Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

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

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From St. Mary’s

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 27 February 2016.

I should dislike Southampton Football Club a lot more than I do. When I was a mere eight-year-old boy, they stole my childhood hero Peter Osgood away from Stamford Bridge a mere couple of weeks before my very first Chelsea match.

That is reason enough to carry a lifetime of dislike for them – hatred would, of course, be far too strong – surely?

Looking back at this event some forty-two years later, although I can well remember the sense of pain that I felt at the time, my memories are rather sketchy, not surprisingly. But here are the facts :

My first ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 16 March 1974. Peter Osgood’s last ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 29 December 1973, although he appeared in a friendly at Aberdeen on Friday 16 February 1974.

He left Chelsea a couple of weeks before my first-ever game.

How cruel.

In those formative years of my fledgling support for Chelsea, Peter Osgood was my favourite player, my hero and my idol. He was our charismatic goal scorer and the focus of my adoration. I’ve told the story before of how some family friends, who worked alongside Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at an office in Windsor, managed to obtain a signed 8” by 10” black and white photograph of Ossie in around 1971 or 1972, and that the excitement of opening up that brown buff envelope containing the photograph was one of the most wonderful moments of my childhood. I still have the autograph of course. It is a treasured memento to this day. Incidentally, I recently spotted a photograph of Ossie’s sister Mandy planting an oak tree in a park in Windsor in memory of her brother, and it brought my childhood memories racing back.

http://www.windsorexpress.co.uk/News/Areas/Windsor/Oak-tree-planted-in-memory-of-England-footballer-Peter-Osgood-08022016.htm

I once spoke to Peter Osgood about the signed photograph and he explained that Mandy was a fine footballer in her own right, and an England international to boot. He laughed when I suggested that she used to sport a fine pair of sideburns, too.

But in 1974, Southampton – and Peter Osgood – broke my heart.

I can vaguely remember the stories in the ‘papers and on the TV about the infamous fall out between our manager David Sexton, and a few of our star players – most notably Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood – and as the day of my first ever game approached, there was this horrible gnawing realisation that I would not be seeing Ossie play. Hudson’s last game for Chelsea was also against Liverpool in December 1973, and he was sold to Stoke City in the first few weeks of 1974. The 1970 and 1971 cup winning team was falling apart in front of my eyes, and – to my sadness – my hero Peter Osgood would be the next to leave. There are hints of an olive branch being pointed towards Ossie with his appearance in the Aberdeen friendly at Pittodrie and possibly a chance of reconciliation, but my idol was sold to Southampton for £275,000 in the first few days of March 1974.

I would never see Ossie play for Chelsea.

Although Chelsea’s 1973/1974 was far from impressive – we only just staved off relegation – it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I note that Ossie’s new club were duly relegated in the May. I am sure that this must have been a huge blow to Ossie, and I am sure that he wistfully looked on as Chelsea stayed up. With a cruel twist, I saw him play against us in March 1976 in a Second Division game, and can sadly remember the furore in the media about The Shed chanting an unsavoury song towards our former hero, and Ossie “flicking some Vs” back at them.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

When Ossie returned for some games in 1979, our paths sadly never crossed, and his time as a Chelsea player ended with me never seeing him play in our club colours.

It is one of the few regrets that I have as a Chelsea supporter.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s sad passing, how fitting that the Premier League fixture list should pair Southampton and Chelsea together.

For the first-ever time, we had decided to take the train to Southampton. The four of us – Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – met up at Westbury station and caught the 9.01am train down to Southampton Central. Other local blues Les and Graham were on the train too. Opposite us were four Bristolian Chelsea supporters. Throughout the day, we would bump in to many West Country Blues. It is one of the nicest attributes of Chelsea fans that Londoners very rarely take umbrage to Chelsea fans coming from other areas, unlike a couple of Northern teams that I could mention.

Soon into the trip, through rolling countryside, and then the spired city of Salisbury, Parky and PD opened up a couple of cans. I was just happy to share a few laughs as the day unfolded. It was time for me to relax. Leaving work on Friday, I was able to look forward to two fine away games within the space of just four days.

We rolled in to Southampton, breakfasted at a local café, and then joined up with many familiar Chelsea fans in “Yates’s” in the city centre. I am not particularly smitten with Southampton. Right outside the train station, there are a couple of brutal concrete tower blocks, more akin to those on show in the former communist cities of Eastern Europe, which hardly create a welcoming impression. The civic buildings and the Guildhall are fine, but the city centre seems jumbled.

As I worked my way through six pints of San Miguel, such matters disappeared from my mind.

I was able to relax, to chill out, to unwind.

It was important for me to just sit upstairs with Glenn, chatting and relaxing, rather than join in with others in the crowded ground floor, packed to the rafters, and scene of a Chelsea karaoke.

On the previous day, I had silently marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing by taking some flowers to my parents’ grave, and I was in no mood for too much ribaldry before the game.

I remembered the time in 1981, when my mother and I watched a Southampton vs. Nottingham Forest game from the lower tier of the cramped bench seats in the East Stand at The Dell, lured by the chance to see another hero of my youth, Kevin Keegan, when a work colleague of my father gave us their two season tickets for the day.

Outside the weather looked cold. There seemed to be a biting wind. More than a few of the local police force were watching us. Only two of the central pubs allow away fans.

“Yates’s” was heaving. The lagers were going down well. Good times.

On the walk to St. Mary’s, I joked with Mick that it was lovely to see him holding hands with Pauline.

“It’s not romantic, Chris. I just needed to prise her out of the pub.”

We laughed.

St. Mary’s, positioned next to the River Itchen to the east, but hemmed in by industrial units to the south and two rusty gasometers to the north, is a rather bland stadium. It is no Dell.

There was not a lot of time to spare and I joined up with Alan and Gary in our seats just in time.

All of a sudden, among the beers, and the laughter and the song, it was time to pay attention to the actual match. Guus Hiddink, quietly going about his business and without the squealing histrionics of our previous manager, had chosen the same starting eleven that had defeated Manchester City the previous weekend. In the home team were former blues Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu, both involved to varying degrees on a certain night in Munich in May 2012.

Southampton, winners at The Bridge earlier in the season, and finding their feet again under Ronald Koeman would be a tough proposition.

The Chelsea support, rising up from the darkened concourse in to the light of the stadium, were in fine voice from the start. However, an early injury to Pedro – improving of late – caused Hiddink to reconfigure. On came Oscar.

Chelsea seemed to control much of the possession during a rather tame first-half, yet Southampton were able to carve out the clearer goal scoring chances.

Thibaut Courtois seemed to be a little unsure of himself on a couple of occasions, and dithered once too often for my liking. Shane Long, the journeyman striker, headed over with our ‘keeper stranded. At the other end, the masked marksman Diego Costa went close. Southampton just seemed a little more dynamic in the final third. Whereas we passed the ball without a lot of purpose, the Saints seemed more clinical. Charlie Austin, the steal of the season, struck a firm shot past our post.

Sadly, on forty-two minutes, two defensive blunders resulted in us conceding. A high ball was weakly headed square by Baba Rahman, and Shane Long pounced. His rather heavy touch seemed, to my eyes, to be within reach of Courtois to race out and clear, but the tall Belgian seemed to react slowly. As he raced off his line, Long delicately clipped it in.

Our ten game unbeaten run in the league was under threat against a capable Southampton team. Our attempts on goal were minimal. It was a deserved lead for the home team at the break. At the interval, the ruthless Hiddink replaced Baba with Kenedy.

We slowly improved. Cheered on by the loyal three thousand, who have taken to singing about Frankie Lampard’s goal against West Ham in 2013 with ever-increasing zeal, we began stretching the Saints’ defence.

Mikel headed over.

Diego volleyed wide.

I said to Gary : “Although we have players in wide positions, we don’t really have wingers any more.”

A few tackles resulted in Martin Atkinson brandishing some yellows. Diego Costa looked like a man “in the mood” and some of his industry seemed to inspire others.

At the other end, a rare Southampton attack ended with a robust challenge on Austin by Cahill. From my position some one hundred yards away, it was clearly not a penalty.

Cough, cough.

Eden Hazard, finding pockets of space, played the ball out to a rampaging Diego Costa. He managed to pull the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, who advanced. He played the ball – almost lazily – in to the box, and I was right behind the course of the ball as it avoided a lunge by Hazard and a late reaction by Forster. It nestled inside the net and the Chelsea support screamed.

What a strange, odd, easy goal.

It had was a fine reward for our increasing urgency in the last portion of the game.

In the eighty-ninth minute, we won a corner and Willian – often unable to get his corners past the first man – sent over a fine ball with pace. The warhorse Ivanovic timed his jump to perfection and his thundering header crashed down past Forster.

Get in.

The Chelsea support again screamed.

Hiddink shored things up with the late addition of Nemanja Matic, and the game was safe.

On a day of late goals, we were more than grateful to hear that Leicester City had grabbed an 89 minute winner of their own.

Get in.

There were songs as we walked back towards the train station. This doesn’t happen too often. It seemed to underline the new sense of belief and happiness within our ranks at the moment.

We had time to relax before catching the train home. There was time for two more pints, and a lovely assessment of our resurgence, not only in the last quarter of the game, but over the past few months.

Back in Frome, Glenn and myself finished off the day with a few more drinks, with more reflections on our fine time among good friends, and then, finally, a late night curry.

It had been a wonderful away day.

On Tuesday evening, we reassemble at the home of Norwich City, another of Peter Osgood’s clubs, and our most famous number nine will again be in our thoughts once more.

See you there.

IMG_6048

Tales From Friday Night And Saturday Afternoon

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 14 January 2012.

I had a few things to do in Frome on Saturday morning. This delayed my start, but I left to collect Parky at about 9.45am. The countryside was white with frost and the sky was magnificent; cloudless and perfect. I had heard a few shots from a local shooting party (pheasants, not deer or foxes) ringing out in the clear winter air as I left the village. As I headed out towards Great Elm, I had a niggling bout of anxiety; it would have been nice to go out with my camera on this particular morning and take a few atmospheric shots of the Somerset countryside. I could lose myself in the quietness of it all, enjoy the moment, breath in some frosty air, and get some exercise.

But no. Chelsea were at home and I was on my way to my 210th consecutive home match.

These weekends are set in stone by now.

It occurred to me recently that I am not distracted with many other hobbies. Of course, I love travel, music and films, but so do most people. Photography ticks a few boxes for me, but I’m otherwise free of diversions. Other sports, save baseball, have fallen by the wayside and although I have a passing interest in a few other sports, football – or more importantly Chelsea – is it for me. I blame Ossie and my parents. Ossie for making me fall in love with Chelsea Football Club. My parents for taking to my first ever Chelsea game almost 38 years ago; once I ascended the steps up into the old West Stand and saw the verdant Stamford Bridge pitch, I was hooked.

Big time.

I collected Parky at 10.15am, refuelled with petrol and a McBreakfast at Melksham, and we were on our way. I had arranged to meet a couple of friends and continually updated them with later and later times of arrivals as I headed east. I dipped into Reading to collect my good friend Russell, who had just relocated there from South London. He gave us a quick tour of the house, a further coffee apiece and we were then headed towards The Smoke.

Russ is from Frome and used to come up with Glenn and me in the 1994 to 1997 period before he went to university in Birmingham. We caught up with each other as we drove along the M4 and I spoke particularly of the previous evening. On Friday, Parky and I attended another Ron Harris evening. This was for the fourth time in 14 months. We must know every anecdote word for word by now. This time, the venue was only five miles away and the evening was especially pertinent; it was a fundraiser in aid of the Frome Town new stand appeal. Only around 40 to 50 attended, but the evening was a huge success. It was held in a cosy bar at a local hotel and the intimacy made the evening. Over £1,000 was raised during the evening and the small room was soon rocking with laughter at Ron’s stories.

Good company, good beer, good food, plenty of laughter – a perfect way to spend three hours in deepest Somerset.

Amidst the tales of Tommy Docherty team talks, Peter Bonetti quips, battles with Emlyn Hughes and many stories, said in awe, of Peter Osgood and George Best, there were a couple of new anecdotes.

Ron Harris soon made it clear that he had been no fan of the former Chelsea manager Geoff Hurst. Early in the pre-season of 1979-1980, the playing squad were enjoying some banter in the changing rooms at the training ground. They were waiting for Hurst to come in and lead the training. A ‘phone call came through from Geoff Hurst and a young apprentice answered. Hurst asked the young lad to bring two cups of tea through to the manager’s office. Well, the banter was flying around and the apprentice completely forgot to take the two drinks through for Hurst and his assistant Bobby Gould. After about ten minutes, Hurst ‘phoned again and repeated his request.

“Sorry, gaffer, I forgot” apologised the trainee.

Hurst was annoyed and retorted “Do you know who I am?”

The trainee replied “Yeah, you’re Geoff Hurst, the Chelsea manager. Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

“Well, in that case, get the fcuking teas yourself.”

One other comment made me smile. One chap asked Ron Harris what he thought of Arsenal’s playing style and of their chances during the season.

“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t care less about Arsenal. Chelsea is my club.”

This was a telling comment since Ron grew up in Hackney as an Arsenal supporter and attended games at the old Highbury stadium with his father during his childhood.

As we headed down the M40, Russ and I spoke back to his very first game at Stamford Bridge. This had taken place a full twenty years after my first game in 1974. On a sunny afternoon, we watched from the temporary seats at the Shed End as we saw Chelsea beat Norwich 2-0 in the opening game of the 1994-1995 season. Russ’ first ever Chelsea game had been four years earlier in early 1990. And quite a game too – Bristol City 3 Chelsea 1 in the F.A. Cup; a game which was quite notorious at the time…a heavy defeat of a Division One team by a Division Three team. It was a bloody good job for me that I was in Vancouver at the time, not in Frome; I would have endured untold grief from my friends. In the League Cup in that same season, we had lost to Scarborough – and I was in Fort Lauderdale when that particular monstrosity occurred…again, thank heavens.

Ironically, I had only just seen highlights on YouTube a day or so earlier of the game at Ashton Gate.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9-1ZRpiox8

We spoke a little about Gary Cahill and, in particular, the protracted negotiations which have taken forever to resolve. We had heard rumours he would be at the match. I asked Russell if he could remember the last bona fide northerner to play for Chelsea. Not only have our English players been rare of late, they have usually been from the south. Sure Daniel Sturridge is from Birmingham, but who was the last Chelsea player to come from the ‘proper’ north; Yorkshire, Lancashire and above?

Russ came up with a great answer. More of that later.

Surprisingly, the traffic was clear and I was parked-up at 1.30pm. It did feel strange to be arriving at a – absolutely rammed – Goose so much later than usual. Russ bought me a pint and I quickly spotted the usual gaggle of mates in the corner. My mate Paul, from my paternal grandmother’s home town of Poole in Dorset, had arranged to meet me and we had a chat out in the less-crowded beer garden. He has eyes on the upcoming US Tour and we chatted about that for more than a couple of minutes. We are just waiting for dates to be announced by Chelsea and we’ll then get moving.

My other pre-match guest arrived at about 2pm; I had first met Jesus from California at the last game of the 2010-2011 season, that dour performance at Goodison Park. He announced to me – via CIA – that he had been successful in applying for an internship in London and was in town for four months. What a lucky chap.

Is anyone jealous?

This reminds me of Farmer John (mgoblue06) who was over at Reading university in 2009 and was able to join in with our little band of brothers in our weekly pilgrimages to watch the boys in royal blue. I last saw said Farmer John at Baltimore in 2009 and I guess he has, sadly, fallen by the wayside.

Jesus – you have to pronounce it with a certain Latin lilt – was absolutely buzzing to be able to be in London and was hoping to get to as many Chelsea games as he can afford. He hoisted up his Chelsea shirt to reveal a large Chelsea tattoo on his shoulder blades and Parky and I were impressed with his fanaticism. We retuned inside and Jesus was able to meet a couple more of my mates, both who no doubt bamboozled him with London patois.

“Don’t fackin worry, mate, we’ll soon ‘ave you tawkin’ like a Londonah by April, shun.”

Jesus was keen to down another pint, but it was 2.30pm and we needed to make a move. I walked down past the multinational grocery shops of the North End Road. He reminded me of his previous Chelsea matches –

Home to Tottenham, away to Valencia, Blackburn Rovers in the F.A. Cup semi-final at Old Trafford and away at Everton.

This would be his fifth Chelsea game.

It will be great for me to report on his findings about English football culture over the next four months; who knows, by the end of that period, his Chelsea replica shirt might even be replaced by a Fred Perry, a Rene Lacoste or a Ralph Lauren.

I reached the Matthew Harding Upper just in time to catch Steve Mantle helping to unfurl the “Carefree Since 1905” flag.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

OK, game time. Clear skies on a cold afternoon, about a thousand Mackems, very few empty seats, the pitch in good condition, Jesus down in the MHL, Russ next to Alan and me, a settled defence, Torres upfront for us and the idiot Bendtner upfront for Sunderland. Three points please my Blue Boys.

In the first few minutes, we had an early scare as a Sunderland attack ended up with a ball rattling across the six yard box. But then we had all of the ball and we were playing reasonably well for the first period of the game. Our goal came on just thirteen minutes. The ball found its way to Ramires on the right before he moved it on to Juan Mata who lofted a ball which arced over the heads in the Sunderland defence. Torres was waiting on the far post, but the ball seemed to be above and beyond him. In an amazing piece of artistry – for that is what it was – Nando jumped, fell back, and swung his right leg high above his waist. He connected with a magnificent volley which flew goal wards.

Surely not.

In a split second the ball ricocheted off the bar, but the crowd roared. In another split second, I tried to evaluate if the ball had indeed gone over the line…my initial celebrations were muted, but I then roared once I knew that a goal had been given. I didn’t know how the goal had been scored.

Did Torres’ effort bounce down and go in?
Did it go on to bounce off the far post and go in?
Did it go in off the ‘keeper?

Only when the name of Frank Lampard was flashed up on the scoreboard did I know what had happened. It was a total blur. But there, in a passage of play which had taken no more than one second to play itself out was an encapsulation of the enigma of Fernando Torres; the magnificence of his effort, but yet no goal to his name. Happiness and melancholy. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. What has this player got to do to score more goals in Chelsea blue? If I was to add all of the narrow misses, the strikes on woodwork and the last minute blocks that he has suffered over the past year, I am sure he would be on 15 Chelsea goals and not just 5.

Such is football. It can be a fickle friend.

As if to emphasise this point, a delightful dink from Ramires to Torres was met with a firm header on goal. With the ‘keeper elsewhere, the ball was headed clear of the line by a covering defender.

Make that 16 goals.

Despite the Chelsea lead, the biggest cheer of the first-half was when the Wolves goal at Tottenham was flashed on the screen above the Mackems.

The best Sunderland effort on goal in the first-half came from Bendtner, but his shot was dragged just wide of Petr Cech’s far post, with the ‘keeper beaten. The temperature was dropping by the minute and I jealously eyed the gloves being worn by both Russ and Alan. A Torres spin and shot flew past the Sunderland goal.

At half-time, Alan Hudson was introduced by Neil Barnett and he was applauded by the home faithful. How the passage of time affects some more than others; John Hollins is older than Hudson yet looks 15 years younger. I had a chat with Gary at the break. He now sits ten yards away and can often be heard barking out abuse at referees and players alike. He’s quite an attraction. He pointed out to me a chap who was sat just in front of him, blatantly wearing a red, white and black Sunderland scarf. Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve had friends of other teams sat next to me on a few occasions, but never have I seen an away scarf in the home areas at The Bridge before.

Shocking.

Back to the question about the last northerner; Russ suggested the flying full-back Terry Phelan, the wing back from Manchester, but although technically correct, Alan reminded us that he was officially an international for Ireland.

So – any advance on Terry Phelan?

The first-half had been one of mainly Chelsea pressure, but few chances. The midfield was solid, but creativity was in scant supply. As the game progressed, Russ and I repeated the Chelsea mantra of “we need a second” every few minutes, like a beating metronome. I commented that we were playing like an away team, with our attacks being limited to occasional breaks.

On 51 minutes, Torres was released and bared down on the Sunderland goal, but his strong shot was saved at the near post. Within two minutes of play, the referee Phil Dowd waved away three penalty shouts at both ends; first, a block on Torres, second a trip by Mignolet on Mata and third a shove by Ashley on Bendtner.

Sunderland, being cajoled by Martin O’Neil on the touchline, were fighting for every ball now and had a few good chances. McClean wasted a very good chance as he bobbled the ball wide following a cross by Larsson.

Next, fury as Fernando Torres was booked by Dowd for diving inside the penalty area. Torres looked crestfallen and pleaded with the referee for leniency, but it was not to be.

It was a huge surprise for me to see Michael Essien come off the bench in the last twenty minutes. How we have missed his physical presence and his bursting runs. To be honest, the Essien of yore may be long gone as his injuries are bound to take their toll. With our weaknesses at right back, I wonder if the manager has remembered that Essien played ahead of Ferreira in that position at the Luzhniki in 2008? The Bison thundered over from close in. The home fans groaned again.

Our last real chance came when the quiet Meireles calculatingly chipped from distance, but the Sunderland custodian back-peddled and tipped over. To be honest, both Romeu and Meireles had been quiet. Sunderland had a late charge and the nervousness of the crowd was mirrored by the team. Careless punts from Cech, crazy runs upfield from Luiz and misplaced passes by everyone heightened the sense of anxiety. At times our play in the final few minutes was laughable.

There were, however, more groans to come. In the final two minutes, Gardner shot wide from a central position after the impressive Sessignon drove past two defenders and then, the last move, Luiz was completely out-thought by Bendtner but the useless ex-Gooner bundled the ball over.

My goodness, it hadn’t been pretty. Chelsea had kept us on tenterhooks for eighty minutes. Sunderland had deserved a draw, no doubts.

All together now – phew.

One of the games of the season next Saturday; the long-awaited excursion to rural Norfolk and the game with Norwich City, a 470 mile round-trip, nine hours of driving and I for one can’t wait.

Mow that meadow.

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Tales From The Potteries, Duck

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 27 September 2008.

This report is going to be rather self-indulgent, so I hope nobody minds too much. I spent three years in Stoke-On-Trent at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987 and I had been looking forward to this away day ever since Stoke were promoted in May. With this in mind, I wanted to make a full day of it.

I left for Stoke at 6.30am. Really patchy fog all of the way up to Birmingham – if not fog, then bright sunshine. It was a rather tiring start to the day. I refuelled at Hilton Park services just to the north of Brum. Cocooned in my car, I tend to forget where I am. However, a few words from the petrol station attendant reminded me I was definitely in the Midlands – her horrible Brummie accent gave it away. As I am sure a lot of you are aware, the UK has many many accents…within a fifty mile radius of Stoke, there are many different accents…Birmingham to the south, Derby ( “Dah-beh “) to the east, Manchester and Liverpool to the north, Bolton above them…and then Stoke itself has its own particular accent, much lampooned by my mates and me in those college years. More of that later.

The last thirty minutes of the trip were spent thinking back to 1984, not to the football for a change, but to that drive up to Stoke on a Sunday in late September 1984. My father drove me up to Stoke and I will be honest; I was very nervous about how the next three years away from home would turn out. It was probably my least favourite journey ever! I needn’t have worried – had a great time in Sunny Stoke and I still keep in contact with five or six good mates to this day.

I pulled into Stoke at just after 9am, some 145 miles from home. It was a crisp, sunny Autumn morning. I sat myself down for a breakfast and a coffee, and texted a few ex-Stoke mates of my whereabouts. Now then, the city of Stoke-On-Trent is a funny old place. The city consists of the five former individual towns of Stoke, Hanley and Burslem ( home of Port Vale FC ) to the north and Fenton and Longton to the east. For many years, there was great inter-town rivalry (each town tried to out-do its neighbours with its town halls and other civic buildings for example) and the city of Stoke-On-Trent was only formed in around 1910. Since those days, the more central Hanley is basically the city centre, containing all of the major shops. In comparison, Stoke ( where I lived in those college years ) has a small and rather sad town centre…probably less shops than my home town of Frome to be honest. Of course, the area has been World famous for its pottery industry ( think Spode and Wedgewood ) and so the whole area is known as The Potteries. There is the odd reminder of the area’s industrial past – canals, railways, bottle kilns – but the industry has reduced in size, even since I left in 1987. To confuse things even more, the nicer, separate town of Newcastle Under Lyme abuts the western edge of Stoke. So, that sets the scene.

One more thing – the accent…very distinctive! The first thing to say is that, like in the East Midlands, everybody calls each other “duck” to the point of overkill. I went into a shop to buy some locally made “Wrights” pies and I was called duck about five times. The common greeting in Stoke is “ayaduck.” For the Expats, Garth Crooks is a Stokie…my mates can “do” this accent and its great fun.

I drove over to Newcastle and mooched around for half-an-hour. When I was at college, I often used to walk the two miles to ‘Castle and pop into a few nice shops…one of which was called “Review” and was the place ( along with “Matinique” in Hanley ) where all the football stuff was sold…back in those days, it was Kappa, Best Company, Emporio Armani. It has recently been re-opened as “Pockets” and I spent a good twenty minutes in there chatting to the owner about my time twenty years ago! One of the shop assistants was a United fan who had been in Moscow. We had a good old chat about that most momentous of games. “Pockets” sponsor Stoke – they provide the team suits…the shop is stocked full of Armani, CP, Boss, Paul Smith and Stone Island…not tempted though. Not this time!

I had agreed to meet Cathy and Dog off their 11.15am train back at Stoke station, so I retraced my tracks. The scene which greeted me was like something from the ‘eighties…there were about 30 Old Bill, police vans and police dogs swarming the station exit, awaiting the Chelsea train from Euston. I warned Cathy, who had come in via Derby, and she managed to “slip” them and I picked them up just as a mob of about 200 Chelsea were being marched from the station to The Fawn pub, where they would be kept until coaches would take them to the Brittannia Stadium. There were a few “faces” amongst this mob and the OB were filming them on hand-held cameras. There were no “scarfers” amongst this lot.

I gave Cathy and Dog a very quick tour of Stoke…past the deserted remains of the old Victoria Ground, where Stoke played until about 2001. For two years, I lived in a terraced house right next to the away end. This area of Stoke, rows upon rows of Victorian and Edwardian houses, houses the bed-rock of the club’s support. Formed as early as 1863, Stoke were one of the founder member of the original football league.

We headed for a small pub on the London Road called “O’Leary’s” where former Chelsea, Stoke and England mid-fielder Alan Hudson was gong to be doing a ( Stoke-based ) book signing. He played for us from 1969 to 1974 before signing for Stoke. He was a gifted player, but fell out of favour with most people at Chelsea after his often bitter attacks on the club. We ordered some beers and kept to ourselves – we didn’t go over and say “hi.” He then resigned for us in the summer of 1983 ( from an America team, I believe…) but never got himself fit enough to play a game in that momentous 1983-84 season. He actually resigned for Stoke later in that season. When I was at college there, he owned a wine bar in Newcastle, and has fought a battle with alcoholism ever since. He looked a rather sad figure to be honest.

My mate Simon and his son Milo were arriving on the club special at 12.30pm ( a subsidised price of £10! We later heard that the club is doing free train travel to Hull – fantastic! ). I parked up close to the station again…more heavy-handed police behaviour…but Simon and Milo slipped the escort. Back to the boozer for 1pm. Milo settled down in front of the Everton vs. Liverpool game, but was more content with the book he was reading.

Had two pints of Grolsch and had a good old natter with Simon and Cathy. It was soon time to set off for the stadium though. We left the pub at just before 2pm, just as a taxi arrived outside containing Mark, Lee and Jon. A quick “hello goodbye” and then the five minute drive to the ground. Stoke’s old ground was down in the valley, a mile away, under the ridge of high land called Penkhull, but the new place was on high land to the east, in a place called Sideway.

Managed to find a place to park…jeez, cars were parked everywhere…on grass verges, on pavements, on roundabouts, despite “Police Tow Away Zone” signs. I took a nice shot of Simon and Milo next to the Cauldon Canal, with the sleek stands of The Brittania way up on the hill behind.

There is a lovely statue of Stoke’s most famous son, Sir Stanley Matthews, behind the Boothen End…it shows the great player on a mazy dribble…first as a 16 year old Stoke debutant, then in his prime as a England and Blackpool player, then in his last years, as a 50 year old Stoke player, just about to shoot.

It’s a magnificent statue.

The scene under the Chelsea seats, once I had walked through the turnstiles, was one of noise and mayhem. About 200 beered-up Chelsea fans were doing the “Bouncy Bouncy” and some were throwing full bottles of Carslberg up in the air. It was mad. Saw a few friends as I made a bee-line for my seat up in row 26, alongside Alan and Gary.

The 3,000 away fans were in great voice in the first twenty minutes. Stoke’s song of choice is “Delilah” and that rocked the stadium on a few occasions.

We played well in the first-half, with Mikel strong and Frank probing us forward. What a lovely move down the right and a great strike from Bosingwa. Stoke made life hard for us though. We thought that Drogba still doesn’t look 100% match fit.

Alan Hudson did the draw at half-time.

We looked a bit laboured in the second-half to be honest, but once Anelka had scored a second, we came on strong again and played some nice stuff. It was great to hear a new song being aired…quite simple…”Juliano Belletti.” Did anyone hear this? Yep, we were in good voice…our away support is so much better than the home support. Everyone seems that more committed.

At the final whistle, I raced down to where my car was parked and – unbelievably – was on the M6 south by 5.15pm. I liked that!

Stopped for a coffee just south of Brum…and the last 90 minutes was spent listening to the commentary on the radio of Arsenal vs. Hull City. I don’t think anybody expected that result! Beth could hardly believe me when I told her the Goons were losing 2-1. It was a nervy last twenty minutes though, as I drove through Bristol…that Gallas header that hit the bar…ho ho.

A great day out ended with Chelsea top of the table… Arsenal losing at home…the weekend would end with Tottenham losing…Tottenham bottom of the table.

Happy days, duck.

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