Tales From Game 5/38

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 17 September 2017.

In the build-up to this game, it felt like the majority of my thoughts about Arsenal could be filed under a “familiarity breeds contempt” headline. Not only would this be my fourth Arsenal game in nine matches – Wembley, Beijing, Wembley, Stamford Bridge – but there is just something about them. In reality, there has always, been contempt for them, it’s just that the regular sight of them every other game since May has just sharpened things a little. But there is also, thankfully – and just like their North London rivals, I forget their name right now – something about Arsenal these days which always, without fail, manages to raise a laugh.

From Wenger’s one thousandth Arsenal game resulting in a 6-0 win for us, to the sight of thousands of empty seats at Arsenal home games, to the beyond-parody morons on Arsenal Fan TV, to the annual capitulation after Christmas, to the obsession with fourth place, to the train-spotter tendencies of their fan base to Wenger’s steely resolve not to buy players in areas of the team that blatantly need strengthening, there is always something laughable happening in N5.

I’ve written in excess of twenty Chelsea vs. Arsenal match reports over the past ten seasons, and just when you think that there is nothing left to ridicule, they come up with a stonker. Seeing thousands upon thousands of Cologne fans doing as they pleased in all areas of the Emirates on Thursday was comedy gold.

“After you Hans.”

“Thanks Claude.”

On the drive to London, the four Chuckle Brothers were pretty confident of a home win. Our last few matches have produced warming performances, whereas Arsenal have shown only mid-table form. Wenger’s band of undesirables did not seem to pose too much of a threat. We thought about the team. We presumed that Eden Hazard would start. We guessed that Antonio Conte would chose the London derby experience of Victor Moses over the bullish ex-Torino right back Zappacosta. I expected Fabregas to start. And although there was an argument to leave Antonio Rudiger in the team, I was convinced that the manager would start with Gary Cahill. He is, after all, the club captain.

After the terrorist attack on the District Line at Parsons Green – just a few hundred yards south of Stamford Bridge – on Friday, the last thing that I wanted to see on the North End Road was police tape and police cars, and a street bereft of pedestrians. Although the threat of another attack had not really been on my mind as the game had approached, some doubts started to roll in. However, we soon learned that there had recently been a fatal road accident on that familiar stretch of road. Even though we were headed, again, to The Atlas, our old haunt of The Goose was forced to close.

The usual suspects were on the raised terrace at The Atlas, knocking back lagers, and finding ways to laugh at Arsenal.

The support among my friends for a place in the team for Gary Cahill was thin.

Over Stamford Bridge, a helicopter was spotted and it brought back memories of high-profile games in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties when hooliganism was the main threat on a match day. Whenever other London clubs visited Stamford Bridge, a whirring police helicopter hovering over the stadium was a vivid memory. As I walked down to the stadium, the terrorist threat briefly entered my mind once again. Outside the Fulham Town Hall, two police vans were blocking the road, as they have done for every game this season and for some games last season.

It would be the first game, that I can remember, to be played under a critical terrorist warning.

There were the usual bag searches outside the stadium, and I was inside with probably the best part of half-an-hour to spare. Rather than worry and concern, here were smiles and excitement ahead of the game.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

You bet.

The team news was announced. No Eden Hazard, despite cameos at Leicester and on Tuesday. Upfront, Willian would play. Fabregas over Bakayoko. Moses over Zappacosta. And – tellingly – Cahill over Rudiger.

Arsenal? The usual assortment of physically dyslexic defenders, bearded metrosexuals and foreign bit-part players that I am only vaguely familiar with.

Thankfully, the excellent Sanchez was only on the bench.

Over in the distance, the away section was filling up, fronted by – surprisingly – a Football Lads Alliance flag. Dotted in and around the away end were little clusters of Arsenal fans wearing replica shirts. It is quite a rare sight at Chelsea, especially with London teams. It was almost as if the replikids were herded together by some bizarre force field. Four together in the second row. Three together there. Three together there. I was just surprised that not many red and white bar scarves were on show.

“Proper Arsenal.”

Ha.

The stadium soon filled.

The last time we lost at home to this lot was in the autumn of 2011 in the days of Villas-Boas; a Van Persie hat-trick and a 5-3 loss. We didn’t expect anything like that in 2017.

The game began and, not long into it, the home supporters howled at the away fans.

“Where were you on Thursday night?”

As an aside, what a wonderful sight it was on Thursday. Thousands of passionate, noisy and raucous away fans enjoying themselves, without much bother nor hooliganism nor violence. They were intimidating – every away fan loves the “wow” factor – but well-behaved. It’s surely a blueprint for the way football supporters should be allowed to support their team.

Chelsea began sprightly enough and for the first ten to twelve minutes, we completely dominated. We advanced on Petr Cech’s goal and caused concern in the Arsenal defence. A couple of efforts from close-in were hacked away. Everything was well with the world.

I spotted a suited John Terry in one of the boxes in the middle tiers of the West Stand. Try as I might, I couldn’t see Roman in his box.

As Alvaro Morata chased a ball over on the far side, an image of Peter Osgood – tall, slim and with dark hair – wearing a similar kit, the royal blue, the number nine, the white stripe on the shorts, came to mind.

Lo and behold, not more than thirty seconds later, Glenn leaned over and whispered to me –

“Morata looks a bit like Osgood, doesn’t he, in that kit?”

We laughed.

Then, from nowhere, Arsenal broke through our defence at will and, in a couple of minutes, threatened Thibaut’s goal on two occasions, both with breaks down our left by Bellerin. Welbeck rose to glance a header wide of the far post. Lacazette struck at Courtois.

Arsenal, pushing forward now, had a fine spell and Klasinac fired low at Courtois. The away fans, never the loudest at Chelsea, were making all the noise now.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

We responded :

“WTOTILWAEC.”

On twenty minutes, Fabregas played in Pedro in a central position. He was clean through on goal. Sometimes Pedro looks like he wants to move in every direction when he receives the ball, and as he set off towards Cech, I wasn’t convinced that he would keep cool. He took an extra touch and Cech was able to beat the ball away.

It was to be our best – possibly only – chance of the first-half. Arsenal definitely grew stronger. Throughout the team there seemed to be hesitancy in possession, no more so than in the back three, where our natural movement of the ball was lacking. Gary Cahill looked nervous and awkward. The crowd sensed we were fading. Even the tireless Kante found it difficult to get a foothold in midfield. There were too many silly back-flicks from Willian, who was getting muscled off the ball. Morata, full of movement at first, ploughed a lone furrow upfront.

Another chance for Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey advancing into our third and swiping a shot which cannoned back off the far post. With Thibaut scrambling, Lacazette thankfully shanked it over from only six or seven yards out.

At the break, we could easily have been 2-0 or 3-1 down.

With the Arsenal fans making – surprisingly – a fair bit of noise in the first-half, I was reminded of a couple of tales which were joyfully passed on to me by my mate JR in Detroit. Now, we all know that Arsenal are not known for their volume and variety of songs. This trait has reached the US too. A few years back, the local Chelsea and Arsenal supporters’ groups in the Detroit metropolitan area used to share the same pub. The Arsenal set of fans were predictably known for their reluctance to join in with songs and banter across the bar. On one occasion, in maybe around 2012, JR printed off some Arsenal song sheets – with bona fide and legitimate Arsenal songs such as “She wore a yellow ribbon” and “1-0 to The Arsenal” – and handed them out, stony-faced, to the Gooners.

They failed to get the joke. Nor were humiliated into a witty response. What a surprise.

JR also told the story of the difference between the two sets of fans on a morning when the two teams played at separate times. Chelsea – the Motor City Blues – were full of song in the first TV game, but as JR stayed on to watch the televised Arsenal game, he noted with glee that the Arsenal fans all showed up with their laptops, hardly spoke to each other during the game, and spent the duration tapping away on their laptops, presumably sharing some hideous FIFA chit-chat with similarly-minded geeks.

What an image.

However, I have a horrible feeling that lurking out there among our global fan base are thousands of Chelsea fans who exhibit similar habits on match days.

God, I hope I am wrong.

Antonio changed things a little for the second-half. Off went Pedro and on came Tiemoue Bakayoko. Fabregas was pushed forward to play behind Morata and alongside Willian. Petr Cech received a fine round of applause from the Matthew Harding. As Alvaro Morata drifted over to our side of the pitch, I spoke to Alan and Glenn :

“That boy needs to grow some sideburns.”

David Luiz was booked for an overhead attempt on goal. Sigh. However, we were at least creating chances, and Willian released a shot which Cech easily saved. Morata, chasing long balls, was treated poorly by the referee Oliver, and received a booking for what looked like a shoulder charge.

Bakayoko had a fine second-half, and he reminded me of Michal Essien in his prime; winning the ball, pushing away from tackles and striding forward.

Now, a worry. Alexis Sanchez replaced Lacazette.

Then, relief, Antonio brought on Eden Hazard for the lack-lustre Willian. Over in the south-west corner, a pristine new flag was flying proudly; in the black, yellow and red of his national flag, the “Garden Of Eden” looked fantastic. I wondered if its debut would signal an Eden match winner. I am so lucky to witness most of Eden’s attacking moves right in front of me in the north-west corner. He soon had us salivating.

Throughout the game, and in the second-half especially, David Luiz was excellent, reading the play so well, putting his foot in, winning headers, bringing others in to the game. Stirring stuff.

On seventy-five minutes, a free-kick from Zhaka was headed in by Mustasfi, but the goal was disallowed for offside. How poor to be flagged offside at a corner. In a pub in Detroit, laptop lids covered in Star Wars stickers were slammed shut.

We laughed as a Gooner raced on to the pitch to celebrate, and was carted off by the stewards.

A weak shot from Fabregas did not threaten. Eden went on a mesmerizing run and after pushing the ball into a central position, shot straight at Cech.

That was the chance.

On the far side, a 50/50 ball in front of the managers, and Luiz swiped at Kolasinac.

“Oh, that’s a bad tackle” I said to Alan.

Off he went.

Fuck.

Thankfully, we held on for the point.

What a strange feeling as we left Stamford Bridge. It felt like a loss, and I suppose that is only natural. We finished first last season, they finished fifth. The players were far from their best and the atmosphere was flat. Oh for a noisy London derby. Can we play Tottenham next week?

Altogether now :

“Sigh.”

We avoided the Manchester United vs. Everton game on the radio.

“Everton always lose there. They’d might as well give United the points by direct debit, and save everyone the bother.”

The two Manchester teams are at the top of the division. However, after five games, we sit in third place with the whole season ahead of us.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

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Tales From Our Home City

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 August 2017.

The Football Association Community Shield. The Premier League Champions versus the F.A. Cup holders. A full house at Wembley on a sunny afternoon in the nation’s capital.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

Well yes, in theory.

In practice, maybe not.

The trouble is that the Community Shield has become something of a wearisome burden these days; it’s akin to a practice run-through for a wedding or an interview for a job that you don’t really want. Or – even worse – a practice run-through for a wedding that you don’t really want. There is not much of a thrill these days. There was a certain “familiarity breeds contempt” at work here too. This would be my third consecutive Chelsea match featuring Arsenal. Never before have I seen the same opponent in three games back-to-back-to-back. This would also be my tenth Charity Shield / Community Shield in twenty-one seasons – oh, how blasé does that sound? – and, of course, it would be yet another traipse up to the new but derided Wembley Stadium. It would be – believe it or not – our seventeenth visit to Wembley in just over ten years.

So, taking all of this in to consideration, the general feeling among a sizeable section of the Chelsea support leading up to the game was of pained acceptance that this was a glorified friendly that we were almost duty bound to attend.

And yet, and yet. When I picked the Fun Boy Three up between 8am and 8.30am, I would not want to be going anywhere else. First and foremost, of course, the day would be all about seeing a few good mates once again after the summer break. A little banter, a catch-up, a gentle easing-in to the new season.

The meet was arranged for around 11.30am at “The Moon On The Mall”, a traditional and spacious London boozer on Whitehall, just a hundred yards to the south of Trafalgar Square. As I skirted the southern edge of the famous London landmark, I was taken back to my first-ever visit to London in 1972 — or rather the first I can remember – when we momentarily stopped off to see Nelson’s Column on the way back from the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. I remember being fascinated by the buildings, the tourists – the bloody pigeons – and that day came hurtling back into my consciousness. How right that we should be beginning the domestic campaign slap-bang in the middle of London; Chelsea’s home, Chelsea’s town, Chelsea’s city.

A couple of crisp lagers were quaffed and the boys chatted about the new signings, or lack thereof.

Lacoste Watch.

PD – royal blue

With it being a 2pm kick-off, we only had time for an hour’s revelry. My main agenda for the time in the pub was to not get all “China Wanker” in front of my mates. Glenn and myself did OK. We only mentioned our trip to Beijing and Shanghai fifty-three times. Good effort. Up to Marylebone, and away, the familiar twelve-minute mainline train to Wembley Stadium station. With it looking like our forced exile from the beloved Bridge would see us plot up at Wembley – post Tottenham – for three years or more, we are going to have to decide on a new routine for home games when we eventually move in as tenants in 2019 or 2020. A drink in central London before flitting up to Wembley could be the norm. It’s not as if we have a limited supply of pubs from which to choose. Watch this space.

The team news filtered through. I was surprised – but of course pleased – that Pedro had recovered from his horrible injury to start out wide. The rest of the team picked itself. New signing Morata would surely become the resident striker as the season progressed – alone or alongside Batshuayi – but for now he was on the bench.

3-4-3 it was in 2016/2017 and 3-4-3 it was for this game.

Thibaut

Dave – David – Gary

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Marcos

Willian – Michy – Pedro

The sun was beating down as we made the short walk up to the stadium. I noted that there was a seemingly thorough bag search taking place inside. I circumnavigated this by diving past the security. I see that – officially – cameras are banned from Wembley. I foresee a war of wits once we move in. I think I’d have a OCD breakdown if my trusty camera was not allowed inside the stadium during our tenancy.

We reached our seats high up in the south-west corner – a new part of the stadium for me – with ten minutes to spare. The Grenfell Choir were in the middle of singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a couple of club-coloured “For Grenfell” banners were being passed along the Chelsea and Arsenal lower tiers.

Such a tragedy.

There were gaps all over at this stage, but as kick-off time approached, seats were filled. There were still some noticeable gaps at kick-off, however. So much for a sell-out.

On the referee’s whistle, the huge stadium fell silent – completely silent – in remembrance of the souls who perished in the Grenfell fire. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was remembered in the borough of Brent. Two communities united.

The game began. There was no roar. There was no crescendo of sound. The game began with a whimper. In addition to the players trying their damnedest to attain match fitness, so were the fans. Again, we were in all blue. The white socks will debut for me next week against Burnley. But the kit looks bloody lovely. The royal blue is just perfect. We began comfortably and enjoyed a little early possession. We looked comfortable on the ball. David Luiz became our main play maker in the first quarter of an hour, knocking the ball ahead for Batshuayi, or out to Alonso and Moses. Arsenal then seemed to get a grip on the game and looked the more dominant, making advances down our right flank especially. Welbeck’s header was easily saved by Courtois, and then new signing Lacazette was allowed time to pick a corner and curl a fine effort which bounced back of the post.

One young lad, buoyed by too many lagers or too much Colombian marching powder, was constantly urging us to get involved in some community singing. He was constant. I’m sure he will come good as the season progresses, but he was in danger of peaking way too soon.

He was just too much.

“On your own mate.”

A rasping “Zigger Zagger” then took hold from a few rows below him and we all joined in.

“That’s how to do it, pal.”

The game then faded a little.

But Kante looked match fit and eager. He ate up the ground and looked the same player who cheered us so much last season. David Luiz was calmness personified. Pedro looked fit and agile. Alonso was getting plenty of space down the left. Elsewhere, there was not much. Batshuayi found it hard going. The ball does not stick to him too much, eh? As the old cliché goes, his second touch is a tackle. He needs to toughen up still. Willian was not involved. Fabregas was marginal. Moses was frustrating.

The atmosphere, as to be expected really, was dreadful. Little pockets of noise threatened to develop but we had to wait until an enforced stoppage – Mertesacker injured – for the Chelsea choir to get things together.

At last Wembley boomed.

“We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

We then dominated possession for the remainder of the first-half. A fantastic ball from Willian, arched diagonally across the Wembley pitch, found the darting Pedro, who took a touch before forcing Petr Cech to save.

But still there was hardly a murmur from the crowd. Chelsea were quiet and Arsenal worse.

Willian was alleged to have dived inside the Arsenal box. It took place about three miles from where I was sat. I could not tell.

Two American kiddies in the row behind were annoying the fuck out of me as the game progressed. Constant chitter-chatter. Constant opinions. I was not sure if they were Chelsea; I suspect not. At one point, one of them blurted out –

“Chelsea suck.”

The chap next to me fidgeted. I quickly turned around and glowered.

“Just remember where you are mate.”

A cushioned flick and back-header from David Luiz to Courtois drew sumptuous praise from the Chelsea hordes. It was almost the highlight of the first period.

At half-time, no goals, and not too many thrills.

Many supporters were still in the bar or the toilets when the second-half began. A corner on the far side by Willian was cleared, but only as far as Gary Cahill, who headed the ball forward. Victor Moses – arguably our poorest player until that stage, and probably still smarting from the Cup Final – was able to sweep the ball past Cech.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

He dived headlong onto the Wembley pitch and was mobbed by Michy and then the rest of the team.

Phew.

The goal seemed to calm us a little and we enjoyed a little spell. Kante was again in the middle of it all. He has, thank heavens, hit the ground running this season. We enjoyed a couple of chances, but then Arsenal countered. A Luiz block saved our skins.

With around a quarter of an hour to go, Antonio replaced Michy with Morata. He received a fine reception.

Substitute Walcott played a fantastic ball in to the penalty box but thankfully no Arsenal player was able to connect. It was the ball of the game. Soon after, Thibaut produced the save of the game, flinging himself high to his right and finger-tipping a long shot from Xhaka around the post. It was simply stunning.

Then, Willian surpassed Walcott and floated a fantastic ball in to the path of Morata. Sadly, it was slightly too long. A stretching Morata could only deflect the ball wide.

Ten minutes to go.

We watched as a coming together of Pedro and Elneny resulted in both players lying prostrate. We thought nothing of it. The time passed. Pedro was still down. As he rose to his feet, referee Truly Madly Deeply waved a red card at Pedro.

“Answers on a postcard.”

From the ensuing free-kick, we watched as the Chelsea defence back-peddled en masse. There was a massive sense of doom. I guess we have just watched too much football. We knew. Substitute Kolasinac rose with not a care in the world and headed in, past Courtois.

Oh fuck.

For the first time in the game – honest, honest, honest – the Arsenal end sung something that was able to be heard at our end.

Give yourselves a biscuit.

Antonio had replaced Alonso with Antonio Rudiger just prior to the sending off. He now brought on Charly Musonda for Willian. Arsenal attacked our box in the final ten minutes, but thankfully our defence held firm. A Morata header from a Fabregas free-kick flew past the post. I’m pretty sure that a goal then, late on, would have been absolutely roared. But, alas, it was not to be.

Ugh.

At the final whistle, it ended 1-1.

Penalties.

And a new format.

And plenty of Abba song titles.

I am sure plenty of computer programs, capturing all sorts of empirical data, have been run over the past few seasons with the conclusion that the team taking the second penalty are disadvantaged. And indeed I am sure it is a laudable attempt to reduce the impact of pure chance, the flick of a coin, on the outcome of penalties. But the rank and file support at Wembley Stadium were clearly not impressed.

I commented to the bloke beside me –

“If the penalties are at their end, we’ll lose. If they are at our end, we’ll win.”

They were at their end. Oh great. The sense of foreboding was palpable.

We waited.

Gary Cahill – boom, get in you beauty.

Theo Walcott – goal, bollocks.

Nacho Monreal – goal, prick.

We then collectively groaned as we saw Thibaut loitering towards the penalty spot. I remembered his penalty against PSG in Charlotte but – again – we knew. We bloody well knew.

The ball soared way over the bar.

Alvaro Morata – wide, bollocks.

Many Chelsea left.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – goal, prick.

Olivier Giroude – goal, fuck.

We had lost the Community Shield again. I have seen us play in ten and we have only won three.

We gathered our belongings and slowly shuffled out. A little post-mortem. No team was overly dominant on the day. We obviously need to make some more signings. It had been a middling performance. Definitely room for improvement. But everything is now focused on the all-important opener against Burnley and we all know it.

At Barons Court tube station, on the walk to my waiting car, I was the ultimate philosophical pragmatist.

“Hey lads, Arsenal would swap the FA Cup and the Community Shield for our League Trophy in an instant.”

The boys agreed.

I drove home, the game a fading memory.

“Good day out apart from the football.”

“As always.”

“Yep. As always.”

Let’s reconvene at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon and get this season started.

As for Arsenal, they can go fourth and multiply.

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Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

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

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

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

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

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

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

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

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

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

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

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

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

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

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

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

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

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

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

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

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

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

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

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

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

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

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

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

“Antonio.”

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

“Grazie mille.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers on a postcard.

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

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

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

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

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

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

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

It had been a fine night.

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

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

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

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

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

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

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

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

My camera too – phew.

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

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

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

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

What’s wrong with just clapping?

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

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

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

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

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

The game, and our season, began.

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

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

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

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK.”

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

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

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

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

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

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

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

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

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

“What are you singing?”

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

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

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

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

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

Answers on a postcard.

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

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

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

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

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

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

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

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

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

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

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

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

But that is another story.

 

 

Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

IMG_6611

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 South Bank

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2016. 

0557 : I am awake before the 0630 alarm, and there is simply no point in trying to get back to sleep. I have been buzzing for this game all week. I can’t wait to get going. A pre-planned pub crawl along the South Bank of the River Thames is the pre-curser to the London Derby later in the day. 0730 : I hop in to my car and turn the radio on. The song playing is by Madness and it seems wholly apt – “Lovestruck.” 0738 : PD, sporting a new navy Fred Perry, is collected and we are on our way. No words needed to express our sense of excitement. Belly laughs from the two of us. 0745 : Car parked at Glenn’s, the three of the four Chuckle Brothers are now on our short five-minute walk to Frome train station, where so many of my Chelsea trips had begun in the early ‘eighties. 0802 : Frome to Westbury, a beautiful sunny morning. 0821 : A text from Parky, the fourth Chuckle Brother, “just had a pint at the “Wetherspoons” in Melksham.” Off to a head start, Parky, you crafty old bugger. 0822 : Onto the Swindon train at Westbury, coffee tasting great. 0835 : Parky, with four cans of cider, joins us at Melksham. More laughter. The ciders are for the drinkers, PD and Parky. Myself and Glenn, the “B Team” will wait until we hit the first pub. This is already a fun time, and there are almost nine hours to go before the game starts. 0906 : At a windy Swindon station, all aboard the Paddington train. And relax. The journey flies by. Didcot, Reading, and in to London. We really should do this more often. 1015 : With a spring in our step, we step off the train, and go in search of a breakfast. 1030 : We are proper tourists now. Into a “Garfunkels” – a first-ever visit for me, surely no people from England visit this restaurant – on Praed Street for some nosebag. A decent fry-up hits the spot. The waitress even gets a decent tip. 1100 : The tube to London Bridge. 1130 : “The Barrowboy And Banker” – the first pub, right outside the station, and a pint of Peroni. Glenn spots some Millwall fans, who eye us up and leave. A walk past Southwark Cathedral, through Borough Market, thronged with people, our senses smacked sideways by the dizzying array of aromas emanating from the stalls selling a superb selection of nosh. 1200 : Into pub number two, “The Old Thameside Inn” right next to a replica of The Golden Hind. We sit outside, on a terrace right above the river, and note a few more football types, but can’t pin down their teams. The view is spectacular. “This seems like a European away.” And it’s true. We come up to London from our sleepy Somerset and Wiltshire towns and villages, yet very rarely open ourselves up to the majesty of London. We talk about how the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium, ahead of our trip there later in October, has proved to be so difficult for so many West Ham fans. Watching football in a sterile environment was always a fear that I had should we ever move away from Stamford Bridge. 1230 : “The Anchor” at Bankside, with the Manchester United vs. Leicester City game in an adjacent room. We prefer to sit inside, in the atmospheric snug, with a low-slung ceiling, with exposed beams. Our smiling beams were exposed too. What a brilliant time. “Let’s do something similar for Spurs at home, another 5.30pm.” “How about a stroll down the Kings Road?” United race ahead 3-0 on the TV game, and we mutter something about Jose Mourinho. Out into the sun, and I am gearing myself up for my round. 1315 : “The Swan” right next to the reworked Globe Theatre. “Looks a bit pricey, lads, wish me luck.” Again, more stunning views of the river, with the dome of St. Paul’s dominating. What a touch, the cheapest round yet. “Less than £20 boys – result.” Past Tate Modern – I last visited there in around 2002 – and past the Millennium Bridge. 1400 : “The Founders Arms” and the beers are flowing, the laughter is continuing. I last visited this pub on a Sixth Form trip in the summer of 1983, just before a gaggle of us watched Toyah Willcox in “Trafford Tanzi” in the Mermaid Theatre on the opposite bank. An England vs. New Zealand test match at The Oval in the day and a bit of culture in the evening. Back then, it was of the first pubs that I had ever bought a drink, and certainly the first in London. I remember thinking how charmless it was back in 1983, like something out of the Thamesmead setting of “A Clockwork Orange” but now everything was a lot lighter and welcoming. It was rammed with tourists. In 1983 – even on a Friday evening – it was a lot less busy. The plan was to head north and to join up with others at Holborn. We head south to Southwark train station. “Ah, bugger it, there’s ages to go yet, let’s pop into there for one more.” 1430 : “The Prince William Henry” and a quiet one, with no tourists, just a few locals. I am sticking to Peronis, PD and Parky are swerving from cider to lager, Glenn is – worryingly – on the Guinness. From Southwark, via a change at Green Park, to Holborn. 1530 : We quickly spot Alan, Gary and Daryl in a corner at the front of the final pub of the day, “The Shakespeare’s Head”, which is mobbed – as per usual – with Chelsea. Familiar faces everywhere I look. Two more pints. Up to a gallon for the day. Phew. “Not used to this.” Chelsea laughs and Chelsea smiles, and things are starting to get a little blurred. My good friend Starla, from San Francisco – a Chelsea fan for a while, and one of my first Chelsea “internet” friends from as long ago as 2006 – is over for a week, but we had not been able to rustle her up a ticket. I remember I was able to sort her out with a ticket for her first-ever Chelsea game in England at Newcastle in 2008. At least she can experience the pre-match with us. There are Chelsea songs bouncing around the pub. The team comes through on our phones, and it seems that for once a Chelsea manager and the club’s fans are on the same page. Cesc Fabregas in for Oscar. A return to The Emirates once more and let’s hope it is successful. There is – of course! – little talk of the game among all this drinking and boisterousness, but we all know that this will be a tough game. We have gone off the boil – wait, were we ever on the boil, yet, this season? – and I agree with PD. “I’ll take a point now.” 1645 : We shuffle down the escalators at Holborn and jump on a northbound train. The tube carriage is mobbed with Chelsea. Parky’s mate Ben leads the sing-song. “You want Wenger in. You want Wenger out. In out, in out, shake it all about. You do the Arsene Wenger and you turn around that’s what it’s all about.” There is also a shrill, high pitched chant of “Ar-senal Ar-senal, Ar-senal” from us and this is met with a few sniggers from the Goons among us. 1700 : I suddenly realise – as if I need reminding – how much they love their replica shirts, the Arsenal fans. Not us. 1715 : A quick bag search, and I’m in, quick to find my seat next to Alan and Gary. From the South Bank of the River Thames to the South Bank – the Clock End – at The Emirates. 1730 : The kick-off, and I’m trying to juggle photographs, text messages, some songs of support and the effects of a gallon of lager. It’s not going well. On the pitch it soon gets worse. 1741 : A calamity as Gary Cahill – heading towards the top of the unpopularity stakes – delays in playing an easy ball back to the waiting Thibaut Courtois, and Alexis Sanchez picks his pocket, and races towards goal. He dinks the ball over Courtois and sends the home fans delirious. “We’ll have to go at them now.” But we don’t. 1744 : A fine passing move in and around our defence – who are still and lifeless – ends up with Theo Walcott pushing the ball in from close-range. It is a typical Arsenal goal in many respects. For the rest of the half, Chelsea seem to have much of the ball but do absolutely nothing of note with it. 1810 : Arsenal go three-up as Ozil races through to volley a cross from Sanchez down, and up and over Courtois. This is grim, as grim as it can be. 1830 : The second-half begins, and I am just concerned about “damage limitation.” We beat Arsenal 6-0 in 2014, and I wonder if a horrible evening of retribution is about to befall us. Previously, our record at Arsenal’s new stadium is pretty decent, with four wins in ten games and just two defeats. The second-half is a little similar to the first. A decent amount of possession, but no end product. Around me, there is a dissatisfaction with our players. And that is putting it mildly. There are strong words among fellow fans, but I am pleased to see that as the second-half drifts by, very few Chelsea fans decide to leave. There are not many red seats on show. Out of nowhere, one song dominates. It soon gathers strength and is repeated, with clapping to give it an extra resonance, for what seems like ages but was probably not even ten minutes. “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.” Elsewhere, despite Arsenal winning their first game against us home since December 2010, I am amazed – no stirred, to be truthful – by the lack of noise from the home sections. “Three-nil and you still don’t sing” seems to sum it up. The manager makes changes as the half progresses. Marcos Alonso for Cesc. Ugh. It hasn’t worked out. Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for Hazard. The game continues. It’s dire stuff. Eventually a few fellow fans slink off into the murky London night. In the closing moments, Batshuayi has a couple of openings, and at last he produces our only shot on target throughout the entire game. 1930 : The referee signals a few minutes of extra time. “Come on Parky, let’s go.” I send a text to Glenn before my phone dies. “See you Paddington.” 2130 : The train back to the West of England pulls out of Paddington, and I just want to get home. The game I had just witnessed was one of the most lifeless and depressing performances in living memory. Where now, Chelsea? It might turn out to be a long long winter this one. There are a few boisterous Bristol City fans at the buffet as I get PD and myself a drink for the return journey. They are full of cheer about their 4-0 victory at Fulham, and there is a song for Tammy Abraham. I dislike – no, I hate – Bristol City and I must be one of a very small group of Chelsea fans who, although pleased for our young player, is far from happy about his spell at Ashton Gate. As the train heads west, the horrible Bristolian accent haunts me. Some City fans gave me a proper kicking in 1984 – Glenn and PD were with me that night – and this is the final twist of the knife on this most disheartening and depressing of days. 2330 : The night train to Frome sets off from Bath station, full of shrieking females from Trowbridge and Westbury. I just want to get some sleep. 0008 : The train slides in to Frome station and we say our goodbyes. “Have a good week Paul, see you at 6 o’clock next Saturday.” 

 

 

 

Tales From The Clock End

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2016.

I began the day early. This was going to be a long one. I had everything planned out. As with last season’s trip to Arsenal, there would hopefully be a little pub crawl for the four of us from the Somerset and Wiltshire border, ahead of meeting up with more friends nearer kick-off. This would be my tenth trip to Arsenal’s new stadium. For the vast majority of those games, and a couple at Highbury too, the meet would be at “The Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn. Last season, after Parky and I went on an enjoyable walk on the north bank of the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith, we arrived late, just as the pub was reaching a Magic Hat crescendo. This year, we would be aiming for a walk through the West End before joining the massed ranks of the Chelsea Loyalists. It was going to be a fine day out.

The actual football itself worried me of course. I am sure that I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

As I set off at just before 8am, I turned the car radio on. I was automatically tuned to Radio Two, and a Sunday morning show was playing a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” On a day when I might be seeking for divine intervention in the quest for goals and points, I thought that this was quite apt.

The Chuckle Bus was fully laden for the trip to the capital. PD and myself in the front. Glenn and Parky in the back. When I had picked up PD, we both agreed on one thing.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Whisper it, but I was almost expecting us to get gubbed.

“I can see us losing 3-0.”

Glenn, who was coming with me to Arsenal for the first time since those two back-to-back FA Cup games in 2003 and 2004, was much more upbeat.

“Nah, we’ll do ‘em.”

The roads were quiet. We parked at Barons Court and rode the dark blue Piccadilly Line in to the West End. The pubs were relatively quiet, but it made a nice change to be seeing a different part of the city. Our ramble took us slowly east.

“The Sussex.”

“The Round Table.”

“The White Swan.”

“The Sun.”

“The Shakespeare’s Head.”

We were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Football was only part of the equation. Each of the first four pubs were cosy and full of character. “The Round Table” is a particular favourite of mine, its reputation slightly tarnished only because it brought back memories of Tottenham away last year, when we assembled there prior to heading north to N17. We stumbled across a few familiar faces in “The Sun” – off the beaten track really, quite a surprise – and then headed off to the last pub of the day, which – unlike the others – is far from cosy. Outside, my work colleague Bruno was waiting for me. It was just a minute or so before 2pm.

Bruno : “Hey, you’re on time.”

Chris : “We work in logistics, mate.”

Bruno is from Fortaleza in northern Brazil and had been working alongside me in our office in Chippenham and then Melksham since late Spring. He, typically, is a devoted football enthusiast. While studying in Portugal, he played for a lower level football team, somewhere in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, and his eighteen year old brother is currently on trial with us here in England. His team back home in Brazil is Palmeiras, from San Paolo, the city which hosts our 2012 World Club Championship opponents Corinthians. I was tickled to hear that Bruno has nothing but bad things to say about Corinthians. I heard a whisper that he had a slight inkling towards Arsenal, but I think it is fair to say that since we have been sharing the same office, my devotion to the Chelsea cause has inevitably worked a little magic on him. Throughout the week, I had semi-seriously joked that his life would change on Sunday 24 January 2016.

“Your life will never be the same, Bruno.”

Bruno studied for his Master’s degree at Bath University – he has loved being in England – but was yet to see a football match of any description while over here. Luckily, a ticket became available at the very last minute from a good mate, and so I was very happy to be able to invite him along. The timing really was perfect. His last day of work with us was on the preceding Friday and his flight back to Brazil would be on the Thursday. His wife had left for Brazil a week or so ago. This really would be a royal blue send off. There was just the worry about sending him away from Arsenal with a fine Chelsea performance. I knew that he would enjoy the experience of being in and among three thousand of us, but the actual match result was not so clear.

Regardless, I soon introduced Bruno to a smattering of my match-going companions in the large and noisy pub. Very soon, the boozer was reverberating with a few Chelsea songs. I could see that Bruno was impressed.

“I can see why this takes up so much of your life, mate.”

We were stood next to Alan and Gary. I casually mentioned that Gary has missed just one home game since 1976…”Sheffield United at home, 1992, Jason Cundy scored, we lost 2-1, chicken pox”…and this blew Bruno away.

“Fantastic.”

As always, Arsenal away brings back memories of 1984. I spoke to Bruno about that momentous day, and showed him a YouTube clip of Kerry scoring in front of a packed Clock End.

“Our first game back in the top flight in five years.”

“You were there, right?”

“We were all there, Bruno. And there is an entire book, in which I have written a few words, devoted to that one game.”

By the end of our hour or so in the pub, Bruno was asking about membership and season tickets.

I had a little chuckle to myself.

The team news came through.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Mikel – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.

Inside the tube, full of Chelsea, there were songs, one after the other.

“Make way for the champions…”

Bruno was full of smiles.

On the walk from Arsenal tube station – I was a little dismayed that I didn’t have enough time to show Bruno the classic art deco stands of Highbury – there were a few more Chelsea songs, but these soon petered out as we got closer to the towering stadium.

There was that odd little Arsenal chant as we walked up and over the railway lines.

“What do you think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“What do you think of shit?”

“Tottenham.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

Away in the distance, an altercation between rival fans, an echo from the past.

A shove, a punch, a stand-off, a kick.

There was time for one last photograph of Bruno and myself outside the Clock End, and we were inside.

We only reached our allotted seats with a few seconds to spare. As usual, I was positioned midway back, firmly behind the corner flag, alongside the usual suspects. Glenn was in the front row. PD was further back. Bruno towards the rear. The sky was full of low cloud. The air was still and mild. This seemed like a typical footballing day in the capital. A grey day on the surface, but full of colour – red, white, blue – underneath. The undulating upper tier of Arsenal’s stadium matched my thoughts of the day thus far. There had been lovely highs in the five pubs with good friends, but now my thoughts were full of worry about the ensuing ninety minutes.

Our play from the offset looked calm and assured. I was quickly impressed. There was efficiency in our movement and passing. This was as good a start as I could ever have hoped. I am not sure if the mind plays tricks, due to the fact that the stands are so far from the pitch at The Emirates, but there always seems to be tons of space down our right at Arsenal’s new stadium. Ivanovic and Willian were soon exploiting it.

Chances were traded, but there were no real threats on either goal.

While I waited to hear any noise from the home support, our corner quadrant was full of noise. Of course, I lament the atmosphere in the home areas of Stamford Bridge on virtually a weekly basis, so I can’t be hypocritical and say too much. However, the silence at The Emirates shocked me. Yes, home areas are usually quiet at most stadia these days, but Arsenal seem to continually set the bar high – or low – and it gets worse with every passing season.

A fine move found Willian inside the box, but his volley was wildly off target. However, it hit an Arsenal defender, allowing him a second bite of the cherry. Petr Cech – I’m over him, by the way – easily blocked Willian’s snatched follow-up.

Soon after, Willian played the ball in to space, dissecting the Arsenal line, and Mertesacker felled Diego Costa. There was a slight delay, but in my mind I was hoping that the much-maligned Mark Clattenburg would show a red card. He didn’t let me down. Get in. The Chelsea contingent roared. This was going too well. Bizarrely, Wenger took off Giroud.

A few minutes later, the ball ricocheted out to Ivanovic, lurking in space on the right. He wasted no time in punching the ball low in to the box, and I had a perfect view as Diego Costa met the ball perfectly. The ball crashed in to the net, past Cech, 1-0 to the champions.

The south-eastern section of the Clock End erupted. I punched the air continually. Such joy.

“He’s done it again.

He’s done it again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done it again.”

This soon morphed into the more sinister –

“He’s done you again.

He’s done you again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done you again.”

Arsenal never really threatened us in the rest of the first-half. Our defenders were supremely solid, no more so than the captain, who was simply dominant. We had a few chances. A towering header from Ivanovic was headed off the line. This was fantastic stuff. Our section was in full voice, almost embarrassingly so. Elsewhere, the residents of the Emirates – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middling – were deadly silent.

Arsenal’s best chance of the half fell to Flamini – I struggled to acknowledge that he was still playing for them – but his flick was well over. Arsenal appeared to be missing a cutting edge, as always.

I briefly met up with Bruno at the break.

“Enjoying it, mate?”

“I know you hate the word, Chris, but…awesome.”

The second-half was a different affair. There was less noise from the away fans as the game carried on. I think the nerves were increasing as the minutes passed by. Soon in to the second period, Fabregas, who was enjoying his best game for ages, danced in to the box. He was upended, and bounced into the air. I felt that Fabregas overdid it.

Wenger brought on Alexis Sanchez. Chances were still at a premium. Courtois was hardly troubled. Mikel was enjoying another masterclass in controlled containment, and alongside him Matic was playing better than usual. Only his distribution let him down at times. Diego Costa, the Arsenal irritant, was replaced by Loic Remy. We watched the clock on the far side. Inside, I was surprisingly confident that we would hold on. Eden Hazard replaced the excellent Oscar.

In the last part of the game, the defenders seemed tired and dropped further and further back. Our sporadic breaks up field soon ran out of steam. Remy’s touch had deserted him; he was poor.

An almighty scramble followed as Thibaut dropped a cross at the feet of several Arsenal players. The ball was frantically hacked away. A couple of half-chances for Arsenal were blocked. Courtois, at last, had a real save to make, falling to his left to save from Monreal. At the other end, Willian broke free but scuffed his low shot wide.

Five minutes of extra time.

Then four.

Then three.

Then two.

Then one.

The whistle.

Glenn was right.

We did’em.

We all met up after the game. Bruno, the boy from Fortaleza, had bloody loved it. The mood was buoyant. Glenn, especially, was full of smiles.

The Arsenal support was obviously glum as they headed back to Middle Earth.

The seven of us headed back to civilisation. On the tube, our faces were full of smiles. The red and white scarfed Gooners had their heads buried in their programmes. Their misery was our joy.

Ten visits to the Emirates in the League with Chelsea, and our record is excellent.

Won 4

Drew 4

Lost 2

Goals 14-9

I wished Bruno well as we alighted at Kings Cross.

“Take care mate, safe travels, stay in touch.”

It had been a good day.

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