Tales From The Class Of ’98

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 12 February 2018.

This was another working week which would begin and end with a Chelsea match. As with a memorable week last May, with a game against Middlesbrough on the Monday and a game against West Brom on the Friday, we were faced with two matches on the same two days. First up were The Baggies at home. We were desperate for a win to put an end to our little blip. A win would then see us nose ourselves ahead of Tottenham and into fourth place. The visitors were rock bottom of the Premier League. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, we hoped. Nothing at all.

“Three points are king tonight, lads.”

I didn’t honestly care if we would scrape to a 1-0 win. I just wanted a win to take some pressure off the manager, the players and not least us, the supporters. The two recent losses to Bournemouth and Watford had certainly been lingering heavily on everyone’s minds the past week. Not only a nadir, but a nadir oh dear.

Other weighty issues had dominated my thoughts after the Watford loss. The chest pains that I mentioned during the Watford match report thankfully subsided throughout the past week, but on Friday I popped into my local community hospital to book an appointment to see a doctor. I needed reassurance that there was no problem. After explaining the symptoms, I was given a few tests. I explained to a doctor that my late father had suffered a history of heart problems. Without further ado, the doctor decided to take no risks and sent me in an ambulance to Bath to undergo further tests.

As can be imagined, this was quite a shock. At the time, I felt relatively OK. But I was – I suppose – relieved that I was in good hands. Thankfully, after a couple of hours spent in the A&E department of Bath’s Royal United Hospital, and after my fourth ECG of the day and some blood tests, I was released with an all-clear. No abnormal heart condition. Just high blood pressure, but that can be treated. The conclusion – from myself anyway, and possibly from the medical staff too – was that I had suffered from too much stress at work. As I reached home that night, I promised myself to try to improve my health via diet and exercise. And not get overly-stressed at work. Writing this again now, I am sure it was all to do with work.

[ A voice from the gallery : “Are you not going to make a comparison between you lying on a hospital bed and a critical stage in Chelsea’s season? You like a metaphor.”

“Blimey. No. That’s a bit excessive. A bit gruesome. Nah. ]

The Chuckle Brothers were back in town.

“Here we go again, boys.”

It was a bitterly cold night in SW6. Glenn and I darted up to the stadium to meet up with a couple of friends. We briefly chatted to Ray Wilkins, a massive hero for us both in our childhood. During the day, Glenn had decided to throw caution to the wind and join me in an antipodean holiday in July, loosely based on our friendly with Perth Glory in July. We gabbled away with travel plans as the cold Winter air brought shivers.

Back in “Simmons” the clans had gathered. I quickly popped into “The Cock Tavern” to meet up with Al and his son Nate from Toronto, both attending a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. Al has been following these reports for a while and wanted to meet up. Their enthusiasm about seeing us play was clearly evident. I used the well-worn line –

“Of course, if we lose, you’re not allowed to come back.”

Back in “Simmons” there was talk of the scrum down for away tickets for Barcelona. There was talk of the current ailments. There was support for the manager.

The temperature had dropped further as we walked to Stamford Bridge.

No surprises, the away end was full of empty seats. My guess was at about eight hundred at most. We were inside early, and I hoped that the empty seats in the home areas would eventually fill. Thankfully, in the main, the stadium filled. Yes, there were empty seats throughout the stadium, but no yawning gaps anywhere.

The team?

Thibaut.

Dave – Andreas – Toni

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Davide

Pedro – Olivier – Eden

Happy with that. Happy that the new boy Giroud was starting. Alvaro was on the bench, as was Emerson.

For all of the negativity surrounding the club of late, it was just lovely to hear “Blue Is The Colour” being played with five minutes to go. That song just makes me smile. It takes me right back to those formative tears as a Chelsea supporter. It strikes a real chord.

The lights darkened and the teams then appeared from the shadows. Over in the south-west corner of The Shed, a “FORZA CONTE” flag was held over bothy tiers. Very soon into the match, the home supporters rallied behind the manager.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

This was never honestly going to be a noisy night but I was warmed by the support that was cascading down from the stands. This was music to my lugholes.

Let’s go to work.

Very soon into the game – within two minutes or so – Daniel Sturridge was forced to limp off after an early twist or strain of a muscle. The bloke looked dejected as he made his way down the tunnel. I almost felt sorry for him.

Over the first fifteen minutes, West Brom caused more problems to us than we did to them. They had a couple of meek efforts on Thibaut’s goal. We got out of it unscathed. We managed to get into the game with Pedro as lively as ever. Giroud was involved, showing a willingness to create space for others to find him, and linking up well with others.

The noise levels were still pretty good. We kept urging the team on. This was pleasing.

Dave sent in a couple of fine crosses into the West Brom box, and they almost paid off. Quick comparisons of Giroud with Morata and Batshuayi were hard to resist. The new boy looked more robust than Alvaro and had more guile than Michy. For a big man, his touch looked fine. The best chance of the game was gifted to Giroud by Hazard, but his side-footed effort was straight at the ‘keeper Ben Foster. Pedro was fouled, but a tame free-kick from Eden hit the wall.

With Chelsea looking to move the ball quickly after a West Brom attack, a defender pushed the ball on to Victor Moses. As one, I heard the entire Matthew Harding Stand mouth the word “attack”; it was almost Pavlovian. Sadly, the wing-back floundered further up field. How frustrating.

On twenty-five minutes, I whispered to Alan :

“We’re not playing too badly to be honest. Lots of possession, but not a great deal of incision.”

At that very moment, Eden turned and moved the ball on to Giroud, who subtly touched the ball into the path of Eden, who stroked the ball into the goal.

Blues 1 Baggies 0

GET IN.

Soon after, there was a daring overhead effort from Giroud at the far post. The new boy was certainly truing his hardest to endear himself to us. He was then sent sprawling onto the turf and ended up with a wide white bandage over his forehead. A header from the same player went wide. It was all Chelsea now. West Brom appeared to deflate. Jonny Evans was booked for a nasty, late tackle on Giroud, who writhed in agony in the centre-circle. He had been consistently fouled throughout the first forty-five minutes. At this rate, I expected him to appear at the start of the second-half with an eye patch, a neck brace and his arm in plaster.

What a treat for us all at the break. Neil Barnett announced that three of the players due to take part in a “legends” game against Inter in May were to appear together on the Stamford Bridge pitch.

Step forward Gianfrano Zola, Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli.

What memories.

They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary  of our wonderful ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team and I idolised those players in a way that I simply do not do with the current squad. And I could probably write a book about the various reasons for that.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.

The second-half began with a couple of scares at The Shed End, but a fine block from Dave and a poor miss by Rondon meant that we did not concede. An Evans header from a corner flew well wide. As with the first-half, we weathered the early storm – nay rain shower – and got into the game. At times Giroud seemed too eager to play the ball to team mates rather than maintain possession and battle on. Maybe the ghost of Diego Costa lingers on.

The manager chose to replace the battered centre-forward on the hour and on came Alvaro Morata. Things became a little nervy, and the crowd was well aware that we were still leading by the slenderest of margins. There was a nervousness in the stadium. Things were not falling our way. A fine move involving the twin threats of Eden and Pedro allowed Alvaro to blast at goal.

Just after, Moses worked the ball in to Cesc and his attempted flick deflected off a defender and in to the path of the wing-back who had gambled on the return pass. His finish was cool.

Pensioners 2 Throstles 0.

Moses was clearly boosted by this goal. If ever there is a “confidence player” in our squad at the moment, it is Victor Moses. He quickly followed up with a fine shot on goal.

With twenty minutes to go, Eden broke past his marker, right at the edge of the penalty area, and sent an unstoppable shot low into the goal. There was so much venom in his shot, that the ‘keeper did not move. Similar to his effort at Watford, he used the defender as a block for the hapless ‘keeper. He just didn’t see it.

Bouncy 3 Boing Boing 0.

A rasping shot from Morata brought a save from Foster. The Spaniard was lively in his thirty minutes on the pitch. More of the same please. There was another shot from Moses. It stayed 3-0.

We were back in fourth place.

Crisis over? Maybe.

Out on the Fulham Road, a hot dog and onions went down well, and we scampered back to the waiting car.

I messaged Al from Toronto.

“We won. You can come back.”

It had been a good night.

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Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

It was just past two o’clock. I had parked my car outside “The Milk Churn” which sits on the A350 just south of the small Wiltshire town of Melksham. It is a new boozer, no older than a couple of years, but is built to resemble an old rustic farmhouse, heavy on tiles, brick and wood. It is run by “Hall and Woodhouse”, a brewery based in the Dorset town of Blandford Forum. My grandfather used to work at the brewery before he left his home town of Wareham to head up to Frome. The pub has acted as a starting point, a base camp, for a number of our Chelsea matches of late. My place of work is opposite. As I joined PD and Parky at their table in the pub lounge, they welcomed me.

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

Last week, last Wednesday, had been a very stressful day at work, and the lads had noticed that I was still in “the zone” after a hectic 6am to 2pm shift. It had taken a good hour or so for me to stop thinking over a few work-related issues as PD drove to London for the Bournemouth game.

On this day, a Monday, I certainly felt a little more relaxed. I ordered some food, gammon steaks all round, and supped at a pint of “Peroni.”

I relaxed with each passing sip.

“Yes. On the face of it, a bit easier today. A bit worried that I’ve had a few chest pains at work this morning though.”

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

“Yeah, I will” I replied, but rather unconvincingly, bearing in mind the stresses that might be forced upon me during the evening’s match at Vicarage Road.

We tucked into our food, and the mood was rather quiet.

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

“Certainly do. Especially as Liverpool and Spurs drew yesterday.”

The 2-2 draw at Anfield had presented us the opportunity of going third if we could win at Watford. It was a challenge that I trusted the players to overcome. I did not see any of the game at Anfield. I believe that it was quite a humdinger. I had the best of intentions to watch the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” on Sunday night, but I chose instead to continue watching an archived programme on the BBC i-Player detailing a storm which had caused havoc in Glasgow in 1968 but caused a rethink on the city’s plans to tear down tenements. This simple choice of viewing encapsulated my thoughts of football these days, or at least football not involving Chelsea Football Club.

Grainy images of Glasgow, social history, town-planning and architecture 1

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

After a relaxing lunch, PD set off for Watford. We were in the middle of a ridiculous stretch of nine games with not one of them being played on a Saturday.

Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Sunday, Sunday.

It is a bloody good job that we didn’t draw Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. I think that my head might have exploded.

I was able to grab a little sleep on the way up to Watford. PD was parked-up at about 5.15pm. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Knowing my dislike for large and impersonal superpubs, I managed to coerce the lads to pop into a local called “The Horns” where we enjoyed a pint apiece. It was a smashing boozer, evidently a venue for much music, and there was a permanent stage wedged into a corner. It had the feel of a Western saloon from the cowboy films of my childhood. Behind the till were hundreds of plectrums from live performances. There were musical memorabilia everywhere. But there was no hint that there was a topflight football match taking place a mile or so to the south.

We moved on to “The Moon Under Water” on Watford’s pedestrianised high street. Here was a different story. There was wall-to-wall Chelsea everywhere. I immediately thought back to our away game at Vicarage Road last season when a Michy Batshuayi goal gave us a late 2-1 win, but also where the same pub was reverberating to the short-lived “Antonio Conte does it better” chant before the game. We met up with Alan and Gary, calmly sat towards the rear, and we discussed the current ailments at our club.

I read out the team. I suppose there were two talking points. Marcos Alonso was not involved. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

The time soon passed. The air in the pub wasn’t exactly electric. A few of the younger element were trying to get some songs started in the main bar, but there were few takers. If anything, they annoyed me.

“As long as you buggers remember to sing in the stadium.”

We set off for Vicarage Road, a simple twenty-minute walk away, past the array of fast food joints, takeaways and restaurants of every hue. In previous visits to Vicarage Road, we have always arrived late and I have always headed straight in. On this cold night, I was able to have the briefest of wanders. Vicarage Road is certainly a cramped venue, wedged into side streets just outside the town centre. It’s a pleasant enough stadium.

We were down low, not far from the front. To my right, the Sir Graham Taylor Stand. To my left, the Elton John Stand. Tucked between the away end – we had around two thousand seats – and the side stand was the stadium’s “Sensory Room.” Despite us being the reigning champions, there were empty seats dotted around the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, the Watford fans unveiled a large banner at their home end of club owner Gino Pozzo. Rather than provide banners for each and every Watford manager, this was obviously cheaper. They are up to ten – I think – since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. That’s going some. Compared to Watford, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich resembles a steady ship.

The game began. The away fans were in great voice. As ever one song dominated.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

He acknowledged our support for him straight away with some applause for us.

But from the very first few minutes of action, we really struggled to get a foothold in the game. There was a ball-to-hand heart-in-the-mouth moment as the ball struck Gary Cahill. Not long after, the irksome winger Gerard Deulofeu saw his snapshot hit the side netting. The warning signs were there. We were watching from the left of the goal and Gary Cahill was in my sights. I wanted to see how he performed up close. He seemed to marshal his team mates reasonably well at set pieces, but looked ill-at-ease in open play. Very often he played the ball to a Chelsea team mate who was heavily marked. He just does not exude any calmness. Watford came again. Troy Deeney was left unmarked at the far post at a corner but his studied prod at goal was well wide.

Our attacks, so obviously lacking a focal point, floundered time after time. Pedro was full of running but with nobody moving off the ball ahead of him, the resulting pass was often played back or square. We looked utterly impotent in attack. Victor Moses was often left in acres of space, but was reluctant to release the ball early. David Luiz tended to vary things a little, choosing to play balls to the feet of Eden and others, but often a ball was hoofed up field to our three midgets. The away end was getting frustrated.

A wild shot from Willian blazed over the bar. It was our only real effort on goal. Watford kept attacking and Thibaut’s goal was under threat.

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Although I was trying my best to encourage Tiemoue Bakayoko when he did something half-decent – “go on my son” – he was having a nightmare. He gave up balls so cheaply. His night and our night was soon to darken. After a foul on Etienne Capoue by Bakayoko and a yellow card, there was a lunge on Richarlison in the middle of the pitch. I have to admit, from our perspective, it looked like there had been a foul on Bakayoko, but as Richarlison stayed down, and players swarmed, there was that horrible moment of hurt as referee Mike Dean flashed a card at Bakayoko.

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

Antonio Conte was furious and had to be calmed by the referee.

After a few minutes of wondering how the manager would react, I was frankly amazed that he chose Cesc Fabregas to replace Willian. I thought about moving Luiz into midfield and going 4/2/3 or bringing on Danny Drinkwater. But what do I know? I’m just a transport planner for an office furniture company. The addition of the lightweight Fabregas seemed odd. Very odd. It felt harsh on Willian who can always be relied upon to put in a shift.

Our play did not improve. Just before half-time, a ball was played forward to the lively Deulofeu who touched the ball on. Out rushed Courtois and I just knew what was going to happen next. A touch, down he went, a nailed-on penalty. Two knobhead fans chose to walk past me just as Deeney took the penalty. I would have missed the save if there had been one. There wasn’t. The home crowd roared and we were one-down.

Shite.

There was a run and shot from Pedro in the inside-left channel, but it blazed well over. To be honest, a goal then would not have reflected the balance of play. Watford were full of running, full of pace, and were well-deserving of their lead. We looked devoid of confidence. There was nobody willing to take ownership of the ball and create. Down to ten men, we stared a second successive league defeat in the face.

The second-half began.

I was so happy that the away fans were trying our hardest to get behind the team. One song dominated. It was a song which, I always remembered, seemed to be aired specifically during the second-halves of games, and especially away games, when the team needed it. This game certainly fitted the bill.

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

I was joining in. So were many others. But I looked around, and back, at others to see how many were actually joining in too. It was at about the 50% level at best. It sounded like more were singing. But those that were involved were keeping it going for a fair few minutes. I was sure that the noise was carrying and that the TV millions would hopefully be impressed. The home fans, by comparison, were ridiculously quiet. Despite winning, the folks to the left of me in the Elton John Stand hardly sung all night.

Modern football.

Despite a clash of heads with a Watford defender, Moses began to get a little more space in front of us down the Chelsea right. At last we were playing to our strengths; intricate passing, movement off the ball, a ball into space, a cross. Moses broke through, glided past a couple of defenders and played the ball across the six-yard box.

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

Chelsea were trying to get into the game, and there was a definite improvement as the second-half progressed. But at the other end, Watford again and again broke through. Shots curled past the far post. Thibaut was forced to strongly save on two occasions. They were out-gunning us.

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

We spotted Olivier Giroud warming up on the touchline. One nasty little outbreak of Billy Ray Cyrus down to my left thankfully failed to gather momentum. With twenty-minutes left, the former Arsenal target man made his Chelsea debut. His beard appeared to have been trimmed a little. Good. Fucking good.

He went up for a header, which he won, and he began his journey from Arsenal wanker to Chelsea player. We urged the team on. All of a sudden, we looked more like a team. More options. More drive. More energy. We enjoyed a few half (quarter?) chances but the mood was rising.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Eden Hazard, in the same channel that Moses had ploughed earlier, flitted away from markers and suddenly looked like his old self. He buzzed into the box, and the ball reached Fabregas. This was our big chance, our big moment. The shot was weak, low and an easy save for the Watford ‘keeper.

The howls rang out from the away end.

Just after, Hazard – clearly buzzing now after his confidence-boost of a run earlier – collected the ball around twenty-five yards out, broke into a little space and guided a magical shot around the defender, using him as a block for the ‘keeper, and into the side of the goal.

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

The celebrations were wild and unfettered. Eden pointed towards us. We were back in the game. At that moment, oh the stupidity of it all, it felt to me like we would go on to win.

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Bizarrely – there was no explanation – the play returned to the other end. Another Watford effort slid past the far post. I then watched with growing concern as a fine Watford move spread across the box from right to left. I yelled, in vain, as a Watford player appeared to tiptoe into a danger area.

“Don’t let him shoot.”

There was no tackle. There was no block. Janmaat shot. Janmaat scored.

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

The hurt was palpable. I remained standing but inside I slumped to the floor. Thankfully there was no chest pains, just an emptiness.

Four minutes later, their star player Deulofeu was able to shoot after a short run at the heart of our defence.

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

With that, many Chelsea fans decided to leave. A swathe of empty yellow seats soon appeared in front of me. I was fuming. Two lads motioned to me to let them pass. I did not move. They had to squeeze past me. I glowered at them. They glowered back.

Fuck them.

The night became even more bizarre. A lone spindly youth ran on to the pitch, I think from the side stand, and bounced up and down on the pitch, seemingly on the ‘phone to somebody. No stewards bothered with him. He stayed on the pitch, gurning like a fool, for what seemed like thirty seconds or more. With my eyes drilling in to him, I missed the build up to Watford’s fourth goal.

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

In a show of defiance, the remaining Chelsea fans collectively thought “well, fuck this” and got behind the team once more.

“We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

A half-chance from that man Giroud almost brought a cheer, but the game ended with no further incident.

But there here was still time for another round of “Antonio.”

And there was even a relatively loud “Three Little Birds” as the game ended.

At the final whistle, I watched as Antonio Conte darted down the tunnel. I honestly wondered if I would see him again as a Chelsea manager. I gathered my stuff, as stony faced as I have been for a while. Parky was surprisingly upbeat alongside me and for a few seconds I wanted him to be quiet, be still, be solemn. His obvious indifference to defeat annoyed me, but then I had to smirk as we met up with others and headed up the steep terrace. There was a chat with a few good people.

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

“Those people who left, I just don’t get it. Us losing should make them want to stay, to stay and cheer us on. What is the point in them leaving?”

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

“Yes, we have mate. Not at Watford, though.”

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

There would be a time to evaluate the current dip in form at Chelsea at a later date, a later time. Maybe things will be crystal clear in my mind for the West Brom game, but I doubt it. These waters are muddied. And my mind is addled with the constant rumour and counter-rumour which surrounds this club, as ever.

At around 10.45pm, Parky, PD and me were sitting in a “Subway” on the Watford High Street. Although my jacket had kept me warm at the game, the winter chill had bitten hard on the walk back from the stadium. We silently devoured some food. The moment, oddly, reminded me of a late night snack in a small café in Rome after an equally shocking defeat. In Rome, we were able to look out on a piazza and monuments, and enjoy the moment. In Watford, we looked out on waste bins, concrete paving slabs and “Poundworld.”

“At least there were no chest pains.”

The hurt on a cold night in Hertfordshire was only mental, but it was real enough.

PD set off for home at 11pm. Thankfully, I managed to get some sleep once we left the M25 and hit the M4. We were back at “The Milk Churn” at 1am. I was home at 1.30am. I was asleep at 2am. The alarm would ring at 5am.

At 6am, co-workers would be asking me if I was at the game at Watford.

“Yep.”

The three of us agreed that we all needed a break from football. In the pub, even Gary had commented that he had enjoyed having the recent weekend off as it gave him some precious time to get a few things done away from Chelsea. At the moment, this football lark is hard and relentless. On players and fans alike. The next game is on Monday. There is time for a rest. There is time for a break. There will be time to re-focus and to re-charge the old batteries.

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

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Tales From A Stroll Down The Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 28 January 2018.

Our eighth out of nine games in the month of January saw a return to the FA Cup and a good old-fashioned battle with long-standing adversaries Newcastle United. On the drive up to London, we briefly chatted about the meek second-half surrender at Arsenal on Wednesday, but forward to the next run of games, and made transport plans for a few of them. There were a few moments lambasting the shocking mess of the VAR system, which stumbles from one farce to another with each game. Get rid of it now.

After having worked on eighteen of the previous twenty days, here was a much-needed day of rest, though it was my turn to drive after Glenn and PD took a turn at the wheel for the two previous games. But there were no complaints from me. Football acts as a release-valve as much today as it ever did. I ate up the miles and made good time. The weather was mainly mild but overcast.

Previous FA cup games against Newcastle United? There was an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 2000 of course. This was a fine game of football and should have been the final itself. Gus Poyet was the hero of the day with two headers after Rob Lee equalised for the Geordies. I remember their end resembled a huge bowl of humbugs. It was a fantastic game. By comparison, the 1-0 win over Aston Villa at old Wembley’s last-ever Cup Final was such a dull affair.

There was also a win against them at home in 2006, but that 1-0 win does not ring many bells. Once the draw was made, I immediately thought back to a game from 1996, when Newcastle United were riding high in the league – it was the season that saw them infamously over-taken by Manchester United – and when we had already beaten them 1-0 at home in a thrilling game in the December. In a third round tie at Stamford Bridge in January, we were winning 1-0 with a goal deep into injury time from Mark Hughes. Sadly, a stoppage-time equaliser from Les Ferdinand took the tie to a replay, which we famously won on penalties. We made it to the semi-final that year.

We popped into “The Goose” but I left for the ground a little earlier than the rest to take a few un-hindered photographs of the pre-match scene. Deep-down, I also wanted to feel a special FA Cup buzz around the stadium, but – apart from the nauseous presence of few more touts than usual trying to hawk tickets – there was little different to this game than others, except for maybe more than the usual amount of kids with parents and grandparents. I wondered who was more excited.

As I walked on past the old and new tube stations, the town hall and the CFCUK stall, I mused that the famous lyrics to the song by Suggs should now be updated :

“The only place to be every other Saturday lunchtime, Saturday tea-time, Sunday lunchtime Sunday tea-time, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Friday night is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

I took a photograph of the fine frontage to the Oswald Stoll buildings, which have been part of the match day scene at Chelsea for decades. It houses veterans from the armed forces. I love that. It underlines the role of the army, navy and air force at Chelsea, in addition to the more famous pensioners from the Royal Hospital. During the week, I read that the foundation is thinking of building a new residence elsewhere, and there is the chance that they will offer Chelsea Football Club the chance to buy up some of the existing property adjacent to the existing West Stand. There will be no added capacity to the new Stamford Bridge, but simply more space for spectators to enter and exit the cramped footprint of the stadium. I guess the board needs to weigh up the options. Is it worth the added expense of buying up more land? Possibly. During the week, there had been a CPO meeting. Though I did not attend, I was pleased that the CPO board and the CFC board have never been closer.

For the people who constantly moan about our reduced presence as a major player in the transfer market, I’d suggest they need to re-value their thoughts. In the autumn of 2011, with the threat of us moving from Stamford Bridge to an unloved new build away from our ancestral home, we would not have worried too greatly about a few years of treading water on the pitch if our future at Stamford Bridge was secure.

I’m strongly behind the new stadium. I’ll say no more than that.

However, I do find it odd that Roman Abramovich has only been spotted at one Chelsea game this season; the win against Manchester United. I doubt if he is losing interest, but perhaps it has shifted its focus. I wondered if Roman is one of these people who obsesses about one thing at a time. A company acquisition. A football club. A football team. A new house. A yacht.  A stadium.

I had a vision of him locked away in a room in one of his properties, maybe not as obsessed as Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” as his character builds devil’s mountain out of mashed potato and then debris, but with a 2018 mix of Hornby train sets, Meccano, and Lego bricks – and cranes, lots of cranes – working in unison to replicate the Herzog and De Meuron model.

Inside the current Stamford Bridge, the first thing that I noted was a void of a few hundred seats which were not filled in The Shed. As with Norwich City, The Geordies did not fully occupy their three-thousand seats. A 1.30pm Sunday kick-off is a test though. No surprises that it was not filled.

The manager had chosen a 3/4/3 again and re-jigged the starting personnel.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hazard

For once, we attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half; a Benitez ploy no doubt. The thought of a replay on Tyneside – two days off work for sure – filled me with dread. Absolute dread.

As the game began, the Geordies were making all the noise.

“New-casuhl, New-casuhl, New-casuhl.”

I’d suggest that they started the match with more pressing and more energy than us. Early on, we were concerned when Davide Zappacosta stayed down for a few minutes. Thankfully, he was able to run off his knock and was soon back to his barnstorming runs. On one occasion, he pushed the ball way past his marker and sent over a brilliant cross.

An Eden Hazard free-kick did not trouble the ‘keeper Karl Darlow.

There was a fine leap and header on by Hazard to Michy Batshuayi which took me back to the ‘eighties when the hanging-in-the-air leap of David Speedie often supplied Kerry Dixon with many a cushioned header.

There was a magnificent cross-field pass from Toni Rudiger; one of his specialities. He is surely deserving a regular run in the team. I see a fine player. At the other end, Wily Caballero managed to save from Jonjo Shelvey. Our play certainly looked a little off the pace. It felt like “advantage Toon” at the half-hour mark. We had not got into the game. The Stamford Bridge were quiet. But you knew that. Thankfully, this was to change.

A beautiful and flowing move involving a long pass from Pedro into the feet of Hazard, a touch to Marcos Alonso – a great appetite to join the attack – and the finest of passes to Batshuayi.

“Michy doesn’t miss from there” zipped through my mind. It was virtually an open goal with the ‘keeper lost.

Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0.

GET IN.

This goal seemed to pump life into the crowd, the team and most especially Michy himself. For the rest of the half, his movement was better, and his appetite too. There was another excellent save from Wily down at The Shed, with our ‘keeper managing to fall quickly at his near post and block an effort from Gayle. A lovely shot from the left foot of Rudiger flew past the post. The game was opening up now.

Pedro and Hazard were hitting some fine form and the former found the latter with a great ball. Hazard picked out Batshuayi – “Nevin to Speedie to Dixon” – and the striker lashed the ball goal wards. There was an immediate groan as the shot was blocked by Jamaal Lascelles, but the noise quickly changed to that of hope and expectation as the ball spun high and over the ‘keeper.

“I like the look of this” I thought.

It dropped into the goal.

Chelsea 2 Newcastle United 0.

The game seemed won. Phew. No replay? I hoped not.

We had that strange experience of us attacking The Geordies and Parkyville in the second period.

The crowd were a little more involved. On two occasions especially. There was a loud and heartfelt “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” – louder than normal it seemed – and it certainly felt like a resounding show of support for him. Soon after, even louder, and with the entire ground appearing to join in there was this –

“STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS.”

It was if these two chants were for the benefit of Roman and the board.

The only problem was that Roman was not present; he was up to his waist in mashed potato in the west wing.

Will manager Conte be here next season? I hope so but I doubt it. I hate modern football and I’ll say no more than that.

A shot from Pedro, and a beautiful volley from Alonso showed our intent as the second-half progressed. Newcastle fell away, but their support remained as belligerent as ever. There were two shots from distance from DD. It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes remaining, we were given a free-kick after a foul on the useful Zappacosta, who we all agreed needs to start ahead of the ailing Victor Moses. I love his appetite.

This was in prime Marcos Alonso territory no doubt. There was a wait for a few moments. We held our breath. Three Chelsea players were in the wall, but the Spaniard struck the ball up and over. It was yet another prime free-kick from Alonso. The boy can certainly strike a ball.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

Game most definitely over.

The rest of the game was notable for four significant substitutions.

72 minutes : Ross Barkley for Eden Hazard.

A home debut for our new midfielder. He looked strong and eager to impress. He had been the cover-star on the match programme, another retro one, this time from the ‘forties.

77 minutes : Ethan Ampadu for N’Golo Kante.

He immediately fitted in. Is he really only seventeen? Very soon, he played the ball of the game through to an onrushing Pedro. The lad looks the business, so loose and natural.

80 minutes : Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro.

A Chelsea debut, and his first three passes were on-the-money cross-field balls out to Zappacosta out on the right, now enjoying acres of space. All of a sudden, the future seemed brighter, rosier, more positive. Fantastic.

83 minutes : Christian Atsu for Iscaac Hayden.

It was certainly nice to see and hear some warm applause for our former player, who never made it to the first-team. I bet we never got any credit for it on the TV commentary.

The game ended with a fine and free-flowing move from our penalty box all of the way through to a shot from Michy which the ‘keeper saved. By that time the away team were chasing shadows.

But the Newcastle fans kept their support of their team until the end and hardly any left. Top marks. I remembered back to 1983/1984 when, at the end of a completely one-sided 4-0 thumping, the Geordies kept singing, and were rewarded with applause from the home support.

In 2018, the reaction to the bonny lads was not full of such bonhomie :

“You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Modern football, eh?

On Wednesday, the month ends with a home game with Bournemouth.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Benches

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 13 January 2018.

Last Saturday at Norwich, I bumped into a chap who I had not seen at a Chelsea game for years and years. Dave, originally from St. Albans, used to sit alongside a few of us on The Benches in the West Stand at Stamford Bridge in the mid-‘eighties. I was thrilled to see him again, and even more thrilled to hear that he was planning to meet up with two other lads from that era – Simon, who I see occasionally at Chelsea, and Rich, who I have not seen for three decades – at the Leicester City home game. As the Chuckle Brothers made our way to London, my mind was full of thoughts about this most brilliant of reunions. And it got me wondering about the absurdities of fate.

As I recalled the circumstances that led to us all getting to know each other, it just seemed that some things were just meant to be.

Rewind to the evening of Saturday 10 March 1984.

Glenn and I were on our way back to King’s Cross on the Chelsea Special after an action packed day watching The Great Unpredictables at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Glenn shot off to the buffet, leaving me to read the creased match programme one more time. Coming out of Newcastle, the train had been bricked by some far-from-friendly locals and a window in our compartment had been shattered, leaving a young lad wearing glasses with bloodied cuts to the head. It was a rude awakening to the pitfalls of travelling by train in support of Chelsea. A few others, more experienced, more seasoned, had put the blinds down as soon as we had left Newcastle, just in case this very thing happened, to try to stop the glass flying everywhere. I probably tried to catch some sleep – we had been awake since 4am – but the compartment was so cold that sleep was probably out of the question. After an hour or so – “blimey, what has happened to Glenn?” – my travel companion returned.

“Just been talking to some lads from Brighton. A good laugh.”

I thought no more of it.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Saturday 31 March 1984.

In the days before we had spare money to pop into the pubs around Stamford Bridge on match days, Glenn and I were in early for our game against Fulham. We had watched our first two games together against Newcastle United in November and Manchester City in December on The Shed, but our next couple of matches – Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday – had been in the trendier and more enjoyable benches which used to run alongside the old dog track in front of the West Stand. It was where I had seen my very first game at Chelsea ten years’ earlier. But where there was a mixture of middle-aged supporters in suits and ties, young schoolkids, and pensioners mixed in with the teenagers in 1974, in 1984 the benches were occupied by a very different beast. In the main, and certainly at the northern end of The Benches, as near to the hated away fans as it was possible to get, were legions of Chelsea supporters – 99% male and 99% aged sixteen to twenty-five – who were dressed to impress with the latest casual labels of the day.

You would pay your general admission money to get in The Shed – £3? I forget – and then show your membership card at the back of the Shed terrace to a club official and then pay an extra quid at those peculiar turnstiles (a unique feature really, a turnstile inside a stadium) at the bottom of those steps between The Shed and the West Stand. And then you were in, walking the catwalk of that wide walkway at the back of the enclosure, watching the peacocks strut their stuff, and sing their songs.

This was all relatively new to the two of us from Frome.

1983/1984 was a season of enlightenment for the two of us and there has not been a season like it before or after.

The wedge haircut, blonde highlights, Lacoste polo shirts, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops, Fila roll-necks, Adidas rain jackets, Patrick cagoules, complete Kappa tracksuits, Lyle and Scott pullovers, Pringle pullovers, Gabicci cardigans, light blue Levi jeans, Lois jumbo cords with side splits, Nike Wimbledons, Diadora Borg Elites, Puma Guillermo Vilas, Kickers, swagger, swagger and more swagger.

The two of us were overdosing on football and fashion and we could not get enough of it.

On that day against Fulham, we had nabbed the very back row of the benches; always a highly-desirable spot. We were on the halfway-line. Prime seats. No tickets in those days; first-come first-served. Lo and behold, who should arrive a little later and be sitting right in front of us than the two lads “from Brighton” who Glenn had met on the way home from Newcastle. In fact, only one was from Brighton; Paul – aka Stamford in lieu of his mane of blonde hair – while Alan was from Bromley, a proper Sarf Londoner. We struck up a little conversation. Glenn must have introduced me. It felt nice to meet some young lads who were as mad on Chelsea as us. Growing up in rural Somerset, it was a rarity to find another blue, let alone one who were as feverish about our club as Glenn and little old me.

The next game that Glenn and I attended at Stamford Bridge was the legendary promotion-decider against Leeds United. Again, we aimed for the back row of The Benches. The pre-match was a little different on this occasion, though, and rather historic too. We had popped into a pub called “The Cock” and I had supped my very first pint before a Chelsea game – a lager and lime if memory serves – and we had arrived a little later than planned. As I remember it, Alan and Paul made us some space on the back row, and I am sure that we also met a few other lads that day too.

Leggo from Bedford, Mark from Sunbury-on-Thames, and the trio of lads from the St. Albans area, Simon, Dave and Rich.

Chelsea won 5-0 and promotion was secured.

They were the days of our lives.

Back in the top flight for the first time in five seasons, the next campaign was one of the best-ever too. Even though I was at college in Stoke, I managed to attend 16 out of 21 home league games. There was a smattering of away games; Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City, Liverpool, Stoke City. I would save my pennies through the week, eating frugally, and live for my magical footballing Saturdays. Throughout the season, the little gang of us would always gather on the back row at the halfway-line. Often we would get in at 1.30pm when the gates opened. From memory, for the big games – Liverpool, United – the gates were open at 1pm. We would sit, read the programmes, soak up the pre-match atmosphere, laugh and joke about previous games, watch the players warm up, sing out their names, enjoy the camaraderie.

What a buzz.

I used to take my camera in those days too.

In the spring of 1985, on the day the club celebrated its ninetieth anniversary against Tottenham – all-ticket due to the risk of violence, but only 26,310 attended – I snapped away. In the first photo are Stamford, Alan and Dave, sporting the ski-hats which were all the rage that season. In the second one, in profile and with The Shed behind, are Alan, Dave, Rich, Mark and Leggo in his bloody awful ginger leather jacket. It is no surprise that Simon is not in either picture, since he always tended to be the last to arrive, and usually the worse for wear after several pints in the pub.

By then of course, after the riot against Sunderland in the Milk Cup semi-final, the wooden benches were no more. They were replaced by cold concrete slabs. In the picture below, also from the Spurs game in 1985, the full roll-call is as follows :

Gareth (another Bedford lad), Glenn, Stamford, Alan, Dave, Rich, Swan (one of our lot, from Radstock, an Ian Botham-lookalike), Mark with his back-turned and Leggo and Leggo’s jacket.

We would meet up again, with slightly dwindling numbers in 1985/1986, but by 1986/1987 the group had tended to disperse. The wooden benches were no more and the concrete slabs just didn’t cut it. On my visits to Stamford Bridge, I mixed it up a little; The Shed one week, The Benches the next. By the time of 1988/1989 Alan had moved over to a season ticket in the front row of the East Upper, and I only bumped into the others on rare occasions.

Fast forward to Saturday 13 January 2018.

I had dropped Glenn, Parky and PD off at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and drove off to park my car on Normand Road, just in front of Normand Mews where former F1 World Champion James Hunt used to live, as the small blue plaque commemorates. I was therefore late to the party when I strolled in at around 11.30am. But there they all were, The Benches from 1984/1985.

Rich, Simon, Glenn, Chris, Dave, Alan.

What a joy to see each other again. It would be the first time that we had all been together since, I reckon, around the autumn of 1985. We wasted little time in turning back the years. We spoke about the others. Swan moved up to Leeds, we think, and the last time I saw him was in Bath in around 1986. Gareth used to go, but has not been seen for two decades. Mark still goes home and away, I see him everywhere. Leggo has not been seen at Chelsea for fifteen years. Neither has his jacket. Stamford aka Paul aka Walnuts still goes, and will be at the Brighton vs. Chelsea match next week. As I said, I still see Simon at games, though for many years, his was a missing face. I remember how pleased I was to see him at Wolves in 2003 after not seeing him since the mid-‘eighties. I saw Dave for the first time in ages at the Luton Town semi at Wembley in 1994 and again at the Nou Camp in 2000, and he still goes, though our paths have not crossed. Rich goes, but not so often.

It was a miracle that we were all together again in 2018.

And we owed it all to Glenn going to the buffet on a Chelsea Special in 1984 and the lure of The Benches at Stamford Bridge.

The banter continued.

Alan : “When Dave saw Glenn he called him “Polly”.

“Polly” – I had quite forgotten this. Indeed. “Polly.” I scratched my head as to why this was.

Dave, Rich, Simon and Alan were soon locked in to a special memory from September 1983 when they drove up to Sheffield Wednesday in Rich’s Ford Cortina and played an impromptu game of football on the moors above Hillsborough.

Alan : “It was cowpats for goalposts.”

Photographs were shared from our mobile phones.

Simon : “Here’s a photo of Kerry and me at Aberystwyth in 1983.”

We remembered the fashions of the day.

Dave : “Rich, I am sure that we went to Highbury in 1984 wearing white tennis shorts.”

Glenn : “Remember those multi-coloured jackets made from suede and leather? We all had them.”

Chris : “Remember those two girls who sold programmes from that hut on the main forecourt and then walked behind the goal at The Shed End to The Benches every home game?”

We did. Of course we did. Ah, Sharon and Paula, where are you now?

I was reminded of the time in 2004 when Glenn and I posed for a couple of photographs outside The Goose with photos from The Benches which Alan had taken. The one of me with the black jacket is the one which appears with my piece on “Arsenal 1984” in Mark Worrall’s book from a few years back. In the photo that Glenn is holding, he is with Dave and Simon.

Chris : “Never mind Polly, we should have called you Shirley Temple with that Barnet.”

We chatted about the hold that Chelsea has on all of us. We updated each other with what we have been doing with ourselves in the past thirty-odd years. I have to be honest, it was the most wonderful pre-match for ages. The chat and the laughter bounced around the pub. It was bloody lovely.

With kick-off time approaching, we started to finish our drinks. We looked up and saw about forty of Leicester’s “lads” enter the pub, a strange mix of middle-aged henchmen and Stone Island patches, Adidas trainers, CP goggles, Aquascutum scarves, Ma.Strum jackets and glowering looks. I suspect that they were remnants of the Baby Squad, but we wasted no time in finding out. Rather than involve ourselves in conversations with them about the export/import imbalance, the threat of global warming, heightened political tension in the far east, the lack of funding for the arts by the current government and the futility of life itself, we decided to down our pints and head out.

With us were Kev and Rich, the Jam Tarts, down from Edinburgh for the day. It had been a proper gathering of the clans.

Inside Stamford Bridge, Leicester City were backed by a strong three-thousand. I recollected a game that I had attended – all on my lonesome, September 1982, hating sixth-form, trying and failing to get over my first girlfriend, not exactly enjoying life – between Chelsea and Leicester City. It was just a run-of-the-mill Second Division game, and yet over 14,000 like-minded souls had evaded the clutches of loved ones, made excuses, saved hard, traveled long distances, and bothered to attend. I remember looking over to the middle of The Shed and thinking :

“We’ve got something here. This huge stadium. A loyal support. If only we had a good team.”

Who would have thought that thirty-five years later, the two teams involved on that sunny afternoon in 1982 would be Champions of England for three consecutive seasons?

Antonio Conte had opted for a 3-5-2 although all four of us in The Chuckle Bus had wanted a more fluid 3-4-3.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Morata – Hazard

At ten to three, the musical countdown began.

“Park Life.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

The teams, the flags, “COME ON CHELSEA.”

The game began with a shot that Victor Moses slashed wide from a Cesc Fabregas pass. But then the visitors got their arses into gear. Bloody hell, Leicester– dressed in all black, how original – were all over us. I have no idea why our defenders allowed so much space for the visiting attackers, but they could have been two-up after just eight minutes. Firstly, a cross from down below me from their left was played into Shinji Okazaki but his connection was poor. Then, twice in a minute, Jamie Vardy could have scored on both occasions. We were simply not at the races.

“FACKINELL CHELS.”

Next up, was a fantastic diving save from Courtois from Wilfred Ndidi. The crowd around me were already restless and barely ten minutes had passed. At least – I was hunting for any scrap of positivity that I could – the crowd seemed to be slightly more involved than of late.

To the tune of “Amazing Grace” – our name boomed from the Matthew Harding. However, amazing we certainly bloody weren’t.

Cesc broke into the box at the other end and drew a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel. But this was very much a “one-off” as the visitors tore us to shreds. On a cold afternoon in SW6, Glenn was huddled up close to PD and Alan, his hat over his ears. He acknowledged that a brilliant pre-match had taken its toll.

“I had an opinion before six pints of Guinness.”

We laughed.

We had to laugh at something. Down on the pitch, we were as lacklustre as it gets. Our tackling was off. Our passing was so slow. Eden was finding it hard to get an inch of space anywhere. I so wanted Tiemoue Bakayoko to have a solid game, and I went out of my way to encourage him. But, let’s not kid ourselves, he had another stinker. His intensity was off, and he gave virtually nothing to the side in that woeful first-half. He struggled to fit in. He seemed unsure of his role, as did I. I wondered if he will continue to exist as some sort of Corporal Sponge to the other more established stars in our team, pottering around like one of those members of McDonalds who are only trusted to wipe dirty surfaces and dispose of debris in the rubbish bins.

We seemed to be overmanned in central midfield, yet we were over-run too. How is that possible?

A great tackle from Cahill managed to repel the threat from the fleet-of-foot Mahrez, enjoying a fine game, and a trademark crunching block from the same player stopped Vardy.

The crowd tried to lift the players.

“ANTONIO.”

Gary Cahill was then replaced by Andreas Christensen, after the captain fell, clutching his leg. The youngster soon impressed. Alvaro Morata for once set himself free of his markers and caused Schmeichel to save at his near post. But our chances were rare. At the other end, there were countless breaks from the twin threats of Mahrez and Vardy, and Leicester continued to dominate. Marc Albrighton slammed one wide. Only in the final five minutes of the half did we look like getting back to our old form. When we did, the crowd were noticeably more involved. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, should it?

Back in the “F3K”, Glenn had spoken about our time on “The Benches.”

“We didn’t know too much about tactics or formations. We just showed up and sang until we were hoarse.”

Quite.

If only supporters could support.

Not rocket science is it?

And although it is surely a myth that Stamford Bridge was a cauldron of noise three decades ago – it wasn’t because so much of the noise generated by our support simply drifted away into the London air, with the supporters so far away from the pitch –  at least we bloody well tried. The Shed tried, The Benches tried, Gate 13 tried. We all tried. Once we were in the midst of it, the noise sounded deafening…it just didn’t travel too far.

The second-half began. There was no noticeable step up from us in terms of quality nor intensity. This was all very strange. After ten minutes of play, Leicester City had a penalty appeal turned down and I commented to Alan that instead of Thibaut releasing the ball early to Morata while many of the opposing players were still moaning at the referee, and the team in momentary disarray, our Belgian ‘keeper held on to the ball and allowed the visitors to regroup. For some reason, I heard Jose Mourinho’s voice yelling at Thibaut and not Antonio Conte, not sure why. Maybe it was a definite Mourinho trait for his teams to expose the slightest weakness in any opposing team.

That man Mahrez threatened again. We were lucky that his shot – deflected – ended up spinning wide.

At last, a change.

Hazard was replaced by Pedro. Fabregas was replaced by Willian. Neither had been special. In fact, they had both been poor.

So, we got our desired “3-4-3.”

I was reminded back to Manchester United in around 2005, when we were in our pomp, and it was perceived by many among United’s match-going support that Sir Alex Ferguson was evidently “losing” it with his dalliance of new formations. On many occasions, the United support used to bellow “4-4-2, 4-4-2, 4-4-2” at their manager when things were not going their way. It made me chuckle that plasterers from Prestwich, accountants from Ardwick, taxi drivers from Totnes, nurses from Norwich, electricians from Eccles and lorry drivers from Launceston suddenly knew more about the Manchester United players and their strengths and weaknesses than one of the most revered managers the game has ever seen. Still, in this day and age, the customer is king. It is the way of the world to boo. We are a nation of moaners. And I am not saying that there was no negativity in days gone by, but the vitriol today seems to have reached new, horrible levels. There was, surprisingly, hardly any boos though at halftime, but if the score remained the same, I wasn’t so sure of a familiar outcome on ninety minutes.

Immediately, Pedro on the left and Willian on the right helped to energise us. There was a lot more pressure to win the ball, and we hoped we could breach the Leicester defence.

Chris to Alan : “Bakayoko, thirty yard screamer.”

Unfortunately, the only screaming came after a couple of Bakayoko shots were woefully off target.

“WE ALL FOLLOW THE CHELSEA, OVER LAND AND SEA.”

I was so pleased to hear a reaction from the home support. Not deafening, but at least it was something. The Benches of 1984 would have been proud of us. Maybe.

We were then handed some help when Ben Chilwell was sent off for two yellows in quick succession. It seemed that we had tons of the ball now, but with only Vardy upfront, Leicester were packing their box with players. There was no space. But our crossing was poor. Moratra, the poor bleeder, had not had much quality service the entire match. We tried and tried. I saw effort, in the main, but not much more than that. Our movement off the ball was especially woeful. Morata was at times immobile. It was, perhaps, a miracle that our man Tiemoue stayed on the entire game, but the manager obviously wants to persevere with him. Shots from Kante and Willian did not really test the ‘keeper.

In the last few minutes, a Marcos Alonso free-kick flew over the wall, and dipped, but Schmeichel scrambled low to push the ball around the post. The game ended as it had begun, with a shot from Moses which was so wide of the goal as to almost warrant being called a defensive clearance.

At the final whistle, our third 0-0 in a row and the inevitable boos from a few.

“Triffic.”

Back in the car, there were of course the expected moans – and not much chuckling – as we went through our usual post game post mortem.

Within twenty minutes, all three passengers were dozing as I headed home on the M4.

It was another day that had been spoiled by the football – ah, that familiar refrain, as pertinent now as in 1984/1985 – and I knew that my phone, tablet and computer would be on fire throughout the evening with rants, moans and complaints. Those who know me well will not be surprised by my response to the bitching and moaning which was taking place across the globe, in cyberspace and in cider space alike. I’d try to be pragmatic. I’d try to keep an even keel. I’d try not to over-react. I’d acknowledge how little we really know about the mechanics of a football team. I’d respect how hard it must be for one manager to work for a trigger-happy owner and to continually try to inspire and cajole a squad of millionaires. After all, it can’t be easy to win the league every year.

Even in 1984/1985, back on The Benches, I always was the boring and sensible one.

IMG_3659

 

Tales From The Chelsea Stadium Mystery

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 10 January 2018.

If I ever needed evidence to support the notion that us Chelsea fans are gluttons for punishment, it came in the form of the “viewing figures” of my last two match reports on this site. Last week, there was a competitive away game in the league at Arsenal in which there was an incident-packed second half and a roller-coaster of emotions. On Saturday, there was an FA Cup tie – a much-maligned competition these days – at Norwich City, but the game was a true snore fest. And yet, twice as many people clicked to read the Norwich game as the Arsenal match.

You are a bloody odd bunch, aren’t you?

Next up in this ridiculously busy period – nine games in December and eight games in January – was the first-leg of our League Cup Semi-Final against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Over the course of the two games, I did not fear them. I believed us to be the better team, no doubt. As I left the office at 2pm, a work colleague asked how I thought the game at The Bridge might go.

“7-0” I replied.

One can but dream.

PD took charge of the reigns once more and The Chuckle Bus headed east on a crisp and clear January afternoon. On the drive to London, I predicted that the retro programme theme of this season’s League Cup run would continue with a replica of the cover from the 1997/1998 season when the same two teams met at the same stage. I drifted back to that tie. In the first-leg, we were very poor at Highbury, but a late Mark Hughes goal gave us a lifeline. A week or so later, after a league defeat at Arsenal, manager Ruud Gullit was given the push. Next up was the return leg of the League Cup tie at HQ. On a very emotional night, new boss Gianluca Vialli famously assembled the players together in the dressing room before the game, poured champagne into glasses and toasted a bright future. A resounding 3-1 gubbing of Arsenal followed. It was a fantastic night at Chelsea. Back to 2018 – twenty years on, good grief – we wondered if Antonio Conte would choose our strongest team; we expected so. What would be the point of fielding two consecutive “B Teams”? Arsenal have a history of fielding youngsters in their recent League Cup history. I speculated if they would do the same in 2018. I thought back to the 5-0 thumping we gave them at Highbury in 1998/1999 when – let’s not kid ourselves – their team was very raw.

All these games against Arsenal. They are a very familiar opponent. Prior to the game, I read somewhere that this would be our one hundred and ninety-fifth game against them in our history, not including friendlies. I did some digging, and realised that it would be my sixtieth game out of that total. Almost a third. It caught me unawares. Am I that bloody old?

League – 47

FA Cup – 6

League Cup – 3

Community Shield – 3

Champions League – 1

The usual routine was followed for midweek games; drinks at both ends of the North End Road in two different hostelries. We met up with my old friend from Frome, Russ, and he mentioned the “champagne moment” from 1998. Back in 1994, we took him to his very first Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge when he was a fourteen-year-old schoolboy. It was his first game for a while and it was a pleasure to see him once more. He asked me who my player of the year was thus far.

“Good question.”

I thought for a few seconds.

“Maybe Christensen.”

PD suggested Dave.

“Yeah, good shout.”

In the pub, the team news game through.

“Strong team lads. Probably our strongest.”

The manager had gone with a 3-5-2

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

I spotted the odd – very odd – Arsenal favour being worn by a few folks on our walk to The Bridge. They would have around 4,000 in The Shed. We were inside at about 7.45pm for the slightly later 8pm kick-off. I was right about the programme. It did show a 1998 cover. I did my usual sweep of the balcony and its away flags and banners. One caught my eye.

“The Arsenal. This isn’t a franchise.”

What typical Arsenal pomposity and what typical Arsenal attempted one-upmanship. But think again. Not a franchise? Tell that to the people of Woolwich, where the club once played before upping sticks and relocating to North London. I have read that in terms of travel time using the mode of transport available at the time, the move from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 was very similar to that of from Merton to Milton Keynes in 2004.

Arsenal were the MK Dons of the early twentieth century and Tottenham Hotspur have never forgotten it.

Somewhere among the 4,000 away supporters were the loons of Arsenal TV, ready to implode at any moment.

Before the kick-off, the lights faded and we were treated to another light show at Stamford Bridge. I’m in two minds about all this. It does look pretty dramatic, but it still seems like the club are trying to take over the atmosphere on our behalf. Maybe too cynical? I don’t know. Regardless, I could not resist a few photographs. From the lights of thousands of mobile phones, I was not the only one.

There were some familiar names in the Arsenal team, though not as flooded full of bona fide stars as our starting eleven. The portents were good.

As the game began, there was noise.

Thank God.

There must be a formula for the amount of noise generated at football games which includes such variants as rivalry between the two teams, geographical proximity of the two teams, number of hours available before the game for alcohol consumption, recent form of teams, the return of a formerly hated manager, the return of a formerly hated opponent, the memory of the threat of real or perceived violence off the pitch in previous years between both sets of fans, the proportion of the ticket sales given to newbies and/or tourists, the proportion of ticket sales given to loud and leery teenagers, the importance of the match, with a super-loaded quotient if the game involves Tottenham or if the game is a Champions League knock-out game.

I think that has covered it.

The “noise level” at the start continued for a while, maybe ten minutes, as the teams tested each other with small periods of possession. In the first few Chelsea attacks, Alvaro Morata looked hungry and was full of movement, no doubt wishing to atone for recent misdemeanours. One shot hit the side netting at The Shed End. That ‘orrible little runt Jack Wilshere was involved quite often for Arsenal. Eden Hazard was heavily marked, often finding three Arsenal players around him.

On twenty minutes, the best chance of the game thus far, but Lacazette – clean through after a lofted pass from Wilshere – slashed wildly over.

This was an even game.

Russ : “Typical cup tie. Cagey.”

Victor Moses cut inside his marker in front of the Goons in the West side of The Shed, but his shot was claimed by Ospina.

After an Arsenal attack was smothered down below us, Andreas Christensen did ever so well to bring the ball under his control and take a few touches. Thankfully, he did not hear the advice given to him by a fellow sitting a few rows behind me.

“Get rid of it, you c**t.”

I have to ask myself, what sort of a human being uses such language so effortlessly in his alleged “support” of a fine, young and well-liked Chelsea footballer?

I thought to myself : “only one c**t in this stadium, mate.”

The move developed and it was a joy to watch. Kante took the ball on, breaking with pace. He received it back from a team mate, and the ball was eventually played over to Marcos Alonso on the far side of the Arsenal penalty area. His low shot was not too far wide of the far post. It had been the move of the match, but sadly did not draw the applause or approval that it really merited.

Another shot from Moses and an Ospina save. This was followed by a Danny Drinkwater which was ballooned high – very high – over the bar. On this occasion, DD didn’t work wonders. This was a game itching to get going, but it remained rather one paced. Containment was the key. Space was rare. The home fans began to get behind the team again, or rather, have a dig at the away fans.

“We’ve won it all” (asterisk – apart from the World Club Championships, let’s not get too much up our own arse).

The away fans quickly countered : “You’ve bought it all.”

Yes, quite, indeed we have. Let’s call it karma for all the years – one hundred of them – when we were the fifth-best supported team in England and yet won virtually fuck all.

Our response in the Matthew Harding was typical.

“CHAMPIONSOFEUROPEYOULLNEVERSINGTHAT.”

On thirty-eight minutes, Thibaut Courtois saved so well after an Alex Iwobi shot flew at him.

Just after, a rough challenge by Moses on Iwobi was met with a minute or so of nonsense as the Arsenal fans chanted “VAR! VAR! VAR! VAR” like a load of schoolkids, referee Martin Atkinson put his hand to his ear, the game stalled and we looked on like fools.

Oh boy. The future of football. What a load of old shit.

Before we know it, “VAR” will be part and parcel of our once breathless game. There will be breaks in play. Momentum will be lost. Television companies will be wanking off advertising executives as they try to sell in-game commercial segments for those highly-profitable delays. Referees will debate questionable off sides and dodgy handballs with a bloke called Kevin in front of a TV monitor. Games will take longer to conclude. Night buses will be missed. Trains will be missed. Everyone will get home from night games that little bit later. A strange future awaits.

A header from Fabregas from a lovely cross from Dave did not bother Ospina.

Just before the break, the pass of the night from Fabregas was played into space for Eden to reach – just near the Peter Osgood penalty spot – but his heavy first touch meant that Ospina easily gathered.

So, what of the first-half? Cagey, indeed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad game, but there was a spark missing. There wasn’t the intensity of previous semi-finals.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced a number eight for the future and a number ten of our recent past. Ross Barkley, in a Chelsea blue trackie, was introduced to the Stamford Bridge crowd. He received a good reception. Then, with a Peaky Blinders cap the size of a deflated medicine ball, Joe Cole. Lovely to see him again.

The second-half began with added intent from Chelsea, and the crowd reacted with extra noise. A Kante shot was thundered in, but was blocked by Christensen. Our young defender then got underneath a cross and headed over.

After this miss, I whispered to Russ :

“I can see this ending 0-0.”

Morata, struggling still with the physicality of the game, slammed a shot from outside the penalty area, but the Arsenal ‘keeper saved once more. He then went close from a very acute angle, the ball shaving the post. We were well on top, but chances were rare. The noise had dampened as the night grew colder. A Moses shot, another Christensen header. The game continued, with the fans around me deciding not to “bring the boys home” with an endless cacophony of noise. How different from the League Cup Semi-Final from 2015 against Liverpool – admittedly a second-leg – when there was constant and relentless noise from all stands from start to finish.

It is a constant mystery to me how our support sometimes lets us down at Stamford Bridge.

A typical example of a certain lack of intensity or concentration was typified when Alonso gave away a throw-in, but lackadaisically turned his back to the throw-in. The lad is enjoying a fine season, maybe it seems churlish to pinpoint a little negativity but it seemed a typical motif of the night’s game.

Antonio replaced DD with Willian. Our substitute rasped a shot close from distance.

Eden Hazard was replaced by Tiemoue Bakayoko and 845,649 keyboard warriors around the globe went into overdrive.

In the last five minutes or so, Michy Batshuayi replaced Morata, who just before was derided for lacking control on the touchline.

Sadly, it was Arsenal who looked the stronger in the last few moments, buoyed by their substitute Alexis Sanchez.

After ninety minutes, the referee signalled five whole minutes of added time, though I thought that the “VAR” delays should have merited more. In a nervous finale to a humdrum game, we managed to repel a couple of late Arsenal bursts.

It stayed 0-0.

Our second goal-less performance.

Our third draw in a row.

The keyboard warriors would be at it again.

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Tales From The Piccadilly Line

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2018.

On London Underground trains and station platforms on the Piccadilly Line, there is a graphic poster – maybe not as stylish as those wonderful ones from the ‘thirties – extolling the virtues of that particular line, which wends its way from out in the west through London, heading east and then north-east and then north to its eventual resting place. It shows a train disappearing underground at Hammersmith, with all of the major tourist attractions to be seen en route annotated on a map, and it is evidence of that particular line – “the purple one” – hitting many of the main tourist areas.

On the Hammersmith to Kings Cross section, especially from South Kensington to Leicester Square, there are certainly some sights to be seen.

Museums, department stores, royal palaces, theatres, squares, cinemas, parks and more. It is the very centre of an increasingly visited London.

Of course, just beyond Earls Court lies Stamford Bridge – on the District Line, “the green one” – while a few miles north of the stations of Kings Cross and St. Pancras, on into the darkness of North London, lies the Arsenal tube station, and with it not only Highbury, the former home of our opponents on the third day of 2018, but their gleaming new stadium too.

The Chuckle Bus – the PD Line, “the white one” – had picked me up from work at 2pm and, by 4pm, it was parked in a side-street adjacent to Barons Court. The four of us – PD, Parky, Scott and I – waited in the coolness of the early-evening air and were soon sent hurtling underground as the Piccadilly Line train took us into town. The game was not until 7.45pm. There would be time for a little pre-match revelry, which is not always possible for a London midweek away game. The weather in the West of England had been spiteful during the day, with showers and strong gusts of winds. Throughout the day, the weather had been bleak enough to remind me of the infamous game at Arsenal in December 2013 which had resulted in my car – my Chuckle Bus, “the blue one” – getting stranded in several feet of water with me having to walk a few miles to reach home at 5am the following day, Christmas Eve.

We soon reached our staging post. Piccadilly Circus was an electronic dream. Christmas lights strewn across Regent Street, floodlit shops, huge neon advertisements, excited tourists with cameras clicking. It was nothing compared to Times Square in New York or Shinjuku in Tokyo of course, but still pretty mesmerizing. I met up with Kyle from LA, who was still in town, giddy with excitement for more Chelsea football.

At about 4.30pm, the five of us entered “The Queens Head” just to the north of Piccadilly Circus. The pub was snug and warm, a typical old-style London boozer. Pints of lager were ordered. I could relax. I had not enjoyed the first couple of days back at work after a ten-day interlude. Here was a chance to unwind. Just opposite was the site of a former pub – “The Devonshire Arms” – which I remember well from a Chelsea game against West Ham in 1987. I had traveled down from Stoke with a college mate, Bob, whose pal Kev was a barman in the pub. As luck would have it, it was Kev’s last day of serving in the boozer, and he started pouring us free beers. By the time we left the pub to head over to Stamford Bridge, we were bollocksed. At the time, it was the most drunk that I had ever been at football, and the game was a huge blur.

Kyle had loved his Chelsea experience on Saturday. He watched from directly behind the goal and to quote him, had experienced “sensory overload.” I suspect it was quite a shock to be so near to the action. It would be akin to me watching my first ever baseball game at Yankee Stadium just four yards behind the catcher’s mitt.

At 5pm, I headed back outside into the London evening. My friend of over thirty-six years Tullio – often featured in these reports – was in town with his wife Emanuela and their two daughters Sofia and Lou Lou. We had arranged to meet up, albeit only for a few minutes. My Italian friends had enjoyed a long day of walking around the sights but were full of smiles. It was bloody magnificent to see them again; the last time had been in their apartment in Moncalieri, just to the south of Turin, ahead of our infamous 2012 Champions League game.

I quietly whispered to Tullio, with my head subtly nodding in the direction of “The Queen’s Head”, about him joining us for a quick pint.

He whispered back.

“Boh – I am a married man now.”

“Boh” is one of my favourite Italian phrases. It means that there is no answer to whatever question has been asked, and even if there was an answer, there would be no point in saying, whatever is done is done.

In the ten minutes that we were together, football dominated our chat, and the three girls looked on in awe at our ability to talk football under any circumstances.

Tullio : “What do you think of Conte?”

Chris : “We love him. A good man. You remember I went to the Juve versus Fiorentina game in 1999 the day after your wedding?”

Tullio : “I forget.”

Chris : “I am not surprised. Well, Conte scored the winning goal and taunted the Viola fans with the corner flag.”

Tullio : “Yes!”

Chris : “I met Conte very briefly in Beijing in the summer. I wanted more time so I could explain that to him.”

Tullio : “But he would not understand English. He barely understands Italian.”

We laughed.

I also mentioned that if Tullio had told me of his plans, I could have tried to get him a ticket for the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game.

But his reply did not surprise me :

“No. Tonight is Juve /Toro.”

We laughed again and soon said our goodbyes. It was lovely to see him and his family once more.

Back in the pub, there was time for more “Peroni” and a lot more laughs. This was a lovely time, another sweet spot, another great Chelsea moment. At just before 6.45pm, we set off for the last section of the journey. As we disappeared into the underground, I noted that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was being played by a nearby busker.

“Seems appropriate, Kyle.”

Kyle mentioned its appearance in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and, just as we walked through the into the ticket hall, I had nightmarish visions of being accosted by some “droogs”. I also had an equally nightmarish vision of having my eyes forced open to watch the dour and defensive Arsenal team of the early ‘nineties on a constant loop.

On the train, the chuckling continued.

“Did Kyle enjoy the Arsenal game?”

“He never made it. He is still curled up on the Piccadilly Line laughing at the name Cockfosters.”

Parky piped up –

“Cockfosters. That’s what happens when you have too much lager, innit?”

I replied –

“Oh God. That’s the end of the line for you mate.”

At Holborn, on the platform, we spotted a few Chelsea faces.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

At Arsenal tube, there were random shouts of support for Chelsea but nothing from the Gooners. I had warned Kyle that the tube at Arsenal was like a rabbit warren, so much unlike the airy Fulham Broadway. Every time I revisit this particular stop I am reminded of my first-ever visit.

August 1984.

Ah. What a day.

I quickly gave Kyle the quickest of history lessons as we sped up to take a few photographs outside the still impressive façade of Highbury on Avenell Road. He was mesmerized by it all. The closeness of one of our great, huge, stadiums, to run-of-the-mill terraced houses. The clean lines of the stand. The sense of place.

We then hot-footed it to the larger, but hardly greater, Emirates Stadium. After a bag search and a trial to find my place, I reached Alan, Gary and Parky with a few minutes gone.

A quick check of the team.

“Packing the midfield, Cesc playing, Hazard behind Morata.”

I noticed that all was quiet. Very quiet.

After a few minutes, a few Chelsea were singing “empty seats, empty seats” but I didn’t see many.

For a few horrible seconds, I had a flashback to September of 2016; God, it seems so long ago now. Our beloved Chelsea team was completely over-run and out-played, especially in the first forty-five minutes. In hindsight, of course, the game marked the turning point in our season. It was a huge game in our history. Few defeats have ever been doted on as lovingly as that one.

I turned my attention to the game.

“You haven’t missed much, Chris” said Gal.

I have to admit, what with a combination of getting in late, a very low viewing position – row two – and the gnawing pain of knowing that I would be waking up at 4.45am in the morning for work after the drive home, I struggled to get to grips with the game in the opening moments of the first-half.

But Arsenal appeared to be in control, attacking down Victor Moses’ flank in front of us at will. I lost count of the amount of times that Alexis Sanchez was allowed to drift in and attack space on our right. Mezut Ozil too, looking even more gaunt than ever, was often breaking into our box. It was as if we were allowing a special little show of Arsenal prowess just for the away fans only.

I hated it.

I also hated the continuing – and eerie – quietness which had enveloped the stadium. I simply did not hear a single Arsenal song nor chant during the entire first-half. And that is truly shocking. I know I berate our own fans at Stamford Bridge for long periods of quiet, but this was on a different scale. How was it possible for nigh on sixty thousand people to make so little noise?

After constant Arsenal probing – ooh, matron – the ball broke for Alvaro Morata in the inside left channel, and we held our breath as he sprinted clear.

“Go on ma sahn.”

He inexplicably steered it past the far post. On the replay on the huge screen behind me, it looked even worse.

Then, an Arsenal chance for the effervescent Sanchez and a goal seemed assured. Remarkably, his effort was saved by Courtois onto his near post and we watched, hating every second of it, as the ball struck the far post and then rolled back, mesmerizingly, into his arms.

“Phew.”

A sublime save by Coutois from Lacazette followed, and it was undoubtedly one of the best this season so far. Stupendous stuff.

Chelsea were under the cosh, but a rare break resulted in a strike from Bakayoko and a save from Petr Cech.

The Chelsea support, three-thousand strong, behind me and to my left and right, were surprisingly quiet for a London derby. I have noted similar quiet away atmospheres at the new Arsenal stadium on a few occasions now. There is never as much noise, I feel, as at White Hart Lane on our visits. Maybe we are quietened by the osmosis of watching among so many Goons.

A yellow card by Jack Wilshere on Cesc Fabregas brought howls. A couple of half-chances were exchanged. Marcos Alonso’s free-kick in prime territory sadly did not test Cech. Just before half-time, a nice interplay involving Hazard and Fabregas resulted in the former Arsenal midfielder ballooning the ball high and wide. The first-half had not been much to write about, but it could have ended 2-2.

At half-time, I wondered if my pre-match prediction of a 1-1 draw might prove to be right.

We certainly began the livelier in the second-half. Hazard, after a nice run and set-up by Morata, went close. An Alonso header too. We were looking more focussed.

After ten minutes of play, the manager replaced Moses – a little under-the-weather – with Davide Zappascosta.

A little Arsenal pressure followed, but I was full of praise of our three defenders, throwing their bodies at everything and hounding those carrying the ball. From my vantage point, it looked like Gary Cahill had cleared off the line. In front of the defence, Kante was magnificent, Bakayoko not so. A few more chances were exchanged. A Hazard shot straight at Cech.

Just after the hour, a ball ran through to Wilshere and the ‘orrible little runt slammed the ball in.

“Bollocks.”

The stadium jumped to life at last. Until that point, I had still not heard a song, God’s honest truth.

“One nil to the Arsenal.”

I looked around and I bloody hated them.

Just four minutes later, Hazard danced into the Arsenal box down in our own special viewing gallery corner. He was up against Bellerin. His first cross was blocked but as he stretched to control the rebound, Bellerin caught his leg.

Penalty.

Eden slammed it in.

We were level. There was my prediction.

The game continued with us now looking the more confident and assured. A chance for Morata went begging, lifting the shot wide.

Danny Drinkwater replaced Fabregas. A show of solidity.

Oddly I felt, Willian came on for Hazard.

Salvation came on eighty-four minutes when fantastic diligence from Zappacosta out wide after a great pass by Willian allowed him to slam the ball low into the danger area. To everyone’s surprise, it was the wing back Alonso who arrived – Lampardesque – to touch the ball past Cech.

Euphoria at The Emirates.

Our left-back ran towards us and was jumped upon by his team mates. It was a happy and glorious pile of blue in front of our corner of the Clock end. The away end was now the ones singing, and how.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

The minutes ticked by.

Ninety minutes were up.

“Blow up, ref.”

Down in the corner, Willian had a chance to hoof it away, but meekly cleared. Eventually the ball was played into the box and Bellerin slammed home after a header was knocked towards him.

“Oh fuck.”

Amazingly, in the very last moments of the game, the ball was pumped behind the Arsenal back line and we watched again as Morata was one on one with Petr Cech. His unconvincing shot was smothered among cries of pain in the away end. The ball broke to Zappacosta. His heavy drive crashed against the bar.

“FUCK!”

A draw, in all honesty, seemed a fair result. We had all said that a draw would have been fine before the game. We headed off into the night, with the feeling of what could have been. There was one word on every body’s lips.

“Morata.”

My lasting memory of the game, though, will be of the long periods of quiet in the Arsenal areas for the hour before their goal. And, I will say again, our support was far from noisy. For me, the lack of atmosphere really had a negative effect on the game. It is a common saying that “football without fans is nothing” but just as true is that “football without an atmosphere is nothing.” I can never remember an important away game against huge rivals being so bloody quiet, with a distinct lack of “crackle” that surely should go hand-in-hand with games under lights. It just didn’t seem to be that much of a spectacle. I found it difficult to get emotionally involved in it.

It was a very odd night.

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Tales From A Chelsea Ramble

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 30 December 2017.

Our third game of Christmas, and our last match of 2017, was surely another “winnable” one against Mark Hughes’ visiting Stoke City. Back in September, an Alvaro Morata hat-trick helped secure a 4-0 away win in The Potteries, and although our performances since then have wavered at times, I was confident of a seventh consecutive home league win.

On the drive to London – Glenn was in charge of Chuckle Bus duties for the day – we had a little chat about our season thus far. There were few complaints. We are still enjoying our football, despite some of the negatives which swirl around our game at the moment.

We ran through a few of our success stories, player-wise, and top of the list was Andreas, who has warmed the hearts of all Chelsea supporters this season. The youngster has hardly put a foot wrong. He looks the finished article already. And, perhaps as he was not signed for a ludicrous sum in the summer, or perhaps because he has gone about his task quietly and efficiently, he has performed “under the radar” of many in the usually claustrophobic media. Elsewhere there are many positives; Eden continues to trick his way past players and add some Chelsea-esque panache to our play, N’Golo maintains his amazing abilities to close people down and keep us ticking and Dave is as consistent as ever and possibly our most-respected player. Thibaut rarely lets us down. Last season’s over-achievers Marcos and Victor might find their positions under threat in the next six months or so, but there is much to admire in their play. As a supporter, I always try to get behind players who may not be the most gifted, but those who try their damnedest in a royal blue shirt. I often reminisce on our championship season of 2016/2017 and the image Pedro keeps popping up. His first season in our colours was largely average, but he really stepped up under the tutelage of Antonio Conte. His relentless movement was a constant motif throughout last season. With Conte often choosing a 3-5-2 in this campaign, it is a damned shame that Pedro often misses out. Willian still seems to annoy many, but I have few complaints. Gary infuriates as only Gary can, and I am sure that Antonio might well nurse a little regret that Dave was not handed the captain’s armband at the start of this season. I like the look of Toni, and his game improves with each look. Alvaro may never toughen up in the same way that we would like, but he is a fine player and we need to persevere. Tiemoue has had a tough baptism, often looking lost, but he shows occasional promise. Danny has hit the ground running and I think will be a key fixture in our squad over the next few seasons. Cesc is a quality player, and we are lucky to have him in our squad. Davide is full of enthusiasm but often gets caught flat-footed and out-of-position. Michy is Michy, and I hope to God he tries harder than ever to fulfil his promise. He has a good eye for goal, but needs to expand his mind and expand his game. David, the forgotten man at the moment, is a crucial squad member and able to play in both midfield and defence. To lose him to another team in the January transfer window would do us no favours in my mind. Ethan, despite only a few appearances, is clearly a naturally-gifted footballer with much potential.

The four Chuckle Brothers splintered off on our arrival in London.

PD and LP chose “The Goose.”

Glenn and little old me had a more varied itinerary, which would include a few pubs on a ramble around the high roads and side streets of SW6. Outside the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with Ben, a work colleague from Germany. He is currently visiting London with two good friends – Jens and Walt – and it was a pleasure to welcome them to Stamford Bridge. We soon met up with another great friend, Kyle from Los Angeles, and it was fantastic to see him too.

I had last met Kyle at the same Copthorne Hotel back in the summer of 2016 when he was visiting London for the first time with his family; I drove up to London specially to see him for an evening’s meanderings around Stamford Bridge – alas no game – and we had a fine evening of recollections of summer tours to the US and more local affairs. I was pleased, so pleased, that he would be watching his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in under four hours. The look of excitement on Kyle’s face as I ordered the first beers of the day was wonderful. And I need to make a special note of my friendship with Kyle. When I first started writing these match reports on the old Chelsea In America website around ten years ago, I was indebted to the support of some good friends – and from Kyle in Los Angeles and Steve in Philadelphia in particular – who prompted me to keep going and to continue with these rambling recollections of Chelsea games. Over the years – I first met Kyle in 2007 – we have shared some very fine times and many a laugh. His first game at Stamford Bridge was long overdue. He knew it and I knew it. I wanted to make his game as memorable as possible.

I had only met Ben once before, on a visit to our offices in around 2014, but we are in constant communication on a weekly basis. Often, our work-based emails contain some football chat. Ben, although living right on the border with Switzerland in the very south of Germany, is a lifelong Borussia Monchengladbach supporter. There have been many an email over the past few years in which he has updated me on the performances of Andreas Christensen. He has been my eyes and ears over in Germany. All has been positive.

Up in the bar area, there were some lovely moments with Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates and John Bumstead. The smiles were genuine, from both supporters and players alike. I explained to Ben and his friends how important Ron Harris and Bobby Tambling are in the history of our club.

For Ben, Ron Harris is Chelsea’s Berti Vogts.

Down in reception, I spotted Ken Bates, our erstwhile chairman. I could not resist a quick photograph. I had to get Glenn in on the picture. Kyle did the honours. As I approached him, he whispered :

“Oh, this looks like trouble.”

We had a few brief words, and he was pretty amicable, even when Glenn reminded him that he had sold off Benches tickets for the United game in 1985 for a tenner.

With typical abrasiveness, Ken replied “I should’ve charged more.”

I wish now that I had thanked him for setting up the Chelsea Pitch Owners in 1993. There has always been a love-hate relationship with many Chelsea supporters and Ken Bates, myself definitely included, but despite his gruffness and petty-mindedness, the formation of the CPO was an absolute masterstroke. I will always be in his debt for this far-sighted move some twenty-five years ago.

Via a quick stop at The Shed wall, and an homage to the image of Ron Harris – so that the German visitors especially could join some dots – we moved on to The Butcher’s Hook, where our club was formed all those years ago.

There then followed another Chris Axon history lesson – “Stop if you think you’ve heard this one before” – but with added resonance after our chance meeting with Ken Bates. I retold the story of the CPO, the attempted buy-out in 2011 and the “SayNoCPO” campaign; arguably the finest moment in the history of the supporters of our club.

No eyes were glazing over. Result.

On the matter of the new stadium, should anyone wish to keep up to speed with the progress – “or lack of” I hear some saying – there is no website better than Skyscraper City. For those suffering with what Simon Inglis has termed “stadiumitis” – like me – it is a fantastic resource. It will, thankfully, mean that I will no longer need to explain how there can be no huge, single end at the new stadium.

Here is a link to the thread about the new Stamford Bridge.

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1079233

96 pages of diagrams, videos, conjecture, analysis, debate, projections, timelines and more. While you are at it, there are threads detailing the new Spurs stadium – “should you feel the need” – and a relatively new thread devoted to a new stand at Selhurst Park and another one for a Riverside Stand upgrade at Craven Cottage – “ditto”.

We headed past the usual sights and sounds of a typical Chelsea Saturday.

On the walk, Kyle and myself spoke about the monstrosity of friendship scarves. With it, came a funny story about the transience of some US sport(s) fans, who often seem to chop and change teams at a moment’s notice. An alumni of UCLA, Kyle obviously follows them in all collegiate sports, though often he meets friends and acquaintances who follow UCLA in one sport but their bitter rivals USC in another.

Kyle : “They don’t even keep to that most basic of rules, of following one team.”

The laughter continued as we nipped into “The Elk” for the first time in years. As I explained to the visitors, we are truly blessed with boozers around Stamford Bridge.

“One of the reasons why we never wanted to leave this area. Even moving just one mile would be horrific.”

Walt kept mentioning throughout the day that virtually all stadia in Germany are out on the edge of towns and cities with hardly any bars nearby; I could tell that they were enjoying the close proximity of the twenty-five or so bars within a twenty-minute walk from Stamford Bridge.

Long may it continue.

Next up was a five-minute walk to The Mitre on Dawes Road; a pub that we used to frequent for the best part of a season in around 2002. Surprisingly, I seem to be the only one who can remember this. It must have been something they put in the drinks.

Our good friend John, with his son Chris, was celebrating his birthday out in the beer garden. The laughter and banter continued.

This was a fine time.

This was the “sweet spot” of any pre-match at Chelsea.

A few beers to the good, still a couple of hours before kick-off, no worries in the world.

I said to Kyle : “This is where we want time to stand still really.”

How often I have thought this; that a game could be put back a few hours so we can just wallow in the fuzzy camaraderie of friendship and football.

The last sweet spot was back on the North End Road, and we met up with a few fine members of The Bing inside “Simmons Bar”; Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed. I was so pleased that Kyle got to meet some really fine friends on his first visit to Stamford Bridge. There was astonishment on Kyle’s face when I invited Gary over to confirm that he has, indeed, missed just one Chelsea home game since 1976.

I can hear Kyle now : “that is unbelievable.”

We sauntered – sauntered I tell ya! – out of the last boozer and made our way to Stamford Bridge. In the busiest pre-match for a while, the team news had passed me by.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Drinkwater – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

I felt for the four visitors, who had hoped that Eden would start. It was obvious that the manager was saving him – and his bruised shins – for Arsenal away on Wednesday.

We had already heard that the Stoke City team would be hit with injuries, but nobody really expected such a weak B team. Seeing Charlie Adam on the pitch was a real shock, and it was a reminder of how much I disliked him. He has a pasty complexion, a barrel-chested physique and a receding hairline from the 1920’s– and possibly tuberculosis too. I had a feeling that he would soon be sneezing and coughing over Danny Drinkwater. Either that, or kicking lumps out of him.

Stoke had only brought around 1,400. It did not surprise me. The match began with the three German visitors down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower and Kyle right behind the Shed End goal.

Over in The Shed, the away fans could be heard, but only faintly.

“COME ON STOWKE, COME ON STOWKE.”

After just three minutes, a cross from a free-kick wide on the right from Willian was perfectly played for Toni Rudiger to leap high at the back stick and to head home. This was as clean a header as it gets. It was a fine goal. We could have not have asked for a better start.

The dream start continued. On nine minutes, Pedro wriggled himself into space out on the left side of Stoke’s penalty area, and after his cross was blocked, the ball spun up towards Danny Drinkwater. The midfielder controlled the ball with his thigh and then purposefully prodded the ball towards the Shed End goal. Time again seemed to stand still. We watched as the ball sailed through the air with the Stoke ‘keeper Jack Butland rooted to the ground. The net bulged and the stadium erupted. What a fine goal, hopefully Danny’s first of many. Perhaps over-burdened in the middle of midfield, Drinkwater’s signing surprised many, but he has to be a fine addition to our ranks. I can well remember the disdainful comments from many when we signed him from Leicester City.

Soon after, we had hopes for another goal, but Alvaro Morata – bursting through in the inside right channel – was sadly denied at the near post by Butland. Kyle was getting all of the action on a plate for him.

On twenty-three minutes, Willian passed to Pedro. With a sublime touch, he turned into space and despatched a low shot towards the far post, a goal that I was able to celebrate before many as I was directly in line with the ball’s trajectory.

GET IN.

Game over? Surely.

The Stokies in the away section responded with an audible dig in that particular twang of theirs.

“Thray-nell, and yeh still don’t seng.”

I had to agree. I could detect a few supporters trying to get things started in The Shed but it was all very piecemeal. In the Matthew Harding, there had hardly been a song in the first quarter of the game, despite our fine play. It is hardly worth me writing that neither the East nor West Stands were joining in; they hardly ever do.

So, the usual moan from me about the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.

Our dominance continued. We moved the ball around at will. Stoke, on a very rare attack, bundled the ball in via a break from Diouf, but the referee had signalled an offside.

At the break, we all dreamed of a cricket score, with memories of a 7-0 shellacking in our 2010 vintage. Their record at Chelsea in recent years has been simply shocking.

Thibaut was forced to throw his word search back into his goal and block a shot from Berahino as Stoke threatened in the first few minutes. Rather than see us push on and go hell-for-leather in search of more goals, there was a definite air of frustration among the Chelsea fans as Stoke attempted to get the tiniest of foot holds in the game. Nothing really materialised, but it stemmed our flow of intent and desire. Things fell a little flat.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Victor Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide.

In an eerily similar position to his chance in the first-half, Morata approached Butland – “you again” – but probably took an extra touch. Butland again blocked.

“Ugh.”

Another strike from Pedro was aimed goal bound but this time a save.

Tiemoue Bakayoko replaced N’Golo Kante. Legs were being saved for Wednesday. Michy Batshuayi replaced Alvaro Morata, who had not enjoyed the best of outings.

With twenty minutes remaining, Willian burst into the penalty box and was adjudged to have been sliced down by a Geoff Cameron. From my vantage point, it looked a soft one.

Willian himself took the penalty. A feint and the ‘keeper was easily beaten by Willian.

The 4-0 score line was a long time a-coming.

Still, the atmosphere was lukewarm.

Only an “Antonio” chant really brought the Matthew Harding together as one.

With two minutes remaining, Zappacosta pounced on a loose ball and smashed the ball low past Butland.

Chelsea 5 Stoke City 0.

Yes, that was better.

Throughout the game, Stoke City had been truly shocking. They offered hardly anything. In some respects, this was some sort of non-football.

Total dominance from one team.

Meek capitulation from the other.

Played out to a backdrop of pitiful noise.

Yes, we have been spoiled over the recent – how many, twenty? – years, and have handed some severe poundings to most teams at Stamford Bridge in that period. In the league alone, we have enjoyed these wins against a few of our main rivals –

Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0

Chelsea 6 Manchester City 0

Chelsea 5 Everton 0

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0

Chelsea 5 Newcastle United 0

Chelsea 5 West Ham United 1

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 0

Chelsea 4 Liverpool 1

In the circumstances, I suppose a 5-0 defeat of a weakened Stoke City team is regarded by many as hardly on the same scale.

Noise or no noise, we jumped past Manchester United into second place. On the drive back to the West Country, the Chuckle Bus was very happy to hear that Mourinho’s men had been held 0-0 by Southampton.

Second place was ours.

Good work boys.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that Andreas Christensen was operating “under the radar” at the moment. The same, could, quite possibly be said of Chelsea as we leave 2017 and look set to enter 2018. While the love-fest with Manchester City is still continuing – and with reason, let’s admit they are playing some lovely stuff – there still remains an obsession with Harry Kane and Tottenham, to say nothing of renewed interest in a Mo Salah-inspired Liverpool. As Mourinho continues to annoy those inside and outside of his Manchester United, the inevitable media circus which follows him around shows no signs of abating. Let the media focus on these teams. That’s no problem for me. And while there are still a few barbs being aimed at the manager by some pernicious buggers in the media, hoping to stir up a little hostility and unrest, I honestly see a calmness from Antonio Conte and a steely desire to keep in contention. There have been few managers in my time as a Chelsea supporter that I have liked more. I desperately want Roman Abramovich to keep a steady head and to give the manager as much time as he needs.

We are in a good place at the moment.

The new year promises much.

On we go, into 2018 and beyond.

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