Tales From Another Semi

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 22 April 2018.

It was around 7.30pm and we had just bought a round of drinks in “The Swan”, a high-ceilinged public house placed between the two buildings which form Hammersmith tube station. It had taken a while to leave Wembley Stadium, what with the wait for our eventual train south, and then changes onto the underground system and we were momentarily paused on our way back to Barons Court where my car was parked. We sat on stools at a high table, soon toasted ourselves – “the final” – and quietly chatted about the day. There had been blue Chelsea flags for everyone in the Chelsea section at Wembley, and Glenn had placed our four on the table. They would eventually be handed out to young Chelsea fans that we know; a nice little gift for the youngsters. Only last week, I had called in to see a neighbour who was looking after eight-year-old two twin boys for the day – the sons of my once next-door neighbours who moved to a nearby village a few years back – and I passed over a blue and white chequered flag from a few years back to Alphie. His face was a picture. I did feel a little embarrassed that I had nothing for his brother Isaac – who purportedly favours Manchester City – but I had to laugh when Isaac told me that he liked Chelsea too. I quickly put him in his place

“You can’t support two teams!”

And then I felt guilty that I had publicly chastised him.

Anyway, I had plans to give one of the Chelsea flags from Wembley to Alphie  – “you’ve made the wrong choice, Isaac, sorry” – and send the other one over to a young relative in Australia, who I recently learned was a Chelsea supporter. They would be nice reminders of yet another semi-final victory.

It had been a long day. I was awake at around 7am and I had collected the three other Chuckle Brothers by 8.30am. We would not be home until 10.30pm at least. This football lark can be tiresome.  The chat slowed and we stared at our drinks. Then, a chap with a Boss T-shirt and a pint of Guinness spotted the four Chelsea flags and approached us. It looked like he had enjoyed a few drinks as he was slurring his words slightly, and his girlfriend was hanging back a little.

“Why are you looking sad? You are Chelsea fans. You won, right?”

It was clear from his accent that he was from mainland Europe – I initially thought he was Dutch – and his words touched a nerve. Although I smiled in response, inside I was hurting. Had we become something that we had long hated? Had we become so used to success at Chelsea that we were blasé about yet another semi-final triumph? Was I at that stage in my long journey of Chelsea support that I had secretly dreaded? Was I taking all of this for granted? I experienced a few uneasy seconds as I tussled with the severity of the thoughts in my head. We replied that – indeed – it had been a very long day, and that he had caught us, maybe, at a weak moment. After all, what would he really want us to be doing? Constant somersaults and cartwheels on a Sunday evening? Anyway, we chatted about the game – “never really looked in trouble, just took a while to make it safe” – and the chap revealed that he was from a small town in Southern Denmark. He was in absolute awe that we went to every game – “a three-hour drive home, wow” – and he told how he was at Stamford Bridge for the Manchester United game last autumn. It seemed that they had watched from a corporate area. I wasn’t sure if he was a Chelsea fan too but his friend had been solemnly told that he couldn’t wear a Chelsea shirt – “that’s bullshit” – and we pulled faces of shock and astonishment, though I had heard long ago that colours are indeed not allowed in such areas. He gleefully admitted that his girlfriend – still keeping her distance – was a Manchester United fan, and he seemed happy that United had lost that game. I looked over at her and smiled but deep down I thought “it’ll never last.” For some inexplicable reason, none of us mentioned the FA Cup Final which would pit Chelsea and Manchester United once again. After a few more minutes, our drinks finished, we excused ourselves and left to head back to Barons Court.

At exactly 8pm, I pulled away from Barons Court, and pointed The Chuckle Bus west. Ahead was a fine drive home in the aftermath of another lovely day in the nation’s capital, with the sun slowly dipping beyond the horizon – but first a quick glimpse of the Wembley arch shining away in North London – and a clear night sky.

It had indeed been a good day.

After missing the excellent win at Turf Moor on Thursday – which was followed by the ridiculous over-reaction by many to that Alvaro Morata’s miss – it meant that it would be two consecutive Chelsea versus Southampton games for me. We had certainly been given a fantastic chance to reach an FA Cup Final with a semi against the relegation-threatened team. As for the first semi-final, played the previous evening, I could not have been happier. I was travelling back from a Frome Town game at Gosport Borough – the less said about that the better – and did not even listen to the match on the radio. But I was very happy that Spurs had lived down to expectations. A potential final against Manchester United would be absolutely fine. The thought of losing to Mourinho’s team in the final would be tough, but not nearly as horrific as a loss in an FA Cup Final to Tottenham. Beating them, of course, would be wonderful, but it was just too much of a risk. The stakes would be too great. A loss to Spurs in the final would go straight into a top three of most miserable Chelsea games.

But – wait!

This is Tottenham we are talking about.

1993 : Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.

1995 : Everton 4 Tottenham 1.

1999 : Newcastle United 2 Tottenham 0.

2001 : Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1.

2010 : Portsmouth 2 Tottenham 0.

2012 : Chelsea 5 Tottenham 1.

2017 : Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2.

2018 : Manchester United 2 Tottenham 1.

The pleasure in avoiding Spurs was a view shared by the Kent lads – yes, them again, they love a Chuckle Brothers pub crawl – as we enjoyed our first pints of the day in “The Swan”, a former coaching inn from the eighteenth century at the northern edge of Hyde Park, adjacent to Lancaster Gate tube station, and close to the FA’s former HQ. The pub was dotted with a few Chelsea fans, and one or two Southampton fans too. We then walked out into the bright London sunshine towards Paddington Station, popping into “The Sussex Arms” for one, and then on to “Fountains Abbey” where the London chaps had been based since midday. There was little talk of the semi-final, as so often is the way. We were so sorry to hear that one of our friends – John, who lives very close to Paddington / Marylebone / Edgware Road – had lost his mother on the Wednesday. Gillian, Kev and Rich were down from Scotland and it was great to see them once more. Kev told me that it was his first-ever visit to Wembley. I could tell he was excited. We had heard rumours that neither Chelsea nor Southampton had sold all the tickets available to both teams. This raised a few eyebrows. There was talk of high ticket prices, but I had a distinct feeling that if we had drawn Tottenham or Manchester United, our allocation would have been snapped up. I definitely got the impression that for many it was a case of “Southampton? Can’t be bothered.”

Time was now accelerating away, and it was time to move. We legged it to Marylebone, bumped into the usual suspects at the Sports Bar outside, but then had to wait a while to catch the 2.30pm train. We were certainly leaving it late, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion.

We alighted at Wembley Stadium station at just after 2.45pm.

“Be a miracle if we see kick-off.”

There seems to be more and more construction at Wembley with each visit. Hotels are going up at a fair rate of knots. There is already a designer outlet nearby. If, as seems likely, we will be residing at Wembley in the near future – a subject worthy of a wholly separate piece in itself, maybe even a separate website – then maybe we will eventually decide to drink at the hotel bars nearby. Wembley was festooned with huge advertising. I still loathe the new national stadium. It is as charming as an aircraft hangar.

I took a photograph of Kev with the curve of the arch behind him.

“Enjoy Wembley mate. And don’t break the crossbar.”

We made it inside the upper tier with about five minutes gone, thus missing out on the pre-match presentations. That Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had done us again. Just outside the seating area, in the concourse, there was an “oooooh” as Chelsea went close.

We had seats halfway back in the top tier, above the south-east corner. Southampton had our usual western end. Bloody hell, there were swathes of empty seats in their top tier. And bizarrely, these were the cheapest seats, at just thirty quid. How very odd. There were hundreds and hundreds of empty seats dotted around our two tiers. I looked around and spotted familiar faces in our section; Dutch Mick and Gary, the two Bobs, Scott, Mark, The Youth and Seb.

A quick check of our team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

A quick check of the supporters.

In the lower tier of the western end, it looked to me that every single Southampton supporter was standing.

In the opposite end, down to my right, only the supporters in the sections behind the corner posts were standing.

This, in simple terms, suggested to me that they were more “up for it” than us.

There certainly seemed to me more noise being generated by their red and white bedecked supporters.

Sitting next to me was a young family, parents with two children under the age of seven. The two kids soon looked bored. Over the course of the game, the mother hardly spoke to the kids. I wondered why they were there. Elsewhere, despite the first part of the game being dominated by Chelsea, there was little noise.

I tried to join in when any semblance of a chant tried to get going, but all around me people were sat on their hands.

Watching not supporting.

Fucking hell.

The stadium is so huge, so impersonal, with few – if any – unique features, that it just deadens any enjoyment for me. The Club Wembley level was only half-full at best. Down on the pitch, Chelsea were still dominating, with tons of possession and pretty patterns, moving the ball this way and that, and with Kante the metronome in the middle, keeping the rhythm, and with Willian and Hazard stretching Southampton, we looked like the only team that would score.

Willian, in Willian territory, dipped a free-kick just over the bar.

The Saints fans were still making more noise. Their song reminded me of Tottenham, shudder. Although I live only sixty or so miles from Southampton, I have only known three friends/workmates/acquaintances that have been Southampton fans. One of them, Duncan – a workmate from twenty years ago, who I see once every few years – was not at the game, but he posted a lovely photograph on Facebook of his mother at the game, smiling, flag in hand, Saints scarf around her neck. Her beaming smile was wonderful. She was certainly “up for the cup.”

A rare chance for Southampton came on twenty-five minutes, but Caballero saved from Lemina.

We only created a few half-chances though. Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, in the same way that we had run out of songs.

Olivier Giroud teed up a chance for himself with a deft flick from a Fabregas cross but his follow-up volley was wide.

At the break, all was quiet in Wembley Stadium.

There had been so much swearing emanating from the mouth of one of the Chuckle Brothers throughout the first-half, that when I got back to my seat midway through the halftime break, and saw the family of four to my left were missing, I did wonder if they had left early, never to be seen again. Imagine my surprise when they returned with hot dogs and crisps costing half a weekly wage. These people were in it for the duration and I was somehow soothed.

The game restarted, and I spoke to Glenn about the huge section of empty seats behind the dugouts – the “Club Wanker” section – and bemoaned, for the fifty seventh thousand time, the state of modern football.

“Twats.”

A Chelsea move built and then a foul. Cesc Fabregas sent over a lovely cross towards Hazard, who did ever so well to pass the ball onto Giroud. My next thought was purely personal.

“Bollocks, I haven’t got my camera at the ready and this looks like a goal to me.”

With that, Giroud seemed to stumble and yet maintain possession. Everything happened in slow motion as he fended off a few challenges, and stabbed a leg out to send the ball home.

Camera or no camera, I roared and we all roared.

GET IN.

Giroud spun away and celebrated with team mates and then the manager.

Almost immediately, there was the usual text exchange with Alan.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Perfect.

There was a salvo of song from the Chelsea end – about bloody time – but we were quietened when Shane Long took a very heavy touch with only Caballero to beat. The ball raced away for a goal-kick and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The first change took place on the hour, and Conte – the pragmatic Italian – went for safety first in an attempt to shore up our shape, replacing the effervescent Willian with the boo boys’ favourite Tiemoue Bakayoko. The boos rang around Wembley. I wasn’t surprised.

Hazard moved forward alongside Giroud, with the midfield bolstered by an extra man. Only the second Southampton chance of the entire game resulted in a Caballero save – somehow, I am not sure how, or with which body part – from Redmond. The game was opening up and, surely, this would be to our advantage. A Hazard thunderbolt was tipped over by McCarthy. The little Belgian then sent over a perfect rabona which Victor Moses just failed to reach. Hazard was at his teasing best, the certain star. Two more substitutions took place.

Pedro for Fabregas.

Morata for Giroud.

After being on the pitch for just three minutes, Morata was able to wiggle between two defenders and head home from another sublime Azpilicueta cross. I managed to capture this on film. The ball seemed to take forever to drop, and it looked like it would eventually go wide from our view high up in section 521. At last the net rippled and the goal was wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Southampton 0.

We felt safe now, but Austin hit the base of the far post from an acute angle. Morata then went close on two occasions at the other end.

At last, the referee Martin Atkinson whistled the end of the game.

Phew.

It was hardly comparable to the semi-final against Spurs exactly 365 days previously, but we had done it. It was the worst atmosphere I have ever experienced at a semi-final and that definitely detracted from the day. But we had reached our sixth FA Cup Final in twelve seasons. What a record. Quite phenomenal. One more win would put us at joint-third in the all-time list of winners – alongside Tottenham of all teams – and only behind Arsenal and Manchester United.

In the queue for the trains back to Marylebone, Pat Nevin waltzed past and it made my day. As the line slowly zig-zagged along, I spotted my friend Duncan’s mother only a few yards away. I had never previously met his Mum, although both Duncan and I grew up just a couple of miles apart, but I was sure it was her. Duncan had told me that his mother had recently been bitten by the football bug and was now a season ticket holder at their home games. The line shuffled along, and eventually I was able to catch up with her and say “hi.” I took a selfie of us and sent it to Duncan. Lovely.

We eventually took the train south, and things felt very familiar indeed.

And here’s a well-used sign-off.

“See you at Wembley.”

For John’s mother : RIP.

Tales From Twenty-Eight Games

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 April 2018.

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

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

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

“Three more years, three more years.”

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

Thankfully, Easter Saturday passed with no tragic updates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stamford Bridge looked perfect.

Stamford Bridge was ready.

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

The game?

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

Thirty-two years ago!

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

It has been quite a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very very slowly.

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

In that period, my personal favourites would be :

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

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

IMG_6014 (2)

The stadium erupted.

“GET IN YOU FUCKER.”

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

“THTCAUN.”

I replied “COMLD.”

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

That risible Spurs song kept getting an airing :

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

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

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

The thing I love most is being a knobhead.”

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

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

OH FUCK IT.

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

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

The Spurs support roared and roared and roared.

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

“Oh…when…the…Spurs…”

This was hideous stuff.

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

And one song ringing in my ears all afternoon.

“We are Tottenham…from the Lane.”

Ugh.

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

It was not to be. The run was over.

There would be post mortems for hours on end.

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

I had a stifled laugh to myself.

Does it really mean that much, Tottenham?

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

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

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

What tripe.

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

See you next Sunday.

Tales From A Second-Half Renaissance

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 26 December 2017.

We bloody loved the trip up to Everton at the weekend. It had been a text-book away day, apart from that elusive win. And here we all were again, heading up to Chelsea once more for the Boxing Day encounter with newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion.

The four Chuckle Brothers were joined by PD’s eldest Scott, who is an occasional visitor to Chelsea with us. Within minutes, Glenn was confusing his name with PD’s other son. This seemingly embarrassing faux pas is not unusual. Very often, PD himself confuses the two. I blame it on the cider. Within minutes, a new song was soon invented :

“Scotty Daniels, we’ll just call you Grant.”

The chuckling had begun.

I had left Frome at 8am and, at 11am, I was parked-up on Bramber Road, amid acres of empty parking spaces. The idea was for a quick couple of pints in “The Rylston” for a change, but they were not open. We de-camped to the familiar confines of The Goose, and took residence in a pokey corner.

“Peroni please, mate. Cheers.”

Brighton. It had dawned on me the previous evening that, barring a pre-season friendly against them in 2012, I had never seen them play Chelsea. I knew that we played them in two Second Division seasons in the ‘eighties, but I attended none of those four games. Was that it? Just four games? I had to investigate further. Indeed, those four games in 1983/1984 and 1988/1989 were our only games against them in the league. It seemed slightly implausible, to be honest. But it was true. The team from Sussex by the Sea spent most of their history in the lower levels of the Football League, and gained promotion to the First Division in 1978/1979 for the very first time – along with their rivals Crystal Palace, an enmity born through necessity I suspect, every team needs a rival – just as we were relegated from the top tier. By the time we were to meet for the first time in the league, just after Christmas in 1983, Brighton had been relegated, but not before an FA Cup Final against Manchester United. Another meeting in 1988/1989 was then followed by a huge fall from grace for Brighton, who were forced out of their idiosyncratic Goldstone Ground – which I once visited with Scunthorpe United, please don’t ask – and a ground share at Gillingham, some seventy miles away in Kent. There then followed a spell at the unloved Withdean Athletics Stadium in Brighton; but at least they were home. In 2011, they moved into the Amex Stadium at Falmer. Their story, like that of Charlton Athletic and AFC Wimbledon, is a heart-warming tale of how a football club can re-establish itself after years in the wilderness. Their promotion in May must have brought many a tear to some of their older fans.

Fair play.

My mate Walnuts lives in Brighton, and through him, I got to know several Brighton-based Chelsea supporters a while back. On this day, though, I was looking forward to meeting up with a Brighton season-ticket holder in The Goose prior to the game. I bumped into Mac in a lovely bar in New York prior to our game against Manchester City in May 2013, and through our shared love of football, we got on like a house on fire. We kept in touch via the occasional football-related text, and then reconnected via Facebook after my old phone died. With no trains from Brighton to London on Boxing Day, Mac had managed to bribe one of his friends, Nick, to drive up. They were soon parked up on Bramber Road and it was a pleasure to see Mac once again.

I spent a lovely time chatting to Mac, Nick, Mac’s wife Alice, and another friend Bruce in our corner of the pub. It has certainly been an enjoyable time for them this season, though I could tell that the memory of a woeful Albion performance at Huddersfield recently was still raw. We shared a few stories and a few chuckles. It was lovely.

I was reminded of a story that Mac shared with me in New York of that pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which Parky and myself attended. It took place on a Saturday afternoon. Nothing too surprising or unremarkable about that, eh? Apart from the fact that it was the day of Mac’s brother’s wedding. Mac was itching to leave the ceremony as soon as he could, though nobody really expected him to carry it off. Midway through the reception, Mac sidled off and – without letting his brother know – zipped over to the game to watch as Albion beat us 3-1. I had to admire his nerve. To make it better, when Mac arrived back at the reception, he brazenly asked his brother “where have you been hiding?” and his poor brother had to apologise for “avoiding” him for three hours.

Classic.

At 2.30pm, we all left the pub and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

A match programme was purchased.

On the front cover was a cheesy photograph of Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata in Chelsea Christmas jumpers.

Kill me now.

No surprises, Brighton had brought a full three-thousand, but – strangely – not one single flag.

We had briefly chatted about the likelihood of Antonio Conte choosing 3-5-2 over a 3-4-3.

It looked like a 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

There are always a few empty seats at Boxing Day games, but there were not many around us. This was a good show by the inhabitants of The Sleepy Hollow. Children are rarely seen in this part of the season for regular league games, but a couple were spotted. Christmas treats, no doubts.

This was our fifth consecutive home game on Boxing Day, and our eleventh of the past thirteen Boxing Day games. It means that these games are relatively easy for us to attend, ironically easier than many who live in London, who have to rely on multiple buses and restricted train services. It has, however, taken away a little festive buzz from this most traditional of football fixtures. Oh how I would enjoy a Boxing Day game at another venue for a change.

As the game began, I had visions of thousands of folk across the US wishing co-workers a “happy Boxing Day”, expecting a stony-silence, awaiting the chance to enlighten them on this most English of traditions, but being met by the same response.

Brandy : “You’re an English soccer fan, right?”

Candy : “Ugh…yeah.”

Brandy : “AWESOME.”

Candy : [exit, stage left, crestfallen]

In my thoughts about this game, I was fully expecting Brighton to line-up in their yellow and “colour of indiscernible hue, maybe green, maybe brown, maybe grey” – a Nike disaster – but instead they opted for a more conservative all black.

I had already spoken to Glenn about the Brighton players; “Apart from the boy wonder Dunk – what a name – and his own-goal exploits of magnificence, I am going to find it difficult to name any Brighton player.”

I had to laugh at the Brighton player Propper.

“Bloody good job they have no player called Chels.”

In the pub, a few of us had spoken about how much we loathe the phrase “Proper Chels.”

[gasps from the gallery]

For that matter, the word “Chels” annoys me to death if it is used outside of the ninety minutes of a match. You will never catch any of us saying “going to London to watch Chels”, “I thought Chels played well last night”, “Hazard is a great Chels player”, “I’m a big Chels fan.”

I can feel my teeth grating as I write this. Anyway, those of you who have been reading these match reports over the past ten seasons, will certainly be smiling at all this. My views don’t change much with age.

We began the stronger and Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard had a shot apiece in the opening ten minutes. Over in the far corner, unsurprisingly the away fans were leading the way in the community singing department. There was a reprise for the song which was sung by our visitors from Bournemouth a few weeks back.

“Just like The Emirates.”

It must be a south coast thing. On a quarter of an hour, the visitors enjoyed a little possession, but this soon petered out against the formidable defensive block of Toni Rudiger, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta.

There was more Billy Ray Cyrus from the away section.

Fuck off.

Stamford Bridge was like a bloody morgue once again, though, and I struggled to find much enjoyment from the match being played out in front of me because of it.

“If I am a Chelsea fan, and you all are too, then why on bloody Earth are so many of you so determined to utter not a word of encouragement nor a song of praise? How can I possibly enjoy spending this most sacred of times with so many of you who do not share my passion. What has happened? Why is everything so different now? I hate it and I hate it as much as I love Chelsea.”

A snap shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko following a Rudiger header at the back post after a Cesc Fabregas cross went wide. We were in control, but with little end product. A beautiful, lofted pass into space from Fabregas allowed Victor Moses to advance, but his shot was smothered at the near post. Rudiger picked out Fabregas with another well-placed lob – a feature of his play, I think – but the ball ran on too quickly.

Chances were as rare as a wise man on Talk Sport and a virgin in Romford.

There was a rare shout of support from the home fans.

“ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

The Brighton fans replied :

“We forgot that you were here.”

So had I. Our play was middling at best, not awful, but just average. But it was the woeful atmosphere that had discombobulated me so much.

Was I here?

I wasn’t sure.

It worried me that Brighton’s Ezequiel Schelotto appeared to resemble a character in “Gladiators”, a show that I have never watched…

I was clearly slipping away into some outlandish world of make-believe…

Needing to jolt out of this, I let out a few desperate yelps of encouragement.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

“COME ON CHELS.”

I am sure Mac heard me in the Shed Lower.

Fabregas planted a low drive straight at the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan. It was our first shot for a while. I had just commented to Glenn that Morata had not yet been involved. To prove me wrong, just before the end of the half, Dave curved a high ball towards Morata. Unfortunately, the Spanish striker headed well wide.

And that was that. One of the dullest forty-five minutes of the season. Thibaut had finished two word search compendiums. I reiterate, the players had not played poorly en masse. Brighton had defended deep. We just lacked a cutting edge.

But the supporters had certainly had a ‘mare.

The one bright spot concerned the news from Old Trafford, where Burnley were winning 2-0 against Manchester United. In our quest for second-place, this was a piece of very good news.

The second-half began and it began with an almighty crash of theatre and noise. From a slightly wider position than his cross in the first-half, Dave thumped one into the Albion box. It is a scene which is particularly familiar this season, but we will never tire of it.

A cross from Dave. A leap from Alvaro.

A downward header, a slam past Dunk, and a beautiful goal.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

At last there was noise.

There are miracles at Christmas in 2017 after all.

With the goal, came a noted upsurge in confidence from the players and a lot more involvement from the home supporters. But I still found it ironic when the Matthew Harding Lower rounded on the away fans :

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Oh boy.

There was a fine layup by Bakayoko – better than in a few of his recent performances – to Hazard, but the shot went wide. We were awarded a free-kick, and both Alonso and Fabregas lined up to take it. Glenn thought it was too far out for Alonso. I wasn’t so sure. Our Spanish left-back swiped and the ball flew over the Albion wall, only for Ryan to provide the save of the match thus far. From the resulting corner, that man Alonso saw his header saved by the ‘keeper. It was all Chelsea now and corner followed corner.

On the hour, Cesc zipped a low corner into the six-yard box, and Alonso did well to reach the ball first. His glancing header forced the ball into the waiting net.

Oh you beauty.

The game was surely safe now.

Just after, we broke with lightning speed, first through the little legs of N’Golo Kante and then via Eden Hazard. Of all people, Dunk recovered to clear off the line. Own goal number four of the season would have to wait. Just after, Hazard was forced wide inside the box, with Bakayoko only able to steer his pass wide of the post.

The Albion fans were still digging us out.

“Two nil and you still don’t sing.”

Willian replaced Hazard. Along with the zest of Moses and Alonso, he had been the star of our second-half renaissance. Elsewhere, Kante was as solid as ever. I liked Rudiger; his stock grows with each game.

Brighton enjoyed a few late efforts on our goal with the game virtually over – “typical” I can hear Mac saying – but our goal never looked like being breeched. Antonio brought on Michy Batshuayi for Morata. There was a shot from distance from N’Golo Kante just before Conte replaced him with Danny Drinkwater. Shots from Willian and Dave did not bother Ryan in the goal down below us.

“Blue Is The Colour” rang out as we exited Stamford Bridge. It had been – cliché warning – a game of two halves, but one which we surely deserved to win. As we walked down the steps, the news drifted through that United had battled back to draw 2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Not to worry, we were now only one point adrift of the fuckers. The season is only just over the halfway mark. I am very confident that we will pip them, and all the rest, for second place.

Stoke City visit HQ on Saturday. I will see some of you there. Please make sure that you bring your songbook.

IMG_2671

Tales From The Chuckle Bus

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 29 November 2017.

After thousands of miles of travel for away games against West Brom, Qarabag and Liverpool, Chelsea Football Club were now due to play three consecutive home matches within the space of just seven days. The first of this little stretch of games was against Paul Clement’s ailing Swansea City. After this midweek match, pushing us on in to the month of December, there would be a further nine matches; it would be one of our busiest months. Beginning with this Swansea City game at Stamford Bridge, there seemed to be a line of eight league games which were – on paper, if not grass – definitely “winnable.”

I’ll be honest here. I was hoping for a vast haul of points from these encounters against teams which were mainly in the lower-half of the table.

Could we win every one? Possibly. Quite possibly.

At 2pm, I left work. I had been awake since 5am, and at work since 6am. It would be a long day for me. Five minutes later, I was sat in the pub opposite with PD and Lord Parky, waiting for Glenn to join us, who had also left work at two o’clock. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold; the coldest of the season thus far. After enjoying a pint of Peroni – “cheers, Parky” – and a bite to eat, PD steered The Chuckle Bus towards the M4. We left Melksham at around 3pm. On the drive to London, I thankfully grabbed an hour of sleep.

We were parked up at around 5.15pm.

Coats on. We were all layered-up.

I headed off to Stamford Bridge to meet up with a couple of folk. Outside the megastore, Eric – who I first met at our game in Ann Arbor in Michigan last summer – was waiting for me. Eric had just arrived in London from Toronto and this would be his first ever game at Stamford Bridge. It was lovely to see him again. His smile was wide and I gave him a hug. There is a gaggle of people that I know from the Toronto Blues, and I had promised myself that I would give Eric a little tour before we joined up with the boys in the boozer.

[ For those who have been reading these match reports for a while now, you can be excused if you decide to skip the next few paragraphs. I always tend to point out the same selection of sights for the many first time visitors who it has been my absolute pleasure to show around Stamford Bridge. ]

I retraced some very familiar steps.

We started under The Shed Wall, and there was a brief re-cap of the stadium redevelopment, and then up to the Copthorne Hotel where I met up with my good friend Gill. We had sadly arrived just after the former-players who now take care of hospitality at Chelsea had departed. I was hoping to get a few photos of Eric with some of our most famous names.

“Maybe next time, Eric.”

I pointed out the “Butcher’s Hook” – aka “The Rising Sun” – where our club was formed in 1905 and we strolled down past the stalls on the Fulham Road. I spotted friends Michelle and Dane tucking in to some pie, mash and liquor outside a food stall by the Oswald Stoll Buildings; this is a new feature, I must give that a go one day soon. We purposefully avoided the grafters selling “half and half scarves”. We stopped off at the programme stall outside the tube station which is manned by my friend Steve – who only lives ten miles away from me in Evercreech in Somerset – and we flicked through a few of his vintage programmes. I told Eric how I dropped off a few boxes of programmes at his house a few years back, and I was dumbstruck with the amount of Chelsea memorabilia that he had stored in his double-garage; floor to ceiling shelves, just ridiculous. In my youth I used to collect Chelsea programmes – my oldest one dates back to 1947, the days of Tommy Lawton – but I only buy home programmes these days. I have no double-garage to store stuff, though I wish I did. We crossed the road and chatted to DJ, Mark and Tim at the CFCUK stall. I spoke about the nearby Fulham Town Hall, where the cup celebrations of 1970 and 1971 took place, and also how we joined in with the joyous celebrations of 1997 – and to a much lesser extent, 2000 – with thousands of other Chelsea fans at the junction of Fulham Road and Vanston Place. We peered down the now disused “match-day overflow” exit steps of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station and personal memories came flooding back. I pointed out the many pubs and bars which cluster around our home. Past “The Broadway Bar & Grill”, past “McGettigans” and past “The Elk Bar”. These are three bars that we seldom ever use to be honest. Our little tour stopped at “Simmons Bar” just a few doors down from “The Cock Tavern.”

Inside, The Chuckle Brothers were crowded around our usual table. I quickly introduced Eric to the boys.

I had joked that for one night only, Eric would be an honorary Chuckle Brother.

“Two pints of Estrella please, mate.”

My mates warmly welcomed Eric to the fold. There were laughs – chuckles – aplenty.

Eric’s ticket was just a few blocks away from us in The Sleepy Hollow. He is going to the other two games in our home stand too, and has tickets in three separate stands as he wanted to experience different views and perspectives. I warned him that the atmosphere against Swansea would be, in all probability, pretty dire.

Sadly, I am unable to go to the away game at Huddersfield Town in a fortnight; my friend Daryl was looking for a ticket. I was very happy to oblige.

Eric needed me to clarify something.

“How come the Chuckle Brothers don’t wear Chelsea shirts?”

My first thoughts were :

“Where to start? So much to say in so little time.”

I briefly gave a potted history of the cult-with-no-name (Liverpool 1977, the end of the skinheads, the wedge, my personal epiphany during season 1983/84, fighting and fashion, the waxing and waning of certain labels, the whole nine yards) and Eric lapped it all up. As we were set to leave, I pointed out someone a few yards away tying an Aquascutum scarf around his neck before setting off for the match.

“You’ll see that scarf a lot at Chelsea over the next week.”

The chat continued as Alan, Eric and I walked past a few coffee shops along Jerdan Place.

The weather was bitter.

Outside the West Stand, a Chelsea Christmas tree dominated the scene. The West Stand was lit up with thousands of white lights.

“Bloody hell, was it a year ago that we were met with this same view?”

I made sure Eric bought a match programme for his first game at HQ. I also made sure that I captured his first sighting of the inside of Stamford Bridge. Inside, there was another photo with the Chuckle Brothers in The Sleepy Hollow. I was keen to hear of Eric’s first thoughts, and almost drowned in a tide of “awesome overload”.

Bless.

The teams entered the pitch and Eric took his place in Block 11 of the Matthew Harding, no more than twenty yards away. Over in the far corner, there were gaps among the Swansea City support. I suspect they brought around one thousand.

The first meaningful moment of the evening was heart-wrenchingly sad.

The players assembled in the centre-circle to remember the former Chelsea youth team coach Dermot Drummy who had tragically passed away at the age of fifty-six on Monday. Dermot was well-loved at Stamford Bridge. He was particularly friendly with my friend Gill, who has followed the young lads for many seasons.

Rest In Peace Dermot Drummy.

The home programme also remembered the sad passing of Allan Harris, who passed away on 23 November. I wondered if his loss would be remembered on Saturday.

It had been a busy pre-match for me.

I quickly checked the team, which was aligned in the 3-4-3 of last season. I like it that Antonio can change it around.

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, there was a rest for both Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard. I wondered what the future holds for David Luiz. I will certainly be sad if he moves on. He is one of those characters that divides opinion but last season he was exemplary, proving many “experts” wrong. But Andreas Christensen has excelled this season; he does not deserve to be dropped.

The game began. Despite many spares floating around on the internet, there were not as many empty seats dotted around that I had feared. Coats and jackets were worn buttoned to the chin. It was shockingly cold.

An early shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” soon petered out and the noise levels were indeed as low as I had expected.

Sigh.

We dominated possession and were well on top. Swansea City, in all Welsh red, rarely struck more than a few passes together. Their recent halcyon days under Brendan Rodgers and then Michael Laudrup seem distant. A shot from an angle by Alonso was deflected over. Willian then spun a free-kick in from over by the East Stand and it curled just past the far post, evading everybody. It was Willian who looked the busiest of our players in the opening period, though we were soon treated to a few Duracell Bunny escapades up the right flank from Davide Zappacosta. A header from Morata here, a blocked shot there. On many occasions in the first-half, the final ball from the right flank – from either Willian or Zappacosta or Fabregas was aimed at Morata on the far post, but there was neither pinpoint accuracy nor the required numbers in the box to guide the ball home. On a couple of occasions, the ball flashed untouched across the six-yard box. The best move of the entire first-half was just wonderful; Andreas Christensen harnessed the ball under his control down below us, then played a crisp ball out to N’Golo Kante. A few one-touch passes worked the ball out to the waiting Marcos Alonso on the left, before more crisp passing moved the ball out to the right flank. The resultant cross – typically – just evaded Morata’s leap.

Midway through the first-half, apart from the chant for the manager at the start, there had not been a single coherent song from the home support. I wondered what Eric made of it.

A lovely cushioned effort from Morata, meeting a cross on the volley, drew a reflex save from Fabianski. It reminded me – kinda – of Fernando Torres’ goal at Arsenal in 2012.

Down below us, Thibaut Courtois popped behind the goal at the Matthew Harding and borrowed a pen from a Chelsea supporter, and then pulled out a word search paperback from his kitbag. He leaned against the near post and set to work, occasionally flicking the pen up and down to get the ink flowing on this coldest of evenings.

After only ten minutes, I spotted him punch the air and throw the book back into his net.

Another one nailed. Good work Thibaut.

At the other end, Alonso reached row ZZ of The Shed Upper.

As the half-continued, I lost count of the number of balls that were zipped in by Zappacosta and whipped in by Willian but alas no goal was forthcoming. One cross appeared to be deflected behind by a Swansea City player but a goal-kick was signalled by referee Neil Swarbrick. Over on the far touchline, there was a melee (the word “melee” is surely only used in football reportage) and Antonio Conte was sent-off, presumably for dissent.

Oh great.

Angelo Alessio took over the work of the manager in the technical area.

I mentioned to Alan that the same Alessio played, and scored, in the very first Juventus match that I witnessed in person, just over thirty years ago. I wish that I had realised this when I briefly chatted to the very pleasant Alessio at the Chelsea hotel in Beijing in July.

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

I never tire of how football keeps providing odd little moments like this; watching Juve high on the Curva Maratona in November 1987, I would never have thought that the relatively unknown midfielder would, for an hour, be coaxing my beloved Chelsea from the touchline in 2017.

At the half-time whistle, we wondered if Thibaut had even touched the ball with his hands.

We thought not.

On another day, Morata would have already had a hat-trick ball in his possession.

During the break, a lovely moment. Neil Barnett introduced Paul Canoville, recovering now from a worrying health-scare, and he looked blown over by the reception. In 1983/84, Canners scored a hat-trick against Swansea at Stamford Bridge. A few photographs were inevitable.

After my comments about 1983/84 to Eric, I was pleased to see that the season was featured at length in the evening’s programme.

Soon into the second-half, at last a concerted Chelsea song, to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

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

After a fine set-up by that man Willian, Pedro repeated Alonso’s effort in the first-half and shot wildly over.

With ten minutes of the second-half gone, a short corner on our right was played square to Kante. Every Swansea City player was positioned within their penalty box and his fierce shot, not surprisingly hit a Swans defender. The ball was deflected on, and Toni Rudiger was well placed to head home.

His celebrations down in our corner – especially for Eric, ha – were undeniably euphoric.

Get in.

Alan – “They’ll have to come at us now, boyo.”

Chris – “Come on my little diamonds, bach.”

I got the impression that Morata was missing his usual partner Hazard, but an Osgood-esque header forced a fine save from Fabianski, who was by far the busiest goalkeeper. The game continued, and we had occasional shots on goal. We needed a second to settle the nerves, but our finishing seemed sub-standard. There was just something about us that didn’t seem right; but, as Alan said, maybe the three away games were having an effect. The supporters hardly made a peep the entire night; something was amiss there, too.

Throughout, Kante and Christensen were exceptional. I liked Willian’s efforts. Without Eden, he was our spark, our catalyst.

Thibaut at last had one save to make.

The night grew colder, the noise faded.

Victor Moses replaced Zappacosta, then Drinkwater and Hazard replaced Willian and Pedro.

There was the slightest of responses from the visitors. A cross from substitute Routledge should have tested us, but it drifted past the far post. Make no mistake about it, Swansea City had been dire all night long. In the circumstances, despite an average showing from us, we could have won 4-0 or 5-0.

Swansea City were that bad.

On the way out, one phrase dominated.

“We made fucking hard work of that.”

The Chuckle Brothers feasted on late night treats on the North End Road – ah the simple pleasure of hot food. However, the news of a late late winner for Manchester City brought collective groans. I would love our consecutive win streak from this time last year to remain for a few years yet.

Sadly, the trip home was a nightmare. Closures of the M4 forced The Chuckle Bus onto the M3, but that had closures too. We were pushed onto the M25, then through diversion signs and onto the southerly A3. Eventually, after skirting Guildford – yes really – we found ourselves back on the M3 and then the A303. Even that bloody road had a small diversion at Andover. I tried to grab some sleep, but gloriously failed.

PD eventually reached the pub car park at 1.30am and, after de-frosting my car, I reached home at the unearthly time of 2am.

I would be up again at 5am.

Midweek football. I bloody love it.

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Tales From A Day Of Heroes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 November 2017.

It was approaching 4pm and I was walking towards Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. I wanted to ensure that I was nicely settled before the annual display of remembrance that Chelsea Football Club always does so well, but which would take place a full six days before Saturday 11 November and a whole week before Remembrance Sunday. We had already stood for a minute of silence at Bournemouth last weekend to show our appreciation for those who had fallen while serving in our armed forces. It is right that football pays its respects. With each passing season, the displays become more impressive. I am sure that twenty years ago there was just a toot of the referee’s whistle, a minute of silence, and that was all. There was, of course, nothing wrong with that. I would hate to think that clubs want to “out-do” each other – that is surely not the point – but at the moment the balance seems to be just right.

I had purchased a paper poppy in the morning, but as so often happens, I soon managed to lose it as I walked down the North End Road. I then purchased a “1917 – 2017” enamel badge from a serving soldier underneath the old Shed wall in the early afternoon. I would have felt naked without a little splash of red on such a day.

As I approached the CFCUK stall outside the Fulham Town Hall and opposite the Fulham Broadway tube, I called in to say “hi” to a few of the Chelsea faithful. I chatted to Neil. Our paths have crossed a fair bit of late. I admitted that there seemed to be a general air of nervousness around the streets and pubs – I had visited three of them, but was on driving duties so was limited to “cokes” – and on the drive up to London, I think that the general view was “anything but a defeat.” But then I turned a little more optimistic.

“Imagine we get a win, though. It’ll be celebrated like the Chelsea of old. Say we win 1-0 with a goal in the second-half. The place will go wild.”

With a smile, I went on my way.

Thankfully, we had heard that N’Golo Kante had returned from injury and there were a few other changes too. Davide Zappacosta was in at right back. Andreas Christensen was in. But there was no David Luiz amid a sniff of a bust-up with Antonio Conte. There was no place for the wide men Pedro and Willian. But Bakayoko and Fabregas retained their spots. As I headed inside the stadium, I decided to wait until I saw the players line up at the kick-off before I could fathom out the shape of the team to face Manchester United.

Ah, United. I had picked them to finish in second place this season, behind their City rivals and ahead of us, but they have faltered lately. All three of us expected a defensive game-plan from the ultimate pragmatic strategist Mourinho. After two defeats at Stamford Bridge last season in league and cup, a third defeat for Mourinho’s new charges would be a tough pill to swallow.

But we lived in hope.

In the other Sunday games at the top, City continued to impress with a win against Arsenal while Spurs crawled over the line against Crystal Palace.

While wolfing down a McBreakfast in Melksham, we spotted two replica-kit wearing Arsenal fans, a father and young son. They were off to Manchester.

“Is it your son’s first away game” I enquired.

“No, no. We go to all the games. I’m teaching him to be a thug” – and a loud laugh.

I turned to PD and Parky and rolled my eyes.

Once I heard that Arsenal had lost 3-1, I quickly thought of Thug Life and Thug Lite and hoped that they were suffering a thoroughly miserable return journey from The Etihad.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at just after 4pm. A quick scan of the away end. A couple of flags from the visiting hordes caught my eye.

“Immerse Me In Your Splendour.”

Yet another musical reference from the United support; this time The Stone Roses.

Another one was a little more basic and direct : “UTFR.”

The Chelsea flags were out in force too. Over at The Shed, the white banner with a red poppy was on show again:

“Chelsea Supporters Will Remember Them.”

The place filled to capacity.

It had been a busy day for me, flitting around, taking a few photographs, soaking in the atmosphere, “tut-tutting” at friendship scarves.

Earlier, I had met Janette – visiting from Los Angeles – in the Copthorne Hotel, but her visit back home to England was heart-wrenchingly emotional. Her brother, who I had briefly met a few seasons ago in The Goose, has been ill with cancer for some time and is now in a hospice in South London. It was difficult to know what to say. The two of them recently celebrated their birthdays – on consecutive days – and I am sure that this brought a small but priceless morsel of joy in tough times.

Janette certainly touched a nerve when she admitted that it would be fitting for him to leave as a “champion.”

It was good to see Janette again, albeit in tough times.

With ten minutes to go, with no real introduction, “Heroes” by David Bowie was played. It provided the understated backdrop as members of the armed forces carried a large banner on to the centre-circle, then stretched it out. A Chelsea crest and a scarlet poppy was featured and it mirrored a large banner pinned to the upper heights of the hotel above The Shed.

This was just right.

“I, I will be king.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away.

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

It brought back memories of Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode singing the same song as his tribute to David Bowie at the concert I saw at the London Stadium in the summer. In the opposite corner of the Matthew Harding, another large flag bearing club crests and a poppy appeared over the heads of supporters. On the pitch, members of the air force, army and navy stood between large letters denoting “Chelsea Remembers.”

Just enough.

The teams appeared from the tunnel. I looked up to see a few Chelsea Pensioners in the East Middle. A penny for their thoughts. The teams walked past the poppy in the centre circle. The red of the visiting United team seemed apt on such an afternoon.

Then, a few moments later, the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle.

Silence.

Not a sound.

Perfect.

I hoped that a few Chelsea heroes would shine on this bristling afternoon in West London, but the focus was really on the heroes who have gone before and on those who protect us today.

I turned once again to football.

Nemanja Matic received a pretty decent round of applause from the home supporters. Not so much the opposing management team.

The game began.

It took me a few moments, but it looked like we had packed the midfield, with Eden Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata in attack.

So much for a dour and defensive game. After Rome – I still contend that we were well in it until the second goal was conceded – I was absolutely gushing with praise for the way that the manager had re-energised his troops. It was a breathless start to the match.

The returning hero Kante struck from distance within the first few minutes, but De Gea saved easily. Then, with us breaking at pace, Marcos Alonso crossed into the box and from my position one hundred yards away, the ball was seemingly steered into the United goal by Morata. I celebrated wildly, but soon realised that the goal had been disallowed. Offside? Handball? A foul?

At the other end, Rashford – full of running – dolloped a ball over Courtois but on to the roof of the net.

With Romelu Lukaku attacking our end, I was reminded how much weight he has put on since he was with us. He is a huge unit. With a touch of a refrigerator.

United struggled to cope with our energy and vibrancy in the first-half. I loved the way that we pressed every United player caught in possession. The constant nibbling by Kante and company meant that United players struggled to get the ball under control, and were forced into errant passes, which were pounced upon by our players. From the off, Andreas Christensen was so cool on the ball. Davide Zappacosta stretched out the United defence with a few gut-busting runs down the right.

But the star, even early-on, was N’Golo.

Although I had not been drinking, I soon exclaimed –

“Kante I fucking love you.”

His selfless harnessing of the United threat enabled Bakayoko to gallop forward. At once, the new purchase looked like the player of September and not October. He looked to be enjoying himself too. A shot wide from a Zappacosta pass hinted at greater things from him. Another shot soon followed. Cesc Fabregas, playing deep at times, played the ball short, then long, then high, then angled into space. I purred at the sight of Alvaro Morata’s first touch. It was sublime. One pass, shades of Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick at old Wembley, was ridiculous.

Over in the far corner, United were remembering a night in Moscow.

“Viva John Terry.”

A rare shot from Lukaku was saved by Courtois.

I was really in to this game.

“Close him down. Great pressure. Play it square. Use the width. Go on son. Go on. Touch it. Pick a man. “

A firm effort from Hazard was pushed out by De Gea but Fabregas, following up, never looked like getting his header on target from an angle.

United sang “Twelve Days Of Cantona.”

The Chelsea choir then really got our act together towards the end of the half.

“Carefree, wherever you may be…”

Deafening stuff.

No goals in the first-half, but I was oh-so pleased and proud of our performance. At that moment in time, I had to laugh when I thought that some sections of the media were talking about our manager either –

  1. Not enjoying life in London.
  2. Losing the trust of some of the players.
  3. Being in a strained relationship with Roman.
  4. Losing his motivational edge.
  5. Close to getting the push.

What a load of cock.

Doug Rougvie was on the pitch at the break, and a clip from 1984 of that tackle with Viv Anderson on his debut at Highbury was shown on the TV screen. What memories.

Eden Hazard was constantly getting fouled – assaulted, molested, chopped – throughout the first-half and it continued in the second-half. Phil Jones – a player more famous for pulling faces than his footballing abilities – was rightly carded for such a foul. That horrible little player Ander Herrera, a latter day Nicky Butt, then fouled Hazard and his name was taken too. The noise levels were raised.

Fabregas played in our little Belgian but his opportune volley on the edge of the box was straight at De Gea. Was this turning in to Roma all over again?

Just after, a deep but perfect cross from the trusty Spanish boot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out the unmarked leap of Alvaro Morata. I was amazed how much space he had. He jumped, so gracefully – shades of Peter Osgood – and headed the ball back across the goal, so that it nestled, quite beautifully, in the far corner.

Pandemonium in SW6.

There was the goal. It was what we deserved. Morata raced over to the corner, followed enthusiastically by Bakayoko and posed a la Fernando Torres in Amsterdam as an archer.

What a moment.

Not long after, The Bridge was in unison.

“Super Chelsea FC…”

We continued to dominate, but the game changed as first Mourinho brought on Fellaini and Martial. Antonio replaced the tiring Zappacosta with Rudiger, his Roman moment forgotten.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

We continued to pepper De Gea’s goal. There were shots from Bakayoko and Hazard. United looked tired and listless. They resembled us in 2015/15. We were still firing on all cylinders and – ironically – reminded me of the Ferguson team at their peak in around 1998, when their midfield terriers chased all game long. Matic? I thought he was very poor. As leggy as ever. Lukaku was hardly involved. In fact, hardly any United players warranted more than a 5/10 apart from De Gea. This is simply not a typical United team.

And for once, the usually noisy and vociferous away support were very quiet. I heard an occasional song mocking Merseyside, but that was it.

Danny Drinkwater added some solidity – alongside N’Golo for the first time since Leicester City – and replaced the majestic Fabregas, who was given a standing ovation. His performance was a real surprise after floundering of late.

N’Golo kept going and going and going and going. He was our star.

It then got a little nervy. No, I tell a lie, it got very nervy.

Mourinho regurgitated an old Chelsea tactic of his – memories of Robert Huth and John Terry playing upfront in the final few minutes – and his players lumped the ball high towards Fellaini and Lukaku. There is no doubt that Fellaini is useful in the air, all elbows and afro, and he did cause us some shaky moments. A rasper from Rashford flew past the far post.

We held our breath.

In the very last few minutes, the oh-so-predictable Fellaini equaliser looked to cruelly rob us of a deserved three points. Thankfully his swivel and volley was pushed away by our man Thibaut.

“What a save.”

Still chances came and went.

Willian – on for Hazard – played in Morata but with only De Gea to beat, he fell over himself and the chance went.

United were awarded a free-kick, centrally. I mused that it was a bloody good thing that David Beckham no longer wears their number seven shirt. Rashford’s effort was belted over, but a deflection meant that we had to endure a further corner.

It came to nothing.

On an afternoon when Chelsea Football Club showed the same indomitable spirit of last season, the simple shrill sound of the whistle was met with a resounding roar. It had been our most rounded league performance of the season, and I was just so proud.

Crisis. What fucking crisis?

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Tales From Penkhull And Sideway

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : Saturday 23 September 2017.

Game five of September’s Magnificent Seven was at a familiar ground for me. Ever since our first-ever match at Stoke City’s new stadium in the FA Cup on an astonishingly cold Sunday in February 2003, I have witnessed every Chelsea game at the stadium on the hill. The match this season would be my tenth consecutive Stoke City vs. Chelsea league game. We have generally fared well, winning five, drawing two and losing two. But “Stoke Away” is always regarded as a tough game; the home side under Tony Pulis and now Mark Hughes have never made it easy for us.

Our third away game of the league season, our second successive one in the Midlands, and the Chuckle Bus was on the road once more.

Roadworks on the M5 forced us onto the M42 and then on the M6, over Spaghetti Junction and past Villa Park, and it meant that we only turned off the motorway and onto the A500 into my former college town at around midday. After replenishing my tank at a “Sainsbury’s” filling station in the Stoke town centre, I was pleased to garner a fabled response from the middle-aged woman at the till.

“Forty pounds, please duck.”

Ah, the Stoke-on-Trent duck. This was truly music to my ears. It was one of the charming idiosyncrasies of the local dialect and I developed a strong liking for it in the three years I lived in the city. It had no barrier. It was everywhere. Teenagers would call shop assistants “duck”, grown men would call young women “duck”, women would call us students “duck”, grown men would call each other “duck.”

I had to reply in kind.

“Ta, duck.”

I was back in Stoke.

I drove up to Penkhull which, like the football stadium, sits on a high ridge of land overlooking the sprawl of The Potteries. Not for the first time, we visited The Greyhound pub, which sits opposite the church spire of St. Thomas. Drinks were ordered and the Chuckle Brothers were at ease, save for the occasional glowering look from a local Stoke fan, who evidently wasn’t too enamoured with us plotting up in his pub. The pub is just right; cosy, a friendly landlord, good beers, and the building dates back to 1704, and so has just the right amount of character.

It was right that I was in The Greyhound in Penkhull on this particular day.

During the week, an old college friend Huw passed on some sad news that a mutual friend, Chris, had passed away the previous Saturday at just fifty-three. During my first year at Stoke – season 1984/85 – I shared digs with Chris and Huw and we became good friends. I was a fresher and they were in their third and final year of their chemistry degrees. They took me under their wing. After that first year, Chris went up to Glasgow to study a master’s degree at Strathclyde University. It wasn’t long before we were to meet up again. In February 1986, I read in a midweek paper that Chelsea were to play a friendly at Ibrox against Rangers – following-on from the Chelsea/Rangers lovefest at Anfield in November 1985 – and I quickly contacted Chris to see if he could put me up for the following weekend. Without the internet, and with me in The Midlands, it was lucky that I had read about the game, which took place on a Friday night. It so easily could have passed me by. As luck would have it, British Rail were in the middle of a special fares promotion for holders of a Young Person’s Railcard, and any destination in the UK could be reached for just £8.

Perfect.

I have vivid memories of exclaiming to a couple of fellow-football lads on my course that I was heading up to Glasgow with Chelsea at the weekend and, I’ll be honest, it felt like the most decadent thing I had ever done.

I was young, and free, and I had a return to Glasgow Central. What a buzz.

It was my first Chelsea weekend away of my life and I was certainly excited then as I am these days when I bugger off to Beijing, or Rome, or Baku.

I met up with Chris at his university and we soon went on an increasingly wobbly pub crawl around Glasgow. In 1986, Scotland was the only place in the UK with all-day opening. It was to be my downfall. We visited a number of pubs in the city centre and near Chris’ digs in Shettleston. We visited a bar on Shettleston High Street owned by Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish. After gathering his next-door neighbour Jim – a Rangers fan – we hopped on to a train into the centre at about 6pm, chatting to some ‘Gers fans from Edinburgh. The alcohol was taking over. I knew that I was reaching saturation level. Chris was not a huge football fan like me – he was from Grimsby, and loosely followed them – but he loved a beer. He was clearly leading me astray on this cold night in Glasgow. We popped into a dark pub right outside Queen Street train station – “Dow’s” – and got chatting to some Rangers fans from Gloucester of all places. They were able to squeeze us into a transit van and we hurtled off towards Ibrox. Outside, by the tube station, we entered the packed “Stadium” bar, which was wall-to-wall Rangers. The beer intake was continuing. Oh my goodness.

Chris, Jim and I watched the Rangers vs. Chelsea game on that night in 1986 – it was on St. Valentine’s Day, how romantic – from high up in the home Copeland Road stand. Over in the Broomloan Stand were around three or four hundred Chelsea fans – including my mate Alan, who, I was to later learn, had been in The Stadium bar too – and it was a surreal feeling to be watching my team in such famous, and yet alien, surroundings. Chelsea lost 3-2 that night, and – of course – my memories are rather blurred from all of the alcohol coursing through my veins. I remember us playing in that pristine white Le Coq Sportif kit. I remember a floodlight failure for a good ten minutes. I remember Pat Nevin, the Catholic, getting a bit of a rough ride from the nearby fans, which I was far from happy about.

I also remember singing “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the pope” which got a – cough, cough – mixed reaction too. With about ten minutes to go, maybe to beat the crowds, maybe fearing for my safety, Jim decided it was best to head home.

We left, and disappeared into the Glasgow night, the smell of fried food blocking my nostrils, only to continue drinking back at Jim’s flat. Elsewhere in that fabled city, Pat Nevin met Clare Grogan, on Valentine’s Night, the lucky bastard.

It had been a bloody fantastic day and night in Glasgow – one of the very best – and I had Chris to thank for all of it.

In 1987, I again stayed with Chris over a weekend which saw me attend the Rangers vs. Hamilton Academical game, but we were a lot soberer on that occasion, and I was to meet his future wife Eleanor on a night out after the game.

Chris was a good mate. He loved his music, he loved a beer. He was, I soon realised, the first friend of my age group to pass away. It was, naturally, all rather shocking. He will be, always, cocooned in my mind as a young lad, with his whole life ahead of him.

Over pints in The Greyhound, where we had celebrated Huw’s twenty-first birthday in 1985, with Chris on good form, I raised a glass to his memory.

“RIP Chris.”

We stayed in The Greyhound until just before 2pm and the Duckle Brothers were suitably refreshed. There was a little chat with a couple of the local Stokies, who were concerned that their defence was hit with injuries, and they wished us well.

Opposing football fans in rational conversation shock.

The drive from Penkhull over to the bet365 Stadium at Sideway only took around ten minutes. After parking up, I veered off to take some – more – photographs of the beguiling statue of the dribbling Sir Stanley Matthews which sits on a plinth outside the home Boothen End. I mused that although Sir Stan was known as the “King of the Dribble” in The Potteries, they clearly haven’t seen Parky after a gallon of cider.

My camera was not allowed in to the stadium – “bollocks” – so I had to drop it off in a little room beneath the away end.

We had seats low down, row five, just to the right of the goal. The exposed corner to our right is now filled-in, bringing the capacity up to just over 30,000. Annoyingly, the new TV screen in the opposite corner has blocked out the spire of the church steeple in Penkhull. I always used to look for it, for old times’ sake.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, club captain Gary Cahill lost out. And the manager was clearly saving Eden Hazard further for the toughest of games, away to Atletico Madrid and at home to Manchester City.

“Delilah” rang out and the teams trotted out onto the pitch. For once, the weather was fine.

Stoke had an early attack, but we broke fast, with Bakayoko moving quickly out of defence. The ball was played out to Dave, who played a perfect early cross over the Stoke defence, and right in to the path of Alvaro Morata in the inside-left channel. The Spanish striker drew the ‘keeper and slotted home past Jack Butland.

After just over a minute, we were already 1-0 up.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

A chant soon rung out of the away end.

“Alvaro – wha-oh.

Alvaro – wha-oh-oh-oh.

He comes from sunny Spain.

He’s better than Harry Kane.”

Phew.

The game was bubbling along, but did not ignite further. To be honest the home side enjoyed much of the ball, and the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri was at the centre of all of Stoke’s attacking moves. But throughout the first-half, even though our defence was tested, I never felt troubled. A few shots were aimed at Thibaut, but bodies were sacrificed as we blocked and blocked again. As with the Tottenham away game, we always looked at ease. I was so impressed with the back three of Rudiger, Christensen and Azpilicueta. After a few below-par performances, Victor Moses was back to his best. Willian looked busy, twisting and turning, and brought others into the game.

There was a song for N’Golo.

“N’Golo – oh.

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believing.”

It reminded me of that wonderful night at The Hawthorns.

After half-an hour, we watched as a Darren Fletcher chest-pass went astray – he’s no JT, who has reigned as King of the Chest-Pass for years – and played in Pedro, who had been rather quiet until then. A quick touch, a look at the goal, and he despatched a fantastic shot past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 2

GET IN.

It seemed like we had only enjoyed two shots and here we were, two goals to the good.

There was virtually no noise emanating from the home end now.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

The two teams each had a couple of half-chances as the first-half came to its conclusion, with Diouf managing a bicycle kick which flashed wide.

There was a feisty start to the second-half, and Marcos Alonso drew the ire of the home fans along the side who were, probably not without reason, annoyed at a challenge which resulted in a yellow card. It was the noisiest that they were to get the entire game. A second foul by Alonso riled them further, and Antonio Conte saw the potential for self-harm, and replaced him with Gary Cahill. Stoke continued to try to claw their way back into the game, but with the play down the far end, I found it difficult to watch the movement of players. Peter Crouch, the former Chelsea season-ticket holder, came on and immediately created a chance for Diouf, who went as close as anyone. Thankfully, the rest of Stoke’s efforts tended to be blazed over and into the Boothen End.

Stoke were definitely back in the game, and I kept saying to Gary that I was glad that we were winning 2-0 and not 1-0.

The Stokies in the stand behind eventually boomed, with their very unique chant :

“GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE.”

The manager replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas. Four minutes later, Eden Hazard replaced Willian, whose form had dipped as the second-half continued. The two additions breathed new life into our team. A couple of chances were exchanged. A cross from Dave just evaded the far post lunge from Moses. Then, on seventy-seven minutes, Glen Johnson gave away the ball, and Alvaro Morata pounced. He pushed the ball forward, and accelerated away, with the entire half in front of him. He raced on, steadied himself as Butland approached, then clipped a low shot into the waiting goal.

We boomed.

Morata raced behind the goal, in front of the away contingent, and our arms and fists were pumping.

We live for moments like this. It was a stunning goal. Whisper it, but it immediately reminded me of his compatriot Fernando Torres in his pomp at Anfield, running free and scoring with ease. It will always be a major disappointment that we did not see Torres repeat such scoring at Chelsea. Eden Hazard, so good to have him on the pitch, was full of tricks and a shot was cleared off the line. With eight minutes remaining, a beautifully creative and cheeky chip from Fabregas was chested back – JT style – by Dave towards Morata, who nudged the ball past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 4 and Jonathan Walters wasn’t even bloody playing.

A hat-trick for our new silky striker. I think there will be more, don’t you?

In the last few minutes, Morata could easily have made it 5-0, but that would have been beyond cruel. Stoke, despite our goals, had enjoyed much of the ball. Then, shamefully, a horrid Crouch tackle on Cesc blew away any sympathetic feelings I had for the home team. On another day, Crouch would have seen red.

We bounced out of the away end, and all was well with the world.

“You know what, ahead of our trip to Madrid, that could not have been any better preparation. I know it’s a different type of football, but Europe is all about soaking up pressure, and then hitting the opposition hard on the break.”

There is no Madrid trip for me, but I wish safe travels to all those going to the Atletico game on Wednesday. It should be a belter.

Give my regards to Fernando, Felipe, Tiago – and Diego.

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Tales From Sunshine On A Rainy Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 9 September 2017.

With the international break behind us – I watched a total of around ten whole minutes from England’s two matches – we were thankfully back to proper football; football that means something, football that raises our spirits, football that brings us all together. An away game at Leicester City was in fact just what the doctor had ordered. From my home in the South-West of England, my route would take me right into the heart of England, mainly following the course of the old Roman road The Fosse Way, and through some achingly beautiful countryside. A perfect road trip lay ahead. It would, in fact, be our first domestic game outside London since the league championship clincher at West Brom last May. And it was an ideal game to get back into the swing of things; difficult but not insurmountable. However, the month of September would be a testing time for sure, with seven games lined-up, and it seemed that the football season was beginning to heat up.

Our visits to the King Power Stadium over the past few seasons have tended to be defining moments in each campaign. In 2014/15, a dominant performance and a 3-0 win set us up for the league clincher four days later. In 2015/16, a dismal evening of “betrayal” and a 1-2 defeat resulted in the sacking of Jose Mourinho the following day. In 2016/17, Antonio Conte declined the services of Diego Costa and with vultures gathering overhead, a potentially huge banana-skin was avoided as another 3-0 victory pushed us away from the pack and towards an eventual second title in three seasons.

Of course, that Leicester City were the surprise champions in that middle season, and that N’Golo Kante and now Danny Drinkwater, had since swapped the royal blue of Leicester for the royal blue of Chelsea added a certain extra piquancy to the game.

The Chuckle Brothers were buzzing for it.

Our journey had taken us from Somerset to Wiltshire to Gloucestershire to Warwickshire and to Leicestershire. We had set off with sunny skies overhead, but with warnings of scattered showers throughout the day. We stopped for a pint at a pub at Charlecote, just off the Fosse Way, and soon into our hour-long drive in to Leicester, the heavens opened. What a downpour. The surface water made driving difficult. Thankfully, the storm soon passed and although huge billowing clouds were gathering on the horizon, the remaining miles were covered with no further rain. As we parked up at our usual place on Shakespeare Street – William, not Craig –  the sun was out and warming the air. Coats were worn, but rather reluctantly.

We were soon inside the away end.

“Time for a quick beer, Parky?”

We had chatted about the possible starting eleven on the journey, and the team that Antonio Conte chose contained few surprises.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Fabregas

The Chelsea crowd, three-thousand strong in the corner, seemed full of voice as the minutes ticked down to kick-off.

An extended toot of the fox hunter’s horn sounded and the teams appeared. There was disdainful chatter about Everton’s “dirty grey” shirts a fortnight ago, but our “white” away colours hardly look pristine. The shirts and shorts were decidedly off-white. Only the socks looked crisp. It just looked odd.

Leicester City, in all blue these days, were on the back foot in the first few moments of the game. A forceful run from Bakayoko set up the prowling Morata, who steadied himself before curling a shot at Schmeichel. We looked impressive, and there was some good early pressure. A superb ball from Fabregas, playing a little deeper than his usual position – maybe it was a different formation that I had thought – released Morata but the ball did not drop favourably, allowing a smothering save from the Leicester City ‘keeper.

A new song – for me anyway, though I suspect others have been aware of its presence – swirled around the away section.

“Marcos. Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me.”

I approved, and joined in.

Another new song then appeared from the ether.

“He came from Real Madrid. He hates the fuckin’ yids.”

My heart sank. It sank further as I looked around and spotted, sadly, hundreds joining in.

Suffice to say, I did not.

I whispered to Alan :

“Well, that will get a load of people nicked.”

That word is just not welcome at Chelsea games. Its presence shocked me to be honest. Over the past few seasons the Chelsea crowd has almost policed itself and kept that word to a minimal level. I remember back to around 2006 or 2007 when “The Bouncy” first appeared en masse at Chelsea. Originally a Rangers song, its first edition at Chelsea included the “Y” word. Over a couple of seasons, this was replaced and the set up was changed to “we’re gonna bounce in a minute.” It was an intelligent way of changing the focus. There is another famous Chelsea song that begins “We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea” but I always stop myself from singing the next line after “Barcelona, Real Madrid…”

I know some sing it. I choose not to. I just don’t fancy getting CCTV’d singing that word.

People can bleat as much as they like about Tottenham singing it. That is simply their choice, their concern, their problem. There is a strong argument about that club now using it in a positive light as a defence mechanism after decades of negativity from outside. There are easy parallels within the black community and the equally divisive “N” word. And I do feel slightly queasy about non-Jewish Spurs fans singing it. But my thoughts are that Chelsea fans should not even be thinking about using the “Y” word, especially with our sadly dubious record with racism over the decades, let alone be singing it.

As I looked around at our support joining in, giggling, I wondered if the camera might be turned on them. Beside the use of the “Y” word, it is a pretty dull song anyway. And it doesn’t really scan. There are too many syllables for a start; always a bugbear of mine. Chelsea fans from the US especially – bless’em – seem to have immense difficulty with this. They seem to love shoe-horning too many syllables into any standard song.

Alan quickly came up with an alternative.

“He came from Real Madrid. I’m glad he fucking did.”

I laughed.

I offered an alternative.

“We bought him from Madrid. For sixty million quid.”

It scanned. The right number of syllables. It rhymed. No offensive racial slur.

It’ll never catch on.

The game continued with Chelsea dominating possession. Kante – who was warmly applauded by the home fans before the game when his name was announced – patrolled the middle of the pitch, with Bakayoko providing a fine foil alongside. We pinged the ball around nicely. Morata looked at ease, with a lovely first touch. He brought others into the game well and it was a pleasure to see. Alonso offered great width down the left. Indeed, as the game progressed it honestly seemed that we had an extra man on the pitch, which is always a good sign. Rudiger again impressed, as if he has been playing for Chelsea for years, not weeks.

A Luiz free-kick produced an easy save for Schmeichel. Our attacks continued. The Leicester defence was being continually stretched.

Leicester are always a threat on the break though. The once impressive Mahrez – I am surprised that he is still playing for them – played in Jamie Vardy. His rapid shot thankfully screamed past the far post. If memory serves, he scored from a similar position in 2014. Another chance fell to the home side but thankfully Thibaut Courtois parried the shot from Islam Slimani.

With half-time beckoning, an intense rain shower forced some to don jackets, though some headed inside for cover. Under my hood, I watched as a fantastic cross from Cesar Azpilcueta picked out Alvaro Morata. The cross was right on the money. Morata leaped and seemed to hang in the air. He headed it past Schmeichel.

GET IN.

It was a suitable reward for those who had stayed in the stands.

Thankfully, the rain subsided as the second-half began. After five minutes, a Chelsea move developed but my attention was on Morata, twisting and turning and trying to get away from his hefty marker Maguire. Out of nowhere, a shot flew past Morata and Maguire and miraculously crept in at the far post, past a late dive from the ‘keeper. I had not seen who had struck it, so imagine my surprise when I looked over to see players running towards that man Kante, who – typically – was not celebrating at all. Kudos to him for that.

With Chelsea winning 2-0, the pressure seemed to be off, and our third win on the bounce was on the cards.

On the hour, my attention was again diverted. Over on the far side, new signing Danny Drinkwater was warming up on the touchline, and as far as I could see he was getting a pretty good reception from his former fans. I had predicted, perhaps, a slightly more acerbic reception. A roar then went up from the home stands, and I saw the referee pointing to the spot. Vardy slammed it past Thibaut.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 2.

The game changed.

We had to hold on to our lead for around half-an-hour.

Pedro, one of our quietest players, was replaced by Willian.

Antonio Conte then replaced Moses with debutante Davide Zappacosta.

I whispered to Alan : “It’s always good to have a Frank in the team.”

The changes disrupted our play a little, and Leicester enjoyed more of the ball. For a while, we were on the receiving end of a little pressure and the mood grew tense in the away end, or at least in my row. We did not help ourselves. A lot of our play seemed sloppy and our choices of pass seemed to be off-kilter.

A big cheer greeted the sight of Eden Hazard replacing Cesc Fabregas. He immediately lifted us. Just to see him caress the ball, and look up, assessing options, was enough to warm us. He began on the left but then appeared down in front of us on the right. For a while, it was all of the play was nicely in front of us. Zappacosta was involved, but looked a little nervous. He seemed to take forever to settle himself for a shot but the ball was drilled wide.

Leicester had rung the changes at the start of the half with King and Gray coming on and Craig Shakespeare then introduced the former City striker Iheanacho with fifteen to go. They kept pushing for a goal. I was convinced that we would let in an equaliser. But we were still pushing ourselves. I had a brief thought that a Mourinho team of around 2005 would be just moving the ball around the back four for minutes on end. There was an appeal for handball by Maguire from a Morata header. Willian curled one just past the post. There was another save from the same player as the game reached its conclusion.

There was an element of relief at the final whistle. Phew.

It had been a workmanlike performance, peeking in the first-half, but it was one which confirmed the aberration of the first forty-five minutes of the season. This is a fine team, and we will surely enjoy a fine season. The players – all of them, well done – came over to thank us for our support. I predictably focused on the manager. There was the usual applause for us, but with a straight face, quite solemn. He knew we had eked out a good win, but there was still room for improvement.

A good day at the office? Oh yes.

But the month of September has only just begun and we have a heavy schedule.

On Tuesday evening, Champions League football thankfully returns to SW6.

I will see some of you there.

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