Tales From The Changing Of The Guard

Chelsea vs. FC Red Bull Salzburg : 14 September 2022.

We were in a period of change.

Not only in the little – or not so little – world of Chelsea Football Club, but in the wider world too.

The last game that I witnessed was the home win over West Ham United on Saturday 3 September. We then witnessed an historic week. On the Tuesday, I reached home with seconds to spare to watch our Champions League game at Dinamo Zagreb on my laptop. We began well, pretty positive thoughts, but then conceded via the home team’s first attempt on goal. We simply did not react. What followed for the rest of the match was pretty turgid stuff. We laboured without inspiration and fight. It was horrible to watch. I felt for the loyalists – a fair few who I knew – who had followed the team to Croatia. We allegedly sold just six-hundred or so tickets; it looked far fewer on TV. It was as poor a performance as I had seen for a while; in particular the second-half horror show from substitute Hakim Ziyech must rank as one of the worst personal performances for a few years.

Oh Chelsea, what a mess.

As the following day began, there were a couple of messages waiting for me in a WhatsApp group. Both were asking for the club not to react by giving Tuchel the boot. To this observer, while acknowledging that our form has been patchy for ages, our troubled manager was presumably involved in gathering the new purchases over the summer and therefore should be allowed to sort out his team over the next few months. Not for the first time, I was advocating long term-ism over “slash and burn” at Stamford Bridge.

Less than three hours later, while I was sitting in a planning meeting at work, my manager Matt passed on the news “Tuchel sacked” and I barely reacted. Deep down it was no real surprise. I quickly focused on office furniture deliveries to Munich, Cork and other cities throughout Europe rather than thinking about Chelsea winning in cities throughout Europe.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen this before.

The only shock was that the new regime had seamlessly continued the firing policy that had been so ingrained under Roman Abramovich since 2003.

At least Roman gave Ranieri a whole season to prove himself.

Hot shot Boehly, faster on the trigger, had given Tuchel just seven games into the new season.

I love the phrase that someone conjured up recently to describe Chelsea Football Club of late; “Chaos & Cups” – and am annoyed I never thought of it – as it perfectly sums up modern Chelsea.

Before we had time to dwell too much on who our next manager might be, the following day provided another shock.

During Thursday 8 September, there were reports that HRH Queen Elizabeth II was in grave health. Only on the Tuesday, the new prime minister Liz Truss had met with the Queen at Balmoral. Yet, as I watched on the evening news, with the BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards already wearing a black tie, the nation and the Commonwealth prepared for some sad news. I was watching as Edwards calmly announced that the monarch had passed.

I am no huge royalist – or at least not of the flag waving type – but I am no republican either. However, my real sadness as I watched the TV for the next hour or so genuinely surprised me. This was something that I could not easily brush off nor let pass without gentle reflection. I had my own thoughts, my own period of remembrance.

I was numb for a while, but then life slowly creaked on.

It was soon announced that the football would be off at the weekend, though. No trip to Fulham beside the Thames, nor no second prize of a Frome Town game either. So be it.

In my life I saw the Queen twice. The first time, way back, was at Windsor Great Park, when I watched from afar with my parents and an aunt and an uncle; there was some sort of parade, I was only around three, it is all very blurred. My father took some equally blurry film of the occasion. But I can remember being absolutely thrilled that a queen, The Queen, was in the same field as me.

In 1977, I went with my mother to see Her Majesty on a walkabout in Bath during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was only a few yards from her as she walked past, and if I remember correctly, my red, white and blue hooped shirt was spotted on the local BBC news that evening. A couple of again blurry photos remain from that day.

I was undoubtedly a royalist in 1977, and then in 1981 for the Royal Wedding. Since then, my feelings have changed. But now is not the time to bore everyone.

I know this; the Queen was well loved, well respected, and I absolutely admired her.

Meanwhile, on the Friday, back on Planet Football, Chelsea appointed the Brighton manager Graham Potter as the new man at Stamford Bridge.

Everything was changing.

Wags were commenting “two prime ministers, two monarchs and two Chelsea managers within three days.”

Quite.

Change in Downing Street, change at Buckingham Palace, change at Stamford Bridge.

I honestly haven’t bothered to read too much about the reasons behind the Tuchel sacking. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.

An unwillingness to join in fully in the recruitment of new players? A worsening relationship with the existing players? Personal problems? The break-up of his marriage? A reluctance to play young players? Who knows?

I will say this. It took me a really long time to warm to the bloke; too long probably. Despite the win in Porto, I didn’t really have a bond with him, unlike with Lampard and Conte to name but two. But the way he kept the club going during that crazy period of sanctions last season was undeniably magnificent. While nobody else at the club was willing to utter a single word – the board were as weak as I had suspected all along – Tuchel bonded us all together and it was truly the stuff of legend.

Please allow me a moment of hyperbole; it was almost Churchillian.

I loved his comment about him driving a seven-seater to Europe if needed.

Thanks for your efforts Thomas Tuchel. I felt I never really got to know you. But thank you for the Champions League in Porto, the Super Cup in Belfast and the World Club Cup in Abu Dhabi.

The ironic thing is that even if we had won both domestic cups last season, and the FA Cup in 2021, he would still be gone.

Chelsea. Fackinell.

It was announced that our up-coming game against Red Bull Salzburg would be taking place, as planned, at 8pm on Wednesday 14 September. Time to re-focus, maybe, and start thinking about the future.

Graham Potter, eh?

Will he turn out to be the English version of Andre Vilas-Boas, himself a rated young manager, touted for great things, yet to fail? Or will he oversee a bright spell in the fortunes of our beloved club? Only time will tell, eh?

However, by the morning of the trip up to The Smoke for the Salzburg game, I was already pissed-off with the amount of Harry Potter references.

Do fuck off.

I worked a very early shift to get away at two o’clock for this one. Alongside PD in the front, Simon joined us, a colleague from work, and heavily involved in those deliveries in Cork and Munich. I think this was his first game with us since that away game at Brighton last season. I was wedged into the back seat, a defensive three, with Chopper and Parky to my flanks.

Despite some misty rain when I woke at 4.45am, the weather now was bloody superb. We chatted about upcoming games. October will be so, so busy. Chelsea are due to play nine games and PD, Parky and I hope to be at all nine. We are now booked-up for the away games in Milan and Salzburg. Following hot on October’s tail, we are flying up to Newcastle for the last match before the break. That game has been confirmed for 5.30pm; just perfect.

Chris : “We’ll just stay down by the quayside for that one. Big old sesh ahead.”

PD : “And get a cab up to the hill to the ground.”

Parky : “Cab? Ambulance!”

We all howled.

Simon and I chatted a little about work, but that soon slowed.

Two nights earlier, Parky and I had popped into Bristol to see yet another band that were around forty years ago. Altered Images were excellent. Parky and I are not alone among my Chelsea mates to have seen them this year. Ah, 1982.

Continuing my reflections on our 1982/83 season, our next two games in that historic season were both away from home.

On the evening of Wednesday 8 September 1982, we played at the Baseball Ground against Derby County. The game was lost 0-1. The gate was just 8,075, a very poor attendance to be honest. Only seven years earlier, Derby County had been English champions and had beaten Real Madrid 4-1 in the then European Cup the following autumn. They had fallen just like Chelsea.

On Saturday 11 September, there followed another away game against a big club now languishing in the second tier. We played at St. James’ Park against Newcastle United, boosted by the signing of former European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. His transfer from First Division Southampton to Newcastle really was the talk of the summer. It was huge news. As a result, a massive gate of 29,084 gathered to see a 1-1 draw with Colin Lee grabbing our goal but they then equalised. The Newcastle team included Mike Channon, Imre Varadi and Chris Waddle too. My diary notes that “The Big Match” – now on Saturday nights – surprisingly showed the goals what with the game being in the Second Division. Seeing Chelsea on the TV in that era was such a rare event

The traffic was light and PD was parked up at our usual spot at 4.30pm.

We had three-and-a-half hours to enjoy before kick-off.

PD and Parky popped into “The Goose” while the others popped down to Stamford Bridge. Atop the West Stand, the Union flag was at half-mast. There were a couple of images of the Queen on LED displays.

I took a photograph or two.

With Peter Osgood in the background, I wondered if I could get away with commenting “The King and The Queen” without offending anyone. Simon and I spent a very pleasant time in the Copthorne Hotel with a few friends. Outside, the sun beat down. It was a ridiculously lovely early-evening in London.

Simon and I retraced our steps and joined up with Alan and Daryl in “Simmons” which was surprisingly quiet. We were joined by Andy, Simon, Chris, Nick, Deano, Gal, then PD and Parky. I allowed myself two pints of “Estrella”, my first alcohol in over two months.

Talk touched on the Tuchel sacking rather than the appointment of Potter.

“Apart from the four or five Tottenham games and all the Liverpool games” – oh, and the semi in Madrid – “our play over the past twelve months has been poor.”

Chat about football and all the more important things in our individual lives continued. Laughter, as always, wasn’t far away.

At work in the morning, a work colleague had asked me if was looking forward to the evening’s game.

I was brutally honest.

“Not really.”

It was going to be a long, long day and it was unlikely that I would get any sleep in the back seat of PD’s car, but now I had absolutely warmed to it all. Being among friends had cheered me. The football would take care of itself, eh? Outside, we bumped into Ludo, for the first time since attending his wedding reception three weeks earlier.

“Parky had said you weren’t coming tonight, now you are married.”

Ludo smiled. We gave him a hug and we departed for the ground.

The place soon filled up. I was expecting more away fans; there were no more than five-hundred. Apparently they had walked in silence from Earls Court as a mark of remembrance for The Queen. That was lovely. Well done them.

I wasn’t really sure what form the pre-match would take.

But as kick-off approached, there were no songs, no “Parklife”, no “Liquidator.” Just silence. The players went through their paces down below us. Over on The Shed balcony, a parade of Union Jack flags flanked a banner simply stating “RIP YOUR MAJESTY.”

Just before the teams appeared, two Chelsea pensioners laid wreaths on the pitch in readiness for the minute of silence.

The Austrian flags held up a large black banner in the Shed Lower : “ IN MEMORY OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II.”

As the teams lined-up, out from nowhere, the crowd sang “God Save The King” and I joined in.

Very soon, the teams gathered on the centre-circle; Kepa, in the team, had to race from his goalmouth to join in.

A peep from the referee’s whistle.

Everyone stood in silence for one minute.

Unlike at Anfield the previous night when the referee could only allow just over twenty seconds of Liverpool Football Club’s self-proclaimed “period of remembrance”, this was pristine.

At the end of it, I wanted to catch Alan’s eye and tell him “that’s what you call an impeccable silence” but as he turned towards me, he said :

“That’s what you call an impeccable silence.”

We smiled.

Our team?

I had seen the names on the screen but as the players lined-up I was a mite confused.

Anyway, Kepa again between the sticks.

What looked like a back four of Cucarella, Silva, Dave, Reece.

Then further forward we had Jorginho and Kovacic in the middle.

Mount too.

Upfront were Sterling, Havertz with Aubameyang in the middle, at last a focal point.

But soon into the game, I was further confused. At times it looked like a three at the back with Sterling as the pushed-on left wing-back. At least I was toying with the right number of players on the pitch. I hope that there is no truth in those pernicious rumours about Todd Boehly wanting to try a 4/4/3 formation.

If so, God help us.

The new manager Graham Potter was introduced to the crowd. The applause was hardly deafening.

The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.

The Salzburg grey reminded me of the Barcelona colours from that classic in 2005.

It was a full house. It seemed we are still managing to get the pricing right. It was £35 for us in The Sleepy Hollow, though the £70 tickets were snapped up in West View. It staggers me that people will pay such sums. Oh boy.

Football, the working man’s ballet?

Not anymore.

We penned Salzburg into their own half for every minute of the first twenty minutes. Unlike in Zagreb, Aubameyang – with Zorro mask – was in on goal early on and elected to shoot. It flew over. There were a few half chances as we began well, showing more willingness to pass early and pass forward. On twenty-one minutes, the crowd applauded Thomas Tuchel on account of the win in Porto in 2021.

It had been all us, but their ‘keeper Philipp Kohn had not made a single save. Just after the minute’s applause, though, the first effort on goal but this was an easy catch for him.

There was a block on a shot from Aubameyang.

Reece James beat his man and drilled a low cross the penalty area but sadly no Chelsea player had gambled.

On twenty-six minutes, the away team enjoyed their very first attack but it amounted to nothing.

The atmosphere was unsurprisingly muted.

There were a couple of Chelsea half-chances, but nothing of note. A shot from Sterling was blocked, an effort from Mount was blazed over.

On forty minutes, another rare Salzburg attack when a curler from Benjamin Sesko forced Kepa into a fine save down low.

At The Shed, an odd deflection from an Aubameyang cross and a Kovacic header. The chance passed.

It had been a pretty forgettable first forty-five minutes.

In fact, the absolute high spot was, on reflection, the timing of my visit to the little boys’ room during that odd intermission when the officials sorted out their FIFA Playstation headsets.

The half-time stats stated 72% possession and eleven efforts. I remembered less.

Soon into the second-half, a fine rapid move down our right involving a burst from James and a ball to a raiding Mount caught the Austrian defence on the back foot. A low cross from Mount wasn’t cleared. In fact, a defender deflected the ball on, just passing the waiting Aubameyang. It whipped past another defender and ended at the feet of Sterling. He controlled the ball, rolled his studs on it, then curled it powerfully home.

GET IN.

Did we power on? No, not really.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the night : “Carefree” rolled around the four stands.

A fine lofted pass from Jorginho set up Havertz but he fluffed his lines.

On sixty-seconds, Potter made some changes.

Armano Broja for Aubameyang.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for a very quiet Havertz.

Soon after coming on, Broja was released and broke in from a wide position but I that felt a challenge put him off. He shot wide.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Salzburg broke down their right. We appeared stretched. At first I thought that Emperor Silva’s slide was timed to perfection, but alas not. Junior Adama rode the challenge, collected the ball and advanced. His slide rule cross was easily turned in past Kepa by Noah Okafor.

Bollocks.

Cucarella set up James from a free-kick but he walloped it high and wide.

By now, I was literally sitting forward, not exactly on the edge of my seat because space would not allow it, but alert and involved, I could not help but think that if I had been watching at home, I would probably have been stretched out on the sofa, my attention possibly elsewhere. I am simply not a TV fan these days. Football has to be live for me now.

There was a flurry of late substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Hakim Ziyech for Dave.

Sterling played in Ziyech who crossed for Broja to bite at the near post but Kohn blocked well.

Lastly, Christian Pulisic for Sterling.

By now, I had completely lost track of the shape and who was playing where. God only knows what Boehly made of it.

Then, with time running out, a deep cross from Ziyech found Broja who headed the ball back across the box. The ball was kept alive only for our Albanian international to smash a loose ball over.

Finally, a hopelessly weak header from that man Ziyech close in had us all grumbling.

Fackinell.

In a period of change, both our lack of potency in front of goal and our charitable tendencies in defence seem difficult to budge.

On the walk out, I was annoyed with two smiling and laughing young female supporters, bedecked in Chelsea scarves, presumably not caring one iota that we were now bottom of our group with just one point from two games. I then glowered at a lad in his early ‘twenties who – laughing with a mate – proclaimed “Tottenham are better” and he soon got the message.

All three were visitors to these Isles. There are always many overseas visitors to HQ for these European games, more so than standard league matches. I welcome them. But maybe some should be asked to complete a due diligence test on arrival at the turnstiles.

I am only half-joking.

We met up back at the car and PD set off for home. I managed to drop off to sleep, no doubt dreaming of those last minute misses. I eventually got home at just after 1am. It had, indeed, been a long day.

In the match programme, there was a nice piece by Rick Glanvill concerning the Queen, the royal family and its links with Chelsea Football Club.  It was rumoured that the Queen’s grandfather, George V and her father, King George VI, were both Chelsea followers. The nearest football club to Buckingham palace is, after all, Chelsea. The first football match that the Queen watched was Chelsea’s war time Cup final with Millwall in 1945.

I have a spare programme. Who wants one?

A Chelsea player met the Queen at the British Embassy in Rome, but was really taken aback when the Queen commented : “Ah the famous Italian international footballer.”

Who was he?

Answers to : c.axon@talk21.com.

Let’s hope this garners more entrants to my last competition when just one person bothered to respond. I am going to limit it to overseas followers please. Chelsea programmes are a bit easier to get hold of in the UK. No due diligence test required. Good luck.

Tales From September 1982 And Forty Years Later

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 3 September 2022.

September 1982.

Due to the timings of games and thus match reports this season, my personal recollection of 1982/83 in this edition encompasses two consecutive home games at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Tuesday 31 August 1982, Chelsea played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge. After winning the Football League Cup in 1980 against the then European Champions Nottingham Forest, Wolves suffered relegation just two years later. They dropped down into the Second Division alongside Leeds United and Middlesbrough. I suppose that they must have been one of the favourites for promotion that season. Our team was the same one that had played at Cambridge United on the Saturday. The game finished 0-0. The gate of 14,192 was a pretty decent one considering our predicament at the time. In the previous season we had averaged 13,133.

Next up was a match with Leicester City on Saturday 4 September. I was seventeen and just back at school. I was now in the Upper Sixth, with a worrying year ahead with A Levels in Geography, Mathematics and Technical Drawing on some hideous distant horizon. It was a horrible time. At Frome College, everywhere I looked I saw Julie’s face but she was now living in a little village to the east of Reading. At the time, Reading seemed like being a thousand miles away. A few years ago, I had a little sigh to myself when I heard that a mate’s schoolgirl daughter was seeing a boy in Reading. Distances seem to be squashed these days. It didn’t really help matters that the Westbury to London Paddington line took me to within half a mile of Julie’s house on that trip up to see Chelsea play Leicester. As the train whizzed past Charvil, I peered out of the window with a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart.

In those days, my school mates rarely went to football, proper football. My pal Steve often used to go to see his Bristol City play on their nosedive through the divisions. He also watched many Frome Town games. Steve would have been with me at the Wellington game the previous Saturday, just as he is alongside me at Frome games forty years later. He is currently the club’s official historian. Another mate, Francis, saw his Liverpool team at Ashton Gate in 1980.  Another mate, Kev, went to see his Tottenham team around 1980 too, but that was it. I was one of a very few who used to go to league football. The Leicester City game would be my twenty-fourth Chelsea match. I didn’t have a part-time job in those distant days. I just saved my pennies to watch my team. Chelsea was my life.

Living over a hundred miles away, I could only afford a few games each season. From 1981/82, I started going up alone by train. The independence that I gained on those trips to London put me in good stead for further travelling adventures in the future. But in 1981/82 and 1982/83, I became closer to the club by subscribing to the club programme. I loved the small programmes of that era, nicely designed, they had a stylish look about them I thought. I used to love the arrival of the postman in those days. I have no idea why I stopped in 1983/84 when the programme became larger but lost a little of its style in my opinion.

My father would have dropped me at Westbury train station to catch an 8am train to The Smoke. It would arrive in Paddington at about 9.45am from memory. In those days, with no spare money and plenty of time to kill I usually walked over to Hyde Park and sat beside The Serpentine on a park bench – it became a superstition in 1981/82 – and I probably did the same on this occasion. Then a walk to Lancaster Gate tube and the journey down to Stamford Bridge. In those days, I knew nobody at Stamford Bridge, not a soul. Before the game, I bought the newly published “The Chelsea Story” by John Moynihan with money that my mother had given me. The book cost £5.95, a costly sum in those days. I watched the game in The Shed, my usual place towards the tea bar, but under the roof.

I am not honestly sure if I bought a programme on the day of the game. It cost 50p. I have a feeling I would have waited until I received one through the post.

Times were hard.

On viewing that same programme forty years later, I am reminded of the perilous financial predicament that we were in. Although Ken Bates had bought the club for “only a pound” in the Spring of 1982, we were still struggling to balance the books. On the rear cover of the programme, in a space reserved for sponsors, there is a stark message against a black, and blank, page :

“We’re known by the company we keep, we’d welcome your company on this full colour back page. For full details please contact the Club’s Marketing Department.”

It’s hard to believe I support the same club in 2022 where every square inch of the club’s body and soul is sold for profit.

The team was almost unchanged again, but with debutante Tony McAndrew replacing Clive Walker, although not by position. The game ended 1-1 with Micky Droy scoring for us in the fiftieth minute and then Gary Lineker equalising in the last five minutes. The gate was another respectable one of 14,127.

The old joke about the crowd changes being announced to the players at Stamford Bridge did appear in this case to be spot on.

I have one distinct memory from the game. I looked over to the Whitewall and the Middle and thought this :

“We may be in the Second Division with a slim chance of getting promotion, and this ground might look a third full but still around 15,000 supporters have gone out of their way to come and support the team today. There is something rather noble about that. It feels right that I am there.”

On the way back, I devoured the new book. I loved the introduction by athlete Seb Coe.

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing spilt mercury across a laboratory table.”

I was a quiet and world-shy teenager, but I remember a smile from within and me nodding in agreement, as if I was a footballing sage.

My diary for the day reports “probably one of the most boring games I have seen – a shame really after spending all that money.” There was talk of a party when I returned to Somerset although I am not sure where this was. My diary continues “enjoyed it, only slightly drunk, but soon sobered up.” It is probable that my father would have picked me up at the end of the night.

So there we have it. My twenty-fourth Chelsea game. My twenty-fourth Chelsea day. My Dad at the start of it. My Dad at the end of it. How I miss those times.

Forty Years Later.

The build-up to this game was way different. There was a drive to London with friends, a quick visit to Stamford Bridge to take some early scene-setting photographs, a spot of breakfast in the café and then my usual seat in the pub.

Outside Fulham Broadway, DJ had thrust a copy of “CFCUK” into my hands and I read a little of it in the café. While I waited for my food, I couldn’t help but notice the characters already sitting at tables. There was one loud voice, an American with the voice of a woman, sharing his thoughts a few tables away. Two English chaps close to me were deep in conversation and one appeared to be re-writing a script or manuscript of some description in between bites of a bacon sandwich. A group of younger folk were behind me, gregarious and chatty. The café owner, foreign by birth, my guess was Italian, bellowed orders and chivied his staff as if he was the conductor in an orchestra.

I devoured a piece in “CFCUK” by Walter Otton who wrote about his experiences of the Tottenham game which he watched in a pub after a tortuous day spent walking for miles and miles in the hinterlands of suburbia with friends. He detailed the people he observed while waiting for a train at Worcester Park, a station that I know well after parking at a mate’s near there for football between 1991 and 1993. I loved these words :

“To my right, I study a haunted young man with high cheekbones as he stares directly at his feet. He’s got the regretful face of man who last night had a vacancy sign up, but then he went and let the wrong person in.”

I messaged Walts to say how much I loved this. I had seen him briefly after the debacle at St. Mary’s on Tuesday.

I spent two-and-a-half hours in the cosy “Eight Bells” and I was surprised how quiet it all was at 11.30am. It took an hour to fully reach respectable figures. The Norwegians called in again, this time with an extra fan from Bergen, the wonderfully nicknamed Einstein. The Kent lads were close by, as were three young lads from Ilminster in Somerset who we had not seen before, but were dead chatty about the current malaise in the team. Steve from Salisbury appeared alongside Simon from Andover, another new face.

Andy and Sophie arrived and I spent some quality time at their table.

Andy and I raised a glass to “Ginger Terry.”

With a great deal of sadness, I learned on Thursday that Terry O’Callaghan had passed away that day. He was a lovely man, softly spoken, a true gent and was well-loved by those at Chelsea who knew him. I would bump into him at all sorts of odd, and far-flung, locations. He always stopped to say hello. Ironically, I first met Terry on a coach from Gothenberg in Sweden to Oslo in Norway alongside Andy for our match against Valerenga in 1999.

During the summer, I was shocked to hear of the passing of another of life’s good guys. I first met Henry Hughes Davies out in New York on a trip to see the New York Mets play a baseball game alongside around ten other Chelsea supporters. Unfortunately the game was rained-off but I remember how pleasant he was on that occasion and during the two or three other times I met him in “The Goose” with other US-based Chelsea fans. From London, Henry was killed in a road accident out in South-East Asia and it hit me hard.

RIP Terry.

RIP Henry.

I also, sadly, need to mention the passing of Depeche Mode member and life-long Chelsea supporter Andy Fletcher. During the summer, I attended a lecture by Chelsea Communications Director Steve Atkins at his former school in Warminster – he came across well – but the night was soured when, immediately after, I heard that “Fletch” had suffered a heart-attack and had passed away at the age of just sixty.

The music of Depeche Mode first thrilled me in 1982 – that year again – and has been a constant companion to me over the years. I have seen the band in 1993, 2001, 2006 and 2017.

RIP Fletch.

Andy, Sophie and I had a very enlightening “state of the nation” chat about Chelsea Football Club and other clubs.

How sometimes it can be a bit hard to get “up” for some games for example.

“I woke with the alarm at 5.45am this morning. I know exactly what you mean.”

How we have 22 million followers on Twitter yet we were outnumbered by Arsenal in Baku in 2019.

“They, Arsenal, are still the biggest club in London.”

How we only sold six-hundred for Dinamo Zagreb.

“Too early for me, for sure.”

How we might struggle to pack in 60,000 at a refurbished Stamford Bridge in light of Tottenham playing to capacity crowds at their new stadium.

“Saw some Tottenham at Fleet Services and also some at Putney Bridge tube, no doubt on their way to the Fulham game. Admittedly, there is the “wow” factor of a superb new stadium but their crowds have been constantly full-houses. They have a huge support in the home counties.”

How the pricing structure at West Ham is paying dividends.

“After a dodgy first season, they seem to have got it right. Full houses now, eh?”

How some Chelsea fans want Thomas Tuchel gone.

“But come on. We have only played five bloody games.”

How Sophie was looking for a spare for Crystal Palace in a few weeks.

“Might have one. Will let you know.”

We marched off to the tube station together and I spotted ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart chatting at Fulham Broadway.

I was inside with around fifteen minutes to go.

It was time to focus on the team.

Alas, a fleeting look at Billy Gilmour pre-match at Southampton on Tuesday would be the last that I would see of him in Chelsea colours. His permanent move to Brighton disappointed me. But at least this sad news was tempered by the fact that Armando Broja had signed a new multi-year deal. But, to our annoyance, Thomas Tuchel still went with the “after you Claude” false nine with Broja on the bench. A debut for Wesley Fofana in defence. We had all tried to remember if he had played against us in the 2021 FA Cup Final. I hoped for a more successful career for Wesley Fofana than Tony McAndrew. Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were both dropped and I was OK with that. It was generally accepted that in Southampton they were sinners, no saints.

No Jorginho, either.

A brave Tuchel?

Maybe.

Here we were :

Mendy

Fofana – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Gallagher – Cucarella

Sterling – Pulisic

I had to laugh when Clive appeared in a claret-colured Stone Roses T-Shirt. Both PD and I were wearing light blue T-Shirts; Paul, Lambretta, me, Paul & Shark.

“Bloody West Ham.”

“Jesus.”

I thought back to a photo that I had taken in the hotel bar looking out onto the forecourt earlier in the day. The plastic flowers on show there were shades of purple in light blue vases.

Good job, I’m not superstitious, cough, cough.

West Ham kicked off and a high ball was pumped forward. After four seconds, the new boy Fofana had his first touch as a Chelsea player, a strong header putting the ball back whence it came.

Alan : “I hope Fofana is more Kante than Drinkwater.”

Clive : “Drinkwater had one good season for Leicester.”

Chris : “I had one good season. Summer 1982.”

It wasn’t much of a first-half. And the atmosphere was very poor for a London derby.

The highlights?

How about the lowlight first?

Marc Cucarella failed to beat the first man on two early corners down in Parkyville.

“Bloody shite, should be fined for that. No excuses.”

Despite our almost total domination of possession – it was absolutely all us in the first fifteen minutes – West Ham packed their defence solid and we soon seemed to look flat.

There was a shimmying run from Raheem Sterling into the box but the resulting corner was a Cucarella special.

Reece James out on the right fizzed a low ball into the danger area, pinball ensued, but Christian Pulisic’ effort was blocked for another corner.

Finally, we were treated to a flowing move with passes hitting runners into space.

Then, a low shot from Mateo Kovacic but he drove the ball just wide.

It wasn’t as bad as Southampton, but it was all pretty dire stuff.

I suspect that the first-half against Leicester City in 1982 was no better.

At the half-time break, the three of us posed in our claret and blue shirts, the shame.

For the record, during the first-half Kurt Zouma was neither clapped nor booed. It was if he had never played for us.

The second-half begun with a still woeful atmosphere in the stadium. I was surprised how quiet the three thousand West Ham fans were. I wasn’t surprised how quiet we were.

There was a clash between James and Michail Antonio; both booked. This stirred some emotions within the stadium.

At last, the atmosphere improved and it felt like a proper game of football rather than some computer-generated monstrosity.

There was a very loud and piercing “Amazing Grace” :

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

Exactly on the hour, Tuchel changed it around.

Armando Broja for Gallagher.

Mason Mount for Pulisic.

At the Shed End, a corner to West Ham.

Chris : “You know what’s coming.”

It was hoofed away by Reece James.

A second corner was fisted high and away by Mendy. The ball was then volleyed back at goal by Jarrod Bowen. This effort from distance was nervously palmed away by Mendy again. This was the first real scare for us, but also the only meaningful shot on target for either side. However, from the corner that followed, there was an almighty scramble with Mendy not exactly covering himself in glory. His jump and save from under the bar only kept the ball alive. The ball landed at the feet of a West Ham player who prodded the ball back into the six-yard box. That man Antonio slammed it in from close range.

Fackinell.

Thomas Tuchel’s doubters were sharpening their pencils.

The new man Broja was soon sniffing inside the box, and I was purring with his intent. We now had a natural striker up front, a physical presence, a predator. Whereas Sterling was like an eel, slithering into space, Broja was shark-like, ready to snap at anything.

On seventy-two minutes, another double-switch.

Kai Havertz for Kovacic.

Chilwell for Cucarella.

The noise levels were ever-increasing now. We prayed for an equaliser.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Havertz almost had an immediate impact, trying to reach a through-ball but Lucasz Fabianski foiled him with a brave challenge on the edge of the six-yard box.

Just after, a lofted chip from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva from deep found the on-rushing Chilwell down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. His head beat the rather stunted leap of two defenders and the ball dropped nicely for him to run onto. In the blink of an eye, he had touched the ball through the legs of a star-jumping Fabianski and I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball continued over the line.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Chilwell’s leap was perfect for me.

Snap, snap, snap.

He celebrated with Broja but I was impressed that nobody else joined in. There was business to be done. Top marks.

This was a real game now and the Chelsea hordes had now found their voices.

With four minutes to go, a huge scare and a massive “get out of jail card.”

Alan and I were actually mired in the middle of a pun fest.

Alan : “Surprised Cornet ain’t wearing number 99.”

Chris : “That’s a flaky comment.”

Alan : “Saucy.”

Chris : “You got hundreds and thousands of these, mate?”

With that, a cross from the West Ham left found the leap of that man Cornet but his free header hit the post.

Fackinell.

The game continued.

Broja was up against Vladimir Coufal down below us. He teased and cajoled the West Ham defender before finding some space with some fine control. His pass to Chilwell on the overlap was perfect. The ball was drilled into a packed box. Havertz was waiting to pounce.

BOSH.

Chelsea 2 West Ham 1.

GET IN.

I caught the celebrations on film too. Havertz brought his finger up to his mouth, no doubt a reaction to some doubters among the Chelsea support. I found it a little odd, a little disrespectful.

Was he right to do so?

Answers on a postcard.

But, directly after, West Ham broke and I watched aghast. This all happened so quickly. Mendy rushed out, went down, the ball ran to Cornet. He lashed it home.

Fackinell.

West Ham screamed :

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Back to 2-2, bloody hell.

But then, a delay, and it slowly became apparent that VAR was being summonsed. Yet again, the spectators in the stadium – no commentary for us of course, as if it needs to be stated – seemed to be the last to know what on Earth was happening.

Yep, VAR.

The referee Andrew Madley eventually walked over to the pitch-side monitor. I didn’t like the way that he was being hounded by players of both teams.

After an age – but with each passing second, I felt more positive – he signalled “no goal.”

I was relieved but honestly did not feel like celebrating.

Bollocks to VAR.

Elsewhere, the Chelsea support was howling :

“YOU’RE NOT SINGING ANYMORE.”

We hung on.

This wasn’t a great game of football, but we kept going which is all you can ask for. The stupor of the first-half gave way to a far more entertaining spectacle in the second-half as we loosened the shackles and played, what I am going to term, a more emotional type of football.

There were relieved smiles at the end, but only at the end.

I am not going to Zagreb, but Alan is going. He is one of the six-hundred. As he wriggled past me, I said.

“Have a great time in Croatia. You’d best split.”

He groaned.

Immediately after the game, we received texts from others…

It looked like we got away with murder.

Next up for me, our home away from home.

Little old Fulham.

See you there.

Tales From A Muggy Night

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 August 2022.

An away trip to Southampton early this season meant that we were repeating three of the last four away games of the last campaign in the first three matches of the current one.

Last season we lost to Everton 1-0; this season we beat them 1-0.

Last season we beat Leeds United 3-0; this season they beat us 3-0.

Last season we beat Southampton 6-0; surely not?

The Famous Five left Melksham at around 3.15pm. I was driving again, and my fellow passengers were PD, Parky, Sir Les and Glenn the birthday boy, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday a day before he was to begin a new job.

Southampton away is a breeze. At around 5pm, I was parked up in the small car park outside the city’s Central train station.

The evening heat surprised me.

“It’s nice out” I said.

“It is yes, but put it away, someone will see it” replied Parky.

The others dashed off to “Yates” for a pre-match tipple while I decided to grab a bite to eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. There were a couple of familiar Chelsea faces in there – “alright, boys?” – and I soon sat down for a pizza. This is standard for me. I reckon we could play in Kazakhstan, Bolivia or Zimbabwe and I’d still order a pre-match pizza.

I joined up with the lads in the pub, but none of us were keen to stay for any longer. There was a quick “hello goodbye” to a few troops before we set off to walk the twenty minutes or so to the stadium. The three Norwegians – four actually, I neglected to mention Jon in the Leicester City report – had been spotted in the pub. A couple of local lads were there too.

“Good trip down, Chris?”

“Oh yeah, easy.”

“Did Les come with you?”

“Yeah mate. But with PD in the passenger seat and Les sat behind him, the car kept veering to the left. It took me three attempts to get out of Melksham.”

We were down at the stadium as early as 6.15pm. It felt odd being there so early. I had to sort out a ticket for Young Jake, who none of us had seen for ages. We thought that his last game with us was the Norwich City FA Cup game at Carrow Road in 2018. There was time to chill out a little and relax. I shot off to take a few shots of the stadium.

“It’s no San Siro but surely there’s the chance to take a few decent photographs?” I thought to myself.

There wasn’t.

St. Mary’s is as bland as bland can be.

Talking of the San Siro, we – PD, Parky and I – are booked to head over in October, but we will be staying in Turin for three nights and will be joined by Dave who now lives near Nice and was last seen before the Tottenham away game late in 2018. I will be driving in to Milan on the day of the game. A version of “The Italian Job” perhaps? In a Fiat Chucklecento maybe? No, too much of a tight fit for four of us. Why Turin? When I returned home from Chelsea on Saturday night, it seemed that all the cheap flights to Milan had gone. The accommodation looked expensive too. I have no qualms about returning to Turin once again; it’s my favourite Italian city and far more interesting that Milan. As for the other Champions League aways, we are not going to Zagreb but I suspect that a trip to Salzburg is likely.

This was my second game in two days. On the Bank Holiday Monday, I drove to Bath to see Frome Town wallop local neighbours Larkhall Athletic 4-0. With the upcoming game against West Ham now taking place on Saturday, I am forced to miss Frome’s home FA Cup tie against Tiverton Town.

Now is a good time to slip into the conversation my second memory of the 1982/83 season. On Saturday 28 August, Chelsea opened up our fourth consecutive season in the old Second Division with an away game at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium. Did I go? No. I was still at school and would only go to four games that season, the same as in the previous campaign. On that particular afternoon, Frome Town got my attention as I watched a 0-0 home draw with Wellington in the old Western League – “a terrible game” says my diary – but I would have been no doubt elated with a 1-0 win.

Chelsea finished mid-table in 1981/82 and only the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would have hoped that we would make a sustained promotion push in 1982/83. Our only real outlay throughout the summer had been the almost laughable acquisition of much-travelled Bryan “Pop” Robson, who was thirty-six when we bought him. I for one, was not impressed.

The team that day?

Steve Francis in goal. Gary Locke and Chris Hutchings the full backs. Micky Nutton and Micky Droy as centre-backs. Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery in midfield. Colin Lee, Clive Walker and Pop Robson upfront, with Paul Canoville as a substitute.

Interestingly, Pates, Chivers, Bumstead and Canoville are currently employed by Chelsea to this day as match-day hosts in the corporate areas.

Even more interestingly, my friend Daryl spotted Pop Robson near Red Square before the Champions League Final in 2008, presumably on some junket with a UEFA sponsor.

Our match winner forty years ago?

Bryan “Pop” Robson.

I was to eat my words, for one game at least.

The gate was 8,124, and I am sure that around half would have been Chelsea.

Back to 2022.

Jake soon arrived and there was the chance to chat to a few friends from near and far. The “Ticket Man” arrived on schedule at 7pm and we were in the stadium just after. Down in the darkened but spacious concourse, more chit-chat with some and a few “nods” to others. With plenty of time to kick-off, I swapped tickets with PD and sat next to Glenn towards the back of the away section, right behind the goal. I usually watch from down low so this made a nice change.

Glenn is often with us at Southampton. There were a few games at The Dell and he was also with us in August 2001 when we opened up the new stadium with a 1-0 win. I have seen all of our fourteen games against the Saints at St. Mary’s – minus the COVID ones – and I kept saying to the lads “we’ve only lost once down here, the Benitez spell in 2013.”

As we waited for the game to start, there were a few half-hearted flames in front of the stand to our left. A brass band appeared, walking towards us, left to right, and they played “Oh When The Saints” as a large banner surfed along from right to left.

I turned to Glenn and said “I always remember a game here in 1994 when you were excited about starting a chant in the away end.”

We were in the seats along the side and Glenn began bellowing “Dennis plays for England” which the rest of the Chelsea support joined in with. Glenn’s recollection was that Wisey scored a late winner. Looking back, it was actually Paul Furlong on eighty-nine minutes. Perhaps Glenn had mentally confused the two moments.

To my surprise, Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu were among the named substitutes.

The team drew a few shocked reactions.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Mount

Ziyech – Sterling – Havertz

No Reece James, no Trevoh Chalibah, we presumed injured.

The teams entered. As at Leeds United, we played in dark blue socks and I wondered why. Surely we have some royal blue socks knocking about somewhere. The home team’s kit was a shocker. Hummel brought out some absolute killers back in the ‘eighties and Saints even had their copy of the half-and-half Denmark kit. This current shirt – predominantly white – misses by a mile. The shirt of the Keegan era would surely have looked better; predominantly red with a broad white central stripe rather than the current version. I wasn’t even sure I liked the white socks either. Very odd.

The home areas took ages to fill up and there were quite a few empty seats dotted around. I saw no unused seats in our allocation of around three thousand. We took a while to get going but the songs soon boomed around the away end.

It was a muggy night in the Northam Stand.

As is so often the case with away matches in Southampton, the home team enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. We then began to get a foothold on the game. The pitch, usually excellent, was worn in many places, as if it was a mid-season game.

Our chances, or half-chances, started to stack up. Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot right at the Saints ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu. A chance for Hakim Ziyech came and went. Sterling looked as lively as any player on the pitch and on twenty-three minutes, a lovely move down our left involving first Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount set up the central striker. Sterling appeared to lose control of the ball on the six-yard box but was the first to react as it spun loose. He stabbed the ball in and wheeled away in delight.

Phew.

I suspect that this is just the sort of goal that is practised ad infinitum on the practice pitches at Cobham; all movement, all together.

The away crowd soon responded.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

Not long after, Ziyech played in Havertz in the inside-left position. He got his shot in from an angle but the shot was hit right at the Saints keeper.

From that moment, our play drifted.

Just five minutes after we had scored, Dave decided to whack the ball out for a corner rather than play it back to Edouard Mendy to deal with. At the time, I understood that call.

What were we always told at school?

“Safety first.”

Sadly, the resulting corner fell to an unmarked Southampton player – Romeo Lavia – who was loitering with intent outside the box. He took one touch and lashed it home. Glenn was raging. Only a few minutes earlier he had spotted two Saints players unmarked at the back stick at a previous corner.

Of course the home fans roared.

Our play deteriorated as the home team became stronger. I lost count of the number of passes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek misdirected. One run out of defence by him seemed to be in slow motion.

“Ross Barkley is a big unit but even he had a burst of pace” I moaned to Glenn. “Ruben makes Micky Fillery look quick.”

Our midfield in general – without a midfield general – looked so poor. Dave was caught out of position on a couple of occasions. We had no bite. The only plus point was watching Thiago Silva scoop a few balls up and over the heads of the advancing opposition out to the right wing. I could watch that man play football for hours.

Glenn was getting frustrated further : “no tackles!”

There was an awful moment when I thought that I had been transported back to the early nineties under Ian Porterfield when there seemed to be a never-ending sequence of head tennis on the halfway line. This was rotten football.

With the home support energised, it turned into a temporary Pompey Hate Fest. Mason Mount was deemed public enemy number one.

With the half-time whistle approaching – “blow up ref, let’s regroup at the break” – a laughably poor attempt at a tackle by Jorginho failed dismally and Southampton advanced with speed and purpose. As the move progressed I repeatedly shouted two words :

“Too easy! Too easy! Too easy!”

The ball was smashed home after a fine move by Adam Armstrong.

Too easy.

Two-one to Southampton.

“Oh When The Saints” boomed around the home areas.

Fackinell.

The referee blew for half-time almost immediately.

I turned to Glenn at the break : “this has been a timid performance.”

We both wanted Tuchel to bring on Armando Broja for the miss-firing Havertz. Towards the end of the half-time break, with the grass getting an extra dose of water from the sprinklers, we spotted Tuchel chatting with Mateo Kovacic on the pitch. The manager then sat alone on the bench for a number of minutes.

I just found all of this a bit odd.

One presumes that he had said enough to the players in five minutes and didn’t need ten. Personally, I would have taken fifteen.

“Oh, before you go back out on that pitch, just be aware that there are supporters out there who have travelled down from the north of England, from the Midlands, from East Anglia for tonight’s game and they won’t get home until about 2am in the morning but will need to be up again for work within a few hours, knackered, and they will do it all again and again and again…”

I saw him studying some sheets in a folder.

It almost raised a wry smile.

“Never mind the first-half stats, pal, just fire some fucks into them.”

No real surprises, Tuchel replaced Loftus-Cheek with Kovacic.

“Kovacic, Our Croatian Man…”

Soon into the second-half, Southampton broke down our right and a shot from close in was blocked on the line by Cucarella. Mendy made a fine reaction save to tip over the follow-up effort.

The home fans really turned up the heat on Mason.

“You skate bastard. You skate bastard.”

“Mason Mount, we fucking hate you.”

We struggled to get things moving. Oh for a playmaker, oh for a Cesc Fabregas.

On the hour, there was a loud, proud and defiant “Carefree” from us followed by derisory applause from the home fans.

Sadly, our play stagnated further. I saw little movement off the ball and the mood in the away end was falling fast.

With twenty minutes or so left it was all change, three substitutions :

Ben Chilwell for Jorginho.

Armando Broja for Dave.

Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

I expected a ripple of applause for Broja from the home fans; there was nothing, the ungrateful sods.

We all revelled in the great rush into space from Broja and his strength in twisting and turning past two players. He left them for dead before sending in a cross. This augured well for the rest of the game or so we hoped. In reality, despite his more aggressive movement and enthusiasm, his only other noticeable action involved a header near a post that never looked like troubling the ‘keeper. Kovacic added a little burst of energy too, but this soon petered out as moves slowed down and died. Pulisic looked remote and uninterested wide on the right. My recollection is of him hardly bothering to go past players, but my photographs would prove otherwise. How Ziyech stayed on all game is a mystery.

The minutes ticked by.

From a corner, Silva was in the right place at the right time. The ball hit him on the line.

I fully expected us to lose another goal.

3-1 would not have flattered them.

In a scene that was reminiscent of the Leicester game, Mendy appeared in the opposing box for a late corner or two.

When the ball was hoofed up field, one of my photographs completely captured our night, with Cucarella nervously falling to head the ball away, being pressured by a Saints attacker, the goal open and vulnerable.

I spent some of the last minutes of the game watching that fucking dachshund on the “Vitality” advertising boards trot around the stadium at roughly the same pace that our team had been doing all match.

The final whistle blew.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

We got what we deserved, no doubt.

A posse of young Southampton fans to our right spent many a minute goading us as we waited to drift away into the night. I was pragmatic about it.

“Bollocks. Let them enjoy themselves, the little twerps.”

Some other Chelsea supporters were a little more hostile.

It was all a pantomime show to me.

In days gone by, there is no doubt that Chelsea would not have taken such a defeat well. Recriminations would have been enacted outside the stadium as fans would have sought revenge.

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

We all met up outside and slowly trudged back to the car. That walk always seems twice as long when we lose.

There was a small scale altercation.

A mouthy young Southampton fan wearing the hugely odd combination of a bar scarf and a Stone Island sweatshirt was heard to shout “Chelsea Rent Boys.” This was like a red rag to a bull to one or two in our support. The youngster escaped into the night with a warning.

All five of us were at a low ebb. There really were no positives from the night. Only two or three players had average performances.

On a muggy night in Southampton, we were the mugs.

We stopped off at the always-busy “McDonalds” at the bottom end of the A36 at about 10.30pm. A couple of lads enjoyed a burger. I downed the inevitable coffee. Outside, the air still warm, I got a little philosophical.

“We are so unused to defeats. Over the last twenty years, we have had a magnificent ride. It’s all been massively good fun. But remember that ninety per cent of people who go to football in this country have no hope of seeing their team win anything. That’s quite something really. That so many go just for the love of their team. Quite admirable really. Not saying we should not get concerned about defeats, but maybe we just need to re-focus our targets.”

That reset button might have to be adjusted again over the next few weeks.

The immediate reaction out there in Chelsea Land was split. Some want Tuchel gone. Some want to persevere.

Me?

I’m fucking looking forward to the San Siro in October I know that.

See you against West Ham.

Tales From A Typical Day At The Office

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 27 August 2022.

There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.

I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.

I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.

Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.

As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.

Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.

As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.

“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”

On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.

“Milan and Glasgow please.”

With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.

Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.

Bloody magnificent.

We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?

Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.

In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.

At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.

The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.

“Some five-a-side team, this.”

The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.

“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”

“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”

It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.

The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.

I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”

At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.

In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.

There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.

There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.

We’re lucky people.

I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.

I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.

I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.

Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.

I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.

There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.

As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :

“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”

No smiley face.

Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.

I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,

The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.

“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”

Two years later Colin found out.

I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.

We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.

Thanks boys.

It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.

“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”

Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.

Top class.

We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.

Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.

So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.

The Famous Four.

A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.

A typical day at the office.

Let’s go to work.

On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.

Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.

On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.

What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?

Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.

In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.

Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.

We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.

I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.

On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress –  had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.

Silly boy.

I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.

Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.

On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.

Two shots. Oh boy.

Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.

This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.

I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.

At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.

“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”

One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal  “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”

As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.

Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.

After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.

The crowd roared.

One-nil to Chelsea.

At last Stamford Bridge boomed.

“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”

Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.

I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.

A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.

Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.

Chelsea two-up.

Wow.

With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.

That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.

This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.

There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.

I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.

Two substitutions :

Mateo for Jorginho.

Christian for Raheem.

These freshened things up nicely.

Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.

The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.

Ben for Marc.

With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.

Phew.

Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.

I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.

Gallery

Chelsea Norway

1982/1983

Tales From The Damned United

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2022.

We had to wait around eighteen years to attend a league game at Elland Road and we were then able to visit it twice in just shy of fifteen weeks.

Our last away game of 2021/22 and our second away match of 2022/23?

OK, so be it.

Let’s go to work.

In May, it was all rather rushed; a hard slog on the motorways of England after a half-day at work, and a quick meet-up at the pub before disappearing inside to witness a pretty decent night of football in front of the Leeds hordes.

This time was a little more relaxed. I was up at 5.45am and collected PD at 7am and then LP at around 7.20am. I stopped twice en route but arrived in the car park of “The Drysalters” on the Leeds ring road at 11.15am. The 240 miles had been covered in just four hours of driving. I was happy with that. The pub was allegedly scheduled to open at midday but it was already serving pints when we arrived. I soon spotted a couple of Chelsea acquaintances. Within a short time, the place was mobbed with both home and away supporters. It felt odd to be back so soon after the recent visit. Pints – double pints for the drinkers – were purchased and the weather outside was pleasant. Deano – from West Yorkshire, now Lancashire, but steadfastly Chelsea – soon arrived and joined us. I asked a copper to take a photo of us together.

“That’s ‘Crimewatch’ sorted” laughed Parky.

An Uber cab drew up outside and there was a bit of a commotion.

“Is that your pizza just arrived” I asked the two policemen.

Soon, Goggles from the Fulham branch arrived on the pavement.

“Alright Paul? Alright Parky?”

I still found it a little odd that this once “home fans only” pub now welcomed away fans, and that Chelsea songs were being heartily sung by a few. It wasn’t quite as noisy as in May though. The times have certainly changed over the last twenty years. Looking back to that game in May, I remembered the only trouble that we had encountered took place at Woolley Edge Services on the M1 after the game. Parky and I were drying our hands after using the facilities when we felt a splash of cold water directed at us from behind. Evidently, a Leeds fan must have spotted Parky’s little Chelsea badge on his polo shirt and had decided to take retribution after his team’s loss against a dreaded enemy.

Yeah, how times have changed.

Since my last Chelsea game against Tottenham last Sunday, I had seen two Frome Town games. There was a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Willand Rovers in the league on Tuesday followed by a fine 3-0 away win at Buckland Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on the Saturday. The two footballing journeys of the weekend to Devon and West Yorkshire would total 650 miles – just over 1,000km for those reading in Ireland, the rest of Europe and Canada – and it is doubtful that I have ever driven further for two football games on consecutive days.

In May, I didn’t have time to attempt much of a look at Elland Road but, with tons of time to spare on this occasion, I set off with Deano at about 12.30pm. Deciding that the queues in the boozer were too long, PD and LP soon caught up with us. I walked past the stadium, past some stalls – there was already a healthy pre-match buzz – and up a footpath to a vantage point that looks down on the whole area.

Before a game in 1995/96, I had been drinking in the middle of Leeds with my Rotherham United mate Ian and his Leeds United pal from school days. We took a cab to Beeston and I remembered the short walk down that footpath, past the Old Peacock pub, and the grand old view that it afforded. I wanted to recreate a photo that I took before that game.

The walk up to Beeston was a good cardio-vascular workout for me. Once at the top, I positioned myself along a terraced street with the white steel roof supports of the huge East Stand in the distance. Down below, fans were winding their way down the footpath to the busy roads below. I took plenty of photographs. I was pleased with this. It set the scene nicely. Elland Road is a good three miles out of the busy city centre, and the vista afforded me from Beeston included lots and lots of greenery. Unlike stereotypical northern grounds such as Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, this stadium was never hemmed in among tight terraced streets. Beginning life as Leeds City, Leeds United then came to life in 1919 and have always played at Elland Road. It was an “out of town” ground before such stadia recently become de rigueur.

An odd fact; I always used to think that the home end – now the Don Revie Stand – from the ‘seventies and onwards was simply known as “The Kop” but only recently, the past few years, realised that it was known locally as The Gelderd End.

They love those classic white, blue and yellow bar scarves at Elland Road. They also love the iconic Admiral shirt from the mid-‘seventies. I must have seen a fair few before the game in May and I spotted many on this visit too.

Around Elland Road, street side electric boxes have been painted in various shades of white, yellow and blue depicting many of the club’s moments by local artist Andy McVeigh. Maybe that can be next season’s photo project.

I bumped into Deano outside the East Stand. This was once the largest capacity club stand in the UK, built during the 1992/93 season for the then champions, only for it to be overtaken by the other United along the other end of the M62 soon after. It holds some 17,000. I remember that at the 1995 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Tottenham (4-1), there were Everton fans on three sides of the ground with all the Tottenham lot in the one stand.

I digress.

As fate would have it, I was sat – stood – in virtually the same place as in May. Last time, I was in seat 48 of the front row of the upper level of the main stand, the John Charles Stand. This time, I was in seat 50 of the same row. There was an empty seat so PD joined us.

The front five : Davidson, Phillips, Daniels, Parkins, Axon.

The sun was out and those opposite in the Jack Charlton Stand – the East Stand, the former Lowfields Stand and terrace, the family stand in the lower tier – must have felt that they were being baked alive. Everything was cool in the shadows of the away section.

Thomas Tuchel, unable to call on N’Golo Kante, selected the following team :

Mendy

James – Silva – Koulibaly

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher – Cucarella

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

We would again be using falsies up front and it was all or bust.

Leeds? It pains me that I didn’t recognise many of the home team. Such is my fading awareness of football outside of SW6 these days that my knowledge of opponents’ teams is scant.

I bet I can name most of that 1991/92 team though.

From memory…

John Lukic in goal.

Mel Sterland at right-back, Tony Dorigo at left.

Chris Whyte in the middle. Who was the other centre-back? Dunno.

The famous midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed, God rest his soul.

Upfront, Brian Deane and Lee Chapman.

With Eric Cantona as a late addition.

Who was that bloody centre-back? No, can’t remember.

Ah, it has come to me. Chris Fairclough.

I am pretty sure that their squad was the smallest-ever to win a league title. And it was also the last team to lift the Football League version.

Dear reader : football did not start in 1992/93.

Back to 2022/23, thirty years on.

The teams lined-up.

“Marching On Together” boomed.

Chelsea were wearing navy socks. Answers on a postcard.

It was both a lively and a scrappy start to the game. We were attacking the old Kop, once the home of the most vociferous section of the Leeds support, but now playing second fiddle to the rabid hard-core to our right in the South Stand, or rather the Norman Hunter Stand. Raheem Sterling went close early on after good link-up play. Then two chances for the home team, Daniel James and Jack Harrison getting shots in on goal.

I am not convinced that we will ever see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a wing-back, but we found him coming into the box on an angle. Unfortunately, he dallied too long and the space evaporated and he was soon confronted by three Leeds defenders who halted his progress.

The noise from both sections of the crowd was impressive.

“Dambusters” was aired in the John Charles Stand.

“Father’s Gun” countered in the Norman Hunter Stand.

Is there much of a rivalry these days? The problem is that we just haven’t played them enough in the past twenty years for that classic, almost legendary, rivalry to have held firm all of the way through those years. It was bubbling along nicely in the ‘nineties when both clubs were jousting at the top table, but Leeds then got themselves relegated.

Let’s say it’s a dormant rivalry, awaiting to explode, awaiting ignition. The battles off the pitch kept the rivalry at such an intense level in past times. Those lads who stood toe to toe in the good old bad old days are probably grandfathers now and not involved. The new breed is aware of the history, but there is simply no recent history.

Leeds were full of energy and closed us down as soon as we had the merest sniff of the ball.

I was celebrating wildly on a quarter of an hour when Sterling slotted home after a pass from Cucarella but the goal was called back for off-side. I felt a proper divvy. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

On twenty minutes, a fine move ended with Mason Mount poking a shot at the Leeds goal but their ‘keeper Illan Meslier reacted well to keep it out.

We were edging possession but were not creating a great deal. I thought that Conor Gallagher was possibly trying too hard to impress and he found it difficult to knit things together. It did not help that Jorginho alongside him seemed to be slowing things down as soon as we sensed a break. There was one moment when he received the ball just inside our half with no Leeds player ahead of him for a good five yards. On receiving the ball, he reverted to type with that cradling of the ball and a slow movement to turn towards his defence and playing the ball back. Safety first was always his mantra.

“Attack you fucker.”

Koulibaly seemed to be rather discombobulated at times. He was bamboozled with the quick turn of pace from an unknown Leeds attacker and grabbed the player’s shirt in desperation. He was suitably booked.

“Embarassing.”

Then, a fucking calamity.

A Thiago Silva back-pass to Edouard Mendy. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now. There was a dither. He lost possession when an attempt to dummy the Leeds attacker Brenden Aaronson backfired and the ball was thumped into an empty net from mere inches.

Fucksake.

Mendy’s frustration was mirrored by that of ours. And then some. We have seen this before, right? And we have all commented before.

“Kick it away! Safety first! Get rid!”

As the scorer wheeled away in ecstasy, my eyes were unavoidably drawn to the scene to my right in the South Stand. It was madness. In all my times of going to football, I can never remember seeing such a reaction to any goal being played out in front of me. Bodies were falling in every direction. Limbs everywhere. Screams. Ecstasy. Complete madness.

It was – actually – despite the horrible sinking feeling of conceding a killer first goal a magnificent sight.

A horribly magnificent sight.

Fackinell.

Shockingly, just two minutes later, we conceded a second goal. A whipped-in free-kick from the Leeds left found the perfect leap from Rodrigo. His bullet header found the back of the net with ease.

Fuck.

There was another predictable riot in the South Stand.

Limbs again. I drew my camera and reluctantly took a photograph or two; sometimes, a moment simply has to be captured. Ugh.

Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. Some Chelsea supporters in the lower tier, I noticed, left and did not return.

“Thanks then…”

I turned to Parky.

“Mountain to climb.”

We didn’t create much in the rest of the half, a Cucarella effort barely troubling the Leeds custodian.

Only Sterling was a half-success. Havertz and Mount were so quiet.

As the second-half began, there was a change to the system but this only became apparent after a while. We played with a four at the back. A nice piece of skill from Loftus-Cheek in front of us allowed a Cucarella effort on goal and we hoped for an upturn in our play. Yes, we dominated possession but didn’t really create too much. On the two occasions that we were in on goal, one on one, we not only misfired but both chances were offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, changes.

Christian Pulisic for Gallagher.

Hakim Ziyerch for Jorginho.

We now had Pulisic, Ziyech and Sterling to run and twist their way into dangerous positions. In theory. This never looked like a decent game plan to this casual observer. We needed a focal point, a Broja.

Pah. What do I know?

A low shot from James was turned around his post by Meslier.

We continued to dominate but Leeds gave us no time to develop anything worthwhile. Our jousting thrusts needed to be augmented by an occasional hammer at the heart of the defence. But our artillery was without suitable weaponry. A towering leap by Koulibaly – occasionally excellent blocks making up for his malfunctioning sat nav – from a corner was easily claimed by Meslier.

Our play stagnated. Leeds never stopped running.

It was to get worse. A rapid break down their left and a cross from James, and Harrison picked up the pieces.

The ground exploded again.

May : Leeds United 0 Chelsea 3.

August : Leeds United 3 Chelsea 0.

Yet more Chelsea fans drifted away.

Earlier, we had goaded the home fans with “you’ve only got one song” but this was an empty sentiment.

We were being out sung, and how.

“We are Leeds. And we’re proud of you.”

“All Leeds aren’t we?”

“Marching on together.”

“And shoot the Chelsea scum.”

At times, the noise was electric.

It was bloody horrible. Here I was, stood exposed in the front row of the top section of the away end in full view of the tormenting home support. Loads of Chelsea had drifted away as the game progressed. Gaps appeared in the seats.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I stood silent. We had no answer. Our pants were being pulled down here.

I looked over at the three thousand in the South Stand – where I once stood when it was the away section in 2001 – and I could not help but notice that virtually all were in their twenties, virtually all were lads – by design? who knows? –  and all were up for it. We do not have a section like that at Chelsea and haven’t had one for decades.

And we were fair game. We had no real response to the piss-taking. We were being schooled both on and off the pitch. This was truly horrific.

I’ve attended games where we have been gubbed before – the 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in Lampard’s first game was particularly painful, Daniel James involved then too – but this one felt like one of the worst.

A Cucarella block averted a fourth after an effort on goal from Rodrigo. If anything, the noise increased further with the Kop now being heard too.

Ben Chilwell replaced Mount.

Then, a second yellow for Koulibaly.

Off he went.

Bollocks.

Azpilicueta for Sterling.

I had lost interest by then. I just wanted to get back to my car. I wanted to scoff that waiting Ginster’s Cornish Pasty. I wanted out.

At the final whistle, relief.

I chatted to a few friends close by, and we all agreed about the amazing antics and booming noise from the home fans.

Grudging respect.

This, though, was a deafeningly poor show from us.

So much for us playing with falsies up front. We just looked like tits.

Tales From Our House

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 14 August 2022.

Without any delay, let’s get something out of the way early on. Everyone would have taken a draw from our home match with Tottenham before the game started, right?

Right.

I must have spoken to fifty or more fellow Chelsea fans before the match and all bar two – Mike from New York and King Kenny from West London – agreed with my thoughts.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Mike, to be fair, didn’t exactly say we’d win but merely answered my statement with a “why not a win?” but Kenny said he fancied us for three points.

We may be Chelsea fans – supporters – but we are also realists. Our play against Everton the previous weekend was off-kilter, a struggle. Tottenham had started the season with a flying win.

“As long as we don’t lose” I kept saying.

I also kept mentioning that our only league defeat at home to Tottenham since early in 1990 took place in the Spring of 2018 – April Fool’s Day, I kid you not – with Antonio Conte in charge of us.

For it to happen again with the same man involved would be horrific.

This was a typical pre-match and one that I won’t hinder you with for long.

There was an early morning start at 6.45am even though the kick-off was at 4.30pm. There then followed a heady spell twixt car and bar with friends from near – PD, four miles – and far – Pete, almost five thousand miles – before I settled into my seat in the Matthew Harding Upper.

My God the heat was ridiculous. On my walk to Stamford Bridge at around 10am, I made sure that I crossed over from the sunny side of the North End Road to avoid the sweltering heat. England’s green and pleasant land had recently been scorched and the temperatures being predicted in London bordered on the scary.

Even more scary was the sight of me in some linen shorts. Thankfully no photographic evidence exists; you are spared.

I loved the “Chelsea Football Club” lettering on the East Stand, mirroring that of the old Leitch stand’s lettering from all those years ago. There is a similar copy on the wall between The Shed and West Lower.

In the pub – “The Eight Bells”, we are creatures of habit – there was a gathering of the clans and some typically boisterous chit chat. Talk veered from memories of last season to thoughts of our chances in 2022/23. I aired a few opinions.

“I reckon we’ll finish between third and fifth.”

“Will be bloody good to see the stadium at full capacity again.”

“Not sure if Tuchel really likes aggressive box to box players like Gallagher.”

“He loves his legion of scurrying and slight attackers. Not so sure he wants a more robust spearhead like Broja.”

The pub became packed and there was a hefty overspill outside. Thankfully, a large fan circulated cold air above our heads. I overdosed on Diet Coke.

The game against Tottenham would mark our first appearance this season in the latest Nike kit. Again, from a long way off, it looks reasonable, though the collar is nasty. I don’t mind the light blue band halfway up the socks, but it would have been ideal to have a similarly thick white stripe down the shorts. None of us tend to buy replica shirts of course.

“Kids and tourists.”

But PD took a fancy to the alleged third kit that has been doing the rounds.

“What colour is it?” asked Kim.

“Muted beige” I replied.

“Muted beige” repeated Parky “I like that.”

“Like our play at Goodison last Saturday” I muttered.

At around 2pm, we were visited by three or four of London’s constabulary. The OB stay out of our way all season down in deepest Fulham but usually appear for a few minutes against Tottenham and West Ham to check on things. Make of that what you will. One policeman in full regalia was holding court on the next table and I heard him proudly state “now your oligarch has gone, your boys are going to struggle this season.”

He was roundly booed.

“Go on, hop it mate. You’ve outstayed your welcome” I said as he sidled past us.

He was Arsenal apparently. He smiled and exited stage left.

We left for the game at 3.30pm.

PD, Parky, Andy, Sophie and little old me made our way to Putney Bridge tube station and all was well with the world. The bright sunlight and strong shadows of the earlier part of the day had subsided. But everything was still sultry and humid.

This was another two game weekend for me. On Saturday afternoon, a few friends and I assembled to see Frome Town play Evesham United in a first league game of the season. A ninetieth minute winner had given the home town Robins a well-deserved 1-0 win in front of a slightly disappointing crowd of 359.

The weather in Somerset had been red hot. The temperature in London didn’t feel quite so intimidating.

There was a boisterous atmosphere on the Fulham Road. Just past the “CFCUK” stall, I spotted a Tottenham fan wearing a pair of Lonsdale slip-ons.

I smiled.

My pre-match was complete.

I skipped past the bag-check, and thankfully all turnstiles were fully functioning for game one of the home campaign, a rare event these days.

I was inside at around 4pm.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. No parched earth here. The green sward looked pristine. The kick-off soon approached. I spotted some new graphics on the hotel and apartment walls above The Shed. The players were down on the pitch in our corner going through some pre-match routines and wearing – not training gear – but the new “pre-match gear” which has obviously caused a typical reaction from me.

I am sure a Proper Chels fan in Badgercrack Nebraska will purchase one, to augment his 571 other Chelsea shirts, and then wonder why a trip to SW6 is financially beyond them.

By the way, I could go on, but so many football shirts just don’t look like football shirts these days do they?

Minutes to go before the game was set to begin, we were then treated to flames in front of the East Stand. With that, the supporters in The Shed got going with a Madness-inspired display. I am sure the lads and lasses in The Shed offered us a “House Of Fun” graphic a few years back – I remember drolly commenting that it should be “House Of Pain” for away fans – and here we are again. The Chelsea love affair with the mod revival and Two-Tone era of 1979 to 1982 shows no signs of abating.

A huge banner depicting the “One Step Beyond” line-up – updated to include players and Todd Boehly – surfed over the Upper Tier while “House Of Fun” was hung over the balcony.

After the mention of a China Crisis album from 1982 to accompany my match report from last weekend’s match in Liverpool, here was a single from that very same year featuring in our first game in London a week later.

Music and football. Music and football. Music and football. Music and football.

Suggs will be hosting an evening of personal recollections in Frome in October and I am sure this will become the seventh musical event for me this year that has an echo of 1982. Throughout the coming season if you eat your vegetables and tidy your bedrooms I will be treating you all to a smattering of Chelsea-coloured memories from 1982/83.

A Fortieth Anniversary Special of our Worst Ever Season?

You bet.

Proper Chelsea.

In the MHL, there was a Star-Spangled flag with an image of Todd Boehly.

Really?

Ain’t this going over the top a little?

I wondered if Marc Cucarella might play inside and mark Son Heing-min, hopefully out of the game.

“I’m sorry, Son…”

But instead Reece James was in the back three.

Our line-up?

Edouard Mendy

Reece James – Thiago Silva – Kalidou Koulibaly

Ruben Loftus-Cheek – N’Golo Kante – Jorginho – Marc Cucarella

Mason Mount – Kai Havertz – Raheem Sterling

The first interchange between the two tribes did not take long.

Tottenham : “Antonio – Antonio – Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Chelsea : “You’ve won fuck all.”

One-nil to us.

There was a slight flutter of apprehension when Jorginho lost possession on the half-way line but the resulting Tottenham counter-attack withered in the summer heat.

On eight minutes, a fine move from us and a lovely cross from King Kante that hit the danger area of the six-yard box, but floated past everyone.

I smiled at Al : “Lukaku would have headed that in.”

Many a true word is said in jest and all that bollocks.

The away fans bellowed “Y Army” and I tutted.

Kante, like at Everton, was the early star. He and Loftus-Cheek found lots of space – sorry “pockets of space”, I must remember to use as many shitty buzzwords as possible this season…”pockets of space”, “between the lines”, “transition”, “the press”, “high press”, “trouser press”, “Caxton press”, “recycling”, “game management”, it goes on and on – and balls were whipped into the feet of Sterling and Havertz.

Compared to Everton, here was a much more cohesive way of playing. Tottenham appeared on the back foot after a few early jaunts up field.

Koulibaly shot wide from distance.

“A sighter” I said to Al.

After a quarter of an hour played, I was relieved and happy. This was a fine start.

Havertz tested Hugo Lloris who saved well. From the corner that was taken in front of the rather quiet Tottenham fans, Cucarella sent over a great ball into the middle of the box. Miraculously, it avoided all apart from Koulibaly.

I snapped just as he was adjusting his limbs to volley home. His shot was perfection. My shot wasn’t. The net bulged…we watched aghast, amazed at its execution.

He spun away towards a certain corner flag in front of a certain three thousand and the deja vu was astounding, what with the number 26 on his back.

I remembered a JT scissor kick at the same end and – surely? – a slide on his knees, although not in the same game, right in front of some away fans.

It was some goal, some celebration and some noise.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

This felt good. It felt so good to be 1-0 up against the old enemy. But chances were exchanged. Ryan Sessegnon forced a save from our man Mendy. Koulibaly had his third shot in ten minutes but only troubled those in The Shed Upper.

There was a water break hallway through the first-half. At Frome the previous day, there were two breaks in the second-half.

Tottenham’s fans were dead quiet.

I loved the energy seeping through the team. It really was top stuff. We broke in waves. A shot from the neat swivel-hipped Sterling from the inside-left channel was blocked. Tottenham rarely threatened.

“Al, were we as negative as this under Conte?”

A couple more chances came our way. A riser from Mount. A long cross from Jorginho just evaded the leap from the impressive Loftus-Cheek.

At the break, all was rosy.

My good friend Pete – now Seattle, formerly South London – appeared with his son Calvin, witnessing his first-ever Chelsea game. Both had spent time with a few former Chelsea players before the match and I’d imagine these memories will stay with Calvin forever. They’ll certainly stay with Pete forever.

It was Chelsea Smiles in The Sleepy Hollow at the break.

The second-half began with us attacking the Matthew Harding.

Ten minutes in, I noted that there was a lot more of a physical presence from Havertz in this game. After the 2021 Champions League Final in Porto, he didn’t really push on last season. I am unsure of his best position, as I suspect are many.

Shame I don’t play FIFA; then I’d know.

Sadly, Tottenham’s performance looked a little more co-ordinated. There was a fine stop, down low, from Son that Mendy executed perfectly. A Mount effort narrowly missed the goal, dropping just over the crossbar.

Richarlison appeared for Tottenham. I had forgotten that they had bought him.

The ball was worked to Sterling but his studied approach and footwork didn’t result in an equally fine finish; his shot was blasted high and wide.

On a break, Harry Kane was one-on-one but his shot was tamely scuffed wide.

How we laughed.

Halfway through the second-half – much more evenly contested now – we broke with Havertz rushing past the half-way line. He appeared to be chopped down but the play was waved on. With boos cascading down from the home areas at the loathed Anthony Taylor, Tottenham moved the ball forward. Jorginho made a hash of clearing and the ball fell invitingly to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg whose low shot evaded a dive from Mendy and crept into the goal’s far corner.

Bollocks.

In front of the benches, all hell broke loose.

(God, that could be a sentence from 1985…)

A substitution : Cesar Azpilicueta for Jorginho, with Dave going into the middle three to allow James to push on as a wing back.

Not long after the switch, we caught Tottenham on the hop and a central Sterling played an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball to James who was steam-rollering in to view to his right. I clicked just as Reece let fly but again my shot didn’t match the player’s. The ball crashed past Lloris.

Pandemonium in South West Six.

Screams of joy from me, just as there was when Frome got the winner on the Saturday but louder and more intense, to a factor of one billion zillion.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

But then my veins turned to ice to capture the mad celebrations in the opposite corner.

Phew.

We were back on top, 2-1 up and I thought of King Kenny, watching on in the front row of The Shed.

The noise had been decent all afternoon and now Stamford Bridge was on fire.

Some more substitutions followed.

Conor Gallagher for Kante.

Christian Pulisic for Sterling.

Armando Broja for Havertz.

Gallagher looked all action as soon as he entered the field of play. One run to stifle a Tottenham break was textbook. He then set up Mount who fired weakly wide and then shot himself but saw his effort blocked.

Into time added on for stoppages and it all got messy.

There was a delay after a Tottenham effort was deflected high for a corner. The scoreboard flashed “VAR REVIEW POSSIBLE RED CARD VIOLENT PLAY” and all of the 40,000 in Stamford Bridge were none the wiser.

Was it against one of our players? Was it against a Tottenham player? We had no clue. The watching millions at home knew. It’s them that matter, eh?

Anyway, the review was over and play continued. I had a brief worry about us losing our concentration.

On ninety-six minutes, a corner was swung in.

My eyes were steely focussed.

I saw a leap of some players at the near post.

The ball fell away, it fell down, it fell forward, it fell into the goal, my heart sank.

Pre-Match

First-Half

Half-Time

Second-Half

Tales From Difficult Shapes And Passive Rhythms

Everton vs. Chelsea : 6 August 2022.

My summer had been quiet. I never fancied another CFC tour to the US during the close-season, and there was no holiday abroad to excite me. It was simply a case of staying at home, saving pennies and attempting to relax from the burden of work which was as busy as ever. The highlight of my summer season was a little burst of gigs involving some music from my youth; Tom Robinson, Tears For Fears, Stiff Little Fingers and China Crisis. Waiting in the wings in September are Altered Images and Toyah. It will be 1982 all over again and that is never a bad thing.

The summer was also short. The gap between the last game of 2021/22 to the opening match of the new season was a brief ten weeks. As time passed, I became increasingly bored with the constant tittle-tattle of rumour and counter rumour regarding our transfer targets. I realised how much I disliked the mere mention of the name Fabrizio Romano; nobody likes a smart arse. I again squirmed every time fan after fan, supporter after supporter, FIFA nerd after FIFA nerd used the phrase “done deal” without transfers being completed. Once players sign, then we can talk.

Maybe it’s an age thing but sometimes I feel that I am from another footballing planet compared to a lot of our support.

Our season would open up in a grand fashion. To start, my favourite away stadium with a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park and then what I would class as our biggest home game with the visit of Tottenham. Two absolute belters. Early on in the campaign there would also be visits to Leeds United, Southampton and Fulham. These are three cracking away trips too. But the downside of this opening burst of away games is that we only just visited Everton, Leeds and Southampton very recently. Could the league computer not have spaced the buggers out a bit?

As the new season approached, I was inevitably concerned that my enthusiasm levels weren’t at especially high levels, but this is so often the case. I often find that I need the season to begin for me to get fully back into the swing of things. But my indifference to the new campaign actually shocked me this summer.

I was faced with the age-old question: was my love of the game waning? It’s a strange one. Many aspects of the modern game leave me cold. So cold. Yet I lap up the chance to attend live matches. There is the old cliché about football – Chelsea – being my drug and I can’t dispute this. Perhaps I should add that my summer season included four Frome Town friendlies, my most ever.

Football, eh?

I hate you but I love you too.

The alarm was set for the new season at 5.30am. By 7.30am I had collected the Fun Boy Three – PD, GG and LP – and we were on our way once again.

I made good progress. After picking up PD at 7am, I had deposited the three of them outside “The Thomas Frost” boozer on Walton Road just south of Goodison only four hours later. It was surely my quickest-ever journey up to Merseyside.

While my fellow travelling companions settled down for five or more hours of supping, I began a little tour around the city, one that I had been promising myself for ages. It was also time for a little more introspection.

This would be my fiftieth consecutive season of attending Chelsea games – 1973/74 to 2022/23, count’em up – even though my fiftieth anniversary will not be until March 2024. Additionally, this would be the fifteenth season that I been writing these blogs. Long gone are the viewing figures of when these were featured on the Chelsea In America bulletin board, but these are such a part of my match-going routine now and I can’t give them up. However, over the summer one of my close friends, Francis, suggested that I should take a year out of match photography and blogging. Just to give myself a rest. An average blog takes four hours of my time. But the look that I gave him probably shocked him to the core.

“Nah. It’s what I do mate.”

I will be honest, I did go over the options in my mind though.

But here I am. Writing away. Taking photos.

I hope that I still maintain the will to keep doing this for a while yet. With the rumours of us partaking in a partial rebuild of Stamford Bridge under the new Todd Boehly regime, I have to continue on until that is finished surely? The success of the Roman Abramovich era might never be matched but there is always something to write about at Chelsea.

On we go.

On my own now, I edged my car south and west towards the River Mersey. Within five minutes, I was parked up a few hundred yards away from the construction site of the new Everton Stadium at Bramley Moore Dock. Camera in hand, I set off to record the progress being made.

I hopped up onto a small wall to gain a good vantage point of the overall scene. This would be photo number one of the season.

Snap.

On leaping down from the wall, my legs crumpled and I fell.

Splat.

The camera and spare lens went flying. My knees – my fucking knees! – were smarting. I was sure I had torn my jeans. There was blood on my right hand. What a start to the season’s photographs. I dusted myself down, then let out a huge laugh.

The first fackinell of the season? Oh yes.

One photo taken and carnage.

Ha.

I limped further along Boundary Street and spent a good twenty minutes or so taking it all in. I found it rather funny that a bold sign warned against site photography and sharing images on social media. During my spell there, around fifteen other lads – not being sexist, they were all lads – called by to take some photos too. I am not ashamed to say that I have recently subscribed to two YouTube channels that provide drone updates of the construction sites at Bramley Moore and also Anfield.

I love a stadium, me.

So, the scene that I was witnessing was indeed pretty familiar. The skeletal shell of the new stadium is rising with the two end stands – the south and north – being the first to pierce the sky alongside the murky grey of the famous river. There are seven cranes covering the site. Maybe those lads were just crane spotters.

I must admit it looks a glorious setting for a new stadium. Evertonians – like me, no doubt – will hate the upheaval of moving out of good old Goodison in a couple of years, but the move represents the chance to level up the playing field with their more moneyed neighbours at the top of the hill up on Stanley Park. I had a fear that last season’s visit to Goodison would be my last. I believe that the new stadium is slated to open up during the 2024/25 campaign.

There was a chance – with Everton likely to flirt with relegation again perhaps – that this day would mark my last ever visit to Goodison.

I hoped not.

I have a personal history with this stadium that I have often mentioned.

I marched back to the car and then drove south towards the city centre. I immediately passed a huge derelict warehouse – a tobacco warehouse I believe – and I had visions of the red brick structure being upgraded to a hotel to take care of the new match day traffic that the new stadium would attract.

But I then heard a voice inside my head, of my mate Chris, a staunch Evertonian.

“Chris lad, all our support comes from Merseyside, The Wirral, the new towns, out to the North Wales coast, we don’t have any day trippers, la.”

I continued on. I have driven around the city centre – or at least the area by the Albert Dock – on many occasions but the scale of the Liver Building knocked me for six. What a building. It’s magnificent. But I drove past it – I spotted a massive bar called “Jurgen’s” – and headed up the hill inland. For many years, ten or more, I have wanted to visit the two cathedrals in the city. This was as perfect a day as any to get this accomplished.

I parked outside the massive Anglican Cathedral on St. James Mount. The sandstone used immediately reminded me of the stone used on the tunnels approaching Lime Street – and the “Cockneys Die” graffiti – and of Edge Hill Station on that first-ever visit to the city for football in May 1985. The building is huge. It is the longest cathedral in the world. I popped inside as a service was taking place. The visitors – there were many – walked around in hushed tones. A few photographs were inevitably taken.

I then headed north and then west and aimed for the second of the city’s great cathedrals, or the fourth if the cathedrals at either end of Stanley Park are included, the Metropolitan Cathedral. This Roman Catholic cathedral – made of concrete in the ‘sixties – sits at Mount Pleasant.

Hope Street links the two religious buildings. It looked a very lively place with theatres and eateries. I dived into the granddaddy of all Liverpool’s pubs, The Philharmonic, famous the world over for the elaborate porcelain fittings in the gents. More photographs followed both inside and out of the funkier of the two cathedrals – nicknamed “The Mersey Funnel” and “Paddy’s Wigwam” – and I was lost in my own world for a few moments.

The art deco Philharmonic Hall looked a magnificent site. The TV tower in the city centre was spotted between a canopy of green leaves. There were blue skies overhead. The Liver Birds could be seen peaking over some terraced rooftops. A few hen parties were making Hope Street their own. Maybe on another visit to the city, I will investigate further.

But it was time to move on. I dabbed a CD on as I pulled out of the car park – China Crisis’ Gary Daly’s solo album “Luna Landings”- a 2020 issue of some synth tracks recorded in the ‘eighties – and it was just perfect.

My route took me past some old, and grand, Georgian houses no doubt once owned by the cream of Liverpool’s entrepreneurs, businessmen and traders when a full forty percent of global trade came through the port of Liverpool. But it then took me past Edge Hill, and onto Tue Brook – past the drinking dens of “The Flat Iron” and “The Cabbage Hall” of match days at Anfield in previous years – and everything was a lot more down-at-heal, the Liverpool of hackneyed legend.

At around 3pm I was parked up in Stanley Park. Up to my left, the extension of the Annie Road Stand at Anfield was in full flow. It will bring the capacity up to 61,000. The new Everton one will be just under 53,000.

Ouch, la.

I popped into “The Thomas Frost” – my least favourite football pub – and located the lads, who had been joined by Deano and Dave, plus a cast of what appeared to be thousands. A friend, Kim, had not been able to attend due to COVID so her ticket was passed on to another pal, Sophie. The chaps had witnessed the Fulham and Liverpool 2-2 draw, and PD was shocked at the hatred that the watching Evertonians showed their local rivals.

Heysel robbed Evertonians of a tilt at European glory and it is not forgotten by many.

A song for Marc Cucarella was aired by the younger element. It would become the song of the day.

I excused myself and squeezed out of the boozer.

This particular corner of Liverpool, along the Walton Road, is a classic pre-match location for Everton home games. “The Thomas Frost”, “The Clock”, “The Party Pad” and “St. Hilda’s” are close, and drinkers from both clubs were inside and outside all of them. At just gone 4pm, my friends – and brothers – Tommie (Chelsea) and Chris (Everton) approached “St. Hilda’s” and it was glorious to see them again.

Here was the reason why we go to football.

Lads enjoying a laugh, a catch-up, a bevvy.

I was welcomed by the Evertonians that I met outside the pub. I loved it.

This is football.

Chris was in the middle of a punk festival – “Rebellion” – up the road in Blackpool and so was now mixing up his twin passions. The brothers are off to watch Stiff Little Fingers together in Dublin over the next few weeks. That 1982 vibe again. Both of the brothers helped me plan my Buenos Aires adventure a few years back and we all love our travel / football addiction.

We briefly mentioned previous encounters. This was the first time that we had begun a league season at Everton in my living memory, though there had been opening games at Stamford Bridge in 1995 – Ruud Gullit’s league debut, a 0-0 draw – and also way back in 1978. The earlier game – a 0-1 home loss – was memorable for two of my pre-match friends in 2022. It was Glenn’s first ever Chelsea game and he still rues a miss by Ray Wilkins. It was also Chris’ first visit to Stamford Bridge with Everton. I spoke about it with him. It has gone down in Chelsea folklore as being the “High Street Kensington” game, when Chelsea ambushed Everton’s mob at that particular tube station. This inspired the infamous “Ordinary To Chelsea” graffiti outside Lime Street, aimed at uniting both sets of fans to travel together to Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool league fixture later in the season. The graffiti is so iconic that sweatshirts are being produced featuring the image almost fifty years later.

Time was again moving on.

Chris and I sauntered off to opposite ends of the Bullens Road.

I left him with a parting shot.

“Up The Fucking Toffees.”

He smiled.

“Up The Fucking Toffees.”

The kick-off was at 5.30pm and I was inside at around 4.45pm or so.

At last, I had a seat that wasn’t tucked way past the goal-line. In fact, it was right on the goal-line. Compared to previous visits my seat 38 felt as if I was watching from the royal box.  John from Paddington now sits with Alan, Gary, Parky and little old me at away games now; the Fantastic Five. I looked over at the Park End; Everton had handed out tons of royal blue flags for their fans to wave. I heard Chris’ voice once again.

“Typical Kopite behaviour.”

I hoped that the ground would be full of shiny unhappy people by the end of the game.

John asked me for my prediction.

I thought for a few seconds and went safe : “0-0.”

It was time to reacquaint myself with more than a few friends as the kick-off time approached. I had recently seen Julie and Tim at the SLF gig in Frome. And I had shared a fine evening with Kev in Aberdare at the recent China Crisis gig.

“From Abu Dhabi to Aberdare” anyone?

Kev, in fact, was wearing a China Crisis T-shirt. I had joked on the night that I would wear my exact same copy to the game too, but I had forgotten all about that. Probably just as well, eh Kev?

We could work out the starting line-up from the drills taking place in front of us. The confirmation came on the twin TV screens at opposite ends of the ground.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Jorginho – Kante – Chilwell

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

In light of our former chairman’s departure, I am surprised that nobody else but me did the “$ out, £ in” joke over the summer.

The PA ramped up the volume with a few Everton favourites, and then the stirring “Z Cars” rung out around Goodison.

It was unchanged as it has been from around 1994.

The rather mundane and bland single-tier of the Park Lane to my left. The still huge main stand, double-decked, sloping away in the top left corner. St’ Luke’s Church peeping over the TV screen in the opposite corner and then the continuous structure of the Gwladys Street bleeding into the Bullens Road, the Leitch cross-struts on show for decades but not for much longer.

A couple of large banners were paraded in the Gwladys Street.

To the left, an image of The Beatles with an Everton scarf wrapped around them all. Were they really all Evertonians? Well, they weren’t day trippers, that’s for sure.

I hoped that their team would be The Beaten.

To the right, there was an image of our Frank on a banner. Gulp.

The teams lined-up.

A shrill noise.

Football was back.

Alas we were back in the odd away kit. From a long way away, it looks reasonable, but up close I can’t say I am too fond of the stencilled lion nonsense on the light blue / turquoise hoops. This overly fussy design, which is mirrored in the collar of the home kit, resembles a great aunt’s frock design from 1971 far too much for my liking.

Me, bored rigid on a family outing, stifling yawns :“Yes, I’d love another piece of fruit cake please auntie”…but thinking “your dress looks ridiculous.”

To be honest, in the pre-release glimpses, the colour looked more jade green than blue. Eck from Glasgow, sat to my left, must have been having kittens.

Both teams were wearing white shorts. I think that ruling has changed only recently.

The game began. I was immediately warned by a sweaty steward to not use my camera. In the ensuing moments, Eck leant forward and shielded my illicit pursuits. It worked a treat.

As the game started to develop, the away crowd got behind the team, but with the lower tier of the Bullens outdoing the top tier. I must admit I didn’t sing too much during the whole game; I am getting old, eh? Soon into the game, I experienced chant envy as I couldn’t make out the Koulibaly song being sung with gusto in the lower deck.

Goodison has been an awful venue for us of late. Our record was of four consecutive losses.

But we began as we often began with the majority of possession.

The first real incident involved Kai Havertz who picked up a wayward clearance from Jordan Pickford after a poor back pass from Ben Godfrey. Rather than pass inside, he lashed the ball against the side netting. Attempting to tackle, Godfrey injured himself and there was a delay of many minutes before he was stretchered off.

There was a swipe from Mason Mount that Jordan Pickford managed to claw away. At the other end, a deep cross from Vitaly Mykolenko was headed goal wards by James Tarkowski but Edouard Mendy did ever so well to tip it over.

Everton occasionally threatened, but our defence – the veteran Dave especially – were able to quell their advances. N’Golo Kante, right after a Chelsea attack, was able to block an Everton shot back in his own penalty area. He had no right to be there. The man was starting the season as our strongest player.

Next up, Thiago Silva – the calm and cool maestro – cut out an Everton break down our right, and this drew rapturous applause.

A shot from Kante was fumbled by Pickford but although Raheem Sterling pounced to score – a dream start? – he was ruled offside. It looked offside to me, way down on the other goal line. Who needs cameras?

To be truthful, despite corner after corner (or rather shite corner after shite corner) that resulted in a few wayward headers, it wasn’t much of a half. The home fans were quiet, and the away section in the upper tier were getting quitter with each passing minute.

But corner after corner were smacked into the Everton box.

“More corners than a Muller warehouse.”

I noticed that the movement off the ball was so poor.

I chatted to Eck : “Without a target man, our forwards need to be constantly moving, swapping over, pulling defenders away, allowing balls into space.”

There was sadly none of it. I couldn’t remember two white-shirted players crossing over the entire half.

I had visions of a repeat of the dull 0-0 at Stoke City that began the 2011/12 campaign.

In injury time, Abdoulaye Doucoure manhandled Ben Chilwell on a foray into the box. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Jorginho.

1-0

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

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

It was the last kick of the half. Phew.

As the second-half began, the sun was still beating down on us in the upper tier. I was getting my longest exposure to the sun of the entire summer. But the game didn’t really step up. The noise continued to fall away. If anything, Everton threatened much more than us in the second-half.

A shot from Demarai Gray – after a mess up between Silva and Mendy – was thankfully blocked by our man from Senegal.

Celery was tossed around in the away section and some local stewards looked bemused.

Some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for a very quiet Mount.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Chilwell.

Reece swapped wings and Ruben played wide right.

It was pretty grim and pretty tepid stuff this. A tough watch.The practised attacking patterns needed more work. It just wasn’t gelling at all. And during that second-half we allowed Everton a little too much space in key areas. It is early days though. But I have to say it as I saw it.

I could lose myself in this honesty.

More substitutions from Thomas Tuchel.

Armando Broja for a weak Havertz.

Marc Cucarella for Koulibaly.

I wasn’t too happy about us singing Frank’s name during the game.

It took bloody ages for us to get an effort, any effort, on goal. It came on eighty-one minutes, a James free-kick, tipped over. Then, just after a pass from Cucarella to Sterling and a shot deflected for a corner.

To be fair, Pulisic looked keen when he came on and added a new dimension to our play. Cucarella looked mustard too. He looked neat, and picked out a few lovely passes, zipped with pace.

“He’s from Marbella, he eats Bonjela” wasn’t it?

And it was a joy to see Broja on the pitch, charging into space, taking defenders with him, a focal point. I hope he is given a full crack of the whip this season.

In the eighth minute of extra time, Conor Gallagher made his debut and I caught his first touch, at a free-kick, on camera. I see great things for him.

It ended 1-0.

Outside, I bumped into Sophie, with Andy her father, and remembered that she was soon off to Milan, with a side-visit to Como after talking to me in the pub at the end of last season.

“Did you know Dennis Wise is the CEO at Como?”

It made Sophie’s day. Dennis is her favourite ever Chelsea player.

We walked back to the waiting car and shared a few thoughts about the game. It was no classic, but we were all relieved with the win. Tottenham, our next opponents, won 4-1 at home to Southampton and I admitted to PD :

“I’m dreading it.”

“I am too.”

Out

In

I made good time on the way south, only for us to become entrenched in a lively conversation about all of the players’ performances just as I should have veered off the M6 and onto the M5.

“Isn’t that the Alexander Stadium? Bollocks, I have missed the turning.”

A diversion through the second city was a pain, but I was eventually back on track. As the three passengers fell asleep, I returned to the ‘eighties and Gary Daly.

And I wondered what I should call this latest blog.

Some people think it’s fun to entertain.