Tales From The Long Goodbye

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 21 May 2017.

If ever the old adage of “Chelsea is not just about football” was true, then it was certainly true for our last league game of the season against relegated Sunderland. And although there was chatter among some fans for us to achieve a Premier League record thirty wins, my mind was full of anticipation for the trophy celebrations at the end of the game. To be honest, I thought that the win was a foregone conclusion. Sunderland have finished bottom of the division for a reason. Label me, for once, as being blasé, but I am sure that I was not alone. There was also the emotion of John Terry’s last-ever appearance in a Chelsea shirt at Stamford Bridge. I wasn’t quite sure how that would play out, but it promised to be quite a day.

On the Saturday evening, I replayed John Terry’s speech at the end of our last game of the 2015/16 season, when he spoke of the team’s struggles throughout the campaign, but also of his desire to stay at Stamford Bridge for another year, and to indeed retire as a Chelsea man. On several occasions, his voice faltered. Always an emotional man, I honestly wondered how on Earth he would cope one year later. For us fans, a day of high emotion was on the cards. For him, it would be even more intense. I had a feeling that everything would be about our captain. There was a realisation that it would possibly overshadow, if that is possible, the trophy presentation. Oh well. Whatever will be will be, as they say in football circles.

While I was watching John Terry on “You Tube” on Saturday evening, many other Chelsea pals were at an event at Stamford Bridge which paid homage to Eddie McCreadie’s team of the mid- ‘seventies. It represented his first appearance at Chelsea since he was sacked in 1977 – infamously for allegedly asking the board for a company car – and it was a major coup. For decades, he had not ventured from his new home in Tennessee due to his fear of flying. It looked like a top night. For once, I looked on from afar, and lived vicariously through the photographs of others. Many of the players from that era had attended the event. Lovely stuff.

On the Sunday morning, an early start for The Chuckle Bus, I drove up to London for the last time this season. For the FA Cup on Saturday, Glenn is driving; I will be able to relax and enjoy a few pints ahead of a final hurrah at Wembley. Glenn and myself headed down to the ground early on. We made a bee-line for the hotel where I hoped to be lucky enough to bump in to Eddie Mac. We stayed for a while, met a few friends, but our former manager was elsewhere. Not to worry, I got to meet Steve Wicks – our “flaxen-haired pivot” as much-lampooned former programme editor Colin Benson described him during his second spell at the club from 1986 to 1988 – and it is always lovely to meet former heroes. I wondered if Eddie McCreadie would be on the pitch at half-time. I never ever saw him play for us. There was also a quick word of welcome to former manager Ken Shellito, now living in Malaysia. Brilliant.

As we headed back to meet up with the lads in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, we noted that the club were handing out free match programmes. The sun was out. It was going to be a lovely day.

The usual faces had assembled in the pub for our final Chelsea home game of the season. I spotted several Juventus supporters in the little snug upstairs. They were assembling for their game against Crotone which would kick-off at 2pm. It would be a potential league decider. I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them in both Italian and English. It turned out that the boozer is the HQ of the Juve London Supporters Club. What a small world. They spoke of Antonio Conte and of Juan Cuadrado. The two clubs have shared many players and managers over the years, and that’s lovely for me. I showed them a photo on my phone of me at the Stadio Communale in 1988, and this was met with wide smiles. I bellowed “Vinci Per Noi” as I left.

We called in to “The Clarence” – news broke through that JT was starting –  and then made our way to Stamford Bridge, bumping into others en route. On the approach to the stadium, Fulham Road was adorned with signs declaring “The Home Of The Champions.” There already was an air of celebration in the air. The football match almost seemed an afterthought.

I briefly centred my thoughts on our team. I had presumed that JT might come on as a substitute, probably for Gary Cahill, so he could be on the pitch at the end of the game. Antonio Conte had obviously decided upon other plans. Elsewhere, a strong team, and with Fabregas instead of Matic and Willian instead of Pedro.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Terry, Luiz – Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

The hotel was being used as a canvas for two huge murals. To the left was a large image of John Terry and Antonio Conte in an embrace. To the right, the two words being uttered by them both :

“Thanks.”

“Grazie.”

Perfect.

Sunderland had brought down 1,500 from the north-east. It has been a Weary season for them. Their supporters looked like a sea of red-and-white striped deckchairs in the lazy summer sun. The minutes passed by. The usual pre-match Chelsea songs echoed around the packed stands.

It seemed that every seat was being used. Sadly, down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, one seat was empty. After being recently hospitalised, Cathy was forced to miss her first Chelsea home game since 1976, and only her second one ever since that date. She was undoubtedly in my thoughts, and in the thoughts of others, throughout the day. I have known Cathy as a “Chelsea face” for decades, but only really got to know her via trips to the US in 2006 and 2007. Her support has known no bounds. I hoped that her next match would be at Wembley next weekend.

“Get well soon, Cath.”

The league season had begun with the silvery shimmer of the Italian flag in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the teams appeared on the touchline, The Shed unravelled its most ambitious project yet; yet more shimmering mosaics, horizontal blue and white, with a large image of John Terry centrally-placed, and with trophies in front. Then, a huge sign was draped over the balcony –

“THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.”

There was another JT-themed flag in the Matthew Harding Lower below me. On the pitch, our captain led the team out with his two children Summer and George walking alongside him. It was a spectacular scene. The applause increased. Flames roared in front of the East Lower. Bathed in sunshine, a riot of colour, Stamford Bridge had rarely looked more photogenic.

The game had barely begun when the home crowd boomed “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” and the dapper Italian did a slow 360-degree salute to us.

Soon after, the crowd followed this up with a chant for Roman Abramovich. To my surprise, not only did the bashful owner smile and wave, he stood up too. Bless him. It is only right that we show him some love too.

Our game at the Stadium of Light in December was a 1-0 win – that Courtois save, wow – and had given us three vital away points. It seemed like a highly important victory at the time. It gave us belief heading in to Christmas. How odd that they could not break through on that night, but it only took them three minutes in the home game. A Sunderland free-kick resulted in a ball ending up at the feet of the unmarked Javier Manquillio – who? – at the far post. As John Terry scrambled to cover, the Sunderland player smashed the ball past Thibaut.

Oh bugger it.

There would not be another clean sheet for our ‘keeper.

On six minutes, the away fans in the far corner began singing in honour of their own club legend.

“One Bradley Lowery, there’s only one Bradley Lowery.”

I joined in, momentarily, but I was in the minority. The away fans sang away, bless them. At the end of the sixth minute, we were awarded a free-kick. Marcos Alonso slammed a curler against the bar and we watched with increasing incredulity as player after player passed the ball in and around the packed deck-chairs inside the Sunderland box.

The ball came out to Diego Costa, who shifted the ball to Eden Hazard, who moved it on to George Hilsdon. Then the ball was swept out to Jimmy Windridge, then to Tommy Law, then to Hughie Gallacher. A shot was blocked. Tommy Lawton pushed the ball to Tommy Walker, then to Roy Bentley. Another blocked shot. The ball fell to Ken Shellito, who shimmied past his marker, and touched the ball inside to Barry Bridges. A firm tackle robbed him of the ball, but John Hollins pounced and won the ball back. A fine move involving Clive Walker, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli and Claude Makelele set up Frank Lampard. His shot ricocheted into the path of John Terry, who swiped at the ball but could not connect. Eventually, the ball reached Willian who smashed the ball home.

Thank fuck for that.

Willian leapt in the air right in front of a gaggle of mates who were watching in the Shed Lower. The ground, unsurprisingly, roared.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

We went close on several other occasions and were in total control. Willian was right in the middle of everything, causing panic in the Sunderland box whenever he had the ball. John Terry caught a loose ball well but his shot was deflected away for a corner. It came from just outside the “D” of the penalty area. It could have been his crowning glory. He still, I am sure, has not scored from outside the box. Moses fired over. David Luiz went close. It was all Chelsea.

On twenty-six minutes, Jordan Pickford booted the ball off for a throw-in.

“Well, that was odd.”

It then all slotted in to place.

It was obvious that John Terry was to be substituted. I remembered back to 2015 and Didier’s last game when he was carried off by team mates. That seemed a little excessive, but seemed OK in the grand scheme of things. For John Terry, things were more contrived. He clapped us all, received hugs from his team mates and a few Sunderland players, including former blue Fabio Borini, and was given a guard of honour by his Chelsea team mates. Of course, the Chelsea crowd were lapping it all up. I was in two minds. A classy gesture or pure showbiz schmaltz? I am still undecided.

Ron Harris’ thoughts would be interesting to hear.

Regardless, he was given a fine ovation. He was, appropriately, replaced by Gary Cahill.

Alan, ever thoughtful, sent a video of the JT substitution to Cathy in her Middlesex hospital.

Willian, the constant danger, went close. For a while, it seemed implausible that we would not score a second goal. With Diego Costa on the periphery, however, we lacked a goal scoring touch inside the box. Diego was booked for a messy scuffle with John O’Shea, the lanky deck-chair attendant. Would it be one of those Diego games?

At the break, it was tied at 1-1 and we could hardly fathom it.

Sadly, Eddie McCreadie did not make it down to the pitch during the half-time break. Neil Barnett did mention him, though. He was watching from a box in the corporate tier of the West Stand. Additionally, we spotted Claudio Ranieri was sitting a few seats away from Roman.

The second-half began and it was much the same as before. Victor Moses took over Willian’s mantle and put in some lovely advances down the right. On the hour, at last we broke through. Eden Hazard drifted in from the left and effortlessly smashed the ball past Pickford.

We were 2-1 up. Get in.

The noise boomed again around Stamford Bridge. We were winning. Eden had just scored. Roman was happy. We were all happy.

“Carefree. Wherever you may be.”

Antonio was serenaded again. The 360 again. He then replaced Diego Costa with Michy Batshuayi. As he strode off, he too did a 360, but tellingly waved both hands to all four stands.

“He’s off to China then.”

When Pedro replaced Eden on seventy minutes, my eyes seared in to his skull and I begged him not to wave too. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Meanwhile, on Humberside, that lot were scoring five, six, seven. I wondered when they would be allowed to play their three extra games to allow them to be champions this season. At Anfield, Liverpool were winning, thus condemning Arsenal to fifth place. When we ended up in tenth place last season, there were no protests nor public outcry, nor a reduction in attendance figures. After Arsenal’s season – “fifth place, how dare they!!!” – expect the end of the world as we know it.

With around ten minutes to go, Pedro nipped in to head home after Cesc’s long ball was not gathered by Pickford. I was reminded of the same player’s rapid strike against Manchester United in the autumn. His gleeful little dance below me was joy itself.

Bizarrely, man of the moment Michy Batshuayi then scored two further goals in time added on for stoppages. Firstly, an opportunist toe poke from a fine pass from Pedro. He loved that. Soon after, wide on the right, he appeared to be offside and almost gave up the chase on a ball that was pumped in to space. He almost apologetically picked the ball up, strode forward and curled a fine shot past the luckless Pickford.

Chelsea 5 Sunderland 1.

The final whistle followed just after.

Just champion.

Unlike in previous seasons – even when we won it in 2015 – virtually nobody left the stadium. We waited patiently for the trophy presentation. But, I guess, many were waiting for John Terry too. The Sunderland fans gradually drifted away. Elsewhere, the stadium remained at capacity. We waited.

Dennis Wise appeared with the 2016/17 Premier League trophy and slowly walked out to place it on the plinth, which was luckily placed at our end of the stadium. We were in prime seats. Dennis kissed the trophy and smiled the cheekiest of grins. Inexplicably, and to my surprise, my eyes became moist. It was Dennis – “The Rat” – who had hoisted the FA Cup at Wembley in 1997, the greatest day in my life at that time. I was sent reeling back in time, and I welled up. Oh how we celebrated at Wembley on that glorious day. Our club was a different beast in those days. In truth, it felt more like my club in 1997 than in 2017 for reasons which are far too profound for me to tackle at this moment in time. Suffice to say, it all felt a lot more personal and pertinent – and relevant – twenty years ago than now. In 1997, we were a tight bunch. We had been through it all. The FA Cup was a final reward for our years of penury. These days, any Tom, Dick and Harriet supports Chelsea and successes seem to be expected by many.

For those who were there, in 1997, I am sure my emotions are easily understood.

I gathered myself, wiped my eyes, and awaited the next stage of the trophy presentation.

Neil Barnett was the MC.

First up, a few squad members who had not featured, including Eduardo and Masonda. Then, the manager Antonio. What a reaction from the crowd. He looked euphoric. Then, each and every one of the first team regulars were announced. Special cheers for N’Golo, for Eden, for Dave (who had, remarkably, played every single minute of our league campaign this season.)

Then Gary Cahill. Big cheers.

Then John Terry’s face appeared on the TV screen. His bottom lip seemed to be quivering.

“Oh, for fuck sake John, keep it steady.”

The captain walked slowly towards the trophy. A pause. Both John and Gary picked it up. Another pause.

And then the joint lift of the huge trophy above heads.

More flames and tinsel.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

  1. 2005. 2006. 2010. 2015. 2017.

How sweet it is.

The players were then swamped by wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters, plus the gentlemen of the press. The central area became crowded and too much was going on. We had a superb view of it all but I felt for the fans in The Shed.

“We sort out the pre-match display and are then the forgotten ones.”

The trophy was passed from player to player. We spotted the Sky team of Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness chat to Thibaut and Eden.

Inevitably, eyes turned towards John Terry. A montage of his most famous moments in our colours was featured on the TV screens. He stood, motionless, watching too. It looked like his bottom lip was going again. Neil gave him the microphone. His first act was to thank Steve Holland, off to pastures new with England, and he was given a fine reception. John Terry then walked past the photographers and spoke of the love that Roman Abramovich has for the club. For a moment, with John looking up at the owner in his executive area, speaking with such feeling, it resembled a footballing version of Romeo declaring undying love under Juliet’s balcony.

Roman’s name was again given a resounding roar. More embarrassed waves from the owner.

John then spoke of his love for the club, for us fans, but especially his love of his own family.

“I love you all” and his voice broke.

My eyes became a little moist. Good job I had my sunglasses on.

I then wondered if we had all lost the plot.

It’s only football, right?

Shankly was of course wrong. It’s not more important than life and death. What is?

And yet sport – football for me – does stir these incredible emotions. It is not to be laughed at. Football has given me some of my most amazing moments. I could only imagine what John was going through. His last day at his place of work for the past twenty years. A last goodbye.

I have only experienced something similar once before. My last visit to the old Yankee Stadium in 2008 – after twenty-three visits – left me a blubbering wreck. Heaven knows what I will be like when we move out in two years’ time. After around three-hundred and fifty games at Stamford Bridge, John had every right to be suitably moved.

Football has the power to touch us in so many ways and long may it continue.

I stood with Alan, Glenn and PD, our arms around each other’s shoulders.

It was a proud moment for PD; he had completed a full set of league games for the first time ever.

A hug for John Terry with Antonio Conte. A few words from the manager. A last few photographs of the captain in front of the Matthew Harding.

A wave to us.

And then a slow walk down to The Shed.

For many of our new fans, it must seem impossible for a Chelsea with no John Terry. But this club will continue. And we are in a supremely healthy position; the manager has formed a fine team ethos this season. And I know that many words have been written to describe John Terry, but my last comment for now is that during a potentially frustrating season for him, John has exemplified what a consummate professional he is by not giving the media a single story of negativity nor nonsense. For this reason alone, it has been one of his finest seasons. Bless him.

Who knows, he might even score the winner at Wembley next Saturday.

 

For Cathy.

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Tales From A Night Of Fun

Chelsea vs. Watford : 15 May 2017.

Friday was bloody magnificent, wasn’t it?

And now Chelsea, after winning the sixth title in our history at The Hawthorns, after a week of rising tension, were following this up with a home game against Watford on Monday. The absolute high from the game at West Brom had not really subsided, but there was a certain strangeness in the air as I drove up to West London with Parky and PD. There was a feeling of inevitable anti-climax, but we took that on the chin. That was certain. It was to be expected. In “The Goose” beforehand – rain clouds overhead dampening the mood a little – there was celebratory talk from Friday with those who had travelled, but the overall feeling was of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” In truth, of course, we would not wish to be anywhere else on the planet.

We quickly chatted about the potential team line-up, and I only predicted a few changes.

How wrong I was.

Begovic

Zouma – Terry – Ake

Azpilicueta – Kante – Chalobah – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Hazard

Compared to our first-choice starting eleven, only two players (N’Golo and Eden) were in their own positions. It seemed like a “B” team. But I wasn’t honestly bothered. With the FA Cup Final looming, I was sure that a strong team would be chosen against Sunderland. It was only right that a few fringe players were picked against Watford.

As I turned the corner and approached the West Stand, I grabbed a programme and soon spotted the new grand signage on the West Stand.

“Home of the Champions.”

It felt good.

Our fifth title in thirteen seasons. Some fans don’t know they are born. Of course, I don’t begrudge the younger element of our support anything; that would be churlish. But it did make me think. If I had seen a Chelsea title in my first season of active support at the age of eight, by the time I was twenty-one, I would have seen a total of five. I find this ridiculous, but for many young Chelsea fans in 2017 this is their actual story.

“Just like the Scousers” as my mate Andy had commentated at The Hawthorns on Friday, referencing their pomp in our shared childhood.

Indeed.

I do not wish to get too maudlin, but I have come to accept – and bizarrely, be thankful for – our championship draught from 1955 to 2004. It has made me appreciate the good times even more. And that is fine with me.

Outside and inside, I greeted a few pals with the same words –

“Alright, champ?”

I had commented to PD that I half-expected a fair few empty seats around the stadium – there had been a lot of spares up for grabs on “Facebook” in the morning – but I was very pleased that the place was filling up nicely. At kick-off, hardly any seats in the home areas were not used. However, Watford only had around 2,000 in their end. The gaping hole in their section was shocking. The “Home of the Champions” signage had been added to the balconies of all the stands too. A nice touch. Just before the teams entered the pitch, “CHAMPIONS” banners were draped from the upper tier of The Shed.

“Park Life” gave way to “The Liquidator” and the Watford team – the starting eleven in white to the right, the subs in red to the left – formed a guard of honour. John Terry, almost certainly for the last time, lead the Chelsea team on to the pitch. Flame-throwers in front of the East Stand blasted orange fingers of fire into the evening air. The noise was thunderous.

Down below, I spotted Cathy, who had been hit with ill-health during the game on Friday. She had come straight from a Middlesex hospital. It was reassuring to see her in her usual seat. Her home record – every game since the mid-seventies – was intact.

Very soon into the match, the surreal tone for the ensuing evening was set when the entire crowd roared “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” and the manager slowly turned a complete circle and clapped all of the four corners of the packed stadium. This often happens, but usually much later. This was within the first two minutes. Just a few seconds after, the Chelsea fans followed this up with a chant aimed at the fellows in second place, a full ten points adrift now.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

We began brightly enough and were on the front foot. It was odd to see so many different players on the pitch at the same time. A header back to Begovic by John Terry was loudly cheered, but we soon got used to him. Unlike his previous substitute appearance, not every touch was cheered.

However, that was soon to change.

We had created a few half-chances, and then Willian pumped in a corner from our right. King Kurt rose to head the ball goal wards, and the ball was slammed past Gomes. As the goal scorer reeled away, I soon realised that it was John Terry. Perfect. Oh bloody perfect. He ran towards the fans, jumped up – right in front of Parky, the lucky sod – and was engulfed by his fellow players. A lovely moment. A goal on his last start for Chelsea? Probably.

Chelsea 1 Watford 0.

I looked towards Alan, and waited for him to turn towards me and utter his usual post-goal exclamation. I waited. And waited. And waited. He was watching the match. I glanced over to my left just as Watford forced a very rapid equaliser. I only saw the ball cross the line.

Alan and myself had words.

“I’m blaming you for that.”

We laughed.

As the game progressed, we remained dominant. As if in some sort of subtle homage to our captain, the impressive Nathaniel Chalobah chest-passed a ball to a team mate. He loves a chest-pass, does John Terry. With a similar touch to that which set up our first goal at Wembley against Spurs, Michy Batshuayi was able to flick a ball on with a quite beautiful touch. It had the feel of an exhibition match, with tricks and flicks never far away. Willian was especially full of energy. Hazard went close. On thirty-five minutes, a move from our left forced a save from Watford ‘keeper and captain Gomes. It fell to Dave, who slammed the ball hard and low into the net.

Get in.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

More wild celebrations over in Parkyville. Flags waving, the crowd roaring. Super stuff.

It had been a fine half of football. It was amazing to see N’Golo eat up space with such desire and win ball after ball. Kenedy – “I didn’t know Bart Simpson was playing” quipped Alan – was looking to get forward at every opportunity. Dave, unfettered now in a wide position, had enjoyed a fine half too. Kurt Zouma, usually so stiff, seemed a lot more relaxed. All was good.

Kerry Dixon was on the pitch at half-time. However, he did not take part in the usual walkabout on the pitch.

Both Alan and myself, at the same time, spoke : “He’s getting back to the bar.”

Soon into the second-half, a short corner eventually broke to Nathan Ake, who played the ball on to Batshuayi. It was an easy chance.

“He always scores against Watford.”

Chelsea 3 Watford 1.

Unbelievably, and to our annoyance, Watford scored again. Janmaat danced through – waltzing past many blue shirts – and curled one past Begovic. It was a fine goal.

Despite this setback, the mood inside the stadium was still light. The MHL began to get the other stands involved.

“West Stand give us a song” – they did.

“Shed End give us a song” – they did.

“Watford give us a song” – they didn’t.

More songs for Antonio, for JT, for Willian. Batshuayi was involved, getting a couple of shots on target. Two shots from Dave too. But then our play became a little disjointed. Watford, aided by some dubious refereeing decisions, were able to move the ball through our tiring midfield. Watford had replaced Niang with Okaka – “who?” from Alan and yours truly – and we were left eating our words when a cross was pumped into our box, the ball fell between Terry and Zouma, and the substitute slammed home, with Chelsea unable to clear. And the previously mute Watford fans sang loud and danced like fools.

“Bollocks.”

Behrami slashed a drive just past the post. Janmaat blasted over.

“Come on Chels, fackinell”

This was turning in to a very odd game. Three-all. Sigh. I was reminded of our 2005/06 title procession, when heading in to Christmas we hardly conceded any goals. I can well remember how we then proceeded to win 3-2 versus Fulham on Boxing Day. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous goal fest. Of course, our defence has been more porous of late, but this still seemed odd.

We had conceded three goals. At home. Against Watford. Oh boy.

This was hardly our worst effort in a championship season of course. In 1954/55, we lost 5-6 to Manchester United. Sorry, I won’t mention it ever again.

Not to worry, as he has done so often this season, Conte pulled some tactical strings. On came Ola Aina for Kenedy. On came Cesc Fabregas for Chalobah. On came Pedro for Michy, who received a lovely reception. Deep down, I was confident that we would spring a late goal. We pressed and pressed. Substitute Cesc forced Gomes to save from a dipping free-kick. The same player then went close at an angle inside the six-yard box. The pressure mounted. With just two minutes remaining, the excellent Willian rolled the ball square to Fabregas, who bobbled a shot low past Gomes.

Chelsea 4 Watford 3.

“Get in.”

What a crazy game.

In the final moments, Prodl was sent off for a second yellow. There was no way back for the visitors.

Phew. The final whistle blew.

Above, fireworks flew up in to the night sky from above the East and West Stands. Blue and silver tinsel streamers fell from the roofs.

“Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

Some fans disappeared into the night, and we should have set off for a quick getaway too, but we saw the players line up to race over to those still in The Shed. PD and myself decided to stay on too. We watched as the players – and Antonio – slowly walked towards us in the Matthew Harding. This was a surprise. Had someone not realised that our final home game was on Sunday? With flames, fireworks and tinsel in evidence for this penultimate game, I honestly wondered what we had in store for the trophy presentation itself.

Anything less than a fly-past by the Red Arrows with billowing jets of blue and white and I will be writing a letter of complaint, Roman.

Antonio was, unwittingly perhaps, the star of the show again, leading the cheers and lapping up the warm adoration from the stands. But my eyes were on John Terry too. What emotions were racing through his mind? The goal must have warmed him. What a satisfying moment. I had always hoped that he would score a net-stretching scorcher from outside the box, but virtually all of his goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the six-yard box. One of his finest goals was a volley – I forget the opposition – at the Shed End when he changed shape mid-air to flick the ball home. Not to worry. This night was his, even though I was to learn that he was at fault for the first equaliser.

Antonio grabbed an inflatable Premier League trophy from a fan behind the goal, and gleefully smiled the widest of smiles. His legendary status grows.

The three of us met up at “Chubby’s Grill” and continued the season-long tradition of “cheeseburger with onions please love.” It had been a fun night to be honest. I won’t dwell on a few deficiencies; it is not the time for silly analysis after such a game.

I began the drive home. It would be the last midweek flit of the season. I was glad that there would be no more. And then I realised that I should not complain. If anything, it made me appreciate the long hours that fans across the country put in week in and week out in support of their chosen teams. Fair play to all of them. The ones who follow mid-table teams, locked in to another season of obscurity, and the ones who support those teams in relegation dogfights are especially worthy of praise. These are the real stars of the football world. This season – as champions – was a relative breeze for me and my trusted Chuckle Bus.

Nevertheless, I would eventually reach home at 1am. I would not, as always, be able to go straight to sleep. I would eventually nod off at 1.45am. Four hours of sleep would leave me exhausted the following day at work.

As I once commented to a work colleague, who admitted that he could never do what I do in support of my team :

“I bloody love it, mate.”

As do many others.

See you all on Sunday.

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Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

Our week of work had begun with a win against Middlesbrough on Monday evening. This was a pleasing and reassuring performance; an easy 3-0 win – the second in succession – and it meant that we needed just one more win at West Brom on the Friday to secure our sixth League Championship. My Friday started well. The first four hours flew past. But then, as I noted hundreds of Chelsea supporters heading up to the West Midlands, the time slowed to a standstill. It was as if everyone else’s burst of freedom compared miserably to my last four hours of work. It seemed that I was the very last to head north. At 3.30pm, I eventually left work. As I reached the village where Parky lives – only a ten-minute drive away – “Three Lions” by The Lightning Seeds was booming out of my car. We were looking to bring the Premier League trophy home. It seemed wholly appropriate. Soon after, Glenn and PD arrived. Glenn had kindly agreed to drive up to The Hawthorns. We poised for a photo outside Parky Towers, with “Vinci Per Noi” fluttering in the breeze. There was a hint of rain in the air. At around 3.45pm, we set off.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

There was a threat of rain throughout the drive north and this added a little gloom to my thoughts of what might happen over the next few hours. For a few moments, I wasn’t optimistic, but I kept my feelings to myself. Elsewhere in the Chuckle Bus, the mood was good. I blamed it on the cider.

Glenn made good time, and we were soon turning off the M5 at around 6pm. As always, we use the parking facilities at the Park Inn – where I am reliably informed that Chelsea used to stay for their games at West Brom in days gone by – and we soon met up with a few familiar faces. We guzzled back two pints of lager and chatted to a plethora of fellow Chelsea fans. There were long lines at the bar. While I was waiting to give Parky a hand with his drinks, I spotted Kirk Brandon, lead singer from the ‘eighties bands Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny. I had known that he was a Chelsea supporter for a while and he was featured in a recent Chelsea magazine. I popped over to say a few words. I had only just recently seen him support Stiff Little Fingers in March in Bristol. We had arrived fashionably late to just catch the very last song “Do You Believe In The Westworld?” Little did I think that I would soon be chatting to him before a Chelsea game. I didn’t ask him if he had a ticket; I hoped he had. Many in the bar didn’t. Parky chatted away about his time in London in the ‘seventies, watching as many punk bands as he could. Kirk seemed genuinely pleased to chat to us. I mentioned to him that I am friends with SLF frontman Jake Burns – albeit only on Facebook, though our paths almost crossed in Chicago in the summer – and for a moment it was all a bit surreal. I sent Jake a little message to say that I had been chatting to his mate and he soon replied “good luck for tonight.”

We set off for the ground. We were about to liberate the Premier League trophy.

It was a murky old night in West Bromwich. We marched past the hamburger and hot dog stalls. We bypassed the souvenir stalls. However, I had seen on a TV programme earlier in the season that Albion have produced a set of programme covers this season which feature albums and bands. Once I spotted six of their academy players lined up a la Madness, with the headline “One Step Beyond”, I knew I had to buy a copy. I quickly flicked inside. It looked a substantial read. In the centre of the programme was a complete set of programme covers from this year. Album covers by Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Phil Collins and the Sex Pistols – plus others – were tweaked with a football twist. It was very effective. I especially liked the Sex Pistols cover. It was for their FA Cup tie against Derby County, but references an infamous loss that West Brom suffered against Woking many years ago, when Tim Buzaglo scored the winner.

“Never Mind The Buzaglos, Here’s The FA Cup.”

There were handshakes with many in the concourse – which oddly has wooden laminate flooring, interesting fact #574 – and then out into the seats. The cumulative intake of gallons of alcohol throughout the day had resulted in plenty of song. The four of us Chuckle Brothers were right behind the goal, down low. My camera would struggle focussing through the netting all evening. My pessimism had subsided – maybe it was the lager. Surely, so close, we would win this.

We had heard the team and although N’Golo Kante was not starting, we had no issue with Cesc Fabregas playing alongside Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere, the side picked itself.

In a previous edition, I have talked about the home supporters relatively new usage of the twenty-third psalm, and I spotted that the words were now stencilled on the low stand to our left.

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie. In pastures green, he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.”

Only a few minutes before the game began, I received a text message from Dave – often featured in despatches – in France to announce the birth of his first child, a son, only an hour previously. What fantastic news. And this was on a day when my pal JR – in Detroit – was celebrating his son’s first birthday. The signs were good. We surely could not fail.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the PA boomed out “Liquidator” and both sets of fans roared.

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

Our end was packed to the rafters. We had heard that many Chelsea had gambled on tickets in the home areas. This would be our first chance to win the league at an away ground since that momentous early evening game in Bolton in 2005. Tickets were like gold dust. But I loved the idea of Chelsea swarming the ground. Just like the old days.

And then the football began in earnest.

Chelsea, the all-blacks, were soon on the back foot when a looping header from Salomon Rondon caused Thibaut Courtois to back-peddle and tip over. Barely twenty seconds had elapsed. To our left, sharing the Smethwick End, the home fans were having an occasional dig at us – “WWYWYWS?”, how original – but were also singing about their two most hated local rivals.

“Oh wanky, wanky. Wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers” for those to the west and “shit on the Villa” to those to the east. Birmingham City must feel peeved; “no song for us?”

After that initial threat, Chelsea dominated possession. But it was clear from our very first attack that West Brom were to defend deep, resolutely, and space in the final third was at a premium. We only had a succession of half-chances, maybe only quarter-chances. In the away end, the night of song continued as a new ditty aimed at our double Player of the Year was repeated again and again.

“N’Golo. Oh. Always believe in your soul. You’ve got the power to know – you’re indestructible. Always believing.”

It rumbled around for some time.

Altough not aired, I prefer this other one which will hopefully gain traction before now and the FA Cup Final.

“His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. He wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball.”

The home team only occasionally threatened us, with the runs of James McLean drawing boos whenever he approached the away quadrant. It is safe to say he is not the most liked opposition player.

We tried to release Moses – “Is Vic there?” – but only occasionally did he get a ball across the box. We were dominating possession, but we were playing Chelsea Rules and not Arsenal Rules; we needed a goal. The West Brom players were targeting Eden Hazard and he was clumped several times.  Shots were blocked. Shots were miscued. At last a clean strike from Cesc, but it drifted past Ben Foster’s far post. Next up, Pedro unleashed a shot wide. It was all Chelsea, but with little to show for it. A rare Albion attack ended the first-half. It amounted to nothing.

The noise in the Chelsea section, loud at the start, had gradually subsided throughout the first-half.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

At the break, out in the concourse, we were still confident of getting a victory.

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

I remembered back to Bolton in 2005 and we certainly struggled in the first-half during that momentous match. During this game in 2017, we had performed better, but only marginally. Oh where was Frank Lampard when you need him?

Soon in to the second period, Moses lost his marker and zipped a firm low shot at goal, but Foster reacted well to fingertip the ball away. Then a shot from a twisting Costa. It was backs-to-the-wall stiff for the Baggies. We watched, urging the boys on. Please let us, somehow, find a way through. Hazard struggled to produce much quality on the left. I kept urging Cesc to unlock the door. But our dominance was increasing. Surely we would score? The first fifteen minutes of the second-half flew past. I looked over to the scoreboard to my right.

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

We went close when a deflected shot squirmed wide. Another Moses shot. Another Foster save.

“For fuck sake.”

The nerves were starting to jangle now. Time moved on.

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

A rare West Brom chance soon followed, when Rondon broke, but great defending saved the day. Then, just after substitute Nacer Chadli – ex-Spurs, oh no – was clear in on goal but stroked the ball wide of Thibaut’s far post. It was a sign for the away end to wake up and increase the volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” – how sweet the sound.

Seventy-five minutes.

A gamble from the manager. Willian replaced Pedro. Michy Batshuayi replaced Hazard. This surprised me, I have to be honest. Although Pedro had tired a little and although Eden was not at his best, the introduction of Batshuayi especially seemed a risk. He had begun his season well, with a smattering of goals against Bristol Rovers and Watford, but had rarely featured since. Over the next few minutes, the frustration grew as Batshuayi gave away one foul, then another, then another. A wild shot from Dave did not bother Foster.

This did not look good. The mood in the away end was detiorating. Not sombre, but just a little quiet. It looked like we would have to wait until Monday. I felt for Glenn, who would be working.

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

Just after, with more Chelsea possession, and the defence suitably packed, a ball was headed back towards Gary Cahill. His rushed shot from twenty yards, spun away into part of the penalty box which was free from defenders. Maybe, just maybe, the West Brom defenders switched off momentarily. We watched as Dave raced towards the ball and was just able to whip a ball in, hard and low. The action was only fifteen yards away from me. We watched as Batshuayi flung himself at the ball. For a split second, the ball was within the frame of the goal, but of course I had no idea if it would result in a late winner.

Twelve yards away from me, the ball rippled the side netting.

We went berserk.

I turned to the bloke to my left and we just roared and roared, jumping as one.

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

What a moment. The away end was a boiling pot of ecstasy. The noise was deafening. The relief flowed over all of us. I struggled to hop up on to my seat in order to photograph the scenes of wild abandon to my left. I was only able to take a couple of shots of David Luiz, his face pulsing with joy, arms out-stretched.

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

The rest of the game is a blur. Kurt Zouma replaced Moses, but the away end was bouncing in adoration of the manager and team.

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

“Campioni, campioni” – or at least, this is what it should have been – “ole, ole, ole” – a mixture of Spanish and Italian. How apt.

We bounced in a minute.

Over in the far corner of the Birmingham Road Stand – the home end – a few Chelsea fans were obviously causing havoc, and were lead out. We have all sat or stood in home areas over the years – I have done so at Everton, Liverpool, Leeds United and Arsenal among others – but it must be impossible to keep schtum when your boys have just won the league. For a few fleeting moments, The Hawthorns was transported to 1983.

There were five minutes of time added on.

At the whistle, I was slightly subdued. I then pointed to the sky.

“Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks for game one in 1974.”

Game 1,140 had ended with us with our sixth league championship and our fifth of my lifetime. Our fifth in thirteen seasons.

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

For half-an-hour or so, the players and management team raced over to join in our party. My eyes were on Antonio Conte. His face was a picture of joy. Elsewhere, the players were enjoying every second. I struggled to capture it all on film because hands were pointing, arms were waving, a line of OB were in the way. But I managed to capture a few nice moments. I loved that Antono Conte, John Terry, Pedro and then N’Golo Kante – his song booming – were given the bumps.

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

Willian was serenaded with “his song” and he gleefully danced a little jig, his hands covering his mouth, as if sniggering.

This felt fantastic.

The pitch was flooded with Chelsea personnel. In the middle, Antonio Conte alongside Angelo Alessio – I remember seeing him play for Juve in the late ‘eighties – but also with a cast of thousands. Everyone involved. Everyone happy. Frank Lampard was somewhere, though I did not clock him. A song for Roman.

All of us, there.

Together.

Almost lost in the middle of everything was a small green flag :

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

We bounced out of the away end. Handshakes and hugs all round. We strolled down that old-style exit ramp which lead down to a nearby road. Time for another cheeseburger with onions.

It tasted champion.

At the Jeff Astle gates, I took one last memento of the night. As we drive past exit 1 of the M5 on every Chelsea trip north in the future, we will gaze east and spot the angled floodlights of The Hawthorns.

And we will smile.

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Back at the Park Inn, the mood was of relief but mainly of pride and joy. Two more pints, a gin and tonic. The Bristol lot gave me a little plastic cup of champagne. We posed with flags and banners. I was able to wear my “Chelsea Champions 2016/17” badge which Big John gave me on Monday.

It felt fantastic.

This felt better than in 2015. Miles better. It felt better than in 2006. I’d say it was on a par with 2010, only behind that evening at The Reebok in 2005. This one was just so unexpected. At the start of the season, there were probably four – maybe even six – teams that could win the league. I, perhaps optimistically, guessed that we would finish third. Remember, in 2015/2016, we finished tenth. After Arsenal – or ground zero – I would have been ecstatic with a top four.

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

Parky, Glenn G., PD, Nick H., John R., Mark Boswood., Zac, Big John, Kevin A., Kevin H., Ian, Long Tall Pete, Liz, Julie P., Tim P., Rich, Kev, Brian, Charlie, Tim R., Mark Barfoot, Callum, Jason, Carol, Welsh Kev, Alan, Gary, Pam, Becky, DJ, John C., Maureen, Allie, Nick, The Youth, Seb, Scott, Neil S., Andy, Sophie, Jokka, Chopper, Neil P., Glenn D., Mark C., Ludo, Rick, Steve, Burger, Julie F., Rob, Peter, Jim, Trizia, Paul, Dan, Millsy.

And a special mention to those non-Chelsea supporters who wished me congratulations :

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

And – especially – for Harry Lotto, born 12 May 2016 and Jared Easter, born 12 May 2017.

Tales From The Working Week : Monday

Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough : 8 May 2017.

Our last five league games of this wonderful season were to take place on two Sundays, two Mondays and a Friday. We would be whores to the TV money yet again. But I hoped that this odd pattern would not disrupt us on our stride towards the title, which seemed a lot more attainable after West Ham’s surprising win at home to Tottenham on Friday.

It left us requiring two wins from our remaining four league games to ensure our sixth league championship.

The first of these games was against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough on the Monday, followed by a game at West Brom on the Friday. These were two monumental bookends to a potentially fantastic five days.

In my comments about Chelsea, I often use the phrase “let’s go to work” to convey a sense of duty to the common good. There is inevitably a back story to this. When I was even more in love with Italy than I am now – if it is possible – I remember seeing a travel programme in 1988 called “Rough Guide” detailing the industrial and commercial stronghold of Milan. There was talk of the “rampanti” – the young and feverish young businessmen, intoxicated by business but also consumed by Italian style. They were the Italian equivalent of “yuppies” (remember them?) I guess.

As one of the presenters said : “The protestant work ethic has gone crazy in Catholic Italy.”

Around the same time, I vividly remember reading a guide to the same city that mentioned that instead of wishing each other “good morning” or “good day”, the business folk of Milan would often utter the Italian equivalent of “let’s go to work” and it immediately struck a chord.

And I am sure that Antonio Conte would approve. And so this would be a working week like no other. From Monday to Friday, Chelsea Football Club would be focused. At the weekend, following the game at The Hawthorns, there might be a chance to relax.

My working week began with Wembley on my mind. My main task on the day of the Middlesbrough game was to purchase Cup Final tickets. I was so absorbed on this objective that I completely forgot to pack my camera for the game later that evening. I would have to make do with my mobile phone. A lack of focus such as this would have been frowned upon by Antonio, no doubt. It is a good job that he is not my boss.

By the way, who thought that in this match report about our game with Middlesbrough – a win and we would consign them to the Championship – that my first comments about 1988 would be concerning Italian yuppies?

1988.

Let me explain, if it needs to be explained.

We began 1987/88 in good form but after Christmas we fell drastically down the league. Under manager John Hollins, things went from bad to worse. Chairman Ken Bates replaced Hollins with Bobby Campbell for the last month or so of the season. At the time, the First Division was being trimmed from twenty-two teams to twenty teams over two seasons. Additionally, it was the second year of the Football League play-offs, which featured teams from the top two divisions playing off over two legs. Chelsea finished fourth from bottom of the First Division in 1987/88 and met Blackburn Rovers in the first round of the play-offs. They were easily dispatched. In the final, we met Middlesbrough, who had beaten Bradford City in their first round. At Ayresome Park, we lost 2-0. In the return leg, I fancied our chances to over-turn this. Our team contained some half-decent players such as Steve Clarke, John Bumstead, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gordon Durie and Tony Dorigo. On paper we were no mugs.

In late May 1988 – a fortnight after the Cup Final, virtually the last game of the season – over 40,000 assembled at Stamford Bridge on a bright and sunny afternoon to see if Chelsea could claw back the two goals. I watched, alongside Alan – just like in 2017 – as Gordon Durie guided the ball in after only a quarter of an hour. The noise was deafening. We were watching from the back row of the benches, willing the team on, kicking every ball, heading every clearance. I can remember that such was the appetite to see this game that The Shed was packed early on. Shamefully, the club decided to open up a section of The Shed terrace that had been closed under the safety of sports grounds act for years and years. My photograph of The Shed from the day shows the ridiculous density of people in the rear portions of The Shed and also the overflow, standing on a terrace that should not have been used.

The club had decided to do this for the league game with Charlton Athletic a month or so earlier too. My dear parents, as late arrivals, watched that game from that section of The Shed, sitting on a terrace that had not been used since around 1979.

Remember this was a year before Hillsborough. Not only Sheffield Wednesday snubbed ground regulations in those days.

On that day in May 1988, we tried and tried but could not break Middlesbrough down despite having tons of possession. Their side, containing Gary Pallister and Tony Mowbray at the heart of their defence, rode their luck and held on. They were followed by around 7,000 away fans who were packed into the sweeping north terrace to my left.

At the end of the game, and with Chelsea relegated to the Second Division for the third time of my life, we did not take defeat well.

At the final whistle, hundreds of Chelsea fans scaled the fences at The Shed and raced on to the pitch, and ran at the away fans. I remember some stewards opened up some exit gates at The Shed. Of course, only a very small percentage of our fans bothered to trespass on to the pitch. Most were in a state of shock at our demise. Most just looked-on aghast. I remember feeling a mixture of emotions. I was just so sad that we were relegated. There was no desire for me to get on to the pitch. I dare say that a lot of this was bravado and posturing by the Chelsea fans, rather than a desire to go toe-to-toe with ‘Boro, who were, of course, unreachable, penned in by themselves.

This was immediately before the UK’s 1988 Summer of Love when a fair proportion of old school hooligans throughout the UK found dance music and ecstasy and gradually turned away from knocking lumps out of each other for a while. This was an era of jeans, trainers, Rockport boots, Timberland shoes, England “Invasion of Germany 1988” T-shirts, denim button-down shirts, jade away shirts, and a subtle selection of new casual brands such as Marc O’Polo, Chevignon and Chipie. This was pre rave, pre Smiley-face, pre acid-house, and at times all very grotesque.

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

So – relegation. What a bitter pill to swallow. In 2017, we have thoughts of The Double. In 1988, there was only double-denim.

Outside, as I marched dejectedly down the Fulham Road, the venom from the waiting Chelsea fans outside the away end was palpable. There would be running battles for hours after. By which time, I had returned to Paddington for the train home, feeling totally depressed. We had become – and remain – the only team to finish fourth from bottom of the top division and still be relegated.

One wonders how millions of modern day Chelsea fans would cope with all that.

In Germany, a few weeks later, England were humiliated in the European Championships and there was mayhem as the English hooligans fought the locals and opposing fans alike. At the start of the 1988/89 season, Chelsea were forced to play our first six home games with no spectators allowed in The Shed nor North Stand.

They were pretty bleak times.

Oh, and worst of all, we sold Pat Nevin to Everton in the summer too.

I think it is fair to say, from a football perspective, 1988 was the worst summer of my life.

Fast forward to May 2017 and we live in a different universe.

Outside the stadium, I had bumped into my pal Jason from Texas – over for one game only – and we headed over to The Chelsea Pensioner to meet up with Kathryn and Tim from Virginia, themselves over for one game only. We skipped past a twenty-five strong bunch of Chelsea fans, all scarves and replica shirts, from Poland. In The Butcher’s Hook, the mood was of quiet confidence, though if I am honest, I was still a little nervous. We heard that N’Golo Kante was not playing, nor even on the bench.

I joked that we would win 1-0.

Scorer : Kante.

What a superhuman season he has had.

Unlike in 1988, ‘Boro had only brought 1,500 fans, and one flag. Very poor.

I was hoping for a red hot atmosphere from the very start, or from even before the start. I was a little dismayed, but not at all surprised, that the noise levels were not as tumultuous as I had hoped as the game kicked-off.

There was an early foray into our half by Middlesbrough, but our first real attack was a joy to watch. We moved the ball quickly and purposefully from centre to right to left and Marcos Alonso crashed a volley towards goal, only for us to gasp as the ball was deflected by Brad Guzan on to the bar

In the early stages, ‘Boro looked to release their right winger Adama Traore as often as possible. He looked a bit useful. Alan said that he was reminded of Forest’s Franz Carr – ugh, a 6-2 loss at home in 1986, Jon Millar still has nightmares.

I noted that Middlesbrough’s awful shirt ideally represents their gradual decline this season; that ridiculous white diagonal goes from sixteenth place to nineteenth place.

Slowly, the noise picked up.

Chelsea : “We’re top of the league.”

‘Boro : “We’re going down.”

Chelsea (missing the joke ) : “You’re going down.”

Alonso was finding tons of space out on our left. Sadly, a second effort did not trouble Guzan. Pedro was everywhere, picking up the loose ball, passing it on, involved. He may not be our most influential nor best player this season, but he surely embodies the Conte work ethic like no other. Cesc Fabregas, heavily involved, was stroking the ball around majestically. Eden Hazard set Fabregas up, but his low shot was well off target.

The same player then set up Diego Costa, but his teasing and tantalising cross just evaded the lunge from Diego. In The Sleepy Hollow, I turned and demanded answers from my fellow fans :

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

A lovely long ball, across the box, from Fabregas found Diego Costa, who steadied himself and stroked the ball home.

There was the opening goal. Get in you bastard.

Vic Reeves : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Bob Mortimer : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The crowd was in the game now. A medley of songs rang around the stadium.

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re coming for you.”

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re waiting for you.”

“Tottenham Hotspur – we’re laughing at you.”

Another goal quickly followed. Dave looped another long ball over the heads of everyone and picked out Alonso. Stretching at the bye-line, he did well to connect at all. Imagine our joy, and relief of course, when we saw the net ripple.

We were 2-0 to the good. Fackinell.

“Another goal now Alan, and we could score a hat-full.”

Efforts from Moses – running into space on the right – went close and that man Alonso curled a free-kick just over. We were well on top.

All of that pre-match worry seemed ill-placed. It had been a lovely half of football.

Soon into the second period, we went close again, with the effervescent Pedro lashing a ball against the top of the bar from twenty yards. Alonso’s shot was almost touched in by Diego. The look on our forward’s face was of pure agony. Gary Cahill was next to test Guzan, shooting with power from thirty yards. It seemed everyone wanted a touch of the ball. How different to last season. Man of the moment Fabregas touched a shot wide. Amongst all this, Eden Hazard was having a relatively quiet game, save for a mesmerizing spin away from a marker and a strong run, which was typically ended by a clumsy challenge. Hazard, of course, is heavily marked these days, but other players are primed to intelligently exploit the space he leaves elsewhere.

With twenty minutes of the game remaining, another lovely move ended up with Fabregas clipping a delightful ball towards Nemanja Matic. He chested it down and smashed it home.

Three-naught. Get fucking in.

The crowd sang “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in.

Hazard was substituted by Willian (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.)

Pedro fired over. Moses went close.

I turned to Alan : “It could have been seven, tonight.”

David Luiz raced up field and clearly wanted to score. It was one of those nights. This was a very mature performance from Chelsea. We looked at ease in our own skin, at ease with each other. There had been a couple of silly defensive errors in the first-half from Cahill and Luiz but they soon redeemed themselves. ‘Boro’s infamously goal-shy attack did not get a sniff.

Some of the away fans could be heard singing a song of never-ending support. A few Chelsea around me clapped, but were soon dwarfed by louder shouts of disdain. We had revenged 1988 but in truth our Wembley victories in 1997 and 1998 had sorted that out years ago.

Nathaniel Chalobah replaced Pedro and, to a hero’s welcome, David Luiz was replaced by none other than John Terry (we have a song for him, Tottenham, if you are watching.) Every one of JT’s three or four touches were warmly applauded. I was pleased that a gaggle of pals from the US had seen the captain play, albeit for only a few easy moments. Everywhere we purred, none more so than Alonso, Pedro and Cesc.

Alan : “That young lad Kante will struggle to get back in for Friday.”

In the end, it was a cake-walk. A walk in the park. A piece of cake.

I commented to Alan that it seemed so strange that our humiliation of Tottenham last season – that goal, that game – has been mirrored, although on a far grander scale, throughout the past few weeks of this season.

“It is almost as if last May was a dummy run for this May. Bloody love it.”

There was a gorgeous and joyous atmosphere as we walked down the Fulham Road. There were hugs and handshakes with a few good friends. That horrific walk from 1988 could not have been more different.

One game to go, Chelsea, one game to go.

Is it Friday yet?

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Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tales From A Wembley High

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

We all knew how important this FA Cup semi-final was. We had suffered a recent blip in the league with two defeats out of the past four games and so we all realised that this game against Tottenham Hotspur – aka “that lot” – had the potential to make or break our season. A once seemingly impenetrable lead of ten points had been frittered away to a meagre four. A defeat – God forbid – at the hands of that lot at Wembley, we reasoned, would strike a horrible blow to our self-belief, while handing a lifeline to them.

No further build-up required. It was a massive match.

I woke early – again before the alarm – and unsurprisingly nervous. I was, if I am honest, full of trepidation. And this certainly felt odd. In recent years I have rarely felt so unsure of a Chelsea win and, with it, a grand day out from start to finish.

The four Chuckle Brothers – Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – had travelled up by train once again. It brought back memories, thankfully briefly, of the train trip that we all took just a few days after my mother passed away for the League Cup semi-final against the same opponent just over two years ago. On that day, I didn’t feel much like football, but my friends famously pulled me through. We had set off from Frome at 8am, and were soon at the lovely and delightful Paddington Station. There is something quite wonderful about alighting at a grand terminus, especially on a football day out. We had not spotted fans of either team on the journey to London. I certainly expected to bump into groups of “them” throughout the day.

As we strode out across the busy concourse towards Praed Street, I pointed out the metallic bench seats where the four of us had slumped – silent, stony-faced, sad – after the away game at The Emirates in September, and we all remembered those fleeting moments of pain and worry. The bench really sticks in my mind. It is undoubtedly one my personal totems of this incredible season. It made me think of another football club and one with which our current manager is heavily linked. I always remember that during the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Juventus Stadium in 2011, a bench played a starring role, since the famous old club was formed by some youngsters who met by a bench in one of Turin’s main streets. A replica of that bench was floodlit, in the middle of the pitch, as all other lights were dimmed. It was a simple and fine image. It represented a pivotal moment in time for that club. I promised the boys that if we ever made it to the FA Cup Final in May, we would make a point of returning to sit on that same bench on the Paddington concourse – maybe as league champions – and remember how far this team has come. Imagine returning on the evening of Saturday 27 May after an FA Cup Final with some silverware in our back pockets. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have travelled in 2016/2017. After that game at Arsenal, it felt like we were down and out. We had a team in need of fresh blood. The mess of the previous season was set to continue. Our new manager had been found out. We were to face a long and testing season.

I had sorted out a little pub crawl. After scoffing a great breakfast outside the station, we were the first patrons to enter “Sawyers Arms” bang on 11am. We had already admitted to ourselves that we were all nervous about the game. Over a “Peroni”, the talk continued about the game. We all admitted that the result at Old Trafford had really been a “bad day at the office” especially when the news broke that a few players had been stricken with a stomach bug. The team had obviously been knocked sideways by the pre-match changes. In retrospect, everything looked out of kilter. But we were sure that the manager would be suitably prepared for the semi-final. Of course, the loss of Gary Cahill would be a tough one. We favoured Nathan Ake over Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

As we approached “The Sussex Arms” I spotted a gaggle of Herberts supping pints outside.

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

As I got closer, I recognised a few familiar faces. Inside the dark boozer, I recognised even more. Many of the Chelsea fans from our neck of the woods had evidently decided to forego the bars closer to the station. I took my pint of San Miguel and chatted to one of the Swindon lads, Paul. Close by were lads from Melksham, Westbury, Trowbridge and Gloucester. Outside, the banter continued. None of us were overly confident. We were joined by three Chelsea lads from California – Tom, Brad and Mike, all in and out for just the one game – and we then headed off to the next pub on the list.

“The Victoria” is a cracking pub and I last visited it on the day of the 2012 FA Cup Final with Parky. The return visit in 2017 was, I will admit, a superstitious move by myself. But it is a fantastic boozer and it has retained its charm. A couple more drinks went down well. It was approaching 2pm.

We hailed a cab and darted off to “The Green Man” by Edgware Road tube. Daryl, Ed, Gary, Alan, John, Simon and Milo were already there, and the pub soon became swamped with many of the West of England Chelsea that we had met in “The Sussex Arms”. There was a moment when I looked up and each and every one of my London mates were chatting to lads from my part of England. It was a lovely moment. It encapsulated the buzz that I get out of following the team all over this country and beyond. All of us united by our love of Chelsea. All of us loving a beer. All of us loving a laugh.

The pub is nestled under the Westway and we were able to spot the Manchester City team bus that became stuck in traffic It was daubed with the club crest and a huge image of their players doing a “Poznan.”

I hope that Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kopmany appreciated the variety of hand signals that welcomed their slow advance into London.

Believe it or not, we were yet to see any opposing fans. Not one. Or at least, none that were wearing club colours. Maybe a few had sidled past us at Paddington but we would not have known. We had spotted little knots of police at Paddington, but there had been no Spurs fans. We walked to Marylebone train station. On the ten-minute ride to Wembley Stadium train station, right next to the ground, I spotted my first two Spurs fans of the day. One of them overheard me say “oh, there’s one” and apologised.

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

The team news had broken through and it surprised us. Completely.

Out went Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, in came Willian and Michy Batshuayi.

Wow.

As for Gary Cahill’s replacement, we were right. In came Nathan Ake.

Unlike in previous years, there was no last-minute struggle to get in before the kick-off. We were all in with plenty of time to spare. The four of us were high behind the west end goal. Just like in the 2009 and 2012 finals, we were in that small section right above the TV screen. More positive superstition. Wembley is huge, of course. We preferred to be up high, since the patterns of play are able to be followed easier. Nearer the pitch, it becomes difficult to get much of a perspective.

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

Hardly any flags and banners were on show. New stadium regulations had meant that flags over a certain size needed to be pre-registered and have fire-certificates, thus stopping most from being allowed in. The cynical view is that banners obstruct advertisements along the balcony walls. Only one winner there, I am afraid.

It was lovely to spot thirty Chelsea Pensioners sitting in the lower deck to my left.

A few songs boomed out of the PA. A white flag wended its way from left to right in the lower tier of the east terrace, a blue flag moved over the heads of our supporters down below us. As the teams entered the pitch, supporters in our end frantically waved thousands of royal blue flags, while the other end depicted “COYS” amid alternate white and navy sections.

The scene was set.

But first, a minute of applause as the football world remembered Ugo Ehiogu, the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender, who had sadly passed away the previous day. He was a fine player. Both sets of players wore black armbands. Towards the end of the minute’s applause, we joined in chanting “Ugo” too.

We stood the entire game as did the majority around us and below us.

The match began and we started very well indeed. We thwarted an early attack which resulted in a corner but a fine Nathan Ake tackle set us off on a rapid attack of our own. A lovely touch from Michy set the raiding Pedro on his way. As he approached the penalty box, he was clumsily tackled by Toby Alderweireld. Barely three minutes had passed. A free-kick in “Willian territory.”

He steadied himself before clipping a fine shot just over the line of defenders. The net rippled and we roared. What a dream start and other clichés. The players raced over towards the side of the pitch, no doubt winding up both the opposing fans and also Mauricio Pocchetino, watching on like Rodney Bewes in a dark grey flasher mac.

I spotted a plane trailing an “ANTONIO ANTONIO” banner.

The pre-match worry had been temporarily lifted. For a while, we looked in control and at ease. Nathan Ake, bless him, looked particularly good. His movement is so natural. Sadly, this purple period did not last. A corner from Cristian Eriksen was cleared but he had a second bite of the cherry. A cross towards the near post was met by a stooping header from Harry bloody Kane, whose slight touch took the ball bouncing into goal way past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

There wasn’t constant noise, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all bad. The slow and dirge like “oh when that lot go marching in” was matched by a few “carefrees.”  I was able to spot a few empty seats around and about but this was virtually a full house. There were little battles everywhere. N’Golo Kante was right in the middle of everything. I couldn’t work out why Son was playing at left-back. Victor Moses had a few trademark runs down that flank. That lot began to dominate and our defenders did well the repel their attacks. Luiz was at the centre of those blocks, ably aided by Ake to his left and Dave to his right.

Just before the break, the ball was pushed forward to Moses. He took a touch, but the poorly-timed challenge from Son immediately looked promising. After a split second, the referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

“Get in.”

We waited. It looked like Batshuayi wanted to take it. Silly boy. Thankfully, Willian grabbed the ball. There was a slight stall as he approached the spot. Hugo Lloris was already on his way to his left as Willian struck it to his right.

“Yes.”

We punched the sky. But whereas there was wild euphoria with his first goal, there was just relief with this one.

The French ‘keeper appeared to touch the ball outside of the box, but we were one hundred yards away. At the break, texts came through to say that the touch was outside the box.

But the mood was buoyant at the break. We were halfway to paradise.

Our old rivals started the second-half the brighter. Luiz was soon heading and blocking in fine style. As Eriksen was allowed a little space, Glenn uttered the immortal words “no, don’t let him” and at that moment, we let him float a superb ball in and Delle Alli was able to meet the bounce of the ball and prod it high past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

Only seven minutes of the second-half were on the clock.

That lot then dominated for quite some time, though in all honesty rarely threatened our goal. Luiz headed cross after cross away. A strip of sun edged slowly towards the eastern side of the stadium as the game continued. Elsewhere the pitch was in shadow. The songs ebbed and flowed.

On the hour, our manager pulled the strings. Off came Willian the goal scorer and on came Eden Hazard. Off came Batshuayi and on came Diego Costa. After a bright start, Michy had been largely stranded up front as the game continued. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a bonus for us to bring on such quality from our bench. They still had most of the ball though, but again found it so difficult to get behind us or even through us. Our royal blue wall was not going to be easily breached. Time after time, their attacks petered out.

Cesc Fabregas then replaced Pedro, who had also started brightly but was beginning to fade. Very soon, we won our first corner of the game. The ball reached an unmarked Eden Hazard, lurking just outside the box. He took one touch and shot low, through a forest of legs, and we watched – on tenterhooks – as the ball continued unhindered into the goal.

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

“And its super Chelsea. Super Chelsea FC. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”

This was the loudest that I think that I had ever heard us at the new Wembley Stadium.

Five minutes later, our two craftsmen combined inside the box. Fabregas twisted a ball back to Hazard from the bye-line, and Eden took a couple of touches as he ran across the pitch, just keeping the ball under control. The ball was pushed towards Nemanja Matic, some thirty yards out.

Smack.

The ball crashed in off the underside of the bar, Lloris beaten, the whole team beaten.

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

At the other end, red seats started appearing. They had seen this all before. They were off home. In 2012 we administered their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. Now, in 2017, we had given them their seventh in a row.

Incredibly, Hazard and then Costa came close in the final few moments. A Kane free-kick in the dying embers of a fantastic game was saved by Courtois.

At the final whistle, of course many more red seats visible now, the joy of reaching another FA Cup Final almost matched the joy of beating “that lot” in a hugely important game in this most incredible, mesmerising, entertaining and dramatic of seasons.

The players cavorted down below. The manager looked breathless. The twin staples “One Step Beyond” and “Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

The return train trip into the centre of London was full of smiles. At a bar outside Marylebone station, we met up with more Chelsea pals. Outside the redbrick hotel opposite, we spotted the Manchester City coach. Apparently, the Chelsea team had stayed at the very same hotel the previous night. We caught the 10pm train home, and there was time for one last gin and tonic from the buffet. Looking back, I should have asked for a double.

We reached home at midnight. It had been another fantastic day.

On Tuesday, the show rolls on. There is no time to rest. Southampton at home. See you there.

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Tales From A Humdrum Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

“U. N. I. T. E. D – United are the team for me.”

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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