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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Tales From The Last Picture Of Summer.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 19 September 2015.

As soon as I walked into the beer garden of “The Goose”, pint of Peroni in hand, I was met with smiles from the usual suspects. Without wasting any time, Duncan looked me in the eye and asked me of my thoughts for the lunchtime game against our North London rivals. I summed things up quickly.

“I’ll take a draw, now.”

Duncan nodded sagely.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying.”

Daryl was not in agreement.

“We’ve got to win.”

I immediately wondered if this viewpoint might lead to disappointment later in the day. It was clear to everyone that we had not started the season well, and I – for one – was not going to read too much in to our easy victory over our Israeli opponents during the week. The thought of us losing to Arsenal, and therefore garnering only four points from a possible eighteen, was not worth thinking about.

A point would suffice for me.

The football talk continued as we spoke about the team and its well documented problems so far in to the season. I spoke about Eden Hazard. I noticed that there was a moment during the second-half during Wednesday’s game when he came over to retrieve the match ball from a ball boy before flicking it over to Cesc Fabregas who was waiting to take a corner. Eden’s face was anything but a picture; he looked thoroughly down, quite depressed, and his whole body language was off. Here was a man who did not appear to be enjoying his football. He had ballooned a penalty in the first-half and had miss-placed several passes in the second-half. I felt for him. I could not remember seeing a player so obviously suffering a “dark moment” so vividly for ages. I hoped for a recovery soon.

Other facets of our game were discussed.

There certainly seemed to be a lack of intensity, of fight, in most of our matches this season. I wondered if the way that we won the league during the closing months of 2014/2015, plugging away and eking out narrow wins, but under no real pressure from a chasing pack, meant that we had been playing under an “easy” environment for a good five months. Maybe it has proved difficult to re-focus after playing with a particular mind-set for so long.

I don’t know.

However, I certainly didn’t need football pundits and experts with pointy sticks and stop/go technical gadgetry for me to realise that we were missing “bite” in our midfield at Everton, our worst performance of the season, and that we were simply affording opposing teams too much space. That lack drive and urgency from all of our players, a trademark of the first half of last season, was key to our woes in 2015/2016 in my mind.

While we were stood in the beautiful September sun, the team news came through.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Diego Costa.

Initial reactions were not favourable. We were not keen on Cesc Fabregas remaining in what is basically a defensive midfield position. Ivanovic’ inclusion annoyed many, but did not surprise me. I found it unlikely that the youngster Baba would get two games in four days.

Arsenal’s midfield was discussed.

Ed was forthright.

“We could get run ragged.”

Of course, John Terry was not playing, with Mourinho instead opting with the “Zorro and Zouma” (copyright Alan Davidson 2015) combination instead. Our fastidious manager was backing up his declaration on picking his starting eleven based on current form rather than reputation, though the pace of Arsenal’s attacking thrusts were an obvious reason why our captain was omitted.

The Goose was full of Chelsea. Arsenal would not dare enter within.

Elsewhere there was talk of New York baseball, the lesser known characters in the 1970 sitcom “Porridge” and of China Crisis songs.

It’s not always about football.

I didn’t see a single Arsenal fan on the walk in to the stadium. I have no idea where they did their pre-match drinking, but I am sure it wasn’t in the Chelsea heartland.

There was a case of squad rotation within the stands too. Instead of watching alongside my usual match-day companions Alan and Glenn – who were on holiday and at work – I took my seat alongside my good mates Neil and Walnuts. The weather was holding firm. Next week, at Newcastle, there might well be a different feel. This game, a lovely old London Derby, under a blue sky seemed like the last picture of summer.

Throughout the day – I know why, all will be explained – I kept thinking back to another Chelsea vs. Arsenal game, again in late September, but from thirty years ago.

September 1985.

I can distinctly remember bumping in to Glenn around the pubs of Frome on the day before the game, the Friday, and – because I had not been to any of the three home games so far in that season – Glenn ribbing me about my lack of attendance.

“You’ll get some stick tomorrow.”

I remember smiling. At least I was missed. It made me feel wanted.

It was only the second time that I had witnessed Arsenal down in SW6, and I look back fondly on that game, with Arsenal taking a lead but Chelsea recovering with a Pat Nevin header to equalise and then a late penalty from Nigel Spackman giving us a dramatic 2-1 win. Watching on the benches, right in the midst of it, with Alan and Glenn, and a few other lads who I still see to this day. It was a fantastic result. I remember seeing Micky Hazard play for us for the first time. And Chelsea in all blue for the first time in my life, having jettisoned the classic white socks over the summer. That evening, I always remember, I travelled back on the Chelsea supporters coach from Yeovil, and met up with some school friends on a night out in my home town of Frome, recovering from its annual autumnal carnival. There is a fuzzy photograph of me, post victory beer in hand, in a town pub, wearing a paisley button-down shirt, which was all the rage at football in the autumn of 1985 and it is hard to believe that thirty years have since passed. I would be doing the same after the game in 2015 – no paisley shirt this time – with some school friends from that era, on carnival night too.

History repeating itself, thirty years on.

Lovely stuff.

As the teams came on to the pitch, it surprised me that I had not contemplated the fact that Petr Cech would be returning to his former home. Of course, I gave him a fine welcome back as he walked slowly to take up his position below us at the north end of the stadium.

But that was it, no lingering sense of what could have been. Asmir was our man, now.

It was an evenly-contested first half. Each team had small spells of domination. There was a significant step-up in our performance and the crowd seized on this. The noise was better. The players moved for each other, with several instances of fine play. Oscar was winning tackles, Pedro was spinning out of tight areas, and Hazard was more like his old self. But Arsenal themselves too were causing us occasional problems.

Tackles were made, bodies crashed against each other. I had heard that the first-half of the recent Manchester United vs. Liverpool match had been a tepid and timid affair, with none of the passion and intensity of yester year. Well, by contrast, this contest between “soft Southerners” was full of bite.

The main chant emanating from the replica shirts and the scarves of the travelling Goons in the Shed End was this :

“Fuck Off Mourinho.”

And they question our class.

We countered :

“Ashley Cole’s Won The European Cup.”

A few chances were exchanged by both sides. It was a fine half of football.

A determined run by Eden Hazard deep in to the Arsenal box ended up with a coming together with Gabriel, but the referee Mike Dean chose to rule that both were guilty of tangling arms and legs.

A fierce effort from King Kurt zipped over Cech’s bar from forty yards. Pedro tested him too. We were in the ascendency, but only by a narrow margin.

Then, the game’s big talking pint.

I didn’t see Costa’s flailing arms as he ran with Koscielny, but I did see the chest bump, which resulted in the Arsenal defender falling back and ending up on the floor. I feared the worst. Thankfully the linesman on the far side did not flag anything untoward. Then, with me not really paying too much attention to the ongoing chat and back chat between several protagonists, they walked back towards the centre of the pitch. The dialogue seemed to be continuing for a while. Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, a rise in the noise from the crowd and a brandishing of a red card to Gabriel, which resulted in a roar from the home support and incredulity from the Arsenal players.

Of course, the viewing millions throughout the world were better placed than myself and those watching in SW6. It was all a bit of a mystery. One thing was certain, though. Diego Costa was agent provocateur in all of this. A couple of texts and posts on Facebook from a couple of respected friends backed up my initial thoughts. Our man Diego was lucky to stay on the pitch. His combative nature is admired by many, but his pernicious tendencies do not sit well with me. Of course there are two sides to every story here. If we ask Costa to reign himself in, we might well dampen his effectiveness. Yet I remember the first couple of seasons of Didier Drogba at Chelsea, when his play-acting disturbed me. After channelling all of that negative stuff in to more positive play, he became a better player, a more respected team mate and a more potent striker.

I wonder if Diego Costa will change.

I won’t hold my breath.

At half-time, John Dempsey – a scorer in Athens – was paraded at half-time. The away fans again showed their class :

“Oo The Fackin’ell Are Yooo?”

Dempsey conducted them, then gave them a full blown “double V.”

Oh boy.

With Arsenal a man down, I wondered if Daryl’s wish might come reality.

Pedro went close with a volley. Then, seven minutes in to the second-half, a foul by an Arsenal defender resulted in a free-kick to us. I waited as Cesc Fabregas sent in a magnificently placed ball deep in to the Arsenal box. I snapped as Kurt Zouma rose – with no Arsenal defender in sight – and headed down past Petr Cech. In a blur, the net rippled, the crowd roared and I watched through my lens as King Kurt sped off on the best celebratory run so far this season. He bounded along the goal line and jumped for joy.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

I knew I had a couple of beauties among that little lot.

My photos taken, I roared my approval.

From the island of Menorca, a text message from Alan : “THTCAUN.”

From Stamford Bridge : “C1-0MLD.”

Our young defender had shone defensively in the game thus far – one magnificent tackle the highlight – but now he was writing himself in to Chelsea folklore. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from Cech, but Sanchez and Walcott fired shots in on Begovic too. More chances to us. This was more like it.

Ramires replaced Oscar.

An errant, miss-timed tackle by Cazorla on Fabregas, meant that Mike Dean had no choice but to award Cazorla a second yellow. Off he went. We howled with pleasure.

Arsenal were down to nine.

Surely we were safe, now?

With Diego Costa getting in the face of Arsenal players everywhere, it was no surprise that the manager chose to substitute him. To lose him to a second yellow, and a subsequent ban, would be silly. Of course, he exited the pitch to a deafening roar of approval. He was replaced by Loic Remy.

For a while, it looked like we would play the ball to oblivion, across the back four, keeping possession, not threatening, waiting for the time to tick by.

The fat lady was gargling, off stage.

We waited for the final whistle.

However, Eden Hazard had the last laugh. The ball came out to him on the edge of the box and he slammed the ball goal wards. It took a wicked deflection, Cech was beaten, and the ball nestled in the net.

Safe.

This was a much better performance from the boys. Even the recently lampooned Branislav Ivanovic, captain for the day, so often out of position this season, did well. The star of the show, though, was King Kurt. He was immense. This was clearly a much better performance from the boys. There was much to admire, and – God bless him – Eden Hazard was obviously enjoying himself on the Stamford Bridge turf once more.

In fact, it was so good, it could have been from September 2014.

On the drive home, the airwaves were full of Diego Costa, as I knew they would be. Thousands of different opinions, thousands of different viewpoints; it’s never boring watching Chelsea.

To top off a cracking day, West Ham won at Manchester City.

“Get in.”

I had enjoyed myself immensely, but the fun was only just beginning. I met up with the class of 1985 (…followers of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United, Portsmouth and Derby County) in a Frome pub at 7.45pm, and we then set off on a lovely pub crawl, and chatted about all sorts of nonsense – but mainly football – deep in to the night. I bumped into my Uncle Mike, whose father we used to take to Chelsea games in the mid-to-late ‘seventies, and we reminisced on how Uncle Geoff used to love those trips to Stamford Bridge.

Football, always football.

Six mates, six pints, five pubs, three points and one large doner kebab.

Perfect.

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Tales From The Red Seats.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 2 August 2015.

What is the old saying?

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

For the Football Association’s season opener this certainly seems to be the case. Long gone are the days when a trip to Wembley Stadium elicited a warm glow for myself and thousands like me. We are, as another old saying goes, a victim of our success. This would be Chelsea’s ninth such game – Charity Shield, then Community Shield – since 1997, and our eleventh in total. The 1955 game (beating Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in front of just 12,802) is hardly ever spoken about. The 1970 game (losing to Everton at home, with a gate of 43,547, and Stamford Bridge never looking more sun-kissed) is on the outer reaches of modern Chelsea fans’ awareness. From 1997 though, our appearance in this game – first as F.A. Cup winners and then, get used to it world, as league champions – has been a regular event.

However, as of 2015, it is the one game every season that is starting to pall.

With the summer trip to the United States behind me, and with the league opener against Swansea City not far away, I was trying my hardest to get “up” for our Community Shield game against Arsenal. Of course it would be great to see a few Chelsea mates for the first time of the summer, but as for the game itself, I was struggling. There seemed to be a common understanding among fellow fans that a game against local rivals would add a little excitement to the game. There was talk of a “mark” being set for the season. There was also to be the strange sight of Petr Cech in Arsenal colours. Despite all of this, I was still having difficulties.

It was almost as if I was travelling to Wembley under some sort of strange sense of duty, which sounds rather pompous and silly. But, by the same token, there was no chance of me ever missing it.

“You’ve got me Chelsea, you’ve got me.”

I collected His Lordship at 9.30am. The domestic season was up and running.

On the drive to London, I chatted to Parky about the summer tour, which was over way too quickly, but left me with many lovely memories. Funnily enough, despite the joy of meeting up with a host of old and new Chelsea friends and the three games themselves, I think that the resounding memory for me is the time that I spent on The Great American Road. In my twelve days away, I covered 1,962 miles in my hire car, and the vast majority came in that massive “V” which I cut into the heart of America, travelling from New York City down to Charlotte in one trip and then from Charlotte back up to Washington DC the next. There were journey times of eleven hours and of eight hours respectively, with memories from each to last until the cold winter months and beyond. There was even one song – “Uma Thurman” by Fall Out Boy – which will forever be synonymous with my US trip of 2015, since I could not escape it, no matter what radio station I found. The summer tour also had other totems. The tour beers were “Shock Top”, “Rolling Rock”, “Blue Moon”, “Yuengling” and “Corona.”

From a football perspective, the theme was “penalties.”

And Bobby Tambling.

Good times, good times.

As we rose steadily on the elevated section of the M4, I glanced north and spotted the Wembley arch, clearly visible and with the late morning sun picking it out perfectly against the blue North London sky. We were soon parked at Barons Court. At about 12.30pm we met up with Alan, Gary, John and Dave at The Tyburn near Marble Arch. The last time that I was in this pub, and my last visit to Wembley in March, I was in my own little world of sadness.

As I sipped on a pint of San Miguel, I genuinely felt that a new season would help me move on from the grief which took over the closing months of 2014-2015.

Alan and Gary left for the game at about 1.45pm. Dave, Parky and myself stayed on for – you have guessed it – “one last beer.” We then had to hotfoot it to Marylebone to catch the 2.28pm train. It would be a fight to make kick-off. We never learn, do we? We bumped into the rumbustious crew from Trowbridge and Westbury on the fifteen minute train journey – “Parky!” – and it was great to see them again. To be honest, they would be the only familiar faces that we would see all afternoon. Maybe others were finding it hard to get “up” for this game too.

Inside the stadium concourse, I spotted Alan and Gary behind me.

“Got waylaid, son.”

We reached our seats just as the game kicked-off.

Phew.

We had super seats; row four of the upper tier, on the Royal Box side, midway inside the “Chelsea half.”

With people still lining up for beers in the area outside, the stadium was not remotely full at the start. However, after ten minutes, things were looking better and seats were filling up. It was obvious, though, that there were more empty red seats in our western end than in the Arsenal end. It was also noticeable that the Arsenal supporters in the lower tier were standing, whereas Chelsea were sitting. As an indicator of which set of fans were more “up” for the game, Chelsea were coming in a poor second.

I sighed.

The team contained few surprises, but we guessed that Costa was being protected in light of his recent injury scare in Maryland. Loic Remy deputised

It was immediately disconcerting to see Petr Cech in the monstrosity of an Arsenal kit.

Wembley Stadium was bathed in sunlight, with its huge and cumbersome roof supports causing strong shadows. It is a huge stadium, but I am still finding it a difficult stadium to admire. I still can’t believe that such a complex array of under structure does not support a sliding roof. It is a little ironic that the designing and building process for the new stadium – which took seven long years to be completed – was headed from 1997 to 2001 by none other than Ken Bates. That Chelsea Football Club might be moving in to Wembley for three years while Bates’ “Chelsea Village” is razed to the ground is doubly ironic.

There were few Chelsea banners on show.

One Arsenal banner caught my eye. The standard “Believe” had a yellow ribbon tied around the “I” which alludes to their bespoke F.A. Cup Final song. Quite clever.

I thought Chelsea began reasonably well, but then played second fiddle to a more energised and incisive Arsenal team for most of the first-half. I looked over at the Arsenal team which flashed up on the scoreboard. I must have reached that part of my Chelsea Life-Cycle which results in me being increasingly indifferent to players on opposing teams. In an identity parade, I would be hard-pressed to name Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin.

It’s all about Chowlsea these days.

As I watched play develop before me, with Walcott finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was a clear moment when Dave saw enough of the ball to make a clearing tackle. That crucial moment passed and the Arsenal player struck an unstoppable riser past Courtois into the net. The Arsenal thousands roared, while we sat silently.

Until that point, it had been a relatively quiet affair of the pitch. While Arsenal made some noise, Chelsea retorted :

“Stand Up For The Champions.”

We did our best to get the singing going, but our section was unsurprisingly docile.

It was typical that while we clapped and applauded Petr Cech – though not ridiculously so – Cesc Fabregas was booed by his former Arsenal family every time he touched the ball.

Pathetic, really.

We found it difficult to get our game going in the first-half. To be fair, Willian was our main threat, moving well and more inclined to attack directly than in the past. I lost count of the times Ivanovic failed to deliver a cross by hitting the outstretched leg of his full back.

Two chances fell to Ramires. A shot went narrowly wide, but then a more glaring error. With the goal at his mercy, he headed over from a Remy cross. To be truthful, the ball was slightly too high for him. Or maybe he jumped too soon. It was a clear chance though. Elsewhere we struggled. A goal-line clearance from Ivanovic, with archetypal Goon Mertesacker breathing down his neck, stopped a second goal.

We hoped for a masterful Mourinho tongue-lashing at the break. He replaced Loic Remy with Radamel Falcao. We hoped for good things. Oscar soon replaced Ramires, and I immediately noted a bigger desire from him to attack the defensive lines. On a couple of occasions, he drifted inside and past his markers with ease. More of the same this season please.

On the hour, a second glaring miss of the match. Fabregas played in Eden Hazard, our player of the moment, and we fully expected him to rifle a shot low past Cech. Instead, his shot immediately rose high and flew over the crossbar. Such a rare piece of shoddy finishing from Eden shocked us all.

Fackinell.

A free-kick from Oscar – one of many which we were awarded in the final quarter – forced a save from Cech in the Arsenal goal. It probably looked more difficult than it was. The Arsenal thousands roared.

Kurt Zouma replaced Dave at left-back. That surprised me. On the other flank, Ivanovic was continuing to flounder.

As the game progressed, we never really looked like equalising. The atmosphere was deadening, though few Chelsea fans had decided to leave, which was a good sign.

Victor Moses replaced Terry, and Mourinho re-jigged things. Moses’ pace was not utilised and the equaliser proved elusive. Falcao had chased a few scraps, but his service was not great.

In the closing minutes, Arsenal had a couple of chances to increase their lead.

To be truthful, it hadn’t been a very entertaining match. We had looked a little sluggish, with our key players unable to match the creativity in key areas shown by Arsenal. At the final whistle, the Arsenal fans feverishly waved their red and white flags as if they had won a cup final.

Yes, I know, I sound bitter don’t I?

I was well aware that this reaction would be typical of the Chelsea supporters.

A win, and an important marker for the season ahead in a vital showcase game.

A loss, and an irrelevant result in little more than a friendly.

At the queue for the train back to Marylebone, there was a little chat among a few of us about the possibility of Chelsea using Wembley as a temporary home for several seasons should our planning application for the complete overhaul of our stadium be accepted. For some, Wembley would be a preferred option. For me, coming to London from the south-west, I think I would prefer to use Twickenham. Wembley, in my opinion, should not be used for club games, though you can be very sure that the Football Association would readily accept Roman’s millions for three seasons. It would also, perhaps forever, take away what remaining buzz of excitement that I get from visiting Wembley with Chelsea, if we were to play eighty games there in three years. There are also logistical problems getting in and out of central London. It would extend my day by an extra hour at least. The atmosphere isn’t great at Wembley. How would it cope with 50,000 Chelsea fans? I am not sure. Would we be able to get it jumping? It would be tough.

There is also the painful sight of Chelsea playing home games in a stadium of 90,000 red seats.

Ken – could you not have chosen a more neutral colour?

Royal blue, maybe?

To be fair, despite my moans about added travel time, we were back at Barons Court by 6.30pm.

On the way home, I glanced north once more. The Wembley arch was only just visible now, barely distinguishable against the early evening cloud.

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Tales From The North Bank Of The River.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 26 April 2015.

Sometimes it often feels to me that the inhabitants of Planet Football have mindfully chosen to perpetually live as if they were children stuck in a particularly spiteful schoolyard where jagged and mean-spirited barbs are continually aimed at each of the other children’s football teams. I’m sure that football is not the only sport where this happens. On “Facebook” I often become privy to some occasionally nasty and rude conversations that take place between some US acquaintances as they discuss the merits of various college football teams, NFL teams or baseball teams. You can be sure it happens in Australian cricket, French rugby, Brazilian football and virtually all major sports currently being played too. Very often the debate is not about the abilities on show in the sport in question, but the personality disorders of players of hated rivals, sexual proclivities of other coaches and managers, to say nothing of the real or perceived differences between rival fan bases.

The reasons for this are many, but I suppose that the driving force for all this constant noise of abuse and antagonism is the desire to prove that your team, or club, is superior and aims to meet its goals in the correct way.

In football, it can get out of hand pretty easily.

There is a song which occasionally gets aired in and around football stadia, and elsewhere, about a certain Arsenal manager and a certain packet of sweets and a certain cheeky smile. To be honest, when we first heard this around twenty years ago it raised a smile, but as an example of how nasty a football song can be, there are few equals. I stopped singing it years ago. I can well remember being squashed inside a tube train en route to an Arsenal versus Chelsea game around ten years ago when the whole carriage seemed to be joining in. In the carriage were a few, only a few but a few nonetheless, young children. A good friend and I both rolled our eyes and admitted to ourselves that this was not a particularly edifying moment in our lives.

Sometimes Planet Football can be a cruel and painful place.

As the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game loomed on the horizon, the relative merits of both clubs came in to focus and the “banter” and dialogue on social media intensified. Out came the barbs once more. At times, I was back in the school yard. And I wondered to myself where I personally stood in this whole “us and them” thing. Of course, I’ve never liked Arsenal, why would I? In truth, I dislike Tottenham more. And yet there is something about Arsenal which annoys me intensely. It is their essential “Arsenalness.”

It is down to two things.

For the vast majority of their existence they have produced a rather humdrum and tedious brand of football, which even the doyen of all things Arsenal Nick Hornby has acknowledged. Yet since the arrival of Arsene Wenger, this “1-0 to the Arsenal” modus operandi has been airbrushed from the record books, with everyone inside and outside the media seemingly brainwashed into thinking that entertaining football has always been the Arsenal way. What nonsense. The memory of George Graham’s defensively strong Arsenal team of twenty-five years ago still lingers.

And then we need to talk about Arsenal supporters. For a sport which has traditionally drawn its support from the working classes, I never fail to be amazed with how painfully middle class the Arsenal support appears to be; they spend their entire life chattering, complaining, bickering, but never realising how lucky they are. This sense of entitlement, which I sadly see creeping in to certain sections of our support, really annoys me. What right have do Arsenal fans think they have to silverware? When Chelsea went without a single piece of silver for twenty-six years, did we wail and moan? No. We simply fucking got on with supporting our club, through hell and high water. Just imagine if Arsenal were to be relegated. The screams of torture emanating from North London would keep inhabitants of Australia awake at night.

And, of course – of course! – the Arsenal fans of 2015 are never shy in singing the two favourites, much beloved in school yards everywhere :

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Shit club, no history.”

Again, there is this insistence within Arsenal’s support – and other teams too – that our success of late is unwarranted due to our perceived lack of historical clout. I need to readdress this view.

Back in around 2002 or so, before anyone knew who Roman Abramovich was, I stumbled across a discussion on a Chelsea fans forum, which totally changed the way that I felt about my club. Back in 2002, even I was beginning to believe the media’s view that we were a mid-sized club. True, I knew that Stamford Bridge had hosted huge crowds, but I also knew that our support had dwindled from the late ‘seventies to the mid ‘nineties. Crucially, it was this era – the most recent – that fans of other teams had referenced in discussing our small support base. Of course, most other teams’ support had dropped in this period too, yet it seemed that it was only Chelsea that was ever mentioned.

In this forum, average attendances were being discussed, and – salvation – somebody posted a link to a Newcastle United forum which, for a lover of statistics like myself, I found to be utterly fascinating.

Here, was a complete list, ranked in order, of every Football League club’s average home attendance, taken from their first season to the most recent. My heart skipped a beat when I realised that “little old Chelsea”, far from being a mid-ranked team, was the fifth-best supported club in England and Wales.

So, as of 2002 (though I think this list might well date from a year or two later when it was updated slightly), the numbers do not lie :

  1. Manchester United – 36,165
  2. Liverpool – 33,591
  3. Tottenham Hotspur – 33,386
  4. Arsenal – 31,692
  5. Chelsea – 31,113
  6. Everton – 30,917
  7. Newcastle United – 30,675
  8. Manchester City – 28,403
  9. Aston Villa – 27, 806
  10. Leeds United – 25,689

Of course, all sorts of things jump in to my mind here, but one key point needs to be addressed. Whereas in 2002 all of the clubs above us in this table had accumulated many more trophies than us, our support throughout almost one hundred years had stayed remarkably buoyant. Yes, Arsenal – for example – had won twelve or thirteen league championships in their storied history, but their average home gate was a mere 578 more than that of Chelsea, who had accumulated just one league championship to that point.

So, rather than the old notion of Chelsea’s support being poor, I would strongly suggest that our support has been historically the most unappreciated and arguably the most loyal of all.

I just wish that this little gem of statistical fact could easily be relayed into a witty terrace chant.

That would shut the bastards up.

My football weekend had encompassed a nervous ninety minutes watching my local team, Frome Town, eke out a 1-1 draw with St. Neots Town on the Saturday. The draw ensured survival for the fourth straight year at our highest ever level in the football pyramid, though this was due in part to the disappearance of former Football League club Hereford United around Christmas; thankfully, only three teams were relegated, not four.

On the Sunday, Parky and I decided to do something a little different. Everyone else seemed to be meeting in a Chelsea stronghold – The Shakespeare’s Head – at Holborn, which is where I have tended to assemble for Arsenal away games for ages, but I parked by the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick and we went on a really excellent pub crawl along the River Thames. We spent a few hours in four different pubs – The Old Ship, The Dove, The Rutland Arms, The Blue Anchor – before catching the Piccadilly Line east and then north at Hammersmith. This part of London is not specifically Chelsea territory – it is closer to Fulham’s ground – and I am sure that hardly any Chelsea match-going fans drink this far out on match days, but it is a pub crawl that we definitely want to repeat. Each pub was different, each had its own charms and each had lovely views of the river. There were blue plaques everywhere. The pubs are on the course of the University Boat Race. There was history and charm aplenty. Quirky and magnificent, it was a part of London that I had not yet witnessed until then. We’ll do it again.

Our meandering walk on the north bank of the river reminded me of the peculiar nature, in some respects, of our support. Yes, Chelsea is on the north side of the Thames, yet we have an SW6 postcode, and our traditional working class support was based not only in Fulham and Hammersmith but south of the river in Chelsea strongholds such as Battersea, Wandsworth and further south into Mitcham, Tooting and beyond. Arsenal, by contrast, eked out an existence south. That meandering Thames in its last twenty miles heading through the nation’s capital city has helped define and confuse the sense of geography of two of its teams.

Chelsea – north in location only, southern in spirit.

Arsenal – roots in the south, now in the north.

As soon as we entered “The Shakespeare’s Head” – packed with familiar faces and hardly any Arsenal – a new Chelsea song entered my consciousness. For a good ten minutes or more, it was non-stop. I quickly tried to work out the words. Within a few minutes, I was joining in.

“Fabrgegas is magic, he wears a magic hat.

He could have signed for Arsenal, but he said “no, fuck that.”

He passes with is left foot, he passes with his right.

And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

For the current climate, in current circumstances, this was a rather light ditty, without any associated malice. The cruel school yard seemed distant. I texted the words to a couple of friends, but word had got out. The Chelsea section of the World Wide Web was heating up with references to – gasp – a new song.

Lovely stuff.

The team news came through; “no striker.” Ah, the game…I hadn’t thought too much about it. A draw would be fine from my perspective. It seemed that Jose Mourinho agreed. A draw would knock Arsenal and their 578 extra fans out of the title hunt. I geared myself up for a dour defensive battle. Mourinho doing a George Graham, but with tons more charisma.

The stations at Holloway Road and Arsenal were closed (at the latter, there was the sulphurous odour of a smoke flare, Chelsea at work no doubt) so we had to alight at Finsbury Park. This resulted in a delay; I missed the kick-off by ten minutes. There is no doubt, for all the negativity about the lack of atmosphere inside, Arsenal’s stadium is striking.

Chelsea, in all blue, were attacking the other end.

Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Matic, Ramires, Oscar, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard.

My pre-match expectation of a dour defensive battle was not too wide of the mark. As the game progressed, I commented to Gary that Arsenal never really looked like threatening us.

“We can soak all this up all day long, Gal.”

The first-half provided me with more good opportunities to observe how well our defence plays as a unit. Only on a few occasions did the Arsenal players find space. In a first-half of few chances, a shot from Ramires was saved by Ospina after good work by Willian. Penalty shouts came and went; Ospina clattered Oscar and Fabregas was booked for simulation.

Our support was in good voice, with the Willian song and the new “Magic Hat” song providing the highlights. One thought kept filtering in to my mind though –

“How can 57,000 people make such little noise?”

It was not difficult to judge the mood of the home fans though. They seemed to be resigned to the fact that even a win against us would not be enough. I can hardly remember a rousing Arsenal song the entire game. There was only a rise in the volume from the home areas when Arsenal attacked. There was no solid backing throughout the game.

Jose replaced Oscar with Didier Drogba at the break. I hoped for a little more attacking verve, but there was little. Courtois dominated the box time and time again, forever seeming to thwart high ball after hall ball. I thought that Dave had yet another fine game of football, but the star of our team was John Terry, who was simply magnificent. Walcott and Welbeck entered the fray late on for Arsenal, but we kept them at bay. I noted that a considerable amount of home fans applauded Cesc as he was replaced by Zouma.

The point was well won, and the away fans roared. After the final whistle, the screams of pure delight from John Terry were captured by me on camera.

Inside, if I am honest, I felt a little flat. Yes, I would have taken a draw before the game, but this particular game of football will not live too long in my memory. I felt a little empty. I wondered if it was only me experiencing these feelings. Sigh.

Outside, a little army of away fans had congregated outside the turnstiles and were baiting the home fans in the lounge and bar areas above. One song dominated.

It was magic.

We made our way south, back to Hammersmith, then repeated our footsteps back to the waiting car. As the evening sky was reflected in a resting River Thames, thoughts turned to Leicester City on Wednesday evening. Another win there and we will almost be home.

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Tales From The Butcher’s Hook.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 5 October 2014.

After an enjoyable European Away, there often seems to be a sense of anti-climax leading up to the next game. In London parlance this is often termed “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” Not so on this occasion. A home derby against our oldest London rivals Arsenal, with memories still fresh in our minds of the 6-0 drubbing we gave them last spring, was enough to get the pulses racing.

I travelled up to West London with Lord Parky and Bournemouth Steve. Before the match, I needed to do some scurrying around to meet up with a few transatlantic supporters in a couple of pubs. For once, I would not make it to my usual base camp, The Goose. Parky joined me for a quick pint with some good friends from Southern California – some of the infamous OC Hooligans – at the Prince of Wales at West Brompton. John, Tom, Matt and Phil are “hooligans” in name only; they are some of the nicest bunch of supporters that the US has to offer. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with them. I collected a spare ticket and bade them a fond farewell. I then needed to head off down to the stadium, and my route took me past three pubs which we have frequented in the past; “The Atlas”, “The Harwood” and “The Lazy Fox” aka “The Fulham Dray.” I made a bee-line for “The Butcher’s Hook” and pushed through the crowded front bar.

Towards the rear of the pub, I met up with Leigh-Anne from Toronto, her boyfriend John and his brother Kevin. I had briefly met Leigh-Anne and John in NYC in 2012. I was able to assist in getting tickets for two of the three, while another of their acquaintances procured the third. They were suitably buzzing. Leigh-Anne and John had been in Barcelona during the week, and Kevin had been visiting a mate from Croatia in Milan. We live in a golden age of travel for sure. We’re lucky buggers.

It was lovely to be back in “The Butcher’s Hook” before a game. In addition to being the very location where our club was formed in 1905 – in the room above – it also brought back a lovely memory from 2004-2005. For our game against Birmingham City, my friend Glenn and I attended the match with two very special people; his grandmother and my mother. Before the match, we had enjoyed a lovely pre-match meal in “The Butcher’s Hook” and I was reminded of that very special day. It was wonderful that my mother, aged 75, was able to see Chelsea play in person during our first championship campaign in fifty years. We had all met Peter Osgood in the megastore too. It was a cracking day out.

I guzzled down another pint amidst rapid-fire conversation with the three Canadians about all things Chelsea. Before we knew it, kick-off was approaching fast. I warned Leigh-Anne, John and Kevin to finish off their drinks. It would be a shame to miss the start. Outside the weather was splendid; the gentle autumn sun meant that most were in shirt-sleeves.

At the turnstiles for the MHU, there was a large queue to enter. While we were in line, the stadium PA announced that due to “an incident” the game would be delayed for fifteen minutes. What luck for the three Canadians. I sent them a text; there was no need to rush.

“Start delayed 15 minutes due to an incident. Parky bought a round.”

There were a few rumours about flares being let off outside, but nobody was sure. So, possibly our first and only 2.20pm kick-off.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. For some reason, I was reminded of the famous oil painting by Charles Cundall of the stadium for the Chelsea vs. Arsenal Division One match in 1935, a game which happened to host our largest ever “official” attendance of 82,905. The club constructed a special platform for the artist above the vast terracing above the north-west corner flag and the panorama depicted – or at least the view and the angle of the pitch – was quite similar to my particular view in 2014.

I have waxed lyrical about the charms of the old ellipsoid Stamford Bridge in the past. For all of its idiosyncratic awkwardness, with odd stands and crazy angles, I still miss it badly. The current Stamford Bridge, housing almost exactly half of the 82,905 of 1935, is obviously a fine stadium. There is something quite Chelseaesque about its four misaligned stands.  Chelsea has never been about conformance. There had always been an edgy dimension to us, even our stadium.

Ah, our stadium.

It has warmed me immensely to hear that the board of Chelsea Football Club, in addition to testing the waters of the local populace, businesses and council of Hammersmith & Fulham with regard to possible expansion of Stamford Bridge, have allegedly contacted the RFU with a tentative request to use Twickenham while The Bridge undergoes possible improvement.

This is very pleasing to hear. Stamford Bridge is our spiritual home; it makes us who we are in my honest opinion. It defines us. I am heartened that the board has acknowledged this. I wish them every success in redeveloping Stamford Bridge. Let the unpleasantness of the “CPO Autumn” of 2011 be a distant memory.

Who knows, maybe those plans for a 60,000 Stamford Bridge, first mooted by a smiling Brian Mears in 1972, might eventually come to fruition. And, intriguingly, maybe that 82,905 attendance record might just be eclipsed at the home of rugby union. Twickenham currently holds 82,000. Interesting times ahead, let’s hope.

At last the teams appeared. The nine “league ever-presents” were supplemented by Schurrle and Oscar. Arsenal, wearing a very light red, chose to attack the Matthew Harding and for a few seconds, my mind played tricks on me. It seemed like it was the second-half already. Arsenal were supported by three thousand away fans and, although I am unsure, I thought I heard chants from them suggesting that Cesc Fabregas should go away and fornicate.

Classy stuff.

No doubt about it, Arsenal dominated the first quarter of the game. They looked steady and composed in possession, while we struggled to put more than three passes together. We looked edgy and nervous. After a quarter of an hour, however, there were no shots on goal from either side. The memory of last season’s rout was suddenly fading. Arsenal looked a lot more at ease. The first real chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, but a brave Courtois block quelled any danger. Arsenal maintained the advantage. Then, slightly delayed, Courtois fell and sought medical attention. The Chelsea medical team attended our young keeper, while Chelsea fans in Nerdistan fell in love with Eva Carneiro all over again. After a few minutes of concern, Courtois was replaced by Petr Cech.

He received a magnificent reception.

I took a “comfort break” just as the heated exchange between the two managers took place on the touchline. I’m sure everyone enjoyed that, though.

…er, the pitchside scuffle, rather than the thought of me turning my bike ‘round.

On twenty six minutes, Eden Hazard set off on a mazy run which Alberto Tomba would have been proud. He slalomed his way into the box and a wild stab by Laurent Koscielny sent him tumbling. It was an obvious penalty.

Eden Hazard took his time and stroked the ball past Wojzciecjzh Szczszcesesncy.

1-0, get in.

I’ll be honest, the goal was slightly against the run of play, but we cared not. The Bridge roared with approval. Jack Wilshere tested Petr Cech with a run on goal but lost control just as our ‘keeper raced out to smother the ball.

There had been few clear chances in the first forty-five minutes. We were obviously content with a lead, but hoped for more Chelsea chances after the break.

In the interval, Bobby Tambling received his usual magnificent reception from one and all, apart from the 3,000 Arsenal fans, who serenaded him with “you were here when you were shit.”

Classy stuff.

Just after the break, Cazorla drilled a low shot just past Cech’s left post. I momentarily held me head in my hands.

Phew.

Chances were still at a premium. On the hour, Eden Hazard advanced and sent a low cross towards goal, only for Flamini to stab at it and deflect it on to the near post. Chelsea continued to close down space, pester the Arsenal player on the ball, and stifle their passing game. There was special praise for Oscar, not always the flavour of the month, who put in a tireless display. His relentless running, tackling – “nibbling” – and blocking set the tone for the rest of the team.

As the last quarter approached, the manager replaced Schurrle – again, off the pace – with the steadying influence of Jon Obi Mikel. Next, Diego Costa set off on an invigorating run which resulted in a crisp pass to Hazard, who had supported the marauding centre-forward, but whose shot flew over the bar. For all of Arsenal’s possession, they very rarely tested Cech.

The atmosphere was not brilliant, though there were times when the home faithful did their job. The “ole, ole, ole, ole” and the “Jose Mourinho” chants seemed to galvanise the support. With just over ten minutes remaining, Fabregas took control in the middle of the pitch and lofted a high ball over the sleeping Arsenal backline. Who else but Diego Costa darted free and just…just!…reached the ball before the Arsenal ‘keeper could clear. He chested it down and in one movement delicately lofted it over the beaten Szsczszceseszsncy.

Stamford Bridge went into orbit.

GET IN, 2-0.

I snapped away as he jumped and screamed in pleasure down in Parkyville. I hope that the North Americans were able to snap a few too.

Superb.

It was Diego’s ninth goal in seven league games.

And it was game over.

Ah, the absolute joy of being able to sing “One Team In London” without fear of being incorrect.

There was even disbelief and then sudden merriment as Diego da Silva Costa blazed over from six yards after a fine move down the right; the linesman thankfully, in the circumstances, ruled him offside.

At the end of the game, I met outside the Peter Osgood statue in order to sort out yet more tickets for other friends. By doing so, I had unwittingly missed a few scuffles down at Fulham Broadway which had resulted in a few punches being thrown between a few Arsenal and Chelsea followers.

So, let’s re-cap.

Seven games played.

Five points clear.

And…the international break.

Damn you.

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