Tales From The Class Of ’98

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 12 February 2018.

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

Nothing, we hoped. Nothing at all.

“Three points are king tonight, lads.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Chuckle Brothers were back in town.

“Here we go again, boys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team?

Thibaut.

Dave – Andreas – Toni

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Davide

Pedro – Olivier – Eden

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go to work.

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

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

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

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

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

On twenty-five minutes, I whispered to Alan :

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

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

Blues 1 Baggies 0

GET IN.

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

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

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

What memories.

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

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pensioners 2 Throstles 0.

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

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

Bouncy 3 Boing Boing 0.

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

We were back in fourth place.

Crisis over? Maybe.

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

I messaged Al from Toronto.

“We won. You can come back.”

It had been a good night.

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Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

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

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

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

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

I relaxed with each passing sip.

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

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

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

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

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

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

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

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

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

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

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

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

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

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

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

Shite.

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

The second-half began.

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

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

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

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

Modern football.

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

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

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

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

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

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

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

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

The howls rang out from the away end.

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

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

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

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

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

“Don’t let him shoot.”

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

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

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

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

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

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

Fuck them.

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

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

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

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

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

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

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

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

“At least there were no chest pains.”

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

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Tales From Under A Super Blue Moon

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 31 January 2018.

After two consecutive cup ties, we were back to the bread and butter of the League and a home game against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. We had already beaten them on two occasion thus far in 2017-2018. As we assembled in the pubs, bars and boozers around Stamford Bridge on another cold midweek night, there was a simple hope for three points, while maybe Tottenham and Manchester United could force a draw at Wembley. It was a night when we hoped to narrow the margins in the hunt for second place. As we met up with some friends, there was minimal talk of Emerson Palmieri and Olivier Giroud among our little group.

I once described Giroud – only last season – as “the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere.”

I am happy to welcome any player into the fold at Chelsea but be warned that it might take be longer than usual with this player.

Still, I think I felt the same about Mickey Thomas, Graham Roberts and Ashley Cole. And things worked out perfectly well with those three.

The ex-Arsenal target man had appeared as a substitute at Swansea City the previous night, so there was no hope of a George Weah-like appearance from the wings against Bournemouth. I knew nothing of the acquisition from Roma, but hoped that it would give the occasionally jaded Marcos Alonso both cover and competition. Our transfer window had concluded with Michy Batshuayi heading off to Borussia Dortmund on loan. The upshot of all of this was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went from Dortmund to Arsenal.

And there was much wailing.

Fans so used to the club spending millions and millions in recent years were clearly not happy. Maybe we need to accept that we will be a little less-active in the transfer market over the next few seasons while the new stadium takes centre-stage. Initially, it was reported that Roman was going to pay for it himself, but then came news that costs had – surprise, surprise – spiraled and that the club was looking for outside investment. Regardless, we may well see a little austerity at Chelsea for a while, and our aims and aspirations might need to be tempered slightly.

So be it. I’m not going anywhere.

Personally, I was just happy that the latest transfer window was over. It is the time of the season that irritates me to high heaven. It is the mating season for the thousands of FIFA-loving nerds who come to life with all sorts of absurd and unlikely transfer options for our club. At least they will be quiet until the summer.

After another stressful day at work, the lager was hitting the spot in our now regular midweek jaunt down the North End Road. There was a relaxation that comes with being among great friends, old and new. The football was an afterthought. The game was hardly mentioned. It made me realise that there is no need for transfer activity among my friends, bless ‘em.

At the top of the stairs leading into the Matthew Harding Upper, there was a quick chat with Daryl, who had been in one of the pubs, but who I had not really spoken to. We summed up our frustrations with how the club is being run in a succinct and memorable couple of sentences.

“If the club said to us that we were in a rebuilding stage – the stadium and the team – and we were going to stick with the manager through all of it, I don’t think there would be many complaints. We’d aim to consolidate – top four, top six, whatever –  and there would be some notion of a plan.”

“That we could all buy into. Yes!”

If ever we needed a five or ten year plan it was now.

The rumours surrounding the manager would not go away, but in all honesty I try to ignore them. I rarely buy a paper these days. I do not suck at the nipple of Sky Sports News. I just concentrate on showing up at Chelsea games and try to support the lads in royal blue. I am tired of the rumours. I am tired of the negativity. I am tired of the bullshit. I am tired of the over-analysis. I am tired of the same old same old. I am tired of the nonsense. I am just tired of it all.

Clearly the manager is a decent coach and he has seemed a decent man over the time that he has been in charge. His last four domestic seasons have resulted in three championships for Juventus of Turin and one for Chelsea of London; this is no mean feat. And yet he has shown signs of frustration in recent months, and I would surmise that this is as a direct result of the atmosphere present in the club. Of course, nobody really knows how or why decisions are made among the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and at Cobham, but my guess is that everything leads to uncertainty and doubt.

It was against the backdrop of rumour and counter-rumour that we assembled for the Bournemouth match. The team had been announced and without the injured Alvaro Morata, the loaned Michy Batshuayi and the unavailable Olivier Giroud, the manager was forced to play a team with no focal point.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Barkley – Hazard – Pedro

On the front cover of the programme were Eden and N’Golo, bearing a “Say No To Antisemitism” message. There was a large banner being held in the centre-circle for a good fifteen minutes before the teams took to the field. I looked over to the West Stand and spotted that Roman Abramovich’s personal bodyguard was stood in the back row of his box.

“Blimey, Roman is here” I chirped to Alan.

Alan replied that it was probably to do with the anti-Semitism theme for the night.

Yes, it probably was. And I saw no issue with that. While there are still morons who sing about Auschwitz following the club, there has to be a desire to remind everyone of this message. I just wished that Roman would appear at more than a handful of games these days. We need leadership, however understated.  Lo and behold, on page five of the programme, the owner had written a personal message about his desire to “create a club that is welcoming to everyone.”

The teams entered the pitch and they were forced to walk around the large circular banner, just as on a Champions League night.

Under a clear night sky – getting colder by the minute – a full moon appeared over the East Stand and it continued its arc as the game progressed. It was, apparently, a Super Blue Moon. In the spirit of the age, I wondered if this was the hallmark of an advertising guru, a brand salesman, taking nature to the next level.

“Get your Super Blue Moon sweatshirts, brochures and DVDs here.”

Nathan Ake appeared in the Milan-esque red and black of the visitors. I caught his wide smile on camera as he shook hands with former players.

As the players broke and sprinted to their respective ends, the Matthew Harding Lower roared –

“We Hate Tottenham.”

It seemed to be a reaction to the theme of the night.

The game began. Around 1,400 away fans. Ross Barkley in his league debut looked a bit lively at the start. Once or twice an early ball was pushed through to the attacking three. With our usual way of playing tending to resemble a game of chess of late, I have often harped on to Alan of late how I would like to see us mix things up a little, knocking the occasional early ball over the top, to encourage uncertainty in an opposition defence.

“Do they drop back, do they push up? Let’s mess with their heads. Let’s do things that they aren’t expecting.”

It was a rather timid and uneventful start to the game in all honesty. There was a desire from all of the front three to “make things happen” but with no real end result. The game moved on and the atmosphere was as timid as the action on the pitch. The away fans were soon having a dig.

“Is this The Emirates?”

I wanted the Matthew Harding to sing “Roman, give us a song.”

On nineteen minutes, the spectators applauded the memory of young Chelsea season ticket holder Jack Winter who had sadly passed away recently. A banner was held aloft in The Shed Upper.

There was a sublime piece of skill down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. A Bournemouth move had developed but there was a split second when the ball was equidistant from a few players. N’Golo Kante appeared to feint a challenge, and the Bournemouth player took the bait. The ball remained loose, in no man’s land, and Kante collected it, adeptly side-stepping a challenge and moving the ball on with the minimum of fuss. From there, a lovely move developed, with some excellent movement throughout the team. The ball was moved up the field and I watched in awe. The ball was played in from the right with a Zappacross but the ball was routinely hoofed clear. It was the highlight of the match thus far.

Bournemouth threatened occasionally.

This wasn’t much of a match.

With twenty-five minutes gone, we were sad to see Andreas Christensen leave the pitch – a strain of some description? – and our young starlet was replaced by Antonio Rudiger.

Things momentarily improved as Gary Cahill headed onto the top of the net from a corner. A cross from Alonso would undoubtedly have been perfection itself if a tall central striker been lurking; Hazard failed to connect. There was some occasionally pleasing play from Barkley. Alonso shaped to volley at the far post but a team mate chose to attack the ball too. The Spaniard headed wide just after.

As first-halves go, it was as poor as I had seen for a while. It was all very humdrum. Was this a sign of tiredness? This was the ninth game in January.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced the two new acquisitions Palmieri and Giroud.

I applauded, just.

With that, the Super Blue Moon disappeared from my view as it hid above the West Stand roof.

As a metaphor for the evening’s events, it was pretty much spot on.

There was very little Super Blue about the game’s second forty-five minutes.

With us attacking the Matthew Harding, there was hope for a goal when Marcos Alonso steadied himself for a strike on the Bournemouth goal from a free-kick. It was close, but not close enough and Asmir Begovic was not called into action.

After just six minutes gone in the second period, Bournemouth sauntered through alarming gaps in our defence and the lively Callum Wilson slotted home. Ugh. We watched as the away team celebrated at the far end in front of the Cherries away support. This goal somehow inspired the Chelsea faithful to get behind the team.

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

The noise generated from the supporters in the same stand as me brought me great pleasure. This was what supporting a team is all about. In adversity, noise. Great stuff.

Conte chose to replace Barkley – an uninspiring debut – with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped for a little more ingenuity and guile. The fans were still getting behind the team.

And then the lads and lasses in The Shed let me down.

They goaded the away fans with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

This was AFC Bournemouth here. They were in the bottom tier in 2010. Their ground holds less than 12,000. Truly, truly pathetic.

There seemed to be a tangible improvement in our play. Eden huffed and puffed and tried his best, but often ran into a wall of red and black. Antonio Rudiger crossed low but there was nobody in a danger area to tap home. We obviously missed a target man. A lovely ball found Eden, who forced a save, but was flagged offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, we went further behind. Bournemouth cut through our stagnant defence and Junior Stanislas slotted home after racing away from Cahill.

The away players again celebrated in front of their supporters.

Another “ugh.”

I then spent a few seconds watching, with increasing incredulity, as the Chelsea team walked back to their positions for the restart. Their body language was awful. They walked slowly, heads mainly down, silent. I focused on Gary Cahill. He did not speak. He did not talk to his fellow players. He did not engage with them. He did not encourage them. He did nothing to endear himself to me.

He simply dropped to his knees and tied his bootlaces.

For fuck sake, Gary.

I popped down to have a moan with Big John who shares the same opinions as me on many facets of supporting this great club.

“Shocking. No leadership.”

So true.

The manager brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi – wearing the very iconic number seventy, a Chelsea number if ever there was – to take the place of Zappacosta.

Just after, a run by Stanislas was not stopped and his low shot was touched past Courtois by Ake.

Chelsea 0 Bournemouth 3.

Bollocks.

I have to be honest, our defence at this time looked blown to smithereens. We were all over the place. But by the same token, this didn’t seem like a 0-3 game. They had simply taken their chances, whereas we had not enjoyed a cutting edge to our play and therefore – no real surprises – our attack was blunted. The rest of the game was played out against a decreasing amount of home supporters. There were tons of Super Blue seats on show with each passing minute.

We had a couple of late efforts, but the game petered out.

Ironically, the noisiest few salvos of support during the entire game occurred right towards the end of the match with thousands scurrying out to their respective homes.

On ninety-two minutes, Stamford Bridge roared.

“CAREFREE. WHEREVER YOU MAY BE. WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.”

I roared along with the rest. Bloody hell that felt good. It reminded me of years gone by when we made some noise irrespective of on-field glory.

I suppose that there were only around ten thousand – probably many less – present as the game came to its conclusion. It would be easy for me to make some comment about the fans who chose to leave early. That might upset a few people, eh? I am not so sure I care too much. Imagine if the game had finished with no fans present. What sort of message would that give the world?

So, yes. I stayed to the end.

However, you can be sure that there were a few Chelsea fans who would be making some snide remarks about “new fans” and “plastic fans” and “tourists” being the ones who left early. I am not so sure. There is a bit of a myth that “old school” supporters have always supported the team through thick, thin and thinner. Although we have enjoyed some fantastic periods of support, not always have Chelsea packed Stamford Bridge to the rafters in the way that we do know.

Think back to 1994, long before Stamford Bridge was inundated with tourists, day-trippers, new fans and the moneyed classes.

We had reached our very first cup final – the FA Cup no less – in twenty-two years. In our second-from last home game of the season, we played Coventry City on a Wednesday night, a mere ten days before our date with Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Our capacity at Stamford Bridge that season – no North terrace – was around 29,000. Was our stadium packed to the rafters on that Wednesday evening, cheering the boys on to a fine finish to the season ahead of the Cup Final?

No. The gate was just 8,923.

We have come a long way, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in the past few decades.

On the drive home, all was quiet. We didn’t even bother to listen to the rest of the results. I was sure, though, that the bitching and the moaning was lighting up the internet. And I am so fucking tired of all that too.

See you at Watford on Monday.

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Tales From The Piccadilly Line

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2018.

On London Underground trains and station platforms on the Piccadilly Line, there is a graphic poster – maybe not as stylish as those wonderful ones from the ‘thirties – extolling the virtues of that particular line, which wends its way from out in the west through London, heading east and then north-east and then north to its eventual resting place. It shows a train disappearing underground at Hammersmith, with all of the major tourist attractions to be seen en route annotated on a map, and it is evidence of that particular line – “the purple one” – hitting many of the main tourist areas.

On the Hammersmith to Kings Cross section, especially from South Kensington to Leicester Square, there are certainly some sights to be seen.

Museums, department stores, royal palaces, theatres, squares, cinemas, parks and more. It is the very centre of an increasingly visited London.

Of course, just beyond Earls Court lies Stamford Bridge – on the District Line, “the green one” – while a few miles north of the stations of Kings Cross and St. Pancras, on into the darkness of North London, lies the Arsenal tube station, and with it not only Highbury, the former home of our opponents on the third day of 2018, but their gleaming new stadium too.

The Chuckle Bus – the PD Line, “the white one” – had picked me up from work at 2pm and, by 4pm, it was parked in a side-street adjacent to Barons Court. The four of us – PD, Parky, Scott and I – waited in the coolness of the early-evening air and were soon sent hurtling underground as the Piccadilly Line train took us into town. The game was not until 7.45pm. There would be time for a little pre-match revelry, which is not always possible for a London midweek away game. The weather in the West of England had been spiteful during the day, with showers and strong gusts of winds. Throughout the day, the weather had been bleak enough to remind me of the infamous game at Arsenal in December 2013 which had resulted in my car – my Chuckle Bus, “the blue one” – getting stranded in several feet of water with me having to walk a few miles to reach home at 5am the following day, Christmas Eve.

We soon reached our staging post. Piccadilly Circus was an electronic dream. Christmas lights strewn across Regent Street, floodlit shops, huge neon advertisements, excited tourists with cameras clicking. It was nothing compared to Times Square in New York or Shinjuku in Tokyo of course, but still pretty mesmerizing. I met up with Kyle from LA, who was still in town, giddy with excitement for more Chelsea football.

At about 4.30pm, the five of us entered “The Queens Head” just to the north of Piccadilly Circus. The pub was snug and warm, a typical old-style London boozer. Pints of lager were ordered. I could relax. I had not enjoyed the first couple of days back at work after a ten-day interlude. Here was a chance to unwind. Just opposite was the site of a former pub – “The Devonshire Arms” – which I remember well from a Chelsea game against West Ham in 1987. I had traveled down from Stoke with a college mate, Bob, whose pal Kev was a barman in the pub. As luck would have it, it was Kev’s last day of serving in the boozer, and he started pouring us free beers. By the time we left the pub to head over to Stamford Bridge, we were bollocksed. At the time, it was the most drunk that I had ever been at football, and the game was a huge blur.

Kyle had loved his Chelsea experience on Saturday. He watched from directly behind the goal and to quote him, had experienced “sensory overload.” I suspect it was quite a shock to be so near to the action. It would be akin to me watching my first ever baseball game at Yankee Stadium just four yards behind the catcher’s mitt.

At 5pm, I headed back outside into the London evening. My friend of over thirty-six years Tullio – often featured in these reports – was in town with his wife Emanuela and their two daughters Sofia and Lou Lou. We had arranged to meet up, albeit only for a few minutes. My Italian friends had enjoyed a long day of walking around the sights but were full of smiles. It was bloody magnificent to see them again; the last time had been in their apartment in Moncalieri, just to the south of Turin, ahead of our infamous 2012 Champions League game.

I quietly whispered to Tullio, with my head subtly nodding in the direction of “The Queen’s Head”, about him joining us for a quick pint.

He whispered back.

“Boh – I am a married man now.”

“Boh” is one of my favourite Italian phrases. It means that there is no answer to whatever question has been asked, and even if there was an answer, there would be no point in saying, whatever is done is done.

In the ten minutes that we were together, football dominated our chat, and the three girls looked on in awe at our ability to talk football under any circumstances.

Tullio : “What do you think of Conte?”

Chris : “We love him. A good man. You remember I went to the Juve versus Fiorentina game in 1999 the day after your wedding?”

Tullio : “I forget.”

Chris : “I am not surprised. Well, Conte scored the winning goal and taunted the Viola fans with the corner flag.”

Tullio : “Yes!”

Chris : “I met Conte very briefly in Beijing in the summer. I wanted more time so I could explain that to him.”

Tullio : “But he would not understand English. He barely understands Italian.”

We laughed.

I also mentioned that if Tullio had told me of his plans, I could have tried to get him a ticket for the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game.

But his reply did not surprise me :

“No. Tonight is Juve /Toro.”

We laughed again and soon said our goodbyes. It was lovely to see him and his family once more.

Back in the pub, there was time for more “Peroni” and a lot more laughs. This was a lovely time, another sweet spot, another great Chelsea moment. At just before 6.45pm, we set off for the last section of the journey. As we disappeared into the underground, I noted that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was being played by a nearby busker.

“Seems appropriate, Kyle.”

Kyle mentioned its appearance in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and, just as we walked through the into the ticket hall, I had nightmarish visions of being accosted by some “droogs”. I also had an equally nightmarish vision of having my eyes forced open to watch the dour and defensive Arsenal team of the early ‘nineties on a constant loop.

On the train, the chuckling continued.

“Did Kyle enjoy the Arsenal game?”

“He never made it. He is still curled up on the Piccadilly Line laughing at the name Cockfosters.”

Parky piped up –

“Cockfosters. That’s what happens when you have too much lager, innit?”

I replied –

“Oh God. That’s the end of the line for you mate.”

At Holborn, on the platform, we spotted a few Chelsea faces.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

At Arsenal tube, there were random shouts of support for Chelsea but nothing from the Gooners. I had warned Kyle that the tube at Arsenal was like a rabbit warren, so much unlike the airy Fulham Broadway. Every time I revisit this particular stop I am reminded of my first-ever visit.

August 1984.

Ah. What a day.

I quickly gave Kyle the quickest of history lessons as we sped up to take a few photographs outside the still impressive façade of Highbury on Avenell Road. He was mesmerized by it all. The closeness of one of our great, huge, stadiums, to run-of-the-mill terraced houses. The clean lines of the stand. The sense of place.

We then hot-footed it to the larger, but hardly greater, Emirates Stadium. After a bag search and a trial to find my place, I reached Alan, Gary and Parky with a few minutes gone.

A quick check of the team.

“Packing the midfield, Cesc playing, Hazard behind Morata.”

I noticed that all was quiet. Very quiet.

After a few minutes, a few Chelsea were singing “empty seats, empty seats” but I didn’t see many.

For a few horrible seconds, I had a flashback to September of 2016; God, it seems so long ago now. Our beloved Chelsea team was completely over-run and out-played, especially in the first forty-five minutes. In hindsight, of course, the game marked the turning point in our season. It was a huge game in our history. Few defeats have ever been doted on as lovingly as that one.

I turned my attention to the game.

“You haven’t missed much, Chris” said Gal.

I have to admit, what with a combination of getting in late, a very low viewing position – row two – and the gnawing pain of knowing that I would be waking up at 4.45am in the morning for work after the drive home, I struggled to get to grips with the game in the opening moments of the first-half.

But Arsenal appeared to be in control, attacking down Victor Moses’ flank in front of us at will. I lost count of the amount of times that Alexis Sanchez was allowed to drift in and attack space on our right. Mezut Ozil too, looking even more gaunt than ever, was often breaking into our box. It was as if we were allowing a special little show of Arsenal prowess just for the away fans only.

I hated it.

I also hated the continuing – and eerie – quietness which had enveloped the stadium. I simply did not hear a single Arsenal song nor chant during the entire first-half. And that is truly shocking. I know I berate our own fans at Stamford Bridge for long periods of quiet, but this was on a different scale. How was it possible for nigh on sixty thousand people to make so little noise?

After constant Arsenal probing – ooh, matron – the ball broke for Alvaro Morata in the inside left channel, and we held our breath as he sprinted clear.

“Go on ma sahn.”

He inexplicably steered it past the far post. On the replay on the huge screen behind me, it looked even worse.

Then, an Arsenal chance for the effervescent Sanchez and a goal seemed assured. Remarkably, his effort was saved by Courtois onto his near post and we watched, hating every second of it, as the ball struck the far post and then rolled back, mesmerizingly, into his arms.

“Phew.”

A sublime save by Coutois from Lacazette followed, and it was undoubtedly one of the best this season so far. Stupendous stuff.

Chelsea were under the cosh, but a rare break resulted in a strike from Bakayoko and a save from Petr Cech.

The Chelsea support, three-thousand strong, behind me and to my left and right, were surprisingly quiet for a London derby. I have noted similar quiet away atmospheres at the new Arsenal stadium on a few occasions now. There is never as much noise, I feel, as at White Hart Lane on our visits. Maybe we are quietened by the osmosis of watching among so many Goons.

A yellow card by Jack Wilshere on Cesc Fabregas brought howls. A couple of half-chances were exchanged. Marcos Alonso’s free-kick in prime territory sadly did not test Cech. Just before half-time, a nice interplay involving Hazard and Fabregas resulted in the former Arsenal midfielder ballooning the ball high and wide. The first-half had not been much to write about, but it could have ended 2-2.

At half-time, I wondered if my pre-match prediction of a 1-1 draw might prove to be right.

We certainly began the livelier in the second-half. Hazard, after a nice run and set-up by Morata, went close. An Alonso header too. We were looking more focussed.

After ten minutes of play, the manager replaced Moses – a little under-the-weather – with Davide Zappascosta.

A little Arsenal pressure followed, but I was full of praise of our three defenders, throwing their bodies at everything and hounding those carrying the ball. From my vantage point, it looked like Gary Cahill had cleared off the line. In front of the defence, Kante was magnificent, Bakayoko not so. A few more chances were exchanged. A Hazard shot straight at Cech.

Just after the hour, a ball ran through to Wilshere and the ‘orrible little runt slammed the ball in.

“Bollocks.”

The stadium jumped to life at last. Until that point, I had still not heard a song, God’s honest truth.

“One nil to the Arsenal.”

I looked around and I bloody hated them.

Just four minutes later, Hazard danced into the Arsenal box down in our own special viewing gallery corner. He was up against Bellerin. His first cross was blocked but as he stretched to control the rebound, Bellerin caught his leg.

Penalty.

Eden slammed it in.

We were level. There was my prediction.

The game continued with us now looking the more confident and assured. A chance for Morata went begging, lifting the shot wide.

Danny Drinkwater replaced Fabregas. A show of solidity.

Oddly I felt, Willian came on for Hazard.

Salvation came on eighty-four minutes when fantastic diligence from Zappacosta out wide after a great pass by Willian allowed him to slam the ball low into the danger area. To everyone’s surprise, it was the wing back Alonso who arrived – Lampardesque – to touch the ball past Cech.

Euphoria at The Emirates.

Our left-back ran towards us and was jumped upon by his team mates. It was a happy and glorious pile of blue in front of our corner of the Clock end. The away end was now the ones singing, and how.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

The minutes ticked by.

Ninety minutes were up.

“Blow up, ref.”

Down in the corner, Willian had a chance to hoof it away, but meekly cleared. Eventually the ball was played into the box and Bellerin slammed home after a header was knocked towards him.

“Oh fuck.”

Amazingly, in the very last moments of the game, the ball was pumped behind the Arsenal back line and we watched again as Morata was one on one with Petr Cech. His unconvincing shot was smothered among cries of pain in the away end. The ball broke to Zappacosta. His heavy drive crashed against the bar.

“FUCK!”

A draw, in all honesty, seemed a fair result. We had all said that a draw would have been fine before the game. We headed off into the night, with the feeling of what could have been. There was one word on every body’s lips.

“Morata.”

My lasting memory of the game, though, will be of the long periods of quiet in the Arsenal areas for the hour before their goal. And, I will say again, our support was far from noisy. For me, the lack of atmosphere really had a negative effect on the game. It is a common saying that “football without fans is nothing” but just as true is that “football without an atmosphere is nothing.” I can never remember an important away game against huge rivals being so bloody quiet, with a distinct lack of “crackle” that surely should go hand-in-hand with games under lights. It just didn’t seem to be that much of a spectacle. I found it difficult to get emotionally involved in it.

It was a very odd night.

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Tales From Blue Crimbo At The Home Of The Holy Trinity

Everton vs. Chelsea : 23 December 2017.

With work finished for the year, and with a ten-day break to look forward to, most sane people would probably treat themselves to a little lie-in on the Saturday before Christmas. With my alarm ringing at 5am, I was soon reminded that sanity plays little part in the life of the foot soldiers of Chelsea’s away support. But this was an away trip that is right at the top of the list for me; not much comes close to Everton away. I can’t fathom why some in our support always deride Goodison Park. Admittedly the seats in the upper tier of the away stand are rather cramped, and there a few obtrusive roof supports, but I prefer its myriad of plus points.

There is surely much to admire. An historic stadium which has remained locked into a solidly working class environment from which our game was born. Two original Archibald Leitch stands, with the Bullens Road still maintaining the iconic cross-struts on the balcony. The Church of St. Luke’s still peeping from its corner between the shockingly huge main stand and the oddly-named Gwladys Street home end. The closeness of a few pubs. The walk along Goodison Road, full of hustle and bustle, one of the loveliest walks in football. The closeness of the pitch to the supporters. The teams coming onto the pitch to “Z Cars.” The sense that you are dipping into history.

There are two other personal stories which add an extra piquancy for me.

In around 1942, my father visited Goodison Park while undergoing training on an RAF base on The Wirral. It would be his only football game before he took me to Stamford Bridge in 1974.

In 1999, I took my then girlfriend’s son to his first-ever football game. It was a magnificent day and the nearest that I will ever get to taking a child of my own to a first-ever Chelsea game.

So, yeah – Goodison Park. It’s my favourite away stadium.

And still, hundreds of our supporters deride it as being a “shit hole.”

Get out you Philistines.

What are the alternatives? Of all the teams that are playing in England’s top division, we are bombarded with relatively bland new-builds.

Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Leicester City, Huddersfield Town, Brighton, Southampton, Stoke City, West Ham, Bournemouth and Swansea City.

There are a few stadia which have remained in situ, but with substantial changes in recent seasons involving three or four stands.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Watford, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion.

There are two which have had changes to two of their four stands in the past twenty years.

Burnley and Crystal Palace.

And there is one which has experienced just one new stand over the past five decades.

Everton.

It is an anomaly in modern football, a reminder of a rich history, a simpler time, a reminder of my childhood, my youth, my footballing past. Once Everton eventually decamp to their planned new home over by the banks of the Mersey, I will feel rather sad.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome at 6am, then zipped over to Parkyville to collect Lordy at 6.30am. Outside, there was nothing but darkness. We soon stopped for a breakfast at McChippenham.

Parky : “I’m bloody starving. I could eat a horse, and go back for the jockey.”

The other three had attended a Neville Staple concert in Frome the previous night, and they were all sleep-deficient. By the time I had hit the M5 just north of Bristol, two of the three were asleep. Day eventually broke at around 7.30am. I made good time on the well-travelled trip north despite long spells of fog. With Everton enjoying a little resurgence under Big Fat Sam and Little Fat Sammy, we all – reluctantly – agreed that we would be happy with a draw at Goodison. The league was City’s, we just needed to get our noses in front of United. I had heard that there was a fair few “spares” floating around for the game, and I immediately felt a twinge of guilt that I had not notified my mate Deano, a Chelsea fan who lives relatively close by, and who had visited Goodison with me in 2015. I wondered if he would be present. He doesn’t always get tickets for away games.

At bang on 10.30am, I snapped up one of the last “free” parking spaces on Utting Avenue which runs up to Anfield.

“Four and a half hours, boys. Happy with that.”

It was still misty. Visibility was only a few hundred yards. It added to the atmosphere, the old-time feel. I’m avoiding the use of the phrase “proper old school” in this match report, but it would certainly sum things up. On the walk to Goodison at the bottom of Stanley Park, the hulking mass of the new Anfield, only a quarter of a mile away, was lost in the mist. Glenn and I had an appointment at a nearby boozer, but after their dancing extravaganza of the previous night, it was as much that Parky and PD could do to simply reach Goodison.

“See you both inside.”

At about 11am, we walked into the “Thomas Frost” on Walton Road. It was a new away pub for me, and was full to the brim of both Everton and Chelsea supporters. Just inside the door was my mate Foxy and his dear mother. Foxy was visiting Liverpool as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. A Chelsea game was as good a reason as any to celebrate his birth.

I said to his mum “and it’s only right that you are here, because you were there too.”

And Foxy now had a personal Goodison memory of his own.

My father. His mother. Goodison. Perfect.

The pub was a typical “Wetherspoons”, large and impersonal, but with cheap beers. It was the first time that Foxy, Glenn and I had been together since our goodbyes in the hotel foyer in Shanghai in August. To celebrate, I supped at a lovely bottle of “Tsingtao”, clearly becoming one of my favourites. There were laughs with Foxy as there always are. He is off to Barcelona and I invited him to stay in our apartment. Happy days. In the Everton section of the boozer, I spotted many Christmas jumpers.

I cringed.

And to think that the cult of looking smart at football began in these pubs, these streets, these houses back in the late ‘seventies.

On the walk up to Goodison Park, we passed a few buildings which were clad in blue and clearly owned by Everton Football Club; a community centre, a school maybe? Perhaps their “school of science” moniker from their glory years wasn’t far off the mark.

“It’s just full of Bunsen burners, Foxy.”

I turned a corner and spotted a sign; “Everton Free School.”

What was I saying about a club locked into its local community?

At the Dixie Dean statue, I bid farewell to Glenn, Foxy and his Foxy mother, and departed on my own little circumnavigation of Goodison Park. I always like to do this, but did not have the time to do so before our euphoric 3-0 win last season. Ever few years, Everton give Goodison a proper spring-clean, and at the moment the main stand is clad in blue and with huge murals of some of their heroic number nines.

Joe Royle.

Graham Sharpe.

Dixie Dean.

Bob Latchford.

Dave Hickson.

Alex Young.

If I had my way, Tommy Lawton would have been featured too.

As ever, there is an Everton “timeline” which wraps its way around the stadium – or at least the three oldest stands – and this is well done, above the blue brick and turnstiles.

Recently, a friend – thanks Kev – mentioned to me that Alex Young (“The Golden Vision”, one of the lesser known Evertonians) was featured in an iconic film based on Everton Football Club from the ‘sixties. It’s a lovely little period piece, and features some great shots of old-time Goodison, plus the well-worn features of Brookside actor Bill Dean for good measure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcAmE5GxGd0

I was quickly inside the Bullens Road after a quick security check. There was time for a chat with a few friends and the chance to wish them a “Merry Xmas.” Inside, I handed out a few Christmas cards. I need not have worried about Deano. Not only was he at the game, but he was sat right next to Parky, just two seats away from me.

“Chelsea World is a very small world – part 687.”

There were a few empty seats dotted around. Christmas shopping doesn’t get done by itself, does it?

I spotted that there were blue and white Chelsea Santa hats draped on every seat.

I groaned.

I am just bloody glad that the vast majority of the three-thousand away supporters chose not to wear them. Imagine if every single one of us wore them.

Three thousand Santa hats.

“Is this what it has come to?”

For. Fuck. Sake.

With Michy Batshuayi not chosen, this was another chance for the three amigos of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to harass, pester and worry the statuesque Evertonian defenders Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I still struggle with us not having a focal point for our attacks. I wonder what Bob Latchford is doing these days. We were surprised that Wayne Rooney was not playing. Upfront, Allardyce chose Lennon but there was no McCartney alongside him. Instead there was the much-admired youngster Calvert-Lewin and the silky Sigurdsson, who must be rueing his transfer to Everton, now that Allardyce and his “hoof it” tactics have replaced the more “school of science” approach of Ronald Koeman.

The mist still hung in the air. Ah, this was perfect. It had been a brilliant day thus far; all I would ever want from an away day in 2017. We waited for the game to start.

“Z Cars” heralded the two teams.

First thoughts : “God, that off-white kit of ours gets worse every fucking time I see it.”

Second thoughts : “Both teams are wearing white shorts. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave.”

At 12.30pm, the game kicked-off.

On the TV screens were the motif “#Blue Crimbo.”

We certainly dominated the early moments, buoyed by a beer-addled away support. The home fans were typically muted. We looked to play the ball in early to the front three, and Pedro was the first to threaten the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street, now named in remembrance of Howard Kendall, one of the Holy Trinity.

On ten minutes, we could hardly believe our eyes as a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko and then Willian had shots cleared off the line by the old war horse Jagielka in quick succession. It would prove to be symbolic of the entire game. On several occasions in the first-half, we chose to hit a long diagonal to Marcos Alonso on the left, but his first touch was often lazy and laboured. I was begging for a first time cross to be whipped in.

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

This was a solid performance from us, and Bakayoko was working well with N’Golo Kante. Everton rarely threatened, despite the space that Sigursson found on a number of occasions. Everyone was defending well. Surely a goal would come.

“Feed the Scousers. Let them know it’s Christmas time.”

Victor Moses, the quieter of the two wing-backs, was fouled just outside the box. We waited for Willian to strike. Over it went. Bollocks.

We faded a little on the half-hour mark and Tom Davies – why do I like it that he plays with his socks hallway down his shins? – was able to pick up a ball, drive through midfield but his shot was wide. It was then Bakayoko’s chance to run from midfield. He strode right through the Everton half and passed to Pedro. I admired the lovely shape as he smacked the ball goal wards, but Jordan Pickford palmed over.

Just before half-time, Andreas Christensen uncharacteristically lost possession in front of the towering main stand and we watched, no doubt worried, as Calvert-Lewin drove into our box. He stalled, unsure of what to do, and the ever-reliable Azpilicueta blocked.

At the break, we were a little frustrated not to have broken the deadlock. After a little noise at the start, everything had died a little. I could not remember a song in praise or anger from the Evertonians the entire half. We could hardly believe that Big Sam had decided to take off the midfielder Davies in place of the bulky defender Williams. It seemed to re-enforce his battle plan.

Soon into the second-half, Pickford was soon called into action, saving well from a drive from Eden. The rebound fell to Alonso but Williams hacked it away.

The sun had now burned the mist away, but the only sunny part of the Goodison Park pitch was the Chelsea penalty area. We watched as Thibaut looked rather concerned as he shielded the sun from his eyes. He came for a cross from a rare Everton foray, confidently punched, and we heaved a huge sigh of relief.

We dominated fully now. Everton’s answer to receiving the ball from a clearance or a miss-placed pass was to simply hoof the ball up and away. I looked over at the Evertonians in the Park End and wondered how much of this they could stomach.

Eden Hazard was at the centre of everything. His change of pace, his slight of foot, his acceleration, his awareness of others was simply sensational.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Pedro. There was a slight change in shape.

I was a little annoyed with both wing backs. I spoke to Gary :

“Both Alonso and Moses seem to take forever to get going once they have the bloody ball. Zappacosta, who is not as good a player, at least gets out of the traps pretty damn quick.”

Hazard forced another excellent save from Pickford in the Everton goal. This was turning into “one of those games.”

With twenty minutes of the second-half gone, the locals behind the goal at last erupted in song. I almost feinted.

“EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TOOOON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON.”

Next home game, I hear that they are going to attempt to master four fucking syllables.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Willian, and was warmly applauded. The Chelsea support, to our immense credit, have not turned on him, and we realised that he might well turn out to be our saviour. His first fine touch was cheered by all.

“COME ON MICHY, SON.”

A Moses cross was headed – THUMP – against his own bar by Williams. This was just typical of our luck all day. I lost count of the number of crosses or shots which were deflected wide or over or blocked by a loose leg.

With the last throw of the dice, Zappacosta replaced Moses. One of his first crosses was sliced high into 2018.

A Rudiger strike went straight down Pickford’s throat. A daisy-cutter from Cesc was deflected away for a corner.

“How the fuckitty fuck have we not scored in this game?”

Then.

There is always a then.

An Everton corner from where the Bullens Road meets the Gwladys Street.

“Here we fucking go.”

Our nerves jangled. Our buttocks tightened. Our heartbeat increased.

A Sigurdsson corner evaded everyone apart from the head of Keane, who rose – nobody near him, for heaven’s sake – but thankfully thumped his header way over the bar.

There was a collective and profound sigh to be heard in both tiers of the away end.

Despite an added four minutes, our attacks petered out. At the final whistle, we were silent. There were no boos, and not a great deal of cheer either. As the players and manager came towards us, I heard a good level of support and that cheered me. Parky and I soon made our way out and waited for PD and Glenn to join us.

We were as philosophical as ever.

“We had said we would have been content with a point.”

“With just a little more luck, we would have won that two or three naught.”

“How awful were Everton, though?”

We hot-footed back to the car and were soon on our way south.

At Stafford, we stopped for some much-needed scran, and I was able to drive on, refuelled and replenished. We listened to the radio intermittently. An away win for Tottenham was met with subdued moans. The events at Leicester City were left to unfold by themselves; I simply did not have the stomach for it. The radio was turned off.

I eventually reached home at 9pm.

I clicked-on the TV.

Leicester City 2 Manchester United 2.

Ha.

“As you were boys.”

We are now at the halfway stage in our league season. Back in August, I predicted a championship win for Manchester City, with United finishing in second place and us in third. I think I predicted Spurs to finish fourth. As it stands, Chelsea will be right in the mix for an automatic CL berth, but I honestly think that we can pip United to second place. In one hundred and twelve years, we have only bettered that on six occasions. Sometimes it is perfectly fine to come second.

See you all on Boxing Day.

 

Tales From The East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 9 December 2017.

On Tuesday night, we had walked the seemingly deserted streets outside Stamford Bridge while the Atletico game was nearing completion. We had needed to leave the stadium early to avoid traffic congestion on the M4. As I reported, it was a deeply surreal sensation.

While the first quarter of an hour of the West Ham away game was taking place at the London Stadium at Stratford, we were walking alone outside once again. Despite my best laid plans, which involved leaving home at 7.30am, we sadly managed to get ensnared for over an hour or so in a tedious traffic jam caused by the closure of the M4 motorway between Newbury and Theale.

What a bastard.

Nobody was more annoyed than me. At the end of a week in which I had continued in a new job role at work (UK transport planning for our fleet of vehicles, rather than my fourteen years of exports), it was a particularly damning moment.

“UK transport planner, my arse.”

As we had edged along the alternative A4 – a main trunk road which travels along the course of an old Roman road linking Bristol and London – my frustration grew. At around 10.40am, I eventually re-joined the M4. Like PD on his return home on Tuesday night, I then broke the land speed record and I reached our parking spot at Barons Court at just before 11.30am.

We were then in the hands of London Transport.

“Might just make kick-off, boys.”

What was I saying a few weeks ago about travel documentaries, books and blogs adding some sort of logistical conflict for dramatic effect?

Ooh, the irony.

Sadly, our trip east to the Dickensian-sounding Pudding Mill Lane station on the Docklands Light Railway involved two changes and further delay.

“Reckon we’ll get in at 12.45pm, boys.”

I texted Alan to know that we would be late.

We had seen the team that Antonio had chosen.

There was one change of personnel; Alonso for Moses, though not a simple straight swap.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

We were wrapped up for the cold air of a crisp London day. Overhead, the sky was a clear blue. As we stepped off the train and down the steps at our final station, with the stadium visible in the distance, five or six youngsters flew past us.

“IRONS!”

“IRONS!”

“1-0 to the Cockney Boys.”

Our hearts sank.

We walked on, through a darkened tunnel – very “Clockwork Orange” – and then out, with the stadium now in clear view.

We clambered down a grassy bank, falling and sliding, then made our way up to the away turnstiles. We could hear the Chelsea fans in good voice. I enquired of a young steward :

“1-0, innit?”

“Yeah, 1-0.”

Ugh.

I soon found my place alongside Gary and Alan, and Parky soon arrived too. I looked up at the stadium clock. Eighteen minutes had passed. I remembered back to our visit to the old Upton Park in March 2015; a similar amount of time had passed before we eventually got in. On that occasion, the tube had caused the delays. Memorably, just as I reached my seat, we scored thanks to Eden Hazard.

Sadly, in 2017 there was no such repeat.

Gary quickly updated me, as he had done in 2015. We had been very poor, hardly creating a chance. The ex-Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic had scored their goal, bursting into the penalty box, and firing past Thibaut Courtois.

Despite their team winning against the champions, the home fans seemed reluctant to make much noise. The first song that I heard from our supporters – split in two sections, in two tiers, separated by a gap of twenty yards or so – was aimed at the home crowd :

“You sold your soul for this shit-hole.”

Quite.

But there simply was not a great deal of noise from either section. Everything was pretty sterile. The West Ham stadium is not liked by many. It is simply a horrible place to watch football. I thought back to the stadium in Baku – with the pitch just as far away from the fans remember – and it certainly seemed much more likable. Those stands were steep and dramatic. The overall design worked. However, this former Olympic Stadium from 2012 is bland, the stands are quite shallow, there is no “wow” factor. I have no doubt these aspects affected the lack of noise.

The game continued with the four Chuckle Brothers in attendance.

Eden Hazard went close with a volley.

The annoying and irritating “from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park” version of our song was aired.

How dull.

I thought that where Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko – especially Bakayoko – struggled to impose themselves on the game, N’Golo Kante was everywhere in that first period. He broke up attacks. He pushed on by himself. He played in balls to the wide men. He raced on to collect passes. There was a shot from him too, and this was a very rare event in the first-half.

But Bakayoko. Oh boy. Those who know me will vouch for the fact that I hate to pick on players, young players especially, those in their first season even more so, but the lad was so poor. Yet again the phrase “the game passed him by” sums it all up. He was adrift of the play on so many occasions.

Alvaro Morata did not seem “up” for the physical battle. When we had the ball deep in midfield, there was a stunning lack of movement from Morata and Hazard. Both wing-backs seemed to struggle to get past their markers. A minor plus point was the continued form of Andreas Christensen, our best defender.

There were moans at half-time, as expected.

Antonio brought on Pedro for Bakayoko at the break, and I hoped for some extra pace and urgency. We reacted reasonably well as the half got under way. A cross from the right, down below us, resulted in a diving header from Cesc – goal bound – but it was blocked by a West Ham defender. A strike from Zappacosta zipped past the far post. The Chelsea crowd sporadically tried to get behind the team but with the support being split, this proved impossible.

The manager then brought on Victor Moses for Alonso. There was a reprise for Zappacosta’s right-back role from Tuesday.

“COME ON VICTOR.”

However, all around me, fellow fans were getting increasingly frustrated.

“Show some fight.”

“Get into them.”

“Show you care.”

I wanted our players to exhibit tons more passion, tons more desire.

Eden Hazard attempted his fifth back-flick of the game.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

I wanted Moses to show some of his old fight, some of his bullishness. I did not want him to be reckless, but I wanted to see some danger from him.

Sadly, whereas I wanted him to be like a bull in a china shop, all I got was a vegan in a butcher’s shop.

Only once or twice did he decide to take on his marker, instead doubling back on himself, and nursing the ball back whence it came. He simply was not a threat down our right.

Pedro, on the other hand, probing down the left flank at least managed to get the occasional cross in. However, Morata was not picked out too often. We were firing blanks into the box.

Willian was brought on in place of Zappacosta.

On the rare – and I mean rare – occasions that West Ham played the ball out, both Christensen and Azpilicueta defended well. Cahill had a few scary moments, as is his wont. But West Ham rarely got out of their half.

I kept assuring Gary that we would equalise, but the clock ticked by.

Fabregas was awry with both his passing and his shooting. In that second-half, despite dominating play, all of our shots were off target.

The mood among the away loyalists worsened.

A Christensen volley from a corner was blocked by a West Ham defender. There is no doubt that space was at an absolute minimum in the second-half. West Ham defended like their lives depended on it. But they had a huge scalp here, the current champions. It is no surprise that they fought for every ball. But it was gut-wrenching to see the lack of desire in our play.

“COME ON CHELS.”

It was painful to watch as we overplayed it.

Willian to Moses to Fabregas to Kante to Hazard to Kante to Pedro.

With about ten minutes’ left, the best chance of the entire afternoon fell to the trusted boot of Alvaro Morata, picked out by a fine chip by Kante, but the Spaniard skewed it wide of the near post.

The away end was apoplectic.

We pleaded for more shots on goal, but when wayward efforts from Hazard and then Fabregas – again – missed the target, we were overcome with the grim realisation that this was not our day.

Many began leaving with ten minutes to go. With five extra minutes signalled by the assistant linesman, the exodus continued.

At the final whistle, the hurt of a fourth league defeat, and with it, the acknowledgement that the league championship win of 2016/2017 would not be followed by a defence of the title.

Comments on the long drive home.

“You have to admit that although we were pretty awful today, our second-half chances really ought to have given us an equaliser.”

“No complaints, West Ham deserved to win.”

“Hazard was poor.”

“Drinkwater would have loved it out there today.”

“Moses offered nothing when he came on.”

“Can’t honestly remember a single crunching tackle from us the entire bloody game.”

“Dave was his customary 7/10.”

“Morata needs to toughen up.”

“There was no space. It is so difficult to break a team down with eleven men behind the ball.”

“We’ll do well to finish second this season. I have been saying that for a while.”

“It’s almost seems as if this is Conte’s first season with us. Last season was a dream. We caught everyone out. It now seems that Conte has to work through his team selections, his formations, his players, his ideas – just as if this is his inaugural season.”

“Conte on the radio blaming the tiredness of his players, but that’s just a smokescreen.”

Personally, I thought that Conte’s quiet and considered opinions hid a lot of frustration and hurt. But I like him a lot. And I trust him to get it right. It might take a while, but I am not going anywhere.

I am in it for the long haul.

IMG_2105

Tales From Friends Reunited

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 5 December 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was London-bound once more, headed to Stamford Bridge for a third consecutive game and a Tuesday evening encounter with Atletico Madrid. Here was a lovely match to finish off our autumnal series in the competition that gets us all excited and dreamy. After Champions League clashes with the Mattress Makers in 2009/2010 and 2013/2014 (does anyone remember us playing Atletico at Highbury in the pre-season Makita at Highbury in 1994 too?), this seemed like an evening to re-acquaint ourselves with a familiar adversary and some old friends too.

Step forward Tiago.

Our one-season wonder from 2004/2005 was returning to Stamford Bridge in his capacity as assistant manager to Diego Simeone after finally hanging up his boots last season. I am not really sure why Jose Mourinho sold Tiago on to Lyon after just one championship season at Stamford Bridge. He was a classy player with an eye for goal. His equaliser on a famous night at Old Trafford was a belter. He featured in the semi-finals against us in 2014. He would now sit alongside the Argentinian Simeone, who himself played against us for Lazio in the 1999/2000 season.

Step forward Filipe Luis.

Another one-season wonder under Jose Mourinho, this defender flitted in and out of the Chelsea team of 2014/2015, and returned to Atletico the following season after a disappointing total of games played. He shared the same shocking hairstyle as Alexei Smertin and followed the same fate as the left-back Asier del Horno who also lasted just one season under Mourinho. Considering Chelsea’s predilection for dispensing the services of left-backs after a league win, it is quite a surprise that Marcos Alonso is still here.

Step forward Fernando Torres.

Once an Atleti wunderkind, the local boy from Fuenlabrada signed for Liverpool and then joined us in a blockbuster move in the January transfer window of 2011. Although I was always impressed with his work ethic, he struggled to win over many fans. He is remembered fondly by myself for that goal in Barcelona, that corner in Munich and that goal in Amsterdam. The roar which greeted his first-ever goal in the rain against West Ham is one of the loudest I have ever witnessed. I last saw him on the bench at Turf Moor in the first game of 2014/2015. It would be great to see him again.

In addition to Tiago playing against us in 2014, that Atletico team also included Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa.

I wonder what ever happened to them?

We popped into “The Goose” for one and “Simmons Bar” for a couple. There were the usual familiar Chelsea faces in both pubs. I was pleased to be joined by Eric, still visiting from Toronto, and taking in his third match at Stamford Bridge in seven days and we chatted about his stay in London. We shared a few laughs when we mentioned the heightened expectation from legions of new fans, who only appear to be in it for the trophies. Eric spoke about the respect that he has for us – cough, cough – “old school” Chelsea fans who supported us through thick, thin and thinner.

“You were there when we were shit, right?”

“Well, at the time, I have to say, we all thought that we were alright. Honestly. For the most part, we thought we were doing OK.”

I was half-serious.

Eric understood the joke.

Thoughts turned to the evening’s game. When the draw was made way back in August, a brave man would have bet against Chelsea and Atletico Madrid making it out of the group, yet it was looking pretty likely that Simeone’s men, with just win from their five matches, would be likely to playing in the Europa League, save for a catastrophe for Roma against Qarabag. We were already guaranteed a passage into the knock-out phase in the new year. Whereas others were calculating whether or not it would be best to finish first or second, with likely opposition being compared, I was hoping for a win against Atletico for the sole reason that it would mean that our first game in February or March would be away. It is always advantageous to play away first. And I was thinking of the supporters just as much as the team. For the supporters, let us enjoy an away game first with no chance of a defeat from the first game spoiling our trip. For the players, let them enjoy home advantage in the second game, where extra-time might be needed.

However, as we took our seats in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding, there was a certain strangeness to the evening’s mood. The four of us – Lord Parky, PD, Young Jake and me – had decided that we would be forced, reluctantly, to leave the game, regardless of the score, on eighty-five minutes to avoid the horrific traffic congestion caused by the partial closure of the M4 which had blighted our return trip against Swansea City the previous week.

“Let’s go 3-0 up and bugger off home, lads.”

Over in The Shed, the two thousand away fans were a riot of colour, if not noise. I was impressed that so many had travelled despite the miniscule chance of them progressing. Down on the pitch, the Atletico players were going through their drills in front of their fans, while the Chelsea players were doing the same in front of us. The stadium took for ever to fill, but it almost reached full capacity. Apart from a section in The Shed – a gap so that Chelsea fans were not immediately above the visitors – I had to search meticulously for empty seats. In our section, virtually every seat was full.

I commented to Alan –

“£35 for a Champions League game is pretty decent, to be fair.”

Antonio had mixed it up again, and I was surprised that he chose to play Davide Zappacosta out on the left in place of Marcos Alonso. Tiemoue Bakayoko was recalled in the place of Danny Drinkwater. Gary Cahill, the experienced captain, replaced Toni Rudiger.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Hazard – Morata

I was pleased to see both Filipe Luis and Fernando Torres starting for Atletico, resplendent in their red and white stripes.

The anthem, the march across the pitch, the handshakes.

It would be lovely, I think, if the march across the pitch for Champions League games could be kept in the new Stamford Bridge stadium. Let’s maintain that Chelsea tradition. It adds an extra lick of drama and anticipation on these wonderful nights. Keep the dressing rooms in the East Stand and keep the dignitaries in the West Stand.

Something to think about, Herr Herzog and Herr de Meuron.

There was a slight wait for the referee’s whistle and then the game began with their star striker Antoine Griezmann kicking-off, or kicking-back, or whatever it is called these days.

Griezmann must have just recently returned from his own stag party in Prague or Benidorm or Amsterdam; his best man must surely have cut his hair with an electric shaver, and it was only now starting to grow again. It looked bloody awful.

The game lacked a little intensity at the start. As players picked out team mates in pretty patterns but without much penetration, I thought back on all of these ridiculous links between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid that have developed in the very recent past. I recalled that in Italy, some clubs – in addition to heated rivalries with some teams – have “friendly” relationships with some clubs too. Napoli get on well with Genoa, I seemed to remember. In Europe, there is a little link up between Chelsea and Rangers, Chelsea and Lazio, Chelsea and Feyenoord, and in the pre-historic days of 1994/1995, a little band of TSV1860 Munich followed us around on our European trail. I wondered if we have witnessed the first tentative steps in a friendship between Chelsea and Atletico over the past few seasons. When they beat us, fairly and squarely, in 2014, I joined in thousands who applauded Atletico off the Stamford Bridge turf.

I remembered the story of how Newcastle United fans invaded the Basque city of Bilbao in the mid-nineties, and how they were taken in by the natives, who joined in with their drinking and carousing, to such an extent that a few Geordies mooted the idea of forming some sort of friendship between the two clubs’ supporters.

Then, it dawned on them.

“Wait a minute lads, they wear red and white stripes.”

A few chances were exchanged, and over the first twenty minutes I would suggest that the away team were marginally ahead on points. Then, we began to turn the screw. As with the game against Newcastle United, Alvaro Morata managed a few efforts on goal. One shot curled just wide of Jan Oblak’s post.

There was a “trademark” heavy-touch – I am being kind – from Torres in our box and the jeers rang out.

A lovely little bit of delicate close control from N’Golo Kante – what is “keepy-uppy” in French? – brought warm applause.

Eden Hazard began to dominate. Just how does he consistently manage to out-fox a marker with those 180 degree turns from a standing position?

Another good save from Oblak, again from Morata.

Hazard set up Zappacosta on the left, who cut back and fired a low shot goal wards. Oblak again pounced to push the ball away.

There was little noise in the stadium. A few chants, but not many. The two sets of fans in The Shed contrasted wildly.

Atletico – standing, participating and colourful, with flags, banners, scarves.

Chelsea – sitting, watching, being the modern English home football supporter to a T.

Although we were now dominating play, this was still a game that lacked any biting tackles nor rugged intensity. It was enjoyable stuff though. No complaints. Griezmann kept coming deep to pick up the ball, but was generally quiet. Sorry for the clichés, but Christensen was cool and calm again. Only Bakayoko looked out of sorts. Advantage Drinkwater at this stage of the season.

In the first few moments of the second-half, a Griezmann free-kick curled around our wall but Thibaut was able to save. Within a minute, a fine Hazard cross from the left was headed goal wards by Christensen who had leapt well. That man Oblak palmed over.

We were then treated to a sensational run from deep from Hazard, his speed and skill leaving defenders in his wake. Oblak saved again. We were playing some great stuff now, and Morata forced another save from the corner. We were raiding at will down the left with Zappacosta adding extra spice, and the ever reliable Moses on the right twisting and pushing to create crosses out of nowhere.

Filipe Luis then lazily guided a fine shot past Thibaut – hearts in mouths – but it rebounded back off the right post. Koke – another quiet one – headed the ball back towards goal but Thibaut was equal to it.

An Atletico corner soon followed.

I found myself saying “don’t let it drop.”

It dropped onto Torres’ header and his flick was headed in at the far post by Niguez.

“Bollocks.”

This goal was undoubtedly against the run of play. We had dominated until then.

“Bollocks.”

Fernando Torres was given an outstanding ovation when he was substituted by Simeone just after the goal was scored. He surely has a soft spot for us.

“The Atletico & Chelsea Supporters Association” : Patron Fernando Torres.

Pedro replaced the disappointing Bakayoko. Our terrier-like winger was soon in the game, fizzing past his marker and smashing a shot goal wards.

Oblak, save, sigh.

Christensen went close.

The intensity was increasing and Stamford Bridge warmed with noise.

It was all out attack now.

I looked across to PD, wondering if we would score before our eighty-five-minute escape hatch would open up.

We went close, with Moses, Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas all creating chance after chance.

Willian replaced Zappacosta.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Pedro moved to wing back, Willian played ahead.

On seventy-five minutes, the ball broke to Hazard after a defensive header, and he accelerated past his marker before slamming a low cross towards the six-yard box. I saw the ball flash into the goal, and missed the deflection from the Atletico defender Savic. It was the slightest of touches.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Eden celebrated down below us. His relief was shared by all of us.

“Phew.”

We hardly lose any games at home in Europe. Count’em.

The boys in blue were playing some great stuff now.

Morata headed on – a classic Chelsea counter – for Fabregas and Cesc advanced before squaring the ball back to our number nine, who was being chased by three defenders, but he fluffed his lines and Oblak saved.

“Bollocks.”

Michy replaced Morata.

“Tuck yer shirt in, son.”

Down below us, Eden danced away, and spotted the unmarked Willian. With the goal at his mercy he ballooned the ball over.

“Bollocks.”

With five minutes to go, we left.

“See you at West Ham, Al.”

What a strange sensation. In all of my years of attending games at Stamford Bridge – this would be game number 722 – I had only ever left a game early once before (Bolton at home, 1981, in case anyone is wondering. I needed to return to Earls Court to catch a bus home to Frome at 5pm. Thankfully we were 2-0 in that game.)

The streets were eerie and empty. It was wholly surreal.

Jake, PD and I walked briskly back to the car. Parky, bless him, was already there. There had been no loud cheer on our walk down Fulham Road.

It had finished 1-1.

We pulled away at 9.50pm, PD broke the land speed record and, at bang on midnight I was home. There had been no added drama at Stamford Bridge nor on the M4.

Job done.

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