Tales From Saints And Singers

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2018.

We were back at St. Mary’s for another Southampton vs. Chelsea match. An easy away game for most Chelsea fans, I haven’t missed a game at their new stadium, going all of the way back to the first match in August 2001. It seems like Southampton have always been in the top division, but they were out of it from 2005/2006 to 2012/2013. Our opponents, under new manager Mark Hughes, were entrenched in the relegation mire. Going into the game, we all agreed that this was a match that we surely had to win. Of course, we were in an awful run of form too. But we had to win it. We just had to. On the following Sunday, at Wembley, there would be an F. A. Cup semi-final against Southampton too. Wins in both games were so important, for reasons that are too obvious to spend too much time talking about.

The 12.30pm kick-off meant that there was little time for any lengthy pre-match drink. There were five of us in the Chuckle Bus, and it was Young Jake’s first visit to St. Mary’s with Chelsea. On the short drive down to Southampton, he asked a few questions about Southampton’s old ground The Dell. Over the past few weeks, I have added a new feature to this website in which I have posted seventy photographs – so far – of the changing face of Stamford Bridge.

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As a way of explaining how unique The Dell was, I include a few photographs here – two from 1994/1995, one from 1995/1996 and three from 1996/1997 – and it certainly brings back some memories.

It is perhaps hard to believe, but these are the only away games that I saw at The Dell. Tickets always seemed to be difficult to get hold off in the days before I became a season-ticket holder, and a few of us only managed to get tickets for the latter two games via Matthew Le Tissier, who went to school in Guernsey with my pal Neil. The Dell was intimate alright. And it was nestled in among leafy streets and semi-detached houses, with no floodlight pylons to indicate a football stadium was in the vicinity. It would have been quite possible to have walked within twenty yards of The Dell and not realise that it was there. As an old romantic who dotes on stadia which are no longer with us, I miss The Dell.

St. Mary’s – a mile or so further east – is one of many bland and boring football stadia that have appeared over the past twenty years. I am sure many of Southampton’s supporters are annoyed that the close and intimate feel to The Dell has not at least been attempted at their new stadium. A more spacious stadium with a larger footprint equates to more income though.

I battled my way through the massed ranks of the Chelsea supporters in the dark concourse beneath the Northam Stand and headed up the steps into the seats.

“World In Motion” was on the PA, a fine choice.

It was soon apparent that I needed to take my coat off. It was already a warm afternoon, and we were not far from the front. It was fantastic to see Alan at a game, his arm still in a sling after his broken shoulder caused him to miss a few games. As Parky arrived on the scene, he noted one of his favourites from a few decades ago.

“The Saints Are Coming” by The Skids.

Kick-off approached.

The PA announcer urged the home crowd to “wave your flags” and “make some noise.”

I looked around and was pleased to see that hardly a seat in our section was unoccupied. Despite a dip in form since Christmas, the loyal three thousand had continued to attend each and every away game. This was reassuring to see.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

As ever, Saints had two from “Munich” – Ryan Bertrand (their captain, in fact) and Oriel Romeu.

The first-half was a pretty depressing affair. We controlled much of the game but without seriously testing the Southampton ‘keeper Alex McCarthy. Southampton’s attacks were rare. We poked a few balls into their penalty box, but there was no dynamism and little threat. Again there was a tendency to over-elaborate. On more than one occasion I was heard to yell “shoot” to Willian, Kante and Hazard, amongst others. I didn’t remember hearing it against Tottenham nor West Ham, but there was a rousing rendition of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” not long into the game, and our manager responded briefly with a clap towards us. I looked over at him, aware that many fans have commented that he has not seemed anywhere as involved as last season. I spotted him, and he did show some level of engagement, urging the players on. But what a difference a year makers. Last year he was our leader, our charismatic manager, full of calmness and charm, and he became only our fourth championship-winning manager. I suspect we will never know the full extent of what has happened in the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and Cobham in the intervening twelve months, but I can never forget his role last season. It ultimately saddens me to read and hear what some sections of our fans think of Antonio Conte now.

On around twenty minutes, a rapid break down our right flank which involved Ryan Bertrand caught us unawares. Our former left-back managed to race past Cesar Azpilicueta and clip a perfect pass back to Dusan Tadic from just inside the penalty box. Tadic was on his own, with Marcos Alonso trailing, and the Serbian rolled the ball in. The home crowd found their voice at last, and our heads in the away end dropped.

A typical piece of nonsense from Courtois annoyed us all. Instead of hoofing a ball clear, he ludicrously played it square to Dave, who was soon charged down right on the edge of the box. It was lucky that nothing more came of it. There had been similar foolishness from our lofty Belgian earlier; suffice to say he is not flavour of the month at the moment. However, he made amends with a double-save just before the break.

I remember saying to Gal :

“If a person who had never seen this sport was here today, they would think that the main objective of the game was to give the fellows in blue shirts out on the edge of the pitch the ball as often as possible.”

Alonso and Zappacosta must have had more touches than anyone.

A couple of Chelsea long-shots were deflected high and over the Southampton cross-bar as the half ended.

At half-time, with the sun beating down on the front section of the away terrace, there was a noticeable melancholy and lethargy as I looked around at my fellow supporters. It looked to me that we were almost resigned to yet another league defeat.

It seemed that we were at a low ebb.

Whether or not a few hundred half-time pints helped loosen inhibitions, but the second-half began with a fantastic barrage of noise cascading towards our players from the away section. One song dominated. It was a chant that I have always looked on as an away game speciality, and during the second-half of away games too. To the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

And we repeated it over and over and over.

I joined in, we kept it going, and I realised that I had not really sung too much up until then. My throat was so sore, so painful, but I kept going, just like in days of yore. All around me, others kept it going. It was life-affirming stuff. The chant went on and on. And it made me proud. Call me old-fashioned, but this is a mark of a true supporter. We might be supported, or followed, by millions around the world, but they’re worth nothing to me if they ever attend a Chelsea match and don’t sing and shout with all their might in games when the team needs it. Years ago, I often used to sing until I was hoarse. It used to happen to me all the time. Very often, perhaps following an evening game, I would appear at work the next day with my voice shot to pieces.

“Go to Chelsea last night, Chris?”

And I would nod.

The singing continued.

“YOU ARE MY CHELSEA.

MY ONLY CHELSEA.

YOU MAKE ME HAPPY WHEN SKIES ARE GREY.”

How this pleased me. I was hoping that my pals watching at home would hear us. The Chelsea of old. Underperforming but singing on.

Chelsea Fundamentalism.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

I had a second wind now, and my throat wasn’t hurting quite so much. A couple of shots from Hazard and Willian hinted at better things.

And then it all went Pete Tong.

On an hour, a long free-kick from James Ward-Prowse looked like missing everyone, but it landed past the far post and was remarkably volleyed home by Jan Bednarek, whoever he is.

“Oh bollocks.”

The crowd roared again and the Southampton players raced over to the far corner. I looked around and spotted a few empty seats in our section. Maybe they had disappeared off to turn their bikes around, but I suspected that the lure of Southampton’s city centre pubs was too much for some. Almost immediately, my admiration of my fellow fan took a battering. Several began singing “we’re fucking shit” and I just turned around and gave the perpetrators a Premium Class A Glower.

I was inwardly fuming.

How pathetic.

The manager made some changes.

Pedro for Zappacosta.

Giroud for Morata.

There was, apparently, a change in shape but I was too busy in supporting the team to notice. There seemed to be an immediate reaction. On seventy minutes, Alonso delivered an early ball into the Saints’ box from a relatively deep position. Giroud used all of his physical strength to get to the ball before his marker and he headed the ball firmly down and past McCarthy.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

GET IN.

The away crowd roared, and we were – unbelievably – back in it. A clenched fist from Giroud signalled his intent.

Just four minutes later, Willian jinked into the box from the Chelsea left. His low bouncing ball across the box found the unmarked Hazard. His first touch killed the ball dead, and there was a beautiful moment of anticipation – I always call it a Platini moment after his touch in the 1984 European Championships set up a slight delay in the eventual shot – before he slammed it home.

Now we really celebrated.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 2.

“A Bishop Desmond.”

All eyes were on Eden as he raced back. He turned and pointed towards the badge. A little moment that made me think a million things at once.

“That might shut the people up who think you are off.”

“But a lot of fans want you to “Quote-unquote” fuck-off to Madrid anyway.”

“Easy to point at the badge, wonder what you really think.”

“Don’t you dare disappear off to Madrid after pointing at the badge.”

“Just crack on, less of the nonsense, and work hard for a winner.”

After just another three more minutes, we were awarded a free-kick in prime Willian territory. Rather than play the ball in towards the players assembling in the box, he played it out to Hazard. A dink into the box was headed up by Alonso under pressure, then it was Christensen’s’s turn to keep the ball alive with another header. The ball fell towards none other than Giroud.

We inhaled and prepared to yell.

He slammed it home.

I brought my camera down momentarily and yelled along with three thousand others.

I then caught the slide from Giroud just as a photographer at the other end did the same, and – not for the first time this season – the photograph would later find its way onto the official Chelsea website. And there I am, still and focused among the lunacy, next to Gary and Parky, who ended up with a bump on his head after the bloke behind him landed on top of him. Look at the joy on our faces.

Ecstasy in the away end.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 3.

What a comeback.

“Two nil and you fucked it up” echoed around the stadium. I was amazed how a few of our players kept a straight face.

There was still time for a couple of fine Courtois saves – making amends for his earlier brain dead indiscretions – but we held on. With four minutes remaining, Victor Moses replaced Eden Hazard. Many fans in the away end serenaded Eden with his own song.

“EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN HAZARD.”

I turned around and barked “you two-faced bastards.”

I was half-serious.

Gary laughed anyway.

We bounced out of the ground, just happy to see Chelsea win an unlikely game of football. We tried to remember the last time that we had come back from a 0-2 deficit in the league. The five of us struggled but news came through that it was, evidently, away to Charlton Athletic on the opening day of 2002/2003. We were bouncing that day too.

We stopped off for a few pints on the drive home, extending the day, going over the game, chatting about our immediate future and the matches ahead.

It had been a fine day out.

No midweek jaunt to Turf Moor for me on Thursday so my next one is Southampton at Wembley on Sunday.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From Twenty-Eight Games

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 April 2018.

As Saturday became Easter Sunday, I awoke with a heavy heart. I dreaded looking at my phone, or switching on the TV. Late on Good Friday, we had received the shocking news that club legend Ray Wilkins had suffered a heart-attack, and had fallen. He had been rushed to a hospital in Tooting and was in an induced coma. Suddenly, with so much pain and worry, the upcoming London derby with Tottenham did not seem as important. It seemed – I don’t know – almost irrelevant.

In the build-up to the game, in which we were not only attempting to claw back some points in the league table but were looking to extend our unbeaten home record against Tottenham to a ridiculous twenty-eight games, I was my usual nervy and edgy self. Tottenham at home always gets me like this. I can’t fight it. In some ways, the home record is a magnificent albatross around our necks; I never get as nervous about any other fixture. I just wanted it to continue on and on and on and on.

Or at least maybe until 2020. Get to three decades, Chelsea, then retire. Thirty years would be a fantastic achievement.

“Three more years, three more years.”

But the Ray Wilkins news dominated everything as I collected the boys in the morning and drove up to West London. Glenn and I had only bumped into Butch a few weeks back, before the West Brom game. We had the briefest of chats, and a photo with the former Chelsea captain and assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti. The timing could not have been more eerie. When I chatted to him in the Copthorne Hotel, I mentioned that the last time that I had seen him was at his former team mate Ian Britton’s funeral at Burnley in 2016. The former Chelsea midfield dynamo had passed away on 31 March, and throughout the Saturday I was scared to hear of any update about Butch in case he had passed on exactly the same date. It was all too horrifying for words really. I always remember being on holiday in the summer of 1975 in Dorset, and visiting an aunt in my father’s home town of Wareham. I can remember the sense of sadness that I felt when I read on the back page of her “News of the World” that Manchester United, newly-promoted to the First Division, had made a seismic offer of £500,000 to cash-strapped Chelsea for both Wilkins and Britton. If Ian Britton was my favourite player at the time, Ray Wilkins was a very close second. I was devastated that Chelsea might accept the offer. Thankfully, they resisted, and both players were part of a very revered team for many a season. The two of them would always be linked together in my mind.

Thankfully, Easter Saturday passed with no tragic updates.

I hoped and prayed that we would hear only encouraging news as the day and days passed.

Inside Stamford Bridge at around fifteen minutes before the scheduled kick-off time of 4pm, Neil Barnett spoke emotionally about Ray Wilkins and urged him to keep fighting.

“COME ON RAY. COME ON RAY. COME ON RAY.”

The thirty-thousand or so spectators in the stadium clapped for quite a while.

It was such a strange feeling. The shadow of it all loomed over the day.

But it was time, oddly, rudely, to think about the football.

Inside the stadium, the Spurs fans – navy blue darkness, no light, a couple of flags, expectant – were massed in the far corner. The home areas were filling up. In the pre-match, I had dipped into three pubs and had met up with a little assortment of Chelsea fans from near and far. I was pleased to be able to run into three lads from the US who run the “London Is Blue” podcast – and who very often use some of my photos on their various media platforms – down at “The Cock Tavern.” Although I was only on cokes, it was a sign of my pre-match nerves that I inadvertently picked up a stranger’s glass of “Peroni” and took a sip, before realising the error of my ways. The team had been announced and I was in general agreement. I was hopeful that Eden Hazard would give us a strong performance. It has indeed been a while.

On the rear of the hotel and the apartment block behind The Shed, two new banners have recently appeared.

On the hotel, a picture of a Nike adorned girl with the words “Loud. Loyal. Blue. Together.”

Then, on the apartment block, the oddly-worded “Expect thrilling.”

This struck me as odd a phrase as I have seen in the world of football hype and bluster. It just didn’t scan. It is as if the phrase was originally developed in another language and awkwardly translated with no thought. It mirrored the legend “Thrilling since 1905” on the stadium balconies and the front of the West Stand. Again, odd and awkward.

As the teams entered the pitch, I was pleased to see six flags depicting our six championship seasons draped from the MHU balcony; I had paid a little towards these a while back, and they looked fantastic. Down below, the usual MHL flag appeared. At The Shed, more flags and banners.

Stamford Bridge looked perfect.

Stamford Bridge was ready.

The old enemies appeared once more. My first-ever Chelsea vs. Tottenham game was my second-ever Chelsea game. October 1975 and a John Hollins penalty. Since then, so many memories…

The game?

I am not going to dwell too much on our twenty-eighth home game in the league against Tottenham Hotspur since December 1990. I have no doubt that the vast majority of readers saw the game, and have their own opinions. At the end of it all, walking silently down the Fulham Road, so disconsolate, I have rarely felt worse after a Chelsea home match. I just hated losing to them. For me – I missed the 1990 loss as I was in Canada at the time – it was the very first time that I had experienced a loss at home to Spurs since a meek 2-0 capitulation in December 1986 in front of a miserly 21,576.

Thirty-two years ago!

So, rather than spend too much time going over in fine detail how Chelsea’s ridiculous record came to an end, I would rather take time to celebrate one of the outstanding periods of domination in European football.

It has been quite a ride.

1990/1991 : A cracking game of football involving a Tottenham team which included Italia ’90 superstars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne for Spurs and Italia ’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo for Chelsea. Chelsea triumphed 3-2, with goals from Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Gordon Dure. Lineker blasted a penalty over the bar for Spurs and I watched from the old West Stand. At the end of the season, Chelsea finished in eleventh place in the table, equal on points, but one place below our North London rivals.

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1991/1992 : I was in The Shed for this one as a poor Spurs team were easily beaten with former Tottenham striker Clive Allen and Dennis Wise giving us an easy 2-0 win.

1992/1993 : With David Webb in temporary charge, Tony Cascarino gave us an equaliser in a 1-1 draw. I remember Peter Osgood being on the pitch at half-time; his first appearance at Stamford Bridge for years and years. I watched from the lower West side of The Shed in a poor gate of just 25,157.

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1993/1994 : I didn’t attend this one unfortunately. An incredible game, which ended up 4-3 in our favour with a last-minute Mark Stein penalty. The attendance was a shockingly bad 16,807.

1994/1995 : I watched from the lower tier of the new North Stand as Dennis Wise stooped low to head in an equaliser. Phew. It ended 1-1.

1995/1996 : This game took place in the midst of the great Ken Bates vs. Matthew Harding “stand-off.” Matthew was famously banned from the Directors’ Box and so watched from the front row of the stand which he had personally financed. This was a very poor game. I watched from the temporary green seats at The Shed End and both teams were lucky to get 0.

1996/1997 : One of the most emotional games ever. Matthew Harding, who died on the Wednesday, was remembered on a very sombre day at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Roberto di Matteo, Ruud Gullit and David Lee gave us a 3-1 win. We watched from the North Stand, which was soon to be re-named. The image of a pint of Guinness on the centre-spot before the game was as poignant as it ever gets.

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1997/1998 : With Jurgen Klinsmann back with Spurs for an end-of-season loan, we watched as goals from Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli gave us an easy 2-0 win. I was now watching games from my own seat in the Matthew Harding Upper. These were great times to be a Chelsea supporter.

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1998/1999 : This was another 2-0 win with goals from Gus Poyet and Tore Andre Flo. This pre-Christmas treat was even more enjoyable because it meant that the win put us top of the league for the first time in eight years. Yes, eight years. I think this match was the game where Spurs only wanted 1,500 tickets. They refused the other 1,500. Insert comment here.

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1999/2000 : George Weah arrived from Milan in the afternoon, came off the bench in the last twenty minutes and headed home a late winner at the Shed End as we won 1-0. This was getting too easy. It was almost a case of “how shall we beat Spurs this time?”

2000/2001 : Two goals from Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and one from Gianfranco Zola gave us an easy 3-0 win.

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2001/2002 : Following our 4-0 win at Three Point Lane on the Sunday in the FA Cup, we repeated the scoreline on this Wednesday night which was was memorable for the magnificent hat-trick from Hasselbaink. A right foot thunder strike, a bullet header and a left-foot curler. I will never see a more astounding “perfect” hat-trick. A goal from Frank Lampard gave us the fourth goal. I watched, mesmerized, in the East Upper. One of the great Chelsea versus Tottenham games.

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2002/2003 : Spurs went ahead but Gianfranco Zola scored another magnificent goal, sending his free-kick curling in at the very top right hand corner of the Spurs goal. It was as perfect a free-kick as anyone could possibly imagine. This 1-1 draw broke Spurs’ losing sequence of six consecutive losses at Chelsea. I suspect that they regarded it as some sort of moral victory.

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2003/2004 : I missed this game, but not to worry. Chelsea won 4-2 in only Roman’s third home game as the new Chelsea owner.

2004/2005 : This was Jose Mourinho’s first-ever taste of a Chelsea versus Spurs derby and it will be remembered for how he chose to describe their approach to the game. The bus was parked and the phrase entered into the lexicon of football. A dire 0-0 draw resulted.

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2005/2006 : Peter Osgood had sadly passed away ten days earlier and the game with Tottenham was the first home game since we lost our much beloved hero. This was another emotional day at Stamford Bridge. I took my Ossie banner to show my love for my childhood hero. We scored first through Michael Essien, only for Spurs to draw level. In the very last few minutes, William Gallas latched on to a loose ball and struck a venomous bullet into the Spurs goal. Stamford Bridge exploded like never before. For anyone there, they will never forget it.

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2006/2007 : I remember little of this game apart from the wonder strike from Lord Percy himself, Ricardo Carvalho, which sealed a 1-0 win.

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2007/2008 : Juliano Belletti scored a screamer from the inside-right channel. I don’t remember Shaun Wright-Phillips’ goal. Yes, that’s right; even Shaun Wright-Phillips scored. An easy 2-0 win.

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2008/2009 : This was a poor game. Belletti again scored for us but Darren Bent equalised on half-time. It ended 1-1. At least Luiz Filipe Scolari kept the unbeaten home record intact.

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2009/2010 : With Carlo Ancelotti in charge, we romped to an easy 3-0 victory with goals from Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole.

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2010/2011 : This was a lovely time to be a Chelsea fan. We had beaten West Ham one Saturday and we played Tottenham the next. In between, we had the Royal Wedding and an extra day’s holiday. Sandro scored with a long-range effort in the first but Frank Lampard “just” edged the ball over the line at The Shed End in first-half stoppage time. Salomon Kalou – an unlikely hero – got the winner for us in the very last minute. Again, the old place was rocking.

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2011/2012 : This was a poor 0-0 draw and Spurs had an effort cleared off the line, and they also hit the bar with a Bale header. The record was hanging by a thread. The mood was quite sombre on the walk down Fulham Road after the game.

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2012/2013 : Chelsea were managed by Rafa Benitez. Tottenham were managed by Andre Vilas-Boas. The pessimistic among us grew nervous. If the record was going to go, how hideous if it was to be with these two managers involved. Oscar opened the scoring but Adebayor equalised. Ramires toe-poked a second, but a late equaliser gave Tottenham a share of the points in an entertaining 2-2 draw.

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2013/2014 : Demba Ba with two goals, with others by Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard gave us a resounding 4-0 win under the tutelage of the returning hero Jose Mourinho. This game was memorable for the rapidity with which the three-thousand Spurs fans vacated the away section. It was so empty at the end of the game. Business as normal. Fantastic.

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2014/2015 : On a day that we remembered the recent passing of former manager John Neal, we romped to an easy 3-0 win. There were two early goals from Eden Hazard and Didier Drogba, with a late Loic Remy goal wrapping it all up.

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2015/2016 : Chelsea’s season might have been something of a disaster, but this iconic 2-2 draw – with caretaker manager Guus Hiddink in charge – will be remembered as one of the all-time classic Chelsea vs. Tottenham encounters. Two-nil down in the first-half, and with Spurs still in with a shout of the league title, a goal from Gary Cahill gave us hope. In the eightieth minute, Eden Hazard volleyed a Worldy and the stadium exploded. A blissful night of noise, tribalism, shattered dreams and unadulterated joy.

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2016/2017 : This was a 5.30pm game and another fine London derby. We were on a six-game winning streak, and hoped to make it seven. Eriksen scored early for Spurs and they bossed the first-half, but an exquisite goal from Pedro just before the break levelled it. A Victor Moses winner soon into the second-half gave us the points. Another season, another demoralising Tottenham defeat at Stamford Bridge. The unbeaten home record against them was extended to a mighty twenty-seven games.

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What a period of domination. Joy for us. Humiliation for them. In that time, I realised that the old Stamford Bridge has been – almost – completely rebuilt, albeit slowly.

Very very slowly.

And whether Tottenham showed up in all white kit, or with navy shorts with white socks or navy shorts with navy socks, or with chevrons, or navy sleeves, or splashes of yellow, or tyre-track swooshes, they never ever defeated us.

In that period, my personal favourites would be :

  1. 2015/2016 – no League title for you Tottenham.
  2. 2001/2002 – a perfect Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink hat-trick.
  3. 2005/2006 – the William Gallas thunderbolt on the day we remembered Ossie.

In 2017/2018, we had enjoyed – I think – marginally the better of the first-half. The highlight of the early part of the game was a fantastic and flowing move which began deep inside our own half and developed through the middle with exceptional passing and movement. Willian’s effort was well saved by Hugo Loris. It had been an even start to the game, but Chelsea carved out more threatening chances. A volley from Marcos Alonso was flagged for offside and I had to cut short my celebrations. Spurs had a lot of the ball, but we seemed to have the better chances. On the half-hour, a perfect cross from Victor Moses picked out Alvaro Morata, and with Loris at sixes, sevens, eights and nines, the Spanish striker guided the ball down and in.

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The stadium erupted.

“GET IN YOU FUCKER.”

Alan, watching at home on TV in South London – unable to attend due to a broken shoulder – soon texted.

“THTCAUN.”

I replied “COMLD.”

Chelsea were in full voice for a while, but the away fans were noisy too.

That risible Spurs song kept getting an airing :

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

The thing I love most is being a knobhead.”

With Spurs giving us a high press, I was amazed how often Willy Caballero kept playing the ball short, inviting Spurs on. It made no sense. With a few minutes of the half remaining, I whispered to Glenn; “I am worried every time Eriksen gets the ball.”

With an added two minutes of extra-time signalled, Moses down below us failed in an effort to clear. The ball was pushed square to that fucker Eriksen, who lived up to my dreaded expectations, and thumped a dipping shot up and over the strangely stranded Caballero.

OH FUCK IT.

Just before half-time, our world had taken a definite turn for the worse. There were knowing glances throughout the half-time break.

The second-half was as tough a forty-five minutes that I can remember. I noted that in the first few minutes, our resolve to win the ball had left us. N’Golo Kante was putting in his usual exceptional shift, but Tottenham looked at ease with the ball, and began dominating. Eriksen as ever was in the middle of it, but we were giving him too much space and respect. We looked over-run in midfield. Fabregas was there to create, but how we needed another ball-winner. I remembered how impressive David Luiz was in a deep role at Wembley in August. We had to thank Caballero for a stunning flying save from Son. On the hour, calamity. A long ball from Eric Dier was chased by Dele  – our central defenders nowhere – and the horrible little bastard took a sublime touch, sweeping the ball in off the near post. His run down to Parkyville – his ear cupped – was one of the worst moments in recent memory.

The Spurs support roared and roared and roared.

Six minutes later, we could hardly believe how the ball was not cleared – not once but twice – in our six-yard box, and Alli struck again.

“Oh…when…the…Spurs…”

This was hideous stuff.

I was reminded of my second-ever Tottenham game. November 1978, Tommy Langley scoring with an overhead kick, but Spurs coming back to win 3-1.

And one song ringing in my ears all afternoon.

“We are Tottenham…from the Lane.”

Ugh.

Sadly, rather than get behind the team and roar them on – I remembered being 3-1 down to them in a FA Cup tie in 2007 and Kalou getting an equaliser late on – our response was sadly tepid. There were only a few half-chances from us in the resulting twenty-five minutes, and we struggled to break down an obdurate Tottenham defence. The manager Antonio Conte took so long to make any changes. The introduction of three, so late, did not pay dividends. In the last ten minutes, home supporters left in their droves. And it made me feel quite sick.

It was not to be. The run was over.

There would be post mortems for hours on end.

As we drifted, silently, down the Fulham Road, I heard a couple of Chelsea fans chatting behind me. They spoke about the dreaded half-and-half scarves – aka “friendship scarves” – which usually sell for a tenner before the game, and the hawkers and grafters usually knock them out for a fiver after games. Well, on this particular day of days, punters were paying twenty quid for them. And it would certainly not be Chelsea who were buying them.

I had a stifled laugh to myself.

Does it really mean that much, Tottenham?

On the first day of April, they were the fools after all.

But all was quiet on the car drive home. There is much to think about as we head into the final period of the season. It looks like the Champions League will be beyond us, but there are points to fight for in the league and an FA Cup Final to reach too.

Amid all the calamitous negativity of “soshal meeja”, I could not help but note a few supporters utter the ridiculous words “I can’t wait for the season to end.”

What tripe.

I’ll have their spare Cup Final tickets if they don’t fancy it.

See you next Sunday.

Tales From Camp Nou

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2018.

Some moments in time…

Bristol Airport / Tuesday 13 March / 0700.

I had set the alarm for 3am in preparation to collect PD at 4.30am and then Parky at 5.00am. But, in reality, I had woken at 1.45am and could not get back to sleep. I was evidently buzzing with excitement. After picking up the lads, it was obvious that the others were buzzing too. I headed out through Bath and some narrow countryside lanes as day broke. We were parked-up at 6am. Check-in was easy, and we were soon able to relax. We were on our way. Not surprisingly, there were a few Chelsea fans from our part of the world on the same flight as us. A Chelsea fan – I forget his name – from Falmouth. Kev from Port Talbot. Emma from Bridgewater. A few Chelsea supporters from Wincanton. Plus several more, all with West Country accents. There were not as many as on the early-morning flight for the 2012 game, but still a healthy presence. I just knew that “2012” would be on my mind continually over the length of our trip. There was only a small amount of talk about the game on the Wednesday. We had a chance, of course we did. But if I was a betting man my money would have been on the home team. The flight was due to depart at 7.30am. It left around twenty minutes late.

On the flight, I tried to catch up on a little sleep. But I also flicked through a “Lonely Planet” pocket guide to Barcelona to whet my appetite. Additionally, in my build-up to the trip to Catalonia, I had worked my way through Colm Toibin’s “Homage To Barcelona” and although I struggled with the density of prose, it certainly helped me appreciate some of the history of the city. Before my first trip to Camp Nou with Chelsea in 2000, I had devoured Jimmy Burns’ monumental “Barca” and this proved a perfect “hors d’oeuvres” to that trip. This time, I wanted to read a little about the city rather than the football club. The city has at various times enjoyed periods of opulence and then decline as a major port and a centre of commerce. There have been highly-charged politics, and anarchy, throughout its history. There has been stunning architecture. The city has enjoyed a status rivalling Paris as a centre for the arts in the past two centuries. Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso have called the city their home. As the trip approached, I wanted to devote a little of my forty-eight hours in Barcelona to a little of the city’s history. I had visited Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in 2012 and I had spotted a few of his wonderful and dreamlike buildings on that trip too. We had seen the wide spread of the city’s architecture on a bus top tour prior to our game at Camp Nou in 2005. I fancied something different this time. I delved a little deeper, and centered on Joan Miro. His paintings appealed; I can’t say why. They looked other-worldly. I realised that he had designed the iconic “Espana ‘82” poster for the World Cup of thirty-six summers ago and there was the reference point that I needed. On the Wednesday, I had my itinerary set. For others, I knew that a day of bar-hopping would suffice. But this would be my fourth trip to the city with Chelsea, and sixth in total, and I wanted to try something different. I wanted my visit to Barcelona in 2018 to be “more than a pub.”

Aeroport de Barcelona El Prat / Tuesday 13 March / 1045.

Our mate Foxy, from Dundee, was waiting for us as we swept through the security checks at the arrivals hall. As we walked towards the metro station – quite a walk – my eyes were set on the hills that circled the city. Way north, the peaks were stunning, and a little like the rounded peaks of Montserrat. The view bewitched me.

La Soca 2/ Carrer de Mallorca / Tuesday 13 March / 1600.

There was a metro ride into the city, a couple of beers in a bar while we waited to be allowed in to our apartment of Carrer de Floridablanca, and then a bar-hopping walk to where we needed to collect our match tickets. There were more Catalonia flags draped over balconies than in 2012. Our tickets were rightfully collected. We could relax further. Opposite, we spotted a street-side bar – number four of the day – and decided to order some crisp “Estrellas.” Very soon, we were joined by some good friends; Jason, the two Bobs, and Andy. Others joined us. We had a great natter. I enjoyed it immensely. A proper discussion about the current state of the club with some wise old heads. And yes, of course, the beer was going down well, some would say too well.

Eclipse Bar At W Hotel Barcelona / Tuesday 13 March / 2200.

After our lengthy spell at “La Soca 2” we dived into two more bars on our way back to our apartment. As workers made their way home after completing their duly grind, we must have looked an incongruous sight, laughing and giggling as we walked past them. There was a quick change of clothes at about 7pm, and we then hailed a cab to take us down to a restaurant on a little point of land overlooking one of the city’s beaches. Inside “Pez Vela” the fish soup and mussels were gorgeous, if not particularly filling. We were joined by Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, our partners in crime in Rome, and we then made our way up to the bar high up inside the W Hotel, just above the restaurant, which is shaped like the sail of a ship. There were simply incredible views looking back towards the city, with lights as far as the eyes could see. It was a brilliant moment. The drinks were still flowing, and we were clearly on a mission. We were joined by a couple of Chelsea fans from Stoke. More drinks. There was a certain inevitability that things were going to career out of control as the night continued. We split into three groups, with Foxy and Parky heading back to the apartment, PD and Kev and Rich heading back to the city, while I disappeared into a time vortex with Ryan and Jack from Stoke. The Estrella gave way to gin and tonics. One of the Stokies bought some champagne. Oh my goodness. The alcohol had taken its toll, and while the two Stokies were able to head inside “Pacha”, I was refused entry – the horror of seeing me on the dance floor after a gallon of Estrella was thankfully aborted – and the lads sent me off in a cab to their hotel, since I had given my apartment keys to PD. As nights go, it had certainly been messy.

O’Barazal Restaurant / Carrer de Blasco de Garay / Wednesday 14 March / 1330.

After finding my way back to the apartment at around 10am, there was just time to have a “what the hell happened last night?” post-mortem with the others. Ironically, despite the apartment having four bedrooms, only Foxy and Parky managed to make it back the previous night. Miraculously, I had no hangover. The others soon set off into the city, and I knew that there would be another momentous drinking-session ahead, so I politely declined. I needed to recharge my phone batteries – zero charge – and my own personal batteries too – just over zero. After an hour or so, I set off on a walk south towards the Montjuic hill which overlooks the city. I was enticed into a busy little restaurant and enjoyed a lovely long and leisurely lunch; a hearty tuna salad, some bread and tomatoes, and then some lamb cutlets, chips and grilled vegetables.

Joan Miro Foundation / Wednesday 14 March / 1500.

I made my way up the hill, through a square which reminded me of Montmartre. Yet more Catalan flags. And lots of yellow ribbons tied to trees and streetlamps. I made my way inside the Miro art gallery, and wandered through the various rooms. I so wanted to see the original of the poster from the 1982 World Cup; I was defeated. There wasn’t even one on sale in the shop. But I had a lovely time, and I enjoyed seeing the sculptures outside in the open air which were able to be framed against the cityscape to the north; the houses nestled into the hills, the TV tower at Collserola, the huge church at Tibidabo – the Barcelona equivalent of Turin’s Superga – and the fading sun. From one viewpoint, I was able to locate the mid-grey mass of Camp Nou, its ‘fifties concrete shell topped with a series of fluttering flags. Thoughts of 2012 once more. But also thoughts from 1986, too, when I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass, and stopped off in Barcelona, primarily to visit the stadium. I remember thinking that there was nothing like it in the world; certainly there was nothing comparable in the United Kingdom. It was huge. And stunning. I was over-whelmed. Of course, it is very much an aged stadium these days. But it is so impressive in size, in mass, in grandness. It just makes my jaw drop every time. On my descent down in to the city, I passed five or six teenagers knocking a football around between them. They were all Spanish. Two of them were wearing Chelsea shirts. I certainly would not have seen this in 1986. I gave the two lads a thumbs up and they smiled back.

The Daily Telegraph / Carrer de Paul Claris / Wednesday 14 March / 1900.

It was time to meet up with the lads, but I wasn’t sure if they were heading back to the apartment to pick up tickets, and change into warmer gear before the game. A text from Kev told of their location and I was on my way. I walked from the apartment through the bustling city as night fell, with many people wearing FCB scarves, and past the sublime floodlit curves of a Gaudi building on the main shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. I spotted the restaurant where I had met up with a former work colleague – a Barcelona socio – before the game in 2012. The memories of that night would not go away. PD and Parky – with Kev, Rich and Gillian – had evidently spent their day on a lengthy drinking session, and as I joined them inside the small and dark pub, I was pleased to see Daryl and Gary with them. There was time for one pre-match beer and a single shot. I was itching to leave and head off to the game. We left at about 7.30pm.

Carrer de la Maternitat / Wednesday 14 March / 2048.

We had taken the subway from Passeig de Gracia, and we had heard whispers that Chelsea supporters should alight at Palau Rieal, which was to the north of the stadium. This surprised me somewhat because the away section sits at the south-east corner of the stadium. At Les Corts, further south and east, we decided to follow many Chelsea supporters and headed out into the night. What followed was three-quarters of an hour of madness. Rather than be allowed to enter at the nearest gate to our section, as in 2012, we were diverted back towards Les Corts, up a quiet side street, around a hospital, and then – after a good twenty-minute detour – we spotted the entrance for Chelsea supporters to the north-east of the stadium. It honestly seemed like we were being diverted in order to cause as much annoyance as possible. On the walk, I passed a bar where I had a post-game beer in 2012. A Chelsea fan told us that Olivier Giroud was playing. This surprised me a little; would we get hurt being a little more expansive? But at least it met with the approval of most. We set off down a narrow street, but were held back for ticket checks on two separate occasions. Here, the blue-clothed police were in charge. There were rising tensions among the group of around seventy Chelsea fans who were pressing to get in. As we walked on, we heard the pre-match Barca anthem filling the air. In front of us, Camp Nou was a huge wall of concrete. It seemed that we would never scale it, neither physically nor metaphorically. Eventually, we made it down to the final barrier, manned by stewards with green tabards. There was a further ticket check. But maybe just three or four turnstiles for the six-thousand fans. What a farce. There were still lots of pushing and shoving – to say nothing of swearing – but to be honest after such a long day spent by many in pubs and bars, the absolute majority of away fans were well-behaved. Thirty years ago, I think there might have been a different story. My camera was allowed in after the briefest of checks.

Just as we were walking through, there was a roar from inside. It was too loud for a Chelsea goal. We were losing one-nil and we weren’t even anywhere near the away section yet. The word came through that Messi had scored. Bizarrely, we now had to scale a rickety bridge in order to reach the ramps of the stadium. My only thought was that its presence allowed the movement of vehicles – cars, but also the emergency services – below it, but I simply wondered why we had to clamber over it. Why could we not have just walked through? My guess was that Spain is not used to six-thousand away fans, and this is the best solution that the mighty FC Barcelona could muster. It was laughable at first. But as we started to ascend the fifteen or twenty steps, the damned structure began rocking. There were maybe fifty fans on it, and we were all in a rush to get inside, and for a split second – with my balance threatened – I honestly thought that I was going to fall. I am sure I was not the only one. Losing 1-0, a huge ramp ahead of us, we walked on. I was with PD, slowly ascending the ramp which – another 2012 memory – we had gloriously descended six years previously. Parky was away in the distance and we lost sight of him.

Camp Nou / Wednesday 14 March / 2100.

Although hundreds were behind us, still clambering up the ramps and steps to the away tier at the top, it seemed – at first – implausible that the two of us would find a spare space to watch the game. The stadium was as I remembered it; we hovered over it, rather than felt part of it. We were so high. Chelsea fans were stood in the aisles. Eventually I spotted the smallest of spaces, around five rows from the rear. We shuffled along. We were in. Phew. So, an echo from 2012. We had conceded an early goal. I scanned around. Andres Iniesta was playing, damn. We were in Real Madrid white. Our support spread out to my left and to my right. It was a highly impressive following. I hoped that everyone who had travelled had got a ticket. Or at least those without tickets had fatefully met those who had tickets but who had chosen to watch the game in city centre bars. A chap next to me told of how Messi had scored his goal from the tightest of angles. I wondered how on earth it was possible. Chelsea seemed to be playing OK in the five minutes that I was able to see. Eden Hazard cut in from the right, but his shock was blocked. With twenty minutes of the match gone – and with us in the stadium itself for just five minutes – we then lost the ball on the halfway line. A couple of challenges did not win the ball back and Messi was able to advance. He drew defenders towards him. I spotted the run on the far side from Ousmane Dembele. And so did Messi. I feared the worst. His shot flew past Thibaut Courtois and we were 2-0 down. Fuck. But this was a pretty similar position that we were in six years ago apart from the fact that we now needed to score two goals to progress and not just one. Courtois kept us in the game, saving well from Luis Suarez. We kept attacking, with a shot from Marcos Alonso drawing a save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I lost count of the number of times I imagined a ball to Ramires in the inside-right channel. A shot from N’Golo Kante slithered across the box, but was well wide. Just before the break, Giroud was fouled outside the penalty area, and we waited and waited for Marcos Alonso to strike. Sadly, his pacey effort clipped the outside of the post. We had it all to do in the second-half.

The mood among the Chelsea fans as the team entered the pitch at the start of the second-half was pretty buoyant. As the lads waited for the home team to appear, we serenaded them.

“You are my Chelsea. My only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much I love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away…”

It was stirring stuff. Courtois then had a brain freeze and passed in error to Suarez. Thankfully, he redeemed himself. But we were far from happy with the lanky Belgian’s performance thus far. But we pressed on, and were rewarded with twenty minutes of impressive football. Willian was our best player by some margin, spinning away from danger, running free, showing great energy, as always. Hazard, it pains me to say it, was not of the same standard. There were few direct runs at the defence, but rather silly flicks and square passes. He did not rise to the occasion. Kante was magnificent in the middle, closing and tackling, giving the ball to team mates. There were contrasting fortunes on the wings. Moses was his usual frustrating self, losing possession too easily, and unable to drift past his man. On the near side down below us, Alonso was given tons of space for some reason and kept bombing on and into pockets of space. But for all of our fine football, time was running out. Bizarrely, three people in the row in front left with half-an-hour to go.

Did they not believe in miracles?

Alonso, on the end of another raid into their box, was just about to pull the trigger when Samuel Umtiti stopped him with a sublime tackle. Just after, the same player was spread-eagled by Gerard Pique after a fine move involving Willian, Hazard and Giroud and the whole away section – that thin slice on top of the concrete bowl – were incandescent with anger. Popcorn, coins and water bottles were thrown up in the air and down towards the Barcelona fans in the tier below. Another shot from Alonso; another block.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

The clock ticked on.

A hurried clearance from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Jordi Alba and his touch found Suarez. Out of nowhere, came an unmarked Messi, and – I absolutely feared the worst now – after a couple of pushes of the ball in to space, a shot was slammed low into our goal. Only on the replay were we able to spot that, like his first goal, the ball had travelled through Courtois’ legs.

Game over.

Our little resurgence had been for nothing. We were out. And hundreds of Chelsea fans, fearful of a lock-in, decided to leave.

Courtois saved from a Paulinho header. There was a double substitution from Antonio Conte; Davide Zappacosta for Victor Moses and Alvaro Morata – heavily booed – for Olivier Giroud. As the game continued, the away sector thinned out further. The introduction of Pedro for Hazard brought the loudest chant of the night from the 92,000 home fans.

“Pedro…Pedro…Pedro…Pedro.”

To be fair to the home fans, apart from the last two or three minutes, they had all stayed late into the game. But this was not a noisy night from them; it very rarely is. Toni Rudger slammed a header against the bar from a corner, but it was soon time for the final whistle.

Barcelona 3 Chelsea 0.

Tuesday had been a messy night.

Wednesday was a Messi night.

We waited and waited in the forlorn hope of spotting Parky. We both sent him text messages, but my worry was that his ‘phone did not have enough charge. PD and I were some of the very last to leave. We began the slow descent back to earth. Not the euphoria of 2012 this time; I was reminded more of the misery of 2000. We had almost reached the last exit ramp when we were brushed aside by many stewards, who we presumed were answering a call for assistance due to some sort of altercation between the two sets of fans. There had been pro-Spain chants on the walk from Les Corts before the game, during the match, and now once more at the end.

“Barcelona. You’ll always be Spain.”

Although it was a rather boorish chant, I am sure that this would generally be classed as “football banter” even in these times. I didn’t sing it, I had no need, but this all seemed too strange for words. Was this the reason for the melee down below us? We weren’t sure. We met up with a father and son who had hinted that some Chelsea fans had held a Spanish flag towards the home fans leaving the stadium. This all seemed rather silly an excuse for the stewards to rush past us. We were only to hear later that those self-same stewards had then decided to batter Chelsea fans – one presumes largely innocent – with batons. To reiterate, we had seen nothing with our own eyes. But I had to wonder, later, why stewards were issued with batons. It was an unsavoury end to the night for sure.

We clambered over the rickety scaffold of before and I was saddened to see one elderly lady stricken with terror after her ordeal.

There was still no sight nor sound of Parky.

PD and I traipsed on, past the antiquated building of La Masia, which houses the headquarters of Barcelona’s famed academy. There were Chelsea supporters dotted about in every bar that we passed. No hint of trouble. Everyone drowning their sorrows. We decided to let the crowds disperse and get a cab back to the apartment. But there was still a worry about Parky.

L’abus Restaurant / Carrer de Joan Guell / Wednesday 15 March / 2345.

We spotted a small café, and needing some food, we darted in, saying a quick “hello” to three Chelsea fans by the door. We ordered a bottle of ice-cold “Estrella” apiece, and the taste was sublime. We devoured a plate of ham, eggs and chips apiece. Just the ticket. By some quirk of fate, we were back at Les Corts once again, and we soon hopped into a cab. The journey back to the apartment would only take ten minutes.

When we were only two minutes away from our destination, PD received a surprising call from our friend Mark from Westbury. Mark had just reached his apartment, along with two friends. The sight that greeted him was just amazing. Who should be sat – slumped – outside his apartment door but Parky. Unknown to us, Mark had booked an apartment across the landing from us – a mere eight feet away – and had obviously been startled to see Parky outside it. Even more amazing was that Parky had remembered the apartment address.

We collapsed in a fit of laughter.

We then collapsed in to our beds.

It was time for some sleep.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.

 

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part Two – Blue

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2018.

Part One finished with these words :

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

For a while, it honestly looked like there would be no Part Two. With most parts of the country being attacked by a winter chill during the early part of a week which was to see us play two matches in Manchester, I waited for the snow to hit the West of England. My home area was clear until Thursday, but then I was sent home from work in light of the impending snowfall. Indeed, my county of Somerset was on “red alert” as I worked at home on Friday. On Saturday, with the country still gripped by a Baltic freeze, I sounded out the others. There were concerns about roads out of my village being impenetrable with more Arctic weather to follow. I was especially concerned about getting stuck up north in the middle of a fresh fall of snow and thus not being able to get to work on Monday.  We took the decision not to travel to Manchester. It was a wise decision, we all thought. There was no need for us to make heroes of ourselves in support of our team. We had nothing to prove.

But the guilt – yes, guilt – kept nibbling away at me. Should I make an attempt to go if the roads had cleared by Sunday? I had a troubled mind – or rather an unsettled mind – for quite a while. I was not in a comfortable place. And then I dismissed these silly feelings, and made tentative plans to watch the City game in the pub with PD and Glenn in Frome.

That was the plan.

I woke on Sunday at about 9.30am after a nice lie-in. I peered outside. There had evidently been a sizeable thaw overnight and the main road outside my house was almost clear of ice and snow, with just a slushy residue left at the roadsides.

What to do? What to do?

I contacted PD and Glenn.

“Get your boots on.”

The kick-off was at 4pm, so if we left at 10.30am we could make kick-off. Sadly, Oscar Parksorius was unable to join us, but we set off from Frome – kinda bright-eyed and kinda bushy-tailed – at 10.45am.

The Chuckle Brothers were on the road.

“Of course, you know we’re going to get mullered, don’t you?”

There were grimaces from my travelling companions.

I ate up the miles as the morning became afternoon. Not too many others had decided to travel and the roads were relatively clear of traffic. At times, the sun attempted to break through the cloud. There was snow on roadside fields, but the motorways were fine. We stopped for snacks en route; there had not been time to even grab a coffee before I had raced out of the house.

We thought about the team that Antonio Conte might play. Glenn wondered if we would pack the midfield in a 3/5/2, and asked if I preferred Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to lead the line. I think that my response would have mirrored that of many Chelsea fans that early afternoon:

“Giroud.”

Although, if I was honest, I had a feeling that the manager might settle with the three amigos of Willian, Hazard and Pedro.

With both arch-rivals Liverpool and Tottenham winning on Saturday, there was an unease in my mind as my thoughts drifted sporadically back to our game at The Etihad. I wasn’t kidding myself, City were a fine team, and even the thought of grabbing a point later that afternoon seemed fanciful and unlikely.

We listened to the radio as Brighton stormed to a 2-0 lead at home to Arsenal – that cheered us up, bloody hell Dunk scored and in the right goal this time – and we were soon on the familiar approach into Manchester, though this time turning east towards Stockport rather than west towards Carrington. As the M60 heads through – or rather over – Stockport, I always and without fail think back to our club’s first-ever competitive game at Edgeley Park in 1905. The ground – a non-league ground now – sits right by the main London to Manchester railway line and I always used to peer at it with a certain feeling of nostalgia each time I passed it. In fact, with the grand railway viaduct and a couple of huge red-brick mill buildings dominating the valley that the town sits in, my once-a-season hurtle through Stockport is one of my favourite pieces of urban driving in the UK.

At Ashton Under Lyne, I turned off the M60 and I knew that the San Siro style towers of The Etihad would soon be in view.

Although the drive to Manchester had been full of laughs, and we were just so happy to be able to be attending the game – number forty-five of the season for me – the mood in the car as the stadium drew closer and closer became a little sombre.

As I waited for a red light to change at a junction, I blurted out –

“Fucking hell, I’ll be happy with 3-0 lads.”

And I think I was serious. City had just beaten Arsenal twice by that score in the space of five days, and we had the impression that they had played within themselves during the second-half of Thursday’s game in order to save themselves for this one.

“They’re a great team. We could get found out here.”

I silently gulped.

At last the stadium was in view. The days of calling it simply Eastlands seemed from a different era, and rather old hat, like a bobble hat maybe. I slowly drove along Ashton New Road, which was flanked by red-bricked terraced houses, and with tramlines now running its course. We were parked up outside a home fans only pub at 3pm. The weather wasn’t too hurtful.

I paid some locals £7 to keep our car safe.

This was a mighty three quid cheaper than United.

I could hear the nasal whine of some United fans baying “always in our shadow.”

The familiar walk to the stadium, criss-crossing the road, and the tram line. To my left, a graffiti-lined wall overlooked a lock on the Ashton Canal.

This was “up north” alright.

Bloody fantastic. I never tire of travelling to these football-mad cities on our historic little island.

You may have noticed.

I spotted many City fans “of a certain age” – my age – wearing sky blue and white bar scarves edged with the purple of earlier kits. I wondered if it was how some fans denoted that they were “old school” in the same way that some Chelsea fans sometimes wear red, white and green bar scarves.

There was a swift security check. No bags, no cameras allowed, the same as last week, so my phone became all important. After the atrocity at the Manchester Arena last year, I understood why there was tightened security.

Inside I met with a few fellow foot soldiers.

“Did Arsenal lose?”

“Yeah, 2-1.”

“Love it. I love it that they had a little glimmer of hope but still lost.”

Alan passed on the team news.

“No Kante.”

“Oh no.”

“And no Morata or Giroud.”

Things were sadly slipping in to place. It looked like it would be an afternoon of attempted containment and I sensed that the mood among the little band of Chelsea fans was far from buoyant. My seat was at the front – row C, but rows A and B were unused – of the little middle tier, with Chelsea fans below and above. I was positioned just eight feet from the home support.

“Oh lovely.”

I soon spotted PD and Glenn down below in the front row of the lower tier. The fans above were out of view, but it certainly looked that our away section was pretty full. It was a great effort from everyone. We waited for a while and the pre-match wind-up then started, with a Mancunian voice taking over the tannoy, as in other years, jabbering on about “We Are City” and other “stirring” soundbites. Alan joined me and we remembered last season’s game. He had re-watched the full game on Chelsea TV during the week.

“I’d forgotten how dominant they really were before we scored.”

I agreed. That miss from Kevin De Bruyne spurred us on to a classic display of counter-attacking excellence. I had watched the highlights during the week too. The strength with which Diego Costa beat off the defenders and steadied himself to slot home was just sublime, and it was a goal which I sadly realised Alvaro Morata could not be relied upon to repeat on current form. I had to admit it; he was a bit of a prick at times, but bloody hell we have missed Diego Costa.

The teams entered the pitch and I ran through the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

“Big game for Danny Drinkwater” I thought to myself.

There was a banner depicting De Bruyne down below and to my left; I wondered how he would perform. I have obviously watched from afar this season, but some of his passing has been simply magnificent. He can certainly thread a ball through a tight area. He is some footballer. And there was David Silva. And Leroy Sane. And Sergio Aguero too.

The City lot roared a healthy “Hey Jude” and the game kicked-off.

There was one inflatable banana being waved around in the lower tier. Maybe it was his version of the sky blue, white and purple bar scarf.

I could not help but watch the clock as the minutes ticked past. I kept thinking to myself “10 minutes – safe so far” and “15 minutes – one sixth of the game gone” and “20 minutes – almost a quarter of the game.” Of course it was all City. They pushed the ball around with ease, but their advances were kept at bay. Our defensive unit looked in good condition. Two City fans to my left were keeping me occupied. After Leroy Sane skied an effort over the bar, I turned to my left and pulled a face of relief to a City gent in his ‘seventies. He gestured that the ball had just cleared the bar by inches. I stretched my arms up to signify “and the rest.” He laughed and I laughed. The City fan just in front of him – scruffy beard, scruffy scarf and scruffy shoes – was a different matter altogether. He loved the sound of his own voice and would not bloody shut up.

“Champions? You’re shit. You’re in fifth place.”

I glowered and glowered some more.

A very reckless challenge by their young defender Zinchenko on Victor Moses brought howls from us. The move was allowed to continue but the referee only showed the player a yellow card once the attack inevitably petered out. A City fan to my left scowled and shouted across to me “he got the ball.”

“Ah bollocks, did he.”

As the game continued, I realised that Chelsea were allowing City the ball, allowing possession, conceding possession even. I had not seen the like of it – on such a scale – ever before. And I suppose from that moment, the game took on a different dimension. Not only did I watch as a supporter of the team – trying to will the team on with song – and as a spectator of a game in which the players were cast as often spectators too, but I watched as a fan of Antonio Conte as I tried to get inside his head and to attempt to evaluate his methodology.

I turned to Alan :

“It’s as if the manager has told the players not to expend any extra energy in charging around and making reckless challenges. He has told them to soak, soak, soak. To sit back and cover space rather than man mark.”

This approach is not new to football, but it certainly felt that this was anathema to us. It seemed so alien. Yet Conte is an Italian. This is a common approach – or it used to be in the suffocating systems of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and he obviously felt that the threat of an on-fire City was worthy of this very cautious method of football. The supporters around me were caught in two minds; some were voicing annoyance among themselves, but there were still shouts in praise of the manager.

Us British love to see a player charge around, closing space but also making tackle after tackle. Or maybe we used to when the midfield was the most important part of the game plan in my youth. What were we told?

“Whoever wins the midfield, wins the game.”

These days, with many teams happy to sit off and let other teams hold the ball – “there you go, see what you can do” – it is often the transition from defence to attack that wins games. The days of enthusiastic tackles in the midst of a midfield battle seem long gone. You see blocks these days, but not so many great tackles.

The match continued and I tried my best to get behind the team. Our attacks were very rare. We were able to reach the wide players on occasion but were unable to create much at all. It was, of course, very frustrating.

I got rather bored with our constant “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that” goading of City.

But then scruffy City Fan irritated me further.

“Ha, you won it on penalties! Penalties!”

I thought to myself “I bet you would not be fackin’ complaining if City won it on spot-kicks in Kiev this season.”

Our same modus operandi continued. I still thought hard about the tactics that the manager had asked of his players. It was evident that he was of the opinion that a gung-ho approach – “taking it to them” in popular parlance – was not a gamble that he was willing to take. I had to admit to myself that if we were to allow them any space, by stretching the game, by over-indulging, a City team twenty-two points clear of us in the table would probably score at will. If anybody thinks otherwise, they have not been paying attention.

What were our pre-match thoughts? I would have murdered for a 0-0. Damage limitation, I am sure, was on many peoples’ minds. Although there had been a red alert during the week, here was a blue alert which had evidently troubled the manager and many more besides.

But bloody hell it was hard to watch. City peppered our area with crosses and there were strong blocks from Rudiger and others. We held on.

The City fans in the East Stand – the modern equivalent of The Kippax I guess – were adamant that we were “fookin’ shit.”

Scruffy boy was still ranting away.

“We’re twenty-two points clear. We’re mint.”

At one stage, the elderly City fan bent forward and told him to be quiet.

Bernardo Silva went close with a curler which again flew over the bar and the elderly City fan looked across at me and smiled, his hands coming together as if to say “that was closer, lad.”

The first-half continued on – “30 minutes, a third of the way there” and our defence limited City to few chances. There was, if I remembered correctly, just one Kevin De Bruyne cross into the box but it was quite poor and evaded everybody. City’s finishing was quite poor to be honest.

Dave had starred during a first-half of constant pressure. Nobody had hounded and blocked and harried better than him throughout the first-period.

The first-half came to an end. Apart from a couple of rousing “Blue Moons” the City fans had not been too noisy at all. At Old Trafford – in Part One – hardly a seat was not used, whereas at City there were hundreds of seats dotted around the stadium not filled. I looked back on the half. For all of our defending, we had kept City at bay for long periods. Our attacks were very rare. It annoyed me that when we attempted long balls out of defence, unless they were to the wings, they were often over hit which just meant that Ederson raced off his line to claim. I remembered a couple of fine through balls by Cesc Fabregas, but I had to admit that there was very little attacking verve from us.

As I made my way out to the concourse at halftime, I spotted Pete – now living in Manchester – and I smiled as I said “halfway to paradise.”

The second-half began. During most games – though not all – I write a few bullet points on my phone as the day and the game develops. After thirty seconds, I debated writing “can we hold on?” but decided against it. A move by City was not cleared by the otherwise fine Andreas Christensen and the ball broke to Aguero, who helped move it on to David Silva. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Bernardo Silva, with Marcos Alonso sadly adrift of play. And yet it would be churlish to be too scathing of Alonso, who must have been crushed by the news of the death of his former Fiorentina team mate Davide Astori as he awoke before the game.

But we were a goal down with barely a minute of the second-half had gone.

Bollocks.

The City support roared.

A song that I have not heard at City before got an airing :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart again.”

And yet this re-working of the Joy Division number was originally a United song, and one which exalted the gifts of the presumably hated Ryan Giggs. Alan and I were mystified and we both shouted over the great divide at the home fans and asked why on earth they were singing that?

“That’s a United song.”

“Ryan Giggs.”

They just smiled benignly and were having none of it.

The scruffy lad suddenly started rabbiting about our support, chastising it, and wondering if we were United fans a few years back. He then referenced, for reasons unbeknown to me, a game from almost thirty years ago.

“Were you here in ’89 when you were shit?”

I was having some of that.

“Yes! Yes I was. And we fucking beat you 3-2.”

Ah, yes. Tony Dorigo running for ever and ever and turning it in at the Platt Lane in front of a cool ten thousand Chelsea supporters. Bliss. I have detailed that iconic away match in these reports before, but here are a few photographs of another era, another time, another club. Another two clubs.

This seemed to impress Scruffy Boy.

He nodded…and was rather subdued now.

”Yeah, so was I.”

He motioned towards me to shake my hand. You know what went through my mind? The prick is going to pull his hand away – “Soccer AM schoolboy error” style – and leave me stranded. But no. He held his hand out. Rather than shake it, I slapped it derisively.

Then, presumably in a show of some sort of Mancunian wit, the whole ground sang  as one :

“Sing when we’re winning. We only sing when we’re winning.”

I guess they have been singing rather a lot this season.

To add to the gloom, the rain fell heavier and I saw that PD and Glenn were getting soaked.

Bizarrely, City struggled to capitalise further in the next fifteen minutes, and it was Chelsea who came closest to scoring. After a ball was played into space, Victor Moses raced in to the penalty area, with the entire away end praying for a goal. He hesitated just slightly, and rather than wrap his boot around the ball, and force Ederson to save, he sliced the ball high and wide of the near post. I daren’t look at the elderly City fan who probably had his hands poised to signify “high.”

Then City came into it again, and Courtois was able to save well from David Silva at the near post. A few of our clearances from defence were shocking; hoofed up high in to the air. Reckless, rushed, ruthless.

Bloody hell.

We seemed to have a few more breaks as City pushed for a second goal – I guess this was the plan –  but our final ball and our movement was off-kilter. But each time either Pedro or Hazard or Willian broke, the away support roared the team on. The support inside the stadium, though difficult to sustain over three disjointed tiers, did not relent. I was proud of that. We were all baying for a change from the hour mark, so it was surprising – to say the least – that Conte took until the seventy-seventh minute to replace the tiring Willian with Olivier Giroud. He had kept it tight for so long, I guess his Italian past did not allow him the freedom to gamble. Just after, Pedro was replaced by new boy Emerson. Although it had not been pretty to watch, there is no doubt that the players had carried out their manager’s wishes to the letter. They at least worked with him. But I am sure it could not have been easy. As the game continued, I did not give up hope. As bizarre a result as it would have been, I sensed that we might just grab a late equaliser. As we attempted sporadic attacks, there was definitely a nervousness among the City support. I could sense it. They were not happy. The game had a couple of bizarre final twists.

Conte brought on Alvaro Morata for Eden Hazard with just two minutes remaining.  Hazard had relentlessly shuffled around closing space all afternoon long.  I watched Eden as he exited the pitch and hoped that he did not head off down the tunnel in a huff; he did not, he donned a jacket and took his seat on the bench.

And then, ridiculously, right at the final whistle, Marcos Alonso slashed at a ball on the edge of the box but we watched – such pain – as the ball spun away from the goal rather than towards it.

At the final whistle, I stood and let the immediate rush of people leave. I watched as a few players – maybe five or so, Giroud, Fabregas I think, Azpilicueta, Courtois, maybe Alonso – walked over to acknowledge a damp and dejected support. We clapped them too.

I turned to Al and Gal :

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

As I walked away, I looked back at the City Gent and Scruffy Boy. I gave them a small clap and they responded similarly.

I thought to myself : “Yep. Good team City. Anyone but United. Anyone but Tottenham. Anyone but Liverpool.”

I soon caught up with a drenched PD and Glenn and we began a silent march back to the car. Last season, that walk was triumphant. This season, we just got wet.

There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.

I drove on.

Who ever said supporting Chelsea was easy?

Remembering the horrific traffic after the United game, it was a joy to be heading home on the Manchester orbital and then the M6 at normal speed. The rain had stopped. The roads were clear. We eventually reached home at about 11pm. It had been a tough game – but I can honestly say that I would not have wanted to have been anywhere else in the world than in deepest Manchester with many good friends.

I skimmed through many comments on social media, and the majority were scathing of the manager’s tactics. That’s fine, we are all entitled to an opinion. It had been an odd day for sure.

And this has been an odd match report to write; a difficult one, but one which has summed up my feelings as honestly as I can.

I’ve tried to get inside the manager’s head. I’ve tried to be objective as possible.

As the night wore on, and I continued reviewing some comments on “Facebook”, I took a great deal of solace in a couple of comments from one Chelsea pal, whose pragmatic views about the game were level-headed and mirrored a few of my own. The bonus was that he was a former Chelsea player – 1985 to 1987 – and it was nice to read his thoughts.

Robert – I owe you a drink next time I see you.

In memory of Joe Buchmann.

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

It had been a near perfect journey north; light traffic on the motorways, cloudless winter skies, bright sun, and only a couple of stops for breakfast and fuel. Four and a half hours after picking up PD in Frome, and then Parky and Young Jake, we were now located at our usual parking space a mile or so from Old Trafford, outside a small unit which would normally be used to sell tyres. The locals – City fans – took my £10 and guided me back alongside other cars. The car would be safe there. We have used it three or four times now. Fearing the worst – near Baltic conditions were forecast – we fastened buttons on jackets and set off towards Old Trafford. This was Young Jake’s first-ever visit to Manchester United. It would be my twenty-third. In my loose circle of friends who grew up locally to where I live, there are only a few United fans. Yet I am sure that my total of twenty-three visits was considerably more than the three or four United fans could muster between them.

It’s a strange one alright.

For a stadium that holds 75,000 – and is nigh on full to capacity every week, please take note Arsenal – you would think that more of their supporters would actually attend games. I just think that it shows how huge a club Manchester United are. Growing up, working, meeting football fans, meeting people who say they are football fans yet clearly aren’t, it seems that you are never far away from a United supporter. There must be several million United fans in the UK alone. I suppose they can’t all get tickets.

Of course, many never intend doing so, which is another topic completely and which, quite frankly – showing the apathy that would make many United fans proud – I simply can’t be bothered to address.

The twenty-minute walk towards Old Trafford was fine, apart from when we crossed the Chester Road and the wind howled.

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

We were apparently in for a wintry week, which would finish with us playing another game in Manchester, at City’s stadium a few miles further east on the following Sunday. Two supremely tough games indeed. It could turn out to be a very cruel month. Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly.

We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

While the other three went ahead for a pre-match pint inside the away section, I decided to spend thirty minutes or so outside, in front of an old abandoned club shop, and observe.

The famous forecourt sloped down from right to left from Sir Matt Busby Way. I watched the match-going traffic head off to their seats inside. In truth, it was a generally quiet scene. But there was still that great sense of occasion that you get ahead of any important football match. That sense of unquantifiable anticipation – and apprehension for some – with the knowledge that something big, huge, will soon be taking place but a few hundred yards away.

The forecourt. It is the definitive Old Trafford “space.”

In the days of my childhood, and then my youth, before I ever visited Old Trafford, the TV camera crews would always assemble underneath the Munich Clock if there was anything worth reporting at Old Trafford. A Tommy Docherty scandal, or a new signing, the reporter would stand underneath the façade at the eastern end of the stadium, and the image would become locked in my memory bank. On my first visit to Old Trafford – a night game in 1986 – I suspect I only glanced at the Munich Clock as we had arrived late and I am sure I was in a rush to get in. In those days, the forecourt stretched all of the way down towards the corner of the United Road Stand. Since then, the stands have grown exponentially at Old Trafford and the huge megastore now sits on a large portion of the former wide open space.

It was the site of many a battle in the hooligan era. We all remember the scenes from that “ICF” documentary in 1985 when West Ham got rather lippy with some United lads on the forecourt and along the terraced streets nearby. I can remember myself some punches being thrown at a few United versus Chelsea games over the years on this concrete slope. There is an understated commemorative plaque overlooking the remaining forecourt quadrant now, and of course the Munich Clock remains. It is a myth that the clock shows the actual time of the crash; although once a day it does.

I remembered back to our game on a sunny afternoon in late August of 2013 when I spotted Sir Bobby Charlton unobtrusively walking through the forecourt and being thrilled that I was able to shake his hand. That was a great memory for me. One of the better “non-Chelsea” spine-chilling moments of my life. I remember a United supporter waxing lyrical about the importance of the forecourt in the club’s history and how it’s relatively gradual slope tended to resemble the north face of the Eiger after a particularly painful defeat.

There have been additions on three sides at Old Trafford since 1994. And although there are still discussions rumbling on about increasing the capacity of the oldest stand, now named the Bobby Charlton Stand, by building over the railway line behind, I can’t see the capacity increasing in the near future. As I stood for a few final minutes, I realised that the curved quadrant above the away turnstiles at Old Trafford is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium still intact. Those red bricks could tell a few stories I am sure. Underneath, there is a permanently shuttered serving hatch, which may well have sold scarves, hats and favours in the past. How quaint. The megastore now takes care of all that.

One sallow youth wearing a lopsided beanie hat managed to get a few Manchester United fans, and then Chelsea fans, to squeak and yelp into his handheld camera. I inwardly tut-tutted. But he had something special for me. A few minutes later, a United fan in a black away shirt and a Chelsea fan in a blue home shirt – probably friends, possibly even brothers – and each with a half-and-half scarf, both posed and yelled at the camera.

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

Oh well, there have always been dickheads who go to football.

I began chatting to a bloke from Madrid, who was taking some crowd shots – some mood shots as I call them – with a couple of cameras. I wanted to warn him that bags, and cameras, would need to be checked before entering the game. But he had no match ticket, he was simply drawn to the game, to the stadium, to capture the pre-match buzz. He was a Real Madrid fan, and we joked about the upcoming Barcelona versus Chelsea game. As my normal camera was abandoned at home, I made sure that I took a few basic shots of the stadium using my mobile phone, focussing on large blocks of colour rather than the up-close and personal details of match action that I usually capture.

Old Trafford is a very photogenic stadium, if you know where to point.

Inside and up the steps and I immediately bumped into the lads; Young Jake, Lord Parky, PD were chatting to John, Alan and Gary. Alan had left his house at 4am that morning and would not be home again until the small hours. We had passed two of the three Chelsea coaches on the M6 at around Stafford earlier. It is the knowledge that loyal supporters like Alan, Gary and John – and hundreds more – make these horrendous journeys for our away games up North each season that fires a lot of my rude responses to many knob head Chelsea fans around the world who mope and moan at the slightest dip in form.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions blah blah blah” – yes, and many of them strike me as being fucking worthless.

There was quiet optimism among our little group. Personally, I predicted a 0-0 draw.

I ascended the final few steps of the day, and gulped in a breath of expectation.

This stadium had provided me with some fantastical memories over the years. Let’s hope for one more.

James and “Sit Down” was on the tannoy. How apt.

We had great seats, row eight, right on the curve behind the corner flag. The stadium took a while to fill. With fifteen minutes remaining, I went down to the concourse to turn my bike around before kick-off, and fortunately just missed “ten men went to mow” and beer being thrown over everyone.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

The manager had chosen to go back to a 3-4-3 with Alvaro Morata given the nod. I had wondered if Fabregas would be dropped in favour of Danny Drinkwater; he was.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in a vain attempt to engender any sort of atmosphere, the United DJ played “Dirty Old Town” and then a newer version – with a female vocalist – of “Take Me Home.”

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

Chelsea soon responded with a few loud salvos of our own.

It was the first pre-match sing-song of the day and it was almost kick-off.

Bloody hell. In days gone by – “here he goes again” – the singing before the game was an expected appetiser ahead of the match. It set the mood. It got us all ready.

I remembered back to the days when we used to be given that slim little paddock behind the goal. It is where I stood, crammed in with thousands of others like bloody sardines, for my first three games at Old Trafford in 1985/1986, 1986/1987 and 1987/1988. In those days, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise. The lads in the seats behind us used to stand and bellow out “United, United, United, United” as if their lives depended on it. It was a spine-chilling sound, even more so when there used to be tales of pool balls being launched from the seats behind us into that small away paddock.

These two grainy photos are from the September 1987 fixture when we sadly lost our first league game at OT in ages; we always had a fantastic record up there. We had gone unbeaten in thirteen league visits to Old Trafford since 1965/1966. My very first two visits to United’s home resulted in two back-to-back wins within five months in 1986. What a fantastic couple of matches; King Kerry with all three goals and Tony Godden with two penalty saves.

Of course the view was crap; but as an away fan we knew no different.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner. I was waiting for the noise to snap, crackle and pop.

It never really did.

The self-generated atmosphere at Old Trafford back in those early visits sizzled like a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.

In 2018, it was eerily similar to the ambiance of a mid-‘seventies Berni Inn; softened muzak, embarrassed silences and prawn cocktails.

Despite the cold gusts of arctic air outside, the temperature inside was fine. Not a cloud could be seen above. There were good vibes in the away end. I still fancied a draw. Tottenham were still drawing at Crystal Palace.

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

Soon after, with only two minutes played, Toni Rudiger ran and ran from the Chelsea half – “keep goin’ Rudi”- to deep inside the United half. It was a barnstorming run, which summed up our early dominance, and free-flowing football. The away fans certainly sensed that we were on top.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Right after, a sublime move allowed the ball to be played out wide to Marcos Alonso, who volleyed a cross at waist height towards Alvaro Morata. The ball crashed onto the cross bar. It was a stunning start to the game from us and set the tone for the first-half.

Without wishing to over-exaggerate, it felt like it was all Chelsea.

Time after time we played a long diagonal over to Victor Moses, who seemed to be United’s forgotten man, he was in so much space. Once or twice, he played the ball in, but far too often there was the trademark extra touch, or – even more frustrating – the desire to beat the same man twice. Throughout that first-half, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante stifled many a United attack. Eden Hazard and Willian hopped, skipped and jumped away from tackles; they were the stars alright.

The atmosphere from the home areas inside Old Trafford was virtually non-existent. Even I was shocked.

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

“Your city is blue. Your city is Blue. Just like London your city is blue.”

(I wonder if we will be quite so magnanimous next Sunday…)

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the United lot, whose only song was aimed at Merseyside.

We continued to find space between the lines. United were clearly second best.

However, a half chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, usually so prolific inside the box, so we were all relieved when his shot was easily gathered by Thibaut. It had been United’s first real effort on goal. Not long after, just after the half-hour mark, the twin threats of Willian and Hazard combined magnificently. Willian, his toes twinkling, ran with the ball from inside our box and the space opened up in front of him. He pushed the ball on to Hazard, who continued the move, and spotted the Brazilian’s “underlap” and returned a perfect pass into space. The whole away end lent forward. This smelled like a goal. After one touch, Willian smashed it past De Gea.

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

I saw Calvin race down to the front of the aisle and – in a scene which reminded me of a late winner against Tottenham – I joined him. The away end was on fire. I overlooked the balcony wall at the bottom of our section and punched the air.

FUCKING YES.

It was certainly deserved. The Chelsea support had been providing constant noise during the entire match, but the noise levels increased again. My college pal Rick – a season ticket holder in the back row of J Stand, at the other corner of our end –  always rates our away support at Old Trafford. He has told me that we are consistently in the top three or four. I wondered how he was rating the noise in this game. I was certainly proud of our racket. Of course it helps that the team was playing well – “helping each other” – but I always think we should be making tons of noise regardless of how well the team are performing on the pitch.

I grew nervous when some supporters started singing “Jose, what’s the score?”

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

Inexplicably, and against the run of play, United countered and the large and looming presence of Romelu Lukaku held up the ball in a central position. The ball was pushed back to a waiting United player. Despite a great deal of congestion in our box, Martial found Lukaku, who did well to steer the ball past Courtois.

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

Lukaka, the big Belgian lump, took great pleasure in crossing his arms in front of his chest and sneering at the three thousand away fans.

“Noted.”

We broke again, but the entire end was left fuming as Eden raced into the box but bizarrely opted not to shoot. The moment was gone. The ball broke to Alonso, but his rushed shot cleared the bar. It is one aspect of his play that is lacking.

As one or two Americans are prone to exclaim : “He needs to shoot the ball.”

Shoot. Shoot will do. We all know there is a ball involved.

So, all square at half-time. I reviewed our players’ performances in that first forty-five minutes. All came out positively apart from that man Moses, who so infuriates, and Morata, who was largely quiet, and relatively uninvolved. I had kept looking over at Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, both dressed in black, as the first-half developed. For some reason, maybe an air of inevitability, I have been a Chelsea fan for too bloody long, I sensed that although United had been lucky to escape with just one goal conceded, Mourinho just might have the last laugh.

The second-half began. As always, United attacked the Stretford End.

Mourinho’s men were certainly more involved, but we kept pressing and probing. Another fine run from Willian set up Morata in the inside-left channel, but rather than hit a first-time effort, decided to turn back on himself and shoot meekly at De Gea. A few Chelsea attacks tended to peter out rather lamely, and United were now the dominant force. They are such a big and physical team. Pogba, Matic and Lukaku suddenly seemed to grow an extra few inches. On the hour, De Gea fumbled a long shot from Drinkwater and Alonso, busting a gut, could not reach the loose ball. Our chances were becoming rarer and rarer.

Lukaku dramatically attempted a spectacular overhead kick but Courtois did well to finger-tip it over.

The home crowd were uttering the occasional song of support, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly quiet.

A Willian free-kick, way out wide, caught us all unawares as he chose to target De Gea’s near post. Although De Gea was well positioned to gather it, the low trajectory surprised him and the ball bobbled on the line before he finally grabbed hold.

These were crumbs of comfort as United, I sensed, were gathering momentum.

To our surprise, Conte decided to take off Eden. He was replaced by Pedro. I watched for a handshake. There was one, though only just.

A popular view was this :

“Fackinell Conte, are you fackin’ sure? Eden is our best player, our match winner. Why take him off? Why not take that useless facker Morata off?”

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

Morata had disappeared, really, as the second half continued. I lost count of the amount of times that he went down too easily, holding some sacred body part, eyes glaring at the referee.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Lukaku controlled the ball and sent over a perfect cross for the substitute Lingard to head home. There seemed to be no challenge, nobody close.

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

Conte replaced Moses with Olivier Giroud. I presumed that Pedro would revert to right wing-back, but here was an odd line-up for sure. We were playing with two lanky centre-forwards…on the pitch…at the same time…bloody hell. Just after, Cesc Fabregas replaced Danny Drinkwater.

The personnel change and the shape change can be discussed from here to eternity, or at least until next Sunday, but there is no doubt that the new mix of players looked ill at ease with each other. On more than one occasion, with the ball out wide, we chose to play to feet in front of the box, rather than hit high balls in for Morata and Giroud. But we kept attacking, we kept trying. A linesman on our side of the pitch was quick to flag when Alvaro Morata drifted into a slightly offside position. His effort on goal was hardly applauded since we all saw the flag early.

In the last moments, at a corner, deep in to five minutes of extra-time, Thibaut Courtois raced up field to try to put pressure on the United goal. It amounted to nothing. The ball was cleared.

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

I had to think. What offside? Oh, the Morata one? Blimey. That was a surprise. Looked it to me.

Outside, we walked up the north face of the Eigur and the United faithful were goading us with songs about “that big Russian Crook.” On the walk back to the car, we dissected the game. In my mind – call me biased –  I thought we had deserved a point, no doubt.

Once inside the car, I turned the radio on. Like a voice from the grave, someone spoke about Tottenham getting a late winner at Crystal Palace.

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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