anyone. I was reminded of a chant that my mate Tommy from LA invented for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel at the Milan game in Minneapolis in 2016.

To the tune of “she fell over!“ :

“He’s Chalobah!”

It has potential, eh?

We were dominating everything about this game. On fifty-six minutes, Ben Chilwell was in acres of space but his cross was too long, laughably so. Not to worry, the loose ball was collected by Reece James who sent over an inch-perfect cross into the six-yard box. Tomori tangled his limbs and Aubameyang struck from close in.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Milan 0.

There was a summersault from the scorer that was just too quick for me. He loved that goal and so did we. At last a poacher. Hallelujah.

I turned to Jack :

“It was if Chilwell thought to himself” –

“Well I can’t cross a ball but let’s give it to a bloke who can.”

Not long after, a slide-rule pass from the excellent Sterling found Reece on the overlap. There was a touch to move the ball onto his right peg. At this stage, I again knew a goal was coming. I love those moments.

BOSH.

Chelsea 3 Milan 0.

What noise now.

“Reece James. He’s one of our own.”

Stamford Bridge was temporarily on fire.

Phew.

The rest of the game? Not sure. I think I was just too surprised to take it all in.

I turned to Jack : “I suppose in some ways we will honestly feel a bit cheated if we don’t score another one.”

Some substitutions followed.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Gallagher for Aubameyang.

Havertz for Mount.

Broja for Sterling.

All was good in the world. Well, apart from the noise which soon reached its old levels after the burst of energy and commotion that followed the second and third goals.

Only sing when we are winning?

Yep.

Even in the last seconds, the Milan lot were still singing, still bouncing up and down, still putting on a show.

At the completion of the game, the PA played “One Step Beyond” and even that was met with a muted reaction.

What a comparison

1999 : no goals but surely a bristling atmosphere.

2022 : three goals yet a muted atmosphere.

Another sigh.

To complete this Chelsea and Milan history lesson, let’s look at 1982/83 once again.

On Saturday 2 October 1982, Chelsea beat Grimsby Town 5-2 at Stamford Bridge. This game was watched by another 10,000 crowd and the scorers were David Speedie with another two goals and also Micky Droy, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery. We were unbeaten at home with two wins and two draws.

On Sunday 3 October, Milan played an away game at Campobasso, not so far from Naples. The surprising thing here is that this match took place in Serie B after the once mighty Milan team, European Cup winners in 1963 and 1969, had been relegated for the second time in three seasons in 1981/82. They won 2-0 and the only “stranieri” – foreigner – in the squad (Italian teams were allowed only one, how times change) was Joe Jordan, who nabbed one of the goals. Milan’s 1982/83 season ended more gloriously than ours. They were promoted as champions and have not been relegated since.

Grimsby, Campobasso.

Fackinell.

We made our way back to the car and PD made good time on the return to our little part of the Chelsea Kingdom. I reached home at around 1.30am.

See you on Saturday against Wolves.

1999.

2005.

2009.

2016.

2022.

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

Tales From The Minerva

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

The game? That would take care of itself.

Let’s go to Hull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The winds howl over these flat lands.

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

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

Bloody hell, a real city on the edge.

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

Welcome to Hull.

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

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

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

Much banter followed.

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

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

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

But we ignored him.

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

He looked over and said :

“Ha, is that your first-aid kit?”

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

Like a fungus.

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

At about 11.45am we caught a cab into town.

The cab driver was gruff.

“I fucking hate Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PD : “That was to let the rats out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hull on Earth?”

No.

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

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

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

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

But get in on time I did.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

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

Frank Lampard chose this starting eleven :

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Barkley – Kovacic – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pedro

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

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

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

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

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

So, back to 2020.

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

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

It was our first real attack.

Get in.

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

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

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

It was as if we were attempting to crabwalk.

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

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

Hot and cold.

Noise and quiet.

Stillness and mayhem.

Frost and fire.

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

“Yeah right.”

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

Sorry Alan. Better late than never.

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

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

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

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

Time for some substitutions.

Billy Gilmour for Our Callum.

Willian for Our Mason.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

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

Hull 1 London 2.

Phew.

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

Into Round Five we went.

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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

He wanted me to mention him in this blog.

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

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

“Where are you off lads”?

“Back to our hotel.”

“Oh no. It’s not The Carlton is it”?

“Oh yes.”

“Oh God.”

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

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

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

I will see you there.

Featured album :

“Eden” : Everything But The Girl 1984.

 

Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

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Tales From The Long Goodbye

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 21 May 2017.

If ever the old adage of “Chelsea is not just about football” was true, then it was certainly true for our last league game of the season against relegated Sunderland. And although there was chatter among some fans for us to achieve a Premier League record thirty wins, my mind was full of anticipation for the trophy celebrations at the end of the game. To be honest, I thought that the win was a foregone conclusion. Sunderland have finished bottom of the division for a reason. Label me, for once, as being blasé, but I am sure that I was not alone. There was also the emotion of John Terry’s last-ever appearance in a Chelsea shirt at Stamford Bridge. I wasn’t quite sure how that would play out, but it promised to be quite a day.

On the Saturday evening, I replayed John Terry’s speech at the end of our last game of the 2015/16 season, when he spoke of the team’s struggles throughout the campaign, but also of his desire to stay at Stamford Bridge for another year, and to indeed retire as a Chelsea man. On several occasions, his voice faltered. Always an emotional man, I honestly wondered how on Earth he would cope one year later. For us fans, a day of high emotion was on the cards. For him, it would be even more intense. I had a feeling that everything would be about our captain. There was a realisation that it would possibly overshadow, if that is possible, the trophy presentation. Oh well. Whatever will be will be, as they say in football circles.

While I was watching John Terry on “You Tube” on Saturday evening, many other Chelsea pals were at an event at Stamford Bridge which paid homage to Eddie McCreadie’s team of the mid- ‘seventies. It represented his first appearance at Chelsea since he was sacked in 1977 – infamously for allegedly asking the board for a company car – and it was a major coup. For decades, he had not ventured from his new home in Tennessee due to his fear of flying. It looked like a top night. For once, I looked on from afar, and lived vicariously through the photographs of others. Many of the players from that era had attended the event. Lovely stuff.

On the Sunday morning, an early start for The Chuckle Bus, I drove up to London for the last time this season. For the FA Cup on Saturday, Glenn is driving; I will be able to relax and enjoy a few pints ahead of a final hurrah at Wembley. Glenn and myself headed down to the ground early on. We made a bee-line for the hotel where I hoped to be lucky enough to bump in to Eddie Mac. We stayed for a while, met a few friends, but our former manager was elsewhere. Not to worry, I got to meet Steve Wicks – our “flaxen-haired pivot” as much-lampooned former programme editor Colin Benson described him during his second spell at the club from 1986 to 1988 – and it is always lovely to meet former heroes. I wondered if Eddie McCreadie would be on the pitch at half-time. I never ever saw him play for us. There was also a quick word of welcome to former manager Ken Shellito, now living in Malaysia. Brilliant.

As we headed back to meet up with the lads in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, we noted that the club were handing out free match programmes. The sun was out. It was going to be a lovely day.

The usual faces had assembled in the pub for our final Chelsea home game of the season. I spotted several Juventus supporters in the little snug upstairs. They were assembling for their game against Crotone which would kick-off at 2pm. It would be a potential league decider. I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them in both Italian and English. It turned out that the boozer is the HQ of the Juve London Supporters Club. What a small world. They spoke of Antonio Conte and of Juan Cuadrado. The two clubs have shared many players and managers over the years, and that’s lovely for me. I showed them a photo on my phone of me at the Stadio Communale in 1988, and this was met with wide smiles. I bellowed “Vinci Per Noi” as I left.

We called in to “The Clarence” – news broke through that JT was starting –  and then made our way to Stamford Bridge, bumping into others en route. On the approach to the stadium, Fulham Road was adorned with signs declaring “The Home Of The Champions.” There already was an air of celebration in the air. The football match almost seemed an afterthought.

I briefly centred my thoughts on our team. I had presumed that JT might come on as a substitute, probably for Gary Cahill, so he could be on the pitch at the end of the game. Antonio Conte had obviously decided upon other plans. Elsewhere, a strong team, and with Fabregas instead of Matic and Willian instead of Pedro.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Terry, Luiz – Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

The hotel was being used as a canvas for two huge murals. To the left was a large image of John Terry and Antonio Conte in an embrace. To the right, the two words being uttered by them both :

“Thanks.”

“Grazie.”

Perfect.

Sunderland had brought down 1,500 from the north-east. It has been a Weary season for them. Their supporters looked like a sea of red-and-white striped deckchairs in the lazy summer sun. The minutes passed by. The usual pre-match Chelsea songs echoed around the packed stands.

It seemed that every seat was being used. Sadly, down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, one seat was empty. After being recently hospitalised, Cathy was forced to miss her first Chelsea home game since 1976, and only her second one ever since that date. She was undoubtedly in my thoughts, and in the thoughts of others, throughout the day. I have known Cathy as a “Chelsea face” for decades, but only really got to know her via trips to the US in 2006 and 2007. Her support has known no bounds. I hoped that her next match would be at Wembley next weekend.

“Get well soon, Cath.”

The league season had begun with the silvery shimmer of the Italian flag in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the teams appeared on the touchline, The Shed unravelled its most ambitious project yet; yet more shimmering mosaics, horizontal blue and white, with a large image of John Terry centrally-placed, and with trophies in front. Then, a huge sign was draped over the balcony –

“THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.”

There was another JT-themed flag in the Matthew Harding Lower below me. On the pitch, our captain led the team out with his two children Summer and George walking alongside him. It was a spectacular scene. The applause increased. Flames roared in front of the East Lower. Bathed in sunshine, a riot of colour, Stamford Bridge had rarely looked more photogenic.

The game had barely begun when the home crowd boomed “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” and the dapper Italian did a slow 360-degree salute to us.

Soon after, the crowd followed this up with a chant for Roman Abramovich. To my surprise, not only did the bashful owner smile and wave, he stood up too. Bless him. It is only right that we show him some love too.

Our game at the Stadium of Light in December was a 1-0 win – that Courtois save, wow – and had given us three vital away points. It seemed like a highly important victory at the time. It gave us belief heading in to Christmas. How odd that they could not break through on that night, but it only took them three minutes in the home game. A Sunderland free-kick resulted in a ball ending up at the feet of the unmarked Javier Manquillio – who? – at the far post. As John Terry scrambled to cover, the Sunderland player smashed the ball past Thibaut.

Oh bugger it.

There would not be another clean sheet for our ‘keeper.

On six minutes, the away fans in the far corner began singing in honour of their own club legend.

“One Bradley Lowery, there’s only one Bradley Lowery.”

I joined in, momentarily, but I was in the minority. The away fans sang away, bless them. At the end of the sixth minute, we were awarded a free-kick. Marcos Alonso slammed a curler against the bar and we watched with increasing incredulity as player after player passed the ball in and around the packed deck-chairs inside the Sunderland box.

The ball came out to Diego Costa, who shifted the ball to Eden Hazard, who moved it on to George Hilsdon. Then the ball was swept out to Jimmy Windridge, then to Tommy Law, then to Hughie Gallacher. A shot was blocked. Tommy Lawton pushed the ball to Tommy Walker, then to Roy Bentley. Another blocked shot. The ball fell to Ken Shellito, who shimmied past his marker, and touched the ball inside to Barry Bridges. A firm tackle robbed him of the ball, but John Hollins pounced and won the ball back. A fine move involving Clive Walker, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli and Claude Makelele set up Frank Lampard. His shot ricocheted into the path of John Terry, who swiped at the ball but could not connect. Eventually, the ball reached Willian who smashed the ball home.

Thank fuck for that.

Willian leapt in the air right in front of a gaggle of mates who were watching in the Shed Lower. The ground, unsurprisingly, roared.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

We went close on several other occasions and were in total control. Willian was right in the middle of everything, causing panic in the Sunderland box whenever he had the ball. John Terry caught a loose ball well but his shot was deflected away for a corner. It came from just outside the “D” of the penalty area. It could have been his crowning glory. He still, I am sure, has not scored from outside the box. Moses fired over. David Luiz went close. It was all Chelsea.

On twenty-six minutes, Jordan Pickford booted the ball off for a throw-in.

“Well, that was odd.”

It then all slotted in to place.

It was obvious that John Terry was to be substituted. I remembered back to 2015 and Didier’s last game when he was carried off by team mates. That seemed a little excessive, but seemed OK in the grand scheme of things. For John Terry, things were more contrived. He clapped us all, received hugs from his team mates and a few Sunderland players, including former blue Fabio Borini, and was given a guard of honour by his Chelsea team mates. Of course, the Chelsea crowd were lapping it all up. I was in two minds. A classy gesture or pure showbiz schmaltz? I am still undecided.

Ron Harris’ thoughts would be interesting to hear.

Regardless, he was given a fine ovation. He was, appropriately, replaced by Gary Cahill.

Alan, ever thoughtful, sent a video of the JT substitution to Cathy in her Middlesex hospital.

Willian, the constant danger, went close. For a while, it seemed implausible that we would not score a second goal. With Diego Costa on the periphery, however, we lacked a goal scoring touch inside the box. Diego was booked for a messy scuffle with John O’Shea, the lanky deck-chair attendant. Would it be one of those Diego games?

At the break, it was tied at 1-1 and we could hardly fathom it.

Sadly, Eddie McCreadie did not make it down to the pitch during the half-time break. Neil Barnett did mention him, though. He was watching from a box in the corporate tier of the West Stand. Additionally, we spotted Claudio Ranieri was sitting a few seats away from Roman.

The second-half began and it was much the same as before. Victor Moses took over Willian’s mantle and put in some lovely advances down the right. On the hour, at last we broke through. Eden Hazard drifted in from the left and effortlessly smashed the ball past Pickford.

We were 2-1 up. Get in.

The noise boomed again around Stamford Bridge. We were winning. Eden had just scored. Roman was happy. We were all happy.

“Carefree. Wherever you may be.”

Antonio was serenaded again. The 360 again. He then replaced Diego Costa with Michy Batshuayi. As he strode off, he too did a 360, but tellingly waved both hands to all four stands.

“He’s off to China then.”

When Pedro replaced Eden on seventy minutes, my eyes seared in to his skull and I begged him not to wave too. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Meanwhile, on Humberside, that lot were scoring five, six, seven. I wondered when they would be allowed to play their three extra games to allow them to be champions this season. At Anfield, Liverpool were winning, thus condemning Arsenal to fifth place. When we ended up in tenth place last season, there were no protests nor public outcry, nor a reduction in attendance figures. After Arsenal’s season – “fifth place, how dare they!!!” – expect the end of the world as we know it.

With around ten minutes to go, Pedro nipped in to head home after Cesc’s long ball was not gathered by Pickford. I was reminded of the same player’s rapid strike against Manchester United in the autumn. His gleeful little dance below me was joy itself.

Bizarrely, man of the moment Michy Batshuayi then scored two further goals in time added on for stoppages. Firstly, an opportunist toe poke from a fine pass from Pedro. He loved that. Soon after, wide on the right, he appeared to be offside and almost gave up the chase on a ball that was pumped in to space. He almost apologetically picked the ball up, strode forward and curled a fine shot past the luckless Pickford.

Chelsea 5 Sunderland 1.

The final whistle followed just after.

Just champion.

Unlike in previous seasons – even when we won it in 2015 – virtually nobody left the stadium. We waited patiently for the trophy presentation. But, I guess, many were waiting for John Terry too. The Sunderland fans gradually drifted away. Elsewhere, the stadium remained at capacity. We waited.

Dennis Wise appeared with the 2016/17 Premier League trophy and slowly walked out to place it on the plinth, which was luckily placed at our end of the stadium. We were in prime seats. Dennis kissed the trophy and smiled the cheekiest of grins. Inexplicably, and to my surprise, my eyes became moist. It was Dennis – “The Rat” – who had hoisted the FA Cup at Wembley in 1997, the greatest day in my life at that time. I was sent reeling back in time, and I welled up. Oh how we celebrated at Wembley on that glorious day. Our club was a different beast in those days. In truth, it felt more like my club in 1997 than in 2017 for reasons which are far too profound for me to tackle at this moment in time. Suffice to say, it all felt a lot more personal and pertinent – and relevant – twenty years ago than now. In 1997, we were a tight bunch. We had been through it all. The FA Cup was a final reward for our years of penury. These days, any Tom, Dick and Harriet supports Chelsea and successes seem to be expected by many.

For those who were there, in 1997, I am sure my emotions are easily understood.

I gathered myself, wiped my eyes, and awaited the next stage of the trophy presentation.

Neil Barnett was the MC.

First up, a few squad members who had not featured, including Eduardo and Masonda. Then, the manager Antonio. What a reaction from the crowd. He looked euphoric. Then, each and every one of the first team regulars were announced. Special cheers for N’Golo, for Eden, for Dave (who had, remarkably, played every single minute of our league campaign this season.)

Then Gary Cahill. Big cheers.

Then John Terry’s face appeared on the TV screen. His bottom lip seemed to be quivering.

“Oh, for fuck sake John, keep it steady.”

The captain walked slowly towards the trophy. A pause. Both John and Gary picked it up. Another pause.

And then the joint lift of the huge trophy above heads.

More flames and tinsel.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

  1. 2005. 2006. 2010. 2015. 2017.

How sweet it is.

The players were then swamped by wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters, plus the gentlemen of the press. The central area became crowded and too much was going on. We had a superb view of it all but I felt for the fans in The Shed.

“We sort out the pre-match display and are then the forgotten ones.”

The trophy was passed from player to player. We spotted the Sky team of Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness chat to Thibaut and Eden.

Inevitably, eyes turned towards John Terry. A montage of his most famous moments in our colours was featured on the TV screens. He stood, motionless, watching too. It looked like his bottom lip was going again. Neil gave him the microphone. His first act was to thank Steve Holland, off to pastures new with England, and he was given a fine reception. John Terry then walked past the photographers and spoke of the love that Roman Abramovich has for the club. For a moment, with John looking up at the owner in his executive area, speaking with such feeling, it resembled a footballing version of Romeo declaring undying love under Juliet’s balcony.

Roman’s name was again given a resounding roar. More embarrassed waves from the owner.

John then spoke of his love for the club, for us fans, but especially his love of his own family.

“I love you all” and his voice broke.

My eyes became a little moist. Good job I had my sunglasses on.

I then wondered if we had all lost the plot.

It’s only football, right?

Shankly was of course wrong. It’s not more important than life and death. What is?

And yet sport – football for me – does stir these incredible emotions. It is not to be laughed at. Football has given me some of my most amazing moments. I could only imagine what John was going through. His last day at his place of work for the past twenty years. A last goodbye.

I have only experienced something similar once before. My last visit to the old Yankee Stadium in 2008 – after twenty-three visits – left me a blubbering wreck. Heaven knows what I will be like when we move out in two years’ time. After around three-hundred and fifty games at Stamford Bridge, John had every right to be suitably moved.

Football has the power to touch us in so many ways and long may it continue.

I stood with Alan, Glenn and PD, our arms around each other’s shoulders.

It was a proud moment for PD; he had completed a full set of league games for the first time ever.

A hug for John Terry with Antonio Conte. A few words from the manager. A last few photographs of the captain in front of the Matthew Harding.

A wave to us.

And then a slow walk down to The Shed.

For many of our new fans, it must seem impossible for a Chelsea with no John Terry. But this club will continue. And we are in a supremely healthy position; the manager has formed a fine team ethos this season. And I know that many words have been written to describe John Terry, but my last comment for now is that during a potentially frustrating season for him, John has exemplified what a consummate professional he is by not giving the media a single story of negativity nor nonsense. For this reason alone, it has been one of his finest seasons. Bless him.

Who knows, he might even score the winner at Wembley next Saturday.

 

For Cathy.

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Tales From A Night Of Fun

Chelsea vs. Watford : 15 May 2017.

Friday was bloody magnificent, wasn’t it?

And now Chelsea, after winning the sixth title in our history at The Hawthorns, after a week of rising tension, were following this up with a home game against Watford on Monday. The absolute high from the game at West Brom had not really subsided, but there was a certain strangeness in the air as I drove up to West London with Parky and PD. There was a feeling of inevitable anti-climax, but we took that on the chin. That was certain. It was to be expected. In “The Goose” beforehand – rain clouds overhead dampening the mood a little – there was celebratory talk from Friday with those who had travelled, but the overall feeling was of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” In truth, of course, we would not wish to be anywhere else on the planet.

We quickly chatted about the potential team line-up, and I only predicted a few changes.

How wrong I was.

Begovic

Zouma – Terry – Ake

Azpilicueta – Kante – Chalobah – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Hazard

Compared to our first-choice starting eleven, only two players (N’Golo and Eden) were in their own positions. It seemed like a “B” team. But I wasn’t honestly bothered. With the FA Cup Final looming, I was sure that a strong team would be chosen against Sunderland. It was only right that a few fringe players were picked against Watford.

As I turned the corner and approached the West Stand, I grabbed a programme and soon spotted the new grand signage on the West Stand.

“Home of the Champions.”

It felt good.

Our fifth title in thirteen seasons. Some fans don’t know they are born. Of course, I don’t begrudge the younger element of our support anything; that would be churlish. But it did make me think. If I had seen a Chelsea title in my first season of active support at the age of eight, by the time I was twenty-one, I would have seen a total of five. I find this ridiculous, but for many young Chelsea fans in 2017 this is their actual story.

“Just like the Scousers” as my mate Andy had commentated at The Hawthorns on Friday, referencing their pomp in our shared childhood.

Indeed.

I do not wish to get too maudlin, but I have come to accept – and bizarrely, be thankful for – our championship draught from 1955 to 2004. It has made me appreciate the good times even more. And that is fine with me.

Outside and inside, I greeted a few pals with the same words –

“Alright, champ?”

I had commented to PD that I half-expected a fair few empty seats around the stadium – there had been a lot of spares up for grabs on “Facebook” in the morning – but I was very pleased that the place was filling up nicely. At kick-off, hardly any seats in the home areas were not used. However, Watford only had around 2,000 in their end. The gaping hole in their section was shocking. The “Home of the Champions” signage had been added to the balconies of all the stands too. A nice touch. Just before the teams entered the pitch, “CHAMPIONS” banners were draped from the upper tier of The Shed.

“Park Life” gave way to “The Liquidator” and the Watford team – the starting eleven in white to the right, the subs in red to the left – formed a guard of honour. John Terry, almost certainly for the last time, lead the Chelsea team on to the pitch. Flame-throwers in front of the East Stand blasted orange fingers of fire into the evening air. The noise was thunderous.

Down below, I spotted Cathy, who had been hit with ill-health during the game on Friday. She had come straight from a Middlesex hospital. It was reassuring to see her in her usual seat. Her home record – every game since the mid-seventies – was intact.

Very soon into the match, the surreal tone for the ensuing evening was set when the entire crowd roared “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” and the manager slowly turned a complete circle and clapped all of the four corners of the packed stadium. This often happens, but usually much later. This was within the first two minutes. Just a few seconds after, the Chelsea fans followed this up with a chant aimed at the fellows in second place, a full ten points adrift now.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

We began brightly enough and were on the front foot. It was odd to see so many different players on the pitch at the same time. A header back to Begovic by John Terry was loudly cheered, but we soon got used to him. Unlike his previous substitute appearance, not every touch was cheered.

However, that was soon to change.

We had created a few half-chances, and then Willian pumped in a corner from our right. King Kurt rose to head the ball goal wards, and the ball was slammed past Gomes. As the goal scorer reeled away, I soon realised that it was John Terry. Perfect. Oh bloody perfect. He ran towards the fans, jumped up – right in front of Parky, the lucky sod – and was engulfed by his fellow players. A lovely moment. A goal on his last start for Chelsea? Probably.

Chelsea 1 Watford 0.

I looked towards Alan, and waited for him to turn towards me and utter his usual post-goal exclamation. I waited. And waited. And waited. He was watching the match. I glanced over to my left just as Watford forced a very rapid equaliser. I only saw the ball cross the line.

Alan and myself had words.

“I’m blaming you for that.”

We laughed.

As the game progressed, we remained dominant. As if in some sort of subtle homage to our captain, the impressive Nathaniel Chalobah chest-passed a ball to a team mate. He loves a chest-pass, does John Terry. With a similar touch to that which set up our first goal at Wembley against Spurs, Michy Batshuayi was able to flick a ball on with a quite beautiful touch. It had the feel of an exhibition match, with tricks and flicks never far away. Willian was especially full of energy. Hazard went close. On thirty-five minutes, a move from our left forced a save from Watford ‘keeper and captain Gomes. It fell to Dave, who slammed the ball hard and low into the net.

Get in.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

More wild celebrations over in Parkyville. Flags waving, the crowd roaring. Super stuff.

It had been a fine half of football. It was amazing to see N’Golo eat up space with such desire and win ball after ball. Kenedy – “I didn’t know Bart Simpson was playing” quipped Alan – was looking to get forward at every opportunity. Dave, unfettered now in a wide position, had enjoyed a fine half too. Kurt Zouma, usually so stiff, seemed a lot more relaxed. All was good.

Kerry Dixon was on the pitch at half-time. However, he did not take part in the usual walkabout on the pitch.

Both Alan and myself, at the same time, spoke : “He’s getting back to the bar.”

Soon into the second-half, a short corner eventually broke to Nathan Ake, who played the ball on to Batshuayi. It was an easy chance.

“He always scores against Watford.”

Chelsea 3 Watford 1.

Unbelievably, and to our annoyance, Watford scored again. Janmaat danced through – waltzing past many blue shirts – and curled one past Begovic. It was a fine goal.

Despite this setback, the mood inside the stadium was still light. The MHL began to get the other stands involved.

“West Stand give us a song” – they did.

“Shed End give us a song” – they did.

“Watford give us a song” – they didn’t.

More songs for Antonio, for JT, for Willian. Batshuayi was involved, getting a couple of shots on target. Two shots from Dave too. But then our play became a little disjointed. Watford, aided by some dubious refereeing decisions, were able to move the ball through our tiring midfield. Watford had replaced Niang with Okaka – “who?” from Alan and yours truly – and we were left eating our words when a cross was pumped into our box, the ball fell between Terry and Zouma, and the substitute slammed home, with Chelsea unable to clear. And the previously mute Watford fans sang loud and danced like fools.

“Bollocks.”

Behrami slashed a drive just past the post. Janmaat blasted over.

“Come on Chels, fackinell”

This was turning in to a very odd game. Three-all. Sigh. I was reminded of our 2005/06 title procession, when heading in to Christmas we hardly conceded any goals. I can well remember how we then proceeded to win 3-2 versus Fulham on Boxing Day. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous goal fest. Of course, our defence has been more porous of late, but this still seemed odd.

We had conceded three goals. At home. Against Watford. Oh boy.

This was hardly our worst effort in a championship season of course. In 1954/55, we lost 5-6 to Manchester United. Sorry, I won’t mention it ever again.

Not to worry, as he has done so often this season, Conte pulled some tactical strings. On came Ola Aina for Kenedy. On came Cesc Fabregas for Chalobah. On came Pedro for Michy, who received a lovely reception. Deep down, I was confident that we would spring a late goal. We pressed and pressed. Substitute Cesc forced Gomes to save from a dipping free-kick. The same player then went close at an angle inside the six-yard box. The pressure mounted. With just two minutes remaining, the excellent Willian rolled the ball square to Fabregas, who bobbled a shot low past Gomes.

Chelsea 4 Watford 3.

“Get in.”

What a crazy game.

In the final moments, Prodl was sent off for a second yellow. There was no way back for the visitors.

Phew. The final whistle blew.

Above, fireworks flew up in to the night sky from above the East and West Stands. Blue and silver tinsel streamers fell from the roofs.

“Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

Some fans disappeared into the night, and we should have set off for a quick getaway too, but we saw the players line up to race over to those still in The Shed. PD and myself decided to stay on too. We watched as the players – and Antonio – slowly walked towards us in the Matthew Harding. This was a surprise. Had someone not realised that our final home game was on Sunday? With flames, fireworks and tinsel in evidence for this penultimate game, I honestly wondered what we had in store for the trophy presentation itself.

Anything less than a fly-past by the Red Arrows with billowing jets of blue and white and I will be writing a letter of complaint, Roman.

Antonio was, unwittingly perhaps, the star of the show again, leading the cheers and lapping up the warm adoration from the stands. But my eyes were on John Terry too. What emotions were racing through his mind? The goal must have warmed him. What a satisfying moment. I had always hoped that he would score a net-stretching scorcher from outside the box, but virtually all of his goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the six-yard box. One of his finest goals was a volley – I forget the opposition – at the Shed End when he changed shape mid-air to flick the ball home. Not to worry. This night was his, even though I was to learn that he was at fault for the first equaliser.

Antonio grabbed an inflatable Premier League trophy from a fan behind the goal, and gleefully smiled the widest of smiles. His legendary status grows.

The three of us met up at “Chubby’s Grill” and continued the season-long tradition of “cheeseburger with onions please love.” It had been a fun night to be honest. I won’t dwell on a few deficiencies; it is not the time for silly analysis after such a game.

I began the drive home. It would be the last midweek flit of the season. I was glad that there would be no more. And then I realised that I should not complain. If anything, it made me appreciate the long hours that fans across the country put in week in and week out in support of their chosen teams. Fair play to all of them. The ones who follow mid-table teams, locked in to another season of obscurity, and the ones who support those teams in relegation dogfights are especially worthy of praise. These are the real stars of the football world. This season – as champions – was a relative breeze for me and my trusted Chuckle Bus.

Nevertheless, I would eventually reach home at 1am. I would not, as always, be able to go straight to sleep. I would eventually nod off at 1.45am. Four hours of sleep would leave me exhausted the following day at work.

As I once commented to a work colleague, who admitted that he could never do what I do in support of my team :

“I bloody love it, mate.”

As do many others.

See you all on Sunday.

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Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

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

“Let’s Go To Work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

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

And then the football began in earnest.

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

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

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

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

It rumbled around for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

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

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

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

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

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

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

“For fuck sake.”

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

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

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

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

Seventy-five minutes.

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

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

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

We went berserk.

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

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

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

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

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

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

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

We bounced in a minute.

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

There were five minutes of time added on.

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

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

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

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

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

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

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

This felt fantastic.

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

All of us, there.

Together.

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

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

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

It tasted champion.

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

And we will smile.

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

It felt fantastic.

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

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

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

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

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

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

Tales From The Working Week : Monday

Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough : 8 May 2017.

Our last five league games of this wonderful season were to take place on two Sundays, two Mondays and a Friday. We would be whores to the TV money yet again. But I hoped that this odd pattern would not disrupt us on our stride towards the title, which seemed a lot more attainable after West Ham’s surprising win at home to Tottenham on Friday.

It left us requiring two wins from our remaining four league games to ensure our sixth league championship.

The first of these games was against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough on the Monday, followed by a game at West Brom on the Friday. These were two monumental bookends to a potentially fantastic five days.

In my comments about Chelsea, I often use the phrase “let’s go to work” to convey a sense of duty to the common good. There is inevitably a back story to this. When I was even more in love with Italy than I am now – if it is possible – I remember seeing a travel programme in 1988 called “Rough Guide” detailing the industrial and commercial stronghold of Milan. There was talk of the “rampanti” – the young and feverish young businessmen, intoxicated by business but also consumed by Italian style. They were the Italian equivalent of “yuppies” (remember them?) I guess.

As one of the presenters said : “The protestant work ethic has gone crazy in Catholic Italy.”

Around the same time, I vividly remember reading a guide to the same city that mentioned that instead of wishing each other “good morning” or “good day”, the business folk of Milan would often utter the Italian equivalent of “let’s go to work” and it immediately struck a chord.

And I am sure that Antonio Conte would approve. And so this would be a working week like no other. From Monday to Friday, Chelsea Football Club would be focused. At the weekend, following the game at The Hawthorns, there might be a chance to relax.

My working week began with Wembley on my mind. My main task on the day of the Middlesbrough game was to purchase Cup Final tickets. I was so absorbed on this objective that I completely forgot to pack my camera for the game later that evening. I would have to make do with my mobile phone. A lack of focus such as this would have been frowned upon by Antonio, no doubt. It is a good job that he is not my boss.

By the way, who thought that in this match report about our game with Middlesbrough – a win and we would consign them to the Championship – that my first comments about 1988 would be concerning Italian yuppies?

1988.

Let me explain, if it needs to be explained.

We began 1987/88 in good form but after Christmas we fell drastically down the league. Under manager John Hollins, things went from bad to worse. Chairman Ken Bates replaced Hollins with Bobby Campbell for the last month or so of the season. At the time, the First Division was being trimmed from twenty-two teams to twenty teams over two seasons. Additionally, it was the second year of the Football League play-offs, which featured teams from the top two divisions playing off over two legs. Chelsea finished fourth from bottom of the First Division in 1987/88 and met Blackburn Rovers in the first round of the play-offs. They were easily dispatched. In the final, we met Middlesbrough, who had beaten Bradford City in their first round. At Ayresome Park, we lost 2-0. In the return leg, I fancied our chances to over-turn this. Our team contained some half-decent players such as Steve Clarke, John Bumstead, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gordon Durie and Tony Dorigo. On paper we were no mugs.

In late May 1988 – a fortnight after the Cup Final, virtually the last game of the season – over 40,000 assembled at Stamford Bridge on a bright and sunny afternoon to see if Chelsea could claw back the two goals. I watched, alongside Alan – just like in 2017 – as Gordon Durie guided the ball in after only a quarter of an hour. The noise was deafening. We were watching from the back row of the benches, willing the team on, kicking every ball, heading every clearance. I can remember that such was the appetite to see this game that The Shed was packed early on. Shamefully, the club decided to open up a section of The Shed terrace that had been closed under the safety of sports grounds act for years and years. My photograph of The Shed from the day shows the ridiculous density of people in the rear portions of The Shed and also the overflow, standing on a terrace that should not have been used.

The club had decided to do this for the league game with Charlton Athletic a month or so earlier too. My dear parents, as late arrivals, watched that game from that section of The Shed, sitting on a terrace that had not been used since around 1979.

Remember this was a year before Hillsborough. Not only Sheffield Wednesday snubbed ground regulations in those days.

On that day in May 1988, we tried and tried but could not break Middlesbrough down despite having tons of possession. Their side, containing Gary Pallister and Tony Mowbray at the heart of their defence, rode their luck and held on. They were followed by around 7,000 away fans who were packed into the sweeping north terrace to my left.

At the end of the game, and with Chelsea relegated to the Second Division for the third time of my life, we did not take defeat well.

At the final whistle, hundreds of Chelsea fans scaled the fences at The Shed and raced on to the pitch, and ran at the away fans. I remember some stewards opened up some exit gates at The Shed. Of course, only a very small percentage of our fans bothered to trespass on to the pitch. Most were in a state of shock at our demise. Most just looked-on aghast. I remember feeling a mixture of emotions. I was just so sad that we were relegated. There was no desire for me to get on to the pitch. I dare say that a lot of this was bravado and posturing by the Chelsea fans, rather than a desire to go toe-to-toe with ‘Boro, who were, of course, unreachable, penned in by themselves.

This was immediately before the UK’s 1988 Summer of Love when a fair proportion of old school hooligans throughout the UK found dance music and ecstasy and gradually turned away from knocking lumps out of each other for a while. This was an era of jeans, trainers, Rockport boots, Timberland shoes, England “Invasion of Germany 1988” T-shirts, denim button-down shirts, jade away shirts, and a subtle selection of new casual brands such as Marc O’Polo, Chevignon and Chipie. This was pre rave, pre Smiley-face, pre acid-house, and at times all very grotesque.

“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose” was about right.

So – relegation. What a bitter pill to swallow. In 2017, we have thoughts of The Double. In 1988, there was only double-denim.

Outside, as I marched dejectedly down the Fulham Road, the venom from the waiting Chelsea fans outside the away end was palpable. There would be running battles for hours after. By which time, I had returned to Paddington for the train home, feeling totally depressed. We had become – and remain – the only team to finish fourth from bottom of the top division and still be relegated.

One wonders how millions of modern day Chelsea fans would cope with all that.

In Germany, a few weeks later, England were humiliated in the European Championships and there was mayhem as the English hooligans fought the locals and opposing fans alike. At the start of the 1988/89 season, Chelsea were forced to play our first six home games with no spectators allowed in The Shed nor North Stand.

They were pretty bleak times.

Oh, and worst of all, we sold Pat Nevin to Everton in the summer too.

I think it is fair to say, from a football perspective, 1988 was the worst summer of my life.

Fast forward to May 2017 and we live in a different universe.

Outside the stadium, I had bumped into my pal Jason from Texas – over for one game only – and we headed over to The Chelsea Pensioner to meet up with Kathryn and Tim from Virginia, themselves over for one game only. We skipped past a twenty-five strong bunch of Chelsea fans, all scarves and replica shirts, from Poland. In The Butcher’s Hook, the mood was of quiet confidence, though if I am honest, I was still a little nervous. We heard that N’Golo Kante was not playing, nor even on the bench.

I joked that we would win 1-0.

Scorer : Kante.

What a superhuman season he has had.

Unlike in 1988, ‘Boro had only brought 1,500 fans, and one flag. Very poor.

I was hoping for a red hot atmosphere from the very start, or from even before the start. I was a little dismayed, but not at all surprised, that the noise levels were not as tumultuous as I had hoped as the game kicked-off.

There was an early foray into our half by Middlesbrough, but our first real attack was a joy to watch. We moved the ball quickly and purposefully from centre to right to left and Marcos Alonso crashed a volley towards goal, only for us to gasp as the ball was deflected by Brad Guzan on to the bar

In the early stages, ‘Boro looked to release their right winger Adama Traore as often as possible. He looked a bit useful. Alan said that he was reminded of Forest’s Franz Carr – ugh, a 6-2 loss at home in 1986, Jon Millar still has nightmares.

I noted that Middlesbrough’s awful shirt ideally represents their gradual decline this season; that ridiculous white diagonal goes from sixteenth place to nineteenth place.

Slowly, the noise picked up.

Chelsea : “We’re top of the league.”

‘Boro : “We’re going down.”

Chelsea (missing the joke ) : “You’re going down.”

Alonso was finding tons of space out on our left. Sadly, a second effort did not trouble Guzan. Pedro was everywhere, picking up the loose ball, passing it on, involved. He may not be our most influential nor best player this season, but he surely embodies the Conte work ethic like no other. Cesc Fabregas, heavily involved, was stroking the ball around majestically. Eden Hazard set Fabregas up, but his low shot was well off target.

The same player then set up Diego Costa, but his teasing and tantalising cross just evaded the lunge from Diego. In The Sleepy Hollow, I turned and demanded answers from my fellow fans :

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

A lovely long ball, across the box, from Fabregas found Diego Costa, who steadied himself and stroked the ball home.

There was the opening goal. Get in you bastard.

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

Bob Mortimer : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The crowd was in the game now. A medley of songs rang around the stadium.

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re coming for you.”

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re waiting for you.”

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re laughing at you.”

Another goal quickly followed. Dave looped another long ball over the heads of everyone and picked out Alonso. Stretching at the bye-line, he did well to connect at all. Imagine our joy, and relief of course, when we saw the net ripple.

We were 2-0 to the good. Fackinell.

“Another goal now Alan, and we could score a hat-full.”

Efforts from Moses – running into space on the right – went close and that man Alonso curled a free-kick just over. We were well on top.

All of that pre-match worry seemed ill-placed. It had been a lovely half of football.

Soon into the second period, we went close again, with the effervescent Pedro lashing a ball against the top of the bar from twenty yards. Alonso’s shot was almost touched in by Diego. The look on our forward’s face was of pure agony. Gary Cahill was next to test Guzan, shooting with power from thirty yards. It seemed everyone wanted a touch of the ball. How different to last season. Man of the moment Fabregas touched a shot wide. Amongst all this, Eden Hazard was having a relatively quiet game, save for a mesmerizing spin away from a marker and a strong run, which was typically ended by a clumsy challenge. Hazard, of course, is heavily marked these days, but other players are primed to intelligently exploit the space he leaves elsewhere.

With twenty minutes of the game remaining, another lovely move ended up with Fabregas clipping a delightful ball towards Nemanja Matic. He chested it down and smashed it home.

Three-naught. Get fucking in.

The crowd sang “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in.

Hazard was substituted by Willian (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.)

Pedro fired over. Moses went close.

I turned to Alan : “It could have been seven, tonight.”

David Luiz raced up field and clearly wanted to score. It was one of those nights. This was a very mature performance from Chelsea. We looked at ease in our own skin, at ease with each other. There had been a couple of silly defensive errors in the first-half from Cahill and Luiz but they soon redeemed themselves. ‘Boro’s infamously goal-shy attack did not get a sniff.

Some of the away fans could be heard singing a song of never-ending support. A few Chelsea around me clapped, but were soon dwarfed by louder shouts of disdain. We had revenged 1988 but in truth our Wembley victories in 1997 and 1998 had sorted that out years ago.

Nathaniel Chalobah replaced Pedro and, to a hero’s welcome, David Luiz was replaced by none other than John Terry (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.) Every one of JT’s three or four touches were warmly applauded. I was pleased that a gaggle of pals from the US had seen the captain play, albeit for only a few easy moments. Everywhere we purred, none more so than Alonso, Pedro and Cesc.

Alan : “That young lad Kante will struggle to get back in for Friday.”

In the end, it was a cake-walk. A walk in the park. A piece of cake.

I commented to Alan that it seemed so strange that our humiliation of Tottenham last season – that goal, that game – has been mirrored, although on a far grander scale, throughout the past few weeks of this season.

“It is almost as if last May was a dummy run for this May. Bloody love it.”

There was a gorgeous and joyous atmosphere as we walked down the Fulham Road. There were hugs and handshakes with a few good friends. That horrific walk from 1988 could not have been more different.

One game to go, Chelsea, one game to go.

Is it Friday yet?

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Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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