Tales From Seat 369

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 17 October 2015.

Some words to accompany twenty pictures from a typical Chelsea Saturday in 2015.

One : M4.

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On the elevated section of the M4 motorway, with the floodlights of Griffin Park ahead, Stamford Bridge was near. Amidst a CD of Northern Soul, a thought or two of the game ahead.

“This is a game that we will win, boys. Villa are bloody rubbish.”

“If we lose, they’ll sack him.”

“Nah. Not at all.”

Two : Pints.

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The pubs around Chelsea, sadly, are in decline. There is always The Goose, but The Wee Imp closed after the Southampton game, with the Prince Of Wales and the Lillee Langtry to close within a few months to make way for flats. The Wellington closed recently, following close on the heels of The Barrow Boy. The Rylston, last visited before the Bradford City cup loss at the start of the year, is a fine boozer. With Glenn driving, at last I was able to indulge in a few beers for the first time this season since the US. Oh, and Porto. How could I forget?

Lager : Chris.

Cider : PD.

Pale Ale. : Glenn.

Cider : Parky.

Three : Adidas.

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“Cracking tee-shirt, mate.”

Standing not running.

“Like you have any choice, Parky.”

Four : Head And Foot.

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“Peroni” lager, “Nike” trainers and “Henri Lloyd” jeans. After a very tough week at work –  long hours, relentless – this was time for me to relax in the beer garden. The autumnal sun of a fortnight earlier had faded, but the cool air outside was most welcome.

Five : Football Clobber.

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Glenn has owned a fair bit of “Napapijri” over the years. He loved his skidoo jacket. This one is worn by Parky, with a Chelsea Remembrance Sunday badge perfectly placed.

Six : Weekend Pleasures.

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A half-full, or a half-empty pint of lager, and a football functional top from “Weekend Offender”, a new player on the football scene of recent seasons. No frills, just football.

Seven : Two For A Fiver.

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Flags and emblems, club and country, nationalism, patriotism, rivalries, identity, poppies and something for the ladies.

Eight : Tube.

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The first cold Saturday of the season and I spent an inevitable few minutes deciding what to wear. This “Armani Jeans” number came out on top. Muted blue, just right. With a new Chelsea badge alongside.

“Right, who wants another beer?”

Nine : Game.

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The team news were discussed in the boozer. Begovic in goal. With Ivanovic out, Baba Rahman was in at left-back, with Cesar Azpilicueta shunted over to right-back. JT with King Kurt in the middle. The team line-ups suggested Loftus-Cheek alongside Ramires and this was met with approval. Further up-field, no place for Eden Hazard, with the midfield three of Pedro, Fabregas and Willian. The much-missed Diego Costa back to lead the line.

Ten : SW6.

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The walk along Fulham Road, earlier than usual, was a chance for me to slow down and take it all in. I wondered how long I would be walking along this little stretch of West London. To be honest, my renewed interest in my local team, Frome Town, has brought me an extra dimension to my football over recent years. There was a little part of me that was annoyed that I would be missing the Robins’ home game against Bedworth United. With a third new stand being constructed – a surprisingly deep side terrace, providing cover on all four sides of the increasingly impressive home ground – and an upturn in fortunes since a new manager took over, I can see myself turning towards my home town more and more over the next few seasons. My first-ever football game, after all, was at Frome Town, in 1970, when I was just five. Wait a bloody minute. There is no reason why I can’t do both is there? Of course not. And I’d hope that I am no football snob. Football at a lower level is just every bit as interesting if it means something.

Eleven : Green Green Grass Of Home.

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The “Chelsea Wall” has had more transformations recently than David Bowie, Madonna, Frank Maloney and Bruce Jenner combined. It is covered in plastic grass at the moment.

I have no punchline.

Twelve : 369.

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Alan, Glenn and I – friends from one of the seminal years of my life, 1984 – were together at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the home opener versus Swansea City. We are all so sad that neither Joe nor Tom, the true pensioners, will be well enough to attend Stamford Bridge alongside us ever again due to ill health. The passage of time. Sigh.

Thirteen : Flag.

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“Unless he is out injured, how must Scott Sinclair feel, if he can’t get into this Villa team. Should have stayed at Swansea.”

Fourteen : Captains.

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Around 1,500 away fans had descended from the Midlands for this one. A couple of flags. We hardly heard from them the whole match. Soon in to the game, the home stands combined with a hearty “Jose Mourinho.” There was a brief wave from the manager.

Fifteen : Dave.

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Arguably our most consistent player this season, it was good for me to see Dave at work in his more natural position during the first half. We began well and Loftus-Cheek came close with an effort. The predicted line-ups were evidently incorrect; it was Fabregas alongside in the defensive two, with Ruben further up-field. This surprised me really. We had all agreed in the pub that Cesc has outstayed his welcome as a holding midfielder.

“Push him further up-field.”

“Deserves to be dropped before Hazard to be honest.”

Sixteen : The First Goal.

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After an initial period of play which suggested good things to come, our play deteriorated. A header from John Terry and a free-kick from Zouma did not harm Villa. At the other end, they had a few chances of their own, with Begovic able to thwart any effort on goal. That our opening goal should come from a defensive mistake summed up the paucity of quality in the first-period. Guzan’s poor kick out to Lescot was pounced upon by the willing Willian. His square pass gave Diego Costa an easy tap in.

Phew.

I was surprised that Mourinho replaced Loftus-Cheek with Matic at the break. The lad had fared well.

Seventeen : Thanks.

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Into the second-half. we sang Diego’s name and he waved a quick “thanks.” Soon after, a lofted ball from Cesc found our number nineteen, who took the ball down and after seeing Willian unmarked on the far post, attempted to play him in. From our vantage point, we were both elated but confused when we saw the net ripple.

“How did he score that?”

On seeing the replays, I understood why his celebrations were rather muted. I guess he was almost embarrassed to score a goal such as that. Still, they all count. The support, quiet in the first period, roared for a while, with the loudest “Carefree” heard all season.

Fantastic.

Eighteen : 17.

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“To be honest, apart from that game at West Brom, I’ve not been too impressed with Pedro so far. I know many have struggled.”

“Takes a while to settle in a new league though.”

“Absolutely.”

What of the others? I have to say that Baba looked rather nervous at left-back. Let’s give him time though. Willian fizzed around, closing down where required, and running at his man. Ramires won many a tackle and supplied some energy. It was reassuring to be armed with the threat from Diego again of course.

But Villa, as if I need to say it again, were poor. Very poor.

Nineteen : Eden.

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As a late substitute, Eden joined the fray. In the few short minutes that he was on the pitch, I felt that at last I was being entertained for the first time all afternoon.

Let’s be honest, despite the win, it had been an average match at best.

Twenty : The King.

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Outside, under Peter Osgood’s boots, I collected a spare ticket for West Ham away. That match – a week away – will be an historic fixture. It will be Chelsea Football Club’s last ever game at Upton Park. And we have got a special trip lined for that one. But first, a Champions League game in Kiev.

Am I going?

No. I’m chickening out.

Tales From Three Types Of Magic

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 27 September 2014.

I didn’t go to the Capital One Cup tie with Bolton Wanderers on Wednesday. This was only the fourth time in almost ten years that I had not been present for a Chelsea home game. However, this one was a little different; for the other three, there were extenuating circumstances (Celtic friendly in 2006 – I was on holiday in the US, Arsenal league in 2013 – snowbound, Hull City league in 2013 – my mother was in ill) but this was the first time since a League Cup game against West Ham United in the autumn of 2004, that I had chosen not to attend a first team game at Stamford Bridge.

Instead, I watched on my laptop at home and the experience was, not surprisingly, odd. I felt quite distanced from the proceedings to be honest. When I attend in person, I get totally wrapped up in the game. On Wednesday, save for a little exultation and a small fist pump when Oscar carefully placed the winner inside the Bolton goal, I watched in bored silence. Bolton hardly attacked us and the shots rained in on their goal. It didn’t seem like a proper game of football. With my good friend Alan also absent – he was in Albufeira with his good lady – Stamford Bridge was without the two of us for the first time in years and years.

Don’t worry, this won’t too often – I hope – in either the near or distant future. I am, however, not attending the Maribor game either. Why? The main reason is a change in working hours which means I need to be awake at 5.45am each day. On these midweek games, I rarely get to sleep before 2am. Do the maths.

On Friday, I left work with a smile on my face. After an arduous few weeks, I was off for six whole days, with the highlights undoubtedly being Chelsea games in London and Lisbon. Although I knew that there would be a lot of painful “catching up” to attend to on my return to work, all I could think of was my six days’ away from the daily grind.

I then realised that four of these would be spent in the company of Lord Parky.

Insert punchline here.

Bless him, I can’t be too harsh. This will be His Lordship’s first “European Away” since Stockholm in 1998, and the old fool has been buzzing the past few days. At last there will be new stories from Europe for him to regale us with for the next few – er – decades.

We were in the beer garden of The Goose for 12.15pm and the weather was warm and humid. There was a little talk of Lisbon as we waited for a few friends to arrive. Alan was still in Portugal with Sue. He, in fact, returns back home on Sunday, before turning tail and heading back out to Lisbon on Monday with Gary. This surely has to be the long-distance traveller version of “making sure your girlfriend gets home OK.”

We’ll all be staying in the same hotel in Lisbon.

To see Lord Parky at the bar, downing some Super Bock, will surely be a highlight of this season.

Some faces rolled up – Dave, then Rob, then Woody and Seb, then Andy, then Chris and Nick. The Peroni was hitting several spots. At around 2.15pm, Cons arrived, a little the worse for wear after a night out on Friday, but happy to be attending another Chelsea home game. I first met Cons in the spring of last year when she was in London to attend interviews at various colleges. Originally from the Detroit area, she had since enjoyed a year at college in The Smoke and had just attained her Master’s Degree on Friday; hence the hangover. What better way to celebrate than with a Chelsea game. Her last match was the friendly with Inter in Indianapolis last summer. It was good to see her. Meanwhile, PD was turning purple and almost exploding after several minutes of gut-busting laughter with Lord Parky and Dave the Hat.

On the way up in the car, PD and I had spoken briefly about the upcoming game at Shrewsbury in the Capital One Cup. We touched on the days when our club used to play the likes Shrewsbury in the old second division and it triggered some memories of attending football back in our youth; the raw pleasure of independence, not long out of school, meeting up with mates, dressing in the correct manner, making sure your trainers were clean and your polo shirt ironed, the pre-batch revelry, the uncertainty of not knowing the result, the added uncertainty of not knowing if you might encounter some rough-and-tumble during the day, the sense of camaraderie, the thrill of a day on the edge.

In an instant I was transported back to a different age.

Coming in by train, stepping out on to a platform in a foreign town, and joining in the rush to get to the ground unharmed, along with hundreds of similar followers of fashion and football – a mix of surly youths intent on trouble, but also a heavy presence of normal lads overdosing on Pringle pullovers, wedge haircuts, Diadora Elite trainers, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops and Lois jumbo cords – and a rush of adrenalin and a sense of danger. Following the team.

Following your team.

The warm feeling that you got when you followed a club in the second division with a massive away following through thick and thin, while your school mates who followed the more popular teams hardly ever went to see their lot play. We were like some unknown army, existing below the radar, carving out reputations.

They were magical times for me.

With the time quickly passing, there was a massive roar inside The Goose when Everton bagged a late equaliser against Liverpool.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, it was still humid and muggy. At the Matthew Harding, one of the five turnstiles was not working and so PD, Cons and I were delayed getting to our seat. We missed the first five minutes.

I quickly settled and glanced at the eleven players down on the pitch; again, the nine ever-presents, this time supplemented by Willian and Oscar.

Lo and behold, our first attack yielded dividends. Branislav Ivanovic played a fantastic ball through to Willian, whose shot rebounded back to him. He had the presence of mind to lay the ball back to Oscar who swept the ball in, low, past Guzan. Cons and I turned to each other and yelped.

How nice of the team to wait until we were inside the stadium before they opened the scoring.

I had been reliably informed by a Villa-supporting work colleague that they had only enjoyed around 32% possession in their games so far this season. The play for the rest of the half backed-up this fact. We had tons and tons of possession as we moved the ball across all areas of the pitch and tried to expose gaps in the Villa defence. Over in the far corner, the Villa support were berating us.

“Your support is fcuking shit.”

How boring.

“Dear Aston Villa Football Club,

It has come to my attention that your supporters believe that the backing given to Chelsea by its supporters is rather lack-lustre. May I remind you that away teams are entitled to three-thousand tickets at Stamford Bridge. Until your supporters bring that full amount to Chelsea Football Club may I suggest that they wind their collective necks in.

Thank you.”

With Cesc Fabregas instrumental in our attacking endeavours – one slide rule pass to Brana had us all purring – we continually moved the ball well. Our chances started to stack up with only rare attacks from the away team. It seemed that every Chelsea shot ended up in the Shed Upper. As the first-half came to a close, the Stamford Bridge crowd became quieter and quieter. We were desperate for a second goal to kill the game off, calm our nerves and also re-energise the support.

At half-time, Neil began to introduce the half-time guest player with a few clues about his time at Stamford Bridge. I had an idea straight away, but the big clue was that he played right-back in Athens in 1971.

Yes, it was Johnny Boyle, our under-appreciated Jack-of-all-trades from our early ‘seventies pomp. As he walked around the pitch with Neil, I realised that he is sadly overlooked when supporters look back on that lovely period in our history. He often used to play in times of injury to others and he was often named as substitute. I never saw him play. Whereas others in that vaunted team were household names, Johnny Boyle would forever be the Private Sponge of the early ‘seventies Chelsea team – just outside the main troupe, with few speaking parts – leaving others to take on the roles of Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson, Corporal Jones, Godfrey, Pike, Walker and Frazer.

I spoke to Tom, alongside me, now 78 years old and we shared a few words about Josh McEachran. He also chatted to Cons about his first game in 1947. In those days, he attended a school over the water in Wandsworth and he explained that midweek games would kick-off at 2pm. Absenteeism was therefore rife on certain Wednesdays, with a good portion of the boys sidling off to cheer on the blues. At assemblies the next morning, the headmaster would often say –

“So, I see Chelsea were at home yesterday.”

For Tom, magical times.

A few chances were exchanged in the second half and Diego Costa came close. Eden Hazard, possibly showing off – not sure if Mourihno approved at just 1-0, but I’ll forgive him – attempted a lovely rabona. Soon after, a delightful passage of play involving several players set up a pinpoint cross from Dave which Diego Costa headed powerfully past – or rather through – Guzan.

“Fantastic goal.”

That was the second goal that we so needed. It was time to relax a little. Oscar almost nabbed a second, while yet more sublime trickery from Hazard resulted in a whipped cross which narrowly avoided Deigo Costa’s stoop. With an eye on Lisbon, Mourinho soon took off Hazard. I was hoping for Drogba to replace Diego Costa, just so that he could shadow Senderos for twenty minutes and try to turn him into a quivering wreck.

“Remember me?”

To be honest, I was surprised that Jose left Diego Costa on until late.

On eighty minutes, however, a strong run by our new golden scorer, involving a sublime dummy, resulted in a shot being blasted at the Villa ‘keeper. The rebound fell nicely for Willian who bundled the ball in from very close range. It capped a great all round performance by Diego Costa, who now has eight goals in six games.

So, 3-0 and an easy win.

Magical times for Cons.

At the final whistle, many of the Villa fans had begun their journey home.

I was obviously pleased with this result, ahead of a potentially awkward game on Tuesday. There were no injuries and our team continues to gel. A clean sheet was an added bonus and I hoped that the quite ridiculous noise among certain sections of our support doubting Courtois’ capabilities would quieten. A defence lets in goals, not just a goalkeeper.

Sixteen points out of eighteen – and a full nine points ahead of Liverpool, for example – and an excursion to Portugal on Monday ahead of our game against Sporting Lisbon on Tuesday.

I suppose that these are the most magical times of all.

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Tales From The Crown And Cushion

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 15 March 2014.

Villa Park is a familiar away ground. This would be my fifteenth visit with Chelsea, not including the 1996 and 2002 F.A. Cup Semi-Finals versus Manchester United and Fulham respectively. I have only seen Chelsea aways at Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal on more occasions than at Aston Villa. In the fourteen other games, there have been five Chelsea wins, five draws and four Villa wins. This was another Saturday evening kick-off and, after a particularly long and frustrating week at work in which I longed for the weekend to arrive, I was buzzing. In fact, I was buzzing more than Buzz Lightyear and Buzz Aldrin getting electrocuted while playing “buzz” in a bee’s nest with vibrators up their arses.

It’s an old cliché about football on a Saturday being the outlet for the working man’s pent up feelings of containment – and possibly resentment – at work during a working week, but this really hit home on this occasion. The previous five days in the world of logistics had certainly tested my patience. Things were so out of control that on one or two occasions I found myself chirping the circus theme and the music to a Benny Hill chase.

Thankfully, Saturday came.

Time to relax, chill a little, time to start thinking about the jaunt to Birmingham.

Weeks are made for Saturdays and Saturdays are made for football right?

I collected Lord Parky from Parky Towers at 1pm. There was a little update on our plans for the next handful of games – a little logistical planning, if you will – and we were then deep in banter and bullshit mode. That we had to win at Villa Park later in the day was imperative for our title challenge. My week had been so messy that, apart from the Manchester United vs. Liverpool encounter on the Sunday, I was oblivious to other games taking place on this particular weekend.

To be blunt, I was only interested in Chelsea. But you knew that.

We are usually creatures of habit for away games and this was no exception. I turned off the M5 at West Bromwich and began my approach to our usual parking place for an away game at Villa Park. I drove past The Hawthorns; our game there about a month ago is only one of three league games that I have missed this season. Just after 3pm, I was parked-up on Willmore Road, a tatty terraced street, strewn with litter. It was safe though. We entered our usual pub for Villa away “The Crown & Cushion.” This has been our pub of choice ever since that Chelsea vs. Fulham semi in 2002. This game, I think, was the first time that Parky and I had met up for a drink. Somewhere on the internet, there is a photo of the two of us, twelve years ago, looking much younger, in the beer garden of The Crown & Cushion. The pub was pretty quiet, save for a few Villa fans and a few locals of West Indian descent. On the menu board were Caribbean specialities such as patties and ackee and saltfish. We promised each other “next time.” The barman soon sussed we were Chelsea, but there was no bother.

Inside the men’s’ toilet, there was some graffiti which issued the proclamation –

“This pub is 100% underclass.”

Just as I was finishing my second pint, I was very surprised to see a familiar face enter the pub. Roy is a well-known Chelsea supporter who sits within range of Alan and me in the MHU. Roy explained that he had “done” most pubs within a two-mile radius of Villa Park and was simply keen to experience a new boozer. I have to admit, I’ve only “done” two pubs at Villa. The area around the stadium is far from salubrious.

The familiar walk to the stadium was over within fifteen minutes. The red brick of the Aston Hotel blended in with the red brick of the old industrial units and the tramway building. Ahead, the red brick and the steel cladding of the Doug Ellis Stand on Witton Lane were visible. On my first few visits to the ground between 1986 and 1991, there were terraced houses on Witton Lane and the existing stand was a simple single-tiered structure. Villa Park is certainly a grand old stadium – or it was before extensive rebuilding over the past three decades – and so of course it is now a grand, largely, new stadium. The oldest current stand is the two-tiered North Stand, which was built in the late ‘seventies. Chelsea were massed within it for the Fulham game in 2002. I was impressed with the small circular pin badges being sold by a street-side “grafter.” In addition to the Villa lion, each badge featured “Aston Villa” at the top and a selection of areas of Birmingham beneath. What a great idea.

“Aston Villa – Balsall Heath.”

“Aston Villa – Castle Bromwich.”

“Aston Villa – Erdington.”

“Aston Villa – Sutton Coldfield.”

“Aston Villa – Solihull.”

I am sure that Birmingham City fans will protest that their club controls the southern areas of the city and Villa the north, but surely this is Villa’s city. They’ve always been a large club. I remember my maternal grandfather saying that he had a soft spot for them.

Just before we met plenty of familiar faces outside the away turnstiles, I asked a WPC to take a photo of Parky and me outside the stadium and the inevitable bustling street scene. Photograph taken, we walked past five PCs.

Parky quipped – “that’s Crimewatch taken care of.”

For once – and for the first time in years – we were sat in the Lower Tier. I was happy with that; we’re usually shoved up above, usually right at the back. I hoped that I’d enjoy being closer than usual to the action than normal. Despite all of the changes at Villa Park over the years, there is a part of me which appreciates that the wildly off-centre players’ tunnel has stayed in the same location. I was very happy with the team; possibly our current strongest starting XI? With many Chelsea having been stationed in the city’s pubs for a right royal blue sesh, the away fans were in fine voice. I briefly chatted to Jeremy, a Chelsea fan from Kansas; his first ever domestic Chelsea away game. I could see that he was buzzing too.

News had filtered through that Manchester City had eked out a 2-0 win at Hull City, despite having Vincent Kompany dismissed. The pressure was back on us to keep on winning…

As the game began, I certainly enjoyed being so close to the action – Cesar Azpilicueta especially – even though I was a good fifteen rows from the front. At such close quarters, you get a lovely appreciation of the sheer speed of the game. As both teams toiled to impose themselves, I was increasingly distracted by the setting sun behind the gap twixt the Trinity Road and North Stands. Chances were at a premium, although we seemed to dominate possession. Despite Torres’ runs, Willian’s energy and Hazard’s obvious silky skills, we were unable to carve out many chances. Benteke occasionally threatened. Torres had a couple of efforts. This was hardly a classic. After a corner from the left, the ball fell at the feet of Nemanja Matic, possibly our best player thus far, who slotted home. The away support feverishly celebrated, but then came the gnawing realisation that the goal had not been given. But surely I saw the referee Chris Foy point to the spot? I quickly looked around at the faces of others in my midst, and confusion reigned. Nobody was sure.

Then – it immediately dawned that a free-kick had instead been awarded.

“Why?”

To add insult to injury, a rampaging Ramires was stopped in his tracks but only a yellow was deemed necessary.

Not to worry. After Fulham and Tottenham, a strong second-half was almost expected.

Now it was time for me to really revel in my closeness to the skills of Willian, Hazard et al. Firstly, though, the more robust Ivanovic sent in a lovely cross into the Villa box which caused all sorts of mayhem. However, a mixture of dogged defending and pure luck kept the ball out. We were well on top now, but goal scoring chances were very rare. A weak effort from the quiet Oscar summed it all up.

Villa’s best chance of the game came on the hour when Weimann’s effort flashed past Cech’s post.  Then, the game changed. Watching live, down low, my immediate view was that Willian just got too close too soon to Delph and the entanglement of bodies was almost inescapable; in that moment when Foy dished out a red, I immediately remembered that Willian had previously been booked. Willian showed naivety in getting so close to his man when he was already on a yellow. A chase from behind rarely ends with a clean tackle.

A text soon came through stating that the second yellow was very harsh.

Just like Frank’s game last season, Chelsea were down to ten men at Villa Park.

A Hazard free-kick didn’t threaten the Villa goal. I was still convinced that we would get a win, though. A free-header from Villa drifted wide.

With just ten minutes to go, we lost possession and the otherwise impressive Matic missed a tackle and Delph broke away. The ball was played out wide to Albrighton. As soon as the ball was played quickly in, there was a grim inevitability about what would happen next. Delph readjusted and the ball bounced goal bound. Before it hit the net, I was already shouting out in pain.

Branislav Ivanovic was pushed forward in the closing moments as we chased goals. This is a Mourinho ploy; I similarly remember Robert Huth playing upfront in the closing moments of “that” CL game at Anfield in 2005.

In the end, our exploits were frustratingly hindered further when Ramires, sprinting away from our defensive third, lost possession and lunged at a Villa player. I was unsighted to be honest. However, another text was damning; it was a terrible foul.

A deflected effort from Delph spun up and crashed off the bar in extra time. A second goal would have been the final straw, the final twist of the knife. Immediately after the final whistle, all the talk – no, the bile and hate – was of referee Foy. Over the entire game, though, we had not created enough chances. We were, quite simply, not good enough. There was – yet again – a lack of desire and drive in our play. I would hate to think that Tuesday’s encounter with Galatasaray was the reason for our malaise.

Outside, there were minor scuffles as home and away fans goaded each other. A Villa fan held out his hands and bellowed –

“Yippeeh aye ay.

Yippeeh aye ooh.

Holte Enders in the skoi.”

Parky and I just walked on. We were quiet. As I drove through Perry Bar and Handsworth, trapped behind slow-moving traffic, I confided in Parky –

“I know it hasn’t been a great day. We played poorly. But I still love this life, mate.”

On the weekend that marked my fortieth anniversary of my first ever Chelsea game – 16 March 1974 – I was hoping that the occasion would be marked with three massive points. It wasn’t to be.

Let’s hope that there is a celebration on Tuesday night.

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Tales From A Brand New Canvas

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 21 August 2013.

Chelsea’s 2013-2014 league season began on Sunday 18th. August, but it began without me. For the first time in ten years, I had been forced to miss a league-opener. Back in 2003, my mother was hospitalised and so I missed the euphoria and joy of the first four home games under new owner Roman Abramovich; that strange honeymoon period of stratospheric optimism induced by wave after wave of new signings which brought unbridled hope to Chelsea supporters everywhere.  Back in August 2003, Adrian Mutu was the new crowd favourite, “Chelski” T-shirts were worn with pride on the Fulham Road and “Kalinka” was top of the Stamford Bridge hit parade. Ten years later, despite initial fears about the longevity of our Russian oligarch’s long term plan, we have witnessed previously undreamed riches. The silverware has been plundered at regular intervals, the club has become a global super-power and we have all enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. On Wednesday 21st. August, it was time for me attend my own personal opener of the season, to pay tribute to Roman’s ten years at the helm and to welcome back the returning Jose Mourinho. In truth, it felt decidedly odd being late to the party. As I drove into London with Old Parky and Young Jake, music blaring wildly, it felt that I had missed all of the fun from Sunday.

After stepping back inside The Goose, the first Peroni of the season was quaffed and I was back amongst friends. There were Chelsea smiles, Chelsea handshakes, Chelsea backslaps and Chelsea kisses and I soon felt involved once again.

Outside in the beer garden, I stood with Daryl, Alan and Gary. All four of us had lost some weight over the summer but there was a gnawing inevitability that this would be the lightest we would be through the entirety of 2013-2014. All of those lagers, all of those cholesterol heavy fry-ups and all of those stops at motorway service stations would surely take their toll by May. Alan handed me my away tickets for the upcoming fixtures in Manchester and Merseyside. The season was up-and-running. In truth, I have had a dull and uneventful summer, with long hours at work and few memorable days in the sun. I wasn’t too bothered; it was a time to recuperate after the long haul of the previous season. After 58 games in 2011-2012, I tallied 57 in 2012-2013. I have my sights set on a similar number in 2013-2014.

Fingers crossed.

I chatted to Alan and we quickly reviewed the events of Sunday. It was no surprise that we mentioned the typically Mourinho-esque – whether intentional or not – performance from his new Chelsea team. A spellbinding first period (I am sure Jose would have bristled at Graeme Souness’ Barcelona comparison on Sky) saw us leap into a 2-0 lead, only for a more subdued performance in the second-half. This was so typical of the first-era Mourinho team, almost to the point of ironic self-parody.

“Get ahead. Kill the game. After an hour we have won and I am resting players for the next game.”

As Alan and I chatted about Mourinho, the smiles from both our faces were proof that we were so excited to have him back at our club.

After walking past the busy souvenir stalls along the Fulham Road – there always seems to be so much more royal blue in the shirt-sleeved crowds of August than later in the season – I turned towards the West Stand and was soon struck by a change from May. The large pictorial adornments from Wembley and Munich which hung proudly all season long are no more. There is a blank canvas for Mourinho now. What do we expect from him in 2013? A little more adventure? Is that what Roman desires? Will Jose test himself to see if he can win “another way”? With home-grown youngsters? We will wait and see what paintbrushes and what brushstrokes – what colours – he will use on this new canvas. Who can say what trophies will be referenced on that same West Stand wall throughout his second term of office? It’s fun thinking about it though, isn’t it?

Welcome back Jose.

“One Of Us.”

I bought a match programme and was pleased to see further referencing to the 1983-1984 season. My mate Glenn had bought me a programme from Sunday and the 1983-1984 campaign was featured in that one too. There were previously-unseen photos from that lovely 5-0 home opener against Derby County. I’m hoping for a season-long retrospective of that season throughout this one; just like, I hasten to add, I did throughout my 2008-2009 match reports. In further editions of this season’s programme, I’m expecting references to Pat Nevin’s end-to-end run against The Geordies, Joey Jones’ fist-pumping, Mickey Thomas’ goals and many casual comments about the terrace fashions of that crazy era in our lives. Despite the silverware of recent years, I’m still likely to name 1983-1984 as the most enjoyable season ever.

With typical Chelsea-esque inefficiency, one of the five turnstiles servicing the MHU was unmanned, but thankfully I still reached my seat with a few seconds to spare. I just caught the kick-off on film. Phew.

It was a warm and sultry evening. Aston Villa had around 1,500 in the away segment; it sounded like they were buoyant after the win against Arsenal.

A quick check of the team; I think we were all surprised to see Demba Ba in ahead of Romelu Lukaku. I was also surprised that Frank was playing. The main change was Juan Mata in for the impressive Kevin de Bruyne. Oh, Axon in for Gorham.

“Expect a steadying influence there. And lots of photos.”

Stamford Bridge was largely unchanged from May. However, I did note that all of the various supporters’ club flags, with which Chelsea has chosen to decorate Stamford Bridge in the style of badges on a back-packer’s rucksack, were missing from the West Stand.

No Philly Blues. No Hungary Blues. No Pittsburgh Blues.

In the wash? Who knows?

In my desire to capture some of the early match action on camera, the first goal caught me wrong-footed. I actually caught the moment that the ball crossed the line on film, but was only vaguely aware of how it ended up in the goal. Not to worry.

The first “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now /Come On My Little Diamonds” moment of the season.

The goal sparked some noise at The Shed End and they were in good voice for a while. Villa, never the loudest singers at Chelsea, would not be defeated though and ably battled on, even including a familiar Chelsea tune from last season in their repertoire. Chelsea enjoyed the possession without really providing much in the way of end product. Villa, wearing a kit which harked back to their 1982 European Cup win in Rotterdam, chased and closed us down well. I kept glancing over towards the suited Mourinho, tie limp around his neck, prowling in the technical area. It was a surreal sight for sure. After sowing his wild oats in Milan and Madrid, our man was back.

Midway through the first-half, I glanced around the stadium, twinkling in the late summer evening haze. For once, every seat was taken. It was a joy to behold.

Out of nowhere, Alan and I found ourselves talking about 1988. It seems like a lifetime away now, but the summer of 1988 was a low point in my – and countless others’ – Chelsea life. I had suffered relegation with Chelsea in 1975 and 1979, but my boyish enthusiasm and love for the club enabled me to keep my spirits up on those two occasions. The allure of attending games was reason enough to keep any negativity at bay. Come 1988, though, things were different. Our relegation from the old First Division in May 1988 had resulted in a summer of anxiety for me. Elsewhere, pill-popping Britain was enjoying the second Summer of Love – Acid House parties, smiley T-shirts, M25 raves – but I was fully absorbed in the fear of a sustained spell in the second tier of English football. We had, remember, become the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still be relegated; our team was simply too good to be relegated. And yet, with John Hollins and then Bobby Campbell in charge, we had been relegated amidst scenes of carnage against ‘Boro. Ahead of our league campaign, with our opening medley of home games to be ticket only with the terraces closed, we embarked on a tour of the West Country. I didn’t attend, but I know a man who did.

Alan travelled to Devon, where we played at Saltash, Dawlish and Plymouth. He had booked cheap accommodation at the halls of residence at Exeter University for the duration. Imagine his surprise when he arrived for breakfast on day one to see the entire Chelsea team staying there too. Yes dear reader, 1988 Chelsea was playing football on another – distant – planet. In 2013, Chelsea Football Club jet-setted around the globe playing friendlies in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and U.S.A. and stayed in five star hotels. In 1988, we played in Devon and stayed at Exeter University halls of residences.

I can always remember coming out of the sandstone booking hall of Fulham Broadway for the season-opener in 1988 against a recently-moneyed Blackburn Rovers and meeting up with Alan outside. My face must have been a picture of miserable discontentment because his words were :

“Bloody hell. You look pleased to be here.”

On that occasion – with the terraces shut and less than 9,000 present – we lost 2-1. Waiting at Paddington Station that night for the train home – sick of football, sick of caring too much, sick of it all – is one of the iconic moments that I’ll never forget.

As the match drew on with few chances for both sides, Alan and I commented that Jose Mourinho, if things took a while to gel, would be given slack by the Chelsea support that others could only dream of. And that is the way it is. No qualms from me. Benitez was given no slack. Villas-Boas’ slack was tightened quickly. There was no slack for Scolari. Di Matteo? Let’s not even talk about it.

With the half-time break enticing some spectators to leave for an early pint, Villa moved the ball down to Agbonlahor down in front of Jake, Alan and I in the North-West corner. The pacey Brummie played the ball back quickly and Benteke slammed the ball in off a post.

1-1.

Bollocks.

In truth, it had been a pretty mundane performance and our five midfielders had been rather unadventurous. I caustically commented to Alan;

“If Rafa was still in charge, we would have been booed off.”

The second-half began and the tone inside Stamford Bridge was all rather muted. The Villa fans kept singing, but everyone else seemed subdued. Over in the far corner, a full moon began its slow ascent into the night sky and I was soon under its spell. I took many pictures of its pure white form, occasionally hiding behind breaths of cloud as the players toiled below. I was clearly distracted. I was clearly rusty. My singing was patchy and half-hearted. Maybe I needed a few games to get back to normal.

On the hour, a half-chance but the quiet Eden Hazard fluffed his shot. Agbonlahor was then clean through but blazed over. A move down the Villa left resulted in a deep cross to the far post where two attackers were seemingly unmarked. It was Villa’s turn to fluff their chance. I breathed a sigh of relief.

A double substitution brought renewed energy to our attack, with the much-vaunted Lukaku replacing Ba, who had endured an off-night. Andrea Shurrle replaced an equally ineffective Mata. Schurrle was soon in the action, shooting from distance, but looking at ease. I’ll be honest, from my viewpoint I thought Ivanovic’ challenge on Benteke was clumsy and not vindictive. The Villa players were adamant that an injustice had occurred. Maybe we were lucky.

On seventy-two minutes, a rampaging Lukaku run was brought back to where an infringement had taken place. The ball was swung in by Frank Lampard – click – and a forest of players leaped as the ball continued its venomous course deep into the Villa box. Ivanovic leaped – click – and his header beat the diving Guzan.

2-1 Chelsea.

Brana raced over to the far side – click, click, click – and the stadium was once again reverberating with noise.

Just after, Lukaku did well to spin and slam a ball towards the Villa goal, only for it to hit the side nertting. Weimann shot low at the other end, but Petr Cech made the save of the day, stooping low to his left and clawing the ball wide.

The referee signalled an extra five minutes. This would be a testing period for us. I looked over towards the brooding Mourinho. In days of yore, at 2-1, we would have slowed the play down and calmly played the ball around the back four. An old-style Jose team would have closed it down more effortlessly. There were hurried punts up field, drastic clearances, our defence at sixes and sevens. There was no calm air of efficiency which was such a feature in the definitive 2004-2006 period. With a minute to go, the ball was punted up towards Frank who gamely raced after it. He soon gave up the race and sprinted back to his holding position. I am sure I heard him say to himself :

“What are you doing Frank? Jose won’t like that. Get back and defend you pillock.”

The whistle blew. Another three points. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t perfect.

But at least it wasn’t 1988.

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Tales From A Day Of History

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2013.

Chelsea’s game at historic Villa Park was our last domestic away match of the season. Our encounter was the only Premier League game taking place on Saturday 11 May. The F.A. Cup Final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic was set to kick-off at 5.15pm but, for some ridiculous reason, our game was not shifted with the rest of the programme to a Sunday. I can’t even begin to understand the reasoning for this; in fact, I have long given up on the FA’s ability to organise football in this country. I am sure that they would cite the Champions League Final being played on Saturday 25 May as reason enough to slot the Cup Final into a normal league programme, but why we had to share the billing with the Wembley final I do not know.

Despite a 12.45pm kick off in deepest Birmingham, I didn’t have to leave home too early. Unfortunately, Parky was still unable to accompany me to an away game. This has been a lonely old season for me on my travels around England for Chelsea’s away games. I have missed his company I must say. His last game outside of SW6 was the Community Shield game in August, ironically at Villa Park, when we lost to City. Since then, I have attended fourteen of the allotted nineteen away league games. I missed the games at Newcastle United, Sunderland, Norwich City, Everton and Liverpool. This would be my 54th. game of the season. It has been another arduous trek; I can’t say I have enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. I am sure none of us have. The away games at Arsenal and Tottenham in that gorgeous autumnal afterglow of Munich, with us four points clear, seem like they took place in another season altogether.

The road since the sacking of Roberto di Matteo in November has been rocky and there have seemed to have been hundreds of diverting and destabilising sub plots along the way. Having Rafa Benitez at the helm has been difficult. I have coped, in the main, by ignoring him.

Of course, at times our play has been breath-taking. Just think of some of the scores…eight against Villa, six against Wolves and Nordsjaelland, five against Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton. Our tricky trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have given us sustenance in times of draught. Their play has been magnificent. Eden Hazard, after a slow start, has certainly come to life in the past three months. There have been many positives.

And so – here we were. After the disappointment of three dropped points against Tottenham on Wednesday – in which, ironically, we strengthened our league position by going two points clear of Arsenal and three clear of Spurs – we faced two remaining league matches in order to grind out the requisite three points to secure that modern Holy Grail, Champions League qualification.

As I set off at 9.30am, there was no over-riding feeling of Armageddon or Doomsday about our lunchtime encounter with Villa. I ate up the miles as I headed north to Birmingham. I turned off the M5 and drove past The Hawthorns, where a placard told the story of the next game to take place at West Bromwich Albion’s neat stadium.

Manchester United – Sunday 19 May.

I found it ironic that the graveyard for Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stewardship will also witness the denouement of another manager’s club career.

It was midday and the traffic then stalled as I drove through the dowdy residential areas of Handsworth and Perry Bar. I received a text from Andy out in California, informing me that it was 4am and he was “on the road” to the Olde Ship in Santa Anna where his crew would watch the game. It re-emphasised how lucky I was to be able to attend in person.

“Don’t ever take all of this for granted, Chrissy-Boy.”

Thankfully, I was parked up on Willmore Road at 12.15pm and I then walked the fifteen minutes to Villa Park, with memories of drizzle last August when the area was over-run with the sky-blue followers of Manchester City.

I hadn’t dwelt too much on the make-up of the team which Benitez might chose, but one question dominated my thoughts –

“Will Frank Lampard start?”

I walked alongside a few Villa fans and I always find it interesting to “ear-wig” comments from other fans about Chelsea. I could tell that they were nervous. One son soon reeled off the Chelsea team that he thought might start to his father and I was suitably impressed. It proved that our players in our team are well known among the football world. Could I, in comparison, name many of the Villa players?

No. Quite clearly, no.

I had plans to take time out and photograph the red brick façade of the Holte End – which took its inspiration from the famous old stairs on the old Trinity Road Stand – but time was running out. I rushed pass the souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers…”CFCUK” and “Heroes & Villains”…and there was a busy line at the away turnstiles. Thankfully, I was soon inside. Villa Park is one of the grand dames of English football stadia. Due to its central location it has often hosted F.A. Cup semi-finals. Chelsea played two consecutive semis at Villa Park in the ‘sixties, losing to Sheffield Wednesday in front of 61,000 in 1966 but beating Leeds United in front of 62,000 the following year.

This would be my fourteenth visit to Villa Park. We have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years. Despite the size and scale of the stadium, it is not a particularly favourite away ground. I find the Villa fans to be ever so slightly too full of themselves.

I made my way up into the upper deck of the Doug Ellis Stand, formerly the single tiered Witton Lane stand, where I first ventured during two visits in 1986-1987.

There was drizzle at the start of the game; just like in August against City if memory served me correctly. I hoped for a different outcome. Alan was already in the seats; Gary arrived just before kick-off. We were right next to the wooden panels which divided the home and away spectators. The stadium seemed to be near capacity with only the executive seats in the mammoth main stand unfilled.

We took to the field in those awful black and yellow kits once more.

“OK boys, here we go.”

Of course, the sad truth is that we were pretty woeful in the first-half.

From the moment that Baker crudely tackled Juan Mata early on, it was clear that Villa were desperate for the three points. The Chelsea fans derided the home support.

“It’s so quiet, Villa Park.”

Chelsea were content to play the passing game, while Villa were looking to exploit the pace of their forwards and the apparent stiffness of our defenders. Agbonlahor – one of the few home players that I recognised – set off on a run at John Terry way down below us and the Chelsea captain just did enough to quell the danger. I didn’t fancy too many repeats of that, though.

On a quarter of an hour, Delph played the ball through to the physically impressive Benteke. I uttered the words “he’s the one to watch” just as he brushed past Cahill and deftly beat Petr Cech at the near post.

The Villa Park faithful roared.

It was their turn to mock us. The fellow residents of the Doug Ellis, mere yards away, turned towards us and chided us –

“It’s so quiet, over there.”

A claret flare was set off in the North Stand enclosure and the sulphurous fumes soon reached us. The Villa fans were in their element. After the Chelsea supporters begged of them to “speak fackin’ English” they responded.

“You all talk fanny over there.”

At least they can never ever taunt us with –

“Have you won the European Cup?”

On nineteen minutes, we stood and clapped along with the Villa fans in support of Stiliyan Petrov.

Down on the pitch, we were really struggling. Ramires was booked, Delph came close and Villa were in control. We looked tired, so tired. The isolated Demba Ba was only given scraps. However, a lofted ball from Mata found Ba inside the penalty box – alone, having evaded the offside trap, with only Guzan to beat – but his touch was heavy and the chance passed.

There was frustration and, at times, derision, in my midst. Although the Chelsea support was in good form at the start, at times during the first-half it was the quietest for some time. The rain gave way to bright sunshine, but our play was tepid and dull. Moses, especially, seemed to be lacking focus.

Then, a half-chance as Frank Lampard unleashed a free-kick at goal after Hazard was fouled. The shot was knocked onto a post by Guzan but was gathered before a Chelsea player could follow-up. These were testing times. It was also a physical battle. Referee Lee Mason brandished a yellow to Benteke for an assault on Azpilicueta. Then, a yellow card for Terry. Our thoroughly rotten first-half continued as Ramires – stupidly – tackled Agbonlahor with a high boot. His second yellow meant that we were down to ten men.

At the half-time break, all was doom and gloom in Birmingham. I personally saw no way out of this. It looked like it would be “5hit or bust” against Everton next Sunday.

“There’s no way we’ll win this, Gal.”

“The only way back into this is if they get a player sent-off too, Chris.”

We couldn’t even enjoy Amsterdam in the expected manner with the threat of a fifth-place finish on our minds. I thought of David Moyes’ awful away record against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United; how typical for him to get a first win in over forty games against these four teams in his very last Everton match.

Pah.

Thankfully, Benitez replaced the woeful Moses with David Luiz at half-time.

Villa – attacking the Holte End – began with several half-chances. With their pace, I really wondered if our rear-guard would hold firm. Our support was still quiet. I heard a bird sing in Aston Park.

Then, salvation. A raised foot by Benteke on Terry and – YES! – Mason showed the Villa frontman his second yellow.

“Not only are they down to ten men, Al; he’s their main threat.”

Game most definitely on.

Soon after, the ball was worked to Frank Lampard who was loitering just outside the box. He pushed the ball square – making life difficult for him, I thought – but crashed a left-footed screamer past Guzan in the Villa goal.

There is nothing better than seeing the net ripple.

It was goal 202.

It was the equaliser, in more ways than one.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

In the melee that followed, I was able to capture his run, his point skywards, his smiles, his moment. The Chelsea fans roared all around me; we were now unleashed. We were ecstatic to get the equaliser, but beside ourselves with elation for Frank to see his destiny fulfilled.

Bobby Tambling 202.

Frank Lampard 202.

With half an hour still to play, we roared the team on. With the fresher legs of David Luiz seeming to energise the players around him, we looked fresher and more confident. Villa, though, still had the occasional chance. After a Gary Cahill shot was blocked, Demba Ba followed up but the ball was again cleared from the goal line. To my eyes, some fifty yards away, I wasn’t convinced that the whole ball had crossed the line. Incoming texts – biased, of course – indicated that the ball was over, but it really was too close to call.

I fancied the day to end in our favour. I turned to Gary and said –

“Frank Lampard. Penalty. Five minutes to go.”

In truth, I was a little dismayed that I hadn’t captured Frank’s goal on film. A penalty would allow me to capture number 203 for sure.

John Terry collapsed on the floor and was clearly in pain. As he was stretchered off, I was truly saddened by the applause and cheers cascading down from the home sections of Villa Park. In all of my time watching live football, I don’t think I have ever seen a badly injured player being booed and jeered as he lay on a stretcher. We turned to the hundreds of nearby Villa fans and vented our dismay at their cruel and callous actions.

I turned to the bloke behind me, incredulous: “We never do that at Chelsea do we?”

That was it. I hoped we would score and send them down.

The chances came and went. Frank headed a chance well over and he looked very frustrated. Free-kicks from Mata and Luiz were poor. The minutes ticked by. Maybe we would have to hope for Stoke to beat Spurs on Sunday for Champions league qualification to be realised. Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba. The last roll of the dice?

Then, the moment.

Luckily, I pulled my camera up to my eyes as Ashley Cole played the ball to Eden Hazard who skipped deep into the Villa box. I clicked as he pulled the ball back towards the onrushing Frank Lampard. With a rush of adrenalin which happens every so often at football, I watched through my lens as Frank swept the ball home.

I clicked again.

The net rippled.

The away section of Villa Park shook.

The 3,000 Chelsea fans uttered a guttural roar and I continued clicking as Frank was joined by Torres and Mata down below me. The rest of his team joined him and then many Chelsea fans jumped over the advertisement hoardings and engulfed our heroic scorer.

Frank had done it.

203.

It was an amazing turnaround to a game – and possibly a season – that was drifting away from us. How typical for Frank to single-handedly rescue our game in such breathtakingly dramatic style. That the record-breaking two goals should mean so much to our club was – perhaps, whisper it – written in the stars. They were two archetypal Lampard goals too; the blast from outside the box which swerved past the hapless ‘keeper and the classic run, perfectly timed, to meet the ball and sweep home.

The rest of the game was – as they say – a blur. Seven minutes of extra time added to the drama. Unfortunately, Eden Hazard was injured and was taken off. We were down to nine men. We withstood a late Villa rally.

It was time for one last rallying-call –

“We Know What We Are, We Know What We Are – Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

The referee eventually blew.

Everyone around me hugged and shook hands. Our joy was stratospheric.

Quickly, the players walked over to us…first Ash, then Nando, then Frank. The sun was bathing everyone in glorious light.

I snapped away as Frank smiled and laughed, spotting familiar fans in the lower tier, hugging his team mates. He was clearly relieved and overjoyed. I was so pleased for him.

Petr Cech hoisted Frank high on his shoulders and, as I continued snapping away, I fought back a tear.

How wonderful that Frank eventually beat Bobby Tambling’s Chelsea goal haul at the very ground where Bobby scored five for Chelsea against Villa way back in 1966.

Frank – a few words.

You have given me so many wonderful moments as a Chelsea supporter over the years, from the goals at Bolton for that first title in fifty years in 2005, to the emotional penalty against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final in 2008, to the F.A. Cup Final winner in 2009, to the free-kick against Spurs at Wembley last season, to a penalty in Munich, to goals 202 and 203 at Villa Park in 2013. Your professionalism, your dedication, your spirit and your strength are much admired by us all.

We love you to bits.

On the drive home, I was blissfully happy. We had qualified for the Champions League – sure. But the over-riding feeling was of pride in Frank Lampard’s dramatic achievement on yet another momentous day in the club’s history.

…202…203…how about 204 in Amsterdam?

See you out there, Frank.

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Tales From The Confidence Game

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 23 December 2012.

This game was all about getting back in to the groove again. After my fantastical flight of fancy to Tokyo, there was a chance that the game with Aston Villa might be a test of my dedication, or at least my enthusiasm. However, this would be my oldest CFC mate Glenn’s first game since Munich, so it was all about getting him back in the groove, too.

Glenn collected me at 11am. This was to be a treat for me; a door-to-door collection and delivery service which would enable me to get a few beers down my neck.

With Lord Parky having an extended leave of absence (he was unable to travel due to a few ailments rearing their ugly head once more), this was just like the old days for Glenn and myself. As he headed over Salisbury plain and past Stonehenge, we chatted about my experiences in the Far East. And we chatted about the past. I have known Glenn since 1977 and started going to football with him in 1983. With a house and mortgage to pay for, he stopped going regularly in 1986 and it was a couple of years before our paths would cross, excepting a few boozy conversations in various Frome hostelries.

In November 1988, with Chelsea starting to find our feet after relegation to the old second division, I was up in London for the game with Sunderland. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save some money to embark on a lengthy holiday in North America (starting point unknown) but was still going to a Chelsea game every four weeks or so. I had travelled up on the train to Paddington by myself, and was on my way to Fulham Broadway to meet my college mate Ian, who would eventually accompany me on my jaunt around the US and Canada in 1989. It would have been around midday and I was on the southbound district line train, just south of Earls Court. I looked up and who should be standing opposite, no doubt clocking the talent in the train carriage, but Glenn.

“Hello mate. What are you doing here?” I said ironically.

Well, what a surprise. Brilliant. Glenn had travelled up with the folks from his work – a carpet factory – who were off to see the Lord Mayor’s Show. It was a free coach and Glenn took advantage; he, meanwhile was off to see Chelsea. How lucky that our paths would cross on that tube train. It was our first game together since Spurs away in late August 1987. We had a couple of beers at the “Kings Arms” before Ian joined us. We then shot over to “The Black Bull” where Alan was drinking. I was soon off to see Juventus vs. Napoli, so the talk was varied as we caught up with each other’s lives. Alan had season tickets in the front row of the East Upper in those days, but Ian, Glenn and I watched from The Shed. In truth, it was a poor game watched by 19,000. It ended-up 1-1. I always remember that Sunderland went ahead with a fine strike by Marco Gabbiadini. The Geordies used to have a special song for him –

“He is an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie Mackem bastard Gabbiadini.”

Kevin Wilson equalised, but it was a poor game. After the game, Ian and I met up with another mate in the West End and we embarked on a pub-crawl – as was often the case in that 1988-1989 season – before heading back to their gaff in Woking on a late train from Waterloo.

Good times.

Twenty-four years later, Alan, Glenn and I would be drinking and laughing again.

Great friends.

In The Goose, everyone was thrilled to see Glenn once again. As it happened, there was a more than healthy turnout from friends all over England. The Nuneaton posse were well represented. Simon, fresh from the filming of his biggest feature “Still,” was back in circulation along with his son Milo. The filming has gone very well and it is “in the can” awaiting the laborious process of editing. Simon promised us all places at the premier. I can’t wait for that.

Glenn was all smiles as he hopped around the tables, chatting away to the folks who make our Chelsea so special. I know it is the festive season, the time for over-sentimentality, but we are both truly blessed to know so many “top geezers” at Chelsea.

The game was hardly mentioned as we walked down to The Bridge.

I saw that Villa had a block of around 100 seats that they couldn’t sell out of their 1,400 allocation. At least we wouldn’t have to endure their “Have you won the European Cup?” ditty on this day and subsequent others.

Elsewhere, it was another sell-out. I quickly had words with John, Kev and Anna about Tokyo.

“This is all a bit hum drum, innit?”

Anna brought me back a pack of “Chelsea” butterscotch from Japan. I remember that Alan brought us all back the same product from one of his work jaunts to Tokyo around ten years ago.

I suppose that the big talking point was the pairing of David Luiz with Frank Lampard in the defensive midfield positions. Although Luiz is by nature a defender and Frank is more attack-minded, we hoped that this would work. I’d be happy to try out a more attack-minded formation such as this at home games. The pairing of Romeu with Mikel – to use another option – hasn’t worked too well.

Glenn was sat next to Tom – both dressed in light blue jackets, like two peas in a pod – and Alan was next to me. The boys back together once again.

In the first few minutes, David Luiz was charging up field like an unleashed stallion. However, a few errant passes caused Alan to utter –

“Come on Luiz. That’s too sloppy and casual.”

“Like Glenn in the ‘eighties” I responded.

We didn’t have to wait too long for further reason to smile. After only two minutes, Azpilicueta sent over a perfect cross for Fernando Torres to meet it a good 15 yards out. With a header which Didier Drogba would have been proud, the ball was sent crashing into the Aston Villa goal, with Guzan unable to react. It was Torres’ 26th. goal in Chelsea colours. As he raced away to the south-west corner flag to celebrate, I snapped away. In those photographs, there is joy on the face of Torres and his team mates alike. There is no reason to believe that there is “distance” between him and his team mates, despite the rumours amongst our support of him being disinterested and selfish.

Sure, Torres went through a horrible spell over the past month or so, but so did the whole team. But before that, he was working hard and scoring the occasional stunner, such as the goals against Newcastle and at Arsenal. I’m sure that the Torres of around five years ago, when Liverpool largely played a counter-attacking game – even at home – under Benitez, is long gone. Think of how many times Torres broke through to latch on to long balls from Mascherano, Alonzo and Gerrard and the ball ended up in the Kop net before anyone could blink. Those days are gone. Chelsea have, ironically, too much possession for that style of play to aid Torres. Our build-up is involves more touches. However, Benitez was absolutely correct to say that we need to get the ball up to him quicker.

It makes me chuckle to hear the legions of pro-Drogba / anti-Torres “supporters” in our midst as they complain about Torres’ lack of involvement, lack of desire and selfish and sulky behaviour.

Such derogatory comments were continually-levelled at Didier Drogba throughout every one of his eight seasons with the club.

When Drogba couldn’t be bothered in a game, there was nobody worse. He was the ultimate self-centred prima donna. In his early years, too, he was forever falling over himself and looking for free-kicks. At times, he was an embarrassment to the club. I am sure that a couple of senior professionals took him to one side after the 2005-2006 season and told him sternly “this has to stop.”

From 2006-2007, the diving abated. The petulance and moody behaviour didn’t, but that was Drogba.

In comparison, the shy Torres – a different beast completely – needs support.

And that’s where we come in.

It can’t be easy to be the absolute focus of a team’s endeavours, especially with a £50M price tag and the horrible start he had in Chelsea colours. But let’s continue our support of him. After all, he is a Chelsea player.

It’s obvious to me that Torres lacks self-confidence, but we can help rebuild that. It’s a two-way process. But that confidence is so brittle. At Sunderland, his confidence was at an all-time high when he positively took the ball and struck home a penalty. A week later in Tokyo, he looked like his confidence was shot away completely after missing that one-on-one with the Corinthians ‘keeper.

Let’s rebuild that confidence.

I can well remember a moment in my life as a young footballer when I suffered badly. I was a starter in the Frome College Third Year team of 1978-1979, playing as a right-winger, sending crosses over for a variety of centre-forwards. I thought I did OK. I scored a few goals. Only towards the end of the season did I lose my place and I subsequently played a couple of games for the “B” team. A month or so later, came my report card, which included a damning appraisal of my time in the school football team. Our sports master began by saying “Chris has virtually no confidence in his ability. He has the technique to beat a man, but far too often chooses not to…”

I was mortified. The sad thing is that throughout that entire season, the PE teacher – a Kevin Keegan lookalike called Mr. Freeman who still resides in the town – never ever came up to me to give me a pep talk or to offer advice. A show of support would have worked wonders for me I am sure. The clichéd arm was never put around my shoulder. In 1979-1980, and the subsequent few years, I played for the B team and never regained my place in the first team. My confidence was shot.

Let’s all put our arm around Torres’ shoulder, plus any other player who is suffering through a loss of that vital commodity, confidence. This has always been my view. I don’t go to Chelsea to berate players unnecessarily. Sure, I get exasperated at times, but I just wish fellow fans would offer whole-hearted support at games, rather than become 40,000 critics.

A Luiz free kick seemed to bamboozle the Villa ‘keeper and we were 2-0 up. A scramble from a corner was headed home by Ivanovic and we lead 3-0 at the break. Although there had been a minute of applause for Roberto on 16 minutes, there had been no anti-Rafa noise throughout the first-half.

We live in interesting times.

We played some lovely football in the second-half as Villa’s resistance simply melted away. I caught Frank’s low drive from thirty-yards on film and how we celebrated that. He was replaced shortly after by Ramires and received the loudest bout of adulation all season.

“Super, Super Frank…”

Villa amazingly caused Cech to deflect a shot onto his crossbar, but Chelsea simply carved out more and more chances, too numerous to catalogue here.

I missed the Ramires goal as I was outside on a comfort break, but more goals soon followed.

First, a penalty from Oscar.

6-0.

My personal favourite was the delightful piece of wizardry from Eden Hazard, a few yards in front of me. His skills were lighting up the early evening and his strong dribble into the Villa box was followed up with a strong strike high into the goal.

7-0.

At this point, the Chelsea faithful, who had been watching with growing bemusement and befuddlement, chose to ridicule the away supporters.

“Gone Christmas shopping. You should have gone Christmas shopping.”

Lucas Piazon, making his league debut, was fouled and it was another penalty. After Luiz, Ramires and Oscar, would he become the fourth Brazilian to score? Alas, his strong penalty was tipped over by Guzan.

Amazingly, there was still time for one more goal, when Ramires slotted home after a lovely ball from Oscar.

8-0.

Phew.

After the game, a few of us reconvened over at the Lillie Langtry at West Brompton where we tried our best to quantify what we had just witnessed.

To be honest, we tried and failed.

We surely live in interesting times.

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Tales From The Villa

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2012.

As I drove north on The Fosseway, past the towns of Malmesbury and Cirencester, I admitted to Parky that I was finding it hard to get “up” for the league game at Villa. What with our extended runs in the Champions League and the F.A. Cup this season, I have a feeling that if the Chelsea section of my brain was to be analysed, it would show something like this, as of the morning of Saturday 31st. March 2012 –

Champions League 50%
F.A. Cup 40%
Premiership 10%

But that is not to say that I always rate these three competitions in this manner; far from it in fact. Given the choice of one trophy each season, I would always choose the domestic league. Why wouldn’t I? I spend countless days following Chelsea’s pursuit of league points throughout the season. It’s just that as we are at such an advanced stage in both of these tough cup competitions, it is only natural for me to devote more thoughts to these two trophies. Or more importantly, if the truth be known, not the matches at all, but the whole”Chelsea-Matchgoing Experience” for the games in those competitions.

Firstly, let’s think about the F.A. Cup. Daryl kindly bought tickets for a few of us on Friday so that we can all sit together on that Sunday in April. All of us want to expunge the sour memory of the 2008 Carling Cup final from our minds. Thoughts of the pre-match at a sun-drenched Duke Of York near Marylebone and then a game against the team I like to beat most (well, them and United, it’s a tough call.)

Then we have the return leg against the eagles of Benfica on Wednesday. That promises to be another superb night of European football at The Bridge (and let’s not mess it up, eh Chelsea?). Should we be successful, we will then reach our sixth CL semi-final since 2004. That’s an amazing achievement, isn’t it? For all the new fans out there, you are lucky beggars. It took us 49 years for us to reach our first CL semi-final (Monaco, 2004) and we have reached four more (Liverpool, 2005, Liverpool 2007, Liverpool 2008 and Barcelona 2009) since then. It is no wonder that my head is full-to-bursting with European day-dreams. Should we put Benfica to the sword, we meet the favoured Barcelona or the under-dogs Milan. To that end, I have gambled on a cheap flight to Barcelona from Bristol; just £28. It would, as they say, be rude not to.

The weather was overcast as I headed north on the M5. Parky wisely commented that the colour of the sky blended in seamlessly with the colour of the road ahead. Only the occasional blush of gold from roadside daffodils and forsythia added the slightest hint of colour to the view.

Villa, eh?

I was well aware of our recent poor run of form against them. Since our classic 3-0 win at Villa Park in the Spring of 1999, we had won just once; Guus Hiddink’s first game in charge on a ridiculously warm and sunny day in March three years ago. I had been present at both of those games, but for many years, the thought of visiting Villa Park did nothing for me. From 1995 to around 2005, I only used to be able to afford to go to around 6 away games each season. I would rotate the grounds I visited, but would tend to steer clear of Villa Park. Sure, our record wasn’t great there, but I am not a fan of Birmingham in general. From March 1999 to January 2007, I only visited Villa Park once – a 2-1 loss in 2003. One of the worst ever Chelsea performances I can remember took place at Villa Park, too; a 3-0 defeat just after Christmas in 1994. Driving home that night, the rain lashing against the windscreen, my friend Glenn fell asleep in the back of my car. I always remember him waking from a dream in which he had witnessed Paul Furlong paying the ultimate price for a dreadful performance by being guillotined.

This would be my thirteenth visit to Villa; we had only won three of the previous twelve games. I guess this is the real reason for my ambivalence to visiting the place.

And yet, Villa Park is a grand dame amongst football stadia. Aston Villa were formed in 1874 and have played at Villa Park since 1897. When I first became entranced by football in the early ‘seventies, Villa were a third division club and were off the radar. They rose through the league system and were promoted to the top flight – alongside Manchester United – in 1975. They won the league under the stern authoritarian reign of Ron Saunders in 1981, famously using a first team squad of just fourteen (yes, fourteen) players. They won the European Cup the following year. They were a good, if not great, team, playing a very British system, full of tough-tackling midfielders like Dennis Mortimer and were spearheaded by the twin strike force of Peter Withe and Gary Shaw. At right back was ex-Chelsea midfielder Kenny Swain (whose league debut I witnessed in my very first Chelsea game in 1974.)

I remember my grandfather saying that he followed – though with not the passion of his only grandson – Aston Villa and Newcastle United in his youth. I have a feeling that Villa was his first love, with Newcastle only gaining his attention via a family friend – a local vicar – who resided for many years in Newcastle. I know that he once visited Stamford Bridge, the only football stadium he remembered visiting, when he was a young man. I begged him to tell me more of this sole visit, but his memories of that one game were not great. He went with his great friend Ted Knapton, but that is all he knew. I like to think that both of them visited Stamford Bridge for the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town Cup Final at Stamford Bridge in 1920. There is every chance that this could be the case; both of them (they were both called Ted) were stars of the village football and cricket teams. As was the way in days of yore, county football associations would always get tickets for the F.A. Cup Final and I like to think that in 1920, the name of Mells & Vobster United was drawn out of the hat and the two stalwarts of my village’s sporting scene were justly rewarded. Apart from a win in 1957, that victory in 1920 was Aston Villa’s last F.A. Cup triumph.

We were parked up at around 12.45pm and the two of us spent ninety minutes in a relatively quiet pub a mile to the north of Villa Park. The “Crown & Cushion” allegedly used to be one of the Villa firm’s main pubs back in the rough-and-tumble of the ‘eighties. We have never experienced trouble there, though there is no doubt that Parky and I were the only away fans present. The pub is run by West Indians and the menu behind the bar detailed such delights as jerk chicken, mutton stew, ackee and saltfish and the like. Parky and I were not tempted. We decided to stick with pints of Kronenburg 1664 amidst talk of plans for upcoming Chelsea matches. Parky reminded me that his daughter Jade once played as a goalkeeper in one of the Aston Villa women’s teams a few years back. She lives in nearby Tamworth.

Parky shot off inside the away end while I spent twenty minutes or so taking a few shots of the area by the Trinity Road stand. Much to many Villa fans – and certainly my – consternation, the original Trinity Road, complete with red brick façade and Edwardian towers and gables, was demolished in around 1999 and was replaced by a hulking mass of steel-cladding and little charm. Part of the stand now runs over the road which it gives it its name; the tunnel is not on the same scale as at Atletico Madrid’s stadium, but is a unique feature in the UK. One of these days I will visit the red brick Aston Hall, which resides atop the park to the south of Villa Park. Outside the stadium, there was the usual hustle and bustle of a match day which I find so beguiling even after all these years. A Villa fanzine seller was vitriolic in his comments about current Villa manager Alex McLeish. At centre-stage in front of the stand was a simple statue of a bearded man, who I knew to be the former Aston Villa chairman who helped form the Football League in 1888.

His name was William McGregor and I guess we owe him an awful lot.

As I re-traced my steps towards the away entrance on Witton Lane, I heard the chants from opposing fans.

Chelsea : “One team in Europe, there’s only one team in Europe.”

Aston Villa : “Have you won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup?”

I made it inside the upper tier seats with only a few minutes to spare. I was alongside Alan and Gary, high above Parky and others in the lower tier. If I am honest, I am still getting used to the new 4-2-3-1 formation, but it is one that I have long admired. I seem to remember Liverpool using it well a few years back. No need to guess who the “1” was in that team.

What a crazy game. We should have been well clear at the interval and Fernando Torres could easily have bagged a hat-trick. He has endured the most awful luck in our colours, but as Alan said, we would rather he was getting himself in positions to miss rather than not getting into positions in the first place.

An early Torres chance was spurned but then a cross from Ashley Cole found the on-rushing Juan Mata. He aimed for Torres, but his shot from close in was inevitably blocked. It fell to Daniel Sturridge who poked home. A long distance blooter from Mikel was slightly deflected and was saved by Shay Given. Soon after, Mata delicately lofted the ball goal wards but the ball hit the base of the far post.

On 19 minutes, the home fans stood and clapped in order to show solidarity with the Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov, diagnosed with leukaemia just 24 hours previously. We soon joined in. I honestly wonder why people are surprised to see how football fans behave at moments such as these; we’re not animals, you know.

We had impressive ball retention and occasional chances; we were clearly the better team. The Villa fans were very quiet and there were gaps in the Holte End and the Trinity Road. Villa Park usually hosts full-houses. Seeing so many empty seats was a new experience. The Chelsea fans taunted the gaggle of noisy youngsters in the North Stand –

“Your ground’s too big for you.”

They responded –

“If Torres scores, we’re on the pi55.”

Despite our superior play, Villa had a few late chances as the first-half ended. Sturridge lost possession deep in our half and Cech did well to save a shot from Agbonlahor with his foot. The ball flew up against the bar and we exhaled a collective “phew.” Luiz was replaced by Gary Cahill just before the break.

We all agreed that we should have been well ahead during the interval chat amongst friends. A few mates from Nuneaton called by; they had gambled on flights to Barcelona too. Nuneaton is only 25 miles away from Villa Park and Andy was dreading anything but a Chelsea victory.

“All my mates are Villa – maybe a few West Brom, a few Blues, but out of 100, maybe 70 are Villa.”

I love info like this. I love the changing face of football support throughout the UK. In my home area, Newcastle United fans were very rare as a child, but they are one of the top ten supported teams in the Frome area of late.

The second-half was a corker; a roller-coaster of emotion, a classic game of heart-in-mouth football. A Mata corner was poked home by Ivanovic and it was plain sailing. Torres headed over and the Villa fans were sniggering again. They were roaring soon after as two goals in quick succession brought the score, incredibly, ridiculously, level at 2-2.

We stood in silent disbelief, but the other stands were roaring. I will not lie when I say that the Holte End did not utter a single audible song during the entire first-half. Once their second goal was scored, though, the noise was very impressive. A flare was thrown on to the pitch from the unruly home section down below me. Its sulphurous aroma permeated the early evening air.

Chelsea responded again.

Another corner on the opposite side, this time for the substitute Malouda, was flicked on by Torres just as I snapped by camera…the ball ricocheted to the lurking Ivanovic and he reacted very well to guide the ball in, past Given.

We roared – and with more intensity than with the first two goals.

Then, a Villa move broke down and the ball was moved quickly to Studge. We all saw Torres breaking to his right and we begged for Studge to release the ball. Thankfully, the ball was played with perfect pace.

One touch, moving the ball on, then a low strike past Given and the net bulged.

We roared again – and it was undoubtedly the noisiest exclamation of support from our packed section of the Witton End all day. Torres reeled away and was mobbed by players. I roared and then gathered my senses to record the celebrations on film.

Superb.

I commented to Gary that the Torres goal was just like the ones he used to dispatch with aplomb for Liverpool; head up, laces through the ball, utmost confidence, the ball in the net before the ‘keeper was able to move.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea fans were exuberant and it wasn’t long before our number nine was serenaded.

And quite rightly, too.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50768850082658

I’ve been present at all the games in which Torres has scored; I guess I’m not the only one, but I have a sneaking feeling I will be a little sad when this record comes to an end. Wink.

I hope he starts on Wednesday.

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