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 A Day Of Chelsea Smiles.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 March 2014.

In many ways this Chelsea Saturday was similar to so many other Chelsea Saturdays that I have been detailing over the past five or six seasons in this series of match reports. As the words tumble out of my head and onto my laptop and then eventually onto the internet, it is quite likely that veteran readers will spot familiar themes and possibly even repeated sentences that I have aired before. This, I suppose, is the result of my Saturday routine being relatively constant; it is also the result, thankfully, of supporting a hugely successful football club.

I was up early. The crisp morning air was so refreshing and it stirred me. After waking at the ridiculous time of 6am and having walked out to my car to deposit my match day essentials – coat, camera, coffee cup – within it, there was a noticeable spring in my step.

I felt like “Spring-heeled Jim” – or something similar.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, we were playing Arsenal and London was calling to the faraway towns. This was going to be a good one.

Lord Parky was collected bang on 7.30am and even this simple act brought me a ripple of pleasure. It was lovely to see his smiling face; he too, was excited about the day ahead. The usual routine was followed; a breakfast en route, strong coffees, the M4 east, the Wiltshire countryside racing by, New Order’s “Technique” album on the CD player, Parky’s voice booming, talk of Palace next Saturday, then Paris soon after.

A Chelsea Saturday.

Mile, mile, mile, smile, smile, smile, zoom, zoom, zoom.

After only two hours since I collected His Lordship, we were parked up. There was a cold wind blowing down the North End Road, but the brilliant blue sky suggested warm weather as the day unravelled. Not for the first time I had made arrangements to meet up with a first-time visitor from the US for this game.

While I waited for Natalie and her mother Sandy to arrive outside the megastore, Parky chatted to a steward that he knows from The Shed. She mentioned that Chelsea received a pat on the back from UEFA because no pyrotechnics were spotted within the ranks of the Galatasaray fans at last Tuesday’s game.  I presumed that some Turkish fans had tried to smuggle some flares in to the game, but had lost this battle with the stewards during the usual search of coats, pockets and bags. Ironically, I had my own personal battle with a steward in the MHU last Tuesday. As most people are surely aware, I take many photographs on a typical match day. Officially, cameras are not allowed in football stadia because they breach copyright laws; officially, that is. As everyone knows, thousands of photographs are taken at every game by fans these days, using a variety of cameras and phones. A blind eye is usually turned. However, one of my lenses literally “sticks out a mile” and so – despite using it at games for the past few years – a steward has recently spotted me and a battle of wits has ensued. On Tuesday came another warning.

What disappointed me most on Tuesday was the way that the steward spoke to me. I am a season ticket holder of some seventeen years, yet was rudely warned of a letter from the club and even the confiscation of my season ticket. It left me annoyed and dismayed to be honest. Only at football are customers treated so poorly. However, I am no fool; for the next few games I am going to lie low and only use my normal wide-angle during games. It is a small price to pay.

Outside the busy megastore, I looked up and spotted a familiar face from far away. I first met Jon, an ex-pat who now lives in Boca Raton in Florida, out in Chicago in 2006 and again in New York in 2012. He was here with his wife and two boys and his father. This was a nice surprise for both of us; it was the first time we had bumped into each other at Stamford Bridge. This was a big day for him; his youngest son Kyle was one of the two mascots. I always remember first meeting Jon outside the Chelsea hotel in Chicago. I had been tipped-off by a friend that Chelsea were staying close to where I was lodging, just off the Magnificent Mile. Jon, who is a travel agent, had a more unique way of working it out. He picked out the three most expensive hotels in downtown Chicago and decided to call each in turn. He phoned the first one – I think it was the Grand Hyatt – and gambled. He asked to speak to Mr. Frank Lampard. To his pleasure, he was put straight through.

Frank : “Hello?”

Click…

Ten minutes later, Jon was outside on the pavement, chatting to me.

Good times. Of all my visits to the US following the club, Chicago was one of the best.

Natalie and her mother Sandy soon arrived and we quickly departed up into the hotel bar. Unfortunately we had just missed meeting a couple of former players, but we still enjoyed the pre-game routine. There was the usual toast –

“Friendship And Football.”

Natalie had already seen three Chelsea games – New York 2012, St. Louis 2013 and Miami 2013 – but this would be her Stamford Bridge debut. Natalie used to play football – a striker – but suffered the same injuries as our own Fernando Torres. She said that she felt a bond with him; he is her favourite player. I was keen to find out what Natalie had made of her first week in London; it was all positive. There was talk of the game ahead, mutual friends, rivalries, the NFL in London, the dreaded 39th game, London itself, friendship scarves, hooliganism, past players, college basketball; no stone was left unturned.  While I escorted Natalie out as kick-off time approached, Parky guided Sandy out into “Frankie’s” where she would watch the ensuing game; I had, unfortunately, been unlucky in my search for a second ticket. There was a longer-than-usual wait at the turnstiles of the Matthew Harding and I felt annoyed with myself. Not only would Natalie miss a little of the immediate pre-match routine, but I would miss out on getting some photos of Kyle for Jon. However, I joked that this indeed was turning out to be a normal Chelsea match day; it is typical Chelsea to stay in the pub for “one last pint” and only reach our seats with seconds to spare.

“Proper Chelsea.”

I wished the troublesome steward a courteous “good afternoon” and we took our seats alongside Alan.

We were in.

I quickly scanned the team and saw that David Luiz was partnering Nemanja Matic at the base of the midfield, with Andre Schurrle alongside Oscar and Eden Hazard. Sadly for Natalie, Mourinho went with Samuel Eto’o and not Fernando Torres. I cared not who was playing for Arsenal. Natalie was impressed with the view; she had been on the stadium tour during the week, but this was the real thing.

A packed house, sunny blue skies, a London derby.

Let’s go.

Arsenal – ironically in the circumstances – created the game’s first chance when Giroud broke into the box and shot low to Petr Cech’s left. Thankfully, our tall goalkeeper was able to drop quickly and touch it away; it was a fine save.

Our response was immediate and dramatic. We broke at speed with Schurrle playing in Samuel Eto’o on the right. Just like against Galatasaray on Tuesday, Eto’o advanced into the inside-right channel and aimed. On this occasion he chose his left foot rather than his right. He curled a delightful shot past Scizieszcznnsy into the far portion of the Arsenal goal. I was right behind the path of the ball and was yelling my approval as it hit the back of the net.

YEEEEEESSSSSSSS!

I turned to Natalie; joy unbounded.

I turned to Alan.

In an unemotional, impassive voice –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

In a dull voice, Arsenalesque –

“Come on my little diamonds.”

What a start. Just like Tuesday, an early opener from our number twenty-nine. Noticeably, I celebrated this one ten times as much as the one in the Champions League. The Matthew Harding roared –

“Samuel Eto’o – Samuel Eto’o – Hello’o – Hello’o.”

More followed, immediately. Matic won a ball and played in the raiding Schurrle. He quickly dispatched the ball into the same far corner. Only six minutes were on the clock. I lost my footing and fell into the row in front. Half of me wanted to scream in pain – ow, my bloody shin – and half of me wanted to scream in pleasure.

Natalie was in blue heaven.

The stadium erupted in mocking song –

“Are You Tottenham In Disguise?”

Sadly, Samuel Eto’o was substituted after a knock, but Natalie was more than excited to see her man Nando replace him.

Another goal was soon on its way…

A move down our left found Torres, who neatly tee’d up Eden Hazard to shoot. To our eyes in the Matthew Harding, the ball fizzed past the far post and I exclaimed in pain. However – and this came as a complete surprise to me – the referee not only gave a penalty to us, but brandished a red card to an Arsenal player. The reasons were unclear to all of us. Gibbs was creating merry hell, but took my advice – “get off, you prick.”

Eden Hazard steadied himself and slotted the ball in.

After just sixteen minutes : Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

I had to run through my memory bank of previous Chelsea-Arsenal games. Have I ever enjoyed such a score line at Stamford Bridge?

The Chelsea crowd were now in party mode.

“Arsene Wenger – We Want You To Stay.”

“Specialists In Failure – You Know What You Are.”

“Arsene Wenger – A Thousand More Games.”

Just grand.

Then, miracle of miracles, the often derided Arsenal support – search for “Arsenal Away Boyz” on “You Tube “if anyone doubts me – engaged in a little bit of humorous banter.

Chelsea : “Robin van Persie – he left ‘cus you’re shit.”

Arsenal : “Michael Duberry – he left ‘cus you’re shit.”

We enjoyed more possession and Arsenal were nowhere. Just before the break, Fernando Torres advanced into the box and picked out Oscar, who prodded the low ball in at close range.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 0.

Ho ho ho ho.

There was an air of joyous disbelief at the break. Natalie, quietly taking it all in, was lost for words. Elsewhere, others were more effusive. This was just lovely stuff from us and the second-half lay ahead…just lovely.

At the break, former defender – and one time goalkeeper – and manager David Webb, wearing a garish raincoat, walked with Neil Barnett around the Bridge. He was warmly applauded. We don’t see much of him at Chelsea, which is a shame. You get the feeling he is a “one-off”, a unique character, his own man, a maverick. You rarely see him at Chelsea functions. For me, seeing him was bittersweet; it reminded me of the dark days of 1993, when Webby took charge of the club for a couple of months, steering us clear of relegation, but it was a time when I lost my father too.

In the programme, there was an article by Rick Glanville about the “82,905” game, with previously unseen photographs. Splendid stuff.

So, the second-half. While every single one of us wanted more goals, I think most knew that it is very rare for a team to keep scoring at such a rate over the complete ninety minutes. I kept looking over towards the away support to see if many had decided to leave

To be fair, only a few had left at half-time.

The game, typically, died a little after the break. There were moments of inactivity. We prayed for at least one more goal. Torres set up Oscar whose rasping shot was tipped over. Just after the hour, out of nothing really, the ball was played to Oscar on the edge of the box. With that lovely movement of his – neat, minimal effort, so natural, so efficient – he moved the ball onto his right foot and shot at Szcizciesncny. The effort was hardly powerful, so imagine my surprise when the ball kicked up and flew past his pathetic dive.

Chelsea 5 Arsenal 0.

Ho ho ho ho ho.

Mohamed Salah – the forgotten man of late – then replaced Oscar. After only a few minutes, the strong and determined Matic  guided a great ball through the haphazard Arsenal defence and Salah was through on goal. He steadied himself. We waited.

“Go on my son.”

Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0.

Ho ho ho ho ho ho.

Now it was time for the Arsenal supporters to head home. The replica-shirted Goons soon left. They came to Stamford Bridge to celebrate Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge of their team, but endured Arsenal’s worst ever defeat at the hands of Chelsea in 107 years.

Natalie – you certainly picked a good one for your Stamford Bridge debut.

Arsenal are a bloody strange club. Let’s be honest; they are run on sound financial lines, but the club seems to be headed to eternal mediocrity due to their reluctance to gamble and to invest in the right areas. Occasionally it pays to dream. Wenger seems incapable of changing though. In many ways, the Arsenal club is still in love with him because of his ground-breaking training methods and his style of football which once charmed North London – so used to pragmatic and boring football over the years – in 1998, but now seems to be too rigid, too easy to counter, too predictable.

As if I care.

After the game, I was able – at last – to get a photograph of Natalie and Sandy with Mr. Chelsea himself, Ron Harris, back in the crowded hotel. Then, we slowly walked past a few Chelsea pubs to the familiar area outside The Lillee Langtry, where we met up with a few of the usual suspects. Natalie had loved her Chelsea day. It had been perfect. There was already talk of her next visit.

On a day of goals, the only negative – apart from the shower of hail stones which accompanied our walk back to the car – were the big wins for both Manchester City and Liverpool. They aren’t going away are they?

Crystal Palace – my first visit to Selhurst Park in almost eleven years – next.

See you there.

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