Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From The Likely Lads And Lasses

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 13 May 2018.

On the evening of Sunday 13 May, at various moments and locations – exiting St. James’ Park, at a pub in the city centre, in a cab back to the airport, on the plane back to Bristol – one phrase kept reoccurring, time and time again, spoken by ourselves and many others :

“Fantastic weekend, apart from the football.”

And it’s a bloody good job that these match reports, ten years old now, are never ever just about the football.

We went in to the match with Newcastle United with an outside chance – a 10 per cent shot at the very most – of playing Champions League football next season, but only if Liverpool lost and we won, but we came out of it as demoralised as I can remember for some time. It was truly abject .

But, it never is just about Chelsea Football Club.

And rather than obsess about a very poor performance, I’m using this last league report of the season as an homage to a great weekend away with great mates in a fine city, and as a tribute to the lads – and lasses – who share my weekends, and weekdays, with the love of our lives.

For once the league computer had dealt us a tidy hand. With our last league game of the season announced as an away game against Newcastle United, a date that we knew would not change, I just sat and waited for EasyJet to announce its summer 2018 flight schedule. Way back in late September, I pounced.

Saturday 12 May : Bristol – 8.35am, Newcastle 9.20am.

Sunday 13 May : Newcastle 9.45pm, Bristol 10.30pm.

Tickets were just £55.

The four Chuckle Brothers would be on our way to Geordieland.

I was up at 4am, and quickly packed ahead of collecting PD and Glenn at 5.30am and then Parky at 6am. I guided my car in and around Bristol in the early morning hush, and was parked-up bang on time at 7am. At the bar were fifteen Chelsea faces from Trowbridge, Melksham and Swindon. A few others from further afield – Wincanton, Teignmouth – were spotted too. In total, around twenty-five Chelsea were en route north. It was no surprise that so many were there. Who can resist a trip to The Toon? As we waited to board, Paul from Swindon spotted a fellow-passenger who had won the FA Cup in two consecutive years as a manager? Who was it? Have a guess.

The flight to Newcastle only took forty-five minutes, and we were full of laughter. I was feeling merry and I had only had a coffee at the airport.

We took the metro in to town, through some familiar stops, and then walked down the steps past The Bridge Hotel pub to the Quayside.

It was fantastic to be back.

As I have so often said, Newcastle United plays an important part in my Chelsea story. My first game was at Stamford Bridge against them in 1974, and my first away trip of note – aside away games against the two Bristol teams from 1975 to 1981 – was the equally famous and infamous trip to St. James’ Park in 1984. This would be my tenth visit to Newcastle with Chelsea; many have visited more times than me, but for many years the twin constraints of money and distance were against me.

My first memory of Newcastle, the town – or toon – was as a child of around seven years of age watching “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes. Strangely enough, I have found myself watching a fair few repeats of late, and it brings back some rich memories of my childhood, the opening sequence especially, featuring old terraced streets and hideous new tower blocks as metaphors for contrast and change. Even then, I was critically aware of cities around the UK, the local accent, the local flavour, the sense of place, their history.

I can remember watching the very first episode in 1973 – it was a reprise of “The Likely Lads” from the ‘sixties – when the two pals meet again by chance in a darkened train carriage. They had both left Newcastle to join the army, but Bewes had wriggled out of it, leaving Bolam jettisoned and alone. Once Bolam realised who he was sharing a compartment, there was a strong reaction :

“You bastard.”

And this was met with stern words from my parents, and I often watched further episodes secretly since some TV shows were deemed too “colourful” for one so young.

Now, I find it odd that James Bolam was the only real Geordie featured; everyone else exhibited a generic “northern accent” although Bewes and Brigit Forsyth made good stabs at the Geordie lilt.

The series theme tune still haunts :

“Whatever happened to you? Whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be?”

The most famous episode involves the two of them trying to avoid the result of an England game so they can watch the highlights later in the evening. Two years later in 1975, Bolam starred in “When The Boat Comes In” – a grim post World War One tale of social unrest, unions, class, and poverty set on Tyneside – and again the sense of place dominated my thoughts.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Gritty. Working class. Northern. Football mad.

A proper Loony Toon.

Saturday was just fantastic. We darted in and out of several bars from lunchtime to night time.

“The Redbarn.”

“The Pitcher And Piano.”

“The Slug And Lettuce.”

“Akenside Traders.”

“The Crown Posada”

“Livello.”

The Somerset and Wiltshire contingent were reunited again at the “Pitcher And Piano”, which sits right on the Quayside, next to the Millennium footbridge, and opposite the Baltic Art Gallery, with our apartment just beyond. Our good friend Kev and then our equally good friend Deano joined us, and a superb afternoon evening of beers, laughter, and chit-chat ensued, with us bumping into the Kent lot yet again. The day was panning out just as we had hoped. We bumped into Donna, Rachel and Rob – only on “nodding terms” for me until now – and they followed us from bar to bar.

Chelsea here, Chelsea there.

There were a few attractions along the way.

“Where have those two girls from Middlesbrough gone?”

The drinking continued.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

We kept to The Quayside. It is such an evocative location, the deep gorge running through the heart of the city, and with bridges every hundred yards or so. It is one of my favourite places in all of the United Kingdom. We were last there together for the last away game of 2015/2016 when we played down the coast at Sunderland.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

In “The Akenside Traders” there were stag parties singing, hen parties dancing, girls with shot trays weaving in and out of us all, tons of boisterous laughter, and the place was packed.

It was only 6pm.

“Bloody hell, what is it going to be like at midnight?”

In “Vivello” a DJ played some fantastic music.

“Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

1984 again.

There was some Chelsea chat among the beers – “where has it all gone wrong?” – but that didn’t stop us all having a blast.

“Don’t think I’ve seen so many Lacoste polo shirts.”

Glenn entertained us all with an impromptu dance routine in which he utilised some props; namely the contents of a nearby umbrella stand.

One minute, Gene Kelly.

One minute, Mary Poppins.

You had to be there.

No – really – you had to be there.

In “The Crown Posada” we chatted to some local Newcastle United lads and they were warm and friendly. This was my favourite bar of the lot; a long and narrow Victorian boozer but with a high ceiling. There were stained-glass windows and evocative black and white prints of the city covering the walls. It oozed character. It was fantastic.

“Canny, but.”

Beer. Football. Mates. Laughs.

It had been a bloody perfect night out in The Toon.

On the Sunday, we checked out of our apartment, but not before realising that the away tier of St. James’ Park could be spotted, just past the Earl Grey Monument, at the top of the town. Everything is so immediate in Newcastle. There was just time for a photo of Deano, PD, Glenn and Parky on the apartment balcony, where a pigeon was quietly nesting.

Parky : “That thing was bloody pissed-off this morning, mind.”

PD : “Why?”

Parky : “I had its eggs for breakfast.”

We strolled down to another pub – “The Quayside” – and this was another fine building; no doubt an old warehouse in days of yore, it probably remained derelict for decades, but was now restored, with more high ceilings, exposed beams, red bricks, and endless coffee refills. Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed and Rich joined up with us, and we relaxed in the sun. It was another fine time.

Deano is originally from Yorkshire and he chatted to a friend from Huddersfield, who looked awfully familiar.

“Aren’t you?” we both said…

I had met Mick at Manchester airport en route to Istanbul with Chelsea in 2014. There were a gaggle of Yorkshire Chelsea fans outside in the sun. We seem to have a fair few from Yorkshire. It is always odd, to me, to hear Chelsea fans with Yorkshire accents. Deano, on Saturday afternoon, had stayed in our apartment for a while to watch the Castleford vs. St. Helens rugby league game.

“Castleford are the reason that I support Chelsea, Chris…in 1970, my father told me that I couldn’t support Leeds.”

The 1970 FA Cup Final has a lot to answer for. I have heard of Chelsea fans from Yorkshire supporting us in 1970 because of football reasons – “anyone but Leeds” – but this was the first time that the hatred of Leeds’ rugby league team being used as a catalyst for support.

(The FA Cup answer was Keith Burkinshaw, Tottenham manager in 1981 and 1982)

We caught a cab up to the stadium, past those solid, grey buildings of Grey Street. There were memories of Glenn and I being walked along these same streets in 1984, when the welcome was decidedly colder than in 2018.

We were deposited outside The Gallowgate, and we walked past the familiar sights of St. James’ Park. Immediately outside are many new apartment buildings. The town is certainly thriving now. Everywhere we looked were the famous black and white jerseys. We took a lift up to the top of the world, or rather, the away section at St. James’ Park.

One steward made me giggle.

“Aye, everyone says, like, they have a great time here, and we are friendly, but if youse want it, ye can find it.”

It was the Geordie version of the Wealdstone Raider.

“If you want it. I’ll give it yer.”

So, the last league game of 2017/2018.

It would be my thirty-sixth league game out of thirty-eight. I sadly missed games at Huddersfield Town and Burnley due to work. It would be my fifty-fifth Chelsea game of the season.

St. James Park looked as huge as ever. It was a stunning day, and I could see for miles.

Some wind turbines away in the distance. Some yellow cranes at Tynemouth. And closer to home, the green of the Tyne Bridge, the Earl Grey monument, the Baltic Art Gallery, and a pigeon nesting on the balcony of 182 Baltic Quays,

The team contained one or two surprises.

Thibaut Courtois

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – Gary Cahill

Victor Moses – N’Golo Kante – Ross Barkley – Tiemoue Bakayoko – Emerson Palmieri

Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

There was no “Blitzkrieg Bop” this season, but before the teams entered the pitch, we were treated to the classic “Blaydon Races”, a song that my father taught me ahead of my first game in 1974, or was it for the Liverpool vs. Newcastle United FA Cup Final a couple of months later?

“Ah – me lads. Ya should have seen us gannin’.

Passing the folks along the road, just as they were stannin’.

All the lads and lasses there. All the smilin’ faces.

Gannen’ alang the Scotswood Road.

To see the Blaydon Races.”

Then, “Local Hero” by Dire Straits. I have to be honest, it took me twenty minutes to realise that we were wearing the new kit. What a monstrosity it is. I like the idea of basing it on the iconic 1983/84 kit, but the shirt is just awful.

The game?

If it wasn’t for Thibaut Courtois, we would have been three-nil down at half-time, at least. We were shocking. The home team swarmed around our players every time that we had the ball, and we looked tired and listless. The manager – I am always worried when he wears a tracksuit and not a suit – began by encouraging the players, but soon gave up once the first goal went in. Shelvey and Diame – robbing Kante in the build-up – forced superb saves from Courtois in the first fifteen minutes.

On twenty-three minutes, Courtois did ever so well to claw out a Murphy lob from a Ritchie cross, but Gayle tapped in.

The home support boomed and we sat in shocked silence.

The pattern continued.

I remember one instance of Eden Hazard breaking in the inside-left channel with no less than five Newcastle United players running after him. The home team were full of energy and passion. And this was a team who, I am lead to believe, had been in holiday mode since their safety was assured a while back. The first-half continued on and I do not remember a single attempt on the Newcastle goal. Ross Barkley showed a neatness at times, but then quickly faded.

Our support started off in good voice, but one chant annoyed the fuck out of me.

If fans really “don’t care about Rafa”, I would fucking suggest that they don’t continue to sing songs about him five years since he left Chelsea.

Move on, boys and girls, lads and lasses.

Shelvey – their playmaker – went close again, and further chances flew past our goal frame.

At half-time, there were obvious moans everywhere I looked. I have never seen Alan look so quiet and disconsolate.

We seemed to improve slightly after the break, but Emerson annoyed me with his unwillingness to burst past his defender and get into some space behind. We are so high at St. James’ Park, so maybe we see space where there isn’t any, but we hardly attacked out wide all afternoon, or at least in a way that got the defenders back-peddling and worried. A Barkley cross from our right was whipped in, and the otherwise subdued Giroud did well to manufacture a deft touch. The Newcastle ‘keeper Dubravka – who? – tipped it over. We sensed that we were back in the game. I remembered our far from impressive record at Newcastle United over the past few years, but there was a great comeback to draw 2-2 on my last visit in 2015.

We were heartbroken when a poor Bakayoko clearance only reached as far as Shelvey. His long-range drive was touched home by Perez.

Fuck.

Some Chelsea left.

“Thanks for your support.”

Just after, a rare Chelsea attack, and the ball was worked in to Barkley who seemed destined to score and put us back in to the game. He seemed to hesitate slightly and the shot was blocked.

And just after that, a Shelvey free-kick was volleyed back by Lejeuene – who? – and Perez touched home again.

Newcastle United 3 Chelsea 0.

Goodnight Vienna.

More Chelsea “supporters” left.

We only attacked sporadically, and despite using three substitutes, we never ever looked like scoring. A shot from Pedro is still rising over the Town Moor. Our performance left us all confused and jaded. It was as dire a performance as I could ever remember. Courtois was the only one who had played OK. And there is an FA Cup Final next.

Our lack of desire and intensity beggared belief.

In the last few minutes, my pal Jason from Dallas appeared behind me, and shared our pain. He then joined us as we slowly marched around the stadium. We drifted past the listed buildings of Leazes Terrace; these were able to be spotted in the ‘fifties when that side of the stadium was an open terrace. It is the reason why the stadium has such a lop-sided appearance as that stand is unable to be raised any higher. We joked with a couple of locals, but they weren’t happy as Rafa Benitez might well be off before the next season begins. Football fans are never happy, eh?

We ended up down on The Quayside once again. There was time for a bite to eat, and a few last drinks, and a last look at the arse-end of many a stag and hen party.

This was Jason’s fourth Chelsea game in England and he had flown in from Gothenburg in Sweden on the day of the game. We last saw him at an away game at Anfield in 2016. It was great to see him once more, and we chatted feverishly about the worrying tendency of the North American colonisation of Europe via regular season NBA, NFL, NHL and now MLB games.

I abhor these.

They are a version of the hated “Game39” and I will boycott them all, even if it means avoiding the New York Yankees in London next summer.

We caught a cab up to the airport, and caught the 9.40pm flight back to Bristol.

The 2017/2018 season was over, and we had finished fifth.

It seemed about right.

Our next game – the grand finale – is at Wembley when we meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.

…just writing those words, just writing those words.

I hope to see many of you there.

Tales From The Rising Sun

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 May 2018.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun public house on London’s Fulham Road on 10 March 1905. Some one-hundred and thirteen years later, the main bar of the same pub, now named The Butcher’s Hook, was filling up slowly ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, and I was alongside two friends from my home town in Somerset, Glenn and Francis. I had planned a little pub-crawl based around the stadium, but PD and Lord Parky chose to spend the pre-match in The Goose. Glenn, Francis and I had started off with a drink in the Copthorne Hotel – a gentle start to the afternoon at about 1pm, and a very brief chat to Ron Harris and Gary Chivers – before stepping over the road at the pub on the corner of Fulham Road and Holmead Road. I remember when it used to be called the Stamford Bridge Arms in the ‘eighties. I recalled one summer morning when I called in to the ivy-covered offices between the forecourt and the East Stand to get my membership card sorted for the upcoming season and seeing Robert Bates, our Ken’s son, stopping in for a lunchtime pint in the very same pub. On this occasion, decades later, while I supped on one of only two pints of lager that I was allowing myself, we spotted Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s Director of Communications, chatting to some others a few feet away. Jason Cundy was nearby too. It certainly felt like we were on a very important piece of terra firma.

Glenn had spoken to Francis about the day that he saw his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1978, and how the forecourt has changed since then. And I can remember Francis and I posing for a photograph on the same forecourt in front of The Shed turnstiles ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in 1991. That was Francis’ first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – a fantastic 4-2 win, we watched from the old West Stand seats – and he has seen quite a few Chelsea vs. Liverpool matches since, sometimes alongside me, sometimes elsewhere. For those who have not sussed it yet, Fran is a Liverpool fan – and a very fine close friend – and I am always happy when he is able to watch his team at Stamford Bridge.

In seven games from 1991 to 2012, he was yet to see a Liverpool victory.

1990/91 : Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

1991/92 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

1992/93 : Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

1995/96 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

2004/05 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0

2007/08 : Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2

2012/13 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1

1990/1991, 1991/1992, 2007/2008, 2012/2013 and 2017/18.

I was happy to have him alongside me once again. We joked about it in the weeks which lead up to this game. In the car on the way to London, PD had enquired of Francis what he did for a living.

“Trading standards, mate. Keeping an eye on con men, rogue traders, that sort of thing.”

“Scousers?” I suggested.

The Chuckle Bus roared.

After our little visit to where our club was born, we darted around a few more pubs on what was turning out to be a blisteringly hot day. We spent a pleasant thirty minutes in the crowded beer garden of “The Jam Tree” which was is known as one of the venues where “Made In Chelsea” is filmed. The pub was plainly cashing in on its fame; a burger was priced at £17. Next up was “The Imperial” along the King’s Road, and I was back on the Cokes, sadly. We bumped into our pal Dave, who had chanced upon a last-minute ticket. From there, brief stays in “The Rose” and finally “The Tommy Tucker” before heading along the Fulham Road to the stadium. With Tottenham losing at The Hawthorns, here was a fantastic chance for us to close the gap on both of the teams ahead of us.

(And still some Chelsea fans bemoan the fact that this has been – apparently – a poor season.)

Glenn had reeled-off the line-up in one of the pubs and it was almost the same starting eleven as at Swansea City, with the returning Alonso in for Emerson.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Giroud

As we approached the West Stand – “thrilling since 1905” still grates – everything seemed normal. The sun was beating down. There were no clouds. Programmes were purchased. There was a buzz of expectancy. There were fans milling around, though we had not spotted – to our knowledge anyway – any away fans. These days, there is a relaxed air at most games. However, over the past couple of weeks, one incident outside a football stadium has shocked many. Before the Liverpool vs. Roma Champions League game at Anfield, and right outside The Albert pub, in front of The Kop, some Italian ultras carried out a seemingly unprovoked attack on one or two Liverpool supporters. We would later learn that one of them, a fan of around my age, was knocked unconscious and was in a subsequent coma. Imagine my horror when I was to learn shortly after that he is the brother in law of a work acquaintance – no, more than that, a good friend – that I have been talking to in Dublin for over fifteen years. Sean Cox is her husband’s brother. And although there has been untold Chelsea vs. Liverpool banter between the two of us over the years, as you can imagine, the chill of knowing that an act of wanton violence can have such a devastating effect on someone that I know was quite awful.

I spoke to my friend just after the return leg, and she seemed desolate. Such was the pain that her husband did not even bother to watch the match, something that he would never normally do. On at least one occasion, he has been at Anfield the same time as me. He is quite a Liverpool fan. How his future will develop, I can’t imagine.

Inside the sun-kissed stadium, everything was just perfect. As ever, there were three-thousand Liverpool supporters over in the away end, though just two flags; one praising Virgil van Dyke, the other with – surprise, surprise – five yellow European Cups.

Some chap called Michael Buffer, he of the “let’s get ready to rumble” boxing clarion call, read out the teams. It was just dreadful. It seemed so out-of-place. I cringed as the twat said “and in the blue corner.”

Fuck off.

Whoever at Chelsea thought this was a good idea needs shooting. Was it you, Steve Atkins?

A good ten minutes before kick-off, Neil Barnett spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson, and we clapped as an image of him appeared on the TV screens. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Then, with the players appearing on the pitch, a tribute to Roy Bentley appeared in The Shed. I briefly met Roy Bentley on three occasions, and he seemed a thoroughly lovely man, his deep Bristol burr providing lasting evidence of his birthplace, and who can remember his little jig in front of the Matthew Harding at the last home game of 2008/2009, which I reported on at the time :

“Before the players came back on, an extra special moment. Ron Harris, Dennis Wise and John Terry – three of the four trophy winning Chelsea captains – were on the pitch to honour the eighty-fifth birthday of the fourth, Roy Bentley, the championship winning captain of 1955. It was a truly magical moment. Roy Bentley is a lovely, lovely man and I was able to meet him briefly in November at the CPO. The photo I have with him is one of my most-prized Chelsea possessions. He was in great form. He did a little jig as he made his way to the Lower Tier of the Matthew Harding. He was hilarious and Ron, Dennis and JT were in stitches. We all were.

“Looks like he’s been on the sherry” chirped Alan.

He had been presented with a shirt with “Bentley” on the back, but he threw it into the crowd…shades of Mourinho.

God bless you, Roy.”

Underneath us in the Matthew Harding Lower, a large banner remembering Ray Wilkins was passed over the heads of fellow spectators. These have certainly been sad times at Chelsea Football Club.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of Roy Bentley, our first Chelsea Champion. And the Liverpool fans applauded and clapped too.

Thank you.

The match kicked-off with lots and lots of noise. Francis always reads these blogs and has noted my comments about a decreasing amount of atmosphere at home games with note. I told him that the noise was far better than normal. After all, this was Liverpool. The highlight of the first few minutes was a sublime cross-field pass to Victor Moses from Gary Cahill, which drew a warm “well I’ll be fucked” salvo of appreciation.

However, Liverpool seemed to edge the first part of the game, and Roberto Firminio caused Thibaut Courtois to save early on, but it was the keen and incisive Sadio Mane who caught the eye. He seemed to be involved in many of their attacks. Victor Moses sent over a teasing ball, but no Chelsea players could add the needed touch. Eden Hazard managed to tee-up Marcos Alonso in the inside-left channel but his powerful effort was straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper Loris Karius. There was a simply magnificent tackle by N’Golo Kante on Mane, and this drew great applause from the supporters. The noise had subsided slightly, but this was much better than the usual levels at recent games. Over in the far corner, I tried to get my head around a few new Liverpool songs, no doubt harking on about European adventures of yore. I honestly found it hard to decipher much of it.

Another Mane shot. Another Courtois save.

The sky was still cloudless. The sun had certainly risen well on this Sunday.

The Liverpool red is darker than usual this season. Very often, thankfully, it ran up against a deep royal blue wall.

The often chastised Tiemoue Bakayoko was enjoying a solid start to the game and I was really elated to hear some warm applause for even the most basic of plays from our often beleaguered midfielder.

That, my friends, is what being a Chelsea supporter is all about.

On the previous Monday, myself and around one hundred Chelsea supporters had attended an evening with Gianfranco Zola at a pub in Ascot. It was a fantastic evening. I remembered what the great – little – man had said about Eden Hazard. He had been asked how he could improve his game. Gianfranco said that he would ask him to release the ball earlier when in a deep position, and then really save his tricks and crisp passing for the final third, when everything matters. I could not have put it any better. In this game, as in so many others, there were spins and twists from Eden when he was barely over the halfway line. I wanted him to improve.

We then came close when a Moses cross was met with a dive and a header from Bakayoko, but it flashed wide. Soon after, on thirty-two minutes, the same player sent over a cross after doing well to make space in front of Parkyville. His cross was aimed at the large frame of Olivier Giroud. We watched as the big Frenchman rose and guided the ball home. It was not dissimilar to the Morata goal versus Tottenham.

The ground reverberated with noise.

I tried to spot where the scorer was running, and soon realised that he was headed over to the Chelsea bench, by-passing Antonio Conte, and aiming straight for David Luiz. The players hugged.

A nice touch.

Francis, who had chosen that moment to turn his bike around, appeared back in the top tier just as the whole stadium was roaring a very loud and very defiant “CAREFREE.”

Phew. Get in.

Cesc Fabregas whizzed a shot across goal. Mo Salah, quiet thus far, was booked for diving.

There were a few rousing choruses of “Antonio.”

Will he stay beyond this season?

Probably not. Another great manager chewed up and spat out by my club.

I hate modern football.

At half-time, I was more than happy with the game. We had not created a host of chances, but everyone was on their game, the sun was out, and the stadium was as noisy as it has been for a while.

The second-half began, and the game – damn it – became a real test of my nerves. Liverpool tended to dominate possession once again, but as Fran kept saying, were unable to do much with it. Moses, always a threat out on our right, fizzed a low ball across the box but I was not convinced if he had intended to shoot or cross. A more delicate ball in to the waiting Giroud might well have been a better ploy.

Maybe Gianfranco Zola had managed to get a message to Eden Hazard at half-time. One move in particular, captured on film and featured below – along with two other Hazardous Dribbles – was just breath-taking.

Although he was hemmed in by three red-shirts, he miraculously dribbled into them and out the other side before slamming a shot towards the Liverpool goal. It was saved, just. It reminded me of when Zola was hemmed in over in the south-east corner in his very last Chelsea appearance and slalomed between four or five Liverpool defenders.

From the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose to head down and Toni Rudiger bundled the ball in but from a clearly offside position.

All eyes were on the clock now.

65 minutes.

72 minutes.

75 minutes.

Liverpool were given lots of space, and we defended deep, not allowing Salah or Mane any space to exploit. The three defenders were simply exceptional. Our performance mirrored that of our 2-1 win at Wembley versus Tottenham at the start of the season. The defence never looked troubled. Liverpool never really threatened us. We covered the pitch with great professionalism, and great desire. But I was still struggling with all of this.

I kept thinking to myself :

“This win will probably mean nothing. We will still probably finish fifth. This isn’t a cup tie. It isn’t a league title-decider. It isn’t a CL decider like that Zola game in 2003. It’s just a normal league game. But I love it that I am kicking every ball, heading every clearance, tackling every 50/50. This is a fucking great game. Blow up, ref!”

In the end, there were two late chances, one for the royal blues, one for the scarlets.

A high and deep cross from that man Victor Moses was aimed past the far post. Marcos Alonso, at a ridiculously tight angle, was underneath it, and let fly. The volley flew inches past the far post.

Then, Dominic Solanke – not applauded by any Chelsea supporter when he appeared on seventy-four minutes – saw a rather timid effort dollop over the bar.

Four minutes of added time were signalled.

As the last of these was reached, my protestations to the referee to “blow up you cunt” surprised even me.

At last, the final whistle blew.

GET IN.

My mate Rob, who sits a few rows back, soon appeared and we hugged and bounced for what seemed like ages.

“Loved that. Great game, Rob. Nervous as hell though.”

“It’s why we keep coming, mate.”

As we bounced out and down the Fulham Road, I made arrangements for Francis to attend next season’s game too.

Eight visits, no victories.

“A nice bit of history, la.”

All was well with the world as we headed home to Somerset and Wiltshire. The season has three games left, and all of them are Cup Finals.

See you on Wednesday.

Tales From Saints And Singers

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2018.

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

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

https://caxonblog.com/chelsea-land/

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Saints Are Coming” by The Skids.

Kick-off approached.

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

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

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

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

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

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

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

I remember saying to Gal :

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

Alonso and Zappacosta must have had more touches than anyone.

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

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

It seemed that we were at a low ebb.

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

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

And we repeated it over and over and over.

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

“Go to Chelsea last night, Chris?”

And I would nod.

The singing continued.

“YOU ARE MY CHELSEA.

MY ONLY CHELSEA.

YOU MAKE ME HAPPY WHEN SKIES ARE GREY.”

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

Chelsea Fundamentalism.

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

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

And then it all went Pete Tong.

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

“Oh bollocks.”

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

I was inwardly fuming.

How pathetic.

The manager made some changes.

Pedro for Zappacosta.

Giroud for Morata.

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

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

GET IN.

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

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

Now we really celebrated.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 2.

“A Bishop Desmond.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We inhaled and prepared to yell.

He slammed it home.

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

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

Ecstasy in the away end.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 3.

What a comeback.

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

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

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

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

I was half-serious.

Gary laughed anyway.

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

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

It had been a fine day out.

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

See you there.

 

Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

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

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

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

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was our Ray of light.

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

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

Butch had arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical, magical times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

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

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

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

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

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

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

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

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

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

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

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

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

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

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

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

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

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

“Ray Wilkins.”

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

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

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

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

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

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

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

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

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

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

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

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

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

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

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

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

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

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

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

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

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

There you go. You’re welcome.

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

The boys agreed.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part Two – Blue

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2018.

Part One finished with these words :

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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

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

That was the plan.

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

What to do? What to do?

I contacted PD and Glenn.

“Get your boots on.”

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

The Chuckle Brothers were on the road.

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

There were grimaces from my travelling companions.

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

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

“Giroud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I silently gulped.

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

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

This was a mighty three quid cheaper than United.

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

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

This was “up north” alright.

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

You may have noticed.

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

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

Inside I met with a few fellow foot soldiers.

“Did Arsenal lose?”

“Yeah, 2-1.”

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

Alan passed on the team news.

“No Kante.”

“Oh no.”

“And no Morata or Giroud.”

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

“Oh lovely.”

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

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

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

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

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glowered and glowered some more.

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

“Ah bollocks, did he.”

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

I turned to Alan :

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

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

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

“Whoever wins the midfield, wins the game.”

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

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

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

But then scruffy City Fan irritated me further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scruffy boy was still ranting away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

The City support roared.

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

“City – tearing Cockneys apart again.”

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

“That’s a United song.”

“Ryan Giggs.”

They just smiled benignly and were having none of it.

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

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

I was having some of that.

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

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

This seemed to impress Scruffy Boy.

He nodded…and was rather subdued now.

”Yeah, so was I.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody hell.

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

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

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

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

I turned to Al and Gal :

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

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

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

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

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

Be careful what we wish for.

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

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

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

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

I drove on.

Who ever said supporting Chelsea was easy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In memory of Joe Buchmann.

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

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

It’s a strange one alright.

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

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

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

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

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

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

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

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It never really did.

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

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

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

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

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

FUCKING YES.

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

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

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

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

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

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

“Noted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A popular view was this :

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

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

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

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

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

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

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

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

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

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

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

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

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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