Tales From An Afternoon Of Predictable Unpredictability

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2017.

My eyes were firmly focussed on Andre Marriner, the referee, as the Crystal Palace supporters continued their euphoric and boisterous backdrop of noise, and as the last few seconds of the five minutes of added time ticked past. In those five minutes, rather than allowing a late reprise for Chelsea, it was the home team who enjoyed most of the possession. A few Chelsea fans around me had left minutes earlier. I waited for the final shrill toot of the whistle. Such was the noise from the Palace fans, I heard no whistle, but just the simultaneous movement of hand to mouth from Marriner, the celebratory thrust of Palace players’ arms into the air and the roar from the crowd at a raucous Selhurst Park.

There was deflation. Another three points dropped, Chelsea. Three losses out of just eight league games. Two consecutive losses. Losing to Manchester City was tough, of course, but we all knew that we had encountered a very fine team two weeks previous. But Crystal Palace were different; without a win in seven games and not even a single goal to their name. There was bewilderment within me, and all around me too. There was no point in trying to move away from my viewing position way down at the front of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand. The aisle ways were full of exiting away fans. Besides, I wanted to see how many of the team, the squad, would come over to the away fans to acknowledge our patronage and support. A few moments passed. I saw a few murky grey Chelsea shirts head down to the players’ exit on the far side, tucked between the towering curved roof of the Holmesdale Road stand and the slight slope of the ancient main stand. Those players were gone, out of my consciousness for a few moments. I spotted four Chelsea players continue their handshakes with a few of the opposing victors in our half of the pitch, and waited to see who would decide to walk over to our corner. Surely the captain Gary Cahill. Surely Cesar Azpilicueta.

I picked up my camera from beneath my seat. An over-zealous steward had warned me not to take any more photographs after he saw me take a close-up of a haring Davide Zappacosta in the first few minutes of the second-half. By then, though, I had taken more than enough for my match day quota, shielded from prying eyes by Ed and Parky, my two blockers. There is an increasing war of nerves between myself and stewards at away games these days. With the game over, and the stewards drifting away, uninterested, I brought the camera up to my eyes, and waited for the remaining Chelsea players to walk over.

Marcos Alonso, Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta.

There were pained expressions from all four of them.

They clapped us. We clapped them. There were no boos. There had been no boos as the game had reached its conclusion. For some reason – I suspect they are plain and obvious – our away support tends not to lower ourselves to collective boos. Of course there had been a rising tide of moans and groans, accompanied by every Anglo-Saxon curse known to mankind, throughout the game from frustrated supporters, but there was nothing orchestrated on a larger scale. My view has always been the same. I go to watch Chelsea to support the team. I try to be as positive as possible. Of course my frustrations get the better of me at times, but I always do my damnedest to find positives where I can, and to encourage those who need it most. In all of my time as a Chelsea supporter – Crystal Palace was game number 1,155 – I can only remember booing a player once; Frank Leboeuf in 2000, down below me as he came over to receive a throw-in the Matthew Harding wraparound, when it was thought that he was one of the main perpetrators in needling out Gianlica Vialli as manager. I was not the only one who booed him on that occasion. Leboeuf, previously a crowd favourite, looked visibly shocked that so many were booing him. I immediately felt terrible. What a fucking twat I was. I vowed never to do so again.

By all means berate players, if deserved, in private chats in pubs, clubs, bars and cars, but never at a game. Always be positive. Always provide backing. That surely has to be one of the Chelsea fundamentals.

At Chelsea games, we are supporters, not critics.

Right?

I took a few photos of the four players, standing, immobile, their faces still distraught.

I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered what words from Antonio Conte would be awaiting them on their return to the waiting changing room.

It had, from the very first few minutes, been a below-par Chelsea performance. The home team, managed by the old man Roy Hodgson – it was only ten weeks ago we bumped into him in Beijing at the Chelsea hotel – and coached by former favourite Ray Lewington, were first out of the traps, with Zaha and Townsend full of skill. An early goal, a Cabaye shot deflected in off the hapless Azpilicueta, surprised none of us. Whereas we all expected to win the game easily, I would hazard a bet that 95% of us knew that Palace would score their first goal of the league season against us. There was just something in our collective psyche that warned of this. That it only took eleven minutes was even more predictable. In my mind, before the game, my thoughts were –

“Concede an early goal, but win 3-1.”

How the Palace fans celebrated that league opener.

We slowly – slowly – got back in to the game as the first-half developed. A header by Tiemoue Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner was wildly celebrated and set off the September Song. However, a second goal from Palace, by the impressive Zaha, right before the break brought further gloom.

There were changes soon into the second-half with the very disappointing Michy Batshuayi going off to be replaced by the zip of Pedro. Charly Musonda then replaced the equally frustrating Willian. It was all change. Our attack had been invaded by mini-men. Eden Hazard was asked to lead the line, but at times the game totally evaded him. I kept thinking that if Hazard is truly to be regarded as one of the attacking greats of the modern game, then this is just the sort of match that he needs to grab by the horns and cause mayhem. He did nothing of note. Sure, Fabregas hit the bar, and Musonda volleyed over, but our play was erratic all day. We missed Kante, holding things in midfield. Oh how we missed Morata. Long diagonals to Zappacosta worked well, and he seemed pacey and engaged, but an equaliser never ever looked like coming. Our passing was off. We were second best in a few areas. In those closing moments, with the game stretched, Palace had further chances. Our support, mirroring the malaise of the players, was average at best. There is usually a good sing-song at Selhurst. On this day, it was all rather flat and lethargic. The lazy sexist comments aimed at Sian Massey, running the line, were just painful. Must do better.

The players walked a couple of paces towards us. There was still applause from the Arthur Wait stand. Marcos had tried his best, but had found little space out wide in order to play penetrating balls in. There had been the usual effort on this mild, but bleak, Saturday afternoon in South London for our Spanish left-back. Gary Cahill had a mixed game. There had been brave blocks and strong headers, but he often looked all at sea when the ball was played on the deck. As captain, he bore the defeat heavily on his shoulders. Thibaut walked closer, taking off his bright orange jersey, and eventually gave it to a fan in the crowd. He has never had all of the Chelsea support with him during his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, but our tall  Belgian often stays behind to thank us for our support. Does it mean anything? I think so. Alongside him was Cesar Azpilicueta, our Dave, his face showing the pain of defeat. It was an expression that was matched by myself. Everyone loves Dave. He had a typical 7/10 performance and was unlucky with his deflected own-goal. I wanted him to make a block on Zaha during his run into the box for the second goal, but for once his limpet-like man marking did not get him close enough to the Palace striker. Whereas others in the Chelsea support would be quick to castigate Azpilicueta, I was happy to give him some slack. He rarely lets us down.

Joining the four was Tiemoue Bakayoko, who took off his shirt and rolled it up before launching it into the away support. It landed in the grasping hands of a fan a few yards away. Without Kante alongside him, Bakayoko was asked to cover simply too much ground. Alongside him, Fabregas had a mixed game too, a few fine passes, a few crunching tackles, but the game then by-passed him at times.

The five players turned and retreated back across the pitch.

Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Let’s all admit it. We all presumed that we only had to show up at Selhurst Park to get three points. Going in to the game, on the drive up to London and through the terraced streets of South London – why is Selhurst Park such a bastard place to get to and from? – we were adamant that we would be victorious. With six games coming up in just eighteen games in October, here was a game that, even with a slightly weaker team, we should have surely won. There were no complaints from the four of us about the team selection prior to kick-off. But the manager must feel pain that his preparatory work amounted to nothing.

And it was complacency at its best, and worst, from many.

After the game, all the experts had their say – I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, some of the post-game hyperbole was embarrassing – but there are a few truths which can’t be ignored.

Our lack of options up front, especially, must be a worry. I spoke to Ed during the game about the halcyon days of 1997/98 when our first team squad boasted Mark Hughes, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Ginafranco Zola battling for places in attack. How times change, eh? Conversely, we have an over-abundance of central defenders, with Christensen, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger vying for three places. Christensen has not put a foot wrong so far. Let’s see if the manager takes the plunge.

We have to trust the manager. He has proved to be a fine tactician in his short Chelsea career thus far. It’s time for a reaction from our beloved players. And what is better than a potentially classic Champions League game against Roma on Wednesday to look forward to. As we drove home on Saturday night, we quickly warmed to the excitement of another European night under the lights at Stamford Bridge.

We are lucky people. I can almost hear the anthem. See you there.

 

Tales From Constant And Quiet Efficiency

Chelsea vs. Everton : 27 August 2017.

What a difference one week makes. Prior to the game at Wembley, I was subdued, fearing the worst. In the pub, a couple of friends sensed that I was so quiet that they asked me if I was OK.

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

And I was alright. I was just concerned about what fate might befall us later on against Tottenham. I need not have worried, eh? What followed was one of the finest away games of recent memory and gave us our fourth consecutive win against Tottenham at Wembley (2012 5-1, 2015 2-0, 2017 4-2, 2017 2-1).

During the week, we then received one of the best-ever Champions League draws, placed in the same group as Atletico Madrid (oh Diego, a recent rival, and a new stadium), Roma (an oh-so familiar city for Chelsea but one of my favourites all the same) and Qarabag (the new country, new city, new team, new stadium and new experience we all crave). Thursday evening was spent booking myself on flights to Italy and Azerbaijan. Two back-to-back trips in late autumn will keep me dreamy-eyed for the weeks ahead. There is nothing like the group phase draw every August (last year excepted, cough, cough). We are so lucky for our football club to drag us to all points of the compass. The trip to Rome in October will be my third with Chelsea (Lazio 1999 and Roma 2008) but I also dropped in there on the way to Naples in 2012. There have also been a few trips in my youth (1986, 1987, 1990) and I love the city, one of the world’s greats. Baku is a different story. It will be a new experience for us all.

China Crisis once mused about “living a newer lifestyle and travelling everywhere.”

Yep. That sums it up for me.

So, going into our match with Everton, all – and I mean all – was right with my world.

There was a new pub for this pre-match. “The Atlas” sits in a quiet side-street, close to West Brompton tube. We once popped in during a pub-crawl in around 1999, but it has been under our radar since then. It was long overdue a visit. It is a gorgeous pub with wooden floors, a dark and cool interior, a great choice of ales and lagers, with a sun terrace. With Glenn driving his Chuckle Bus, I was – at last – able to enjoy the giggles of a pre-match drink for the first time for a while. The sun was beating down, the sky was a big bright and beautiful blue without hindrance of cloud, and a lot of the chat centered on plans for Europe.

But first, the chance to play “football bore” with Calvin.

“Just behind those new flats, no more than a hundred yards away, is where the Lillie Bridge FA Cup Final was played in the nineteenth century.”

Calvin’s eyes soon glazed over.

“Right, who wants a beer?”

It was almost one o’clock and time to move. Away from the shade, the heat of the sun surprised us. Away in the distance were the roof supports of the Matthew Harding.

Inside a sun-kissed Stamford Bridge, I spotted gaps in the away section. Everton had not sold out their three thousand; it was a few hundred shy of capacity. Surprisingly for a Chelsea game taking place during a bank holiday weekend all of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. A very good sign indeed.

With Cesc Fabregas returning, Antonio reverted to the familiar 3-4-3.

Thibaut.

Dave – Dave – Antonio

Victor – Cesc – N’Golo – Marcos

Willian – Alvaro – Pedro

Everton were wearing another terrible away kit. Two tone grey has never looked so uninspiring. Their new signing Gylfi Sigurdsson debuted. Wayne Rooney, the returning hero, unsurprisingly started too.

Our last defeat against Everton in the league at Stamford Bridge was way back in November 1994 and I have seen all of the subsequent fixtures. From the very first few moments of play, it looked very much like that we would be extending this Tottenham-esque unbeaten run to a huge twenty-four games.

We dominated the play early on, not allowing the visitors to settle. The usual protagonists and providers Willian and Pedro were all energy, causing worry within the away ranks. We moved the ball well, eking out a few chances with Everton off the pace. As the minutes passed by – ten minutes, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five – Everton chased shadows. Not only had Everton not threatened our goal, they had hardly crossed the half-way line. Wayne Rooney, always the butt of much abuse, began where he left off playing for Manchester United.

After a little noise as the game began, the away fans became beaten by the torpor of their team’s play and the blistering sun. The home support was quiet, too, though. Only a rousing “Antonio, Antonio” broke the apathetic mood. An optimistic over-head kick from Pedro, complete with face-mask, drew applause after some nice work by Morata. Shots peppered Pickford’s goal. Thankfully, our dominance was rewarded on twenty-seven minutes when a move down our right ended with a well-timed downward header by Morata allowing Fabregas, hemmed in, to poke the ball purposefully past the stranded Everton ‘keeper. At last the home crowd boomed and Fabregas reeled away, happiness personified, and raced over to the south-west corner, where he seemed to be waving to friends or family. The blue flags twirled along the West Stand touchline and all was well with the world.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, like.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

This was not the mesmerizing show of last autumn, but this was still a fine Chelsea performance. With Everton defending deep, there was less space to exploit, but with Kante winning fifty-fifties, the stranglehold on Everton continued. We had to wait until thirty-three minutes had passed for Everton’s first shot at goal. It ambled miserably wide. Five minutes before the break, we could not fathom why the referee had allowed to play the advantage when a foul inside the box – from our viewpoint – should have been awarded with a penalty. The howls of derision from the stands continued as the move was not allowed to flounder. Dave whipped a ball back across the face of the Everton defence and Morata rose to guide the ball in.

Stamford Bridge boomed again.

The scorer rushed over to the corner. The players’ family and guests are housed in that corner suite behind the Shed Lower. More ecstatic celebrations. The flags twirled once more.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

Bearing in mind that the aggregate score in the two games last season was 8-0 to us, we certainly hoped for rich pickings in the second period.

Ex Chelsea and Everton winger Pat Nevin made a brief appearance on the pitch at the break; my favourite-ever player, it is always a pleasure to see him.

A pal had spotted that alongside Antonio Conte’s notes in the match programme, the editor had chosen to illustrate the page with a photograph from the game at Wembley. Lo and behold, there was little old me – face ecstatic, screaming – just yards away from the players, gripping my sunglasses tightly. It just sums up why we all love football so much – that ridiculous release of emotion – and nicely merges with my take on the events of the previous weekend.

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We began the second period as we had ended the first. And yet I was disappointed, still, with the lack of noise. It took us forever to get a loud “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” chant to reverberate around the stands. I looked over at the West Stand. Although the corporate second tier was completely full, the thin line of boxes in the third tier were hardly occupied at all. I squinted to see if Roman was present, just off-centre, in his box. He wasn’t. In fact, save for three or four souls in the front row of his block of seats, it was empty.

I sighed as I spoke to Alan :

“Pretty bad when there is hardly a soul in the owner’s box, eh?”

“Probably on his yacht, somewhere.”

“Yeah, but there should be someone in there all the same.”

Roman, or no Roman, we continued to shine. Pedro stroked one past the post and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and making a fool of myself. On the hour, a lovely low cross from Dave zipped across the box, but Morata seemed to sense that Pickford would reach it. The path of the ball eluded them both.

Bollocks.

Pedro went wide again. Victor Moses shot straight at the ‘keeper. By the time Antonio – surely sweltering in his trademark dark suit – began to ring the changes, we sensed that we were taking our foot off the gas. Everton had offered little offensive threat; for an apparently enriched team over the summer, they had been as grey and lifeless as their kit. The away fans did not utter a single song of anger, or otherwise, throughout the closing half-an-hour.

Bakayoko replaced Pedro.

Batshuayi replaced Morata.

Soon after entering the field, Michy played a ball square to Willian, who had spent the entire afternoon running endlessly, and Willian – quite odd to see – rolled his eyes up to the sky as he summoned up some energy from somewhere to reach the ball.

“FFS Michy, I’m knackered.”

Ha.

Lo and behold, as if apologetically, Everton at last bothered to threaten our goal. Firstly, the bulk of Ashley Williams dolloped a ball over and then one went wide of the post. A finger-tipped save from Courtois from Gueye turned out to be his only save of the entire ninety minutes.

Game twenty-four was won.

1994 seems a long time ago, but – there again – 1990 is even longer ago. Just ask Tottenham.

 

Tales From The Mosh Pit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2017.

After our surprising defeat against Burnley last Saturday, I only wished that more Chelsea supporters had exhibited the considered calmness of Antonio Conte. In a post-match interview, despite some unsurprisingly barbed questions, he spoke serenely with his trademark soft voice, down-playing any concerns about our future, and even finding time to playfully joke about finding a way to cope with his team playing with ten, or nine, men in future games. His personality shone through. Elsewhere, within the ranks of some of our support – some of whom would not have lasted five minutes in the days of Alan Mayes, Mark Falco and the like – there seemed to be hysterics and over-reaction.

And then, on the Friday, there was that extended spell of giggling and laughter when he was questioned about Diego Costa being treated as some sort of criminal.

It was beautiful and therapeutic to watch, wasn’t it?

It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Diego Costa’s last vestige of self-pride. Conte was on top, and there would hopefully be no more nonsense devoted to our out of favour striker and his desire to move on and away from our club.

Going in to the tough away game at Wembley against Tottenham – without Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard – here at last were some positive signs.

And we needed some positives. Despite my gung-ho words of last week (“Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there”), as the week progressed, I became a little less confident. The thought us losing against Tottenham, and with no points from our first two league games, was playing heavily on my mind. And with good reason.

On the drive up to London, the Four Chuckle Brothers were of the same opinion.

“Spurs are a good team. Let’s take a draw today. A win at home to Everton next weekend and we’ll be back on track.”

The game at Wembley – the first-ever league game at the national stadium in almost one-hundred years – would surely be one of our toughest away games of the season. In my pre-season prediction, mirroring that of last season in fact, I had us finishing third behind Manchester City and Manchester United. If Tottenham were playing at the familiar White Hart Lane this season, they might have been in the mix too, but, like many, I predicted that their use of the larger and unluckier Wembley would work against them. I had them finishing fourth, or fifth.

Our drinking completed, we made our way up from the centre of London to Marylebone, catching the 3.20pm train. With only 3,100 away fans in attendance, we were certainly in the minority, but the train carriage that we chose was full of Chelsea. There were high spirits, but – alas – some vile songs of old too. There is no place at football for songs mentioning Nazi death camps. For a few moments I wondered what on earth possesses some people to utter such shite.

Knowing how heated it used to get outside the away end as we turned into Park Lane from the High Road at White Hart Lane, I fully expected a heavy police presence between Wembley Stadium train station and our entrance at the eastern side of the stadium. There was nothing. To be honest, I got the impression that most home fans were already ensconced in the stadium, no doubt jigging along to a Chas and Dave smash from the last century. The walkways to the stadium were relatively clear. I noted a gaggle of Old Bill walking away from us at the top of the incline – maybe one hundred yards away – but apart from a few expletives being exchanged, there was no trouble. I had visions of aggressive Spurs fans picking out stragglers. I had visions of coins being thrown at us – a White Hart Lane tradition of late – and I had thoughts of a few punches being exchanged. In the end, the walk to the stadium was bereft of any nastiness at all.

We made our way to the away turnstiles. At the eastern end – we have been rare visitors to this end over the years – there is much more space outside the gates. A thorough search and we were in. I had decided not to take my proper camera. Too much aggravation. I would have to make do with my camera phone. Imagine my annoyance when I clocked a couple of fans with cameras as big as the one I had left in Somerset. Oh well.

During the build up to the game, we had heard that the local council and/or police (it wasn’t really clear to me) had kept the attendance to a maximum of around 70,000. Conversely, I had heard from a local Spurs fan – I don’t know many – that 90,000 would be the norm this season. Even though Wembley is positioned in a Tottenham heartland, that still seems a massive number. Of course, with us looking to play at Wembley in around 2019, I am very intrigued to see how it all pans out. In the match programme, I spotted that tickets for our game ranged from £35 to £95. By and large, apart from the cordoned-off seats in the highest levels of the top tier, it looked like Spurs had sold out; even the expensive corporate tier looked full.

I think it’s imperative that Chelsea get the pricing structure right when our enforced exile happens. Although the distance from Stamford Bridge to Wembley is three miles less than from White Hart Lane to Wembley, Chelsea has always relied on its bedrock support to come from south of the river. Wembley is a north London venue and Spurs are a north London team. That fit just feels more natural than ours. So, the club needs to get it right. It needs to lower season ticket prices and match day prices to hold on to our existing support in the years ahead when we will leave the familiar surrounds of Stamford Bridge. The club needs to take a hit during the first year especially, or else fans will simply get out of the habit of going to see our games.

Season tickets as low as £500? Why on earth not?

Match day tickets as low as £20? Yes.

The last thing that I want to see at Wembley, with potentially room for 90,000, is for us to be playing some league games in a third-full stadium. The club needs to gauge it right. It needs to safeguard our support. It needs to bridge the gap from the old Stamford Bridge to the new Stamford Bridge. There’s much room for discussion on this subject. I’m sure that the club must realise this. I am sure much discussion is planned between the club and the various supporters’ groups. I just hope that they make the correct choices afterwards.

Much of the talk in the car on the drive to London had centred on Tiemoue Bakayoko. If he was fit, and chosen, he would surely play alongside N’Golo Kante. We chatted about which of the two potential defenders would play alongside David and Dave; Antonio Ridiger or Andreas Christensen? If Bakayoko was not fit – hell – then we wondered if Luiz or even Rudiger might anchor the midfield.

Well, Antonio Conte was ahead of all of us.

He had decided to play Bakayoko, Ridiger and Christensen. We wondered how the team would line-up.

Our section was down low; strangely in a different section to where I watched Bayer Leverkusen play Spurs last season. We were in good voice as the teams took to the pitch away to our right. The home club had issued flags to their supporters, and they feverishly waved them as kick-off approached. The problem for Tottenham is that white is a neutral colour. There was no real impact. It was all rather wishy-washy. It looked, in fact, like seventy-thousand surrender flags being flown.

There were hardly any of the normal, draped, flags on show from the usual vantage points. Instead, Tottenham had decided to transplant the “To Dare Is To Do”, “Spurs Are My Club” and “It’s All About Glory” taglines from White Hart Lane on the top, white, balcony. The lower balconies advertised various supporters’ groups from around the world on an electronic ticker, which changed every few seconds. If I was living in Florida, I would be very worried; there seems to be Tottenham fans everywhere within that sun-addled state– Tampa Spurs, Tallahassee Spurs, Ybor City Spurs, Orlando Spurs.

The game began.

What? David Luiz in midfield? Conte had surprised us all. Whether through circumstance or choice, our manager – thankfully wearing his suit after last weekend’s display – had chosen to play a 3/5/2 formation.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Kante – Luiz – Bakayoko – Moses

Willian – Morata

Or a 5/3/2.

Or a 3/5/1/1.

Whatever.

But boy it worked.

We dominated the early moments, and Alvaro Morata really should have put us 1-0 up after only a few minutes. A cross from Dave on the right picked out our Spanish striker, completely unmarked, but his firm header was off target by some margin. I noted that Luiz was able to tuck back into a very defensive position – an extra shield – to assist the back three, who were playing as a three together for the very first time.

Tottenham, as expected, began to have more of the ball. Kane troubled Courtois and the derided Alli blasted over from a tight angle. But I was happy with our play. We looked tight defensively. There was pace everywhere. We closed down space. Kante and Luiz were everywhere. This had the makings of a great game. I was just pleased – I will be blunt – that we were in it.

The Spurs offensive – and I find them very offensive – continued. Dembele shot over. But I was still pretty calm. All around me, the Chelsea fans were making a fine racket. The home fans were surprisingly subdued.

And then it started. A bizarre rumble of drums blasted out over the tannoy. We were in fits of laughter :

“What the fackinell was that?”

Good God Tottenham. Have a look at yourselves. Piped drums? What on bloody Earth? It continued at regular intervals throughout the first period. The Spurs fans looked embarrassed, as they should.

Our support? We were in fine form.

“Stand up for the Champions.”

Gary, alongside me, was in good form too. He is small of stature is our Gal, but has a booming voice. Just after they became excited about “standing up if you hate Arsenal”, he initiated the song of the game. Just as they were returning to their seats, he rasped –

“Sit down if you’ve won fuck all.”

The entire away end joined in.

And the Spurs fans duly sat down. So funny. Good work, Gal.

On twenty-four minutes, David Luiz was fouled. We waited for the free-kick, some thirty yards away from the goal. The familiar left-foot of Marcos Alonso swiped and curled the ball over the lilywhite wall. I had a perfect view. Loris was well-beaten. The net bulged and so did we.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Our pre-match worries evaporated there and then. We were winning. Oh happy days.

Bakayoko had enjoyed a quiet start but he had a fine run deep into the Spurs half. Harry Kane twice threatened our goal, but his finishing was adrift. Spurs were biting back now, and just before half-time, a low drive from that man Kane came back off the post with Thibaut beaten. Spurs still had time to pepper our goal in the closing moments. We had ridden our luck, no doubt, but I was more than happy. Courtois had made a couple of saves but we looked like a team in control of our own destiny. It had been a very encouraging half. Andreas Christensen had been imperious. It was hard to fathom that this was his full debut. I have a contact through work who is a Borussia Monchengladbach supporter and we have been emailing each other at regular intervals over the past couple of seasons; he was distraught when we brought Christensen back from his loan spell. Elsewhere, we were full of running, full of fight.

Good old Antonio.

At half-time, I found out that the old Tottenham trick of throwing coins had followed them from White Hart Lane to Wembley; friends Liz and Michelle were both clutching coins that had been pelted their way.

That is just shite.

The second-half began. It was more of the same, to be honest, with much Tottenham possession, but Chelsea very compact, forcing Spurs to pass around us rather than through us. Whereas we have width up front and at the back, Spurs’ play was very central and they became stifled. Whenever they did pierce our midfield, I lost count of the number of times that Rudiger, Christensen and Luiz headed clear.

We then enjoyed a fine spell, with Willian teasing and testing the Spurs defence. Morata almost reached a cross. He then shot wide after fine close control although if I am honest I wished that he had not taken quite so many touches. He looks neat though. His goals will come. Moses danced into the box but blazed over. This was a fine Chelsea resurgence. Willian advanced and drilled a shot across the goalmouth, but we groaned as it hit the base of the post. Bollocks.

Ten minutes to go.

Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for the exhausted Morata.

“Come on Chelsea.”

On eighty-two minutes, and after countless crosses being claimed by Courtois, or headed away by the defenders, we conceded a free-kick out wide and I immediately sensed danger.

I almost held myself back from saying it, not wishing to tempt fate, blah, blah, blah, but I simply could not help myself. I whispered to Gal –

“These are the free-kicks I hate us defending.”

Two seconds later, the danger man Eriksen whipped in a head-high cross.

Bam.

1-1.

Fuck it.

The action was so far away that I did not even notice that it was a Chelsea player – the luckless Batshuayi – who had thumped the ball in.

At last the Spurs fans exploded with noise.

And, I will be honest – I am hopefully honest in these reports – the place was fucking rocking. Only on a couple of other occasions have I heard more noise at an English football stadium. They only seem to have two songs, the fuckers – “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” – but it was as noisy as hell. The rabble down to my left were pointing, gurning and strutting like Mick Jagger. What an unpleasant sight.

“Bloody hell. OK, deal. A draw here. A win against Everton. Back on track. Just don’t concede another.”

To be fair to us, we kept pressing. It was a fantastic game of football. With time running out, a ball was played in to Michy, but he crumpled under the challenge. We won the ball back – Luiz, magnificent – and he played in Pedro, fresh legs and full of guile. With Spurs a little flat and half-asleep, he fed in Marcos Alonso.

He advanced.

He struck low.

The ball zipped beneath Loris.

Oh my fucking goodness.

2-1.

What happened then has only happened on a few rare occasions in my football-life. I lost it. We all lost it.

A last minute winner.

Against Tottenham.

At Wembley.

On their big day.

Their big fucking day.

I bounced up and screamed. I quickly grabbed my sunglasses because I knew they would fly off. Damage limitation. I noticed fans flocking down the aisle steps, heading down, I had to join them, destiny. I wanted to run, but steadied myself as other fans knocked me sideways. It was mayhem. Arms flailing everywhere. Pauline had been knocked to the floor. I raced on. Bloody hell, what is Parky’s crutch doing here? At the bottom of the terrace, a mosh pit of ecstasy. Fans bouncing, jumping, arms pointing, bodies being grabbed, hugs with strangers, smiles wide, screams, screams, screams.

And a surreal sight ahead, just yards away.

I looked up to see the entire Chelsea team, or at least the ten men in royal blue – and the royal blue seeming, strangely, out of place among the away end regulars – celebrating wildly with the nutters in the front row.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

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

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

For once, I was in with quite a while to spare. The kick-off was over half-an-hour away. On the pitch, the Chelsea players were in the middle of their warm-up drills, chatting away, looking at ease. I soon spotted the wild hair of David Luiz. He looked a little subdued to be honest. Despite rumours of him being selected in the team, he was to take a place on the bench. While the players moved over to a more central area to take shots at Asmir Begovic, there was a song for our returning centre-half / defensive midfielder.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

The blue Carabao training gear looks slightly better than the hideous yellow, but only slightly.

I captured Luiz taking a shot at goal, with him looking away at the last minute, something of his trademark. Inside, I purred.

But there would be no place for David Luiz in the starting eleven against Swansea City on this Sunday in September. Ever since the news broke through that Chelsea were in talks to re-sign our former player, I have warmed to the idea of having him back in the fold. Yes, his defensive frailties are well known, and this is what concerned me most. I’ll not lie, I was quite stunned when I heard the news. We all remember the glee that we felt when PSG stumped up fifty million big ones just before his disastrous World Cup in 2014. Why on Earth would we want him back? And then I remembered that our new man in charge Antonio Conte favours a 3-5-2, or at least he has done in the most recent past. I started thinking about football formations, team shapes, and for many an hour I was lost in my own little world, conjuring up images of tactics board after tactics board, arrows pointing this way and that way, formations, formations, formations.

I thought back to the 1995/1996 season when Glenn Hoddle embraced a 5-3-2 – or was it a 3-5-2? – for the very first time, with Dan Petrescu and Terry Phelan as pushed-on wing backs, and a trio of central defenders, which varied a little, but tended to consist of David Lee, Michael Duberry and Steve Clarke.

This formation was relatively short-lived at Chelsea, but it produced a few thrilling performances. The FA Cup winning team of the following season was a more predictable 4-4-2, but there were three central defenders famously used against the aerial bombardment of Wimbledon in the semi-final. So it is a formation that we have experienced before. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not an expert on formations and tactics. It’s not really my thing. But I thought of David Luiz, playing in a defensive three, alongside two more robust central defenders, and I wondered if he could be our version of Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, who caught my eye in the euros in France, spreading passes around with ease. Think of David Luiz being Frank Leboeuf with hair, and lots of it. The thought of Luiz, however, in just a flat back four scared me a little.

I then heard talk of 3-4-3 formations and I threw my tactics board out of the window.

Formations come and go. The standard 4-4-2 at Chelsea – ah the memories of Jimmy and Eidur – gave way to Mourinho’s 4-3-3 for a while before the 4-2-3-1 gained favour. There was also the famous 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” though hardly used by us.

It begs the age old question, does a manager fit players around a formation or a formation around players? Over the next few months, I suspect we will see Conte trying out a few variations. It might be some time before he is settled. It took Claudio Ranieri most of his first season at Chelsea to figure it all out. At the moment Antonio Conte favours a 4-1-4-1.

It seems incredible to me, really, that so few teams play with more than one attacker. The days of Jimmy and Eidur, and certainly Kerry and Speedo, seem light years away. Maybe we’ll see its return one of the days.

David Luiz, in his second spell with us, would be wearing squad number thirty. This got me thinking about the past too. We first experienced squad numbers in the 1993/1994 season, the second campaign of “Sky TV” and all of its hideous mixture of subsequent pros and cons. Until then, there was something special about the simple 1-11 shirt numbering system. I didn’t like the idea of messing with it. It all seemed too American for my liking. And we also had to suffer players’ names on the back of shirts too. More finicky changes. More commercialism. More shite. Groan.

Very soon into 1993/1994, our Danish central defender Jakob Kjeldbjerg was given shirt number thirty-seven, and a little part of me died.

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

In today’s parlance – “Against Modern Football.”

In the good old days, the system was simple.

  1. Green shirts. Big gloves.
  2. Right-back. Always. No questions asked.
  3. Left-back. Always. Easy. For some reason, he always had “an educated left foot.”
  4. Midfield dynamo. Think John Hollins. Billy Bremner. Tended to be on the short side, don’t ask why, just accept it.
  5. Centre-back. Blocker. Man mountain. The leap of a salmon. Strength of a shire horse, brains of a rocking horse. Tackle first, ask questions later. Think Micky Droy, Steve Wicks, Joe McLaughlin.
  6. Centre-back. But the more skilful one of the two. Think Alan Hansen. Marvin Hinton.
  7. Right-winger. Again, for some reason, a short-arse. Think Steve Coppell, Ian Britton, Jimmy Johnstone. Pat Nevin. A skilful bugger, prone to mazy dribbles. And falling over.
  8. Box to box midfielder. The fulcrum of the midfield. Think Nigel Spackman in 1983/1984.
  9. The centre-forward. The most iconic number ever. Peter Osgood, Tommy Lawton, Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Kerry Dixon. Goal scorer supreme. Dream maker.
  10. A smaller, more agile, version of the centre-forward, playing off the number nine. David Speedie. Why am I referencing 1983/1984 here? Too easy. Ah, think Peter Beardesley, but not for too long, that boy was hardly a looker.
  11. Left-winger. And for some reason, a lanky bugger. Peter Houseman, Peter Barnes. Davie Cooper as the exception.

And there we have it. Growing up in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, this was the accepted numbering system. Liverpool buggered it up, as is their wont, in around 1977 when Ray Kennedy, a skilful left-sided midfielder, was given a number five shirt. I can still feel the sense of betrayal and confusion to this day. Phil Thompson slid into a number four shirt, and for a while, this was the one exception. Then it became the norm for central defenders to take a number four shirt – paging Colin Pates – and at Chelsea, this resulted in John Bumstead wearing number six. It is at around this time that Western Civilisation began to fall apart, and we all know why.

I blame Ray Kennedy.

Thinking about the numbering system of old, the simple one to eleven, I quickly ran through the Chelsea team to face Swansea City and came up with this.

  1. Thibaut Courtois.
  2. Branislav Ivanovic.
  3. Cesar Azpilicueta.
  4. N’Golo Kante.
  5. John Terry.
  6. Gary Cahill.
  7. Willian.
  8. Nemanja Matic.
  9. Diego Costa.
  10. Oscar.
  11. Eden Hazard.

Admit it, it looks strange but quite perfect at the same time doesn’t it?

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

As the minutes passed by, and as the players disappeared down the tunnel, the away end seemed to take forever to fill.

Swansea is an easy away game for The Chuckle Brothers and myself. Our pre-match drink, in the same bar as last April, down by the marina, soon followed the two-hour drive from our homes on the Somerset and Wiltshire border. We were joined by a mate from Atlanta, Prahlad, who was over on business for a while, and who was supremely excited to be able to go to a Chelsea away game. A mate had not been able to attend, and so I arranged for Prahlad to pick up his ticket. Both parties were happy with the result. Incidentally, Prahlad has been working up on Merseyside for a few weeks, and I wondered if his name was changed to “Soft Lad” once the locals realised that he was a Chelsea fan.

The minutes ticked by.

I was sat – stood – alongside Parky, Alan and Gary. PD and Young Jake were right at the front, below us and behind the goal, awaiting to be captured on TV camera. Prahlad was over on the other side of the goal in the lower section of Chelsea support.

I had received a photograph on my phone from another mate from the US, John – from LA, over on business too – but his view was from the other end. His decision to attend the game – his first Chelsea away game in England, er Wales – was a last minute affair, and he had missed out on tickets in the Chelsea allocation. Instead, he had managed to pick up a front row seat from the Swansea City ticket exchange at face value. I quickly spotted him. It reminded me of the time Glenn and I watched from the home end in 2013/2014.

At kick-off, there was an empty seat to my immediate left, and an empty seat in front of me. I got the impression, as I looked around, that there were many empty seats in our section.

This was really galling.

Of course, now that every single away ticket in the Premier League is set at £30, it is obvious that many Chelsea supporters are simply buying tickets without attending the actual game, stacking up loyalty points for the big games along the way, and perhaps offloading them if they can.

This can’t be right, can it?

Sure, buy a ticket, but only if you can be sure of passing it on to someone who needs it.

As the game progressed, many seats remained unused, yet poor John was having to slum it in the home end, away from his Chelsea brethren, and our support must’ve looked poor to the home fans and those watching on in TV Land.

I am surprised that we were not treated to a chant – “sell all your tickets, you didn’t sell all your tickets” – from the locals.

This was a black and white show at the small but trim Liberty Stadium. Swansea, having jettisoned their particularly neat Adidas in favour of a poor Joma kit – were in all white and we were in our all-black abomination.

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

I refer you to my “Against Modern Football” comment and its associated moans above.

Alan and Gary had travelled down from London on one of the official coaches and had, as with last season, enjoyed some fish and chips outside the stadium before the game. Alan was so contented with his food that he took a photograph.

[AWFUL ANNUAL “WHOSE COAT IS THAT JACKET?”JOKE WARNING, ADVANCE WITH CAUTION]

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

[THIS VERY SAME LINE WILL BE REPEATED NEXT SEASON TOO. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

We played well in the first-half, and for a fleeting moment I thought that we would see a repeat of our dominant 5-0 win in 2014/2015.

Soon into the game, the dire Conte chant was aired, but it thankfully did not reappear all game.

Willian, out on the right, teasing away in his number seven jersey – sorry, number twenty-two – caused Fabianski to make strong saves. We were attacking down the left flank too, with Eden Hazard looking lively. On eighteen minutes, a spell of Chelsea pressure allowed Diego to work the ball to Ivanovic. He let fly with a fierce shot, but the ball was not cleared. Oscar did well to gather under pressure and lay off to Diego Costa. His shot was perfectly placed to Fabianski’s left.

One-nil to us, happy days.

Eden Hazard is simply unplayable when he sweeps in from the wide left position, leaving defenders in his wake, and he drove hard into the box. Sadly his shot was saved by the Swans’ ‘keeper. Despite our dominance, the Chelsea support was rather subdued in my mind.

The home support is strong in the side section to our left, but elsewhere the Liberty Stadium is not particularly intense.

Chances came and went for us, and surely a second goal would kill Swansea off. Dave went close. Kante was everywhere. Swansea rarely threatened Thibaut’s goal.

Diego, bless him, drew the ire of the home fans with every tackle, every challenge. He soon became their pantomime villain. He would be booed by the Swansea fans every time he had the ball. Unbelievably, Diego managed to plant the ball wide of the goal when only a few yards out. From our end, we simply could not fathom how he had missed, nor how a Chelsea player had failed to get a touch.

There was a little “Wales” / “England” banter during the first-half, but that bored me rigid.

The only meaningful attempt by Swansea on our goal took place in the closing minutes ofv the half, when Dave allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson to much space, but thankfully his firmly-hit shot fizzed past out far post.

In many a conversation at the break : “we should’ve scored a second.”

As the second-half started, the tackles continued to come in thick and fast. It was turning to a feisty affair. Diego, continually booed, seemed to be inspired by this depth of hatred towards him, and twisted and turned past opponents as he continually broke with the ball at his feet. At times he hangs on to the ball, but here he seemed to release others at just the right time.

Then, a calamity.

A Swansea counter attack and a long reaching ball played across the edge of the box. Courtois, living a quiet life until then, raced out and fouled Sigurdsson just inside the area. Was his judgement at fault? I think so. It was no guarantee that the Swansea player would score.

The same player thumped the ball past Courtois from the penalty.

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

More bollocks just three minutes later when Gary Cahill was caught as he struggled to control a pass from John Terry. He was robbed by Leroy Fer, and could only watch as the Swansea player raced on and somehow bundled the ball past Courtois, after the ‘keeper initially partially stopped the first effort. From my position over seventy yards away, it looked like Cahill was at fault. The referee, Andre Marriner, was much closer to the action than me…

More hymns and bloody areas, the Welsh national anthem, and “I can’t help falling in love with you.”

At least none of the buggers were dressed as Teletubbies, unlike two unfortunates in 2015.

So, rather than a second goal for us, and the chance to go four for four, and sit atop the table, we were now 2-1 down.

Crazy.

We continued to attack. I looked over at the manager, seemingly about to self-detonate at any moment. He urged, he cajoled, he bellowed, he shouted, he gestured. He was stood the entire game.

Oscar curled one towards to goal, but Fabianski did well to arch his back and tip over. Diego went down just outside the box. Maybe even I am beginning to think the same way as others; his fall looked too easy. The referee waved play on. The Chelsea end was livid.

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

Within five minutes, constant Chelsea pressure paid off. Oscar played in Ivanovic, who glided past his man and shot right down below me. The ball caromed off a defender and looped high towards the far post. Diego Costa – who else? – was waiting for the ball to fall. Time was precious and he soon decided that he could not wait any longer. He jumped, swivelled, and hit an overhead shot goal wards. The ball hit a Swansea defender, but its momentum carried the ball over.

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

I could not fault our spirit to keep going, to keep pressing, to keep attacking.

The game ended in a frenzy of chances. Diego forced a fine save from Fabianski after a gliding run from Hazard.

Hazard then took one for the team after losing possession to Barrow. He chased the advancing Swansea attacker and cynically pulled him back. A goal then would have killed us.

Two final chances to us – Fabregas, Moses – did not test the Swansea ‘keeper and it stayed 2-2.

Despite my honest pleasure in seeing us fight back to get a share of the points, there was a definite sense of dissatisfaction that such long periods of domination over the entire game did not give us three points.

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

I bumped in to John on the walk back to the car. He had enjoyed himself too – behind enemy lines – but I didn’t have the stomach to tell him that there were many empty seats in our end.

It was a fine evening as we drove back towards England, the sun fading, the evening drawing in, music on, chatting away, another match, another day on the road following the boys, with thoughts of other games on the horizon.

I watched “Match Of The Day 2” later in the evening and it was obvious that myself and Andre Marriner were wrong on both occasions. Gary Cahill was fouled in the build-up to their second goal. Diego Costa had been fouled outside the box too. Bollocks and bollocks again.

On Friday, we play Liverpool and the top of the table is beckoning.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.

Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.

In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.

It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.

Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.

1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.

And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.

As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.

This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.

After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.

“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.

Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.

Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.

Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.

Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.

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It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.

This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.

It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.

Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?

(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).

Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.

It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.

It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.

“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”

“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”

Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.

An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.

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The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH.  West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.

Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.

Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.

I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.

West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.

“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”

Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.

Fuck off.

West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.

Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.

Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.

Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.

Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.

All level at the break.

We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..

We teased the away fans :

“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”

No complaints at the interval.

PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.

I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.

All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”

We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.

Ronny : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.

For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.

“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”

It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.

The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.

Payet, the danger man, came on.

With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”

Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.

Bollocks.

Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.

Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.

This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.

Damn.

In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.

2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.

It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.

A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.

Ha.

This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From A Twin City

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

I drove from Ann Arbor in Michigan to Minneapolis in Minnesota in one ridiculous hop. It totaled out at 672 miles, took me over eleven hours and became the longest car journey of my life. There have been some long road trips for me watching Chelsea in the US (North Carolina to Pittsburgh, North Carolina to DC, North Carolina to Chicago, LA to Palo Alto, New York City to Charlotte, Charlotte to DC), but this one was the grand-daddy of them all. I only stopped four times – once for fuel, once for lunch, once for a drink and once at the Minnesota welcome centre – and thankfully the time went OK. I didn’t feel tired at all. The American Road kept me happy. I delved into a selection of FM radio stations to reduce the boredom, but you can only hear Chicago and Peter bloody Cetera so many times without going insane. I therefore hopped around some different stations a bit when things got tedious. I stayed clear of “Culvers” butter burgers, and all was fine.

The landscape was pretty flat around Michigan, but I noted many vineyards and wineries, which surprised me. I then swept wide and west past the suburbs of Chicago, my first port of call on this, my nineteenth trip to the USA. The Sears Tower, or whatever incarnation it is known by these days, was away in the distance. After I stopped at a down-at-heal “Hardees” for a burger and fries – can’t get more American than that – in Roscoe, Illinois, the scenery slowly changed and became more stimulating. The hills broadened, the fields turned greener, the sky opened up a little. Even the clouds looked more interesting. It became a lovely car trip.

I crossed the state line in to Minnesota as the rush-hour traffic was beginning to fade. My final approach seemed to electrify me. I shot past the little nest of downtown skyscrapers of St. Paul, the lesser of the two Twin Cities, and then continued on a further ten miles towards the far more impressive skyline of Minneapolis.

I genuinely knew little of the city to be honest. Cathy and myself had stopped for a few hours at the city’s airport on our long flight to Los Angeles in 2007, but I had not visited it in its own right. It was the home of Prince, bless him. It was the home of the Minnesota Twins, who were the opponents for my very first New York Yankees game in 1990. It was home to the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. The area was settled by many Scandinavians. There was a huge shopping mall in its suburbs. The city had skyways to keep people off the cold streets of winter and the scalding streets of winter. That was it.

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

Ah, but there was also an Everything But The Girl song called “Twin Cities” from their 1991 album “Worldwide” and I loved it to death. It came out just after I had visited the US for the first time. This particular song was an ode to travel throughout that vast continent. It seemed to strike a chord for me. That particular band often wrote about travel, of foreign cities, of wanting to be elsewhere, and a few of their songs get me dreaming of foreign lands.

“And now I’m standing in a city that’s as pretty as an ocean in the night.

And we are twin cities. And we are that ocean. From the standing still. We are set in motion.”

At about 6.45pm, Minneapolis opened up before me and I-94 threw me right into the heart of the city. As I took a broad curve down over the river, the incredible black irregular block of brick, steel and glass of the US Bank Stadium greeted me. It was a definite jaw-dropping moment. Of course, I had done my homework – I knew we were opening it up, as we did with Dallas’ new pad in 2009 – and I had studied images of it from inside and out. But the stadium looked incredible. Its irregular surfaces defied rational description. Was this a mere stadium, or some sort of space-ship about to take off into the night?

For the second time in five days, I had a feeling that a stadium would prove to be the star of the show.

I met up with a few friends down at the anointed pub – “Brits” – on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it was a pleasure to bump into a few old friends for the first time on this trip. On the way to the pub on the Tuesday, I had spotted a young lad with a Chelsea shirt in my hotel and so I spoke to him and his mother about the game. They were from Kansas and this would be their first Chelsea match. Soon after, we were sharing a cab down to “Brits” and Erica and Cooper – only seven – were soon meeting up with a roomful of Chelsea fans from all over the US. However, not long into the night, with Neil Barnett and both Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers turning the air blue with some of their tales from the past, I noticed that the two of them had disappeared outside in the warm summer evening air. I hope that we had not scared them away.

On both nights, I didn’t get back to my hotel, no more than a five-minute walk away from the stadium, until 2.30am. Thankfully, on the mornings after, there was no hint of a hangover.

Minneapolis seemed a fine town, but devoid of too many pedestrians. I suspect that the skywayss have a lot to answer for. I noted a fair bit of quirky architecture and the usual smattering of corporate skyscrapers.

On the day of the game, I started off with a pint of Leinenkugel’s summer shandy in a bar near my hotel. It was 1.30pm. There were still seven hours until kick-off.

“Blimey, that’s like me having a pint at 8am on a Saturday matchday.”

I’d enjoyed a similar grapefruit shandy from the same company at the Detroit Tigers vs. Houston Astros game on the Sunday. What a refreshing drink. The summer shandy was cloudy and not half as refreshing. I walked to “Brits” and bumped into ex-pat Kev / Clive (old joke, ask Parky) on the way. He had travelled by 650cc motorbike from Detroit for the game and we swapped stories. Things were pretty quiet in “Brits” to be honest. I met up with Bob and Danny, both from California, and Phil from Iowa. A few more pints went down well. Bob and myself moved on to another bar called “Cuzzys” which was a fantastic place. Its floors sloped, and its walls were festooned with dollar bills hanging from every surface. It reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Key West “Sloppy Joe’s.”

Back at my hotel, we met up with Danny, Mike, Tim and Eugene, lads that I have met over the years on my travels around the US. More beers, and a few more laughs. Time was moving on and so at just before 8pm, we walked towards the spanking new stadium. Throughout the past few days, we had hardly seen any Milan shirts. There was also a gnawing realisation that the good people of Minneapolis were out in force to witness the opening of the stadium rather than to see a football match. In a few bars, we had even seen fans – presumably going to the game – with the violet of the Vikings jersey on show. We envisaged another quiet night in the Chelsea section and the stadium as a whole.

There seemed to be a little confusion about access into the stadium and the most direct way was unable to be followed due to fences blocking our path. This was evidence that the stadium’s immediate areas were still requiring attention. Bob and myself took a lift to a quiet, air-conditioned, carpeted walkway – a skywalk, I suppose – which took us into the stadium midway up. In all honesty, at this stage, it all seemed a little too alien for me. It did not seem like a sports stadium. It seemed like an airport. There were wide concourses, and signs pointing here, there and everywhere. It did not seem right.

Then, we came out onto a viewing area – again, lots and lots of space – and we were able to see inside the stadium for the first time. Outside, the irregular shape of the stadium is said to resemble a Viking long-boat (for some reason, I used to love drawing those at school) with its angled lines and suchlike. Inside, the stadium appears huge, almost too huge, or at least too high. It was another jaw-dropping moment for me.

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I have been inside a few NFL stadia over the years – though I am yet to attend a game, no surprise there – and the last one that I visited which was equally stunning was the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. This one in Minneapolis though seemed almost perfect. At the Cowboys stadium, there are layer after layer of executive boxes where the corporate world can watch in air-conditioned isolation, but this leaves less seats for the common fan (if one exists in the NFL – it certainly seems a working class sport attended by the rich middle-class). This one seemed to have a larger proportion of general seating, even though the seats at the very rear of both side stands seemed to be so high as to be needing oxygen masks. It certainly ranks as the highest stadium I have seen. Probably higher than Dallas, probably higher than Camp Nou, certainly higher than the North Stand at Old Trafford.

At each end were massive TV screens. Everywhere, the violet / purple of the Vikings.

We took an elevator down a level and found our seats among the Chelsea section in the western side of the stadium, directly behind the goal. I looked around; just beyond our section, which continually stood for the duration of the game, there was the usual mixture of Real / Milan / Juve / Inter / Barca / Arsenal / Manchester United shirts. However, Chelsea was in the majority.

Back in 2005 – at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey – I attended another Chelsea vs. Milan game, but on that occasion, Chelsea were outnumbered by four or five to one. I know the demographics of the New York area are so different to that of Minnesota, but that just shows how far we have traveled in such a short period of time.

I spotted a few familiar faces in our ranks. Gary Chivers and Garry Stanley were a few rows below me.

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The players finished their pre-match routines and the clock ticked-down. The US flag fluttered as a tattooed girl sung the national anthem. The teams entered the now jam-packed arena. The players appeared so close to us.

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Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

The 4/4/2 aligned Costa and Traore for the first time.

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

Milan – playing in virtually an all-black kit – attacked the end where the Chelsea supporters, numbering possibly no more than five hundred at most, in a little tight block, were stood. Of course, there were Chelsea fans elsewhere, but this was the equivalent of an away section, the notion that movers and shakers in charge of these tours are only vaguely acquainted.

My friend Steve Rea, from New Orleans – who writes blogs on the official website – had asked me about my thoughts about my travels over to the US for these tours. I shared a few things with him, and included a moan about “other” fans getting tickets in apparently Chelsea-only sections. Things can often get a little tetchy in some cases. I remember getting annoyed by some Barcelona fans standing right in front of me in DC last summer. My closing comment to Steve for his article was – knowingly controversial – “sometimes segregation is a good thing.”

It didn’t surprise me that this line was cut from the final edit.

But certainly, for football games, it is surely key.

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

Get us all together, one block, one voice, one song.

Us and them.

Make some noise.

Milan were the first to cause problems when Abate was able to ghost in at the far post to connect with a cross, after drifting inside a dozing Dave. Milan looked quite sharp and I hoped for better things from us.

We had torn shirts as Traore and then Diego were manhandled. Diego headed over from a Traore cross. Milan then broke well and we had to rely on a fine Courtois block, with his legs, to avoid us conceding.

The noise in the Chelsea section was not great and I had rolled my eyes as a couple of “waves” were attempted around the stadium. Thankfully, they did not get far, unlike at Ann Arbor on Saturday. On that particular afternoon, I found it so ironic that the only section of fans not joining in with this loathsome and tiresome activity were the ones that had been trying to sing all afternoon. Sometimes I come away from games in the USA and think “yes, you’re getting it” but on that day, in The Big House, I marked America down.

After one wave faltered, I thought “enough of this shite” and bellowed out twelve “Zigger Zaggers” (a personal best, thank you very much) and the Chelsea support around me rallied a little.

Chelsea played a little better and had a few attacks on goal. Victor Moses, as is his wont during these games, had a forceful run out left. Another of his runs ended with a shot which rebounded nicely for Bertrand Traore to head home from close range.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

It pleased Minneapolis-native Tom, standing in-front of me, that the PA played “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince to mark the first goal scored in his city’s sparking new stadium.

Dave drove hard at the Milan goal but his shot breezed past the far post. We seemed in control.

Sadly, before the break, we conceded a free-kick just outside the box, and Bonaventura – pet detective – curled a stunning shot over the wall and past Thibaut.

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Milan started a little stronger at the start of the second-half. By now, the Chelsea support was quite pitiful. Hardly any songs were heard. The manager then shook things up a little, bringing on N’Golo Kante for his Chelsea debut – how small he looks, so reminiscent of Claude Makelele – and then there was a huge cheer for the introduction of Eden Hazard. They replaced Moses and Traore. It was lovely to see Kante dart around, but first he posed for a photo. Bless him. Welcome to Chelsea, N’Golo.

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Hazard was immediately involved. Willian’s shot was well saved by the Milan ‘keeper. Thankfully, the Chelsea support got behind the team a little more.

More changes ensued, with Ivanovic, Oscar and Batshuayi in for Aina, Fabregas and Costa.

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

A silly handball by a Milan defender allowed Oscar to fire the resulting penalty home.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

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Eden seemed to be elbowed in the jaw and stayed on the floor for a while. His new jersey did not display a number and the Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were excited to the point of collapse.

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

We lustily sang a chorus of “fackemall, fackemall – United, West Ham, Liverpool” and one middle-aged woman turned around in an adjoining section and gave us the dirtiest of looks.

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

To the old chant of “She fell over!” he sang “He’s Chalobah!” and gained a few credibility points.

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

Four minutes from the end, we added to our lead when my boy Cuadrado did ever so well to supply an onrushing Oscar with a deft pass. He tucked it home well.

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This was a much better performance from us and I hope and pray we can build on it in Bremen on Sunday.

At the end of the game, it was lovely to see JT head over to sign some shirts before clapping us and heading up the tunnel. I said my goodbyes to a few and at that point my plan was going to head on back to “Brits” for a couple of hours. There were five of us left – Brian (Texas), Danny (California), Josh (Minnesota), Tommy (California) and me (Nebraska) – and we were some of the very last to leave. We posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner and left the stadium.

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And what a stadium it had been.

Sadly, the lure of my hotel bed, a mere five-minute walk away, proved too tempting.

It was time for me to call it a night.

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