Tales From A Long Hot Summer

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 August 2018.

Picture the famous opening sequence of “The Simpsons” and the scene where we see Bart in detention and writing on the chalkboard. Ahead of this match report, I am Bart Simpson and I am writing :

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

In the build-up to this game, there were the same feelings that I had experienced in recent years’ Community Shield games. In a nutshell, I was supremely underwhelmed by the prospect of having to schlep over to Wembley yet again for this seemingly regular curtain raiser. I remember getting pretty excited about my first one, way back in 1997 when – guess what? – we lost on penalties to Manchester United. And then we went to more and more and more and more. I can’t say I even enjoyed the few we have won too much.

We had set off early. Glenn’s mate from Berlin, Ulf, was with us, and as Glenn drove up the M4, I explained to him about the history of the Charity Shield and Community Shield. I told him that it hadn’t always played between the previous season’s champions and cup winners. In its early years, it was played between amateurs and professionals; what a novel concept. I had a vague recollection of Stamford Bridge holding a few of the first ones. I remember seeing photographs of us parading the FA Cup before the 1970 Charity Shield against Everton at Stamford Bridge. Images of our 1955 win are rarer. Our record is hardly one of legend :

1955 : won

1970 : lost

1997 : lost

2000 : won

2005 : won

2006 : lost

2007 : lost

2009 : won

2010 : lost

2012 : lost

2015 : lost

2017 : lost

Our thirteenth shield was one in which I felt an over-riding sense of duty to attend. I would have been riddled with guilt had I not bothered with it. At least it was just £20. But, really, it was all about seeing the chaps again and slowly, slowly getting back in to the swing of things.

On the drive up to London, we were only in the car for around thirty minutes when I became embroiled in a series of text messages regarding match tickets for future games. From that perspective, I was back into it. I love nothing more than planning away days, sorting out hotels, snapping up spare tickets and suchlike. Coming up, we have overnight stays in Huddersfield and Newcastle coming up.

It gets me out of the house, eh?

Glenn made good time. We were parked up at Barons Court at 11am. However, disruption of the Circle and District Lines messed up our plans to head up to Paddington for an abbreviated pub crawl. In the end, we took a cab from South Kensington. At least, it meant that we were able to give Ulf a little tour of West London. Our route took us right through Hyde Park. As we neared the Royal Albert Hall, I was reminded of my first ever visit to that wonderful venue back in June, just as the summer was warming up, when I saw Echo And The Bunnymen on a sultry Friday night. It was a fine gig – yet again one of my match reports includes music and football – and I even bumped into a Chelsea mate, quite unannounced, halfway through it. After the gig, I was slowly making my way back to the nearest tube when a couple of chaps who had been to the gig were chatting about where to go for a drink. I mentioned that there was a pub tucked away behind a main road, and – without really thinking – joined them as they crossed the road. I fancied one more pint for the road, but as I entered the pub, there was a moment of clarity when I realised the difference in football and music, or at least music on this particular occasion. With Chelsea, after a game, if I had bounced into a pub with two strangers we would have bought each other drinks and nothing would have been made of it. Here, there was a distinct difference. It would have felt odd joining these two strangers at the bar. I did an about turn and headed back to my hotel.

Just an example of the kinship that exists at Chelsea – and nothing else in my life is really comparable.

“Discuss.”

Our first stop was “The Sussex Arms”, much-loved by Chelsea fans from Reading, Swindon, Bristol and all-stations west who use Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent terminus as their gateway into London. A quick pint there and a chat with a few Chelsea season ticket-holders from my neck of the woods; a couple of villages in the shadow of the Mendips, Kilmersdon and Clutton. Then chat with Paul from Swindon and Paul from Reading, who spoke about his brief appearance on Arsenal Fan TV en route to Dublin.

From there, we marched up to a pre-Wembley favourite, “The Victoria” where I enjoyed the first domestic Peroni of the season. Outside, I chatted to Dan and Cliff. We had heard that we had sold virtually all of our 30,000 tickets but City had only sold around 20,000 of theirs. But it is what it is. I was sure that if the game had been held at Old Trafford, as a geographical equivalent, we would have struggled to sell 10,000. Cliff and I remembered the 2006 Community Shield at Cardiff against Liverpool when the red half was packed, and we barely had 15,000 in the stadium.

From there, a quick walk up to “Fountains Abbey” where Alan, Gary and Ed were drinking. Handshakes all round. The team were back together again. I spent a little time with my mate Jim, who I have got to know over the past few seasons, and who remains one of the wittiest people I know…on Facebook and in real life. He spoke of his growing Chelsea programme collection and of his long-suffering girlfriend Lisa.

I am not sure what the collective noun is for a group of fifty-year old blokes in polo shirts and shorts – a “stretch” maybe? – but in the heat it was the only way to go. And mighty fine we looked too.

From there, Parky, PD, Ed and I had time to pop in to the famous “Sports Bar” at Marylebone Station, where we bumped into five or six of The Usual Suspects – aka “the drinkers” – outside in the afternoon sun. I suspected that a few of them might struggle to make the match.

We caught the 2.27pm train, and I bumped into Rich who I last saw in Perth.

On the drive up to London, I promised not to mention Wembley Stadium and 1966 too much.

We were inside, high up above the south-east corner flag but thankfully out of the sun, with around five minutes to go. The timings were virtually the same as for the Cup Final in May.

Yes, it was a hot one alright. Ironically, Glenn and I had missed the height of the English summer while we were enjoying a very pleasant Antipodean Winter, but it has certainly been a very hot one this year. It was a summer, though, where I – somewhat predictably – failed to warm too much to the World Cup, for reasons that are probably well known by most. Was I thrilled by England’s progress to the semi-finals? If I am perfectly honest, “no, not really.” I generally gave the tournament a wide berth, though I did enjoy a few games. But wasn’t the Russian World Cup (and the one in Qatar) meant to be the one that a lot of people were dead against when the decision was announced in 2010?

FIFA collusion, Russian hooliganism, racism in the stands. I never ever really bought into it from the start. As for Qatar, and with it the disruption of the European leagues before and after, the horrible working conditions of many of the immigrants being used to build the stadia, and the fact of games being played in ridiculous conditions, well I am certainly boycotting that one in 2022.

Oh, and another thing FIFA. How come England are never mentioned as a host nation. Since 1966, Mexico will have held the competition three times (1970, 1986, 2026), the USA twice (1994,2026 – not bad for a country that has only really woken up to the World’s favourite sport in the past two decades) and Germany twice (1974 and 2006).

Feel guilty, FIFA?

No. I thought not.

Anyway, to sum it all up, in Sydney on the evening of Saturday 14th July 2018, while England played Belgium in the third/fourth place play-off, it was being shown in a crowded Irish pub, and both Glenn and I hardly watched more than ten seconds of it.

Club over country, or at least club over FIFA every time for me.

Down below us, I felt for the thousands of Chelsea supporters in the lower tiers, exposed to the bleaching sun. away to my left, there was a huge expanse of empty seats in the upper tier. Down below were the sky blue shirts of the City fans. The teams entered the pitch. Two flags were passed around the lower tiers.

The Chelsea team?

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We enjoyed the larger portion of the ball in the first-half, though found it difficult to get either behind Manchester City or between them. We held the ball well and picked out passes. But it was soon evident that City were happy to soak up the pressure as we struggled to find killer balls in the scorching heat.

There was no noise from anyone in the Chelsea end. Everyone was sat. There was no sense of occasion or any discernible enjoyment either. I looked over at Ulf – “I’m not really a football fan” – and wondered what on Earth he made of it all.

The track suited Sarri – with his belly stretching the Nike training top – reminds me of the Kray Twins gone pub casual, and it is quite a harrowing image. Alongside him, Guardiola looked like his son, back from a night out with the lads.

City started with Riyad Mahrez. He would have been a good addition to our team. Oh well.

After just a quarter of an hour, we gave up possession way too easily and backed off from Sergio Aguero, allowing him to pick his spot and drill a low one past Caballero.

The first “bollocks” of the season.

We still had most of the ball – pass, pass, pass – but Caballero was called into action to rob Sane when he was clean through.

On the half-hour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, clearly one of our more eager performers, curled a shot over. He followed it up soon after with another shot. All eyes were on him. We see him as a great hope for this season.

“No pressure, son.”

The torpor was evident in the stands all around me. I had reached half-time without joining in with a single song, although to be honest, I can hardly remember a song in the first place.

At the age of fifty-three, I was turning into the football fan that I had always hated.

Sitting, not standing, silent not singing.

I kept saying to myself “it’ll be different in Yorkshire next Saturday.”

And of course it will be.

It was the Willy Caballero show in the second-half as a number of agile stops, blocks and saves stopped Manchester City from adding to their tally. However, on around the hour mark, a clinical pass found that man Aguero again and he was able to steer another low shot past Caballero to make it 2-0.

The City fans roared, and we slumped further into our seats.

On the hour, on came Danny Drinkwater and Willian (who had been serenaded during his warm up with virtually the first Chelsea song of note the entire day) in place of Fabregas and Hudson-Odoi.

Tammy Abraham replaced the lacklustre Morata, but in all fairness the Spaniard had received hardly any service the entire match.

At last a rare Chelsea song, the horrible “We’ve Won It All “ dirge.

And then, the inevitable –

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

Victor Moses replaced Pedro.

At the death, Tammy went close, and then our boy Willy denied Aguero once more.

On another day, it could have been 4-0.

2018 : lost

Outside, waiting for the train at Wembley Stadium station, the sun was relentless. I can only imagine how horrific the playing conditions must have been. There had been several drink breaks during the game (as indeed there was for us before it).

Back at Marylebone, I chatted first to Neil Barnett, just back from a trip over to the US, and then Clive Walker, who still looks as fit and trim as ever.

Neil and I were both philosophical after a disjointed performance. But we knew that we have seen such riches in recent years, that it is not hard to feel that “after Munich, so what?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll still be there next week” I said.

Clive mentioned that he thought the game against Lyon would be vital to get more practice in before Huddersfield and the new league programme. But I have a feeling that the Sarri project might take a while to come to fruition.

Do we have the players to make it work? Watch this space.

See you all in West Yorkshire.

IMG_0100

 

Tales From The Rising Sun

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 May 2018.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun public house on London’s Fulham Road on 10 March 1905. Some one-hundred and thirteen years later, the main bar of the same pub, now named The Butcher’s Hook, was filling up slowly ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, and I was alongside two friends from my home town in Somerset, Glenn and Francis. I had planned a little pub-crawl based around the stadium, but PD and Lord Parky chose to spend the pre-match in The Goose. Glenn, Francis and I had started off with a drink in the Copthorne Hotel – a gentle start to the afternoon at about 1pm, and a very brief chat to Ron Harris and Gary Chivers – before stepping over the road at the pub on the corner of Fulham Road and Holmead Road. I remember when it used to be called the Stamford Bridge Arms in the ‘eighties. I recalled one summer morning when I called in to the ivy-covered offices between the forecourt and the East Stand to get my membership card sorted for the upcoming season and seeing Robert Bates, our Ken’s son, stopping in for a lunchtime pint in the very same pub. On this occasion, decades later, while I supped on one of only two pints of lager that I was allowing myself, we spotted Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s Director of Communications, chatting to some others a few feet away. Jason Cundy was nearby too. It certainly felt like we were on a very important piece of terra firma.

Glenn had spoken to Francis about the day that he saw his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1978, and how the forecourt has changed since then. And I can remember Francis and I posing for a photograph on the same forecourt in front of The Shed turnstiles ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in 1991. That was Francis’ first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – a fantastic 4-2 win, we watched from the old West Stand seats – and he has seen quite a few Chelsea vs. Liverpool matches since, sometimes alongside me, sometimes elsewhere. For those who have not sussed it yet, Fran is a Liverpool fan – and a very fine close friend – and I am always happy when he is able to watch his team at Stamford Bridge.

In seven games from 1991 to 2012, he was yet to see a Liverpool victory.

1990/91 : Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

1991/92 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

1992/93 : Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

1995/96 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

2004/05 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0

2007/08 : Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2

2012/13 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1

1990/1991, 1991/1992, 2007/2008, 2012/2013 and 2017/18.

I was happy to have him alongside me once again. We joked about it in the weeks which lead up to this game. In the car on the way to London, PD had enquired of Francis what he did for a living.

“Trading standards, mate. Keeping an eye on con men, rogue traders, that sort of thing.”

“Scousers?” I suggested.

The Chuckle Bus roared.

After our little visit to where our club was born, we darted around a few more pubs on what was turning out to be a blisteringly hot day. We spent a pleasant thirty minutes in the crowded beer garden of “The Jam Tree” which was is known as one of the venues where “Made In Chelsea” is filmed. The pub was plainly cashing in on its fame; a burger was priced at £17. Next up was “The Imperial” along the King’s Road, and I was back on the Cokes, sadly. We bumped into our pal Dave, who had chanced upon a last-minute ticket. From there, brief stays in “The Rose” and finally “The Tommy Tucker” before heading along the Fulham Road to the stadium. With Tottenham losing at The Hawthorns, here was a fantastic chance for us to close the gap on both of the teams ahead of us.

(And still some Chelsea fans bemoan the fact that this has been – apparently – a poor season.)

Glenn had reeled-off the line-up in one of the pubs and it was almost the same starting eleven as at Swansea City, with the returning Alonso in for Emerson.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Giroud

As we approached the West Stand – “thrilling since 1905” still grates – everything seemed normal. The sun was beating down. There were no clouds. Programmes were purchased. There was a buzz of expectancy. There were fans milling around, though we had not spotted – to our knowledge anyway – any away fans. These days, there is a relaxed air at most games. However, over the past couple of weeks, one incident outside a football stadium has shocked many. Before the Liverpool vs. Roma Champions League game at Anfield, and right outside The Albert pub, in front of The Kop, some Italian ultras carried out a seemingly unprovoked attack on one or two Liverpool supporters. We would later learn that one of them, a fan of around my age, was knocked unconscious and was in a subsequent coma. Imagine my horror when I was to learn shortly after that he is the brother in law of a work acquaintance – no, more than that, a good friend – that I have been talking to in Dublin for over fifteen years. Sean Cox is her husband’s brother. And although there has been untold Chelsea vs. Liverpool banter between the two of us over the years, as you can imagine, the chill of knowing that an act of wanton violence can have such a devastating effect on someone that I know was quite awful.

I spoke to my friend just after the return leg, and she seemed desolate. Such was the pain that her husband did not even bother to watch the match, something that he would never normally do. On at least one occasion, he has been at Anfield the same time as me. He is quite a Liverpool fan. How his future will develop, I can’t imagine.

Inside the sun-kissed stadium, everything was just perfect. As ever, there were three-thousand Liverpool supporters over in the away end, though just two flags; one praising Virgil van Dyke, the other with – surprise, surprise – five yellow European Cups.

Some chap called Michael Buffer, he of the “let’s get ready to rumble” boxing clarion call, read out the teams. It was just dreadful. It seemed so out-of-place. I cringed as the twat said “and in the blue corner.”

Fuck off.

Whoever at Chelsea thought this was a good idea needs shooting. Was it you, Steve Atkins?

A good ten minutes before kick-off, Neil Barnett spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson, and we clapped as an image of him appeared on the TV screens. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Then, with the players appearing on the pitch, a tribute to Roy Bentley appeared in The Shed. I briefly met Roy Bentley on three occasions, and he seemed a thoroughly lovely man, his deep Bristol burr providing lasting evidence of his birthplace, and who can remember his little jig in front of the Matthew Harding at the last home game of 2008/2009, which I reported on at the time :

“Before the players came back on, an extra special moment. Ron Harris, Dennis Wise and John Terry – three of the four trophy winning Chelsea captains – were on the pitch to honour the eighty-fifth birthday of the fourth, Roy Bentley, the championship winning captain of 1955. It was a truly magical moment. Roy Bentley is a lovely, lovely man and I was able to meet him briefly in November at the CPO. The photo I have with him is one of my most-prized Chelsea possessions. He was in great form. He did a little jig as he made his way to the Lower Tier of the Matthew Harding. He was hilarious and Ron, Dennis and JT were in stitches. We all were.

“Looks like he’s been on the sherry” chirped Alan.

He had been presented with a shirt with “Bentley” on the back, but he threw it into the crowd…shades of Mourinho.

God bless you, Roy.”

Underneath us in the Matthew Harding Lower, a large banner remembering Ray Wilkins was passed over the heads of fellow spectators. These have certainly been sad times at Chelsea Football Club.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of Roy Bentley, our first Chelsea Champion. And the Liverpool fans applauded and clapped too.

Thank you.

The match kicked-off with lots and lots of noise. Francis always reads these blogs and has noted my comments about a decreasing amount of atmosphere at home games with note. I told him that the noise was far better than normal. After all, this was Liverpool. The highlight of the first few minutes was a sublime cross-field pass to Victor Moses from Gary Cahill, which drew a warm “well I’ll be fucked” salvo of appreciation.

However, Liverpool seemed to edge the first part of the game, and Roberto Firminio caused Thibaut Courtois to save early on, but it was the keen and incisive Sadio Mane who caught the eye. He seemed to be involved in many of their attacks. Victor Moses sent over a teasing ball, but no Chelsea players could add the needed touch. Eden Hazard managed to tee-up Marcos Alonso in the inside-left channel but his powerful effort was straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper Loris Karius. There was a simply magnificent tackle by N’Golo Kante on Mane, and this drew great applause from the supporters. The noise had subsided slightly, but this was much better than the usual levels at recent games. Over in the far corner, I tried to get my head around a few new Liverpool songs, no doubt harking on about European adventures of yore. I honestly found it hard to decipher much of it.

Another Mane shot. Another Courtois save.

The sky was still cloudless. The sun had certainly risen well on this Sunday.

The Liverpool red is darker than usual this season. Very often, thankfully, it ran up against a deep royal blue wall.

The often chastised Tiemoue Bakayoko was enjoying a solid start to the game and I was really elated to hear some warm applause for even the most basic of plays from our often beleaguered midfielder.

That, my friends, is what being a Chelsea supporter is all about.

On the previous Monday, myself and around one hundred Chelsea supporters had attended an evening with Gianfranco Zola at a pub in Ascot. It was a fantastic evening. I remembered what the great – little – man had said about Eden Hazard. He had been asked how he could improve his game. Gianfranco said that he would ask him to release the ball earlier when in a deep position, and then really save his tricks and crisp passing for the final third, when everything matters. I could not have put it any better. In this game, as in so many others, there were spins and twists from Eden when he was barely over the halfway line. I wanted him to improve.

We then came close when a Moses cross was met with a dive and a header from Bakayoko, but it flashed wide. Soon after, on thirty-two minutes, the same player sent over a cross after doing well to make space in front of Parkyville. His cross was aimed at the large frame of Olivier Giroud. We watched as the big Frenchman rose and guided the ball home. It was not dissimilar to the Morata goal versus Tottenham.

The ground reverberated with noise.

I tried to spot where the scorer was running, and soon realised that he was headed over to the Chelsea bench, by-passing Antonio Conte, and aiming straight for David Luiz. The players hugged.

A nice touch.

Francis, who had chosen that moment to turn his bike around, appeared back in the top tier just as the whole stadium was roaring a very loud and very defiant “CAREFREE.”

Phew. Get in.

Cesc Fabregas whizzed a shot across goal. Mo Salah, quiet thus far, was booked for diving.

There were a few rousing choruses of “Antonio.”

Will he stay beyond this season?

Probably not. Another great manager chewed up and spat out by my club.

I hate modern football.

At half-time, I was more than happy with the game. We had not created a host of chances, but everyone was on their game, the sun was out, and the stadium was as noisy as it has been for a while.

The second-half began, and the game – damn it – became a real test of my nerves. Liverpool tended to dominate possession once again, but as Fran kept saying, were unable to do much with it. Moses, always a threat out on our right, fizzed a low ball across the box but I was not convinced if he had intended to shoot or cross. A more delicate ball in to the waiting Giroud might well have been a better ploy.

Maybe Gianfranco Zola had managed to get a message to Eden Hazard at half-time. One move in particular, captured on film and featured below – along with two other Hazardous Dribbles – was just breath-taking.

Although he was hemmed in by three red-shirts, he miraculously dribbled into them and out the other side before slamming a shot towards the Liverpool goal. It was saved, just. It reminded me of when Zola was hemmed in over in the south-east corner in his very last Chelsea appearance and slalomed between four or five Liverpool defenders.

From the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose to head down and Toni Rudiger bundled the ball in but from a clearly offside position.

All eyes were on the clock now.

65 minutes.

72 minutes.

75 minutes.

Liverpool were given lots of space, and we defended deep, not allowing Salah or Mane any space to exploit. The three defenders were simply exceptional. Our performance mirrored that of our 2-1 win at Wembley versus Tottenham at the start of the season. The defence never looked troubled. Liverpool never really threatened us. We covered the pitch with great professionalism, and great desire. But I was still struggling with all of this.

I kept thinking to myself :

“This win will probably mean nothing. We will still probably finish fifth. This isn’t a cup tie. It isn’t a league title-decider. It isn’t a CL decider like that Zola game in 2003. It’s just a normal league game. But I love it that I am kicking every ball, heading every clearance, tackling every 50/50. This is a fucking great game. Blow up, ref!”

In the end, there were two late chances, one for the royal blues, one for the scarlets.

A high and deep cross from that man Victor Moses was aimed past the far post. Marcos Alonso, at a ridiculously tight angle, was underneath it, and let fly. The volley flew inches past the far post.

Then, Dominic Solanke – not applauded by any Chelsea supporter when he appeared on seventy-four minutes – saw a rather timid effort dollop over the bar.

Four minutes of added time were signalled.

As the last of these was reached, my protestations to the referee to “blow up you cunt” surprised even me.

At last, the final whistle blew.

GET IN.

My mate Rob, who sits a few rows back, soon appeared and we hugged and bounced for what seemed like ages.

“Loved that. Great game, Rob. Nervous as hell though.”

“It’s why we keep coming, mate.”

As we bounced out and down the Fulham Road, I made arrangements for Francis to attend next season’s game too.

Eight visits, no victories.

“A nice bit of history, la.”

All was well with the world as we headed home to Somerset and Wiltshire. The season has three games left, and all of them are Cup Finals.

See you on Wednesday.

Tales From Swansea Bay

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2018.

Going in to the game at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium, it honestly felt that everything had been decided. Manchester City were worthy champions, and – sadly – would be joined in next season’s Champions League campaign by Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It seemed that we were destined to finish fifth. It seemed inevitable that Arsenal would finish sixth. At the other end of the table, West Bromwich Albion had been seemingly assured of a last place finish at the end of a miserable campaign. And as the league season entered the final three or four games, it has looked increasingly likely that Stoke City and Southampton would be relegated too.

All cut and dried, then? It certainly felt like it.

The end of the season has crept up on all of us, and the game in South Wales represented the last away game that I would be driving to this season. We are flying up to Newcastle – “Fly me to The Toon” – for the final match, so this trip represented the last Chuckle Brothers Road Trip of 2017/2018. With an early-evening kick-off at 5.30pm, it meant that we could stretch out and relax a little. We had left our little part of England at 9am under grey and threatening skies, and had packed coats and jackets to insulate us from expected wet and windy weather in Wales. There was a breakfast at McMelksham en route, and the journey went well, apart from the final few miles when the traffic heading in to Swansea itself almost came to a standstill. It is no Cardiff, but Swansea is a reasonable city. The area down by the marina continues to be marked with new building developments, and there is always The Mumbles, just a few miles to the east of the city centre. The skies overhead were brightening. At last, I slotted the Chuckle Bus in a car park overlooking the rocky headland of The Mumbles, with the vast expanse of Swansea Bay stretching out before us. We spotted a nearby pub, The White Rose, and were settled around a table in the dark and old-fashioned boozer at around 12.30pm. There was an homage to Dylan Thomas – Swansea born and bred – stenciled onto one of the pub windows alongside the holy trinity of Welsh insignia; a red dragon, a daffodil and a leek.

“Though they go mad they shall be sane.

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.

Though lovers be lost love shall not.

And death shall have no dominion.”

The heavy prose made me smart. It wasn’t the most cheerful welcome to a pub that I had ever seen.

“Welcome to The Mumbles, bach.”

In fact, amidst the references to love, sanity and death, there was the same mood invoked by the great Pet Shop Boys song “Paninaro.”

Maybe Dylan Thomas was an unlikely hero of the Pet Shop Boyos.

I’ll get my coat/jacket.

Inside the pub, Glenn demolished some steak and chips, and I wolfed down a pint of Peroni. The Liverpool versus Stoke City game was on the lounge bar TV, and it was scoreless. Inside the gents’ toilets, there was evidence that some visitors from along the coast had previously called by.

“CCFC – SOUL CREW – WISH YOU WERE CARDIFF DONTCHA?”

We crossed the road, and were buoyed by the fact that the weather was really improving now. Whereas the previous pub was as old school as it gets, The Croeso Lounge was a modern and airy bar, and very busy. It seemed that a hen party had booked the upstairs area; while we supped on lagers, we admired the scenery.

The weather was improving still. Out across the bay, way in the distance, were the industrial buildings of the Tata steel works at Port Talbot, with smoke drifting into the sky and mixing with the low-lying clouds. But on this side of Swansea Bay, all was well. Locals were promenading along the seafront, and there was an almost Mediterranean feel to it. Hardly an Italian “passeggiata”, but all very pleasant in the early afternoon sun. We were joined in the Croeso Lounge by some friends from London – Callum, Reece, Pat, Viv – and this was a first-time visit to The Mumbles for them. We sat outside in the sun. It was bloody fantastic. We heard that Liverpool had only drawn with Stoke City. Deep down, I still thought that it would not matter, but football is a funny game as someone once said.

There was just time for a last pint in the third pub of the afternoon – The Kinsale – which was even more old-fashioned and darker than the first one. A rugby game from Cardiff was on the TV. We were the sole customers. We popped along the road for some fish and chips at “Yallops” and then set off for the Liberty Stadium. It was a good thirty minutes’ drive, allowing for traffic, and I was a little worried that we might miss the kick-off. I lead the way and Reece followed behind. We passed the St. Helens cricket and rugby stadium, right on the seafront, and there were memories of Gary Sobers knocking six sixes for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan in 1968, and there was a quick peak inside; I spotted a large standing terrace, with crush barriers. There was an immediate pang of regret that there are no more of these terraces of my youth left in our sport; the South Stand at Molineux, the Kop at Anfield, the Holte End at Villa Park, the Copeland Road at Ibrox, the Shed at Stamford Bridge. All are gone and there is nothing left but memories.

The city of Swansea is rather hilly, and the Liberty Stadium sits in a low valley alongside the River Tawe. There are dark wooded hills to the east, and terraced streets to the west, with houses layered on top of each other. Thankfully, the two cars were parked-up at the usual place just off the Neath Road at around 5.10pm. It was just right. We hot-footed it to the away end, and were met with some new signage.

“Eisteddle Croeso.”

This roughly translates as “welcome, be seated.”

We reached our seats just as the two teams entered the pitch.

I was happy with my timings. Job done.

Alan and Gary had called in at “Rossi’s” for some tidy fish and chips, which thankfully allows me to utter my usual “whose cod is that haddock?” line once again.

I expected a 3-4-3 but Antonio surprised me.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Cahill – Azpilicueta

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Emerson

Hazard – Giroud

All hint of sun had disappeared by the time of kick-off. There was nothing but grey in the rectangle of sky above us.

It disappointed me that there were spare seats around me – in quite some number – as the game began. I remember last season – at the start of the season, we struggled, Gary Cahill came in for some abuse, our season was yet to ignite – there were even more empty seats. What is it with Swansea? Does the Severn Bridge toll scare off so many of our supporters? I can’t fathom it, I honestly can’t.

“Swansea away? Can’t be bothered.”

Before I had time to think, we had picked up a loose ball and Eden Hazard drifted away from markers before pushing a ball out to Cesc Fabregas. Without breaking stride, the ball was clipped past Fabianski and into the gaping Swansea net.

Swansea City 0 Chelsea 1.

Tidy.

Only four minutes had passed.

There were brief thoughts of the 5-0 shellacking we administered to Swansea just over three years ago.

We had heard that both Southampton and West Brom had produced fine wins, and the pressure was now on the home team, and it showed. Their fans, always pretty noisy alongside us, grew more and more tense as the game progressed, and vehemently protested every decision which went against them. I think we always struggle with support at Swansea, and there wasn’t a huge amount of noise on this occasion either. There were, however, occasional chants of “Antonio” and it seems that a faction of the Chelsea support is happy to support him still. That’s good. Let’s support the manager and the players all the way to Wembley.

The home fans were indeed noisy at times.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

They just couldn’t get enough.

On the pitch, we absolutely dominated during the first-half. We went close from a corner, and then Swansea defender Mawson hooked the ball on to the top of the Swansea crossbar as he found himself under pressure. A fine searching ball from Victor Moses out wide whizzed into the six-yard box, but was untouched on its path. It was begging for a Chelsea foot, leg, thigh, chest, head or Tommy Harmer bollock. It never came. There was constant probing from Chelsea, although we didn’t manage to break them down further. In all honesty, we didn’t use Olivier Giroud as much as we ought to. Eden Hazard looked keen and involved, and there was a song for him too.

But there was a strange atmosphere. It felt like the end of season game that it undoubtedly was.

The second-half began and there were a few half-chances exchanged. The noise from the away end never really came. Some rain had fallen, and the skies grew darker. Everything seemed colourless. The black seats of the stadium, the grey concrete of the roof, the cold grey steel of the supports, the black and white LG advertising boards. Even our royal blue seemed duller than usual.

At last a little noise from the away end :

“Speakfackinenglish, why don’t you speakfackinenglish?”

“Down with the West Brom, you’re going down with the West Brom.”

“We’ll never play you again.”

The home fans retorted :

“Carvalhal’s Black And White Army.”

Our play really deteriorated in the second period. Our chances were rare. A move involving Fabregas and Hazard almost gifted a chance to Moses at the far post, but the ball bobbled just beyond his lunge. Emerson, who had impressed, kept running and running into the Swansea City half, and all the way through it, he never seemed happy to have to use his right foot. In the end, he thumped the ball goal wards and drew a low save from Fabianski. In the final twenty minutes, Swansea peppered our goal with a fair few chances, but virtually every shot seemed to go down Courtois’ throat. We were certainly enjoying a charmed life. One effort from the impressive Andre Ayew flew narrowly passed the post and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I admitted to Gary that Swansea’s frustrated fans must have wondered how on Earth they had not managed an equaliser. There were late changes; Pedro for Fabregas, Willian for Hazard, Morata for Giroud. Swansea still threatened, but – thank heavens – we held on.

It was a dour win.

But it meant that we had now won four on the spin.

Phew.

We made our way up the hill towards our car, and I was soon heading east. We spotted a large billowing cloud of black smoke from beyond the stadium, and beyond the verdant wooded hills to the east. I wondered what on earth it could be. Out on the M4, the smoke was still rising. As we passed the mess of the Port Talbot steelworks, all pipes and foundries, chimneys, brick, steel, grime, the clouds ahead were dark and brooding. Behind me, through the twisted steel of industry, a vivid orange sunset lit up the sky above The Mumbles, right across Swansea Bay. The steep hills adjacent to the motorway hemmed me in. It added to the drama. To my left, the black smoke of a presumed fire shot straight up into the evening sky. At that moment, I wondered what else might appear in my vision. It was as dramatic a sky as I have seen this season. It made the rather insipid second-half pale by comparison.

We spoke about the game, but the discussion did not last long. However, after the pre-game thoughts about the top four and bottom three, perhaps I needed to readjust my feelings after all.

On this last road trip of the season, we just didn’t want to go home. On the outskirts of Cardiff, we enjoyed a pizza just off the M4, prolonging the day further.

I reached home at around midnight, shattered.

It had been a long day.

Tales From Another Semi

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 22 April 2018.

It was around 7.30pm and we had just bought a round of drinks in “The Swan”, a high-ceilinged public house placed between the two buildings which form Hammersmith tube station. It had taken a while to leave Wembley Stadium, what with the wait for our eventual train south, and then changes onto the underground system and we were momentarily paused on our way back to Barons Court where my car was parked. We sat on stools at a high table, soon toasted ourselves – “the final” – and quietly chatted about the day. There had been blue Chelsea flags for everyone in the Chelsea section at Wembley, and Glenn had placed our four on the table. They would eventually be handed out to young Chelsea fans that we know; a nice little gift for the youngsters. Only last week, I had called in to see a neighbour who was looking after eight-year-old two twin boys for the day – the sons of my once next-door neighbours who moved to a nearby village a few years back – and I passed over a blue and white chequered flag from a few years back to Alphie. His face was a picture. I did feel a little embarrassed that I had nothing for his brother Isaac – who purportedly favours Manchester City – but I had to laugh when Isaac told me that he liked Chelsea too. I quickly put him in his place

“You can’t support two teams!”

And then I felt guilty that I had publicly chastised him.

Anyway, I had plans to give one of the Chelsea flags from Wembley to Alphie  – “you’ve made the wrong choice, Isaac, sorry” – and send the other one over to a young relative in Australia, who I recently learned was a Chelsea supporter. They would be nice reminders of yet another semi-final victory.

It had been a long day. I was awake at around 7am and I had collected the three other Chuckle Brothers by 8.30am. We would not be home until 10.30pm at least. This football lark can be tiresome.  The chat slowed and we stared at our drinks. Then, a chap with a Boss T-shirt and a pint of Guinness spotted the four Chelsea flags and approached us. It looked like he had enjoyed a few drinks as he was slurring his words slightly, and his girlfriend was hanging back a little.

“Why are you looking sad? You are Chelsea fans. You won, right?”

It was clear from his accent that he was from mainland Europe – I initially thought he was Dutch – and his words touched a nerve. Although I smiled in response, inside I was hurting. Had we become something that we had long hated? Had we become so used to success at Chelsea that we were blasé about yet another semi-final triumph? Was I at that stage in my long journey of Chelsea support that I had secretly dreaded? Was I taking all of this for granted? I experienced a few uneasy seconds as I tussled with the severity of the thoughts in my head. We replied that – indeed – it had been a very long day, and that he had caught us, maybe, at a weak moment. After all, what would he really want us to be doing? Constant somersaults and cartwheels on a Sunday evening? Anyway, we chatted about the game – “never really looked in trouble, just took a while to make it safe” – and the chap revealed that he was from a small town in Southern Denmark. He was in absolute awe that we went to every game – “a three-hour drive home, wow” – and he told how he was at Stamford Bridge for the Manchester United game last autumn. It seemed that they had watched from a corporate area. I wasn’t sure if he was a Chelsea fan too but his friend had been solemnly told that he couldn’t wear a Chelsea shirt – “that’s bullshit” – and we pulled faces of shock and astonishment, though I had heard long ago that colours are indeed not allowed in such areas. He gleefully admitted that his girlfriend – still keeping her distance – was a Manchester United fan, and he seemed happy that United had lost that game. I looked over at her and smiled but deep down I thought “it’ll never last.” For some inexplicable reason, none of us mentioned the FA Cup Final which would pit Chelsea and Manchester United once again. After a few more minutes, our drinks finished, we excused ourselves and left to head back to Barons Court.

At exactly 8pm, I pulled away from Barons Court, and pointed The Chuckle Bus west. Ahead was a fine drive home in the aftermath of another lovely day in the nation’s capital, with the sun slowly dipping beyond the horizon – but first a quick glimpse of the Wembley arch shining away in North London – and a clear night sky.

It had indeed been a good day.

After missing the excellent win at Turf Moor on Thursday – which was followed by the ridiculous over-reaction by many to that Alvaro Morata’s miss – it meant that it would be two consecutive Chelsea versus Southampton games for me. We had certainly been given a fantastic chance to reach an FA Cup Final with a semi against the relegation-threatened team. As for the first semi-final, played the previous evening, I could not have been happier. I was travelling back from a Frome Town game at Gosport Borough – the less said about that the better – and did not even listen to the match on the radio. But I was very happy that Spurs had lived down to expectations. A potential final against Manchester United would be absolutely fine. The thought of losing to Mourinho’s team in the final would be tough, but not nearly as horrific as a loss in an FA Cup Final to Tottenham. Beating them, of course, would be wonderful, but it was just too much of a risk. The stakes would be too great. A loss to Spurs in the final would go straight into a top three of most miserable Chelsea games.

But – wait!

This is Tottenham we are talking about.

1993 : Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.

1995 : Everton 4 Tottenham 1.

1999 : Newcastle United 2 Tottenham 0.

2001 : Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1.

2010 : Portsmouth 2 Tottenham 0.

2012 : Chelsea 5 Tottenham 1.

2017 : Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2.

2018 : Manchester United 2 Tottenham 1.

The pleasure in avoiding Spurs was a view shared by the Kent lads – yes, them again, they love a Chuckle Brothers pub crawl – as we enjoyed our first pints of the day in “The Swan”, a former coaching inn from the eighteenth century at the northern edge of Hyde Park, adjacent to Lancaster Gate tube station, and close to the FA’s former HQ. The pub was dotted with a few Chelsea fans, and one or two Southampton fans too. We then walked out into the bright London sunshine towards Paddington Station, popping into “The Sussex Arms” for one, and then on to “Fountains Abbey” where the London chaps had been based since midday. There was little talk of the semi-final, as so often is the way. We were so sorry to hear that one of our friends – John, who lives very close to Paddington / Marylebone / Edgware Road – had lost his mother on the Wednesday. Gillian, Kev and Rich were down from Scotland and it was great to see them once more. Kev told me that it was his first-ever visit to Wembley. I could tell he was excited. We had heard rumours that neither Chelsea nor Southampton had sold all the tickets available to both teams. This raised a few eyebrows. There was talk of high ticket prices, but I had a distinct feeling that if we had drawn Tottenham or Manchester United, our allocation would have been snapped up. I definitely got the impression that for many it was a case of “Southampton? Can’t be bothered.”

Time was now accelerating away, and it was time to move. We legged it to Marylebone, bumped into the usual suspects at the Sports Bar outside, but then had to wait a while to catch the 2.30pm train. We were certainly leaving it late, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion.

We alighted at Wembley Stadium station at just after 2.45pm.

“Be a miracle if we see kick-off.”

There seems to be more and more construction at Wembley with each visit. Hotels are going up at a fair rate of knots. There is already a designer outlet nearby. If, as seems likely, we will be residing at Wembley in the near future – a subject worthy of a wholly separate piece in itself, maybe even a separate website – then maybe we will eventually decide to drink at the hotel bars nearby. Wembley was festooned with huge advertising. I still loathe the new national stadium. It is as charming as an aircraft hangar.

I took a photograph of Kev with the curve of the arch behind him.

“Enjoy Wembley mate. And don’t break the crossbar.”

We made it inside the upper tier with about five minutes gone, thus missing out on the pre-match presentations. That Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had done us again. Just outside the seating area, in the concourse, there was an “oooooh” as Chelsea went close.

We had seats halfway back in the top tier, above the south-east corner. Southampton had our usual western end. Bloody hell, there were swathes of empty seats in their top tier. And bizarrely, these were the cheapest seats, at just thirty quid. How very odd. There were hundreds and hundreds of empty seats dotted around our two tiers. I looked around and spotted familiar faces in our section; Dutch Mick and Gary, the two Bobs, Scott, Mark, The Youth and Seb.

A quick check of our team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

A quick check of the supporters.

In the lower tier of the western end, it looked to me that every single Southampton supporter was standing.

In the opposite end, down to my right, only the supporters in the sections behind the corner posts were standing.

This, in simple terms, suggested to me that they were more “up for it” than us.

There certainly seemed to me more noise being generated by their red and white bedecked supporters.

Sitting next to me was a young family, parents with two children under the age of seven. The two kids soon looked bored. Over the course of the game, the mother hardly spoke to the kids. I wondered why they were there. Elsewhere, despite the first part of the game being dominated by Chelsea, there was little noise.

I tried to join in when any semblance of a chant tried to get going, but all around me people were sat on their hands.

Watching not supporting.

Fucking hell.

The stadium is so huge, so impersonal, with few – if any – unique features, that it just deadens any enjoyment for me. The Club Wembley level was only half-full at best. Down on the pitch, Chelsea were still dominating, with tons of possession and pretty patterns, moving the ball this way and that, and with Kante the metronome in the middle, keeping the rhythm, and with Willian and Hazard stretching Southampton, we looked like the only team that would score.

Willian, in Willian territory, dipped a free-kick just over the bar.

The Saints fans were still making more noise. Their song reminded me of Tottenham, shudder. Although I live only sixty or so miles from Southampton, I have only known three friends/workmates/acquaintances that have been Southampton fans. One of them, Duncan – a workmate from twenty years ago, who I see once every few years – was not at the game, but he posted a lovely photograph on Facebook of his mother at the game, smiling, flag in hand, Saints scarf around her neck. Her beaming smile was wonderful. She was certainly “up for the cup.”

A rare chance for Southampton came on twenty-five minutes, but Caballero saved from Lemina.

We only created a few half-chances though. Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, in the same way that we had run out of songs.

Olivier Giroud teed up a chance for himself with a deft flick from a Fabregas cross but his follow-up volley was wide.

At the break, all was quiet in Wembley Stadium.

There had been so much swearing emanating from the mouth of one of the Chuckle Brothers throughout the first-half, that when I got back to my seat midway through the halftime break, and saw the family of four to my left were missing, I did wonder if they had left early, never to be seen again. Imagine my surprise when they returned with hot dogs and crisps costing half a weekly wage. These people were in it for the duration and I was somehow soothed.

The game restarted, and I spoke to Glenn about the huge section of empty seats behind the dugouts – the “Club Wanker” section – and bemoaned, for the fifty seventh thousand time, the state of modern football.

“Twats.”

A Chelsea move built and then a foul. Cesc Fabregas sent over a lovely cross towards Hazard, who did ever so well to pass the ball onto Giroud. My next thought was purely personal.

“Bollocks, I haven’t got my camera at the ready and this looks like a goal to me.”

With that, Giroud seemed to stumble and yet maintain possession. Everything happened in slow motion as he fended off a few challenges, and stabbed a leg out to send the ball home.

Camera or no camera, I roared and we all roared.

GET IN.

Giroud spun away and celebrated with team mates and then the manager.

Almost immediately, there was the usual text exchange with Alan.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Perfect.

There was a salvo of song from the Chelsea end – about bloody time – but we were quietened when Shane Long took a very heavy touch with only Caballero to beat. The ball raced away for a goal-kick and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The first change took place on the hour, and Conte – the pragmatic Italian – went for safety first in an attempt to shore up our shape, replacing the effervescent Willian with the boo boys’ favourite Tiemoue Bakayoko. The boos rang around Wembley. I wasn’t surprised.

Hazard moved forward alongside Giroud, with the midfield bolstered by an extra man. Only the second Southampton chance of the entire game resulted in a Caballero save – somehow, I am not sure how, or with which body part – from Redmond. The game was opening up and, surely, this would be to our advantage. A Hazard thunderbolt was tipped over by McCarthy. The little Belgian then sent over a perfect rabona which Victor Moses just failed to reach. Hazard was at his teasing best, the certain star. Two more substitutions took place.

Pedro for Fabregas.

Morata for Giroud.

After being on the pitch for just three minutes, Morata was able to wiggle between two defenders and head home from another sublime Azpilicueta cross. I managed to capture this on film. The ball seemed to take forever to drop, and it looked like it would eventually go wide from our view high up in section 521. At last the net rippled and the goal was wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Southampton 0.

We felt safe now, but Austin hit the base of the far post from an acute angle. Morata then went close on two occasions at the other end.

At last, the referee Martin Atkinson whistled the end of the game.

Phew.

It was hardly comparable to the semi-final against Spurs exactly 365 days previously, but we had done it. It was the worst atmosphere I have ever experienced at a semi-final and that definitely detracted from the day. But we had reached our sixth FA Cup Final in twelve seasons. What a record. Quite phenomenal. One more win would put us at joint-third in the all-time list of winners – alongside Tottenham of all teams – and only behind Arsenal and Manchester United.

In the queue for the trains back to Marylebone, Pat Nevin waltzed past and it made my day. As the line slowly zig-zagged along, I spotted my friend Duncan’s mother only a few yards away. I had never previously met his Mum, although both Duncan and I grew up just a couple of miles apart, but I was sure it was her. Duncan had told me that his mother had recently been bitten by the football bug and was now a season ticket holder at their home games. The line shuffled along, and eventually I was able to catch up with her and say “hi.” I took a selfie of us and sent it to Duncan. Lovely.

We eventually took the train south, and things felt very familiar indeed.

And here’s a well-used sign-off.

“See you at Wembley.”

For John’s mother : RIP.

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

It had been a near perfect journey north; light traffic on the motorways, cloudless winter skies, bright sun, and only a couple of stops for breakfast and fuel. Four and a half hours after picking up PD in Frome, and then Parky and Young Jake, we were now located at our usual parking space a mile or so from Old Trafford, outside a small unit which would normally be used to sell tyres. The locals – City fans – took my £10 and guided me back alongside other cars. The car would be safe there. We have used it three or four times now. Fearing the worst – near Baltic conditions were forecast – we fastened buttons on jackets and set off towards Old Trafford. This was Young Jake’s first-ever visit to Manchester United. It would be my twenty-third. In my loose circle of friends who grew up locally to where I live, there are only a few United fans. Yet I am sure that my total of twenty-three visits was considerably more than the three or four United fans could muster between them.

It’s a strange one alright.

For a stadium that holds 75,000 – and is nigh on full to capacity every week, please take note Arsenal – you would think that more of their supporters would actually attend games. I just think that it shows how huge a club Manchester United are. Growing up, working, meeting football fans, meeting people who say they are football fans yet clearly aren’t, it seems that you are never far away from a United supporter. There must be several million United fans in the UK alone. I suppose they can’t all get tickets.

Of course, many never intend doing so, which is another topic completely and which, quite frankly – showing the apathy that would make many United fans proud – I simply can’t be bothered to address.

The twenty-minute walk towards Old Trafford was fine, apart from when we crossed the Chester Road and the wind howled.

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

We were apparently in for a wintry week, which would finish with us playing another game in Manchester, at City’s stadium a few miles further east on the following Sunday. Two supremely tough games indeed. It could turn out to be a very cruel month. Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly.

We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

While the other three went ahead for a pre-match pint inside the away section, I decided to spend thirty minutes or so outside, in front of an old abandoned club shop, and observe.

The famous forecourt sloped down from right to left from Sir Matt Busby Way. I watched the match-going traffic head off to their seats inside. In truth, it was a generally quiet scene. But there was still that great sense of occasion that you get ahead of any important football match. That sense of unquantifiable anticipation – and apprehension for some – with the knowledge that something big, huge, will soon be taking place but a few hundred yards away.

The forecourt. It is the definitive Old Trafford “space.”

In the days of my childhood, and then my youth, before I ever visited Old Trafford, the TV camera crews would always assemble underneath the Munich Clock if there was anything worth reporting at Old Trafford. A Tommy Docherty scandal, or a new signing, the reporter would stand underneath the façade at the eastern end of the stadium, and the image would become locked in my memory bank. On my first visit to Old Trafford – a night game in 1986 – I suspect I only glanced at the Munich Clock as we had arrived late and I am sure I was in a rush to get in. In those days, the forecourt stretched all of the way down towards the corner of the United Road Stand. Since then, the stands have grown exponentially at Old Trafford and the huge megastore now sits on a large portion of the former wide open space.

It was the site of many a battle in the hooligan era. We all remember the scenes from that “ICF” documentary in 1985 when West Ham got rather lippy with some United lads on the forecourt and along the terraced streets nearby. I can remember myself some punches being thrown at a few United versus Chelsea games over the years on this concrete slope. There is an understated commemorative plaque overlooking the remaining forecourt quadrant now, and of course the Munich Clock remains. It is a myth that the clock shows the actual time of the crash; although once a day it does.

I remembered back to our game on a sunny afternoon in late August of 2013 when I spotted Sir Bobby Charlton unobtrusively walking through the forecourt and being thrilled that I was able to shake his hand. That was a great memory for me. One of the better “non-Chelsea” spine-chilling moments of my life. I remember a United supporter waxing lyrical about the importance of the forecourt in the club’s history and how it’s relatively gradual slope tended to resemble the north face of the Eiger after a particularly painful defeat.

There have been additions on three sides at Old Trafford since 1994. And although there are still discussions rumbling on about increasing the capacity of the oldest stand, now named the Bobby Charlton Stand, by building over the railway line behind, I can’t see the capacity increasing in the near future. As I stood for a few final minutes, I realised that the curved quadrant above the away turnstiles at Old Trafford is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium still intact. Those red bricks could tell a few stories I am sure. Underneath, there is a permanently shuttered serving hatch, which may well have sold scarves, hats and favours in the past. How quaint. The megastore now takes care of all that.

One sallow youth wearing a lopsided beanie hat managed to get a few Manchester United fans, and then Chelsea fans, to squeak and yelp into his handheld camera. I inwardly tut-tutted. But he had something special for me. A few minutes later, a United fan in a black away shirt and a Chelsea fan in a blue home shirt – probably friends, possibly even brothers – and each with a half-and-half scarf, both posed and yelled at the camera.

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

Oh well, there have always been dickheads who go to football.

I began chatting to a bloke from Madrid, who was taking some crowd shots – some mood shots as I call them – with a couple of cameras. I wanted to warn him that bags, and cameras, would need to be checked before entering the game. But he had no match ticket, he was simply drawn to the game, to the stadium, to capture the pre-match buzz. He was a Real Madrid fan, and we joked about the upcoming Barcelona versus Chelsea game. As my normal camera was abandoned at home, I made sure that I took a few basic shots of the stadium using my mobile phone, focussing on large blocks of colour rather than the up-close and personal details of match action that I usually capture.

Old Trafford is a very photogenic stadium, if you know where to point.

Inside and up the steps and I immediately bumped into the lads; Young Jake, Lord Parky, PD were chatting to John, Alan and Gary. Alan had left his house at 4am that morning and would not be home again until the small hours. We had passed two of the three Chelsea coaches on the M6 at around Stafford earlier. It is the knowledge that loyal supporters like Alan, Gary and John – and hundreds more – make these horrendous journeys for our away games up North each season that fires a lot of my rude responses to many knob head Chelsea fans around the world who mope and moan at the slightest dip in form.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions blah blah blah” – yes, and many of them strike me as being fucking worthless.

There was quiet optimism among our little group. Personally, I predicted a 0-0 draw.

I ascended the final few steps of the day, and gulped in a breath of expectation.

This stadium had provided me with some fantastical memories over the years. Let’s hope for one more.

James and “Sit Down” was on the tannoy. How apt.

We had great seats, row eight, right on the curve behind the corner flag. The stadium took a while to fill. With fifteen minutes remaining, I went down to the concourse to turn my bike around before kick-off, and fortunately just missed “ten men went to mow” and beer being thrown over everyone.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

The manager had chosen to go back to a 3-4-3 with Alvaro Morata given the nod. I had wondered if Fabregas would be dropped in favour of Danny Drinkwater; he was.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in a vain attempt to engender any sort of atmosphere, the United DJ played “Dirty Old Town” and then a newer version – with a female vocalist – of “Take Me Home.”

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

Chelsea soon responded with a few loud salvos of our own.

It was the first pre-match sing-song of the day and it was almost kick-off.

Bloody hell. In days gone by – “here he goes again” – the singing before the game was an expected appetiser ahead of the match. It set the mood. It got us all ready.

I remembered back to the days when we used to be given that slim little paddock behind the goal. It is where I stood, crammed in with thousands of others like bloody sardines, for my first three games at Old Trafford in 1985/1986, 1986/1987 and 1987/1988. In those days, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise. The lads in the seats behind us used to stand and bellow out “United, United, United, United” as if their lives depended on it. It was a spine-chilling sound, even more so when there used to be tales of pool balls being launched from the seats behind us into that small away paddock.

These two grainy photos are from the September 1987 fixture when we sadly lost our first league game at OT in ages; we always had a fantastic record up there. We had gone unbeaten in thirteen league visits to Old Trafford since 1965/1966. My very first two visits to United’s home resulted in two back-to-back wins within five months in 1986. What a fantastic couple of matches; King Kerry with all three goals and Tony Godden with two penalty saves.

Of course the view was crap; but as an away fan we knew no different.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner. I was waiting for the noise to snap, crackle and pop.

It never really did.

The self-generated atmosphere at Old Trafford back in those early visits sizzled like a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.

In 2018, it was eerily similar to the ambiance of a mid-‘seventies Berni Inn; softened muzak, embarrassed silences and prawn cocktails.

Despite the cold gusts of arctic air outside, the temperature inside was fine. Not a cloud could be seen above. There were good vibes in the away end. I still fancied a draw. Tottenham were still drawing at Crystal Palace.

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

Soon after, with only two minutes played, Toni Rudiger ran and ran from the Chelsea half – “keep goin’ Rudi”- to deep inside the United half. It was a barnstorming run, which summed up our early dominance, and free-flowing football. The away fans certainly sensed that we were on top.

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

Right after, a sublime move allowed the ball to be played out wide to Marcos Alonso, who volleyed a cross at waist height towards Alvaro Morata. The ball crashed onto the cross bar. It was a stunning start to the game from us and set the tone for the first-half.

Without wishing to over-exaggerate, it felt like it was all Chelsea.

Time after time we played a long diagonal over to Victor Moses, who seemed to be United’s forgotten man, he was in so much space. Once or twice, he played the ball in, but far too often there was the trademark extra touch, or – even more frustrating – the desire to beat the same man twice. Throughout that first-half, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante stifled many a United attack. Eden Hazard and Willian hopped, skipped and jumped away from tackles; they were the stars alright.

The atmosphere from the home areas inside Old Trafford was virtually non-existent. Even I was shocked.

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

“Your city is blue. Your city is Blue. Just like London your city is blue.”

(I wonder if we will be quite so magnanimous next Sunday…)

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the United lot, whose only song was aimed at Merseyside.

We continued to find space between the lines. United were clearly second best.

However, a half chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, usually so prolific inside the box, so we were all relieved when his shot was easily gathered by Thibaut. It had been United’s first real effort on goal. Not long after, just after the half-hour mark, the twin threats of Willian and Hazard combined magnificently. Willian, his toes twinkling, ran with the ball from inside our box and the space opened up in front of him. He pushed the ball on to Hazard, who continued the move, and spotted the Brazilian’s “underlap” and returned a perfect pass into space. The whole away end lent forward. This smelled like a goal. After one touch, Willian smashed it past De Gea.

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

I saw Calvin race down to the front of the aisle and – in a scene which reminded me of a late winner against Tottenham – I joined him. The away end was on fire. I overlooked the balcony wall at the bottom of our section and punched the air.

FUCKING YES.

It was certainly deserved. The Chelsea support had been providing constant noise during the entire match, but the noise levels increased again. My college pal Rick – a season ticket holder in the back row of J Stand, at the other corner of our end –  always rates our away support at Old Trafford. He has told me that we are consistently in the top three or four. I wondered how he was rating the noise in this game. I was certainly proud of our racket. Of course it helps that the team was playing well – “helping each other” – but I always think we should be making tons of noise regardless of how well the team are performing on the pitch.

I grew nervous when some supporters started singing “Jose, what’s the score?”

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

Inexplicably, and against the run of play, United countered and the large and looming presence of Romelu Lukaku held up the ball in a central position. The ball was pushed back to a waiting United player. Despite a great deal of congestion in our box, Martial found Lukaku, who did well to steer the ball past Courtois.

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

Lukaka, the big Belgian lump, took great pleasure in crossing his arms in front of his chest and sneering at the three thousand away fans.

“Noted.”

We broke again, but the entire end was left fuming as Eden raced into the box but bizarrely opted not to shoot. The moment was gone. The ball broke to Alonso, but his rushed shot cleared the bar. It is one aspect of his play that is lacking.

As one or two Americans are prone to exclaim : “He needs to shoot the ball.”

Shoot. Shoot will do. We all know there is a ball involved.

So, all square at half-time. I reviewed our players’ performances in that first forty-five minutes. All came out positively apart from that man Moses, who so infuriates, and Morata, who was largely quiet, and relatively uninvolved. I had kept looking over at Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, both dressed in black, as the first-half developed. For some reason, maybe an air of inevitability, I have been a Chelsea fan for too bloody long, I sensed that although United had been lucky to escape with just one goal conceded, Mourinho just might have the last laugh.

The second-half began. As always, United attacked the Stretford End.

Mourinho’s men were certainly more involved, but we kept pressing and probing. Another fine run from Willian set up Morata in the inside-left channel, but rather than hit a first-time effort, decided to turn back on himself and shoot meekly at De Gea. A few Chelsea attacks tended to peter out rather lamely, and United were now the dominant force. They are such a big and physical team. Pogba, Matic and Lukaku suddenly seemed to grow an extra few inches. On the hour, De Gea fumbled a long shot from Drinkwater and Alonso, busting a gut, could not reach the loose ball. Our chances were becoming rarer and rarer.

Lukaku dramatically attempted a spectacular overhead kick but Courtois did well to finger-tip it over.

The home crowd were uttering the occasional song of support, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly quiet.

A Willian free-kick, way out wide, caught us all unawares as he chose to target De Gea’s near post. Although De Gea was well positioned to gather it, the low trajectory surprised him and the ball bobbled on the line before he finally grabbed hold.

These were crumbs of comfort as United, I sensed, were gathering momentum.

To our surprise, Conte decided to take off Eden. He was replaced by Pedro. I watched for a handshake. There was one, though only just.

A popular view was this :

“Fackinell Conte, are you fackin’ sure? Eden is our best player, our match winner. Why take him off? Why not take that useless facker Morata off?”

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

Morata had disappeared, really, as the second half continued. I lost count of the amount of times that he went down too easily, holding some sacred body part, eyes glaring at the referee.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Lukaku controlled the ball and sent over a perfect cross for the substitute Lingard to head home. There seemed to be no challenge, nobody close.

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

Conte replaced Moses with Olivier Giroud. I presumed that Pedro would revert to right wing-back, but here was an odd line-up for sure. We were playing with two lanky centre-forwards…on the pitch…at the same time…bloody hell. Just after, Cesc Fabregas replaced Danny Drinkwater.

The personnel change and the shape change can be discussed from here to eternity, or at least until next Sunday, but there is no doubt that the new mix of players looked ill at ease with each other. On more than one occasion, with the ball out wide, we chose to play to feet in front of the box, rather than hit high balls in for Morata and Giroud. But we kept attacking, we kept trying. A linesman on our side of the pitch was quick to flag when Alvaro Morata drifted into a slightly offside position. His effort on goal was hardly applauded since we all saw the flag early.

In the last moments, at a corner, deep in to five minutes of extra-time, Thibaut Courtois raced up field to try to put pressure on the United goal. It amounted to nothing. The ball was cleared.

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

I had to think. What offside? Oh, the Morata one? Blimey. That was a surprise. Looked it to me.

Outside, we walked up the north face of the Eigur and the United faithful were goading us with songs about “that big Russian Crook.” On the walk back to the car, we dissected the game. In my mind – call me biased –  I thought we had deserved a point, no doubt.

Once inside the car, I turned the radio on. Like a voice from the grave, someone spoke about Tottenham getting a late winner at Crystal Palace.

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Class Of ’98

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 12 February 2018.

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

Nothing, we hoped. Nothing at all.

“Three points are king tonight, lads.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Chuckle Brothers were back in town.

“Here we go again, boys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team?

Thibaut.

Dave – Andreas – Toni

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Davide

Pedro – Olivier – Eden

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go to work.

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

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

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

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

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

On twenty-five minutes, I whispered to Alan :

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

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

Blues 1 Baggies 0

GET IN.

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

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

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

What memories.

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

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pensioners 2 Throstles 0.

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

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

Bouncy 3 Boing Boing 0.

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

We were back in fourth place.

Crisis over? Maybe.

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

I messaged Al from Toronto.

“We won. You can come back.”

It had been a good night.

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