Tales From North Staffordshire.

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 18 March 2017.

This would be Chelsea’s eleventh visit to Stoke City’s stadium at the top of the hill. It is one of those stadia where I have seen all of Chelsea’s previous visits and although our away record against Stoke City was pretty reasonable at one stage, we have recently struggled, with three defeats in the past four games. Last season was particularly painful, with two losses in just eleven days. After our FA Cup game with Manchester United, all eyes were now firmly-focused on the Premier League. With an international break after the Stoke game, it was vitally important that we kept our momentum going, to maintain our gap at the top and to – well – just keep winning.

Although I try to keep a reasonable balance in these match reports, I am aware that there are a few times when I tend to get rather self-indulgent. Rather than reporting on the club, the team and its supporters, sometimes I delve into my own personal story; I have heard some supporters say that they enjoy all of this background stuff, but I am sure that there must be others who wonder what on Earth I am blathering on about. I spent three seasons – er, years – in The Potteries, when I was a student at North Staffs Poly in the ‘eighties. On all of the previous visits to the city covered by these tales, I have touched on various memories from my college life mixed in with my love for football in particular, and Chelsea – of course – at the centre of it all. There can’t be much left to say about my experiences in the city of Stoke-on-Trent from September 1984 to July 1987. But worry ye not, there will be a couple more during this one.

“Oh great” said 50%.

“Oh great” said 50%, sarcastically.

The weather was overcast as I drove PD, Parky and Scott north on the M5 and M6. I turned off onto the A500 – “the D Road” in the local vernacular – and soon breezed past Stoke City’s home ground on the hill at Sideway to my east. The Britannia Stadium has now been re-named the “Bet365 Stadium” since our last visit.

Yeah, I know. It will be a while before I stop calling it “The Britannia.”

Like last season, we spent a while in “The Terrace” pub, right opposite the playing fields of my old college. Although it is a good two miles away from the stadium, it is – crucially – the nearest pub to the Stoke-on-Trent train station. The pub was packed with Chelsea fans, and only Chelsea fans, and the ranks were swelled every twenty minutes or so as another train pulled in. I was able to park my car right outside the boozer.

“Talk about door to door service, lads.”

I was able to chat to a couple of local Chelsea fans. It brought back memories of my time at Stoke, when I became friendly with a few local lads who followed Chelsea and who used to occasionally pop into our local “The King’s Arms.” Memorably, they once stopped me from a potential roughing-up from some Chelsea fans from London. It was in 1986 or 1987, and I was walking in to Stoke from my house near the old Victoria Ground. I was wearing a T-shirt, purchased from the old Chelsea shop by the main gates at Stamford Bridge, which celebrated our new-found use of celery at games.

“Chelsea ICF – Inter Celery Firm.”

I breezed past some lads, and I heard one Cockney voice yell – aggressively – out “Chelsea ICF? What’s that about mate?” I suddenly feared the worse; that would be ironic, me getting roughed-up by a Chelsea fan, thinking I was possibly a West Ham fan wearing a shirt which took the piss out of Chelsea.  Thankfully, one of the local Stokies that I knew validated that I was Chelsea and a potential nasty situation was averted.

The West Brom vs. Arsenal game was on the TV, and the pub erupted as Arsenal conceded one and then two.

We left The Terrace at just before 2pm, allowing me plenty of time to get to my anointed parking place on a grass verge outside the stadium. Cars were parked everywhere; on bridges over the D Road, on pavements, on verges. It was quite feral. Up the path past the canal and the familiar sight of the stadium, high on the hill.

It was good to back in Stoke, among the familiar clipped accents of the locals.

Back in North Staffordshire.

Or “Nawth Staff’she” as they say in Fenton, Longton, Tunstall, Etruria, Hanley, Kidsgrove, Bentilee, Shelton and Trent Vale.

I remembered my very first visit to the city, during the summer of 1984. I recollected the interview that I had with a grizzled old lecturer at the poly, a local Stokie, sporting a Zapata moustache and an NUM badge, and who we later learned was a Port Vale supporter. During the interview, I mentioned that Stoke City used to have a chairman called Percy Axon – no relation, but I thought it was worthwhile mentioning, as I would – and I think that the bloke was amazed that I had heard of him. In his role as a local councilor, the lecturer had known Percy Axon. My surname is relatively rare and I am always amazed when I encounter it anywhere. We must’ve shared a laugh about it. I remember asking the interviewee, quite candidly I thought, what I needed to do in order to fail the interview, since I had been virtually offered a place despite far-from-impressive “A Level” results the previous November.

Just as candid, the lecturer, replied :

“Be obscene.”

I got it. I understood. It seemed Stoke needed me more than I needed Stoke.

Memorably, this very same lecturer took our very first “getting to know you” session in the September of that year. His opening line went down in our college folklore.

“So, bearing in mind you ended up in Stoke, how many of you fucked-up your A Levels?”

In the away end, slowly filling with the loyal three-thousand, we heard that Eden Hazard had fallen victim to an injury. Pedro was to play with Willian and Diego Costa. We also heard that Arsenal had capitulated further at The Hawthorns, losing 3-1. What a joke club. Every year the same old story.

Stoke is one of the coldest grounds going, but this was bearable. I had known worse. We were down low, row seven, right behind the goal. It wasn’t the greatest viewpoint but it made a change. I spotted the spire of St. Thomas at Penkhull just to the left of the Boothen End. For once, a stadium with some sort of view. It made a change not to be completely encased. I noted that the scoreboard to our right was no more; maybe the club is infilling that corner now.

The usual flurry or red and white-checked flags accompanied the two teams.

Chelsea in all blue.

“Come on boys.”

The place was virtually a sell-out; just a few empty seats in the home areas. I wondered if my pal Chad, newly-arrived from Minneapolis in the morning, had made it in. He had posted a picture on Facebook of him inside a cab, on his way to the stadium, with time running out.

Over on the touchline were Mark Hughes and Antonio Conte. The teams were living and breathing embodiment of the two managers. Stoke City, intimidating and physical. Shorn of Shaqiri and Bojan, they were more like the Tony Pulis model. Chelsea, now fully Conte-esque, stylish and cool, yet passionate too. The two contrasts could not have been greater.

We looked at ease in the first few moments, and the away crowd were in good voice. We were stretching the home side down both flanks. It was a fine start. Marcos Alonso was hacked twice by Arnautovic, and referee Anthony Taylor blew up for a foul, out wide on the edge of the box. This was Willian territory alright. We waited for the ball to be swung in to the far post, but to everyone’s surprise the ball was whipped in towards the near post. I didn’t have a clear view, but we eventually heard the roar of others in our end who had seen the net ripple.

“Get in, duck.”

Willian reeled away and was mobbed. We were ahead after only thirteen minutes. What a dream start.

Stoke had already put their formidable footprint on the game, with intimidation mixed in with some late and dangerous challenges. Diego Costa drew the considerable ire of the home crowd and was booed every time he touched the ball. He was then booked for a foul on Martins Indi, which produced an odd response from the Stokies.

“Your club’s embarrassing.”

Odd. Never heard that one before. I didn’t dwell on it.

We kept applying good pressure. Thankfully, others were stepping up to fill the void provided by Hazard’s absence. Defensively, we looked at ease. David Luiz was in control.

Completely against the run of play, Stoke caused a scare. A deep corner from their right was headed back in to the box and Martins Indi headed the ball past Thibaut. The home fans roared – “bollocks” – but after a few seconds the referee spotted the linesman flagging for an indiscretion. We waited, and the body language of the two officials looked good. The referee flagged for a free-kick to us. No goal. Phew. Though none of us knew what had actually transpired.

Sadly, not long after, the referee swayed in the favour of the home side as an innocuous challenge by Gary Cahill was deemed worthy of a penalty. We were furious, and figured that the referee was not 100% convinced that he had made the correct decision in cancelling the Martins Indi goal.

Walters smashed the ball in, and celebrated wildly, possibly gaining some sort of retribution from his darkest hour against us in 2013.

The game became scrappier, and it genuinely seemed that it was all down to the Stoke players. Costa was continually fouled, but still the home fans howled. One challenge on Diego made Antonio Conte jump into the air and stamp both his feet into the ground. Pedro fired over just before the break.

It was time for quiet but strong words from Antonio Conte during the interval.

“Keep going. Do not lose your nerves. Keep calm. Keep playing. We will win.”

Chelsea began the second-half well. We did indeed keep calm, no more so than Diego Costa who simply did not give in to more hard line tactics. He did not yield. He was strong in possession and kept others in the game. I lost count of the times we played the ball intelligently in and out of – and around, and in between – the scurrying Stoke players. Kante was everywhere again. I’m sure I spotted him atop the church spire at Penkhull, mending a clock face, during the second-half. Pedro cut in after a defensive error on the Stoke flank but Grant saved.

Still the Stoke players hacked away. I turned to Alan and said “I can’t see it staying with eleven versus eleven, mate.”

A free-kick was awarded to us after Pedro was fouled. Luiz waited, but it was Alonso who crashed the ball against the bar with a sweet left-footed strike.

Conte replaced with Moses with Cesc Fabregas. In the excitement of the closing quarter of the game, I hardly noticed the change in formation. An extra man in midfield added pressure and stress to the home team and the home crowd, who were remarkably quiet, save from a few trademark “Cum On Stowk” chants.

But this was an odd game. Despite our continued dominance, Stoke occasionally threatened. Although deep down, I fully expected a winner, there was still a chance that Stoke could nab an unwarranted winner of their own. Inside, I knew I would be happy and sad at the same time if it stayed at 1-1.

Conte replaced Nemanja Matic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Fresh legs.

He was soon involved. He unknowingly played a one-two with himself, a la Kante at West Ham, and forced a corner. There were just a few minutes’ left. Cesc thumped a high ball in. Luiz, a little off-balance, was only able to prod it goal wards but with no real menace. Thankfully, a poor clearance by Pieters set up Gary Cahill. The entire away end was on tip-toes. Gary thrashed it high past Grant and the hexagons of the white netting were stretched and contorted as the ball flew in.

“FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.”

What a roar. What mayhem high on the hill. The players raced over to my left. I yelled. We pushed and shoved. A forest of arms and fists punched the air. Some fans ended up in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

There was the winner.

Stoke City 1 Chelsea 2.

There was still time for Diego – what a performance during that second-half – to strike the base of Grant’s left post and for Loftus-Cheek to go close too. As a fitting ending, Bardsley was sent-off for a second yellow (a foul on Diego, what a shocker.)

We counted down the injury-time.

The whistle was greeted by a massive roar of relief by the Chelsea faithful.

Very soon the crowd were singing “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in, and then quickly stopped. Not yet, Chris, not yet. It was one of those games where you just shake hands and embrace everyone and anyone around you, just to magnify the moment and to cherish it too. We watched as the players celebrated and I snapped away as Antonio Conte, the mad man, walked towards the Chelsea crowd, his fists pumping, completely losing himself in the moment, his face a picture of ecstasy.

Football can do this.

It is fucking wonderful.

Outside we were bouncing. More handshakes and hugs.

I kept repeating the phrase “season defining.”

At that moment, it felt like we were on the cusp, though there were still ten games left.

The shout went up again.

“We shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved…”

Outside in the North Staffordshire night, I joined in, weakening…I could not resist. 

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Tales From The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From Classic Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 4 February 2017.

I was not worried about this game. I was convinced that we would beat Arsenal. My optimism actually surprised me since I am not usually so gung-ho about matches against one of the top four, five or six. But this season, or more importantly at this moment of this season, I was not concerned one little bit. There is just something so inherently fragile about Arsenal. Their current form has dipped. Indeed, their last four visits to SW6 have all ended in defeat; we were aiming to make it five in a row.

The boys were keen to be in London as soon as possible. I awoke to the confirmation that we would be repeating the day’s game against Arsenal in Beijing during the summer. Sign me up for that. My mate Glenn is keen too.

Chelsea fans in move to China shock.

Everything was fine and dandy as I collected The Fun Boy Three for our second game in five days; a lovely week of beer and football was continuing. We re-capped on the alcohol-induced highlights from Merseyside, and prepared for another – but much shorter – drinking session. We spoke how quiet the January transfer window had been in general. For our club, most of our activity involved players leaving. We said goodbye to Oscar – OK, in December – and Jon Obi Mikel, bound for China. On the last few days of the window, we heard confirmation that Branislav Ivanovic was off to Russia. That goal against Brentford was indeed his parting gift to us. They will all be missed. But these adjustments represented a purging of the squad, and we hoped that the arrival of Nathan Ake would be mirrored by other loanees returning. I was not concerned that no major signing took place. It underlined how happy everyone was with the current squad.

I was parked-up at just before 10am. We marched past around forty souls waiting in line for The Goose to open its doors at 10am and made a bee-line for “The Chelsea Pensioner.” I had hopes to meet up with a few friends from near and far. I was not disappointed. I last bumped into George and Petr – both from the Czech Republic – at the first game of the season, the friendly in Vienna against Rapid. They were ecstatic at being in town for such a high-profile game. Andy – from California – and his trusty beige jacket soon appeared and a few laughs were shared. He was again in town for one game only and it’s always a pleasure to see him. I briefly chatted to a group of young lads from New York, all bedecked in Chelsea bar scarves, knocking back lager like it had gone out of fashion. I asked if they had heard of the New York Blues, and was surprised to hear that they hadn’t. My guess that they were enjoying the beer in “The Pensioner” so much as they would have been under the drinking age back in the USA. Andy wondered how they had managed to get tickets. There was around ten in their group. An older couple seemed to be their chaperones. We presumed that they had stumped up for some sort of corporate package. I had a little chuckle to myself when two of them unveiled Stone Island tops.

File under “ah, bless.”

Anyway, I wished them well. When I was a young kid, standing on The Shed, I always loved how I was welcomed into the Chelsea family even though I was from Somerset, and there has never been any kind of London-only elitism about our club. At least domestically. These days, there is a certain wariness among the Chelsea support about our overseas fans. But I can spot “proper” fans a mile off. It’s a shame that the bona fide ones are lumped into the same category as half-and-half scarf wearing fools and those silent ones who don’t engage in our football culture of singing at games.

We popped next door to “The Fox & Pheasant” and met up with a few other mates. Lunchtime games still feel odd. I remembered a similar game from 2014 ; Arsene Wenger’s one thousandth game and Chelsea 6  Arsenal 0. What a game. What a memory. We were on fire that day. I had mentioned that an early goal in 2017 would settle us and I silently wondered if a similar score line might follow.

There was no surprise that Nemanja Matic continued to partner N’Golo Kante. There was simply no room for Cesc Fabregas. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian. It would be our strongest team for sure.

Neil Barnett spoke about Branislav Ivanovic and also Frank Lampard, who had announced his retirement from football during the week. A large Lampard banner hung proudly from the Matthew Harding as the teams strode onto the pitch. A montage of Frank Lampard moments were shown on the TV screen.

His exploits have been well documented in these match reports.

As I wrote in Mark Worrall’s book in 2013, when speaking about his goal at Villa Park which took him to a record-breaking 203 Chelsea goals, “his professionalism, his dedication, his spirit and his strength are much admired by all. We love him to bits.”

My favourite Chelsea player remains Pat Nevin. The most loved Chelsea player is probably Peter Osgood. But our greatest-ever player may well be Frank Lampard.

Enjoy your retirement, Sir Frank.

For once, Arsenal had a few flags. One simply stated “The Arsenal. Never outgunned.”

Yeah, right.

I wasn’t sure why Wenger had not chosen Welbeck or Giroud to give a little support to Sanchez upfront but I hoped that the little forward would not create havoc. We looked a little nervous during the first few minutes to be quite honest. Alex Iwobi pounced on some sloppy defensive play and sent a low shot towards Thibaut Courtois. It edged wide but only after the slightest of deflections. It was a warning sign that things might not go all our own way. Arsenal continued to move the ball around well. We then managed to get hold of the ball and our football began to shine. Gary Cahill rose unhindered at the far post but headed down and not towards the Arsenal goal.

There was a moment when the ball broke and both Eden Hazard and Pedro, out of position really, were running at the same Arsenal defender. I imagined a white flag being waved amid howls of pain.

On twelve minutes, we worked the ball out to Pedro and his magnificent cross was met by a high leap by Diego Costa. His powerful header crashed against the top of the bar. The ball spun up and seemed take forever to descend. Peter Cech was still scrambling back to his feet as Marcos Alonso sped in and headed the ball in. The crowd roared our pleasure. There was that early goal. Full credit to our left wingback to get his arse inside the box for a potential “second ball.”

One nil to Chelsea.

There was a break in play as Bellerin, laid asunder by Alonso’s challenge, was replaced by Gabriel.

Diego Costa caused the net to ripple with an angled drive.

We began to purr and enjoyed some gorgeous possession. Kante and Matic set a lot of our tone by winning plenty of loose balls, getting under Arsenal’s skin, tackling hard, then moving the ball quickly. We were relentless. This pace of ours was wonderful to watch. Eden Hazard was another on top form. One dribble out of defence was exceptional. Pedro buzzed around and never stood still. At the back, the chosen three were again playing supremely. Luiz was majestic, defending well, and releasing a few early balls for Diego. Dave was another who chased and tackled with such great desire. One Gary Cahill cushioned chest pass back to Thibaut surely had JT smiling in admiration.

I lost count of the amount of times that Arsenal were robbed of possession not by one Chelsea player but the contributions of two team mates working together.

Kante rushing to get close to Ozil, not actually tackling him or getting a touch on the ball, but putting the Arsenal player under so much pressure, that the subsequent heavy touch was pounced upon by Matic.

Chelsea hunting in packs; “unleashing the dogs” as a neighbour used to say to describe the Manchester United midfield of twenty years ago. Despite our dominance Courtois did well to push away a header from Gabriel, a defender so ugly that he makes Martin Keown look like a member of a boy band, and there was an even better save, low, to deny Ozil. It was a fine game of football.

The three thousand Arsenal supporters were very quiet. Apart from one “WWYWYWS?” there were a couple of monotone “Aaaaaaarsenal, Aaaaaaarsenal” dirges and that was about it.

Diego Costa continued to lead the line well as the second-half began. One shot was saved well by Petr Cech.

Seven minutes into the second-half, we were able to witness one of the very great Chelsea goals. And it was very much a typical – a classic – Chelsea goal. David Luiz cleared an Arsenal punt up field with a cushioned clearance towards Diego Costa. Facing his own goal and inside his own half, he did so well to flick the ball on, under pressure, to Eden Hazard. Eden, a few yards inside his own half, turned and set off. He raced away, his low centre of gravity allowing him to shake off challenges en route. One defender, Coquelin, spun off him like a drunken dancer, and as he continued his high-paced drive towards goal, there was widespread panic in the Arsenal defence akin to that experienced by children when they lose their mothers in supermarkets. We watched, hearts in mouths – me with my camera quickly brought up to my eye – and watched as he bore in on goal. It was a one-man onslaught. One final shake of the hips that Elvis Presley would have been proud, and Eden had slalomed the last two chasing defenders. He dinked the ball past the falling Cech and the Earth seemed to jolt off its axis.

I caught his beatific dance towards the far corner on camera, but inside my heart was pounding, and I felt myself smiling wide.

Click, click, click, click.

I hope that you like them.

At last, that stubborn old fucker Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud who must surely be 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. Sanchez had been remarkably quiet. On came Danny Welbeck too. Wenger, watching from the stands for this game, is now a parody of himself these days. He is surely losing his most devout fans at Arsenal. He’s just such an odd character. And I really mean odd. Just look at the way he has always celebrated goals. Not the natural outpouring of emotion of most football types; instead the delayed, queasy, fist-punch, that doesn’t fool anyone. I have a feeling for all of his alleged passion for football, I am sure he would rather be at home, sorting his socks alphabetically. He is the sort of person who eats his Sunday roast in order of nutrional value.

A cross into our box was met by Welbeck, and his strong downward header was surely headed for the goal. Not a bit of it. Thibaut dived low to his right and pushed the ball away. It looked world class to me. I instantly likened it to the Banks save against Brazil in 1970. It certainly looked similar. It was a stunning save.

In the closing moments, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard with Willian.

The applause rang out all around The Bridge.

Shortly after, in a moment of pure melodrama, Petr Cech made a complete hash of an attempted clearance. The ball darted straight towards Fabregas, who quickly lobbed the ball back towards the empty net. Time seemed to stand still yet again. Initially, I thought the chip was too high, but – no – the ball perfectly dropped into the goal. I roared again but watched as Cech turned in dismay. There was no celebration from the scorer against his former team. I felt for Cech – just a little – but not for long. What a surreal and farcical moment it was.

We were three-up and had therefore mirrored the infamous 0-3 score line at The Emirates in the autumn, a result which helped define our season, not that we knew it at the time. I still look back on the four of us, utterly distraught, sitting on a bench at Paddington Station, completely silent, and saddened by our display, unwilling to look too far into our future as the strongest memory – emotion wise – of our whole season this far.

Diego, who I thought was magnificent during the second-half, sadly blasted high after a fine run.

4-0 would have helped us forget the 0-3 further.

Kurt Zouma replaced the tireless Victor Moses and soon had a little run at the Arsenal defence himself. What a laugh this game was truly turning out to be.

Bizarrely, Arsenal scored. Giroud put down his skinny macchiato and headed in from close range.

3-1.

Oh well.

Our amazing season continues on. All of our players were simply sensational. Our crazy manager didn’t sit the entire time; he was a picture of constant involvement. He is such an endearing character. When Eden scored his phenomenal solo-goal, a beaming Roman Abramovich was briefly shown celebrating in his executive box. This was clearly the type of football that he has always wanted to see at Chelsea. And it is a brand of football that clearly makes me happy; skillful, high-tempo, passionate, emotional, relentless. It takes my breath away. I’d like to think it is a hark-back to previous styles of football played at Stamford Bridge. The ‘sixties, the early-‘seventies, 1976/1977, 1983/1984, 2004/2005.

Classic Chelsea.

Back in the car, we listened as Hull City beat Liverpool and quickly did some mathematics.

“If we win at Burnley and Liverpool beat Tottenham next weekend, we’ll be twelve points clear of them.”

I’ll drink to that. See you all at Turf Moor.

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Tales From The King Power Stadium.

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 January 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was on the road again. There had been a breakfast at a canal-side café in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, a lunchtime drink at a pub with a roaring fire in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire while watching a few moments of the televised Tottenham vs. West Brom game, and a further pub stop in the Warwickshire village of Wolvey. We were taking our time. The kick-off in Leicester was not until 5.30pm. There was no rush. In all honesty, the mood in the car was a little pessimistic. I think it shocked us.

The reason for our noticeable solemnity was due to the rumours flying around the internet, the radio and the TV about Diego Costa. There was no absolute ratification from Chelsea regarding the reasons for Costa not travelling to Leicester. But the rumours were rife. Was he genuinely injured? Was he seeking a change in China? Was he the centre of a media-led campaign to unsettle us? We didn’t know. We tried not to get sucked in to a maelstrom of negativity, but it was difficult.

In a nutshell, Diego Costa is currently at the peak of his game. If he was genuinely injured, no problems. If there were darker Machiavellian reasons for his absence, what a mess.

Either way, it darkened the mood considerably. After a loss at Tottenham ten days previously, we briefly considered a team affected by the loss of Diego, a subsequent second successive loss in the league in 2017 and storm clouds gathering ahead of tough games against Liverpool and Arsenal. Well, Liverpool anyway. I simply do not fear playing Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. The match at a hostile Anfield will be a different kettle of fish, or dustbin of cats.

But by the same token, we trusted Antonio Conte to enliven his troops against a Leicester City team which would be missing a few key players. Against the immobile rugby-players Huth and Morgan, I fully expected the three-pronged attack of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to turn them inside and out.

We were parked up in good time. Although I had dressed for the Baltic – quilted jacket, and warm pullover, Timbers – the walk to the stadium was not as cold as I had expected.

The three sporting stadia in Leicester are clustered together to the south of the city centre; cricket’s Grace Road, rugby’s Welford Road and football’s King Power Stadium. They are all within a twenty-five-minute walk of each other. The latter, replacing Filbert Street, is a typical new build. A single-tiered identikit stadium. Replace the blue seats with red, and it could be Southampton’s St. Mary’s. It perfectly suits Leicester City, but it’s hardly an interesting site, or sight.

Our own beloved Stamford Bridge had been at the forefront of my mind since the last game. On Wednesday evening the local Hammersmith & Fulham Council met to vote on the planning application for our spectacular re-build.

At around 10pm it was announced that they had said “yes.”

What wonderful news.

I remembered the black days of autumn 2011 and the invigorating “Say No CPO” campaign, which defeated the club in their attempt to buy our shares, but which then forced the club to do a complete 180 degrees on a re-build at Stamford Bridge.

Just magnificent.

Thank you so much for listening Roman. And thank you so much for taking every care in choosing a team of architects that has produced such a breath taking and iconic design. I think the design, bearing in mind the considerable constraints forced upon it, is wonderful. It will break the mould of football stadia in this country. No copycat stadium for this club. Not everyone is a fan, but I feel that the detractors are focussing on the aerial view. But that misses the point. From street level, I believe that the structure – London brick, rising high, strong, iconic, unique – will be mesmirising. At night time, for an evening game, with the roof under lit, the stadium will be spectacular.

Of course the negative in all of this will be a hiatus at Wembley, in all probability, but compared to the dark days of the “Save The Bridge” campaign in 1986 – buckets outside The Shed End – and the attempted land grab in 2011, we should not be too disheartened. It is up to the club to be creative in its match day pricing during our seasons among the red seats at Wembley in order for us to maintain our level of support.  My real fear is of a mediocre team with sub 30,000 gates for lesser opponents.

No pressure, Antonio.

I rewarded myself for getting the lads to yet another game with a pint of lager. In the bar area below the steps to the stadium, there were the usual faces, and the Chelsea fans were in good voice. Yet more Aquascutum scarves.

A text came through on my phone : Frome Town were beating Redditch United 6-1. It soon became 8-1. My hometown team are currently enjoying their best ever season, a nine-game unbeaten run, and now their biggest win at that level. Good times indeed.

Back in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, the main two results went against us; there were easy wins for Tottenham and then Arsenal.

The team was announced. Conte had opted for solidity with Nemanja Matic alongside N’Golo Kante.

We had seats down low by the corner flag. Just before kick-off – out of nowhere – my mate Tuna from Atlanta suddenly appeared, bouncing down the steps. What a small world.

This would be my first sighting of Leicester City this season; I had missed the 4-2 League Cup win and the 3-0 home victory in the league. On a dark evening, Gary and myself wondered why we were wearing black and not white. Thank goodness the home fans had not been issued with those damned noise-makers.

Not long in to the game, the away fans roared our support of a missing player.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego,”

I approved.

The home team started on the front foot and Thibaut Courtois was called on to thwart an early attempt on our goal. We reacted superbly well to this early threat. After just six minutes, a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta reached Pedro. He was falling, under pressure, inside the box, but was able to touch the ball to Eden Hazard. The away section held our breath. A goal was on the cards. Eden played it out to Marcos Alonso, who smashed the ball past low Kasper Schmeichel.

Get in.

Wild celebrations, get off Tuna.

Leicester City responded well to be honest. Although Chelsea maintained high levels of possession, pushing the ball around well, the home team caused us a few problems. A ball from out wide often caused us concerns, but on every occasion, the defensive three plus the reliable Courtois were able to clear.

On ten minutes, the stadium lit up with mobile phone spotlights as a nod of support to former player – and now match day host – Alan Birchenall, who suffered a heart-attack on the previous Thursday. Birchenall once played for Chelsea, and one of his ports of call after leaving Leicester City was to manage Trowbridge Town from my neck of the woods back in their hay days, when they battled away in the Conference for a few heady seasons. The ups and downs of non-league football; Trowbridge Town are now many levels below Frome Town.

Mark Albrighton, Danny Drinkwater and that man Jamie Vardy looked dangerous at times. I was able to focus on Vardy’s battle with Gary Cahill; a good old-fashioned drama.

Over on the far side were two loved Italians; Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte.

The home fans to our left were engaged in a bit of banter with us. They were clearly enjoying their post-championship European campaign.

“Are you going to Seville?”

While we patiently played through our midfield, with Alonso overlapping well and enjoying a fine game, Leicester played the role of counter-attacker. Vardy caused more anxiety for Courtois. There were few chances for either side, though. A free-kick from Pedro failed to test Schmeichel just before the break.

Six minutes into the second-half, we struck again. A Willian corner from down below us was only partially-cleared and the ball fell invitingly to none other than Marcos Alonso. He swiped at the ball – using his left foot this time – and he kept the ball down well. A slight deflection steered it away from Schmeichel.

Bloody hell, Alonso again, get in.

I caught his joyous run down to our section on film.

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It was all Chelsea now, with everyone playing to their maximum. Kante seemed to win every 50/50. He was inspired. Matic was solid. Alonso and Moses were full of graft and running. Every time that Alonso received the ball, he was urged to “shoot” by the away faithful. What fun.

Gary Cahill had an outrageous overhead kick which surprised us all, and then Alonso had a big moment. The ball ballooned up in the air. At that moment in time, Alonso had two options.

“Do I hit it on the volley? Do I score my first-ever hat-trick since I was in Senorita Ramirez’ class in secondary school, that sunny day in Madrid, I can still see it now, Juan Martinez you did not stand a chance, you horrible little twat, the Chelsea fans will love me, it will make up for Tottenham, not my best game, yes I’ll plant this into the goal and the match ball will be mine. Or do I trap it and lay it off? Am I confident? Too bloody right I am. I’ll hit the fucker. Here I go.”

It whistled narrowly wide.

We were purring. I lost count of the one-touch angled passes played into space by Hazard, Pedro and Willian. It was spectacular stuff.

With twenty minutes to go, we scored a lovely third goal. More dogged perseverance from Moses, a clean and crisp ball from Kante, an impudent back-heel from Pedro. Willian reached the ball just before Schmeichel, and his lofted chip was headed home by Pedro.

3-0, get off Tuna.

More lovely celebrations in front of us.

Pedro had enjoyed another fantastic game for us. One moment sticks in my mind. After the third goal, he flung himself in front of a Leicester defender as he attempted to clear from just a few yards outside their penalty area. It summed up the spirit coursing through the veins of our whole team this season. Top marks.

Conte made some late change; Cesc Fabregas for Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi for Willian, Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Pedro.

It stayed at 3-0.

At the end of the game, the entire team walked over to us. The away support were bouncing in praise of the manager and his troops.

The memories of our match at the same stadium last season – that bleak night, Mourinho speaking of “betrayal” and his last-ever game as our manager – seemed from another age, another era.

In 2016/2017, there is a new leader of our team.

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

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Tales From The Top Of The Pyramid.

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 26 December 2016.

There was a time when Boxing Day crowds were the largest of them all. It was a general rule of thumb that the much-loved FA Cup tended to produce gates which were bigger than domestic League games, and that the crowds which poured through the turnstiles on December 26th each season tended to produce the highest attendance figures each year.

Of course, these days in the user-friendly, high-octane, internationally-branded, ultra-commercialised and well-loved world of English football – or at least the Premiership, the pinnacle at the top of the league pyramid – gates are usually sell-outs, with near-capacity crowds commonplace. These days, Boxing Day games are – sadly – just another game. Sure, there is the tingle of football the day after Christmas Day, but that extra-special buzz of the game being one of the biggest days of the season has largely gone.

The FA computer has tended to give us home games on recent Boxing Days. Our 2016/2017 appointment with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth would be our tenth home game on Boxing Day in thirteen seasons (in 2010/2011, there was no game on Boxing Day.) This suits me. I’d rather travel to SW6 on the day after Christmas than have to drive to other points of the compass. On Boxing Day 2012, the computer paired us with Norwich City and I just could not be arsed. But I haven’t missed too many over the past twenty seasons. In 2014, I stayed at home and missed a home game with West Ham United, in order to spend a last Boxing Day with my dear mother.

Boxing Day 2016 gave us the chance to win a club-record twelfth consecutive league game.

Would we do it?

The mood in the Chuckle Bus was positive.

A few games back, I talked about the chance to win our five games against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City, but never really expected it to happen. But here we were on the cusp of twelve, maybe thirteen.

With Costa and Kante out, it seemed obvious to us who Conte would bring in.

“Batshuayi and Fabregas – easy.”

It seemed odd that we were playing at 3pm on a Boxing Day. Often our games are early kick-offs. In the pubs beforehand, it took a while for things to get busy. Ironically, we live three hours away, but have easier journeys in than Londoners on Boxing Day, with public transport so severely hit.

We popped into “The Goose”, “The Pensioner” and “The Fox & Pheasant.” There were drinks with friends from near and far.

Rob was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of his first-ever Chelsea match, give or take the odd day. Like me, Rob was eight when he saw us play for the very first time. His match was the iconic home game against local rivals Fulham in a Second Division fixture. The attendance that day has become more famous with every passing season. Although we won 2-0, the gate of 55,003 won all of the awards. As an eleven-year-old schoolboy, it amazed and thrilled me that my club could draw such numbers for a game in the second tier of English football. Ironically, it was our last-ever home gate of over 50,000. But it is typical of the size of crowd that was enticed to football stadia over the Christmas period.

Another example of this is a game that I attended, and again against Fulham, and which took place in December 1982. We were dire at the time, sinking fast towards the relegation zone, and previous home gates numbered 6,903, 8,184 and 8,690. The game against Fulham, who were enjoying a fantastic season, drew a gate of 29,797. I was ecstatic that we could pull such numbers. I can remember that I watched from The Shed – it was a 0-0 draw – and I can still remember standing out in the forecourt at the end of the game waiting for my parents to appear from their seats in the East Upper. Thousands of fellow fans streamed past before I spotted my parents. I was numbed – and again thrilled – that so many people could be lured from their warm and cosy homes to watch us in the second tier.

Moments like that evidently stick with me.

We were able to talk to a few friends from the US – John from Los Angeles, Nick from Fresno and Austin from Houston – and it’s always a joy to see their obvious enthusiasm. It would be Nick’s first-ever game at Stamford Bridge.

Chris 1974, Rob 1976, Nick 2016. It goes on.

The team news broke through and we were pretty shocked.

No Batshuayi.

Glenn summed things up : “That will do nothing for the young lad’s confidence. He obviously doesn’t rate him.”

I told Austin of my feelings : “I’ve only just got my head around 3-4-3, I can’t get my head around this false nine stuff.”

It has never convinced me.

I wondered if it would be like ninety minutes of foreplay.

And if so, would we keep a clean sheet?

We walked along Fulham Road – from the East, it doesn’t happen too often – and it was magnificent to be out and about on such a crisp, bright and expectant Boxing Day.

Here was the buzz that I was hoping for. Fantastic.

As the day would progress, I would be keeping an eye on my local team Frome Town’s progress at home to Basingstoke Town in the seventh tier of our national game. It would be a good day for gates in that league too. Frome are currently in sixth place – a highest-ever league position in 112 years.

Bournemouth had brought a full three-thousand. There was a full house, or as near as could be expected. A few no-shows. The Peter Osgood banner in The Shed always seems more relevant over Christmas.

“BORN IS THE KING.”

Eddie Howe’s team are known for their football being played “the right way” but for the first fifteen minutes his players pushed, hacked, tripped and clipped anyone in royal blue. The ire of the home fans rose with each bad challenge. At last, Jack Wilshere was booked for an assault on Eden Hazard.

The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was typical of a Boxing day of late; morgue-like. A loud and proud chant of “Red Army” was repeated rhythmically from the far corner and the home support momentarily responded with song.

It was all Chelsea for the majority of the first quarter of the game, with Moses and Pedro creating chances, but with no real threat on goal. Bournemouth were unsurprisingly packing their defence, but on twenty-four minutes, we were treated to a little Christmas magic. Cesc Fabregas touched the ball to Pedro, who was hemmed in, with red and black shirts ahead of him. He twisted, created a little space and chipped the ball, with pace, up and over Artur Boruc. I watched open-mouthed as the ball hit the net.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just after, the loathed Wilshere broke into a little space inside our box and forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois. For all of our attacking prowess over the past few months, Thibaut has been as good as any. In the match programme, there was a sublime photograph, taken at pitch level behind the goal, of his finger-tipped save at Sunderland.

Hazard broke from deep, twisting and turning like a snake, and was creating merry hell for Howe’s players. Just as impressive was Pedro, a picture of relentless motion, never still, always moving. We gasped as a loose ball on the edge of the box was met by a rabona from Hazard. The shot was aiming for the top corner but Boruc was able to claw it away. Wilshere then followed up from a blocked Bournemouth free-kick but thankfully his low shot was cleared. This was turning into a fine game of football. Matic was impressing me with his tackling and tracking. Willian was full of energy. There were, however, a number of times that a ball fizzed across the box yelling out for a Diego Costa touch.

Rob, the birthday boy, sits just a few rows behind me in the MHU, ironically on roughly the same piece of terra firma that he watched forty years ago, and he wanted me to take a candid photo of him on his anniversary.

“I want it you to take it without me knowing, au naturel.”

“Well, I’m not taking my clothes off for you or anyone, Rob.”

Shortly after, I snapped away.

A Fabregas free-kick just cleared the bar.

Just before half-time, the referee Mike Jones allowed Bournemouth to play the advantage after a foul, but after a shot was hit high and wide, he annoyed us all by giving them a free-kick too. Howls of derision were still ringing around the stadium as the resulting shot hit the wall.

At half-time, Frome were 0-1 down.

There were still crisp blue skies overhead as the second-half began. A typical run from Eden Hazard deep in to the Bournemouth penalty area caused Simon Francis to make a clumsy challenge. Eden calmly slotted the penalty home, low to Boruc’ left.

We were 2-0 up and coasting now. The atmosphere had not exactly been tense, but at last we could relax a little. The twelfth win in a row was on the cards. Our play remained high quality. Shots from Hazard, Moses and Willian came close. We hounded Bournemouth when they had possession, and broke with menace when we were able to steal the loose ball.

Although Hazard was showing – dare I say it – world class form, Pedro really caught the eye with his energetic display. Willian, though not able to create a great deal, was able to support his team mates well. Fabregas was a calming presence throughout. On more than one occasion I was mesmerized by our one-touch football. At the back, David Luiz was again exceptional.

The Shed, especially, had a great second-half, with a constant array of songs. On one or two occasions, their noise threatened to envelope the entire stadium. The Matthew Harding showed willing, but the spectators in the East and West Stand were still waiting for formal introductions to take place before joining in.

I’m certainly not a fan of the dirge-like “Chelsea Till I Die” song though; myself and a few mates always said that it used to be sung by middling teams from lower divisions. It’s hardly sung by any of the bigger teams. Let Birmingham City, Derby County and Ipswich Town have it. It’s not a Chelsea song. It was, if I am honest, the very first time that I can ever remember it being sung loudly enough at Stamford Bridge for me to hear it. Which is why I mention it now.

There was one lovely moment towards the end of the game. Fabregas had been fouled and fell right in the path of Eden. Rather than stop and await the referee’s whistle, Eden just flicked the ball over Cesc’s body. What a giggle.

In a rare attack from Bournemouth, substitute Afobe’s low shot was superbly blocked by Courtois. Every one of our damn players are playing at such a high level.

Time was moving on, and it looked like our domination was only being rewarded with two goals.

Glenn wanted another one, to aid our goal difference.

I turned to him and said “I am bloody convinced that we will score a late third.”

Lo and behold, a run from Pedro, the ball seemingly attached to his boots, ended up with a twist and a shot. The ball struck a defender and Boruc was stranded. The ball crept over the line, but there was that third goal.

Perfect.

Chelsea and Kensington 3 Bournemouth and Boscombe 0.

Chalobah had replaced Willian on 83 minutes, Aina had replaced Moses on 89 minutes, but Batshuayi only saw around five seconds of action after replacing Pedro on 94 minutes. It seemed almost cruel. But who are we to grumble? Our fears of the false nine were unfounded, and Antonio Conte continues to enchant us all with his team selections.

I can’t really believe that I am saying this, but let’s go for win number thirteen. Stoke City will present a different test, but with N’Golo and Diego back, I am confident.

Down in Somerset, Frome had managed to nab a 1-1 draw against Basingstoke. The gate was a fine 366, compared to a season average of 225. Elsewhere in that Southern League, on a day of mainly local derbies, a huge 2,033 saw Dorchester Town play Weymouth, and there were also similarly large gates at Leamington (805), Merthyr (784), Kettering Town (656). In fact, all games drew larger-than-normal crowds. Our national game is healthy, and no team is healthier right now than ours.

Let’s enjoy it.

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Tales From Selhurst Park.

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2016.

Our game at Selhurst Park would be our third game in just seven days; by the time I would return home from South London, I would have driven over 1,100 miles in support of the boys in blue. No complaints from me though; what else are you going to do on a Sunday lunchtime, a Wednesday evening or a Saturday lunchtime? For the second year in a row, I had decided to use one of those pre-paid parking spaces outside a private address. Last year, it worked a treat, despite the severe soaking we suffered walking to and from the stadium, and our win at Selhurst was an enjoyable day out. It was our first game of 2016, and it felt like we had turned the corner after the malaise of the autumn slump.

What a difference a year makes, eh? A year ago we had just lost at Leicester City and Jose Mourinho had been sacked. We were mired in the bottom five. Twelve months on, there is a beautiful and uplifting vibe in SW6. We were chasing our eleventh win on the trot, and with it, a ridiculous pre-Christmas lead of a massive nine points.

Just before I left home, I posted on Facebook.

“Let’s Go To Work, Antonio.”

“VINCI PER NO11.”

The roads were thick with fog as I collected PD, Parky and Young Jake. Over Salisbury Plain, I was forced to keep my speed down due to poor visibility. On the drive to London, although the driving conditions gradually improved, the fog never really lifted.

My GPS sent me through the backroads of South London, along unfamiliar streets and roads. This was a route right through the Chelsea heartlands of Tolworth, New Malden, Mitcham, and then south to Wallington to catch the A23 Purley Way up to Thornton Heath. It seemed to be a rather circuitous course, and as we finally parked up on Kynaston Avenue, I joked that I bloody well hoped that our route to the Palace goal would not be so messy.

We were parked-up at 11.45am. We were there. There was no time for a pre-match pint, unlike last year, when we dried out in front of a roaring fire at the “Prince George” pub.

The fog was hanging in the South London air. As we shook hands with a few mates outside the red-brick of the turnstiles to the Arthur Wait Stand, and knowing how “old school” Selhurst Park remains, there was a definite old-time feel to this. The floodlights were on, of course, and they only seemed to increase my awareness of how foggy it all was. I loved it to be honest. Love it or loathe it – and most people tend to belong to the latter camp – there is no doubt that Selhurst Park, representing football stadia in their natural settings, alongside terraced streets, local pubs, cafes and shops, strikes a chord with me. There was a large souvenir Chelsea only stall selling favours plotted-up right outside the away end. Two hi-vis jacketed policemen on horseback watched over us as we milled around outside. It’s terribly cramped at Selhurst. Once inside, you wait your turn until you have the chance to slowly sidle through the crowded concourse before entering the Arthur Waite Stand at its rear, its roof so cavernous and dark above, a mess of ugly steel supports, and the pitch can only be glimpsed, a thin line at the bottom of the steps.

Parky, Alan, Gal and myself were low down in row four, with PD just in front of us. The fog made visibility difficult. As the teams entered from the far corner – I have this image of the dressing rooms at Selhurst being temporary Portakabins to this day, I am sure I am wrong – I took a few photographs and soon realised that my haul on this footballing Saturday would be grainy and lacking the usual crispness.

If you squinted, Crystal Palace in their blue and red, and Chelsea in our all-white, resembled an ersatz El Classico homage : Palace as FCB, Chelsea as the Real deal.

As for the team, there were changes. Thankfully Eden Hazard was back in, with Willian keeping his place in the attacking trio with Pedro missing out. Nemanja Matic returned to take the place of Wednesday’s match-winner Cesc Fabregas.

The little knot of self-styled Holmesdale Ultras were doing their bit in the opening formalities, fervently waving their flags, and trying to get the rest of the home areas involved. The game began with Diego Costa playing the ball back to a team mate, and we were away.

I thought Wilfrid Zaha, running with intent, in front of us on the Palace right looked threatening in the first few moments. And Johan Cabaye looked at ease, picking up passes in front of the home defence, before playing intelligent balls through for the runners. A David Luiz free-kick, following a foul on Eden Hazard, was our first real attempt on goal; the ball bounced up off the wall and went for a corner. Soon after a ball was fizzed in from the Palace right and we gasped as Jason Puncheon stabbed the ball wide. Most of our attacking intent seemed to come down our left flank with the industrious Alonso linking up well with Nemanja Matic and Hazard. There was a little frustration with Matic and his inherent slowness. Alongside him, Kante was a lot more economic, releasing the ball with minimum fuss. One of the highlights of the first period was the incredible jump from Eden to control a high ball with consummate ease. He brought the ball down and moved on. All within twenty yards of me. I’m so lucky to see such skill week in, week out.

Diego Costa gave away a silly foul. After living life on the edge for what seems an eternity, his fifth booking eventually came.

Palace were causing us a few moments of concern. It clearly wasn’t all about us.

There didn’t seem to be the usual barrage of noise emanating from the away section this time. There were occasional songs and chants, but the team was causing moments of mild concern rather than reasons to celebrate.

The home team had a couple of chances. James McArthur headed wide, Puncheon wasted a free-kick.

Just as it looked like the half would end in a stalemate and hardly a real Chelsea chance on goal, Eden Hazard turned and kept the ball close as he cut inside. He played the ball out to Cesar Azpilicueta, who sent over a hanging cross into the box. Diego, a thin wedge of white sandwiched between two defenders, was first to the ball and met it squarely.

We watched, open-mouthed and expectant, as the ball dropped into the goal.

It was almost in slow-motion.

There was a split-second of delay before we celebrated.

Two immediate thoughts entered my mind.

Was it offside?

Bloody hell, a headed goal.

Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1 and thank you very much Diego Costa.

There was a little bubble of sunshine in the gloom and murk of a wintry South London at half-time. All was well with the world.

Was that it then?

With minimal effort, we had taken the lead against a troublesome Crystal Palace team. At that moment in time, we were on our way to our eleventh consecutive win, and we were nine points clear at the top.

It seemed – almost – too easy.

Well, we were soon to learn that nothing is easy. For the first period of play in the second-half, the home team put us under pressure, and it suddenly felt that we were in for a good old-fashioned battle. The Chelsea support had boomed with celebratory support after Diego’s goal, but we now realised the team needed a different tune. Whereas before there had been “we’re top of the league”, there was now a more supportive “come on Chelsea.” This was music to my ears. I love it when our support recognises that the team needs us and we respond accordingly.

The home support responded too, invoking the same chant that I noted the Bayer Leverkusen fans using at Wembley a month or so back.

“Tra La La La La La La – Crystal Palace.”

They’re so European, these Holmesdale Fanatics, the buggers.

Cabaye forced a smart save from Thibaut Courtois. The one defensive trademark of the second-half would be the towering Belgian rising high in a packed six-yard box to claim cross after cross. We rode a little home pressure, and then were back to our best, and the game opened up further. A blistering shot from N’Golo Kante forced a save from the Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Willian, not at his best, was replaced by Cesc Fabregas. Soon into his game, we serenaded him with his own song; he looked over to the Chelsea hordes and applauded.

The chances continued. It was a different game than in the first-half. Victor Moses zipped past a few challenges and caused Palace a few moments of discomfort. Alonso, from an angle, volleyed low but wide. It rustled the net and a few in our ranks thought it was a second. I spotted a Palace fan, sitting behind the goal, stand to his feet and mock our errant cheering. His only problem was that he was wearing a full-on green elf costume.

“Sit down, you prick.”

A weak Fabregas shot, and then a Benteke turn and shot was well-saved by Thibaut.

Ivanovic for Moses.

There were a few classic Chelsea masterclasses at Selhurst.

Kante snapping at the heels of various Palace players, and showing ridiculous energy levels.

The refreshed Hazard back to his best, running at speed, stopping on a sixpence, bringing others into the game.

The absolutely dependable Azpilicueta, the quickest of the back three, covering ground well, and blocking many Palace moves.

Alonso, up and down the left-flank, always involved.

Cesc Fabregas, only on the pitch for twenty-five minutes, but showing what an intelligent passer he can be.

And lastly, but not least, the relentless Diego Costa, in his current form as complete an attacker that we have seen at Chelsea; foraging, battling, fighting, shielding, thrusting.

Scoring.

The bloody referee Jon Moss – booed by us throughout for some odd decisions – had reckoned to an additional five minutes. It got a little nervy. Thankfully Andros Townsend skied a very late free-kick.

We had done it.

Eleven in a row.

Fackinell.

It was time for a festive celebration :

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Very soon, the Chelsea players walked towards us and clapped. And very soon the focus was our Italian manager. As we serenaded him – “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” – he beamed a huge and endearing smile, before doing a little hand-jive, and then turning to say that the applause should really be for his players. It was just a lovely moment.

We waited for a while before we excited. There were many handshakes – “Happy Christmas” – to those stood close by. We made the point of shaking hands with the line of stewards who had been lining the segregation area between our noisy section and the docile home support. Chelsea fans in friendly behaviour shock. The walk back to the car was triumphant. I made the point of telling anyone who would listen that these three narrow 1-0 wins would surely frustrate and annoy the hell out of our title rivals. But it had revealed a great tenacity to our play.

3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

1-0, 1-0, 1-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

I weaved my way south, and out onto the M25 before heading home. It had been a triumphant week. Over one thousand miles, entailing twenty-five hours of driving, just three goals, but nine magnificent points.

What a week. What a team.

In my match report for our game at Selhurst Park in the Spring of 2014, I weaved the lyrics to Sarf London boys Squeeze’s most loved song “Up The Junction” as an ode to that particular part of our nation’s capital. In Frome, after I had dropped the boys off, later in the evening, I combined a trip to see Chelsea in deepest South London with a gig by Squeeze front man Glen Tilbrook in the town’s concert hall.

It seemed right.

We now have a rest. It’s Christmas. A week off. We reassemble at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 2016 for the visit of Bournemouth.

“Eleven in a row” just doesn’t scan, so let’s make it twelve.

On we go.

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Tales From Nine In A Row.

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 11 December 2016.

The talk before the game was dominated by “the run.” We had beaten off eight consecutive opponents, and were now faced – in the eyes of some – with a five further games which seemed evidently winnable. Until we face Tottenham at White Hart Lane on the fourth day of the new year, there seemed to be a very real chance that we just might be able to stretch our run further. After the high noon appointment at Stamford Bridge with the in-form Baggies, our fixture list would continue on with two aways against lowly Sunderland and Crystal Palace and then two homes against Bournemouth and Stoke City.

To be honest, none of my close mates – in car and pub – expected us to win all five, which would mean a ridiculous thirteen consecutive wins, and in fact our pre-match chat tended to be one huge cliché all by itself.

“This one could be the hardest of the lot / West Brom are no mugs / let’s take one game at a time.”

We chatted about potential changes to our line-up. Would Luiz be fully fit? Would Matic automatically return? Would Pedro still edge out Willian?

There was also the grim realisation that a midday kick-off on a Sunday against an unfashionable team was just about the worst possible combination ever in order to generate any atmosphere at all.

We were in the stadium early. There were clear blue skies overhead. Unsurprisingly, West Brom only brought around 1,400 supporters. The manager had decided to go with the familiar starting eleven.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

Just before the teams came on the pitch, a fine tribute to Frank Lampard was unfurled in The Shed Upper. It depicted his iconic double-point to the heavens with the simple legend “Frank Lampard 211.”

The game began with a few pockets of seats still unfilled, but these were soon occupied. The low winter sun sent long shadows across the Stamford Bridge turf. On a few occasions, wide players in front of the East Stand had to hide the sun from their faces with both hands. Both managers were patrolling their technical areas.

The dapper Italian Conte, shiny hair and suited, softly-spoken but with passion aplenty, cajoling his players, a picture of constant encouragement mixed with urbane sophistication. Every inch a modern football man.

The Welshman Pulis, with his slightly Anglicised Newport accent and demonic eyebrows, looked a different creature sporting the attire of a dog walker rather than a football manager with his trademark baseball cap and tracksuit.

We began brightly enough with Diego Costa leading the way nicely with fine possession, taking him in and around the packed West Brom box. Down below us, he glided past defenders, appearing to dummy a rabona in order to confuse one poor soul. And then we seemed to lose our way a little. Chris Brunt shot wide past Thibaut Courtois’ goal. West Brom put together a few good spells of possession. It was as if – ugh – we were not focused, not energised, not “up for it.”

Stamford Bridge was eerily quiet. At times there seemed to be complete and utter silence. I could just about decipher a mating call from the away supporters in the far corner.

“You’re just a ground full of tourists.”

Quite.

Midway through the first-half, we had hardly had one single chance. There had been a low cross in to the box which had evaded all of our attackers, but no real strike on goal. The visitors had racked up three or four. Rondon, proving a handful for the slightly ill-at-ease David Luiz, managed a shot which flew past the far post. We were struggling, and it came as a surprise. Then the ball was played to N’Golo Kante who struck from thirty yards. The low shot took a deflection and slowly squirmed past Ben Foster’s near post.

Eden Hazard, struggling to make an impact, was scythed down and we worried if he was able to continue. He must surely be the most hacked player in England. We improved slightly as the first-half came to an end, but the West Brom goal had not been troubled. There had been two David Luiz free-kicks from distance, but both of these did not cause Ben Foster concern.

It had been a quiet, frustrating half.

As the whistle blew, there were a few boos, but I am sure that this was a reaction to the time-wasting tactics employed by the West Brom manager and team. We have seen it before with Tony Pulis’ teams in the past. It is both tedious and mean-spirited.

Bobby Tambling was on the pitch at half-time and we had heard on the grapevine that Frank Lampard was watching too; I was sure these two Chelsea greats would enjoy a catch-up later in the day.

We hoped that Conte would inspire his troops with a rousing half-time team talk. It had been a while since we had played so listlessly.

It felt odd to see us attacking The Shed in the second-half.

From a central position, another David Luiz free-kick, and this one caused Foster to scramble across and keep out, although the referee Mike Dean – looking ridiculous in a bright cerise shirt – failed to spot the touch and gave a goal-kick.

Chances were still at an absolute premium. Space was nowhere to be seen in the packed and well-marshaled West Brom defence. Whereas they had enjoyed a few forays into our half in the first period, they were content to sit and defend throughout the second forty-five minutes. This was a typical away performance for lesser teams coming to The Bridge. Just after the hour, Willian replaced Pedro and immediately injected a little more directness to our play. He shimmied inside and tested Foster. Very often we were massing players out wide, but once the ball was played in to the box, we were low on numbers. How we missed a late-arriving Frank Lampard to slot home. With fifteen minutes to go, Cesc Fabregas replaced Victor Moses, who had not had his best of games. The substitutions gave us fresh legs, and we seemed to be galvanised. The momentum was certainly with us.

I kept thinking (silently) “we’ll win this 1-0 with a late goal.”

Foster fell on a loose ball after a Fabregas corner. Chances were still ridiculously rare.

But this was still an interesting game to me. I kept encouraging the team. I kept discussing with Alan how we could break them down. It was an exercise in patience for both the fans and the team. It was a proper tactical battle.

And then.

And then the ball was pushed forward by Fabregas for Diego Costa to chase. Some twenty out, and close to the West Stand side line, our number nineteen put pressure on Gareth McAuley. Diego picked his pocket and raced on. He bore in on goal, steadied himself and shot high past Foster. The net rippled and Stamford Bridge boomed.

GET IN.

What a goal by Diego.

He raced down past the frantic celebrations in The Shed Lower, jumping with joy, before almost disappearing into the crowd in the corner.

This was a phenomenal goal. Diego had no right to score from there. But score he did.

Top man.

He is playing at such a high level these days. He looks trimmer than ever, chases every rogue ball, brings others into the game. It took a while for me to warm to him to be honest, but he is – as the saying goes – unplayable at the moment. Fantastic stuff.

In the closing moments, we never looked like letting West Brom back in to the game. Marcos Alonso struck a rising shot over the bar, and Branislav Ivanovic – this season’s closer – came on to replace Eden.

At the final whistle, a mixture of elation and relief. I was right about winning 1-0. Phew.

Outside, and underneath the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with two brothers – Robert and James – who were visiting from the US. It was their first ever visit to these shores, and of course their first-ever visit to SW6. Robert had watched from the Matthew Harding Lower, but James had been the lucky one, watching from the Shed Lower. He was bubbling with satisfaction after being so close to not only Diego’s goal but also to his celebratory run to the corner.

So, we had done it. We had eked out a narrow 1-0 win against a stubborn West Brom team. With hindsight, it might turn out to be a key result this season, not only in terms of points gained, but as a valued learning exercise of how to keep going against a team offering little.

On the drive home, there was further satisfaction as Liverpool dropped points at home to West Ham United, while Tottenham lost at Old Trafford. After Manchester City’s shock capitulation at Leicester City, this had been a fine weekend.

Mind the gap.

In previous autumns we have enjoyed Champions League trips to foreign climes. On Wednesday, we have a 2016/2017 version of these midweek excursions; The Chuckle Bus will be headed north to the tired and Weary city of Sunderland for a midweek battle against the division’s bottom club. We have an overnight stay all sorted. The delights of Newcastle and Sunderland await and I am sure that I won’t be the only one hoping for ten in a row.

I can’t wait.

See you there.

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