Tales From Roman’s Legion

Chelsea vs. Roma : 18 October 2017.

It was a very mild evening in SW6. Way before the Champions League game with Roma kicked-off at 7.45pm, I had made a bee line for the ticket-office to hand in our declaration forms for the away leg in under a fortnight. There was a nice pre-match vibe already. I had spotted a few Italians around Stamford Bridge; an Italian accent here, a deep red here. The giallorossi would be out in force in SW6. Maybe not the numbers of Napoli in 2012, but a strong presence all the same. Of course, on an evening of autumnal Champions League football in one of Europe’s most famous cities, between teams from two of the continent’s major capitals, not just English and Italian accents could be heard. Walking around the West Stand forecourt, taking it all in for a few moments before meeting up with mates in a local boozer, I soon heard German accents, the Dutch language, French and Spanish, indiscernible Eastern-European accents, voices from Asia, and North America too. On European nights, the irony not lost on me, Stamford Bridge is invaded by tourists in greater numbers than normal league games. And, again, I draw the distinction between tourists – in the capital on work or pleasure, taking in a game – and overseas supporters – in London for Chelsea. But in those twenty minutes of fading light and the creeping buzz of pre-match anticipation, there was one sight which, sadly, predictably, wound me up. Out on the approaches to the stadium, the “match day scarf” sellers were doing a roaring trade. More than a couple of sellers had even managed to source flags with a completely incorrect shade of Roma red, but the punters were still lapping it all up. As I was preparing to take a photograph of Kerry Dixon on The Shed Wall, five young lads – they weren’t from England, it was easy to tell – were all wearing the risible half-and-half scarves. It made me stop and think. These people, these tourists – it almost feels like a dirty word at Chelsea among some supporters these days – flock to games, but are seemingly blissfully unaware of the rank and file’s dislike of these modern day favours. We bloody hate the damned things. And every time that I see one, it winds me up. I feel like approaching each and every one of them.

“You ever heard of the internet? It’s pretty popular these days. Ever delved into UK football culture? Do you know it exists? Ever heard of the common dislike for all seat-stadia, the gentrification of support, the alienation of the traditional working class support, the nonsense of thunder sticks, jester hats, face paint and noisemakers? Ever wonder why many match going fans avoid replica shirts like the plague? Ever thought that buying half-and-half scarves annoys local Chelsea fans to high-heaven? Ever thought how preposterous it looks to buy an item combining both bloody team’s colours and badges? Do you enjoy looking like a prick? Ever thought that a far more discreet pin badge might do just as well?”

In the boozer, there was a gathering of the clans, with familiar faces everywhere I looked. I can walk around my local town centre for half-an-hour without seeing anyone I know, yet I had already bumped into five or six people on my walk to the stadium without even trying. At the bar, nursing a pint of lager, was my friend Jim, who was in London for a rare game. I first met Jim at a Paul Canoville / Pat Nevin / Doug Rougvie event in Raynes Park in 2014 after chatting on Facebook for a while. Like me, he dotes on the 1983/84 season. I had forgotten, but his parents used to look after the members’ area in the East Lower in those days. I mentioned that my mate Jake, who had travelled up to London with PD, Parky and myself, was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a Champions League game at Chelsea for the first-time ever. To my surprise, Jim replied that this was his first CL game too. His last European night was the ECWC semi versus Vicenza in 1998. What a night that was. For a few moments, we reminisced. I remember watching with Alan, Glenn and Walnuts in The Shed Upper. The drama of going a further goal behind. Poyet’s close-range equaliser. Zola making it 2-2, but with us still needing another, the explosion of noise which greeted Mark Hughes’ winner. I was reminded that it was a strange time for me.

“It was five years to the day that my father passed away. There were tears from me in The Shed that night. Then, the very next day – with me on a high about going to the final in Stockholm – I was made redundant at work. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.”

Jim watched the drama unfold in the “open to the elements” West Lower. We wondered why Chelsea wore the yellow and light blue away kit that night. Jim just remembers the emotion and the noise. As was so often the case in those days, he sung himself hoarse. While I was getting made redundant on the Friday, Jim recounted how he had an eventful day at work too.

“I was working for British Rail at Marylebone at the time. They were a man down. The bloke who announced the train times hadn’t showed up. I had never done it before, but they asked me to do it. I could hardly speak.”

Jim would be watching the Chelsea vs. Roma game in 2017 in the East Stand Upper, for the very first time since the annihilation of Leeds United on “promotion day” in 1984.

Yes. That season again.

I was right. There were three thousand Roma fans in the away quadrant. They were virtually all male – 99% easily – and they seemed to be of a younger demographic than that of a typical Chelsea away crowd in Europe. Plenty of banners, plenty of flags, and plenty of shiny puffer jackets. I spotted many banners using the stylised font which was prevalent in the Mussolini era of the 1930’s, which can still be seen in many locations in Rome.

Alan and myself spoke briefly about our plans for Rome on Halloween.

“Well, all I know is that we should easily out-do our away following in 2008. We only had about five hundred there that night.”

The memory of a wet night in Rome, a hopeless 3-0 defeat, and being kept in the Olympico for ninety minutes after the game haunted me. Apart from the game itself, it was a cracking trip though. Rome never disappoints. The return to the eternal city can’t come quick enough. We have 3,800 tickets. We should take a good 2,000 I reckon. I know of loads who are going.

I had not seen the team; too busy chatting, too busy enjoying a drink. PD had driven up, allowing me a couple of lagers, and a chance to relax a little.

Alvaro Morata was playing. We all hoped that he hadn’t been rushed back too soon.

The shape had shifted and Luiz was playing as a deep-lying shield in front of the defence as at Wembley against Spurs. Hazard was playing off Morata. In defence, Zappacosta replaced the hamstrung Moses. In the middle, the impressive Christensen was alongside Cahill to his left and Dave to his right.

It was odd to see a Roma team with no Francesco Totti. The Mohican of Nainggolan stood out in a team of beards.

Especially for Jake and Jim, the Champions League anthem rung out. There was hardly an empty seat in the house. Stamford Bridge was ready.

Chelsea in blue, blue, white.

Roma in white, white, burgundy. OK it’s not burgundy. Torino is burgundy, or officially pomegranate. And although the Roma club are known as the “yellow and reds”, the Roma colour is not really a simple red. It’s the hue of a chianti, a deep red, almost a claret.

It was a bright opening, and the away fans – another moan, you knew it was coming, I am nothing if not consistent – were making most of the noise. They have that song that United sing, a rather mundane one, but it went on and on.

After an early chance for Morata, Roma began to ask questions of our re-shuffled defence. Perotti ran at ease – “put a fucking tackle in!” – but shot over. With Edin Dzeko leading the line, they dominated possession and moved the ball well. However, rather against the run of play, Luiz played an unintentional “one-two” with Jesus – blimey – and he stroked the ball past the diving Roma ‘keeper Becker and into the bottom corner. It was a bloody lovely strike. We howled with joy. Over in Parkyville, Luiz ran towards the corner and dived onto the wet grass. Stamford Bridge was a happy place.

Alan : “Havtocom atus now.”

Chris : “Cumonmi lit uldi mons.”

We enjoyed a spell and Zappacosta began to put in a barnstorming performance on our right. There is a directness and an eagerness about his forward runs that I like. Hazard, running free, dragged a low shot wide. Roma struck at our goal, but all efforts were at Courtois, thankfully. A fine block from Nainggolan was the highlight. David Luiz, loose, and unfettered was like a stallion charging around the park, trying to close space and set others on their way. The desire was there, if not the finished product.

On the half hour, Morata carried the ball into the Roma half, and shot towards the Shed goal. A lucky deflection saw the ball arch up from Beard Number One and aim straight towards Hazard, who had burst forward to support the number nine. His first-time volley crashed past Becker.

Thirty-love.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

We had ridden our luck and were 2-0 up. Blimey.

Despite the fact that we were leading – OK, luckily – only once did it really feel like the Stamford Bridge of old (Vicenza, 1998) with the stands reverberating and making me proud to be Chelsea.

With five minutes of the first-half remaining, our lead was reduced. Kolarov burst in from the left – a surging chance of pace surprising us all – and smashed a ball high into the net. It was a fine goal. Roma were back in it, and probably it was just about what was deserved.

The reaction of the Roma fans surprised me. The roar was phenomenal and they were soon jumping all over each other. It wasn’t even an equaliser. Fucking hell. Fair play to the buggers. That’s what I love to see, Tons of passion. Tons of noise.

“Bella bella.”

And then they let me down. It seems that West Ham’s shocking use of “Achy Breaking Heart” has been mirrored by the Italians. A city of history and splendor, a city of culture and style, the city of Bernini and Fellini, of “La Dolce Vita” and of an unmistakable elegance had been ignored and its travelling hordes were now impersonating a redneck nation living in trailer parks, wearing Nascar baseball caps, shagging their cousins, worshiping guns and shopping at Walmart.

“Et tu, Brute?”

At half-time, Scott Minto was on the pitch, reminiscing about his Chelsea debut; the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994, our first European game since 1971, and also my first Chelsea European game too. It was noisy as fuck that night, despite a gate of barely 22,000.

The first-half had finished, I noted, with Chelsea possession at the 39% mark. It felt like it too.

Roma continued their domination into the second period. We were struggling all over. Fabregas was hardly involved. A rare run from Morata – not 100% fit in our book – resulted in a half-chance but his shot from wide was well-wide with the ‘keeper out of his goal.

On the hour, Pedro replaced Luiz, who had taken a knock earlier. We spotted that he had handed a piece of A4 to Cesc Fabregas, a message of instruction from Antonio.

Soon after, Beard Number Two sent over a fantastic cross towards the far post and Dzeko thrashed a stupendous volley past Thibaut. It was a stunning goal. I didn’t clap it, but I patted Bournemouth Steve on the back as if to say “fair play.”

And how the Romanisti, the CUCS, the legion of away fans, celebrated that. It was a den of noise.

“Bollocks.”

Alonso weakly shot over. Bakayoko gave away a cheap free-kick on seventy minutes and the free-kick from Kolarov was headed in, without so much as an excuse-me, by that man Dzeko. He again raced over to the away fans, and it was a tough sight to see. The away fans were a mass of limbs being flung in every direction. Bloody hell, they were loud.

A third consecutive win was on the cards. Conte was safe though, right? Who bloody knows these days. Against these Romans, perhaps Roman’s thoughts were wavering.

Thank heavens, a fine Pedro cross from the right was adeptly headed towards goal by Eden Hazard. The ball dropped into the goal. It was our turn to yell and shriek.

“YES.”

His little run down towards Cathy’s Corner was a joy to watch.

Rudiger for Zappacosta. Willian for Hazard.

I was surprised that Morata stayed on.

Still more chances for Roma. Nainggolan went wide, Dzeko made a hash of an easy header. I noted that the away support deadened after our equaliser. There was not much of a peep from them for a while. Two late headers from Rudiger, and the heavily bandaged Cahill, were off target. A winner at that stage, though, would surely have taken the piss. We knew it, we all knew it, we had been lucky to nab a point. How we miss N’Golo Kante. Despite the numbers in midfield, our pressing was not great. We look a fragile team at the moment, and at the back especially. We all knew that we would miss John Terry, right?

However, we certainly have three winnable games coming up; Watford, Everton, Bournemouth. Three wins and we will be back on track.

And as for the draw with Roma, at least it sets up the away leg in just under a fortnight.

That will be a fantastic occasion. All roads lead to Rome, and Roman’s Chelsea legionnaires will be there in our thousands.

Andiamo.

IMG_9716

 

Tales From An Afternoon Of Predictable Unpredictability

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2017.

My eyes were firmly focussed on Andre Marriner, the referee, as the Crystal Palace supporters continued their euphoric and boisterous backdrop of noise, and as the last few seconds of the five minutes of added time ticked past. In those five minutes, rather than allowing a late reprise for Chelsea, it was the home team who enjoyed most of the possession. A few Chelsea fans around me had left minutes earlier. I waited for the final shrill toot of the whistle. Such was the noise from the Palace fans, I heard no whistle, but just the simultaneous movement of hand to mouth from Marriner, the celebratory thrust of Palace players’ arms into the air and the roar from the crowd at a raucous Selhurst Park.

There was deflation. Another three points dropped, Chelsea. Three losses out of just eight league games. Two consecutive losses. Losing to Manchester City was tough, of course, but we all knew that we had encountered a very fine team two weeks previous. But Crystal Palace were different; without a win in seven games and not even a single goal to their name. There was bewilderment within me, and all around me too. There was no point in trying to move away from my viewing position way down at the front of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand. The aisle ways were full of exiting away fans. Besides, I wanted to see how many of the team, the squad, would come over to the away fans to acknowledge our patronage and support. A few moments passed. I saw a few murky grey Chelsea shirts head down to the players’ exit on the far side, tucked between the towering curved roof of the Holmesdale Road stand and the slight slope of the ancient main stand. Those players were gone, out of my consciousness for a few moments. I spotted four Chelsea players continue their handshakes with a few of the opposing victors in our half of the pitch, and waited to see who would decide to walk over to our corner. Surely the captain Gary Cahill. Surely Cesar Azpilicueta.

I picked up my camera from beneath my seat. An over-zealous steward had warned me not to take any more photographs after he saw me take a close-up of a haring Davide Zappacosta in the first few minutes of the second-half. By then, though, I had taken more than enough for my match day quota, shielded from prying eyes by Ed and Parky, my two blockers. There is an increasing war of nerves between myself and stewards at away games these days. With the game over, and the stewards drifting away, uninterested, I brought the camera up to my eyes, and waited for the remaining Chelsea players to walk over.

Marcos Alonso, Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta.

There were pained expressions from all four of them.

They clapped us. We clapped them. There were no boos. There had been no boos as the game had reached its conclusion. For some reason – I suspect they are plain and obvious – our away support tends not to lower ourselves to collective boos. Of course there had been a rising tide of moans and groans, accompanied by every Anglo-Saxon curse known to mankind, throughout the game from frustrated supporters, but there was nothing orchestrated on a larger scale. My view has always been the same. I go to watch Chelsea to support the team. I try to be as positive as possible. Of course my frustrations get the better of me at times, but I always do my damnedest to find positives where I can, and to encourage those who need it most. In all of my time as a Chelsea supporter – Crystal Palace was game number 1,155 – I can only remember booing a player once; Frank Leboeuf in 2000, down below me as he came over to receive a throw-in the Matthew Harding wraparound, when it was thought that he was one of the main perpetrators in needling out Gianlica Vialli as manager. I was not the only one who booed him on that occasion. Leboeuf, previously a crowd favourite, looked visibly shocked that so many were booing him. I immediately felt terrible. What a fucking twat I was. I vowed never to do so again.

By all means berate players, if deserved, in private chats in pubs, clubs, bars and cars, but never at a game. Always be positive. Always provide backing. That surely has to be one of the Chelsea fundamentals.

At Chelsea games, we are supporters, not critics.

Right?

I took a few photos of the four players, standing, immobile, their faces still distraught.

I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered what words from Antonio Conte would be awaiting them on their return to the waiting changing room.

It had, from the very first few minutes, been a below-par Chelsea performance. The home team, managed by the old man Roy Hodgson – it was only ten weeks ago we bumped into him in Beijing at the Chelsea hotel – and coached by former favourite Ray Lewington, were first out of the traps, with Zaha and Townsend full of skill. An early goal, a Cabaye shot deflected in off the hapless Azpilicueta, surprised none of us. Whereas we all expected to win the game easily, I would hazard a bet that 95% of us knew that Palace would score their first goal of the league season against us. There was just something in our collective psyche that warned of this. That it only took eleven minutes was even more predictable. In my mind, before the game, my thoughts were –

“Concede an early goal, but win 3-1.”

How the Palace fans celebrated that league opener.

We slowly – slowly – got back in to the game as the first-half developed. A header by Tiemoue Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner was wildly celebrated and set off the September Song. However, a second goal from Palace, by the impressive Zaha, right before the break brought further gloom.

There were changes soon into the second-half with the very disappointing Michy Batshuayi going off to be replaced by the zip of Pedro. Charly Musonda then replaced the equally frustrating Willian. It was all change. Our attack had been invaded by mini-men. Eden Hazard was asked to lead the line, but at times the game totally evaded him. I kept thinking that if Hazard is truly to be regarded as one of the attacking greats of the modern game, then this is just the sort of match that he needs to grab by the horns and cause mayhem. He did nothing of note. Sure, Fabregas hit the bar, and Musonda volleyed over, but our play was erratic all day. We missed Kante, holding things in midfield. Oh how we missed Morata. Long diagonals to Zappacosta worked well, and he seemed pacey and engaged, but an equaliser never ever looked like coming. Our passing was off. We were second best in a few areas. In those closing moments, with the game stretched, Palace had further chances. Our support, mirroring the malaise of the players, was average at best. There is usually a good sing-song at Selhurst. On this day, it was all rather flat and lethargic. The lazy sexist comments aimed at Sian Massey, running the line, were just painful. Must do better.

The players walked a couple of paces towards us. There was still applause from the Arthur Wait stand. Marcos had tried his best, but had found little space out wide in order to play penetrating balls in. There had been the usual effort on this mild, but bleak, Saturday afternoon in South London for our Spanish left-back. Gary Cahill had a mixed game. There had been brave blocks and strong headers, but he often looked all at sea when the ball was played on the deck. As captain, he bore the defeat heavily on his shoulders. Thibaut walked closer, taking off his bright orange jersey, and eventually gave it to a fan in the crowd. He has never had all of the Chelsea support with him during his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, but our tall  Belgian often stays behind to thank us for our support. Does it mean anything? I think so. Alongside him was Cesar Azpilicueta, our Dave, his face showing the pain of defeat. It was an expression that was matched by myself. Everyone loves Dave. He had a typical 7/10 performance and was unlucky with his deflected own-goal. I wanted him to make a block on Zaha during his run into the box for the second goal, but for once his limpet-like man marking did not get him close enough to the Palace striker. Whereas others in the Chelsea support would be quick to castigate Azpilicueta, I was happy to give him some slack. He rarely lets us down.

Joining the four was Tiemoue Bakayoko, who took off his shirt and rolled it up before launching it into the away support. It landed in the grasping hands of a fan a few yards away. Without Kante alongside him, Bakayoko was asked to cover simply too much ground. Alongside him, Fabregas had a mixed game too, a few fine passes, a few crunching tackles, but the game then by-passed him at times.

The five players turned and retreated back across the pitch.

Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Let’s all admit it. We all presumed that we only had to show up at Selhurst Park to get three points. Going in to the game, on the drive up to London and through the terraced streets of South London – why is Selhurst Park such a bastard place to get to and from? – we were adamant that we would be victorious. With six games coming up in just eighteen games in October, here was a game that, even with a slightly weaker team, we should have surely won. There were no complaints from the four of us about the team selection prior to kick-off. But the manager must feel pain that his preparatory work amounted to nothing.

And it was complacency at its best, and worst, from many.

After the game, all the experts had their say – I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, some of the post-game hyperbole was embarrassing – but there are a few truths which can’t be ignored.

Our lack of options up front, especially, must be a worry. I spoke to Ed during the game about the halcyon days of 1997/98 when our first team squad boasted Mark Hughes, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Ginafranco Zola battling for places in attack. How times change, eh? Conversely, we have an over-abundance of central defenders, with Christensen, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger vying for three places. Christensen has not put a foot wrong so far. Let’s see if the manager takes the plunge.

We have to trust the manager. He has proved to be a fine tactician in his short Chelsea career thus far. It’s time for a reaction from our beloved players. And what is better than a potentially classic Champions League game against Roma on Wednesday to look forward to. As we drove home on Saturday night, we quickly warmed to the excitement of another European night under the lights at Stamford Bridge.

We are lucky people. I can almost hear the anthem. See you there.

 

Tales From The Mosh Pit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2017.

After our surprising defeat against Burnley last Saturday, I only wished that more Chelsea supporters had exhibited the considered calmness of Antonio Conte. In a post-match interview, despite some unsurprisingly barbed questions, he spoke serenely with his trademark soft voice, down-playing any concerns about our future, and even finding time to playfully joke about finding a way to cope with his team playing with ten, or nine, men in future games. His personality shone through. Elsewhere, within the ranks of some of our support – some of whom would not have lasted five minutes in the days of Alan Mayes, Mark Falco and the like – there seemed to be hysterics and over-reaction.

And then, on the Friday, there was that extended spell of giggling and laughter when he was questioned about Diego Costa being treated as some sort of criminal.

It was beautiful and therapeutic to watch, wasn’t it?

It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Diego Costa’s last vestige of self-pride. Conte was on top, and there would hopefully be no more nonsense devoted to our out of favour striker and his desire to move on and away from our club.

Going in to the tough away game at Wembley against Tottenham – without Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard – here at last were some positive signs.

And we needed some positives. Despite my gung-ho words of last week (“Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there”), as the week progressed, I became a little less confident. The thought us losing against Tottenham, and with no points from our first two league games, was playing heavily on my mind. And with good reason.

On the drive up to London, the Four Chuckle Brothers were of the same opinion.

“Spurs are a good team. Let’s take a draw today. A win at home to Everton next weekend and we’ll be back on track.”

The game at Wembley – the first-ever league game at the national stadium in almost one-hundred years – would surely be one of our toughest away games of the season. In my pre-season prediction, mirroring that of last season in fact, I had us finishing third behind Manchester City and Manchester United. If Tottenham were playing at the familiar White Hart Lane this season, they might have been in the mix too, but, like many, I predicted that their use of the larger and unluckier Wembley would work against them. I had them finishing fourth, or fifth.

Our drinking completed, we made our way up from the centre of London to Marylebone, catching the 3.20pm train. With only 3,100 away fans in attendance, we were certainly in the minority, but the train carriage that we chose was full of Chelsea. There were high spirits, but – alas – some vile songs of old too. There is no place at football for songs mentioning Nazi death camps. For a few moments I wondered what on earth possesses some people to utter such shite.

Knowing how heated it used to get outside the away end as we turned into Park Lane from the High Road at White Hart Lane, I fully expected a heavy police presence between Wembley Stadium train station and our entrance at the eastern side of the stadium. There was nothing. To be honest, I got the impression that most home fans were already ensconced in the stadium, no doubt jigging along to a Chas and Dave smash from the last century. The walkways to the stadium were relatively clear. I noted a gaggle of Old Bill walking away from us at the top of the incline – maybe one hundred yards away – but apart from a few expletives being exchanged, there was no trouble. I had visions of aggressive Spurs fans picking out stragglers. I had visions of coins being thrown at us – a White Hart Lane tradition of late – and I had thoughts of a few punches being exchanged. In the end, the walk to the stadium was bereft of any nastiness at all.

We made our way to the away turnstiles. At the eastern end – we have been rare visitors to this end over the years – there is much more space outside the gates. A thorough search and we were in. I had decided not to take my proper camera. Too much aggravation. I would have to make do with my camera phone. Imagine my annoyance when I clocked a couple of fans with cameras as big as the one I had left in Somerset. Oh well.

During the build up to the game, we had heard that the local council and/or police (it wasn’t really clear to me) had kept the attendance to a maximum of around 70,000. Conversely, I had heard from a local Spurs fan – I don’t know many – that 90,000 would be the norm this season. Even though Wembley is positioned in a Tottenham heartland, that still seems a massive number. Of course, with us looking to play at Wembley in around 2019, I am very intrigued to see how it all pans out. In the match programme, I spotted that tickets for our game ranged from £35 to £95. By and large, apart from the cordoned-off seats in the highest levels of the top tier, it looked like Spurs had sold out; even the expensive corporate tier looked full.

I think it’s imperative that Chelsea get the pricing structure right when our enforced exile happens. Although the distance from Stamford Bridge to Wembley is three miles less than from White Hart Lane to Wembley, Chelsea has always relied on its bedrock support to come from south of the river. Wembley is a north London venue and Spurs are a north London team. That fit just feels more natural than ours. So, the club needs to get it right. It needs to lower season ticket prices and match day prices to hold on to our existing support in the years ahead when we will leave the familiar surrounds of Stamford Bridge. The club needs to take a hit during the first year especially, or else fans will simply get out of the habit of going to see our games.

Season tickets as low as £500? Why on earth not?

Match day tickets as low as £20? Yes.

The last thing that I want to see at Wembley, with potentially room for 90,000, is for us to be playing some league games in a third-full stadium. The club needs to gauge it right. It needs to safeguard our support. It needs to bridge the gap from the old Stamford Bridge to the new Stamford Bridge. There’s much room for discussion on this subject. I’m sure that the club must realise this. I am sure much discussion is planned between the club and the various supporters’ groups. I just hope that they make the correct choices afterwards.

Much of the talk in the car on the drive to London had centred on Tiemoue Bakayoko. If he was fit, and chosen, he would surely play alongside N’Golo Kante. We chatted about which of the two potential defenders would play alongside David and Dave; Antonio Ridiger or Andreas Christensen? If Bakayoko was not fit – hell – then we wondered if Luiz or even Rudiger might anchor the midfield.

Well, Antonio Conte was ahead of all of us.

He had decided to play Bakayoko, Ridiger and Christensen. We wondered how the team would line-up.

Our section was down low; strangely in a different section to where I watched Bayer Leverkusen play Spurs last season. We were in good voice as the teams took to the pitch away to our right. The home club had issued flags to their supporters, and they feverishly waved them as kick-off approached. The problem for Tottenham is that white is a neutral colour. There was no real impact. It was all rather wishy-washy. It looked, in fact, like seventy-thousand surrender flags being flown.

There were hardly any of the normal, draped, flags on show from the usual vantage points. Instead, Tottenham had decided to transplant the “To Dare Is To Do”, “Spurs Are My Club” and “It’s All About Glory” taglines from White Hart Lane on the top, white, balcony. The lower balconies advertised various supporters’ groups from around the world on an electronic ticker, which changed every few seconds. If I was living in Florida, I would be very worried; there seems to be Tottenham fans everywhere within that sun-addled state– Tampa Spurs, Tallahassee Spurs, Ybor City Spurs, Orlando Spurs.

The game began.

What? David Luiz in midfield? Conte had surprised us all. Whether through circumstance or choice, our manager – thankfully wearing his suit after last weekend’s display – had chosen to play a 3/5/2 formation.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Kante – Luiz – Bakayoko – Moses

Willian – Morata

Or a 5/3/2.

Or a 3/5/1/1.

Whatever.

But boy it worked.

We dominated the early moments, and Alvaro Morata really should have put us 1-0 up after only a few minutes. A cross from Dave on the right picked out our Spanish striker, completely unmarked, but his firm header was off target by some margin. I noted that Luiz was able to tuck back into a very defensive position – an extra shield – to assist the back three, who were playing as a three together for the very first time.

Tottenham, as expected, began to have more of the ball. Kane troubled Courtois and the derided Alli blasted over from a tight angle. But I was happy with our play. We looked tight defensively. There was pace everywhere. We closed down space. Kante and Luiz were everywhere. This had the makings of a great game. I was just pleased – I will be blunt – that we were in it.

The Spurs offensive – and I find them very offensive – continued. Dembele shot over. But I was still pretty calm. All around me, the Chelsea fans were making a fine racket. The home fans were surprisingly subdued.

And then it started. A bizarre rumble of drums blasted out over the tannoy. We were in fits of laughter :

“What the fackinell was that?”

Good God Tottenham. Have a look at yourselves. Piped drums? What on bloody Earth? It continued at regular intervals throughout the first period. The Spurs fans looked embarrassed, as they should.

Our support? We were in fine form.

“Stand up for the Champions.”

Gary, alongside me, was in good form too. He is small of stature is our Gal, but has a booming voice. Just after they became excited about “standing up if you hate Arsenal”, he initiated the song of the game. Just as they were returning to their seats, he rasped –

“Sit down if you’ve won fuck all.”

The entire away end joined in.

And the Spurs fans duly sat down. So funny. Good work, Gal.

On twenty-four minutes, David Luiz was fouled. We waited for the free-kick, some thirty yards away from the goal. The familiar left-foot of Marcos Alonso swiped and curled the ball over the lilywhite wall. I had a perfect view. Loris was well-beaten. The net bulged and so did we.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Our pre-match worries evaporated there and then. We were winning. Oh happy days.

Bakayoko had enjoyed a quiet start but he had a fine run deep into the Spurs half. Harry Kane twice threatened our goal, but his finishing was adrift. Spurs were biting back now, and just before half-time, a low drive from that man Kane came back off the post with Thibaut beaten. Spurs still had time to pepper our goal in the closing moments. We had ridden our luck, no doubt, but I was more than happy. Courtois had made a couple of saves but we looked like a team in control of our own destiny. It had been a very encouraging half. Andreas Christensen had been imperious. It was hard to fathom that this was his full debut. I have a contact through work who is a Borussia Monchengladbach supporter and we have been emailing each other at regular intervals over the past couple of seasons; he was distraught when we brought Christensen back from his loan spell. Elsewhere, we were full of running, full of fight.

Good old Antonio.

At half-time, I found out that the old Tottenham trick of throwing coins had followed them from White Hart Lane to Wembley; friends Liz and Michelle were both clutching coins that had been pelted their way.

That is just shite.

The second-half began. It was more of the same, to be honest, with much Tottenham possession, but Chelsea very compact, forcing Spurs to pass around us rather than through us. Whereas we have width up front and at the back, Spurs’ play was very central and they became stifled. Whenever they did pierce our midfield, I lost count of the number of times that Rudiger, Christensen and Luiz headed clear.

We then enjoyed a fine spell, with Willian teasing and testing the Spurs defence. Morata almost reached a cross. He then shot wide after fine close control although if I am honest I wished that he had not taken quite so many touches. He looks neat though. His goals will come. Moses danced into the box but blazed over. This was a fine Chelsea resurgence. Willian advanced and drilled a shot across the goalmouth, but we groaned as it hit the base of the post. Bollocks.

Ten minutes to go.

Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for the exhausted Morata.

“Come on Chelsea.”

On eighty-two minutes, and after countless crosses being claimed by Courtois, or headed away by the defenders, we conceded a free-kick out wide and I immediately sensed danger.

I almost held myself back from saying it, not wishing to tempt fate, blah, blah, blah, but I simply could not help myself. I whispered to Gal –

“These are the free-kicks I hate us defending.”

Two seconds later, the danger man Eriksen whipped in a head-high cross.

Bam.

1-1.

Fuck it.

The action was so far away that I did not even notice that it was a Chelsea player – the luckless Batshuayi – who had thumped the ball in.

At last the Spurs fans exploded with noise.

And, I will be honest – I am hopefully honest in these reports – the place was fucking rocking. Only on a couple of other occasions have I heard more noise at an English football stadium. They only seem to have two songs, the fuckers – “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” – but it was as noisy as hell. The rabble down to my left were pointing, gurning and strutting like Mick Jagger. What an unpleasant sight.

“Bloody hell. OK, deal. A draw here. A win against Everton. Back on track. Just don’t concede another.”

To be fair to us, we kept pressing. It was a fantastic game of football. With time running out, a ball was played in to Michy, but he crumpled under the challenge. We won the ball back – Luiz, magnificent – and he played in Pedro, fresh legs and full of guile. With Spurs a little flat and half-asleep, he fed in Marcos Alonso.

He advanced.

He struck low.

The ball zipped beneath Loris.

Oh my fucking goodness.

2-1.

What happened then has only happened on a few rare occasions in my football-life. I lost it. We all lost it.

A last minute winner.

Against Tottenham.

At Wembley.

On their big day.

Their big fucking day.

I bounced up and screamed. I quickly grabbed my sunglasses because I knew they would fly off. Damage limitation. I noticed fans flocking down the aisle steps, heading down, I had to join them, destiny. I wanted to run, but steadied myself as other fans knocked me sideways. It was mayhem. Arms flailing everywhere. Pauline had been knocked to the floor. I raced on. Bloody hell, what is Parky’s crutch doing here? At the bottom of the terrace, a mosh pit of ecstasy. Fans bouncing, jumping, arms pointing, bodies being grabbed, hugs with strangers, smiles wide, screams, screams, screams.

And a surreal sight ahead, just yards away.

I looked up to see the entire Chelsea team, or at least the ten men in royal blue – and the royal blue seeming, strangely, out of place among the away end regulars – celebrating wildly with the nutters in the front row.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

20170820_160031

 

Tales From Saturday Three O’Clock

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 12 August 2017.

On the train back to Marylebone Station last Sunday after our frustrating defeat at Wembley, I summed-up the importance of our opening game of the league campaign.

“Well, we have to win next week. Burnley at home. We have to do it. It’s a must-win. We’ll be OK. We’ll be back on track.”

Throughout the week, the lack of more signings by the club provided an increasingly noisy back-drop as some supporters grew increasingly stressed. Before a ball was kicked in anger, we were a club in crisis. I had to keep reminding myself that – while admitting our squad continued to look rather threadbare – there was still more than a fortnight left of the transfer window. On the drive up to London, we chatted about the rumours and counter-rumours. We discussed thoughts about what the first starting-eleven of the season would be. We wondered if Alvaro Morata would start. If so, would he start out wide?

But this was opening day, and although of course the up-coming football match dominated our thoughts, more than anything the day was about getting back in to the groove and, most importantly, meeting mates, drinking and moaning as a certain Nutty Boy once said.

Prior to meeting up with the chaps, I had to run around and sort out match tickets for the Burnley match and the Tottenham away game too. On my travels, I quickly popped in to the re-vamped megastore. It is certainly more spacious now, but I have heard fellow fans report that Nike have certainly got a stranglehold on merchandise, with little else on sale. I didn’t head upstairs to see the full range of stuff on show, so can’t fully comment, but the ground floor certainly lacked the usual variety of items. I’ve commented how much I admire the new home kit. Some people have commented that it is just lucky that an existing Nike template happens to evoke memories of our early 1970’s heritage. But, regardless, it fills the bill for me. The new tagline “We Are The Pride” was plastered on the megastore window. I wondered what other slogans were waiting for us inside the stadium.

Not everyone has been complimentary about our choice of kit supplier. After a decade with Adidas – sorry, adidas – I think it was time for a change. Everyone admires Adidas trainers, but some of their Chelsea kits have failed to impress me. Getting Nike on board at Chelsea takes me back to the heady days of casualdom in around 1984, and I have to say that my abiding memory of the benches – often representing a catwalk on most match days – was that Nike trainers were the trainer of choice for many. My memory of 1983/84 was of Nike Wimbledons – blue swoosh, obviously – as the most popular trainer at Chelsea. My first trainer was a Nike Wimbledon Supreme – £24.99 from Olympus Sports in Bath if I am not mistaken – and I always got the impression that Londoners favoured Nike more than northerners, who were more into Adidas. Just a personal memory. I might be wrong. It might have been that Adidas were a brand that I had grown up with and so those trainers didn’t register as much as the newer brands such as Nike, Diadora or, to a lesser extent, Puma. Anyway, fuck it, there’s my customary mention of 1983/84 out of the way.

Our pub of choice for opening day 2017 was “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. I had met my friend Lynda, from New Jersey, who I last saw during the US tour two summers ago, down at the stadium. In the pub was Kev, on a fly-in and fly-out visit from his home in Edinburgh. He had left his house at 4.15am in the morning and was catching the 10pm back “up the road” from Gatwick later that night. Much respect to him for this long and tiring day in support of The Great Unpredictables.

Later, outside the West Stand, I overheard a Chelsea supporter say that he was flying in and out on the day from his home in Spain. Respect to him too.

To be honest, it was a joy to get the season off and running with a standard “Saturday Three O’Clock” kick-off. This would certainly help to reset our clocks correctly. This would be my forty-fifth season of attending Chelsea games and although I have missed a few opening games over the years, there is nothing quite like it. With a whole season spread out in front of us – with hopefully a few Euro aways to plan and relish – it was lovely to hear the boys’ laughter boom around the spacious boozer. It helped that Watford were putting on a good show against Liverpool on the televised game. I am lucky to have a fine set of Chelsea mates.

Soon in to the summer break, we had met up to pay our respects to Alan’s mother who had sadly passed away in May. On a sunny morning in South London, our little band of brothers had assembled to support Alan, and it was an honour to attend his mother’s funeral. His lovely mother was a Chelsea supporter of course. The club got a mention on more than a few occasions in the minister’s eulogy.

At a local pub, afterwards, Daryl and myself had a couple of moments discussing how our experiences supporting the club have enriched our lives in so many ways. On a small, but vitally important scale, it has provided a tight and reliable network of friends who can be relied upon, and which succors and comforts each other when needed. Sometime, this can be with a subtle and a – typically English – understated shake of a hand or the slightest of exchanges, or at other times in more obvious show of friendship. We may not all agree on everything, inside or outside of football, but our love of the club binds us in ways that I find staggering. On the pitch, the club has brought us moments of huge joy. Too many to mention. So much success. There have been truly stunning games at Stamford Bridge, at Wembley old and new, at Stockholm, at Bolton, at Munich, at Amsterdam, at West Brom. And it has allowed us to travel to a seemingly never-ending array of exotic locations throughout Europe and beyond.

And although I dislike the chant of the same name, we both agreed that we had “won it all.”

In a moment of clarity among everything, we came to the conclusion that if Chelsea Football Club were to win nothing for the next twenty-six years (1971 to 1997, cough, cough), we really could not complain. And we genuinely meant it. Let us not forget that we have enjoyed riches beyond our wildest dreams over the past twenty years.

1997       FA Cup

1998       ECWC, League Cup, Super Cup

2000       FA Cup

2005       League, League Cup

2006       League

2007      FA Cup, League Cup

2009       FA Cup

2010       League, FA Cup

2012       European Cup, FA Cup

2013       Europa Cup

2015       League, League Cup

2017       League

Nineteen trophies in twenty years. Fackinell.

And as the month of May gave way to June and July, and as I thought hard about the club, my mates, and the entire football experience, I wondered if I have stumbled into a latest phase of personal Chelsea support.

Let me explain.

If my childhood, up to the age of 16, say, could be classed as the first phase – my formative years, besotted with the club, but with limited access to games – and from 16 to 30 as the next phase – my support building, home and away games in England, my network of Chelsea fans increasing , but with no trophies – and if from the age of 30 to 50 could be classed, you will love this, as “The Golden Age” – European travel, trophies, a new stadium, travel to North America and Asia, Munich – then maybe this new phase will equates to some sort of chilled-out alternative post-modern era of a more relaxed level of support. I’m fifty-two now. I can’t be an angry young man for ever, can I? I think my passion is still there, but maybe it is starting to wane. Or, more importantly, my reasons for attending so many Chelsea games has changed imperceptibly. Maybe, below the surface, all of the nonsense linked to modern day football is slowly eroding my love of the game in general. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring? Will there be another Munich? If not, will it matter? At this stage, at this moment, I’d suggest not. Just being able to go to football, for me, might prove to be enough. Many are denied this privilege. But I am aware of how the successes of the past two decades has affected my general mood and attitude. And I know that I am not alone with these thoughts.

That said, the memory of myself jumping around like a loon when Michy Batshuayi toe-poked Dave’s cross past Ben Foster at The Hawthorns last season has proved to me that my passion will last a long time yet.

We caught the tube down to Stamford Bridge. Parky, bless him, had gone through an operation on his left foot on the Tuesday and his mobility was limited. The short journey brought back lovely memories of my visits to Chelsea in those formative years, when I used to peak out of the tube train at the litter strewn grass which abutted the old and rambling North Stand terrace. A single glimpse at that huge floodlight pylon base in the north-west corner certainly used to get my pulses racing.

The team news came through.

Courtois

Cahill – Luiz – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Fabregas – Azpilcueta

Boga – Batshuayi – Willian

The tube trip had only lasted a quarter of an hour. The sun was out. It was a leisurely walk out of the Fulham Broadway station – for the first time for some of us, we usually walk from various pubs – and Stamford Bridge was beckoning us.

Burnley had only brought 1,400 or so. Before we knew it, the teams were walking out, accompanied by the now annoying bursts of flames in front of the East Stand.

Just. Give. Me. The. Football.

The Herberts in the top tier of The Shed unravelled an Italian flag and an English flag either side of a “Forza Conte” banner.

Season 2017/18 began.

At intermittent intervals along various balconies, slogans were noted.

“We Are Blue.”

“We Are Chelsea.”

“We Are London.”

“We Are Everywhere.”

Two massive banners were draped on the Bates Motel.

“From The World” – featuring players from Belgium, France, England and Brazil against a backdrop of most of the countries of the globe

“We Are Chelsea – featuring – very oddly – Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand, so to complete the total global coverage. File under “trying too hard.”

We get the message. Surprisingly, the Nike swoosh was not splattered on every square inch of royal blue.

But the new kit looked perfect.

There were no complaints with the first few moments of the new campaign. Rudiger was soon involved and looked neat. A Burnley attack ended with a header which Courtois easily saved. The support did not really get too involved; not to worry, this was the first game of the season, we would hopefully soon warm up.

After a quarter of an hour, we warmed up alright. Gary Cahill ran with the ball, but ended up chasing it as his touch let him down. A lunge at a Burnley defender ended up with howls of protest from the visitors, and without any deliberation a red card was brandished. This moment of play took place down the other end. I was, therefore, not particularly well-sighted. But of course, it goes without saying, the fans around me were furious. It has to be said that there was hardly a Chelsea player protesting. That said it all.

Gary Cahill, his first league game as bona fide captain in his own right, sheepishly walked off.

Ten minutes later, a cross from the Burnley right picked out Sam Vokes. His jump and volley caught us unawares. If anything, the ball was either scuffed, or took a deflection off the leg of Luiz. Either way, the ball spun towards the goal, with Thibaut scrambling in vain.

At the time, it seemed Courtois had moved late.

Chelsea 0 Burnley 1.

The away fans made some noise.

“Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee.”

A goal down and with ten men, our championship defence was rocking. There were heated words between Thibaut and David when Courtois chose not to come for a high ball. The confrontation, thankfully, ended with a hug. But we were clearly and undeniably rattled. We struggled to put any worthwhile moves together. Only Willian showed any creativity. The noise floundered too.

I do not get any ounce of joy in reporting that Batshuayi was a huge disappointment. His ball retention – big moments for him, the whole world watching – was abysmal. Of course I do not know if he was told to stay central by the management, but his movement was non-existent. On too many occasions, he was stuck in front of the goal, immobile, rather than varying it. Not once was he lined up on the back stick, waiting for a cross, with the whole goal in his sights. Surely a big striker needs to attack crosses from wider positions. He looked half the player that I had seen in Beijing.

On thirty-nine minutes, a move developed down our right and the previously combative N’Golo Kante lost the raiding movement of Stephen Ward, who lashed a ball past Courtois from an angle.

Bloody hell, we were 2-0 down.

To my left, unbelievably, a section of the MHU began chanting “Diego.”

To my pleasure, a much louder chant of “Chelsea” drowned it out.

A few minutes later, we conceded yet again. A deep cross from the Burnley right dropped on to the head of Vokes, with our defence split. According to the banner at The Shed End, “we are everywhere” but Luiz and Christensen were nowhere near the fucking ball. Of the three goals, this was the bitterest pill to swallow. Our defensive frailties from previous years came home to haunt us. Hundreds rose from their seats, and I hoped it was for a half-time beer rather than a tube or bus home.

Luiz grew frustrated – with his own form possibly – and was lucky to not get booked for remonstrating with referee Craig Pawson.

There were boos in our section at the half-time whistle and although I am sure that some were directed at the referee, I know our support only too well. I am convinced that a large percentage was aimed at the players. There is a season-ticket holder who sits nearby who is always the first to boo at such occasions and I made a point of looking at him, as a marker for the mood of the moment. His scowling face – which resembles a cat’s arse at the best of times – was to be seen booing the team. I am absolutely sure of it.

Prick.

It had been, quite possibly, the worst display of defending I had seen at Stamford Bridge in a single half since my first game in 1974.

There were echoes, too, of Arsenal away last season.

“At this bloody rate, I’ll take 0-3 at full-time.”

I clearly expected a tough old second-half, though in the concourse at the interval I was full of – ridiculous – optimism.

“We’re about to see the greatest comeback ever. We’re going down to nine men, but we’ll still bloody win.”

Not long into the second-half, a long-range effort from Marcos Alonso brought a magnificent save from Heaton. To be fair, it was all Chelsea now, despite the numerical disadvantage. Batshuayi, still frustrating us all, was replaced on the hour by Alvaro Morata. Within minutes, he was chasing a ball down the channel and stretching the Burnley defence. A quick snapshot was fired over, but the intent was there. Alonso, from a free-kick, then drew another fine save from Heaton. The impetus was with us.

“Just one goal” I pleaded.

The tackles crashed in on Chelsea players, and the noise in the stadium increased. The referee was clearly public enemy number one. Thankfully, to everyone’s credit, hardly anyone had left the stadium. After only ten minutes on the pitch, Morata threw himself at a magnificent Willian cross and headed home. It had been that trademark “wriggle, move, cross” from Willian, and the ball was right on the money. Morata gathered the ball from the net, and roared. Bollocks to all of that “Number Nine Shirt Jinx” shite.

The noise level increased further.

Just after, Willian fed in the run of Christensen and his low angled shot had beaten Heaten, and was going in, but the goal-poaching instincts of Morata worked against us. I was already up and celebrating, but noticed the raised flag on the far side.

Offside. Bollocks.

N’Golo – along with Willian, our best performer – slammed a shot narrowly wide. Luiz seemed to have no end of efforts. The momentum was with us for sure. We kept moving the ball around, trying to expose gaps.

“Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea.”

With ten minutes to go, a loose challenge by Fabregas resulted in a second yellow. Another red. Bollocks. His first yellow had been for a silly reaction to a free-kick given against him; clapping the referee is never wise. He looked dejected, as we did.

Down to nine men. I wondered if my half-time prediction might be right.

Throughout the resurgent second-half, the Stamford Bridge crowd often rallied loudly behind the manager :

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

A shot from Morata produced another save. Then, with just two minutes remaining, a lofted ball was beautifully headed on by that man Morata and dropped perfectly for David Luiz to slam home.

Chelsea 2 Burnley 3

What a comeback. The crowd upped the volume further.

Four minutes of extra-time were signalled.

In virtually Burnley’s only effort on goal in the entire second period, Brady struck a post from a free-kick right on the edge of our box.

We attacked and attacked – Charly Musonda replacing the substitute Christensen – but our efforts fell short.

At the final whistle, it seemed that the whole crowd – to a man, woman, child – rose to sing in praise of a thoroughly heart-warming second-half display.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

I was dead proud of my club at that moment in time. Noise in the face of adversity. I loved it.

There was the strangest of feelings, of moods, of atmospheres as we made our way along the Fulham Road, Fulham Broadway and the North End Road. The befuddlement and dismay of the first-half had been almost replaced by pride and appreciation of our second-half performance. In the car, one of Glenn’s mates had texted him to say that there had been – allegedly – disorder within the Chelsea squad due to the way that Diego Costa had been treated, but it seems that there was no evidence to back this up.

“Bloody hell, that performance in the second-half did not look like it was from a team in disarray. It looked like we were playing for each other. Bloody great second-half.”

But, of course, it had been – over the entire game – a humiliating defeat. And Roman does not like humiliation. The defeat might just intensify the search for new signings. It should, ironically, trigger some activity. It might – who knows? – be our “Arsenal 2016” moment of the current season.

Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there.

See you at Wembley.

IMG_8513

 

 

Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

I remember when I first heard about our game in Beijing. We were hopping between some familiar pubs in the West End of London before our home game with Tottenham way back in late November. I was with Glenn, Parky and PD, plus a few Chelsea lads from Kent that we had bumped into en route. The news of the game suddenly popped up on social media. It immediately piqued our interest.

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

There and then, Glenn and I mentally signed-up for a trip to China’s capital, secretly hoping that there would be a secondary game – maybe in Shanghai – too.

As the months passed, the game in Beijing dominated our thoughts – I can’t exactly remember when our opposition was announced as being Arsenal, but that seemed almost irrelevant. Eventually, the rest of the Chelsea tour took shape. After our game in China, we would play two games against Bayern Munich and Inter in Singapore. Glenn and myself chatted about options. Although it would be a long way to go for just one game, we soon realised that we were happy with just a Chinese holiday, with a few days in Shanghai after our stay in Beijing for the football. An onward flight to Singapore – another six hours of travel – would have added extra expense and lengthened our holiday. And although I am sure Singapore is a fine destination, it didn’t tick too many boxes for me. It has a reputation for being rather staid and bland, plus supremely expensive, and I wasn’t too enamoured about seeing two games in the same stadium. My dear parents had stayed in Singapore, after a few days in Hong Kong, on their round-the-world trip in 1991, and even they commented that it was a rather sober destination.

Back in March, I took the bull by the horns and booked us on a Finnair flight from Heathrow to Beijing via a small stopover in Helsinki. The price was pretty reasonable. Since then, the holiday took shape, and I loved how excited Glenn was getting with each passing week. We decided, indeed, to head down to Shanghai for three nights after Beijing – travelling by bullet train to save money, but to also add to the sensory experience. I just fancied seeing what China was all about. I booked a day trip to The Great Wall; regardless of the footy, this would make Glenn’s holiday since he has always wanted to visit this famous landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hotels were booked, again at very reasonable prices; around £50 per night for single rooms. Lastly, there was the visa application process. A day trip up to London resulted in myself appearing in person at the visa application centre deep in the city, but despite sweaty palms and a beating heart, our completed forms were accepted, and we were on our way.

Our good friend Big John, who sits a few rows in front of us in the MHU, would be attending the game in Beijing too. Every time that we chatted at a game, our conversations would consist of these two phrases :

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

“Excited? Like a dog with two dicks, mate.”

My mate Foxy, from Dundee, who I last saw at the Middlesbrough away game, just before Beijing was announced in fact, also decided to join us. He too was not bothered about Singapore; he had visited it many times before, but had not visited China. He was happy to join us in Shanghai after the game in Beijing too. Foxy would be able, also, to squeeze in an extra day to visit the famous Terracotta Army in the ancient city of Xi’an.

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

The League Championship was won. The FA Cup Final was lost. The long dull days of summer reached out in front of us.

My last act was to book the bullet train tickets, which only went on sale three weeks before the date of travel.

China. The mere mention of the word made me slightly light-headed. This would, surely, be one of my most wonderful adventures.

On the way over to Tokyo in December 2012, I had spent five long hours at Beijing airport – deep snow outside, a horrible meal inside – and I suppose that it didn’t realistically count as a proper visit. At the time, though, I remember being highly excited about being locked inside Sir Norman Foster’s huge sweeping terminal, just twenty miles from Tienanmen Square.

In July 2017, I would be able to – gulp – step outside.

In the build-up to the holiday, I bought a couple of guide books to the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I also purchased a fine piece of travel writing by Rob Gifford called “China Road” which, although published in 2007, contained a lot of pertinent historical information about the changes which have been experienced in the great nation – empire – of China over the years. His book details his travel from east – Shanghai – to west on route 312, and he interspersed his modern day experiences along its length with fascinating sections about China’s rich and interesting past. Within the opening chapter, Gifford referenced “The Grapes Of Wrath” and also “On The Road” and so I immediately knew that I’d be on to a winner. There was so much to take on board though. I felt like I was only skimming the surface of China. Thankfully, help was at hand. In the very last week, we were lucky to see TV programmes devoted to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and a re-run – from 1997 – of a Michael Palin travel documentary involving a rapidly changing China. Memorably, his short stay in Shanghai involved him looking out past the tug boats and barges on the Huangpo River at the new builds across the water in Pudong. In 2017, that same view is much changed and I could not wait to see the updated view in person.

China. This mysterious nation, the world’s most populous at 1.3 billion, and one which was changed by the hard hand of Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, and has since been bitten hard by capitalism, but which is still a one party state. This complex behemoth of the east would surely bewitch and beguile me.

Visiting from the far more liberal and relaxed west, I would be an occidental tourist.

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

I collected Glenn in Frome at 5am on Tuesday 18 July. We had a perfect drive up to Heathrow, an easy flight to Helsinki, and a pretty reasonable flight over Finland, Russia, Mongolia and we landed at Beijing International airport at around 7.30am on Wednesday 19 July. I remembered the terminal from my visit in 2012. It was wonderful to be back. We quickly made our way through the immigration checks and hailed a cab to take us to our city centre hotel. It was early morning rush hour. My eyes – not tired – were on stalks. My first observations on that hour long cab ride? –

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

No advertisement hoardings along the road sides, nor on street corners, nor anywhere.

Shiny Western cars – Audis, BMWs, VWs – alongside unknown Chinese makes.

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

Huge high-rise apartments. Like Moscow. Almost brutal.

A clogging urban haze enveloped the city, making visibility difficult.

Massive skyscrapers – some under construction – in the financial district to the east of the city centre.

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

We arrived at our hotel, paid the cab driver – 129 yuan, or around £15, get in – and I practiced the only words of Chinese that I had learned.

“Xiexie” is pronounced like a gentle, soft sneeze, and I thought it was difficult to get it right. The cabbie seemed OK with it.

The hotel was rather dated, but suited our needs. It didn’t seem particularly busy. For this reason alone, I suspect, we were upgraded to a suite apiece on the seventh floor. Downstairs, we bumped into Cathy, who was staying in our hotel too. She had arrived via Warsaw an hour before us. Cathy had already booked a couple of local tours. The three of us hoisted the first beers of the trip – the crisp and tasty Tsingtao – before disappearing upstairs to our suites for some power naps.

In the late afternoon, Glenn and myself slapped some sunscreen and mozzy repellent on, and marched out along Qianmen Street. Unlike in 2012, Tienanmen Square was just a ten-minute walk away. The first few minutes were difficult. The heat was stifling. We walked on. We reached the square at its southern edge, alongside the imposing Mao mausoleum. The square was very impressive and it took my breath away. I could not – honestly – believe that I was there. It is, allegedly, the largest public square in the world. In the middle, a large column, surrounded by red flags. They were not Chinese flags, with gold stars, but plain red ones. The effect was stunning. To the east and west, two huge authoritarian buildings, the one to the west the largest building I think I have ever seen. And to the north, the dark red – almost vermilion – walls of the Forbidden City. In the centre, just about discernible, the face of Mao Zedong.

Gulp.

We were in China. In Beijing. In Tienanmen Square.

Not surprisingly, there were thoughts of that ridiculously iconic image of the lone student protesting against an army tank in 1989. In those protests, hundreds were slain in the very square in which I was stood. The world whirled around me. In my thoughts leading up to this trip, I reached right back to my earliest memories. Before Chelsea even. Pre-1970. My earliest memories. Before I went to school in 1970, my father used to return home from his shop in Frome for lunch every week day – apart from Wednesday, market day – and we used to have lunch (the biggest meal of the day in those days, how times change) while listening to “The World At One” on the radio. Although this takes me back to the age of three or four, I can always remember the exotic sounding names of various places and people to this day and how I used to love the way the announcer pronounced them. For a while, it was something I listened in for.

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

I was joining up some pretty old dots on my life-journey on this trip for sure.

We took some photos – there would be hundreds more – but the ones from that very first evening in Tienanmen Square will remain very precious to me. On the walk back across the vast space, we kept bumping in to a family from Glasgow and it soon became apparent that the husband was Rangers, and Chelsea. He was visiting his son, who had been studying Mandarin at a local university since September. He loved the city and wished us well. Without a word of warning, he started singing “Blue Is The Colour” and we joined in.

The red flags were flying above us but, for a while, Beijing was blue.

Foxy, newly arrived from Dubai, was booking in as we strode back in to the hotel. It was fantastic to see him again.

That evening, Cathy joined us in the bar for a beer and we ended up across the road in a local restaurant. The portion sizes were huge – oh, and cheap – and we had a fantastic feast. The food was, actually, remarkably similar to the Chinese we are used to back in England. For some reason, I expected marked differences.

Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, spicy prawns, fried rice, sweetcorn soup – in a huge bowl – and of course Peking Duck.

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

Foxy, Glenn and myself walked a mile or so east and then north and found ourselves in the main shopping street of Beijing – all the Western shops you can think of, plus more – and soon settled for bottles of Yanjing adjacent to a street market. Just a few yards away wer stalls selling scorpions, skewered and fried, grubs, and all sorts of oddities. I was glad that I was not hungry. Wanting one last beer, we marched on to an Irish bar, only because it seemed that bars and pubs were very rare in central Beijing. We sat in the dark boozer, sipping at cool beers, and chatted about various things, with the whole of Beijing within our sights. Funnily enough, I had spotted only one sports jersey of any description during the first five or six hours in the city. One Chinese lad was spotted wearing – oddly – an Atletico Madrid shirt. Not only were there no Chinese team jerseys being worn, nor were there any foreign teams’ jerseys. Nor – tellingly – any US team paraphernalia that still seems de rigueur in most cities around the world.

On the Thursday, Foxy, Glenn and myself assembled at around 9am, gulped down a couple of expensive coffees in the hotel and set out on our very own version of Mao’s long march.

We visited Tienanmen Square. We visited the Forbidden City. For each separate part of the vast area – thousands upon thousands of rooms – there were lines for tickets. We decided on just the main courtyard and the Meridian Gate, which overlooked Tienanmen Square to the south. The haze spoiled the view but it did not matter too much. We made sure we hydrated throughout. While seated on a bench within the first courtyard, Foxy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed quickly.

A mother was holding her daughter up as the youngster peed in to a rubbish bin.

“You don’t see that outside Buckingham Palace, Foxy.”

We took photographs of the vast walls, the golden pagoda roofs, and the innate stillness, despite the crowds. Outside, the surrounding moat thankfully cooled the air. Everywhere were green-shirted army guards and black-shirted security guards. It was a fascinating walk. We walked south and spotted the huge modern curve of the national centre for performing arts. We sought sanctuary from the heat for an hour. Inside, there was a small art gallery. We stopped for a light snack. The main auditorium housed opera. Within an hour we had experienced ancient and modern Beijing. We walked on, heading towards the serene Temple of Heaven, maybe a mile or so to the south. However, we were soon side-tracked.

One of Beijing’s most beguiling features are its hutongs; single-story working class dwellings which surround the central area, and which – I am amazed – have not yet been bulldozed away in the name of progress. We spent an idyllic hour wandering past houses, motorcycle repair shops, grocery stores, cafes, clothes shops, fishmongers, butchers, all the time having to move out of the way of bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, mopeds, and some of the most ridiculously small cars on the planet. Overhead electricity cables swayed low over side-alleys.

At the lovely, peaceful Temple of Heaven we were virtually the only Westerners. The deep midnight blue of the roof contrasted well with the white marble of the steps. We were mesmerized by its beauty.

We caved in – I for one was exhausted now – and caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Of course we almost collided with various people on bicycles and scooters, but – hey – nobody was killed. Back at our digs, Glenn reliably informed us that we had walked nine miles during the day. I almost feinted.

That evening, we disappeared over to our local restaurant – “the freak show is back” – and gobbled more local cuisine. I tried the Peking Duck – when in Rome, eh? – and very nice it was too. Not crispy as we have in the UK, but simply roasted. It hit the spot. At around 9pm, the three of us met up with Big John, newly arrived at his hotel, only a ten-minute walk from our accommodation. We began with a beer on the terrace overlooking central – hazy – Beijing, but soon disappeared inside as the rain began to fall. We had a few bottles of Tsingtao, plenty of laughs, and we made plans for the rest of our stay.

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

On the Friday, we had arranged to meet up at John’s hotel at 10am. The temperature had decidedly cooled, thank heavens. There was a “McDonalds” next to his hotel, and – let’s be truthful – I soon came to the realisation that I could not survive for nine days of Chinese food only. I dived in for a breakfast. It hit the spot. We dived in to a cab and headed off on the elevated inner ring-road to the east of the city to collect our match tickets. It was a simple transaction, but a relief to have them in our hands.

We then headed further out towards the Danshanzi district. I had highlighted the 798 Art District as a venue that I fancied visiting; I didn’t expect it, but – bless ‘em – the other three fancied it too. It was delightful. The sight of many old military industrial units, factories and warehouses, the whole area now houses a rather off-the-wall arty area featuring galleries, cafes, bars, shops, venues, but also a few businesses; I spotted both a Volkswagen HQ and an Uber HQ abutting its periphery. It was an interesting area. The relics of its industrial past were left to provide a somber backdrop to the modern artworks on show – rusting pipes, darkened towers, tall brick chimneys, red brick buildings. Many of the artworks were funky and humorous. Graffiti was allowed, unlike – presumably – elsewhere in the city. We stopped at two cafes and enjoyed beers in both, along with wide-ranging Chelsea chat. The second café was housed in a former train station – an old-style loco outside – and was named after the Ace Café, formerly a bikers’ café on the North Circular in London, which I had read about on the internet only a couple of months previously. The area was certainly atmospheric. At times it felt that we were walking through an Anton Corbijn photoshoot for a Depeche Mode album. It was as if the Chinese state had detailed this little parcel of land for avant garde expression, well away from the city centre, the masses, the rest of the city.

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

We assembled again – Cathy too – in the evening, and headed north. We had been tipped-off by…um, someone we met wearing an ironic green Mao uniform and smoking a Gauloises cigarette in the 798 District and answering to the name Agent 1905…that the Chelsea team were staying in a hotel adjacent to the Birds Nest Stadium. We dressed accordingly – smart, er, casual – and hoped to be able to meet up, however briefly, for a chat with either the management team or the players. Luckily, our route – never to be forgotten – swept us past a floodlight Forbidden City, with an illuminated Mao looking down on us, and out on one of the five-lane boulevards which then joined up with an elevated expressway, past modern hotel blocks as we zoomed north. The night had now fallen. It was an intoxicating ride. We soon spotted – to our right – the red and gold of the Birds Nest Stadium and the cool blue of The Water Cube, both used during the impressive Beijing 2008 Olympics.

We were deposited right outside the hotel. We spotted barriers to our left, with local Chelsea supporters awaiting the arrival of the team coach from a training session. Inside, in the large lobby, were more Chelsea fans. We waited outside. Nobody approached us; I think we were under the radar. We spotted former England manager Roy Hodgson arrive with a couple of colleagues. We called out his name – he is a decent football man – and he seemed genuinely happy to be spotted. His eyes twinkled. A local lad, wearing an Arsenal shirt was roughly manhandled away from the area. Soon, the Chelsea coach arrived just yards away from where we stood and the players quickly entered the hotel. It was pandemonium inside. Lots of shrieking. I think a fair few players stopped to sign autographs, but we really could not see what was happening. After a while, the security people were forcibly pushing back the frenzied Chelsea supporters. It was all done and dusted within four or five minutes.

Upstairs, in an open area, we spotted the staff signing various items laid out on tables. I seized the moment. I drifted past a hotel worker and slowly – I’d say nonchalantly if I meant it – walked up some wide stairs. A photo of Antonio Conte – boom. Before I was chased away, I edged forward.

“Antonio.”

He looked up and I approached…thinking, “oh bollocks, what shall I say to him?”

“Grazie mille.”

He smiled, almost bashfully, and said – as quiet as you like – “prego.”

With that, a Chelsea club official asked who I was. I suspect that he didn’t know who Agent 1905 was, so I said “just a fan.” He politely asked me to leave. We were to find out, later that evening, that the club were hosting a Q and A with some local supporters – complete with lanyards et al – and I suppose this is par for the course these days. I found it typical that Antonio and the players were signing, in addition to the usual shirts, a couple of Yokohama tyres.

Downstairs, Cathy, John, Glenn, Foxy and myself spent a good few hours chatting about Chelsea and football in general. It was a lovely time, actually. We spotted Carlo Cudicini walk past and take his seat a few yards away alongside several other coaching staff, including Antonio’s assistant Angelo Alessio. I took a photo of Carlo with Cath and Glenn. I spoke to Angelo – can I call him that? – about me being a Juve fan too and seeing him play in Turin in the late ‘eighties. He seemed very amicable. A lovely moment. Around eight of the Chelsea staff were in this little group, and they stayed together for around an hour. Of course, we hoped that Antonio might join them, but he never did. This was at around 10.30pm I guess. The chap that had shooed me away appeared with a bagful of Chelsea 2017 Asia Tour badges. A nice gesture on the face of it, but how nice would it have been for the club to recognise those who had traveled out from the UK on this trip. Just a five-minute session with a few players? That would have been superb. On the US tours, it is only the US based fans who ever get to meet the players at any formal event.

But, it is what it is. For a couple of hours, sharing the same space as a few Chelsea faces, it felt lovely. And I mentioned this to Cathy. That it was lovely how we all still got excited, like kids in a sweet shop, about chatting to Carlo Cudicini, for example. May I never lose that childlike awe of meeting our heroes.

So. What about this season? Prior to setting off for China, the internet was in meltdown about our lack of new signings. Within days, the signings of Rudiger and Bakayoko calmed things. Just before leaving, Morata was snatched from Real Madrid. We chatted a little about the transfer dealings and the much-debated academy process. There are many different opinions here and I have always tried my best to be a fan and a supporter rather than a tedious expert. If I was an expert on football, I wouldn’t spend forty hours a week shipping office furniture around the globe. Opinion is clearly divided. Some lambast our academy – and Emenalo, especially, though many can’t even pronounce his name correctly – and the clear lack of youngsters making the first team whereas others have a different approach, backing the club to an extent, and realising that the academy is there, in the main, to provide a professional career for the lads who come through the ranks. Where do my thoughts lie?

Of course, it would be lovely, bloody lovely, to see a Chelsea team populated with our own academy players. No doubt. There is always a tangible connection with our own boys. But this is not 1977. Our team does not contain the likes of Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins and Gary Locke. In 1977, we were cash-strapped and in the Second Division. Now, in 2017, forty years on, we are cash rich and a buying club.

I tried to put my thoughts into words. I tried to explain things as best I could after a few pints of Stella Artois.

“At this exact moment in time, the manager – perhaps the whole club – has a vision about where the team is going and what style of football it is looking to use, involving an exact mix of various types of players, with various degrees of skills and experience. We have a squad, a base of players. To add to that, do we select from just the relatively young set of academy players we have, which might number just twenty or thirty – at this exact time – or do we look elsewhere, at potentially hundreds of players currently employed by other teams?”

Answers on a postcard.

Roy Hodgson ambled past and, now all of us a little chattier due to the beer intake, posed with him as his colleague took a few photographs of us with him. I like Hodgson. Woefully out of his depth at times, but still a decent man. I told him, boozily I suspect, how his eyes lit up when we had called out to him outside the hotel.

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

Foxy asked me to take one last photo of him with Carlo.

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

It was time to head home. We ordered a cab and returned back to our respective hotels. Glenn, using his phone, provided the soundtrack. On came “The Liquidator”, “Blue Is The Colour” and a smattering of ska and reggae from the ‘seventies. As we whizzed past the lights of the skyscrapers of central Beijing, one song got us all singing, Ken Booth’s “Everything I Own.” It was a surreal few moments. My childhood raced up to meet me once more. A song from 1974. The year of my first Chelsea game.

“If there’s someone you know
That won’t let you go
And taking it all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And you don’t hear the words they say.

And I would give anything I own
I’d give up my life, my heart, my own
And I would give anything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to talk to you words again
Just to hold you once again.”

It had been a fine night.

On Saturday 22 July our season was to begin. I thought back to the first game of last season, the completely dire defeat at Rapid Vienna. What a shocker that was. I hoped for a better start in 2017. I had the chance for a little lie-in and did not get up until around 10am. It was a gentle start to the day. Thankfully, the weather was again cooler than Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, it resembled a typical Chelsea Saturday. But it was a strange mixture of a standard Saturday game with a midweek kick-off time. The game was to start at 7.45pm.

Instead of the Gang of Four consisting of Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself and the day beginning with a breakfast in either McMelksham, McChippenham or McFleet, it began with a breakfast in McBeijing. Foxy, Glenn and myself then toured a local shopping mall. Next door to each other, on maybe the third floor, were two shops selling MLB and NHL gear. This really surprised me. This was not some key city-centre shopping mall, but yet here were two US-themed stores. It made me wonder why I had not seen anyone wearing a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers cap, to say nothing of an NHL team cap. I was still keeping score and, until the day of the game, the number of football shirts spotted thus far had numbered –

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

We were trying to work out – to put it bluntly – if Beijing was a sports town. We weren’t so sure.

Within the shopping mall, there were Timberland, Fila, Umbro, Kappa, Adidas and Nike stores. The prices were comparable to home, so there was no chance of picking up too many bargains. Outside, on a side street, was a little boutique which sold mainly women’s items, but with a little section for men. We could not resist a peek inside. We poured over a selection by Moncler, Vivienne Westwood, Victorinox and Armani but although the prices were quite reasonable, my goodness the sizes were small. All along, we were chatting about football.

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

We met up with John at 4pm and again caught a cab. They were so cheap that we did not use the subway throughout our entire stay. We were dropped off right outside the stadium. We were assailed by a number of touts, waving bunches of 100 yuan notes at us. We were not sure if they were buying or selling at the start but we soon realised that they had tickets to sell. I was annoyed to see red shirts in the majority. I then realised that we were probably outside the southern Arsenal end. We spotted a few locals selling Chelsea shirts – at knock-off prices – and we leered over them, taking a couple of photographs. The stall holders must have thought that we were on the lookout for fakes, as they soon bagged their wares and disappeared. I was surprised at the complete lack of a black market economy in Beijing, especially outside the stadium. If only other cities were the same.

We posed with my “VINCI PER NOI” flag in a couple of locations. At the second one, in the middle of a long expanse of open promenade to the west of the stadium, we were told to put the banner away by some very down-at-heal looking security types. I think they were also on litter duty. Talking of which – there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there is certainly no litter. If only other cities were the same. We also posed with Foxy’s lovely “Charlie Cooke’s Flying Squadron” flag, marking the Dundee-based fans who support Chelsea. We enjoyed a nice relaxing wander between the Cube and the Birds Nest. A few beers were taken. John, who is around six feet seven clearly won the prize for “most photographed.” I will never forget the look on a young Chinese boy’s face – no older than three – who looked up at John in stages, his mouth growing wider and wider. A look of comic-book astonishment. So funny. For a few moments, a local TV crew were in attendance and some Arsenal fans began chanting. My guess that this would not be a sell-out. The stadium held 85,000 and there clearly were not 85,000 milling around. We hoped for a reasonable gate. The ticket prices were pretty steep though; £82 for a lower tier seat. After a minimal bag check, we were in.

My camera too – phew.

We were inside at 7pm. Scott and Mark chatted to us at the Chelsea merchandise stall. Punky Al and Stan drifted past. Glenn and I bought a tour t-shirt apiece at 230 or around £26. I was able to utter the immortal phrase –

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

He soon perked-up : “Gonna be wearing this in the pub first game of the season.”

I have to say that the stadium did not look too full when we first arrived. Arsenal were up the other end. There were not many in the top tier. We guessed at around 40,000 maybe. All of the Chelsea supporters had been issued with the God-forsaken thunder sticks, which many were feverishly bouncing together, in addition to a Chelsea-themed fan – again for clacking together to make noise – the like of which we have had once, just once, at Stamford Bridge.

What’s wrong with just clapping?

Both teams were out doing training drills when we got in. The place filled-up. The lower tier was virtually full at kick-off. From the outside, especially when illuminated from within, the Birds Nest Stadium is stunning. The strips of dull grey steel wrap themselves around the inner shell of the structure, and the effect is wonderful. From the inside, it’s a fine stadium, but an athletics stadium. The pitch is too far from the spectators, a problem that West Ham United are now experiencing in their new pad. But whereas London’s Olympic Stadium is a relatively wide and shallow stadium, Beijing’s version is at least tall, steep and intimidating. The three tiers reach up into the sky and the roof curves high and then low. Of course, Herzog and De Meuron are tasked with designing our new stadium. I am sure that the only thing to say at this stage is that, like the Birds Nest, it will be iconic, unique and designed to the highest standard. I, for one, can’t bloody wait.

“Blue Is The Colour” was played by the PA, and I was impressed that so many locals knew the words. Of course, virtually all were wearing Chelsea gear, fake or not. There were not so many Nike shirts in the stadium. We were then treated to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer with the Arsenal fans singing along. Is that a Gooner song, now? Bloody hell.

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

Arsenal included Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Monreal, Xhaka, plus new boy Laazette. If it matters. Which it doesn’t.

For some reason, there were plenty of boos for Kenedy. We had no idea why. No idea at all. Did he play for a team in China at some stage in his career? We were completely flummoxed. The Arsenal fans – thunder sticks too – produced two crowd-surfing flags. Our two were bigger. Before the game began, Carlo and Hilario paraded the League trophy, while at the other end the FA Cup was on show. The weather was great; it wasn’t sticky at all.

The game, and our season, began.

We began very brightly indeed, attacking the southern goal away in the distance. The Chelsea fans around us were well-involved, chanting from the start. Cathy, who was sat next to me, waited for her moment. There was a sudden lull.

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

Cathy was away, and Glenn, John and myself joined in. Surprisingly, not many turned around to look. Cathy continued on.

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

We continued to play well, full of energy. Arsenal looked sluggish. This was such a difference to Rapid Vienna last summer. Pedro was full of tricks on the left. We were dominating and carving out a few chances. A Moses shot was saved by Ospina. The locals in our end were going for it, no doubt aided by those bloody thunder sticks.

“Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap – Chelsea.”

Willian drove hard into the heart of the Arsenal box but his shot flew past the far post. Our support was certainly into the game. They loved cheering us on when we attacked. At times the whole lower tier seemed to be chanting together. I turned to Cathy and whispered :

“Hate to say it, but they’re noisier than in the US.”

Michy Batshuayi, with a trim haircut, went close on two occasions.

The new kit looked wonderful, although we were spared a complete 1970 re-boot because of the blue socks. I noticed – as did many – how much the pitch was cutting up. Quite poor, really.

Midway through the first-half, the ball was pumped forward for Pedro. From memory, the ball fell in no man’s land, but Ospina clattered into Pedro. It immediately reminded me of Schumacher’s horrific foul on Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. He was down for some time, but was replaced by Jeremie Boga, a forgotten man. He looked eager.

We continued to dominate. There seemed to be lots of shots but mainly weak finishes. Batshuayi struck but the goal was ruled offside. The Chelsea players seemed annoyed at that.

On thirty-one minutes, the Chelsea fans – or a small section of them – donned Antonio Conte face masks and, in unison, started singing “Antonio Antonio Antonio.” Again, we were completely flummoxed. We were to later learn during the night that this was to celebrate the manager’s birthday on 31 July.

“OK.”

John commented : “the noise is good, they just need to work on the melody.”

As the first-half continued, and despite occasional Arsenal attacks, Thibaut Courtois did not have a save to make really.

The lively Willian controlled the ball wide on our left and danced into the box. As he struck a right-footed curler, I snapped. I watched as the ball evaded the lunge of the ‘keeper and we went 1-0 up. There was a loud roar. Soon after, a lovely solo goal from Batshuayi gave us a wholly deserved 2-0 lead. On the rare occasions that Arsenal threatened, they over passed. I remember an excellent block by Gary Cahill – who lead the team out – plus there was the usual solid stuff from David and Dave. Kante was his usual smothering self. This was great stuff indeed. At last, right at the end, Thibaut made a save.

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

We were now attacking our end and this seemed to enthuse our support even more. Although the fans were limited to a few songs, the whole end was singing together.

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

It was still all us. There was tons of play down our left. After a pass from Fabregas, there was a fine pull back from Alonso to Michy on the edge of the box. His crisp swipe flew past the ‘keeper. Oh, how he enjoyed that one.

3-0 and game over. We were surprised that there were still no immediate subs. Antonio Conte was as animated as per usual on the side-lines. He is worth the admission money alone, these days.

The local fans began singing in unison, but the chant did not register with us.

“What are you singing?”

“Subio” – or something similar – was the word being sung and it translated as “one more (goal).”

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

Arsenal came into the game a little, but we were never really under threat. Conte rang some changes as the game continued.

Kalas, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Tomori, Scott, Pasalic, Kenedy – more booing – Baker and Remy all played.

Pre-season is an odd-time. A sighting of Remy here, a sighting of Kalas there. Will they play a part in our future?

Answers on a postcard.

The all royal blue kit ended up virtually navy blue with the perspiration of the players.

The boos for Kenedy seemed to affect him; he looked rattled and struggled to get involved. Boga, among the other subs, looked pacey. One for the future, maybe?

Lewis Baker produced a fine effort right at the end from a free-kick – I’m tempted to say Arsenal’s wall was far from great – but the shot was well saved.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

Glenn, especially, looked so thrilled to have witnessed this, his first Chelsea game outside of Europe. It had been a pleasure to be there with him. There seemed to be some sort of presentation at the end of the game, and the players certainly looked pleased with their endeavors as they slowly walked down to our end to applaud the fans.

It was again surreal to see and hear so many Chinese supporters singing along to “Blue Is The Colour” at the end of the game.

We slowly walked outside. We were all very happy with the performance and result. We looked fit. We looked hungry. All positives really. The only negative was Pedro’s injury. The official crowd was given as 55,000; we were pretty pleased with that. I’d say the split was around 50/50.

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

Outside, the stadium was lit from underneath with warming orange and red. It looked simply stunning. I wonder if our new pad will be lit similarly with blue (suggestion – only when we win).

We waited for Foxy, who along with his flag, had watched from the other side of our half.

Avoiding the immediate rush for cabs, we retired back to a local restaurant. It seemed that nobody spoke English, but we were thankfully aided by a lad from the US who had recently graduated from a university in South Dakota but who was visiting to set up his own travel guide company. He had been at the game too. He helped us order some lamb and chicken skewers, rice and noodles but only 2.6 percent beer. We all agreed that it had been a perfect evening. Apart from the 2.6 percent beer.

At around midnight, we caught a cab back to our hotel, the roads clearer, the buildings still immense, the city huge, the holiday not even halfway through.

Ahead, there would be a simply unforgettable trip to The Great Wall Of China, a memorable bullet train, the historic city of Shanghai, with its history of trade and commerce – a different beast to the more conservative Beijing – and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong.

But that is another story.

 

 

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.

IMG_6282

.

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.

IMG_5693