Tales From Saints And Singers

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Saints Are Coming” by The Skids.

Kick-off approached.

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

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

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

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

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

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

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

I remember saying to Gal :

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

Alonso and Zappacosta must have had more touches than anyone.

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

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

It seemed that we were at a low ebb.

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

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

And we repeated it over and over and over.

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

“Go to Chelsea last night, Chris?”

And I would nod.

The singing continued.

“YOU ARE MY CHELSEA.

MY ONLY CHELSEA.

YOU MAKE ME HAPPY WHEN SKIES ARE GREY.”

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

Chelsea Fundamentalism.

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

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

And then it all went Pete Tong.

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

“Oh bollocks.”

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

I was inwardly fuming.

How pathetic.

The manager made some changes.

Pedro for Zappacosta.

Giroud for Morata.

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

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

GET IN.

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

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

Now we really celebrated.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 2.

“A Bishop Desmond.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We inhaled and prepared to yell.

He slammed it home.

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

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

Ecstasy in the away end.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 3.

What a comeback.

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

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

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

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

I was half-serious.

Gary laughed anyway.

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

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

It had been a fine day out.

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

See you there.

 

Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

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

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

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

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was our Ray of light.

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

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

Butch had arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical, magical times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

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

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

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

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

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

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

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

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

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

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

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

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

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

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

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

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

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

“Ray Wilkins.”

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

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

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

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

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

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

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

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

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

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

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

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

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

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

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

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

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

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

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

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

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

There you go. You’re welcome.

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

The boys agreed.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

IMG_6177

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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Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

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

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

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

Ah, 2012.

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

Let’s wander down memory lane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

“This game’s for you.”

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

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

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

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

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

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

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

Red. White. Blue.

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

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

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

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

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

The game began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head in our hands time.

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

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

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

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

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

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

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

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

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

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

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

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

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

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

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

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

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

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

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

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

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

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

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

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

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

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

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

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

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

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

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

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Class Of ’98

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 12 February 2018.

This was another working week which would begin and end with a Chelsea match. As with a memorable week last May, with a game against Middlesbrough on the Monday and a game against West Brom on the Friday, we were faced with two matches on the same two days. First up were The Baggies at home. We were desperate for a win to put an end to our little blip. A win would then see us nose ourselves ahead of Tottenham and into fourth place. The visitors were rock bottom of the Premier League. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, we hoped. Nothing at all.

“Three points are king tonight, lads.”

I didn’t honestly care if we would scrape to a 1-0 win. I just wanted a win to take some pressure off the manager, the players and not least us, the supporters. The two recent losses to Bournemouth and Watford had certainly been lingering heavily on everyone’s minds the past week. Not only a nadir, but a nadir oh dear.

Other weighty issues had dominated my thoughts after the Watford loss. The chest pains that I mentioned during the Watford match report thankfully subsided throughout the past week, but on Friday I popped into my local community hospital to book an appointment to see a doctor. I needed reassurance that there was no problem. After explaining the symptoms, I was given a few tests. I explained to a doctor that my late father had suffered a history of heart problems. Without further ado, the doctor decided to take no risks and sent me in an ambulance to Bath to undergo further tests.

As can be imagined, this was quite a shock. At the time, I felt relatively OK. But I was – I suppose – relieved that I was in good hands. Thankfully, after a couple of hours spent in the A&E department of Bath’s Royal United Hospital, and after my fourth ECG of the day and some blood tests, I was released with an all-clear. No abnormal heart condition. Just high blood pressure, but that can be treated. The conclusion – from myself anyway, and possibly from the medical staff too – was that I had suffered from too much stress at work. As I reached home that night, I promised myself to try to improve my health via diet and exercise. And not get overly-stressed at work. Writing this again now, I am sure it was all to do with work.

[ A voice from the gallery : “Are you not going to make a comparison between you lying on a hospital bed and a critical stage in Chelsea’s season? You like a metaphor.”

“Blimey. No. That’s a bit excessive. A bit gruesome. Nah. ]

The Chuckle Brothers were back in town.

“Here we go again, boys.”

It was a bitterly cold night in SW6. Glenn and I darted up to the stadium to meet up with a couple of friends. We briefly chatted to Ray Wilkins, a massive hero for us both in our childhood. During the day, Glenn had decided to throw caution to the wind and join me in an antipodean holiday in July, loosely based on our friendly with Perth Glory in July. We gabbled away with travel plans as the cold Winter air brought shivers.

Back in “Simmons” the clans had gathered. I quickly popped into “The Cock Tavern” to meet up with Al and his son Nate from Toronto, both attending a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. Al has been following these reports for a while and wanted to meet up. Their enthusiasm about seeing us play was clearly evident. I used the well-worn line –

“Of course, if we lose, you’re not allowed to come back.”

Back in “Simmons” there was talk of the scrum down for away tickets for Barcelona. There was talk of the current ailments. There was support for the manager.

The temperature had dropped further as we walked to Stamford Bridge.

No surprises, the away end was full of empty seats. My guess was at about eight hundred at most. We were inside early, and I hoped that the empty seats in the home areas would eventually fill. Thankfully, in the main, the stadium filled. Yes, there were empty seats throughout the stadium, but no yawning gaps anywhere.

The team?

Thibaut.

Dave – Andreas – Toni

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Davide

Pedro – Olivier – Eden

Happy with that. Happy that the new boy Giroud was starting. Alvaro was on the bench, as was Emerson.

For all of the negativity surrounding the club of late, it was just lovely to hear “Blue Is The Colour” being played with five minutes to go. That song just makes me smile. It takes me right back to those formative tears as a Chelsea supporter. It strikes a real chord.

The lights darkened and the teams then appeared from the shadows. Over in the south-west corner of The Shed, a “FORZA CONTE” flag was held over bothy tiers. Very soon into the match, the home supporters rallied behind the manager.

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

This was never honestly going to be a noisy night but I was warmed by the support that was cascading down from the stands. This was music to my lugholes.

Let’s go to work.

Very soon into the game – within two minutes or so – Daniel Sturridge was forced to limp off after an early twist or strain of a muscle. The bloke looked dejected as he made his way down the tunnel. I almost felt sorry for him.

Over the first fifteen minutes, West Brom caused more problems to us than we did to them. They had a couple of meek efforts on Thibaut’s goal. We got out of it unscathed. We managed to get into the game with Pedro as lively as ever. Giroud was involved, showing a willingness to create space for others to find him, and linking up well with others.

The noise levels were still pretty good. We kept urging the team on. This was pleasing.

Dave sent in a couple of fine crosses into the West Brom box, and they almost paid off. Quick comparisons of Giroud with Morata and Batshuayi were hard to resist. The new boy looked more robust than Alvaro and had more guile than Michy. For a big man, his touch looked fine. The best chance of the game was gifted to Giroud by Hazard, but his side-footed effort was straight at the ‘keeper Ben Foster. Pedro was fouled, but a tame free-kick from Eden hit the wall.

With Chelsea looking to move the ball quickly after a West Brom attack, a defender pushed the ball on to Victor Moses. As one, I heard the entire Matthew Harding Stand mouth the word “attack”; it was almost Pavlovian. Sadly, the wing-back floundered further up field. How frustrating.

On twenty-five minutes, I whispered to Alan :

“We’re not playing too badly to be honest. Lots of possession, but not a great deal of incision.”

At that very moment, Eden turned and moved the ball on to Giroud, who subtly touched the ball into the path of Eden, who stroked the ball into the goal.

Blues 1 Baggies 0

GET IN.

Soon after, there was a daring overhead effort from Giroud at the far post. The new boy was certainly truing his hardest to endear himself to us. He was then sent sprawling onto the turf and ended up with a wide white bandage over his forehead. A header from the same player went wide. It was all Chelsea now. West Brom appeared to deflate. Jonny Evans was booked for a nasty, late tackle on Giroud, who writhed in agony in the centre-circle. He had been consistently fouled throughout the first forty-five minutes. At this rate, I expected him to appear at the start of the second-half with an eye patch, a neck brace and his arm in plaster.

What a treat for us all at the break. Neil Barnett announced that three of the players due to take part in a “legends” game against Inter in May were to appear together on the Stamford Bridge pitch.

Step forward Gianfrano Zola, Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli.

What memories.

They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary  of our wonderful ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team and I idolised those players in a way that I simply do not do with the current squad. And I could probably write a book about the various reasons for that.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.

The second-half began with a couple of scares at The Shed End, but a fine block from Dave and a poor miss by Rondon meant that we did not concede. An Evans header from a corner flew well wide. As with the first-half, we weathered the early storm – nay rain shower – and got into the game. At times Giroud seemed too eager to play the ball to team mates rather than maintain possession and battle on. Maybe the ghost of Diego Costa lingers on.

The manager chose to replace the battered centre-forward on the hour and on came Alvaro Morata. Things became a little nervy, and the crowd was well aware that we were still leading by the slenderest of margins. There was a nervousness in the stadium. Things were not falling our way. A fine move involving the twin threats of Eden and Pedro allowed Alvaro to blast at goal.

Just after, Moses worked the ball in to Cesc and his attempted flick deflected off a defender and in to the path of the wing-back who had gambled on the return pass. His finish was cool.

Pensioners 2 Throstles 0.

Moses was clearly boosted by this goal. If ever there is a “confidence player” in our squad at the moment, it is Victor Moses. He quickly followed up with a fine shot on goal.

With twenty minutes to go, Eden broke past his marker, right at the edge of the penalty area, and sent an unstoppable shot low into the goal. There was so much venom in his shot, that the ‘keeper did not move. Similar to his effort at Watford, he used the defender as a block for the hapless ‘keeper. He just didn’t see it.

Bouncy 3 Boing Boing 0.

A rasping shot from Morata brought a save from Foster. The Spaniard was lively in his thirty minutes on the pitch. More of the same please. There was another shot from Moses. It stayed 3-0.

We were back in fourth place.

Crisis over? Maybe.

Out on the Fulham Road, a hot dog and onions went down well, and we scampered back to the waiting car.

I messaged Al from Toronto.

“We won. You can come back.”

It had been a good night.

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Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

It was just past two o’clock. I had parked my car outside “The Milk Churn” which sits on the A350 just south of the small Wiltshire town of Melksham. It is a new boozer, no older than a couple of years, but is built to resemble an old rustic farmhouse, heavy on tiles, brick and wood. It is run by “Hall and Woodhouse”, a brewery based in the Dorset town of Blandford Forum. My grandfather used to work at the brewery before he left his home town of Wareham to head up to Frome. The pub has acted as a starting point, a base camp, for a number of our Chelsea matches of late. My place of work is opposite. As I joined PD and Parky at their table in the pub lounge, they welcomed me.

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

Last week, last Wednesday, had been a very stressful day at work, and the lads had noticed that I was still in “the zone” after a hectic 6am to 2pm shift. It had taken a good hour or so for me to stop thinking over a few work-related issues as PD drove to London for the Bournemouth game.

On this day, a Monday, I certainly felt a little more relaxed. I ordered some food, gammon steaks all round, and supped at a pint of “Peroni.”

I relaxed with each passing sip.

“Yes. On the face of it, a bit easier today. A bit worried that I’ve had a few chest pains at work this morning though.”

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

“Yeah, I will” I replied, but rather unconvincingly, bearing in mind the stresses that might be forced upon me during the evening’s match at Vicarage Road.

We tucked into our food, and the mood was rather quiet.

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

“Certainly do. Especially as Liverpool and Spurs drew yesterday.”

The 2-2 draw at Anfield had presented us the opportunity of going third if we could win at Watford. It was a challenge that I trusted the players to overcome. I did not see any of the game at Anfield. I believe that it was quite a humdinger. I had the best of intentions to watch the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” on Sunday night, but I chose instead to continue watching an archived programme on the BBC i-Player detailing a storm which had caused havoc in Glasgow in 1968 but caused a rethink on the city’s plans to tear down tenements. This simple choice of viewing encapsulated my thoughts of football these days, or at least football not involving Chelsea Football Club.

Grainy images of Glasgow, social history, town-planning and architecture 1

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

After a relaxing lunch, PD set off for Watford. We were in the middle of a ridiculous stretch of nine games with not one of them being played on a Saturday.

Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Sunday, Sunday.

It is a bloody good job that we didn’t draw Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. I think that my head might have exploded.

I was able to grab a little sleep on the way up to Watford. PD was parked-up at about 5.15pm. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Knowing my dislike for large and impersonal superpubs, I managed to coerce the lads to pop into a local called “The Horns” where we enjoyed a pint apiece. It was a smashing boozer, evidently a venue for much music, and there was a permanent stage wedged into a corner. It had the feel of a Western saloon from the cowboy films of my childhood. Behind the till were hundreds of plectrums from live performances. There were musical memorabilia everywhere. But there was no hint that there was a topflight football match taking place a mile or so to the south.

We moved on to “The Moon Under Water” on Watford’s pedestrianised high street. Here was a different story. There was wall-to-wall Chelsea everywhere. I immediately thought back to our away game at Vicarage Road last season when a Michy Batshuayi goal gave us a late 2-1 win, but also where the same pub was reverberating to the short-lived “Antonio Conte does it better” chant before the game. We met up with Alan and Gary, calmly sat towards the rear, and we discussed the current ailments at our club.

I read out the team. I suppose there were two talking points. Marcos Alonso was not involved. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

The time soon passed. The air in the pub wasn’t exactly electric. A few of the younger element were trying to get some songs started in the main bar, but there were few takers. If anything, they annoyed me.

“As long as you buggers remember to sing in the stadium.”

We set off for Vicarage Road, a simple twenty-minute walk away, past the array of fast food joints, takeaways and restaurants of every hue. In previous visits to Vicarage Road, we have always arrived late and I have always headed straight in. On this cold night, I was able to have the briefest of wanders. Vicarage Road is certainly a cramped venue, wedged into side streets just outside the town centre. It’s a pleasant enough stadium.

We were down low, not far from the front. To my right, the Sir Graham Taylor Stand. To my left, the Elton John Stand. Tucked between the away end – we had around two thousand seats – and the side stand was the stadium’s “Sensory Room.” Despite us being the reigning champions, there were empty seats dotted around the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, the Watford fans unveiled a large banner at their home end of club owner Gino Pozzo. Rather than provide banners for each and every Watford manager, this was obviously cheaper. They are up to ten – I think – since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. That’s going some. Compared to Watford, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich resembles a steady ship.

The game began. The away fans were in great voice. As ever one song dominated.

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

He acknowledged our support for him straight away with some applause for us.

But from the very first few minutes of action, we really struggled to get a foothold in the game. There was a ball-to-hand heart-in-the-mouth moment as the ball struck Gary Cahill. Not long after, the irksome winger Gerard Deulofeu saw his snapshot hit the side netting. The warning signs were there. We were watching from the left of the goal and Gary Cahill was in my sights. I wanted to see how he performed up close. He seemed to marshal his team mates reasonably well at set pieces, but looked ill-at-ease in open play. Very often he played the ball to a Chelsea team mate who was heavily marked. He just does not exude any calmness. Watford came again. Troy Deeney was left unmarked at the far post at a corner but his studied prod at goal was well wide.

Our attacks, so obviously lacking a focal point, floundered time after time. Pedro was full of running but with nobody moving off the ball ahead of him, the resulting pass was often played back or square. We looked utterly impotent in attack. Victor Moses was often left in acres of space, but was reluctant to release the ball early. David Luiz tended to vary things a little, choosing to play balls to the feet of Eden and others, but often a ball was hoofed up field to our three midgets. The away end was getting frustrated.

A wild shot from Willian blazed over the bar. It was our only real effort on goal. Watford kept attacking and Thibaut’s goal was under threat.

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

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

Although I was trying my best to encourage Tiemoue Bakayoko when he did something half-decent – “go on my son” – he was having a nightmare. He gave up balls so cheaply. His night and our night was soon to darken. After a foul on Etienne Capoue by Bakayoko and a yellow card, there was a lunge on Richarlison in the middle of the pitch. I have to admit, from our perspective, it looked like there had been a foul on Bakayoko, but as Richarlison stayed down, and players swarmed, there was that horrible moment of hurt as referee Mike Dean flashed a card at Bakayoko.

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

Antonio Conte was furious and had to be calmed by the referee.

After a few minutes of wondering how the manager would react, I was frankly amazed that he chose Cesc Fabregas to replace Willian. I thought about moving Luiz into midfield and going 4/2/3 or bringing on Danny Drinkwater. But what do I know? I’m just a transport planner for an office furniture company. The addition of the lightweight Fabregas seemed odd. Very odd. It felt harsh on Willian who can always be relied upon to put in a shift.

Our play did not improve. Just before half-time, a ball was played forward to the lively Deulofeu who touched the ball on. Out rushed Courtois and I just knew what was going to happen next. A touch, down he went, a nailed-on penalty. Two knobhead fans chose to walk past me just as Deeney took the penalty. I would have missed the save if there had been one. There wasn’t. The home crowd roared and we were one-down.

Shite.

There was a run and shot from Pedro in the inside-left channel, but it blazed well over. To be honest, a goal then would not have reflected the balance of play. Watford were full of running, full of pace, and were well-deserving of their lead. We looked devoid of confidence. There was nobody willing to take ownership of the ball and create. Down to ten men, we stared a second successive league defeat in the face.

The second-half began.

I was so happy that the away fans were trying our hardest to get behind the team. One song dominated. It was a song which, I always remembered, seemed to be aired specifically during the second-halves of games, and especially away games, when the team needed it. This game certainly fitted the bill.

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

I was joining in. So were many others. But I looked around, and back, at others to see how many were actually joining in too. It was at about the 50% level at best. It sounded like more were singing. But those that were involved were keeping it going for a fair few minutes. I was sure that the noise was carrying and that the TV millions would hopefully be impressed. The home fans, by comparison, were ridiculously quiet. Despite winning, the folks to the left of me in the Elton John Stand hardly sung all night.

Modern football.

Despite a clash of heads with a Watford defender, Moses began to get a little more space in front of us down the Chelsea right. At last we were playing to our strengths; intricate passing, movement off the ball, a ball into space, a cross. Moses broke through, glided past a couple of defenders and played the ball across the six-yard box.

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

Chelsea were trying to get into the game, and there was a definite improvement as the second-half progressed. But at the other end, Watford again and again broke through. Shots curled past the far post. Thibaut was forced to strongly save on two occasions. They were out-gunning us.

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

We spotted Olivier Giroud warming up on the touchline. One nasty little outbreak of Billy Ray Cyrus down to my left thankfully failed to gather momentum. With twenty-minutes left, the former Arsenal target man made his Chelsea debut. His beard appeared to have been trimmed a little. Good. Fucking good.

He went up for a header, which he won, and he began his journey from Arsenal wanker to Chelsea player. We urged the team on. All of a sudden, we looked more like a team. More options. More drive. More energy. We enjoyed a few half (quarter?) chances but the mood was rising.

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

Eden Hazard, in the same channel that Moses had ploughed earlier, flitted away from markers and suddenly looked like his old self. He buzzed into the box, and the ball reached Fabregas. This was our big chance, our big moment. The shot was weak, low and an easy save for the Watford ‘keeper.

The howls rang out from the away end.

Just after, Hazard – clearly buzzing now after his confidence-boost of a run earlier – collected the ball around twenty-five yards out, broke into a little space and guided a magical shot around the defender, using him as a block for the ‘keeper, and into the side of the goal.

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

The celebrations were wild and unfettered. Eden pointed towards us. We were back in the game. At that moment, oh the stupidity of it all, it felt to me like we would go on to win.

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Bizarrely – there was no explanation – the play returned to the other end. Another Watford effort slid past the far post. I then watched with growing concern as a fine Watford move spread across the box from right to left. I yelled, in vain, as a Watford player appeared to tiptoe into a danger area.

“Don’t let him shoot.”

There was no tackle. There was no block. Janmaat shot. Janmaat scored.

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

The hurt was palpable. I remained standing but inside I slumped to the floor. Thankfully there was no chest pains, just an emptiness.

Four minutes later, their star player Deulofeu was able to shoot after a short run at the heart of our defence.

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

With that, many Chelsea fans decided to leave. A swathe of empty yellow seats soon appeared in front of me. I was fuming. Two lads motioned to me to let them pass. I did not move. They had to squeeze past me. I glowered at them. They glowered back.

Fuck them.

The night became even more bizarre. A lone spindly youth ran on to the pitch, I think from the side stand, and bounced up and down on the pitch, seemingly on the ‘phone to somebody. No stewards bothered with him. He stayed on the pitch, gurning like a fool, for what seemed like thirty seconds or more. With my eyes drilling in to him, I missed the build up to Watford’s fourth goal.

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

In a show of defiance, the remaining Chelsea fans collectively thought “well, fuck this” and got behind the team once more.

“We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

A half-chance from that man Giroud almost brought a cheer, but the game ended with no further incident.

But there here was still time for another round of “Antonio.”

And there was even a relatively loud “Three Little Birds” as the game ended.

At the final whistle, I watched as Antonio Conte darted down the tunnel. I honestly wondered if I would see him again as a Chelsea manager. I gathered my stuff, as stony faced as I have been for a while. Parky was surprisingly upbeat alongside me and for a few seconds I wanted him to be quiet, be still, be solemn. His obvious indifference to defeat annoyed me, but then I had to smirk as we met up with others and headed up the steep terrace. There was a chat with a few good people.

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

“Those people who left, I just don’t get it. Us losing should make them want to stay, to stay and cheer us on. What is the point in them leaving?”

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

“Yes, we have mate. Not at Watford, though.”

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

There would be a time to evaluate the current dip in form at Chelsea at a later date, a later time. Maybe things will be crystal clear in my mind for the West Brom game, but I doubt it. These waters are muddied. And my mind is addled with the constant rumour and counter-rumour which surrounds this club, as ever.

At around 10.45pm, Parky, PD and me were sitting in a “Subway” on the Watford High Street. Although my jacket had kept me warm at the game, the winter chill had bitten hard on the walk back from the stadium. We silently devoured some food. The moment, oddly, reminded me of a late night snack in a small café in Rome after an equally shocking defeat. In Rome, we were able to look out on a piazza and monuments, and enjoy the moment. In Watford, we looked out on waste bins, concrete paving slabs and “Poundworld.”

“At least there were no chest pains.”

The hurt on a cold night in Hertfordshire was only mental, but it was real enough.

PD set off for home at 11pm. Thankfully, I managed to get some sleep once we left the M25 and hit the M4. We were back at “The Milk Churn” at 1am. I was home at 1.30am. I was asleep at 2am. The alarm would ring at 5am.

At 6am, co-workers would be asking me if I was at the game at Watford.

“Yep.”

The three of us agreed that we all needed a break from football. In the pub, even Gary had commented that he had enjoyed having the recent weekend off as it gave him some precious time to get a few things done away from Chelsea. At the moment, this football lark is hard and relentless. On players and fans alike. The next game is on Monday. There is time for a rest. There is time for a break. There will be time to re-focus and to re-charge the old batteries.

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

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