Tales From The Eight Bells, Seven Goals And One Matthew Harding.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 23 October 2021.

This was pretty much a perfect day of football.

Where to start?

How about 5.30am? Early enough?

My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.

This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.

Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.

“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”

“Yes.”

“Bad luck.”

I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.

Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.

“Ron Harris drove us home!””

I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.

I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.

Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.

Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.

There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.

“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”

We both laughed.

After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.

Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.

So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.

All aboard the Chopper Bus.

We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.

There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.

Yeah, it was surreal.

Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.

“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”

After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.

“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”

Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.

As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.

Stupid bloody sport.

Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.

At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.

Perfect.

I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.

Again, perfect.

Did I say that I work in logistics?

For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.

Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.

The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.

Perfect.

At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.

The crowd sang.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.

I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.

On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.

“Matthew.

With Love And Appreciation.

We Will Never Forget You.”

Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.

High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.

Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.

With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.

The team news came through.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Havertz

With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”

The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.

It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.

These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.

How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.

The song again.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Sigh.

The game began.

Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.

We began brightly.

The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.

We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.

“Brilliant.”

Two-nil and coasting.

More please.

Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.

A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.

The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.

We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.

But 3-0 it was.

And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.

There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.

At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :

Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”

At the break, in the away dressing room :

“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”

The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.

Fackinell.

We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.

Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.

Four.

Keep’m coming Chels.

Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.

Five.

Callum looked embarrassed.

Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.

The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.

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

A minute later, louder still.

“Carefree.”

The game safe, on came three substitutes.

Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.

There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

I was just waiting for the Whitewall…

On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.

But there was time for yet more drama.

A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.

Penalty.

Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.

After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.

Six.

During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.

Seven.

Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.

Bloody hell.

On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.

They were lucky to get naught.

I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.

“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”

There was a message from Steve in Philly.

“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”

The answer was easy.

“Fackinell.”

I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.

I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.

The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.

Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.

Good times, everyone, good times.

Oh by the way, Lukak-who?

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

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

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From Under A Pure Blue Sky

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 28 August 2021.

Before we get too deep into this, give yourself a point if you either uttered or thought this line after the game at Anfield :

“I would have settled for a draw before the game.”

Everyone? Everyone gets a point. Everyone apart from Arsenal. Thought so.

This was a cracking day out. A long day, but deeply pleasurable. It almost had it all.

I had set my alarm for 7.30am but was awake at 6.45am. No point trying to go back to sleep. I needed to fuel up again, and on the short four-mile drive to the nearest garage, I briefly found myself doing eighty miles an hour through the Somerset back-roads. Proof, if anything was needed, that I was keen to get “on the road” and on my way to Liverpool for this one. Our fine start to the season, admittedly against far from high calibre teams, had got me chomping at the bit for this mouth-watering fixture at Anfield. It would be twenty-eight months since my last visit, a weak 2-0 defeat in April 2019.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome bang on 9am.

Our initial plans had been adjusted as Parky was still laid low with COVID19. We called in to see him and he handed over tickets for Anfield as if they were atomic waste; face masks on, gloves on, everything at a distance. Sadly, Parky would be absent, and so would Alan and Gary too.

Regardless, the Frome Three headed north, diverting into Melksham for our first match day McBreakfast for months and months and months.

I headed north.

A familiar route, though less travelled these days.

My last trip up the M5 for football was for Hull City in January 2020. My last trip up the M6 for football was for Everton in December 2019.

Driving north, the three of us enjoyed a lovely chat about the state of our club and team at the moment. Many positives. Too many to mention.

With this being a bank holiday weekend, we predictably hit a few areas of traffic congestion.

One of my favourite vistas on my travels around this Sceptered Isle with The Great Unpredictables is from the Thelwell Viaduct. On this particular day, the high-rises of Manchester’s city centre were clearly visible to the east. Beyond Saddleworth Moor and its notorious history. Ahead, Winter Hill – appearing so close, despite being twenty miles away – with the home of Bolton Wanderers nestling a few miles to the south. To the west, the cooling towers and bridges at Runcorn, but the almost mythical city of Liverpool out of sight.

Football Land.

I had earmarked an arrival at Liverpool – or to be precise the car park outside Goodison Park, the blue-half of the city – at 2pm. In the circumstances, my arrival at 2.20pm was half-decent. Happy with that.

A short walk away, past the Dixie Dean statue, was The Abbey pub, which was to be our base for around two hours. Already inside were Kev and Rich, veterans from Belfast, and I had kept their arrival a secret from PD and Glenn. It was a nice surprise for my Somerset Chuckle Brothers. Next to arrive was Deano, just a short hop down from Silverdale near the Lake District. To complete the group, Kim, ex California, ex Florida and now a resident of Crosby a mere ten-minute drive away. The pub was a new one for me; I have walked past it many times en route to and from Goodison. It was a decent boozer. There were three other Chelsea fans on a nearby table. The locals were fine. The prices were cheap. Everything was good. On the way up, we chuckled as Arsenal lost again, and lost without scoring again.

They said that The Titanic would never sink.

Full steam ahead, Arteta, and fuck the icebergs.

We made the short walk up through Stanley Park – the scene of much aggro, hooliganism, violence and associated nastiness in previous decades – and I have to say it was a surprisingly lovely walk. It was the first time I have walked to Anfield from the north for a game. The sun was out, a clear blue sky, and there were Victorian features to the park which made it all very pleasant.

Was I really in Liverpool?

The shining mass of the new stand at Anfield that peered over the trees to the south confirmed that indeed I was.

There was the quickest of security pat downs outside the away turnstiles and we were in at 4.50pm.

I was almost blinded by the sun as I walked into the lower tier of the Anfield Road Stand – “The Annie” as the locals call it – and I quickly found our seats.

Row five, equidistant twixt the six and eighteen yard boxes. Ideal.

It was a familiar view, this. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Anfield with Chelsea. There have been the same number of visits to see us at Manchester United but, what with the two FA Cup Semi-Finals in 2006 and 2007, Old Trafford slightly edges past Anfield.

I spotted a few friends. PD, taking Parky’s ticket, was alongside me. Also alongside me were the empty red seats that would have been occupied by Gary – COVID positive – and Alan – COVID negative, but unable to make it – and it felt odd not having them alongside us.

Anfield took a while to fill. There were no COVID19 checks again this week.

I could not have been the only Chelsea supporter who thought “if I don’t catch it at Anfield, I won’t catch it anywhere”…

Pre-match songs included “Ring of Fire”, “Heroes” and “The Fields Of Anfield Road.”

Chelsea broke into song as the afternoon progressed.

One song dominated :

“Champions Of Europe…You Know The Rest.”

Out on the pitch, the game’s undercard was The Battle Of The Shit Training Tops.

Chelsea won it easily.

The clock ticked towards to the kick-off at 5.30pm.

The Liverpool PA announcer’s ridiculously deep and monotone voice announced a few items in that dead pan voice of his. Think Ringo Starr but at several levels lower.

The team was almost the same as the one that started against Arsenal.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azplicueta

Alonso – Kante – Jorginho – James

Havertz – Lukaku – Mount

The teams came on, Chelsea first, then Liverpool. The line-up. The Kop was ready with its myriad of DIY banners, and of course, their scarves.

The away end was virtually a scarf-free zone.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Not as loud as on many previous occasions.

Must do better.

It annoyed the fuck out of me to see a couple of Chelsea / Liverpool scarves in our cramped away section. These fuckers evidently didn’t bother reading the small print in their Chelsea contract.

Liverpool and Chelsea. Two league wins apiece thus far. This was a game that I had been relishing all week. I predicted a 2-2 draw.

Romelu Lukaku took the kick-off before the pre-game “knee” and I hoped that it would not be the last time that he would be out of synch.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Kop in the first-half.

Not surprisingly, Liverpool came out of the traps firing on all cylinders and other clichés. Their youngster Harvey Eliott looked neat and purposeful in the opening moments. His shot was knocked wide. Mason Mount fired over from the edge of the box. The next chance of the game came down the Liverpool right as Terence-Trent Darby-Alexander-Arnold pumped a long ball into our box that Jordan Henderson reached, but could only prod the ball wide with what appeared to be his heel.

It was an even start.

Liverpool were aggressively closing down our defenders but the ball was moved with pace out of areas that would hurt them.

I grimaced every time Mo Salah came at us. He was a very real threat for sure. A Van Dijk header at the far post was blocked.

Despite our regular utterings of “Champions Of Europe” there was, surprisingly, no usual retorts from the home support about our lack of “history.” This was a real surprise. This is their usual stock, almost Pavlovian, answer to any of our chants that either praise our successes or mock them. Maybe they are learning their history lesson after all these years.

It was, in fact, refreshing to hear no “Murderers” chanting from our section either.

Had the lockdown affected us all that much?

After some dogged perseverance from Marcos Alonso underneath the dreaded Anfield Clock, we won a corner.

Reece James pumped the ball in towards the near post. I snapped as Kai Havertz – already showing silky sweetness in attack – leapt. I watched, and snapped again, as the ball looped up and over everyone into the far corner of the box.

GET IN!

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

In truth, I had no idea how the ball had ended up in the net. I wasn’t even sure that Havertz had touched it last. Was it a defender’s head that had looped it on? I simply did not know. It all happened so quickly.

The scorer was announced as Havertz.

How did he manage it? It was from the corner, at least, of the six-yard box? I was flummoxed. What a goal.

People mention “The Catch” in baseball and everyone knows it’s Willie Mays at The Polo Grounds. “The Try” in rugby union, and it’s the Barbarians at Cardiff. “The Save” in football and it’s Gordon Banks against Pele in Mexico in 1970.

Now we have “The Header.”

It defied physics and football. He had his back to the goal, his back to the ‘keeper, his back to everyone. His flick managed to twist the ball up and over everyone in a perfect parabola. In the end, it dropped into the goal amidst so much space that it was almost unkind on Liverpool.

It was an absolute beauty.

A couple more Chelsea half-chances strengthened the air of positivity – if not euphoria – in the Chelsea end.

“Shall We Sing A Song For You?”

Playground stuff really, but you could tell the locals didn’t like it.

There were often long balls from Liverpool, in a red kit oddly trimmed with salmon pink, looking to catch us on the back foot.

Edouard Mendy anticipated an early ball and raced to clear with Mo Salah – or was it Michael Angelis from “The Liver Birds” and “Boys From The Black Stuff” – lurking menacingly.

A delightfully constructed passage of play down the inside light channel, allowed Lukaku to feed in Mount but his shot was brushed wide.

Firmino was hooked by Klopp to be replaced by Jiota.

Three minutes of extra time.

“Come On Chels.”

A Liverpool corner from their left.

Madness ensued.

A knock on. Matip managed to loop the ball up into the air. Both Mendy and Alonso went for the ball. Matip again, and onto the bar. By this time, I was already befuddled. Bodies swarming the six-yard box, a mere twenty-five feet away from me. A shot, blocked on the line – twice – then hacked away.

Phew.

Alas, alas, alas…a late VAR review, and the bloody inevitable result.

A Liverpool roar. In the confusion, a red to Reece James, which I missed amidst the madness, and a yellow to Rudiger.

That man Salah.

A swipe at the ball.

Goal.

1-1.

Bollocks.

PD : “We’re up against it now.”

A yellow for our ‘keeper.

Chaos on the pitch.

The Liverpool support, which had grown quieter throughout the first period, suddenly erupted.

At half-time, which immediately followed, there was a mixture of disbelief and anger in the away end. Of course, the strange thing is that even though I was so close to the action that lead to the penalty, the viewing millions had a much better view of everything than me.

The consensus was that the penalty was right to be given as the hand stopped a goal, but the ball was blasted at James from two yards and hit his thigh first.

Had the world gone mad?

How could that be a red?

We girded our loins at the start of the second-half and of course Thomas Tuchel made the inevitable changes.

He took off the unlucky Havertz and replaced him with Thiago Silva who bolstered the defence. The injured Kante was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.

We strapped ourselves in for a difficult forty-five minutes.

Five at the back – in reality – with three in midfield and the lone Lukaku upfront.

But I have to say that whenever we broke away, Alonso was up and down that left flank as if his life depended upon it.

What we hoped for was a defensive master class.

And that is exactly what transpired.

Liverpool, of course, dominated the ball, but we defended with such regimen and aplomb that I was only worried about our line being breached on a few, rare, occasions. Everyman played his part. Dave was sensational, the incoming Kovacic tackled, covered, and occasionally raided, but I thought Silva was magnificent.

Calm, assured, reliable.

A great performance.

Rudiger made a few rash decisions but more than made up for it with his steely determination. A super game from Christensen too. Jorginho was solid, and worked tirelessly.

As for Mendy. Utterly superb.

Soon into the second-half, I said to PD.

“Look at us.”

We were identical. Arms folded, one arm up, hand clenched and nested beneath our noses.

Classic art critic poses, as if we were studying a Turner, a Picasso, a Hopper.

Of course, we were witnessing a master class in defending.

We were, let’s make no qualms about it, sensational. There were echoes of Porto if I am honest. And just like that night in Portugal, I became obsessed with that bloody Anfield Clock.

55 minutes, 60 minutes.

PD was watching it too.

Salah to Jiota, a header. Over.

A long shot from Van Dijk, a daisy cutter, and Mendy scrambled to save. As similar save from Fabinho. A parry from a Robertson volley from distance.

The first-part of the second-half seemed to take forever, and then as the Liverpool chances grew less frequent, the time sped along nicely.

A rare attack, initiated by a strong break from Alonso, eventually enabled Mount to loft a ball in to Lukaku but his shot was blocked.

If I am honest, Lukaku struggled a little against Matip and Van Dijk, but his was a thankless task in the second-half. Van Dijk has fast feet, and on this occasion Lukaku had relatively slow feet. Let’s hope his feet won’t be the stumbling block to his progress this season.

The clock ticked on.

Sixty-seven minutes, thirty seconds.

“Half-way through the half PD.”

“I was going to wait until seventy.”

That man Lukaku then linked so well with Kovacic but his shot was weak and at the ‘keeper.

This was tense stuff.

A Liverpool break and the ball fell to Salah, centrally positioned. I had a mental image of him rolling into the corner, to Mendy’s right, my left, and The Kop going berserk. But his pathetically weak shot – shades of Pat Nevin against Manchester City in 1984 –  rolled apologetically to Mendy’s left, my right, and the chance passed.

Eighty minutes.

It was a joy to see many Liverpool fans head for the exits.

Eighty-five.

Trevoh Chalobah – surely he should come from Manchestoh with a name like that – replaced the tiring Jorginho.

Ninety.

An extra three, just like on forty-five.

We held on.

Ten Men Went To Mow.

Magnificent.

The away end was jubilant, but as at Arsenal last Sunday, I noticed only stern and serious faces on the Chelsea players. This shows amazing self-control. I am not so sure that we would have been quite so reserved under other managers.

Because make no mistake, a 1-1 draw at Anfield is a bloody fine result and us supporters almost regarded it as a win.

Walking back to Goodison, out through Stanley Park, the quietness of the home fans was a joy.

We had set our marker for the season with this result.

Lovely.

My exit route out of the city took my car right alongside the stands on the Bullens Road at Goodison park.

After the Annie Road at Liverpool, we now found ourselves on the Gwladys Street at Everton.

I made a quick exit, out onto the East Lancs Road, then the M57, then the M62, then the M6.

We stopped a few miles down the M6 in well-heeled Cheshire, now solidly in United territory.

“I love it how, through football, us three lads from Somerset can suddenly find ourselves in a curry house in Knutsford at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.”

The Eastern Revive on King Street did us proud.

I made it home at just after 1.30am in the small hours of Sunday.

It had been a good day.

Anfield.

The Header.

Gallery.


Chelsea at Anfield.

Played : 25

Won : 5

Drew : 7

Lost : 13

For : 26

Against : 39

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

Tales From Zig Zag Hill

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 27 July 2021.

Just fifty-nine days after our European Cup triumph in Porto, we were back in business. Or rather a thousand or so other Chelsea supporters and I were back in business. Some players had been back for a few weeks, and the management team rarely rest, but for the rank and file match-going addicts among our multi-million strong support base, this was Day One of the new season.

By a strange quirk of fate, the last domestic away game played by Chelsea Football Club where away fans had been able to attend took place at Bournemouth on Leap Year Day last year, Saturday 29 February 2020. And here we were again headed for the same town on the Dorset coast on Tuesday 27 July 2021.

I like a bit of symmetry as I never tire of saying.

When we left the Vitality Stadium last year, how many of us could have possibly dreamt that we would not be able to go to a single away game in almost seventeen months?

Not me. Not you. Not the next man. Not the next woman.

One abiding memory from that day is of me – quite by fate – stumbling into the players as they ambled through the Lower Gardens by the pier and beach on their mid-morning walk. I offered my hand to Antonio Rudiger for him to shake and for me to wish him “all the best” for the game but he was almost embarrassed as I saw him shoo me away with the ominous words “Corona Virus”.

The interim has tested us all. It has certainly tested my love of football, maybe of Chelsea, and I have experienced fluctuating opinions of football, fandom and the universe. It certainly has not been easy. Season 2020/21 was my least enjoyable football season ever – OK, maybe tied with the dire 1978/79 campaign – and yet we reached two Cup Finals and ended up as winners of the biggest prize in club football in the whole world. And universe.

Rationalising football was never easy, right?

I watched the European Championships recently with middling interest. International football just isn’t for me these days. I can’t even be arsed to explain why. My focus was always about getting back to the love of my life; Chelsea Football Club.

However, a lovely little present afforded itself to me on my birthday in the first week of July. My first Frome Town game since the cessation of matches last November saw me attend the Frome Town vs. Bath City friendly on Tuesday 6 July; the town of my domicile versus the city of my birth on my birthday. Perfect, eh? It was a lovely evening, even though Dodge lost 4-1. A couple of friends made a surprise visit from Bristol and Portsmouth, we all had a lovely catch-up and I survived my first session since Everton at home last March. Evenings like that are priceless.

I was tempted to attend the home friendly against Tottenham but the whole thing seemed like a massive waste of energy. My take on it was that I would be haring up to London on many other midweek evenings in the autumn, arriving home late, waking up tired for work the next day, and so why bother with an overpriced – £30 – friendly where there wouldn’t even be any away fans to abuse. No thanks. A lovely little dip down to Dorset – just fifty-five miles away – to be followed by a jaunt over to Belfast for the UEFA Super Cup (Parky and I re-joined the UEFA Away Scheme recently so are assured tickets) and then the Grand Reunion with all the familiar faces against Crystal Palace a few days later.

That will do me nicely thank you very much nurse.

So, AFCB versus CFC on Tuesday 27 July. It soon came around. And here was a first for me; my first-ever Chelsea trip after working at home for the day. I set off at 4.40pm, alone – none of the other Chuckle Brothers were available – but with my mind full of being part of a genuine match day experience once again. I was hoping for a full house and a 1,200 away contingent. Great though they were, both Cup Finals at the end of May were odd affairs, almost surreal, certainly strange.

The drive down to Bournemouth didn’t take long. How nice of the football Gods to bestow upon me the easiest of away trips. Over the past year and a half, I have spent many an hour out walking in England’s “Green and Pleasant” and I have fallen in love again with our countryside, often taking too many bloody photographs. On the way to Dorset, I was at it again. I stopped off momentarily at a few choice locations – at Longleat, on the chalk uplands near Longbridge Deverill, ascending Zig Zag Hill – not on the scale of L’Alpe D’Huez, the famed climb of the Tour de France, but with a series of acute turns – and overlooking Cranbourne Chase. It was a glorious drive.

Nearing the outskirts of Bournemouth, though, the ominous gloomy clouds darkened the early evening light. Down came the rain.

The first “fackinell” of the season.

But on the dual carriageway, I had my first “moment” of the new season.

As I accelerated away and overtook a car, I realised that I have a decent job, a nice car, my own house, my friends, my health – God, my health – and I was about to see Chelsea play. Hardly a life-defining moment but important enough for me to mention it three evenings later.

And although I have spoken with some close friends how I might be in a situation this season when I might have to choose between a classic Frome Town away day and a common or garden Chelsea trip, deep down I knew that there would only be one winner.  

I was parked up on a pre-booked private driveway on Littledown Avenue at 6.30pm. The ninety-minute drive had been lengthened by twenty minutes as I stopped to snap, snap, snap. I include a few of the photos.

The air was a little muggy outside. I had brought a light rain jacket. The walk to the stadium only took ten minutes. I spotted a chap wearing a Flamengo shirt – Bournemouth colours, but turned ninety degrees – alongside his mate who was wearing a Chelsea top. I couldn’t resist walking over to say a few words, but I avoided mentioning that, if I was pressed, I favoured their rivals Fluminense. After my jaunt to Buenos Aires last year, I have Rio in my sights too, though perhaps only after another trip to Buenos Aires.

File under : “Too many stadia, not enough time.”

I will be honest, it felt odd being among a crowd who were, in the main, not wearing masks.

I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz outside the familiar away turnstiles, the first of around a dozen friends or so that I would talk to during the evening. Big praise to Scott who would endure a 590-mile round trip from his home in Lancashire for this friendliest of friendlies. Just amazing.

There were three security checks to get into the stadium; a scan with an electronic device, a bag check, a body frisk. It seemed all a bit pointless. Anyway, my camera was in, unlike on 27 July 2019 when it was banned from a friendly at Reading.

I would normally trawl the concourse to chat to some familiar faces, but – I think that I felt at risk slightly – I decided to avoid the closeness of the crowded bar areas and head inside.

For the third game in a row, I was positioned in row three; clearly not my favourite viewing position. The evening sun was still glaring. I chastised myself for leaving a perfectly fine pair of sunglasses in my car.

The players – in a set of training gear sponsored by a completely different company to the playing kits – warmed up in front of us. There were a few familiar faces, but some strange ones too. I find it amusing that I can rattle off fringe players from 1983/84 – Phil Priest, Terry Howard, Perry Baldacchino, Paul Williams, Stokely Sawyers and Robin Beste – but struggle with the current crop.

With five minutes to kick-off, the PA played “Life Is Life” by Opus. I had a little smirk to myself. I was reminded of that classic film of the one and only Diego Armando Maradona’s pre-match warm up to this very song in 1989. If you have not seen it, do yourself a favour.

I wondered who on Earth could replicate that breath-taking performance at Bournemouth in 2021.

The 7.45pm kick-off soon arrived. So much for a 12,000 full house. The home areas were half empty and our section wasn’t full. There was a line of ten empty seats right behind me. So much for the lure of the current Champions of Europe. A few friends had notably lost a few pounds over the previous eighteen months; well done Jayne, Sam and Rob.

Just before the game began, probably just as the teams were being announced – hence my confusion with the starting eleven – I saw a deeply tanned Pat Nevin rush past. I shouted out to him and told him that I had loved reading his recent autobiography. We shook hands – another weird feeling – and he went on his way to take up a commentary position.

Lovely. My favourite-ever player. A fine start to 2021/22.

I was tempted to ask the PA chap to replay “Life Is Life” and get Pat on the pitch.

It was a nice thought…

Our team?

Kepa.

Sterling / Baker / Sarr.

Hudson-Odoi / Drinkwater / Gallagher / Alonso.

Ziyech / Pulisic.

Abraham.

The game began and Chelsea attacked the “home end” to my right, the scene of those devastating four second-half goals in early 2019.

First thoughts?

“I wish that bloody sun would soon disappear behind those towering clouds.”

“I don’t recognise a couple of these players.”

“That new kit is truly horrific.”

Zig fucking zag.

My heart has sunk over the summer as I have witnessed from afar – oh my disbelieving eyes – how a notable number of acquaintances throughout Chelsea World had succumbed to the dog’s dinner of our new Nike abomination.

We can’t be friends, real friends, now.

I am sorry.

But you should be the ones apologising.

Fackinell.

The effect that it has on me, if I may offer some sort of comparison, is as if those Hawaiian shirts favoured by our American cousins – I never know if they are worn ironically or not – are matched with the same pattern on accompanying shorts.

Get my drift?

The Chelsea crowd – some who had evidently been on the ale for a few hours – were lively in the first quarter of an hour. There were two early songs in praise of Frank Lampard. The Timo Werner one was soon aired and there were a few hearty renditions of “The Only Team In London With A / Two European Cups.” I joined in and tried to warm my vocal chords up for the new season. My view from row three was tough. Everything looked so flat.

Now then dear reader, let’s get this clear. This was a pre-season game in which virtually all of the Chelsea protagonists would be bit-part players throughout the upcoming season. Some – Kepa, Mendy, Alonso, Barkley – would have parts to play, but others would find themselves elsewhere. Some might get the odd League Cup game. Some would inevitably go out on loan. Some would begin a zig-zagging journey down the football pyramid. Some – sadly – would find themselves as footballing equivalents of the unclaimed black pram on the baggage carousel at airport arrivals.

The game against Bournemouth was always about getting game time for as many players as possible. I’m certainly not going to go into nerd mode and produce a deeply analytical report of each of the players’ performances. What would be the point of that?

That said, I was looking forward to watching Conor Gallagher – alas no relative of oor Hughie – to see what the hype was all about.

There was neat football from us in the first-half. Danny Drinkwater, of all players, started well, pushing the ball intelligently. Up close, I appreciated the pace of our right-sided defender (later identified as Dujon Sterling, ah of course…) and Malang Sarr (the other player who I was hard pressed to recognise) certainly possessed an impressive shape. Conor Gallagher was involved. Nice to see the old war horse Alonso again. Chances fell to Hakim, Callum, Tammy, Tammy and Tammy but our finishing was off the mark.

The singing from the away section quietened as the half progressed.

I wanted Our Callum to burst past his marker, but there always seemed to be a reticence from him. A shame.

Interceptions from Sarr and Baker thwarted Bournemouth, whose main threat on our goal was a series of deep free-kicks and corners. Dominic Solanke was upfront for the home team. We had high hopes for him a while ago, eh? For all of our possession, we went into the break without a goal to show for our dominance.

As the players lined up for the second-half, I spotted some changes, although not wholesale.

Mendy.

Miazga / Chalobah The Younger / Clarke-Salter.

Hudson-Odoi / Gallagher / Loftus-Cheek / Alonso.

Barkley.

Abraham / Broja.

Things were a bit disjointed, off the pitch as well as on it. This is pre-season for us fans too. Whereas we all stood during the first-half, many began the second-half sitting. Were we jaded already? Surely not. The home fans were a quiet bunch, though and there was little noise from them. However, a little riposte from the otherwise silent area to our left resulted in an embarrassing chant from us.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll Never Sing That.”

Fucksake.

I rolled my eyes so far backwards I almost saw Tottenham. Then I looked up at the roof, if not the heavens.

I turned to the young lad to my left.

“Fucking hell. Mugging off Bournemouth. Bournemouth!”

This football lark can be testing at times. By all means take the piss out of our main rivals, but not lovely and cuddly – hardly rivals to us, hardly anything to us – benign Bournemouth.

It was lovely to see Our Ruben back in royal blue again. For a big man, he certainly has a lovely touch. But he struggled a bit to get into the game. He played a deeper role than usual. He was pulled back – one of my most hated aspects of modern day football – so many times. So frustrating. It was his lazy pass to the covering Gallagher that set up David Brooks but his shot thankfully glided past the left-hand post.

A lad behind me roused the away contingent with a loud “Zigger Zagger” and the noise leapt a few levels.

“We’re The Only Team In London.”

A fine save from Mendy thwarted Bournemouth from close in. Alonso, urged to “shoot” by us, did so but his effort whistled wide.

Zappacosta – last seen by my eyes at Reading in 2019 – replaced Our Callum, Baba Rahman – just wow – replaced Alonso and Ugbo replaced Tammy.

Sadly, just after these changes a cross from the right found the head of Emiliano Marcondes and Mendy was beaten.

The crowd went mild.

Our reaction was immediate. A brilliant cross from that man Baba was whipped in immaculately into the “corridor of uncertainty” and the new man Armando Broja took a neat touch and avoided a Tammy-like entanglement of limbs to slam the ball home. Broja then charged down a clearance from the Bournemouth ‘keeper but the ball whizzed past the far post. Shortly after, that very rare thing; a crisp near post Chelsea corner – from Ross Barkley – that cleared the first man and Ike Ugbo was able to head home from mere inches.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 2.

In the final fifteen minutes, the home team made many changes and the game petered out.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea players soon headed for the tunnel. No signs of celebration at all. After all, it was only Bournemouth right? Fans take note.

I walked back to the car just before the rain came again. It took me an age to get out onto the main road out of town. But within the hour I had retraced my steps and was winding my way down the intense bends of Zig Zag Hill once again, the night now dark, my headlights on full beam.

“Steady as you go Chris.”

I was home at midnight and I was immediately reminded of my midweek football routine.

Get home. Try to relax a bit. Scan my photos. Chose one for Instagram. One for Facebook maybe. Check a few social media posts. Watch the game highlights on YouTube. Work in the morning. Bollocks. Head full of football. Try to get some sleep…

…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.





Tales From The Final Tie

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2021.

Since We Last Spoke.

My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.

“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”

Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.

Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.

The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.

I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :

Why?

It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.

Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.

But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.

How?

It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.

I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.

The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.

But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.

Football still didn’t seem too important to me.

The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.

A small victory for me, and I needed it.

Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.

In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.

It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.

Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.

But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.

Was the world changing?

On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.

I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.

With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.

Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.

In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.

It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.

I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?

My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.

Thomas Tuchel?

A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.

Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.

On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.

I know what I found most enjoyable.

Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”

Pizazz? Style?

I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).

Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.

(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)

I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.

So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.

But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.

Let’s talk about the FA Cup.

For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.

After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.

Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.

The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.

“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”

“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”

“Bugger me.”

“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”

“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”

The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.

“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”

“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”

The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.

“Like a bloody river, Ted.”

After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal.  There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.

The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.

“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”

There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.

With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.

As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.

“That goal, Ted.”

“What of it?”

“It looked offside to me.”

“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”

“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”

On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.

This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.

“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”

I laughed with them.

The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.

It has been my life.

I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.

“I have missed it badly.”

They both smiled.

And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.

But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?

I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.

I have aired all this before. As well you know.

No pressure, Chelsea.

Vic Woodley.

On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.

Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.

But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.

I vote for Vic Woodley.

I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.

We must pay a visit when normality returns.

Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.


1994 And 2021.

I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.

This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.

We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.

RIP Wycombe Stan.

I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.

The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”

It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.

At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.

At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.

In. Simple.

We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.

Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.

Result. In.

For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :

“I’ve had a good six months.”

There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.

It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.

A Chelsea Gallery.

The Game.

The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.

A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.

“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”

I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.

James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.

So, yes, the team.

Kepa.

James. Silva. Rudiger.

Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.

Mount. Werner. Ziyech.

I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.

And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.

Does anybody like it?

To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.

Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.

With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.

The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.

Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.

After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.

We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.

Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.

Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”

It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.

For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.

Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.  

A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.

Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”

I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”

Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.

For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.

The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.

“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

And counter attack.

Champions of England. You made us sing that.”

Thankfully no mention of a high press.

The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.

At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.

No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.

The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.

Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.

Bollocks.

Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.

The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.

Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.

I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.

“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”

With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.

The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.

A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.

I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.

In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.

I heard a voice inside my head.

“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”

And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.

A red rectangle…

VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.

My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?

Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.

A roar from the other end, no goal.

King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”

I had no answer.

Has anyone?

There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.

Tales From A Crossroads

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.

There had been a break of sixteen long days between our last league fixture away to Leicester City and our home game with Manchester United. It was such a long break that it enabled me to travel to South America and back, but more of that later. And we were now faced with three top notch home games within the space of just ten days.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.

It felt like the start of the second-half of the season.

And how!

These were three huge matches.

Welcome back everyone.

I worked from 7am to 3pm, and then joined PD – the driver – Lord Parky and Sir Les for the drive to London.

“Bloody hell, lads, how long ago was the last home game? Arsenal, wasn’t it? A month ago? Feels like it, too.”

There were a few questions from the lads concerning my trip to Buenos Aires, but the conversation soon dried up and I took the chance to catch up on some sleep on the familiar drive to London. These Monday evening flits to London are typically tiresome, an imperfect start to the week, a tough ask. I enjoyed an hour’s shut-eye. PD made very good time and we were parked-up at the usual place by 5.30pm.

In “The Goose” – it was so good to briefly see Wycombe Stan who is not in the best of health – and in “Simmons” a few people enquired of my trip to Argentina. I could only utter positives about the whole experience. In fact, as I had initially feared when my trip came to fruition, the only negative about my week in Buenos Aires could well be that the modern day English football experience – watered down, moneyed, sedentary, muted, played-out – would pale, completely and utterly, by comparison.

Little did I know that on this night, against Manchester United, my first game back, there was to be such a brutal and harrowing comparison between the Primera Division in Argentina and the Premier League in England.

Argentina 2020 had slowly evolved over the past few years. Ever since I read the Simon Inglis book “Sightlines” in 2000, Buenos Aires was on my radar. As I explained in a recent tale, this wonderful book – concerning various sporting stadia throughout the world – was underpinned with regular chapters in which the author attempted to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five plus professional football stadia in a crazy few days in 1999.

The four chapters were referred to as “Ciudad de los Estadios”.

I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.

A few passages made me smile, a few passages made me think, a few passages made me question my own sanity, my own credibility.

“Maybe I am a train spotter at heart, ticking off the stadiums for no other reason than to say that I’ve seen them. The words of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis came to mind : ‘He who has seen one cathedral fifty times, knows something. He who has seen fifty cathedrals once knows nothing.’ “

“There are more football grounds in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. Not just dozens of ordinary grounds, however, but a whole string of major stadiums, each holding thirty, forty, fifty thousand or more spectators, all within a few square miles of each other. A comment in a Buenos Aires newspaper seemed to confirm as much. It read “we have more stadiums than public libraries. Never has so much knowledge of football been possessed by so illiterate a people.”

“Before I left for the airport, my wife kissed my furrowed brow. ‘Just go with the flow,’ she counselled. ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to them all.’ What did she mean, not get to them all?”

“In 1869, Buenos Aires had 187,000 inhabitants. By 1914, there were over 1.5 million, a figure which would double over the next fifteen years. Most of the immigrants were European, so forming a neighbourhood football club was as natural as unpacking grandma’s pots and pans.”

“There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. I wish I had written that line. But the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano got there first.”

“If there is one thing I love more than a good map it is a great stadium at the end of a long bout of map reading.”

With the kick-off at 8pm, there was more than ample time for a few drinks in both pubs, and some chat with some pals. I’d suggest that the inaugural winter break was originally met with the derision when it was announced for this season – “we need our football!” – but a lovely by-product of it was the chance for me to head off to exotic climes (my jaunt to Argentina was my first-ever holiday in search of winter sun in my entire life) and a few pals took the chance to explore other exotic locations. My break, I know, did me the world of good.

However, I did find it typically English that the subsequent FA Cup fifth round games then had to be squeezed into a midweek slot. Less games here, more games here. What a Jackie Brambles

The team news came through.

Still no Kepa.

Michy up front.

With no other options, Pedro and Willian – the old couple – were the wingers.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kovacic – Kante

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

We made our way to Stamford Bridge on a cold night. I bumped into Rick Glanvill, the club historian, outside the West Stand. We briefly mused about Buenos Aires. Quick as a flash, Rick mentioned Chelsea’s South American tour in 1929 when we played eight games in the Argentinian capital.

I was in with around ten minutes to spare. There was the usual dimming of the lights, some electronic wizardry and flames, followed by the derisory chant from the away section of “what the fookin’ hell was that”?

It was almost a year to the day since United beat us 2-0 in last season’s FA Cup. Since then, we drew at Old Trafford in the league last season, lost to them on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford this season and lost to them in the League Cup in October at Stamford Bridge. And they are a poor team. It felt right that we should get some sort of revenge on them. The last time we beat United was at the 2018 FA Cup Final.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Argentinos Juniors vs. Lanus, Friday 7 February 2020

I spotted two new banners.

In the East Stand, one for Frank Lampard : “Player. Manager. Legend.”

In The Shed : “Peter Bonetti, The Cat.”

Proud to say I put a few bob behind the latter one.

I was genuinely surprised that there was no minute’s silence, or appreciation, for Harry Gregg – a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958 – before the game began.

As always, we attacked the Shed in the first-half and I was generally rather pleased with our play for most of the first half. Our passing and movement – or movement and passing – was fine, and nobody impressed me more than Mateo Kovacic, whose drive from deep was very heartening. We had a little array of chances early on.

Two things to note.

Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.

Harry Maguire and his boots. Yellow. Fucking yellow. Like fucking Bananaman. Ridiculous.

Sadly, N’Golo Kante pulled up in the first quarter of an hour and was replaced by Mason Mount.

The United fans, usually the noisiest season on season, were discernibly quiet. Maybe they were just as embarrassed about Maguire’s boots as I was.

But then the “Rent Boys” chant began and we all tut-tutted in faux outrage.

There was a bit of noise from us in the first part of the game, but nothing to write home about.

The incident between Maguire and Batshuayi on the far touchline passed me by to be honest. I saw a crunch of bodies, but the fine detail was lost. Up came a VAR moment on the scoreboard, but nothing was given. At the time, I had no clue as to who was the aggressor and who was the aggressed.

A lovely move right from our own box, involving yet more lovely passing and movement had us all purring, but a weak finish from Batshuayi – who had started promisingly – caused the first of a few groans throughout the night.

The Willian yellow card seemed appropriate. It looked like a dive from even one hundred yards away.

United, though not dominating at all, came into the game a little. Anthony Martial wasted their best chance of the game when he tamely shot wide of the far post after easily getting behind a defender.

In the dying embers of the first-half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian into oblivion and his snappy cross was glanced in by Martial, who had edged past his marker.

Bollocks.

Here we go again.

We were crestfallen.

Sadly, Batshuayi did not force a save from De Gea as he scuffed a shot from an angle.

Weak finishing and defensive lapses? Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?

Ciudad de los Estadios : Boca Juniors vs. Atlético Tucumán , Saturday 8 February 2020

So, a cruel blow had left us 1-0 down at the break. It seemed that we had been unlucky. We hoped for our luck to improve in the second-half. On came Kurt Zouma for Andreas Christensen, evidently injured in the closing moments of the first period.

Very soon into the second-half, a Willian corner – which cleared the first man! – was headed home by Kurt Zouma, down and low, De Gea no chance. He sped away to the far corner.

GET IN.

Back in it and deservedly so.

But wait. After a few moments, the dreaded VAR was signalled.

What for?

No idea.

We did not know.

After a little wait…”I don’t like this”…no goal.

So, celebrations nullified, the emotions deleted, I stood in a daze.

The annoying thing for me, here, is that the spectators / fans / customers in the stadium were shown a brief repeat of the goal in which I saw a United player sprawl to the floor. But at no time was there a clear and valid reason for the goal being disallowed being shared with those of us in the stadium.

We could only guess.

That cannot be right, can it?

This seemed to harm us, and our play did not flow. The mood among the home fans worsened. I am obviously too naïve to expect the Chelsea supporters to rally behind the team with a barrage of noise, to lift the players and to scare the living daylights out of United. Because it didn’t happen.

And here’s a startling comparison between England and Argentina. Those who read these reports will know that I often make a note of how long it takes for a stadium-wide chant or song to envelope the entire stadium. Often at Chelsea, it can take fifteen minutes – like in this game – or as long as half an hour or even more. In Argentina, in two of the three games, this moment came half an hour before kick-off.

Incidentally, in Argentina, there are songs, often long songs. In Europe we tend to go for short venomous chanting. I prefer the European model.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Racing vs. Independiente , Sunday 9 February 2020

United hit the post from a free-kick and from the ensuing corner, Maguire thumped a header down and past Caballero.

“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”

Bollocks.

These defensive lapses are the trademark of our season. Damn it.

Olivier Giroud, the forgotten man, replaced the miss-firing Michy. Just like with the introduction of Zouma, the substitution seemed to produce an instant hit. Mason shaped to cross from the right and I had spotted the movement of the substitute.

“Go on Giroud, feed him in, feed him in.”

The cross was on the money. An adept stooping header by the substitute, and we were back in it.

GET IN YOU BASTARDS.

Twenty minutes left. We can do this.

We waited for the restart.

Oh no.

Oh no.

VAR.

Fuck this.

A wait.

No goal.

No fucking goal.

We stood silent and still, our emotions having ran their course.

At least, I knew that it was for offside via the TV screen announcement. At least the folk in the stadium had been treated correctly. How nice of them.

In the scheme of things, fair enough.

But for all of these VAR decisions, how much have we lost?

How much?

I’d say nearly everything.

We go to football, not only to support our team, not only to meet up with mates, but for that prospect of losing it when a goal is scored.

That moment. Ecstasy. Limbs. The rush. The buzz. There is nothing like it.

That has been taken away from us in every single game we see.

Many of the spectators around me left. The Bridge seemed dead, lifeless, spent.

Back in Buenos Aires, my new pal Victor had smiled as he said “at least there is no VAR here.”

Even in Argentina, it is hated.

My good friend Rob apologised as he passed me, and would later comment on “Facebook.”

“I’ve never left a game early. Tonight, I realised what I’d worried about all season. Football is dead. I’ve left roughly fifteen minutes early. I didn’t even stand to celebrate Giroud’s goal. I don’t actually want to come to football anymore. VAR has done what my ex-wife tried to do for years. Put me off coming to football.”

My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”

“I honestly believe that if we have a fiasco Saturday, even in our favour, that will be my last game. Munich all paid up, but it won’t matter. It’s not in the spirit of the game. If you’re in the house or the pub, I guess it’s great. If like us you’re match going, it’s diabolical.”

In the last seconds of the game, Mason Mount hit the post but by that time nobody fucking cared.

At the final whistle, or soon after, my comment on Facebook was this.

“Football. But with life drained out of it.”

And that is how I felt, and how many felt. It seems that football is trying its best to kill the golden goose. Football resurrected itself after the troubles of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – although I miss the passion of those days, I don’t miss the violence – and football has been at the absolute epicentre of our national identity for ever and ever. England’s sport is not cricket, nor rugby, nor tennis, nor horse racing, nor boxing, nor hockey.

It’s football.

With all its flaws.

But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.

The mood was sombre.

But it was more than that.

I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.

There was disappointment, obviously, that we had succumbed to a poor United team. There is work to do, as we knew from day one. I’m right behind Frank, nothing has changed, there is no fresh news. I love him to bits. His post-match interview was as intelligent and brutally honest, frank, as ever. I want him to succeed so fucking much. The next two games are as huge as they get.

But the over-riding emotion centered on VAR. And that can’t be right. I hate it with a bloody passion.

Outside the West Stand, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with a chap – Ross – to receive a ticket for an upcoming game. Alongside him – blatant name drop coming up – was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, he of “The Commitments”, “The Van” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” It was a pleasure to meet him.

We grumbled about VAR.

Roddy quipped about how scoring a goal is always likened to an orgasm, and now with VAR, even that pleasure is being taken away.

Imagine that, eh?

When is an orgasm not an orgasm?

Fackinell.

I replied.

“Well, with VAR and no orgasms, at least there are plenty of clean sheets.”

I walked back to the car.

A cheeseburger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill” and three – fucking three! – bars of chocolate could not dull the pain of VAR.

I slept like a baby on the way home.

It feels like I am at a crossroads. It seems almost implausible that I can even consider giving up football – Chelsea – but I simply cannot stomach another twenty years of VAR. It is as hideous a prospect as I can ever imagine, but I might – might – walk away.

God only knows I loathe much of modern football as it is. I always thought that it would be the dreaded thirty-ninth game in Adelaide, Beijing, Calcutta or Durban that might be the last straw, but the dynamic has changed since August.

Could I live without Chelsea? Of course I will always be a fan, a supporter, but how could I live without the sanctity of going to games? I shudder to think. Already, many mates go for a drink-up at Chelsea but don’t go in. Is that on the cards for me? I don’t know.

What would I do on weekends?

I’d go to see Frome Town.

I’d collect football stadia.

After all, I have stadiumitis and I have it bad.

The Maracana? Yes please.

The Azteca? Yes please.

Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?

That stadium in Braga with a rock face behind one goal?

I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.

A return to Buenos Aires? Yes. After all, that art deco tower – pure Flash Gordon – at Huracan warrants a trip all by itself.

Yes. I like this.

But life without Chelsea?

Fucking hell.

If – and it is obviously a massive “if”- I decide to walk away, it will be the right decision and the correct decision…

Don’t cry for me.

If anybody feels as desperate as me, please sign this.

https://www.change.org/p/the-premier-league-remove-the-use-of-the-video-assistant-referee-var-from-premier-league-football?recruiter=false&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_term=psf_combo_share_initial&recruited_by_id=21029800-5279-11ea-8486-eb0cd2d9b781&utm_content=fht-19272164-en-gb%3Av13

Tales From High Above And Down Below

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2020.

We reached Bristol Airport at 7pm on the Friday and we soon spotted three familiar Chelsea fans nestled together, pints on the go, awaiting the 8.50pm flight to Newcastle. One of them (from Weston – I think they are all from Weston) used to sit right behind me in The Sleepy Hollow for the best part of ten years, but I never got around to asking his name. We got to know the other two on a flight back from Newcastle in 2015, but again never got around to finding out their names. We joined The Weston Three for a last pint before take-off. All six of us were relishing the trip north. Newcastle is the granddaddy of all away trips. If Goodison is my favourite away stadium, Newcastle is everyone’s favourite away town.

Talk soon turned to previous trips and to mutual friends, and the usual smorgasbord of football banter. Not for the last time on this three-day trip to Tyneside would we be chatting about how we just can’t stop this addiction to travel, to watching live football – the drinking, OK the drinking – and the camaraderie. I mentioned that to many younger fans, football is watched on TV and tablet, in pub or at home, and the nearest involvement some get to active participation is by betting on accumulators.

Not for us. We love being balls-deep in live football. But compared to some, we are novices. Some fans seemingly take it to ridiculous extremes.

One of the Weston Three mentioned that he got to know a rabid Coventry City supporter, sadly now living in a hospice with not long to go, whose trips around England and Europe in search of live football took obsession to a new level. Very often this chap would find himself driving through the night in order to link up games, to meet kick-offs, to get grounds ticked-off the list. In order for this to take place as smoothly as possible, he had three cars parked at strategic places around England to help facilitate quick movement between airports and train stations.

“Bloody hell. I thought I had it bad.”

Parky, PD and I could hardly believe it.

It made my simple collection of the two of them in Frome at just after 6pm that evening pale by comparison.

The easyJet flight left on time, and we landed at Newcastle twenty-five minutes early at 9.30pm. We soon jumped into a sherbet dab, we were soon headed south, soon headed to the wonderful city on the Tyne.

It was superb to be heading over the Tyne Bridge once more.

We were back. At 10.15pm we were booked in.

“It’s bloody magic to be sat here in a lovely hotel in Newcastle on a Friday night, after a good week at work, with good mates, with a cracking weekend to look forward to. Cheers boys.”

To be honest, it felt extra special. I loved the fact that for once my driving only totalled an hour, up over the Mendips, so easy. And now it was time to relax. We could relax further when our pal Foxy, newly-arrived from Dundee, eventually joined us. It was the first time that we had seen him since Budapest in 2018. Since then his hair colour has changed from Russ Abbot ginger to Eminem blonde. It is always a joy to see him no matter where we are. He was down for the corresponding fixture last season too.

The “Becks Vier” was flowing nicely. But we wanted to keep it relatively “light” as we knew we had a heavy day of drinking ahead of us. Again talk was dominated by football fandom rather than plain football itself. Foxy is well-travelled, and he has a little jaunt over to – as he put it – see his “great Uncle Bulgaria” in a few weeks.

He has a Levski vs. CSKA derby lined-up, one of the hottest games in European football. He is going with a lad we both know at Chelsea, who we would later discover was staying in the very same hotel on the southern banks of the River Tyne. It was in fact, just a hundred yards from the apartment where we stayed for the last league game of 2017/18.

Talk of football games, of football cities, of football people, mutual friends, of excessive alcohol intakes.

A year or so back, Foxy and I were talking about going over to East Belfast to see a Glentoran game. Foxy has been a few times, and has even sponsored a game at their Oval ground.

“It’s braw, eh? Nae more than eighty pound. Food. And ye can get blootered. But it’s rough, eh? Efter the gemme, eh hed tae walk through a crime scene tae get tae the chippy.”

He had me howling.

Good old Foxy.

We were up at about 9am on the Saturday and after a leisurely breakfast, we walked over the Millennium Bridge from Gateshead on the south side to Newcastle on the north side. The idea was to hit a few pubs – maybe some new ones – before getting a cab up to St. James’ Park. My camera went into overdrive.

As with our last two visits we settled at “The Slug & Lettuce.”

Newcastle is set on two levels. The Bigg Market and the football stadium at the top of the hill, The Quayside way down below. It works as a city on more than these two levels, though. It has history in abundance, a real working class vibe cuts through it, cracking architecture, the night life is legendary, the locals almost too friendly.

I have said it before…”if I wasn’t a Chelsea fan.”

At bang on 11am, we got the first round in. We settled in a corner at the front of the spacious pub overlooking the river and the famous Tyne Bridge, and then waited for troops to arrive.

We spotted a couple who were sat in the row in front on the plane up. She was a Newcastle supporter, it was her birthday – her uncle was Ollie Burton, a name I can remember from my 1972/73 bubble gum cards, a Newcastle United and Wales player – and we had a giggle.

The day was off to a fine start.

We were then hit with an overwhelming bout of inertia. Different sets of pals from all over the Chelsea Kingdom – and beyond – came to spend time with us and we just decided to stay in the one boozer.

“So much for the pub crawl.”

Eck and his son from Glasgow, Julie from Stafford, Fiona from Bedfordshire, Mark and his family from Westbury, Luke and Aroha from Ruislip, Andy from Trowbridge, his Newcastle mate Russ – featured last season – from Swalwell, Gillian, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Kim and Andy from Kent, Sean from New York, Andy from California, Neil from Belfast, bloody hell it was never-ending.

In the middle of all this was an Everton supporter. Chris lives locally, but is a native of North Wales. He travelled up to a Sunderland vs. Everton game many years ago, met a local girl on the way to the game, fell in love and has remained ever since. I had not met him before. But he is the brother of my great Chelsea pal Tommie, who still lives in Porthmadog. Both Chris and Tommie have travelled to watch football in Buenos Aires in the past two years. And Chris has been giving me valuable insights – and his still usable Buenos Aires travel card from 2018 – over the past two months. It was a pleasure to see him, and to listen to his tales from Argentina.

“My first game was Chacarita Juniors. Everyone warned me not to go. Well rough. But I went. Didn’t regret it. Came out of the train station. And there’s a line of police with sub machine guns. And remember there are no away fans. I just kept my head down and avoided eye contact. I asked a local “stadio?” and he said “solo?” pulling a face as if to say “are you mad?” but it was OK. I got a ticket, I got in.”

Midway through the sesh, I realised I needed to slow down a little. Almost six hours of necking lager could easily leave me too light headed to be of use to anyone.

But damn those “Peronis” were hitting the spot.

The pub was quiet at 11am, by 4.30pm it was full.

Geordie lasses.

Say no more, like.

We caught two cabs up to St. James’ Park. A quick walk past the Alan Shearer statue, underneath the huge Milburn Stand, around to the lift. Up we went. I was clicking away as I walked, eager to capture the small pieces which help to build the whole picture.

The weather was cold but not unbearable. We were three thousand strong, as ever. With Rangers playing on the Friday night, there would no doubt be a few “Weegies” – as Foxy termed them – in our ranks.

This was my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park. A low number compared to many. But until the cheap flights turned my eye a few years back, this was often a game too far for me. It’s a dramatic stadium all right. The roof above seems to be floating in space. Everywhere is cool grey, maybe like the Earl Grey statue at the top of that fine Victorian street in the town centre.

The team lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

It kind of picked itself I guess.

“Local Hero” is so evocative, so Newcastle, it always brings a smile. I like the way it has entwined itself into the St. James’ Park match day experience.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Gallowgate in the first-half. Early on we were dominating and this is how it stayed. But this was all too familiar. Tons of possession, but with very few real chances of note. At times the frustration of Jorginho and Kante, looking for runners, was mirrored by the frustrations among the standing three-thousand behind the Leazes End goal. We were dominating play, but there seemed – already – no way through the massed ranks of Newcastle defenders.

The noise wasn’t great. I’ve never known the Geordies to be so quiet.

Unlike in the past two visits, at least all – or damned near – of the seats were occupied. The protests have seemed to have waned as Steve Bruce has cajoled his team into eking out results in a very pragmatic way.

Then, out of nowhere, Newcastle enjoyed a little spell of possession, and I wondered if our defenders might be caught out, such was their lack of prior engagement.

A punch from Kepa foiled one attack, the crossbar was the saviour soon after.

“Fucksakes Chelsea.”

A high shot from Tammy drew moans from our support. We all want him to succeed, but he just needs to work on the physical side of his game. He needs to toughen up. To ask questions of his markers.

Maybe he just hasn’t got it in his locker.

After a great pass by Reece James, a chance for Kante came to nothing, a weak shot at Dubravka.

And that was that.

My half-time notes on my mobile ‘phone were rather brief.

Reece James had showed willing, N’Golo Kante was full of running, but elsewhere it seemed that we were lacking drive and desire. And St. James’ Park was as quiet as fuck.

Some in our midst had sloped off for a cheeky half-time pint and would not return.

The second-half began, and Willian seemed to dominate the focus of my camera – always a photogenic target with his stops, starts, twists and shots – if not the game itself. As often, his dribbles and runs came to nothing. A few tentative shots whistled past defenders’ legs but also past posts. We were again dominating play, but hardly grinding them down to submission. They were hardly on the ropes.

It was, bluntly, a bloody rotten game of football.

And it was so quiet.

On seventy-minutes, Ross Barkley replaced the very poor Mason Mount. He kept the ball well, and for a few minutes it looked like that he might be able to unlock the door to the defence. I was really disappointed with the wing-play, or lack of it, from Callum Hudson-Odoi.

I lost count of the times I bellowed “get past yer man.”

A chance, of sorts, came Tammy’s way down below us but his off-balance stab ended up as a comical aside.

Reece James hobbled off, Emerson replaced him.

The ball was pumped into the box from out wide and Azpilicueta rose well to cushion a header into Tammy, but his lunge at the ball resulted in a brave save from Dubravka.

I would have liked to have seen Michy alongside Tammy, just to change things a little, but instead there was a straight swap.

By now, everything was grim.

One last chance maybe? A quick break, the ball fell to Emerson. A clear run, a clear sight of goal, but the powerful effort was always going wide.

Bollocks.

The home team had a rare effort on goal as the ninety minutes approached, but Joelinton miscued. It was, I am sure, their only chance of note in the entire second-half.

A 0-0 draw looked the obvious conclusion, the result of a dire ninety-minutes.

“No punch upfront, Gal. No zip. No runners. Nothing.”

Four added minutes were signalled.

I subconsciously began thinking about my first post-game pint.

Callum at last broke through a crowded box to the left of the goal as I watched, but crashed it over.

On ninety-four fucking minutes, fucking Newcastle won their fucking very first fucking corner of the entire fucking match.

Willian headed it out. It came in again.

Slow…motion…the cross…a leap…no Chelsea challenge…the ball was in…

Ninety-four minutes.

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 0.

Fucking hell.

I was numb, as numb as I have felt for ages at football. How had we lost that? How was that bloody possible? They had defended well, but had created very little all game. It was as cruel a finish to a match that I can ever remember.

Ninety-four minutes.

Good grief.

I stood silent for what seemed too long. I could not comprehend it. I was wallowing in the misery of it all.

[inside my head : “at least it means I still care, I haven’t reached the dreaded next stage just yet.”]

Sigh.

A big sigh.

Others drifted away. I was shell-shocked, bamboozled, Loony-Tooned.

Fackinell.

I soon met up with Parky, with PD, with Foxy. By the time we had eventually descended the fourteen flights of stairs that took us to street level, it seemed that we were some of the last to leave the stadium. We found ourselves walking behind the old East Stand – I am that old that I can remember it as the most modern of the stands at St. James’ Park – and we eyed-up a burger van. While PD and Parky got their orders in, I took advantage of the lack of fellow spectators and took a few mood shots of the iconic concrete supports, which I have been meaning to photograph for a while. For all of Newcastle’s fine Victorian buildings, it is also infamous for its fair share of brutalist ‘sixties and ‘seventies architecture. Think “Get Carter” and the car parks and high-rises still visible today. The concreted pillar supports – like the unique concrete crush barriers of the old Gallowgate terrace – tie in with that era.

Back in the day, as the kids say, the little rat run from “The Strawberry” up to the away end, past those pillars, used to be termed “Suicide Alley.”

I can see why.

We made our way slowly down into the town, down into The Bigg Market.

The hamburger was superb by the way; £4 and the best of the season thus far.

The drinking continued, and after a few pints in three more gorgeous pubs in the heart of the infamous Bigg Market – “Filthy’s”, “The Beehive” and “Pumphrey’s” – we were back on track.

I even managed, God knows how, to get the number of a local girl, a local heroine maybe, but there was – just like with Chelsea Football Club at this moment in time – no instant gratification.

Some things don’t happen overnight.

The work in progress continues.

On Tuesday, Arsenal await.

I will see some of you there.

BLUE SKIES HIGH ABOVE THE QUAYSIDE

UP IN THE GODS AT ST. JAMES’ PARK

WAY DOWN BELOW

UNDERNEATH THE EAST STAND

Tales From A New Decade

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2020.

Another decade, another game.

Another game at a snotty kick-off time.

Last season, right after getting back from Budapest, I drove from Somerset to East Sussex and parked at Lewes train station and took the free train in to Falmer where Brighton play their games. It was a perfect arrangement. Talking to my good mate Mac – a long-standing Brighton season ticket holder – at our league game at Stamford Bridge in the early autumn, we found out that Mac and his mates drink in Lewes before games. It looked a fantastic little town. A nice mix of pubs in a good setting. We made plans for a lovely pub crawl before the away game on New Year’s Day. And then the knobheads got involved and ballsed it right up.

The kick-off was changed to 12.30pm.

I hate modern football.

Sigh.

“Maybe next season.”

Brighton is a pretty hefty away trip for The Chuckle Brothers. As a result, New Year’s Eve was a very quiet one for PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me; we all stayed in ahead of the 7.30am start on the first day of 2020.

We were up Brighton Early.

And this represented the first away game that all four Chuckle Brothers would be attending since the season opener at Old Trafford in August.

The roads were super-quiet as I dropped down over Salisbury Plain, past Stonehenge, through Salisbury and its wonderful spire, past the football cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, past Arundel and its impressive castle – where the cricket season always used to start with a game between a Duke of Norfolk XI and a touring team, not sure if it still does these days – and then towards the undulating South Downs and the coastal towns of Littlehampton, Goring, Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Hove. I kept peering to my right to see if I could catch a glimpse of the sea, but everything was out of sight, elusive, mist and sea fog combining to paint everything a subtle grey.

Our game at Luton Town on New Year’s Day in 1980 was drawing a few references on Facebook according to Glenn as I ate up the one hundred and forty miles.

“3-3 draw, right?”

Forty years ago.

“When we were young.”

And I realised that these games of my youth seemed to hold greater resonance than other, recent, games. And I didn’t even go to that one.

Any others worth remembering?

The game on New Year’s Day in 1991; at home to Everton, a 1-2 loss with Pat Nevin playing for the visitors. The importance of this? The last game that both of my parents and myself attended together. We were in the West Stand seats, not so far away from the first game together in 1974.

The one five years ago; that horrific 3-5 loss at White Hart Lane which surely put an end to Jose Mourinho’s more attack-minded ideas in the first part of the 2014/15 season. Lessons were learned that day, and apart from a goal fest at Swansea, our football became tighter and less expansive for the rest of that season. Mourinho. Wonder what ever happened to him?

At 11am, I arrived on time in Lewes. It was just as I remembered it; Tudor houses on the high street, a smattering of cosy pubs, cobbled alleyways, cramped streets, even the train station looked like something out of an Ealing Comedy-era film. I half-expected a steam train to pass through the multi-platformed station. I yearned for a pub crawl.

“Maybe next season.”

We soon alighted at Falmer; it is barely a five-minute journey from Lewes. PD and LP headed off to the away end. Glenn and I made a beeline for a bar outside the East Stand. We met up with Mac and one of his mates bought us pints.

“Top man, cheers.”

I like that Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club is all about community. The bar outside the stadium – as is the bar in the away end – sells solely “Harvey’s” lagers and ales. Their brewery is in Lewes. A fine touch. It was grand to share some chat with Mac and his pals again. Unfortunately, as is so often the case these days, the talk was largely dominated by VAR.

Bleurgh.

We mentioned the 1970 replica shirt that Chelsea would soon be selling as an acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the second most iconic game in our history. I loved that one of Mac’s friends – I am sure that he will not mind me saying that he must be in his ‘seventies – commented that replica shirts should only be worn by players on the pitch.

“I knew I liked you.”

I commented that many of my mates, hardly any of whom buy replica shirts, have highlighted the blue with yellow-striped shorts as key purchases for holidays in Spain, Turkey, Florida and Thailand this summer. They will fly off the shelves, no doubt. I love the idea, as do many evidently, of a plain T-shirt (not cheap, just plain, you know the score) and football shorts in Majorca, Bodrum, Orlando and Koh Samui. For English football fans of a certain disposition, this is classic bar clobber.

The “elderly” Albion fan reminded us all that Brighton had never beaten Chelsea, in league nor cups. I replied that in the two league games that I had seen at their new stadium in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Brighton had generally played well and had been rather unlucky to lose both.

Mac mentioned that the al fresco bar was open as early as 9am.

Glenn warned me : “God, don’t tell the others. We would have to have left at 5.30am.”

I laughed.

“Right, time to go Mac. Stay up, let’s plan for Lewes next season.”

Inside the away end, many were guzzling pints of “Harvey’s.”

I made my way to our seats. Another great location; we were in the second row. After my Arsenal photographs, I was hoping for some half-decent ones this time too.

For the third visit in a row, the stadium was enveloped in mist. This muted the blue of the stadium. But I was reminded how much I like this new build; each stand is linked, but each stand is different. Sloping roofs, different tiers, various levels, curved roof trusses, quirky viewing platforms, infilled corners. It’s a joy.

The teams entered the pitch and the locals heartily joined in with “Sussex By The Sea.”

“So put your best leg forward, my lads.
And time each ball you see.
If you sing the old song.
Well you can’t go wrong.
Of Sussex By The Sea.”

It’s not as stirring as “Z Cars” at old-style Goodison but it does have a certain charm.

I ran through our starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

There were more than a few spares knocking about on Facebook leading up to this game, and there were a few seats unoccupied near us as the game began. I know that it was New Year’s Day and all, but we should be packing Brighton away 100%. It’s so close to our heartland.

Chelsea in the black and orange.

Mmm. I just hoped that the players were easier to pick out by their team mates on this misty and murky – graphite? – afternoon than I could manage. At least the tangerine socks were a reference mark.

Murkiness or not, I soon spotted Mac in his seat behind the Brighton bench with a couple of the lads we had met before the game.

The match began with us attacking the home fans at the northern end.

We looked confident, and played the ball with ease, but it was the home team that enjoyed the first effort on goal with a shot that rattled wide of Kepa’s post. Heading into the tenth minute, and after we had toyed with the Brighton defence on a couple of forays down our left, we won a corner on our right. Willian dropped a cross on to Kurt Zouma’s head – it was a fine leap – and his knock-down allowed Tammy to stab at the ball. His effort was blocked by Aaron Mooy but Captain Dave was on hand to swipe at the ball from very close range.

GET IN.

I caught his leap on film, easy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our next chance fell to a raiding Tammy Abraham, but with Willian pleading for the ball, he chose to shoot. The effort was deflected off target. I nabbed that shot on film too, easy pickings.

Brighton’s towering defender Dan Burn looked in huge discomfort after a challenge with young Reece James and was stretchered off.

We seemed to dominate the game but with few clear chances. I liked the directness of Christian Pulisic, who returned to the fray after missing a couple. These Christmas games – I am counting the Tottenham one – are tiring for fans and players alike, so it is no wonder there has been a little squad rotation. Kante looked good, Mount not so. Zouma and Rudiger coped with everything that was thrown at them, though Toni had a right old go at Kurt after the latter decided to head a deep cross out for a corner. We didn’t hear a shout and we were yards away. A bit naughty that, Toni. I don’t think Kurt did anything wrong at all.

And it was quiet enough to hear a shout. By God was it quiet. Not only from the home fans but from us too. We had 3,000 there – more or less – and there were a couple of noticeable instances during that first-half when it seemed the entire stadium was taking part in a sponsored silence.

During the second sustained silence, I couldn’t take it any longer.

I bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA” and people probably heard me in Glyndebourne, Rottingdean, Ditchling and Walmington On Sea.

It certainly caused the colony of seagulls that were permanently perched high on the roof truss to my right no end of fluster. Four of them flew off and into each other, three others fell off their perch, and two others shat on the spectators in the tiers below.

Truly, the lack of noise was shocking. When I finally decide to give up in “X” years’ time – the cumulative effect of the “drip, drip” negatives of ridiculous kick-off times, knobhead fans, VAR bullshit, 39th game rumours, World Cups in Qatar, players on weekly wages that I could possibly retire on, et-bloody-cetera – the first-half at Falmer will be nestled in there somewhere.

I just looked around and wondered how so many fans, supporters, devotees, loyalists could make such little noise.

Inside my head : “Estudiantes versus Defensa Y Justicia in Del Plata can’t come fucking quick enough.”

On the pitch, a rare shot on goal from the home team caused us to worry.; a swipe from distance from Leandro Trossard was one-handed away by Kepa.

Phew.

Pulisic kept running at the home defence and I remember a couple of efforts in that first-half.

As the game re-started, Pulisic again looked eager and dangerous, twice running directly at the home defence and causing problems. A Reece James effort was deflected for a corner. The industrious Kante – one blind-sided run was fantastic but not spotted – struck at goal but did not trouble Mat Ryan, and for a while it looked that we would increase our lead.

I noticed the similarity between Lewis Dunk and the really stupid one – Neil – from “The Inbetweeners.”

After a beer or two at half-time, and with Chelsea attacking us, thankfully the noise increased a little.

“Here for the Chelsea.”

Another bloody chant I can’t stand.

“We’ve won it all.”

Ditto.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace.”

The fact that this hints that there is a good Crystal Palace out there somewhere makes this chant redundant.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea. Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

On the pitch, the minutes ticked by and we began to fade, while Albion grew stronger. We were begging for a second goal to make it safe.

On sixty-five minutes, the manager surprisingly replaced Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi and not long after, Mount was replaced by Mateo Kovacic. It seemed that we were going for the point; pragmatic football, how Mourinho. Whatever did happen to him?

A Brighton free-kick way out on the right was hit low into the box, and after a couple of bobbles, the ball ended up six yards out with a Brighton player about to pounce.

“This is it. Bollocks.”

Thankfully the shot from Aaron Connolly was miraculously clawed away by Kepa, who tends to specialise in these low swoops to his left and right. It was a top class save and was warmly applauded.

With six minutes of time to go, and with many around me whispering concerns that we were deteriorating badly, and very likely to concede, a corner was lobbed into the box. Dunk rose in a similar position to Zouma in the first-half but the header ended up further out, and bouncing. Substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh rose to the challenge and carried out a ridiculous bicycle lick which surprised everyone and flew into the net.

Bollocks.

The home support made a right racket.

A raiding Hudson-Odoi lifted a curler just over the bar and we groaned three thousand groans. Tammy was having a mixed game, playing well in patches, as if his confidence ebbs and flows at will. His hold up play can be good at times, but he needs to build on that. I liked the look of Reece James, and he will get much better. We kept trying to score a second, but it was Kepa who saved our blushes with another excellent save late on from Neal Maupay, this time stopping a shot with his left boot.

Phew.

At the end, there was applause for the team but everything was muted, and toned down a little. Toni Rudiger noticeably shooed away our applause with a palm raised as if to say “not worthy” (pictured).

But this was a fair result. I have to be honest, I quite enjoyed it, and I am not honestly sure why. We seldom played as well as in parts of recent games, yet I still loved the experience of an away game, the thrill of an early goal, the cut and thrust, the closeness to the pitch.

After, we killed time with a beer or two in the roomy away concourse to let the train station queues die down. The consensus was certainly “fair result”. I never really get too involved on “social media” immediately after a game but a comment by a Chelsea supporter in which the performance was termed a “debacle” certainly stirred me to comment.

You can guess my thoughts, eh?

A new decade, but no debacle.

At about 3.45pm, we caught the train back to Lewes. On the drive home, we stopped at Arundel for a leisurely – two hours, how European – meal with a drink or two. There was a little chat about the game, in the train, in the car, in the pub. This project is still on course, Frank is learning as he goes, just as we had known from day one. There will be mistakes, but this is to be expected. Frank is no fool. I am confident.

“Nothing to see here.”

Of course, we loved it that Tottenham lost at Southampton, and we did not mind one iota that Manchester United lost at Arsenal.

We ended the day in fourth place and five points clear of the rest.

As the other three slept, I drove on and on and on. I reached home, eventually, at just after 9pm. We had all agreed that it had been a top day out.

Next up, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and thoughts of 1970, where it all began for many of us.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Temperance

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 December 2019.

At just before seven o’clock in the morning, I made my way into the darkness. I stood, alone with my thoughts, hood up on my jacket, a light drizzle in the air. I was waiting for Glenn, the day’s designated driver, to arrive to pick me up ahead of the Boxing Day game against a slightly rejuvenated Southampton. I heard the village church bell’s strike seven. I wondered what was in store for us.

Glenn duly arrived, with PD alongside him. We soon picked up Lord Parsnips and were on our way. As we headed east, the rain increased making driving difficult for him. I had not seen Glenn for a while; the last time was on the aborted away game against the same opposition in early October. With Glenn driving, this allowed me to indulge in a few drinks – OK, a sesh – for the first time at Stamford Bridge all season. The stretch of largely non-alcoholic home games stood at fourteen. There had been the odd pint here and there, but nothing too wild.

Fourteen games. Bloody hell. That has to be a record.

So, I had been relishing this for a while.

I had awoken early, at 4.30am, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again. My early morning thoughts, evidently, were about pints as well as points.

The rotten rain continued all of the way to London. At just before ten o’clock, Glenn dropped us off at West Brompton tube station and we soon caught a train to Putney Bridge. I had arranged to meet some friends from Germany at “The Eight Bells” and as the train left Parson’s Green, I looked ahead to the compartment in front and there they were.

Ben, Jens and Walt.

The day was off to a good start. Both Ben and I work in logistics. It was perfectly logical, therefore, for us to be on the same train.

I have known Ben for a good six or seven years. He used to work for a company that assists with getting our office furniture delivered in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I managed to get tickets for the three of them for the Stoke City game just after Christmas in 2017, and Ben and Jens bumped into us after the Crystal Palace away game during the Christmas break last season. It was great to see them again. For this game, a friend had come up trumps for three tickets together in the Matthew Harding Lower.

At about 10.10am, I was the first one to enter “The Eight Bells.”

It felt good to be able to get the beers in.

We soon settled in our corner and the drinking, and not too much thinking, began. Jason Cundy popped in before his busy day ahead working for the Chelsea media team. I quickly pulled up his photo from 1991/92 to show the visitors. On this trip, the lads were again going to the darts on the Friday, and they had picked the West Ham United vs. Leicester City game on the Saturday. Ben supports Borussia Mönchengladbach, Jens supports Hamburg and Walt supports Bayern Munich. I did edge towards asking the three of them which English team they follow but Walt’s answer “not Arsenal” was good enough for me. We were joined by Mark from The Netherlands and his sister Kelly from High Wycombe, who we had not arranged to meet, but who often pop in. Next in were three from the US; Mehul and Neekita from Michigan, Matt from Illinois.

So, modern day Chelsea; England, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States. During the game, I would bump into a mate from Thailand who comes over once or twice a season.

All of us together, all sharing a beer, all having a laugh.

Good times.

I know that overseas supporters often get a rough ride at Chelsea – and elsewhere – but I get bored reading about it. I know plenty of passionate and clued-up foreign supporters of our club. The problem, at Stamford Bridge specifically, are the tourists – not Chelsea fans – who add us to the list of things to do in London without doing any research or background checks on what is likely to occur at games. That said, it still saddens me that many of the fans from overseas supporters’ clubs still buy game day scarves; surely they are aware of the hatred of these monstrosities?

In February, the boot will be on the other foot.

Let me explain.

I recently booked a flight to Buenos Aires to catch as many games as I can – but no darts, cough cough – and it will be interesting to see how I am treated by the locals.

Why Argentina? Why Buenos Aires?

It is no secret that I love visiting different football stadia, and I am a big fan of Simon Inglis, who has been the doyen of football architecture in the UK for decades. His book “Sightlines” (2000) featured stadia around the world and not just football; stadia devoted to baseball, cricket, rugby union among others are painstakingly detailed. However, underpinning the entire book – every couple of chapters – is the author’s attempt to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five professional football stadia as he can in a crazy few days. This entranced me all those years ago, and I recently re-read it all again. And it started a train of thought.

I wanted to experience South America and I wanted to experience, for sure, South American football.  I craved Argentina. It is, undoubtedly, one of the last remaining countries where passionate, to the point of irresponsible and bordering on violent, support still exists. I wanted to delve deep into Buenos Aires but I soon realised that their season runs concurrently with ours and so that would be difficult. I couldn’t realistically plan to miss a few Chelsea games, although I have done so in the past.

This Chelsea thing. I’ve got it bad, right?

So, thoughts turned to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Theirs is a summer season. I tentatively looked at going over to see Flamengo or Fluminense or Botafogo or Vasco da Gama this summer, but Baku took over.

And then, it dawned on me that for the first time ever, there would be a winter break in English football in 2019/20. This meant that there would be a window of opportunity to visit Argentina. I looked at the dates. I preliminarily booked two weeks off in February to cover all eventualities. Around ten days ago, the TV games were firmed up for the Premier League reaching into February, and our free weekend would come between an away game against Leicester City and a home game with Manchester United.

I honed in on the Primera Division games planned for the weekend of Saturday 8 February, knowing that there would be a spread of games over four or five days.

I threw caution to the wind and booked my flights and I booked a hotel.

With superb timing, the very next day – Christmas Eve – that weekend’s games were confirmed and it meant that I would, hopefully, get to see four games, probably five, during my stay.

Friday : Estudiantes vs. Defensa Y Justicia.

Saturday : Lanus vs. Newell’s Old Boys.

Sunday : Independiente vs. Arsenal Sarandi and River Plate vs. Banfield.

Monday : Huracan vs. Aldosivi.

And it got me thinking about football tourism. I began to question why the Premier League seems to be the main destination for visitors outside our national boundaries. Is it because of our historical role as the birthplace of the sport? Is it because of the way the Premier League is marketed? Is it because of the language? Everybody speaks English, right? Is it because, by and large, we are a friendly lot? I do not know of the figures, but English football has always attracted visitors from Europe, but it seems to be the main footballing destination for visitors outside Europe too. Yet, for me, there are valid alternatives for visitors from Brisbane, Beijing, Bangkok and Baltimore. Certainly for a more visceral experience, visitors from distant lands might be better placed to visit the leagues of Germany and Italy or even the former communist countries of the old Eastern Bloc. The noise and intensity. The real deal. Not some watered down version. Because I will say it, yet again. Apart from away games, following Chelsea these days gets quieter and quieter with every passing season. And fans at Old Trafford, The Emirates and other venues say the same.

How about a Belgrade derby, a match in Moscow or a Legia Warsaw vs. Widzew Lodz battle?

Thought not. I think those games might be just a little outside many peoples’ comfort zones. I am keen to hear if Borussia Dortmund supporters are getting slightly weary of all the football tourists heading over to be part of “The Yellow Wall” which has to be a bit of a cliché by now. And what of the thoughts of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? There must be just as many football tourists who plot up at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu as at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge these days?

Of course it could be a double-edged sword all of this. A quick immersion in to the passionate and noisy nature of Argentinian football might make me realise how anaemic our football has become. A couple of mates, seasoned travellers themselves – Tommie from Porthmadog in North Wales and Foxy from Dundee in Scotland – have assisted in my plans for Buenos Aires, and two others, who I have not yet met, have both declared that it is the best place to watch football these days.

Watch this space.

We popped over the road to “The Temperance” and the drinking continued. Mark, who is local to the area despite having lived in The Netherlands for ages, spoke of how the pub used to be a snooker hall, and how he remembers playing there many years ago.

The Temperance.

What a great name for a boozer. None of us fancied joining any latter day temperance movement, though, and the drinking continued at a pace.

On the drive to London, we had briefly touched on Southampton. Not so long ago, it seemed that Southampton, Norwich City and Watford were certs for relegation, but the Saints had shown a sudden resurgence under Ralph Hassenpfefferstadenschnitzelheimerhuttel. None of us were making grandiose comments about a sure fire win, despite the magnificence of our play at Tottenham.

This was Chelsea, after all.

On the final few hundred yards to the stadium, the rain had stopped but the skies were dull and full of cloud.

OK, the game…once again : “do I have to?”

Please bear in mind that this was a very poor match from start to bloody finish and I had been knocking back “Birra Moretti” and “Peroni” since 10am, so this one isn’t going to win any prizes.

Here goes.

My guess after Tottenham was that the 3/4/3 might well be replaced for the standard 4/3/3 but Rudiger, Zouma and Tomori kept their places.

We lined up as below –

Arizzabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kante – Jorginho – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Sleepy Hollow lined up as below –

Chris – Alan – Glenn – PD

The old team were back together again for the first time since Brighton in September.

Southampton had a full three thousand, an easy away game for them. Rather than their usual red and white stripes, they showed up in a waspish black and yellow. The “Munich Two” were involved, with Ryan Bertrand starting but Oriel Romeu only on the bench.

Chelsea again dominated possession early on but were met with a solid wall of deep-lying midfielders and a solid defence. It was clear that we needed a little intuition and some pace out wide to get through the massed ranks of Southampton players. They were solid and defended tenaciously. It was like trying to manoeuvre a way through a variant of The Terracotta Army.

“They shall not pass.”

Soon into the game a beam of sunlight lit up a small section of the East Upper, but this also exposed the fact that there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. And the absent foreign supporters from all over the world surely couldn’t be held totally responsible for every single one of those.

Our build up play was slow and ponderous, and it took an age for our first shot on target of note. My camera was hardly used in the first part of the game, but I miraculously caught Callum Hudson-Odoi’s swipe at the ball which was deflected wide.

The game struggled to get out of first gear.

Ten minutes later, a Southampton attack down our left flank resulted in Michael O’bafemi  – the young Irish lad – being allowed to twist into space and we watched as he ripped a fine effort high past Kepa to give the visitors a surprising lead, and a blow to us.

Bollocks.

The Southampton players celebrated down below us, the gits.

Was there a reaction?

Not really.

The crowd stood and sat in some sort of Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, peas and carrot induced torpor, and the players looked out of sorts too. It was brewing up to be another frustrating match at Stamford Bridge. The moans and grumbles continued throughout the first half as we struggled to break down the resolute defence.

I took a photo of my pal Rob, sitting a few rows behind me, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his very first game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Southampton, 1969.

He was with his son Joe.

Well done Rob. Fantastic stuff.

Down below us on the Stamford Bridge pitch, there was stagnation. It was all very dull and all very predictable. There was no spark. It was shocking stuff. We hardly caused the Southampton ‘keeper to make a save in anger. There was a real reluctance to shoot on target and the extra wide men simply did not deliver.

Sigh.

At the start of the second-half, Frank reverted to a 4/3/3 as Mason Mount came on to replace Kurt Zouma. We hoped for some forward runs, some penetration, and soon into the second period, my infrequently-used camera miraculously captured our second real attempt on goal. Tammy Abraham was set free but lashed wide from an angle, only bothering the side netting.

Southampton became a little more adventurous and then Hudson-Odoi struck from outside the box, but the ball touched the top of the net, and the Saints ‘keeper was untroubled. By now, the mood in the home camp was deteriorating.

My very first Boxing Day game at Stamford Bridge came along as late as 1992. Until then, with no car and few local Chelsea mates that I knew, and with my parents solidly staying at home on every Boxing Day, and with no train service to London, I had been unable to attend a single game on all other Boxing Days. When I eventually did attend a game, it felt as if I was attending some sort of “Londoners only” event, a special match for invited guests only. It felt lovely. On that occasion – I have written about it before – I managed to smuggle my father’s bulky camcorder into the East Upper and my over-riding memory of that day – enhanced by playing the ten minutes of film that I shot – was the real increase in noise (clapping, shouts, voices from the crowd, encouragement) as the ball was sent into the Southampton half. In those days, it was a massively different style of football and much of it involved midfield battles. But as soon as there was a sniff of an attack, the crowd were on it and involved. Even in the East Upper.

In 1992, the gate was 18,344 but it felt as though everyone present was there to support the team. We had won nothing in twenty-one years and a trophy was still five years away, but it felt as though we were all in it together.

On Boxing Day in 2019, any fan involvement was not worthy of the name.

The game continued in front of a quickly worsening atmosphere.

Christian Pulisic came on for a very poor Hudson-Odoi.

Nathan Redmond should have made it 2-0 but Kepa saved well after a quick break.

Groans.

With twenty minutes or so remaining, the dangerous Redmond finished off a long Southampton move with a delicate touch past Kepa.

Chelsea 0 Southampton 2.

Fackinell.

Pedro replaced Willian late on.

Pulisic created the final shot on goal, but typically off target, screwing a low shot past the right hand post.

By this time, the atmosphere around me was caustic and abrasive.

I wanted to go home.

Sadly, this was another woeful performance. Whereas a couple of months ago, match-going fans were supremely positive with the way things were going, now many have changed their tune. Fair enough, each to their own. But this is still a long term project and we need to stick with it. And I’d like to see a more positive atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, but that’s just me.

Postscript 1 :

Glenn would later tell me that while he was waiting in the concourse with Les from Melksham before our match, the Tottenham vs. Brighton game was on TV. As Tottenham scored a second goal, a voice – a Chelsea fan, from England – was heard cheering. Les reprimanded him, rather strongly.

“What are you doing?”

“He’s in my fantasy team.”

I hate modern football.

Postscript 2 :

On the two other recent occasions of Chelsea losing at home to poor teams – West Ham United and Bournemouth – at least wins on both occasions for Frome Town helped raise my spirits slightly. On this occasion, no such luck; a 4-1 loss at Les’ Melksham Town.

Postscript 3 :

In the after game interview, involving Jason Cundy pitch side with Frank, there were no punches pulled. But Frank took everything on the chin. He answered all of the questions honestly and without serving up silly excuse after silly excuse. I totally admire his approach in these interviews. I am longing for us to turn the corner. For him, for all of us.

Postscript 4 :

At the halfway stage in the league season, we are in fourth place.

See you at Arsenal.