Tales From Firework Night.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know – crazy days, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

There was applause.

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

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

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

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

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

I love days like these.

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

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

“Bolasie – go home.”

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

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

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

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

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

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

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

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

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

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

We were purring.

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

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

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

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

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

Quite magical.

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

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

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

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

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

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

They agreed.

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

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

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

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

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

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

And still it continued.

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

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

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

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

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

A perfect ten.

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

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

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea.

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

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

In the good old days, the system was simple.

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

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

I blame Ray Kennedy.

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

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

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

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

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

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

The minutes ticked by.

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

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

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

This was really galling.

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

This can’t be right, can it?

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

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

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

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

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

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

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

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

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

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

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

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

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

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

One-nil to us, happy days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, a calamity.

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

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

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

Crazy.

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

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

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

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

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

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

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

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

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

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

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

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

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

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

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

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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

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

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

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

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

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

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

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

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

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

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

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

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

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

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

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

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

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

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

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

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

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

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

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

Fuck off.

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

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

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

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

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

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

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

All level at the break.

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

We teased the away fans :

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

No complaints at the interval.

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

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

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

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

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

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

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

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

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

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

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

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

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

Payet, the danger man, came on.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

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

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

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

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

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

Damn.

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

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

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

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

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

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

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

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

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

Ha.

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

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

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

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From A Twin City.

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

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

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

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

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

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

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

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

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

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

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

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

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

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

Us and them.

Make some noise.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Milan 1.

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

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

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

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

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

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Chelsea 2 Milan 1.

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

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

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

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

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

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

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

Chelsea 3 Milan 1.

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

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

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And what a stadium it had been.

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

It was time for me to call it a night.

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Tales From A Theatre Of Hate.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 2 May 2016.

Hate. It’s a strong word, isn’t it?

I would like to think that I try not to use it too often in my day to day life. I’d like to think that I manage to scrabble around and use alternatives if I can. It’s not a nice word. I would imagine that at some time or another, especially as children, either in the presence of parents or schoolteachers, we were all scolded for using the word “hate” at one time or another.

“Please don’t use that word.”

It’s ugly, but yet overused.

It seems to be especially overused within sport, and football, in particular. Rangers hate Celtic, City hate Rovers, Swansea hate Cardiff, Liverpool hate United, Villa hate Blues, Pompey hate Saints, Millwall hate everyone. Further afield, Toro hate Juve, Real hate Barca, PSG hate Marseilles and River Plate hate Boca Juniors.

Of course it is not a recent thing. Back in 1981, I remember buying an “I Hate West Ham” badge outside Stamford Bridge – I would imagine that my parents were not too impressed – and I can remember the glee of learning a previously unheard-of song aimed at Leeds United to the tune of “The Dam Busters” on The Benches in 1984, which involved that word. For the past twenty years we have been urged to stand up if we hate Tottenham.

Ah, Tottenham.

Of all the clubs that we meet on a regular basis, it seems that a sizeable number of Chelsea supporters have reserved an extra special portion of hate for that one club above all others. I am no different; I still rank them as the team and club that I dislike the most. There, I didn’t say it.

Dislike? Oh, I dislike them intently.

For the outsider, with maybe a distanced and more objective view, perhaps this loathing is seen as surprising. Chelsea Football Club has, after all, undergone such a rich period of dominance over Tottenham since the late ‘eighties, that it might be argued that our disdain for them needs to subside, to wane, to fall.

Prior to the game with Tottenham on Monday 2 May 2016, Chelsea had not lost to them at Stamford Bridge in the league since February 1990.

Twenty-five games unbeaten.

A quarter of a century of dominance.

“Dad, what was it like the last time Spurs won at Chelsea?”

“I don’t know son. Ask your grandfather.”

There are other gems too.

Since losing 1-0 at White Hart Lane in 1987, Chelsea remained unbeaten against Tottenham in all games, all venues, all competitions, until a loss at their stadium in the League Cup in 2002.

That’s over fifteen years of dominance; I think it topped out at around thirty-two games all told.

From 1987 to 2006, we were unbeaten in the league at White Hart Lane.

Nineteen years.

We beat them 4-1 at White Hart Lane in the league in 1989.

We beat them 6-1 at White Hart Lane in the league in 1997.

We beat them 5-1 at Wembley in 2012.

We single-handedly robbed them of a Champions League place in 2012.

We beat them 2-0 at Wembley in 2015.

Dominance ain’t the word for it.

(For a matter of balance, I should mention two painful Tottenham triumphs that simply do nothing more than re-emphasise our ascendency; apart from that 5-1 loss in the League Cup in 2002, there was the 2-1 League Cup Final defeat in 2008 and the 5-3 loss at their place on New Year’s Day 2015. There have been recent losses too but those stand out. Big deal, right?)

In fact – since I am enjoying this so much – I should further elaborate on the Stamford Bridge record since 1990; it had actually reached twenty-eight games, since there were two draws in each of the domestic cups and one win in the League Cup too.

So : twenty-eight games unbeaten in all games against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Monday 2 May, we were praying for the run to stretch to game twenty-nine.

On any other normal evening of a Chelsea vs. Tottenham game, the narrative would end right there. This year – this crazy season – there were other weightier concerns.

If we were to avoid defeat to Tottenham, then Leicester City would become champions of England, since Tottenham – of all teams – needed all three points to stay in contention.

It’s almost too difficult for me to cram every subplot in, but there were stories swirling around this match that almost defy description.

Leicester City, managed by former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, whose 2-1 victory at the King Power Stadium in December proved to be Jose Mourinho’s last game for Chelsea.

Claudio Ranieri, with whom the Chelsea crowd fell in love from 2000 to 2004, but who was unceremoniously replaced by Jose Mourinho after Roman Abramovich’s first season as owner of the club.

A night of ecstasy and perhaps a degree of revenge for Claudio?

Tottenham Hotspur, enjoying a fine season – I hate writing that for sure – with a title bid – and that – with just three games left to play; still in the hunt and looking for their first win at The Bridge since the days of Paul Gascoigne, James T-shirts, baggy jeans and baggier hairstyles.

Chelsea, trying to salvage a little lost pride in a catastrophe of a season, with one huge effort.

“They must not win.”

At Bournemouth, we pleaded with the players to beat Tottenham.

In reality, most of us would be grateful for a draw.

On the drive up in the car, we all agreed.

“A draw. I’d take a 0-0 now.”

We reached the pub at around 5pm, and for the first time for ages and ages, there were a few policemen outside. Once we were inside, and once we had met up with all the usual suspects, we wanted to know what was occurring. Where were Tottenham? Had they turned up en masse? Were they drinking at Earl’s Court? Were they staying there, at arm’s length? It was soon apparent, as I scanned the surprisingly quiet pub, that the evening’s game had enticed a few faces of Chelsea’s older hooligan element out. There was no hint of trouble though. Maybe they were a peace-keeping force, rather than aggressors, protecting a few pubs which might have been under risk of attack. Whatever, it was quiet. If there were nerves concerning the game, nobody was showing signs of it. I chatted with Kathryn and Tim, visiting from Virginia, while we half-heartedly glanced at the Burnley game on the TV screen. I first met Kathryn and Tim on the US Tour in 2012, and they were besides themselves with joy at the thought of witnessing a proper London derby.

“Just think of the millions, no billions, of people who will be watching this game around the world, and we will be lucky enough to be inside.”

Burnley won, and were up. I was pleased. I will be visiting Turf Moor, under happier circumstances than three weeks ago, once again next season.

The team news came through; the headline was that John Terry was in.

Superb.

The pub got busier and busier and then, after 7pm, fans began to leave to head off to the stadium. There were plenty of laughs as we strode down the North End Road, with a police car’s siren screaming in the distance.

“By the time you see me next, Kathryn” said Parky “I will have had a hip operation and I’ll be fighting fit.”

“I heard you’re getting a wooden leg fitted, Parky” someone said.

“Yeah, like his wallet” I replied.

Inside the stadium, there was a great sense of occasion. It is probably a cliché, but it certainly felt like a European night.

A Liverpool, a Barcelona, a Monaco, an Atletico Madrid.

Three thousand Spurs fans were in residence in the far corner. There was one poxy flag, presumably aimed at Arsenal.

“Tottenham Hotspur.

1 Cup First.

1 League First.

1 Double First.

1 Euro Trophy First.

1 Team From North London.”

It was a mild night and a perfect night for football. The nerves were starting to bite now, though. Although the addition of John Terry to our team – his first game since West Ham I believe – a few other changes caused a raised eyebrow.

Asmir Begovic in. Thibaut has his Charles de Gaulle impersonation classes on Mondays.

Gary Cahill in. Alongside JT. The old one-two. Need to watch Kane.

Dave and Brana. Solid.

Mikel and Matic. A defensive shield.

No Eden Hazard. Why? Instead a three of Willian, Fabregas and Pedro.

Diego. Phew.

The stage was set. Hardly an empty seat anywhere.

The world was watching.

They were watching in Bangkok, in Calcutta, in Los Angeles, in Milan, in Oslo, in Glasgow.

They were also, most certainly, watching in Barrow Upon Soar, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Hinckley, Coalville, Market Harborough.

And Leicester.

The noise was fantastic. Spurs were leading with their dirge-like “Oh….when…the…Spurs” and we were singing songs about Willian, air flights, phone calls, John Terry, and doubles.

Spurs began better, but we then had a little spell where we looked to have the upper hand. Such is the way of football these days, with teams likely to have five and ten minute segments of possession, rather than the midfield stalemate with tackle after tackle, which epitomised the football of my youth, with goal scoring chances often the result of punts up field. The art of football these days is generally more controlled, more clinical, more restrained.

It’s all about making that possession count.

Soon into the game, and after the opposition began getting an upper hand, Kyle Walker scythed down Pedro, but Mark Clattenburg waved play on. Azpilicueta raced forward, but a Fabregas shot was wide. Thankfully, Clattenburg went back to book Walker, who was roundly booed the rest of the half. This was turning into a feisty game. Chances were at a premium. Tottenham now appeared to be in control. Sadly, on thirty-five minutes, our fears materialised. Pedro, tapping away at the ball, trying his best to keep possession, was roughly dispossessed – unlawfully in Alan and my eyes – and the ball was worked forward towards that mane Kane. One touch took him past Begovic, but from my seat, I thought that our ‘keeper had managed to claw it away. Alas not. Kane – he was always my biggest fear – side-stepped Begovic and slotted the ball home.

Chelsea 0 Tottenham 1.

Now it wasn’t about Leicester City, it was about us.

Things got worse.

Only a block by Gary Cahill denied Spurs a second goal. Around me, our noise fell away.

Just before the break, Ivanovic, playing high, lost possession and Eriksen fed in Son. This was ominous. We watched, silently, as the Spurs player swept the ball in. In immediate view, the Spurs fans were sent into a frenzy.

Hate.

Chelsea 0 Tottenham 2.

At half-time, I witnessed some of the longest faces that I have seen at football for some time.

No words.

As I made my way back to my seat at the start of the second period, it took me a few moments to realise that Eden Hazard had replaced Pedro. Unlucky, I thought, that. Pedro had offered a little extra zip in the first-half.

Both Alan and myself would have taken off the poor Matic, moved Fabregas back, and played Pedro, Willian and Hazard together.

Still, what do I know?

I’m serious.

Eden breathed life into our play with his very first shimmy and gallop forward – oh, how we have missed you – and the crowd, so low at the break, reacted spectacularly.

“Just one goal, Al.”

The Tottenham players continued to commit their very own version of the seven deadly sins on our players and the cautions mounted up. This added to our noise and our passion. This added to the heat. And it added to the hate. With every passing minute, the temperature inside Stamford Bridge rose. I found myself standing for most of the second-half, something that I haven’t done at home for ages.

Nerves? You bet.

The noise was bellowing around Stamford Bridge.

Just before the hour mark, Willian played in a deep corner. For once, Tottenham could not clear. I clicked my camera just before Gary Cahill swiped at the ball, and we were lost in ecstasy as we saw the back of the net crumple on impact.

Screams, shouts, wildness.

Chelsea 1 Tottenham 2.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Now, the noise really increased. I am sure that I am not exaggerating by saying that it matched anything I have ever heard at Chelsea in over forty years. I cannot remember a noisier half of football, or a more sustained barrage of noise. People talk of Bruges at home in 1995, and that was loud.

But this was deafening.

“CAREFREE.”

I became mesmerised by the clock.

“Thirty minutes to go yet.”

A few chances to us. It felt odd to see us attacking The Shed in the second-half. Kathryn and Tim, not too far from Parky, in The Shed, were surely lapping this up.

More chances.

Hazard like a slippery little eel, twisting and turning, now up for the fight.

“Fifteen minutes to go.”

Oscar replaced Matic. I approved, but we needed the little Brazilian to show some fight, some mettle. He did not let us down.

The noise continued.

“Ten minutes to go.”

We still dominated. What a recovery.

“Death or glory, Chelsea – get into the bastards.”

I thought back to that Iniesta goal in 2009. It tied the game at 1-1, and a similar strike – out of nowhere – would do the same, but the result would be just as emphatic.

The clock was ticking…

Another trademark twist and turn from Hazard – how does he spin so instantly? – drew breaths of amazement. He exchanged passes with Diego Costa, who had grown with the game, and met the return pass instantly.

We watched, our mouths open, our eyes wide, as the ball arced instantly past Loris and into the net.

BOOM.

Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2.

I grabbed hold of my glasses, painfully aware that I did not want another Munich 2012 moment, but then screamed, my arms wide, looking high into the night. I turned and exchanged screams with the lads behind me. A chest bump and then an embrace with Alan.

The place was bumping.

Oh my.

There had been seven minutes left before Hazard struck. Not exactly Iniesta territory, but not far away.

The last seven minutes of normal time, and the last six minutes of extra time are a blur. It is hardly surprising. Tottenham looked crestfallen. Their cock had fallen off their ball. The noise roared around The Bridge. For the last few minutes, my eyes on the game and then on my phone, I prepared a message to send out at the final whistle.

We had one last song for our foes, screamed with such venom.

“Two-nil, and you fucked it up.”

More Tottenham bookings followed. With each one, I could hardly believe that a new player had been booked. How Tottenham did not have a player sent off is a fucking mystery.

At 9.55pm, Mark Clattenburg whistled the end of the game and I pressed “post” on Facebook.

“Congratulations Leicester City. Congratulations Claudio. Tottenham Always The Bridesmaid. Twenty-Six Years. See You All At Sunderland On Saturday.”

It is easy to get complacent about football, and to take for granted what people like me get to witness on a yearly, monthly or – if we are lucky – a weekly basis, but at the end of this particular game of football involving two bitter rivals, sometimes it is just enough to stand back, exhausted, breathless, bewildered, and be grateful that football can send us into such states of joy and ecstasy.

Football. Bloody fucking hell.

The smiles were wide as we said our goodbyes.

Exiting the stairs, three of us tried to squeeze in the syllables of Claudio Ranieri into a song in honour of Leicester City’s magnificent achievement. Out into the night, the joy was palpable. It seemed like a win. It seemed – even – better than last season’s League Cup Final win against the same team.

Oh boy.

In years to come, this game will be remembered as the iconic moment of this most ridiculous of seasons.

2015/2016 : what a crazy bloody hateful mess.

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Tales From The Away Club.

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2016.

Swansea away still seems fresh. It manages to tick a few boxes. I still count it as a new ground, in essence. I do not know, yet, every nook and cranny of the Liberty Stadium and its environs. And it is such a rare treat to have an away ground relatively close to home. It’s only around two hours away. Not as close as Southampton and now Bournemouth, but still an easy drive. And I also relish the chance to drive on roads other than the eastbound M4 and the northbound M5 and the M6 on Chelsea match days.

The day had started with bright blue brilliance in the skies overhead as I gathered the two Chuckle Brothers. We were on the road at 8am.

“Jack Kerouac” and on our way to Jack City.

However, typically, by the time we had crossed the River Severn, the skies had clouded over and rain soon followed.

There is nothing gloomier, nor murkier, nor more depressing than a rainy day in South Wales.

With memories of childhood holidays in Tenby and visits to relatives in Llanelli, I motored past the Celtic Manor hotel and golf course – site of a recent Ryder Cup and a more recent G8 summit, through the Brynglas tunnels, past Castle Coch. Actually, this is a familiar road after all, it just does not feel like it. It’s a decent road.

We made good time, and thankfully, just as the curve of Swansea bay was sighted – and then the towers and chimneys and pipes and foundries of the threatened Port Talbot steelworks – the sun had returned. We were going to be OK, weather-wise. Dave, who had left Paddington on an early morning train at 7.30am, was collected right outside the Swansea train station at just before 11am.

We were going to head down to The Mumbles and while away a couple of hours in a few pubs, but I happened to stumble across a sighting of “The Waterfront” pub, which overlooks the Swansea Marina, albeit not a very well established part of it. Elsewhere there would be yachts and boats moored, but our view consisted of an old dock bereft of pleasing detail, with new apartments on one side, but cranes and derelict land on the others. There were no boats to be seen, nothing to soften the blow, just the flotsam and jetsam that you often witness in such areas; a piece of wood, a plastic bottle, Radamel Falcao.

We spent almost three hours in the pub. It was quiet, save for the raucous laughter emanating from the Chuckle Brothers’ booth in one corner. Lord Parky was in especially rare form, leaving Dave curled up in a foetal position on the sofa at one stage, crying with laughter.

The bar reminded us of our pre-match get together along the coast ahead of the game with Cardiff City almost two years ago.

On the waterfront, in a bar, having a giggle.

We had heard that there was a snarl-up on the M4 around Swindon causing delays and consternation for many coming from the Home Counties. Al and Gary – on one of the club coaches – were being diverted via the M5 and would not be arriving for a while. There would be the usual jokes about the Welsh among the Chelsea faithful as they headed west.

“Whose coat is that jacket?”

The time flew past and, alas, it was time to leave the pub.

Sometimes – some might say most times, certainly this season – the football gets in the way of a fine day out.

Of course it has been a tough season. I would imagine that the, ahem, “newer” fans have found it particularly odd. But I think that as a whole, generally speaking, we have coped relatively well with this catastrophe of a season. There have been periods of rancour, but I think we’ve held it together reasonably well. Everyone copes in their own way. There are still huge doubts in my mind about the actual reason for our horrendous start to 2015-2016, but as the season closes, with a new and seemingly energetic manager waiting in the wings, I suppose that I should be looking forward and not back.

But the four of us have had a blast this season.

“Norwich away was superb, Southampton too. Arsenal was great. Palace was good. Enjoyed West Ham away, not the result. Even Everton was good to an extent.”

All away games.

The schism between home and away games grows ever wider.

You know the score.

Add trips for me to Newcastle, Porto and Haifa, and – yes – it has been a good season. The highlight of the whole season was my day trip to Jerusalem with Alan and Kevin. Memories from that day will last a lifetime. So, I don’t think that I will ever tire of away games. And we still have two enjoyable and fun trips coming up. There is the St. George’s Day beano to Bournemouth in a fortnight. And then Parky, PD and I are flying up to the Sunderland game too, when it certainly looks as though we might be saying a “so long, farewell, pet” to top flight football on Tyneside and Wearside. That will be a shame.

There is also a midweek trip to Anfield.

Sigh. Not so enjoyable that one, eh?

I was soon parked up at my usual place, but in typical Chelsea fashion only made it to my seat, in the front row of the upper block, with two minutes to spare. I noticed a few empty seats around me. Maybe some were saving their beer tokens for Bournemouth. After a very long and tiring coach journey, Alan and Gary were able to pop across the road for a portion of fish and chips, washed down with a can of lager. I couldn’t resist :

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

And then the laughter stopped as the game began.

What a let-down.

Guus Hiddink had certainly rung the changes and had given many of our supporters what they had requested; the kids were in.

Begovic – Baba, Ivanovic, Miazga, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Oscar – Pato.

On the bench were some new names to the Premier League.

Ola Aina.

Kasey Palmer.

Charlie Colkett.

Right from the very first moments, Swansea seemed a lot more dangerous. They are a team that I constantly need to check; one minute they can be flirting with relegation and the next minute they are in mid-league safety. Our four previous visits in the league to their neat Liberty Stadium had resulted in firstly two draws and then two wins. The five-nil win that we all enjoyed in January 2015 now seems like it came from a different team, a different club, a different world.

It was a very poor first-half from us, and the away support seemed unwilling to get behind the team. Maybe it was because we had such good, unobstructed views, but neither Gary, nor Alan, nor Parky nor myself stood the entire game. This is very rare in The Away Club. We usually stand all of the way through.

Asmir Begovic – not sure why he got the nod over Courtois – was called in to action and thwarted a couple of Swansea attacks. He looked alert and impressed me. Our attacks lacked focus, and we hardly threated Fabianski. Begovic saved well again, a fine block from Sigursson, then watched as Rangel sent one wide. We were on the ropes and the home fans – unlike us – were in full voice. On twenty-five minutes, dogged determination from Jefferson Montero on the Swansea left resulted in him getting a yard of space. His cross was meekly headed out by Miazga, looking a little nervous this week, and the ball fell for Sigurdsson to volley past Begovic.

The Swansea fans roared and we sat silently.

Although the noise does not boom from all sections of the Liberty Stadium, the two or three thousand in the adjacent east stand certainly get behind their team well. We were treated to the usual “Hymns and Arias” and also an extended version of “Just Can’t Get Enough” which seemed to go on for ever and ever.

Then – the cheeky buggers – in a deep and scornful accent :

“Yur for the Swansea, yer only yur for the Swansea.”

Begovic, by far the busiest goalkeeper, then reacted well to deny further Swansea attacks.

At the other end, just on half-time, Fabregas – so quiet – spotted Oscar – so quiet – who turned and managed to get a shot on goal. The ball rebounded to Pato – so quiet – but his stab was well wide.

There were hearty grumbles in the crowded bar areas below at the break.

“Rubbish.”

“No energy.”

“No intensity.”

There was a real surprise at the break. Off went Miazga, and Mikel slipped back to play alongside Ivanovic at the heart of the defence.

That was odd.

Had Miazga been that poor? Or was the move needed to instil more pace? Kenedy came on, with Oscar dropping alongside Fabregas. Kenedy then spent the second-half running into dead ends, blind alleys and falling over.

Loftus-Cheek, full of a more productive type of running, then went close, then Pato slotted home but was ruled to have controlled the ball with his arm rather than shoulder. It looked like handball to me. Pato looked neat and tidy to be fair. There were worse players on the pitch in Chelsea blue. Just after, our best chance of the game thus far fell to Pato, who was played in by Pedro – another one prone to falling over for no apparent reason – but the Brazilian’s deft flick sent the ball agonisingly wide.

Begovic made a magnificent save at full length from former Chelsea player Jack Cork.

The Swansea support was quiet at times. And then it would roar itself back to life.

Our support rallied a little towards the final quarter. We tried our best to inspire the players. There were mediocre, at best, performances throughout the team but I thought that Jon Obi Mikel was excellent in the unfamiliar role of central defender.

Bertrand Traore replaced Alexandre Pato.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek was replaced by Radamel Falcao, hooked up from Swansea Bay earlier in the day.

Swansea, their first attempt for a while, really ought to have scored a second but Montero headed over when it appeared easier to score.

At the end of the game, Falcao had a half-chance, but by that time the home fans were bouncing – “The Jacks Are Staying Up” – and there was no real threat of a Chelsea equaliser.

This was a poor performance, with a distinct lack of passion and desire. I lost count of the number of “50-50” tackles that we lost. I lost count of the number of “second balls” that were squandered. We only had a couple of shots on goal, damn it.

Bloody hell, Chelsea.

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Tales From A Night Of Hurt.

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

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The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2015.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

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