Tales From The Wrong Seat

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2023.

I think that I am going to enjoy writing this one.

Going into our match at Anfield, there was much gallows humour about this being a mid-table clash, a battle for ninth position, and that some fancied our chances because “they are bloody worse than we are”. It must surely be a while since Liverpool and Chelsea have occupied such lowly positions ahead of a league encounter.

There was a nice little bit of symmetry ahead of the game; our first match this season was at Goodison against Everton and the match at Anfield would be our twentieth. Therefore, both halves of the current campaign would commence on Merseyside.

I was up early. The alarm sounded at 4.30am and after de-frosting the car and picking up a couple of tinned coffees for the journey at a local garage, I collected PD and then Glenn at 6am, and Lord Parky bang on 6.30am as planned.

We were full of talk about the club for the first half-an-hour, with Glenn bemoaning many in the media, both social and unsocial, for calling our new buying policy “scattergun” and with me being foolish enough to admit the fact that I fancied a win later in the day.

We stopped at Strensham on the M5 for a quick breakfast between 7.40am and 8am, and I then made a bee-line for Merseyside. As I slowed down to a halt to wait for a green light to turn onto Queens Drive, we spotted “The Rocket” pub to our left; the very pub where hundreds of Scousers had been stranded ahead of the Champions League Final in Paris last May, the victims of a prank by playful Evertonians.

At this moment, amidst a little side-chat about the merits of managers Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter, and how fans have moaned about both, I summed things up as succinctly as I have ever done.

“Well, we’ve been going through a rebuild since Conte left. And since then, we have won the Europa League, the Champions League and are current World Champions. That’s not a bad rebuilding stage, is it?”

I was half-tempted to drive past the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock to check on its considerable progress since I visited the site in August, but we just wanted to get parked up and into Anfield. The five months that have elapsed since game one in August seemed like five minutes. I was parked up outside the away turnstiles at Goodison Park just after 10.30am; the price had increased from £10 in 2021 to £15 in 2023. Outside, the winter weather was biting hard. We headed off up the gentle slope to the top of Stanley Park with parts still touched by frost. The extension to the Anfield Road end, where we would be stationed, dominated my focus.

It was eleven o’clock. Just right. While I waited outside for a while to hand over a spare ticket, the others marched inside. Two Liverpool team buses appeared from my right and were then swallowed up by the huge shutter doors beneath the gigantic new stand. Mobile phones were held aloft by the hundreds of Liverpool fans. This must be a regular occurrence, part of the Anfield routine. But there was no real buzz about the place. Times must be hard at both ends of Stanley Park these days. Since my last visit, a mural of Ian Rush had been painted on the end wall of some terraced houses. There were voices and accents from everywhere.

The weather was tough. I have never seen so many North Face jackets and bobble-less hats.

I chatted to many fellow Chelsea fans.

“They are shite. They’re worse than us.”

“Yeah, I fancy us today, God knows why.”

Kim arrived and I handed her a ticket. At the security checks, I had the usual little panic that my camera would be shown the red card but the seemingly short-sighted security guard just frisked me without spotting the camera bag draped over my shoulder.

In.

I checked my ticket but soon spotted that I had mistakenly ended up with the ticket intended for Kim in row 20. Not to worry, Kim would be with Parky, John, Al and Gal down in row 7. Not a problem. There were only fifteen minutes to go so there was no time to waste. As I edged through the tight concourse, I was aware of a new song being enthusiastically chanted by the younger element.

…”said to me.”

I entered the familiar away end and my spot was in line with the touchline in front of the main stand, not as far jammed into the corner as I had feared. This was my twenty-sixth visit to Anfield, level-pegging with visits to Old Trafford; only five Chelsea wins at each venue, though. That pre-match hope for a win suddenly seemed unlikely.

There was rail-standing in the away quadrant now. Of all places, standing at Anfield. I never thought I would see it.

I once stood on the old Kop, though, and this was way different.

Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand took part in pitch-side interviews. Joey was serenaded. And so was Gerrard. As he walked past us – he must have dreaded that – he momentarily cupped his hands over his ears.

The usual pre-match ritual at Anfield.

Flags on poles, banners, huge crowd-surfing mosaics, the teams, mascots, the PA announcer with ridiculously low voice, The Kop waiting for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and scarves held aloft.

I remembered my first visit in April 1985 when a big pot of Crown Paint used to take pride of place on the centre spot.

Noticeably, I spotted the highest concentration of scarves in the lower corners of the main stand and the Centenary Stand – née Kemlyn Road – where those Rangers fans congregated in November 1985.

Our team?

I tried, again, to work it all out.

Kepa in goal.

A back four of Cucarella, Badiashile, Silva and Chalobah.

Lewis Hall was tucked into midfield, somewhere, maybe just alongside Jorginho.

A three of Mount on the left, Gallagher in the middle, Ziyech wide right.

Kai Havertz up top.

Liverpool’s team involved players such as Gakpo and Bajcetic, and these two were completely unfamiliar to me. They reminded me of the final hopeless selection of letters in a game of “Scrabble”

Here we were. At the football again. Waiting to see Chelsea again. Everyone together, the lucky ones, the lucky three-thousand. This meant that I was thankfully able to avoid the unappetising avalanche of buzzwords that the TV folk habitually, and without any self-awareness, foist on our poor ears.

“The press”, “transition”, “between the lines”, “little pockets”, “overload”, “high press”, “low block”, it goes on and on, like a relentless deluge of shite. On a recent “MOTD2” I am sure I heard Danny Murphy mention “overload” three times in ten seconds without the merest hint of irony.

Fuck adventures in TV Land.

We were at the football.

“Into them Chelsea.”

As the game kicked-off, no surprises us attacking The Kop, four spaces to my left were unfilled. Not long into the match, four young lads sidled in. Up in front of The Kop, my eyes straining in the mist, a corner came over from Conor Gallagher and in the resulting melee we gasped as the ball was thwacked against the left-hand post. A leg prodded the rebound home, the net gently rippling.

“GET IN.”

Now then dear reader, there have certainly been tough moments in my recent history when I have questioned my devotion to the cause, especially in the post-COVID era, and I have publicly shared my concerns about me losing the passion for football and maybe even Chelsea. So I am so pleased to report that at 12.33pm on Saturday 21 January in the Anfield Road Stand, there was no ambivalence nor doubt. I, like the thousands around me, was going fucking doolally.

My celebration of choice on this occasion was a Stuart Pearson fist pump, but a double one for good measure.

I turned to the lads to my left…”great timing.”

Alas, we then suffered that horrible delay that these days suggests that VAR was about to rear its ugly ahead once again.

When the goal was disallowed, Mr. Deep Voice on the PA mumbled something incomprehensible. There was no follow-up explanation on the screens. Unlike those in TV Land, I was left to ponder the mystery of why the goal was disallowed.

Modern football.

Unlike in our last visit in August 2021, there would be no Anfield goal for Kai Havertz this time.

Both teams started brightly enough, and Liverpool started to attack. I could hardly believe that James Fucking Milner was starting for them. Gakpo fired over. On a quarter of an hour, things were even.

We then hit a decent spell. There were a couple of lovely long bombs from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, one slightly over hit, another better, but a slip from Mount when free. Havertz then played in Hall, but his shot from an angle was wild. There was a lovely cushioned lay-off from Havertz, a lot more physical in this game, for Gallagher. This was good stuff, or at least, better than we had been used to.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Let’s sing that all season.

The home crowd was so quiet, easily the quietest that I had ever witnessed at Anfield. We were yet to hear the infamous “History” chant.

Two crosses from a reassuringly decent Ziyech caused a few concerns in the Liverpool box.

The new song was aired again and I spent a ridiculous amount of my time trying to work out the lyrics.

I liked the look of Benoit Badashile again, and even Marc Cucarella was impressing. The youngster Lewis Hall was having a tough game though. Silva was as imperious as ever. Gallagher was fantastic, charging balls down, running to close space, maybe not winning the ball, but forcing a mistake for others to gather the ball.

Liverpool did cut through us on a couple of occasions but their final passes, and shots, were poor.

Just before the half-time whistle, at last an audible chant from The Kop.

…”where we watched King Kenny play.”

Mo Salah took a touch when in previous years he might well have volleyed without much thought, and the ball curled high and wide.

Advantage Chelsea at the break? I think so.

At half-time, I noted empty seats in the afore-mentioned lower corners of the side stands, proof that these were hospitality areas in addition to the top tier of the Centenary and the middle tier of the main stand. Does this matter? It just shows how clubs are going after the extra-revenue these days. They’re going after day trippers, the tourists, the moneyed classes, the same old story.

Less and less seats for the average Joe. More and more for the average Johann, Jan, Jonty and Julian.

And although – I know from experience – many of English football’s overseas fans are wildly passionate about their teams, I shudder at the thought of a bigger and bigger percentage of ticket sales being aimed at the corporate sector. It used to be a game for the working classes. I can’t imagine what Bill Shankly would think of it all.

No wonder Anfield was quiet.

By the way, it made me chuckle that among the electronic messages that advertised hospitality packages on the perimeter of the pitch there was the stunning revelation that match day tickets were included. Thanks for clarifying that, Liverpool Football Club.

There were prolonged chants in honour of John Terry and it soon became known that our former captain was in the away section with us. I am guessing but I think he was maybe ten or fifteen yards away from me though I never saw him. I remember him at Burnley too.

I remembered a famous photo of Shanks in The Kop after he had left the club, unable to let go.

We began the second-half poorly, so poorly. The first two minutes seemed to take an eternity. There was an outrageous effort from Ibrahima Konate that was walloped from the half-way line towards Kepa at The Kop. Thankfully, it dropped just wide. There were a few more Liverpool attempts. This was desperate.

It was also still bloody freezing. It was bloody freezing in January 1983 too. There, that’s the 1982/83 reference taken care of.

On fifty-five minutes, Graham Potter replaced the struggling Lewis Hall with the Ukranian Mykhailo Mudryk, the undoubted subject of the new song, and from my vantage point I was able to capture him entering the field, his first touch, his first few dribbles and spins in the wide expanses of our left. In the end, my “wrong seat” had turned out to be a God send.

On the hour, Ziyech came in from his right wing position and drifted past player after player…each time the away end pleaded with him to shoot…and in the end his effort was typically high and wide.

Soon, Mudryk had us all purring, playing a “give-and-go” with Gallagher and spinning into the box, but we groaned as his effort only troubled the side netting. Soon after, Milner cruelly chopped him down. But Mudryk looked the business, he excited us all.

A rare Liverpool chance, but Kepa was able to thwart Gakpo’s goal-bound prod with a fine save.

We went on the attack again, and at times our play was a joy to behold. On seventy-one minutes, the best move of the match – full of quick passing – resulted in a Ziyech cross hitting the far post area but with nobody able to connect. A shot from Ziyech was blocked.

With ten minutes to go, more changes.

Dave for Trevoh.

Sadly, our defender had picked up a knock, such is life in the Chelsea trenches these days.

Carney for Mase.

Mount had been quiet for much of the game.

Pierre-Emerick for Kai.

I liked the effort from Havertz in this game. He was more involved than before. More up for the fight.

The away crowd were in fine form now. We had spotted a new desire in the team and we roared the team on with every sinew. Just the way it should be.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much we love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Fantastic stuff.

Dave, off the pace at times these days, was excellent in his cameo at the end of the game.

I was convinced that we would strike at the death but our chances sadly petered out. But this was a fine day out from us. It felt, whisper it, that a corner had been turned.

I wished that I had sussed out the new song though.

We walked back to the car amid a lovely exuberance. This was a special feeling.

I pulled out of the car park at 3pm and circumnavigated Goodison Park’s four stands and it honestly felt as though I might never be returning. Those blue stands have given me plenty of memories over the years. Out onto the Bullens Road, past the Dixie Dean statue, past the Winslow Hotel, thoughts of my father in the Second World War, past the player’s entrance – I remembered a recent ‘photo of Pele walking across the street in 1966 – past the Holy Trinity statue, past the Gwladys Street turnstiles and away.

It took me a whole hour to get past The Rocket and onto the M62.

Everton were to lose 2-0 at West Ham of all places.

”Frank’s gone, isn’t he?”

The four of us stopped off at “The Vine” – yet again – at West Bromwich at around 5.30pm where we each enjoyed glorious curries.

Lamb Rogan Josh, Chicken Balti, Lamb Madras, Chicken Jalfrezi.

There was a quick review from myself of our starting; “Conor Gallagher an eight, everyone else sevens apart from Mount a six and Hall a five.”

There was more chat about the match. We all admitted that we might have been getting a little carried away about our performance – ”after all, it was only Liverpool” – and we were sure that “MOTD” would dismiss it as a poor game, but for those of us of a Chelsea disposition, we definitely spotted a new belief, a more rounded performance, and better quality. We mused that the last five games against Liverpool had all consisted of draws. Well, more or less.

There was patchy fog all of the way back, but horrific clawing fog around Frome.

I eventually reached home at 9.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Tales From City At Home

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 January 2023.

After the miserable performance at the City Ground, we were now due to play two games in four days against the current English Champions Manchester City. This would only be my second home game against these opponents since September 2017. In 2018/19, I missed the home match with City due to illness, and in the subsequent two campaigns, COVID forced both games to be played behind closed doors. Last season, I was able to watch as we narrowly lost 0-1 to City at Stamford Bridge.

We were in London early, arriving at our usual parking space on Mulgrave Road at 4.15pm. I had lots of time to kill before the 8pm kick-off. In that long period before the game, every Chelsea supporter that I spoke to was very subdued and wary. Everyone without exception said that they would be satisfied with a draw.

I filled the time until kick-off in a number of ways.

First up, a wander down to the stadium and a coffee in the hotel bar area, with a few chats with several familiar faces. I had spotted a queue of cars to get into the car park at Fulham Broadway; a very rare sight. On a day when trains to London were hit with strikes, many more than usual would be driving in like us. I then spent a few minutes outside, clicking away with my camera to try to capture a few different match day sights at the main gates.  But I needed sustenance, so meandered down the Fulham Road, stopping off for a quick chat with Steve at the programme stall. Further down, I peered into the offices of an estate agent’s as I walked on. This is where “The George” used to be; our local from around 1985 to 1987, but this sadly ceased being a pub ages ago. My mind flew back in time. It’s where Glenn and I used to meet the Somerset Supporters Club; Neil, Baz, Rob, Swan, Terry and company. It’s another pub that is now consigned to the history books. Those clean white walls of the estate agents know nothing of the laughs we had in that back bar.

There was a surprise meet up with Marco way down the Fulham Road as he made his way up to the CFCUK stall. I eventually stumbled across a previously unvisited Sicilian café where I plotted up for half-an-hour. “Simmons” is now unfancied for midweek games, so I made my way to “The Mitre” for the first time in many a year where we hoped to meet the usual suspects. I bumped into Neil Barnett as I turned a corner to walk up the North End Road and we chatted for a while about the current malaise. He too feared the worst against City. Why wouldn’t he?

In “The Mitre”, I spotted Parky, but none of the other usual lads who we used to meet in “Simmons”. We’d later learn they had been drinking in “The Cock”. Not to worry, Leigh and Darren were in “The Mitre” with some of the lads we had been drinking with in Salzburg. No positive vibes from any of them either.

I was in early, way early, at about 7.15pm. It was a surprisingly mild night. My Barbour jacket was too warm but I could hardly jettison it. PD was in early too.

With half an hour to go, Depeche Mode were on the pre-match play-list.

“Just Can’t Get Enough.”

Could I get enough of Chelsea? Probably not. I could probably get enough of City over the next few days though.

There was a quick chat with Oxford Frank behind me. More negative vibes.

Sigh.

Amid all of this, time for a further dose of misery; 1982/83 is calling.

On Monday 3 January 1983, a bank holiday, Chelsea travelled to Filbert Street to play Leicester City in a Second Division match. We lost 3-0, and it would have come as no surprise to me. I was undoubtedly preparing myself for a tough 1983, and this was not all Chelsea-based. I was really struggling with my “A Levels” and the exams in June loomed heavily on my mind. There were a few interviews at various polytechnics to endure as spring approached and I just thought that this would be an absolute exercise in futility. I knew damn well, even in January, that my grades would not be good enough. A helping hand from Chelsea Football Club to get me through this depressing period was needed. Alas, my beloved team were performing as well as me. Two goals from Gary Lineker and one from Alan Smith, in front of a decent-enough gate of 13,745, gave Chelsea our second away defeat in three days.

Oh the joys.

What with the train strike, I half-expected a fair few unfilled seats, especially in the away section, but this was another near capacity crowd at Chelsea.

Graham Potter chose these players against City.

Kepa

Dave – Koulibaly – Silva – Cucarella

Kovacic – Zakaria

Ziyech – Sterling – Pulisic

Havertz  

Jorginho wasn’t playing. That would have pleased Neil Barnett. Kovacic was. That wouldn’t.

City, and it does not always happen, were wearing their sky blue home kits. It’s a decent look this year. Blue, white, blue, with that maroon trim from old. However, both the names and numbers were almost unreadable. Nathan Ake’s arse has doubled in size since the last time I saw him; it is now the size of Audenshaw and Droylesden.

We remembered Edson Arantes do Nascimento before the game.

RIP.

The match began.

There were mutterings about Raheem Sterling putting one over his former team mates, but this fantastical notion was obliterated in the first five minutes when he went down after a challenge by John Stones. He was replaced by the gloved crusader Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

We prepared to be underwhelmed.

With each passing minute, I thought three things.

  1. We are playing alright here.
  2. We haven’t conceded a goal.
  3. Has Erling Haaland touched the ball yet?

Indeed, we were playing alright. There were a number of decent passing moves on both flanks, but with no finishing touch. One pleasing move down our right on a quarter of an hour resulted in a decent low ball in to the danger zone from Dave but all of our attacking players had been busy in the right-hand side of the pitch setting the move up, and there was no predator waiting to finish the move off.

There was a reasonable amount of noise from the home areas but nothing to get the pulses racing nor the stands shaking. Such is life in modern football, eh?

“Has Haaland touched the ball yet, Clive?”

Halfway through the first-half, not only no goals but we were just about edging it.

However, another enforced change.

Carney Chukwuemeka for the perennially crocked Christian Pulisic.

The young substitute immediately impressed, and there was a nice edge to our midfield with Kovacic and Zakaria both influencing our play. I certainly didn’t miss the “touch, look, swivel, look, pass” from Jorginho one little bit.

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

A shot from Carney was blocked, and a shot from Ziyech. Ederson, dressed in head to toe in tattoos and purple, tights and all, managed to get down low to save the latter.

There were times when Ziyech, an outcast on the right, was under-used and it frustrated me.

“It’s gotta go quicker, Chels.”

Haaland was quiet, and as the game reached the final ten minutes of a decent half, the surprising sight of Kalidou Koulibaly out-muscling the Norwegian when the poacher was in on goal was magnificent. The Matthew Harding cheered this and I’d hope the defender grew from the affection. His Chelsea career has been tough thus far.

Thiago Silva was putting in another fine performance.

The under-fire left back Marc Cucarella was struggling at times, though, and some of his positioning as he marked his player was truly awful. On a few occasions, he was so unbalanced that he was easily side-stepped. But generally speaking, both Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne were subdued.

At last, Cucarella made a fine tackle just outside our box.

“Well done, Crystal Tipps” bellowed Rousey.

The first-half finished with a flurry, despite Chelsea being a little reticent to fully commit.

“We just don’t flood the box, Al.”

An effort from Haaland flew over. Phew.

On forty-three minutes, a fine move resulted in Carney crashing a low drive against a post, with The Illustrated Man well beaten. From here, a rapid break towards us in the Matthew Harding with our combined buttocks clenching with each yard gained. Thankfully, Kepa was equal to a rasper from De Bruyne. It was the best minute of football during the entire half.

I thought our performance was measured and controlled, not leaving us exposed and open to getting ripped apart again, despite the wishes of the away end.

I was more than content at the break.

“Not roaring though is it Clive?”

The atmosphere, to be truthful, was shite.

When the second-half began it was all City in the forty-sixth minute, the forty-seventh minute, the forty-eighth minute, etcetera.

Haaland went close soon into the half. Ake crashed a header against the Shed End bar, with a team mate behind him for extra support should he miss-time his header. Then a fine save from Kepa when De Bruyne shot at goal.

After Carney did well to retrieve a loose ball from a Chelsea corner, the ball sat up nicely for Silva but his zipped shot narrowly missed the far post down below us all.

I stood up, swore, and held my head in my hands instinctively, while turning to my left and looking back at my fellow supporters in the MHU. It is something I do without thinking on many occasions. It’s my body’s way of telling the world “damn, that was so close, eh?”

It dismayed me no end to see virtually every single spectator still sat.

It’s gone. Our support has gone. Where’s the fucking emotion? Where’s the fucking involvement?

Forays by us into the City defence were rarer now though, and on the hour, a double substitution was ominous. On came Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez.

“Fackinell, Clive.”

Within five minutes, catastrophe.

My commentary to myself, and Clive if he was listening, was this :

“he’ll move it again…I hate these balls in…there you go.”

It was easy as 1,2,3, A, B, C, do-re-mi.

Fackinell.

Grealish, in space, a low ball, Mahrez at the back stick.

Others will have had a better view, with the portioning of blame no doubt, but it was just too far away for me to comment.

At that moment, the conceding of that one goal, I just knew we would be up against it. Even an equaliser seemed implausible.

The previously quiet City contingent roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart again.”

  1. We ain’t Cockneys. Keep that song for when you play United, eh?
  2. That’s based on a United song about Ryan Giggs. You’re better than that.

Graham didn’t potter about. His reaction was swift.

Conor Gallagher for Ziyech.

Lewis Hall for Crystal Tipps.

And a Chelsea debut for Omari Hutchinson, on for the substitute Abameyang.

Omari is the latest in a line of Chelsea Hutchinsons.

Ian.

Colin.

Sam.

I hope he is a better footballer than Colin.

The introduction of the substitutes energised the support and for one exact moment it sounded, at bloody last, like a football match.

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

In truth, the debutant Hutchinson looked nervous and played easy ball after easy ball. Gallagher was so full of energy that he almost exploded. Hall fitted in supremely well on the left.

On seventy-two minutes, a rapid cross from De Bruyne from the right flashed across the box, missing everyone, but also the lunge from Haaland with the whole goal gaping in front of him. I had witnessed a miracle.

There was a looping header from Havertz just after, but this was easily saved by Lilac Larry in the City goal. An effort from Kovacic fizzed over. Very late on,Hall blasted over from a bursting run down in front of us.

It wasn’t to be.

It ended 0-1, as did the City games that I saw live in 2017/18 and 2021/22.

On the drive home, I saw that Peter Rhoades-Brown had been back at Chelsea for the night’s game. These days, he is heavily involved in some community and corporate work for his home town team Oxford United for whom he played after leaving us. I mention this because he played in the 1982/83 featured game at Leicester.

We were philosophical. We had played much better than most had expected. City, to be blunt, had been relatively poor, the worst I had seen from them at Chelsea for a while. We all know we are a team in transition, a club in transition too. There is no doubt that the knives are out for Graham Potter within some sections of the support. That’s not a surprise.

I eventually reached home at 1.30am.

On Sunday, the same two teams meet in deepest Manchester.

7,500 Chelsea are going.

See you there.

Tales From Number 686

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 12 November 2022.

There was a moment, not too long ago, when I was looking ahead – but not looking forward – to the enforced break during play in November and December, and I commented to some friends that it was possible for us to be tucked in nicely behind the top two or three teams by the time we played at Newcastle United and for us to then solidify our position in the top four on our return to action after Christmas.

It’s quite likely that this was my opinion after the game in Austria. But look what has happened since. A shocking performance and a heavy defeat at Brighton, a narrow win over Dinamo Zagreb at home, another terrible showing at home to Arsenal, and a loss at Manchester City.

The fixture at St. James’ Park was always going to be a tough one, but it now became even more difficult. We were playing against a team that was now enjoying a real surge in performances and self-confidence, while we were limping along, beset with injury problems, floundering under a new coach, square pegs in round holes, desperate to get to the winter break and with “damage limitation” as a new buzz-word around town.

As the game approached, I would have gambled everything on a dour 0-0 draw, just to avoid the inevitable backlash. The last thing we needed was three consecutive league defeats to take us into almost seven weeks of introspection, self-doubt, worry and possibly decay.

A big game? Oh yes.

It was also a landmark game for me. This would be Chelsea game number 1,372. Now there’s nothing special about that number in itself, but it would mark a special moment in my recent “Chelsea history.”

The first game that I wrote up a detailed account of my match-day meanderings in a regular blog format was the Champions League Final on 21 May 2008. This was game number 687. For those who are half-decent at mathematics, hopefully a few numbers will drop into place. The game at St. James’ Park would exactly split the number of total matches that I have seen into two; 686 games without a blog, 686 games with a blog.

And, as luck would have it, a nice bit of symmetry too; my first game was against Newcastle, the last game would be against them. The added dimension of this moment is that it would come right on the start of the enforced winter break this season.

So, some numbers.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974.

Game 686 : Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers, 11 May 2008.

Game 687 : Chelsea vs. Manchester United, 21 May 2008.

Game 1,372 : Newcastle United vs. Chelsea, 12 November 2022.

Let’s get going with match report 686.

I booked flights from Bristol to Newcastle ages ago. I gave myself a little wriggle-room, Friday night to Sunday night. It was a steal; just £60 return. The announcement of a 5.30pm kick-off on the Saturday evening ticked just about every conceivable box available, plus possibly some others that we were not even conscious of.

Three days and two nights in The Loony Toon?

Let’s gan, like.

I worked a 7am to 3pm shift on the Friday and picked up Lord Parky at 3.30pm. Not long into the drive down to Dodge to collect P-Diddy, Lordy realised that he was missing his credit card. I turned my car around and headed back.

We both found it odd that when we called back at his house, his partner Jill looked a little shocked to see us; a full-on marching band with majorettes were parading past, the small close had been decorated with flags and bunting, and there was a street party in full flow.

Jill looked embarrassed.

Parky soon found his credit card.

“Awkward this, Parky. Awkward.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have words with Jill when I get back from Newcastle.”

I collected PD at 4.15pm, and we then got caught up in some slow moving over traffic over The Mendips but pulled into the Long Stay at Bristol Airport at about 5.15pm.

Check in was easy. A coffee to kill some time.

“You can be sure there will be someone we know on the flight.”

Lo and behold, as we walked towards our departure gate, we spotted the two Andys and Zippy from Trowbridge with Steve from Weston in the bar. I reminded Steve that the first time I had met him was on a return flight from Newcastle in 2015 and we then both caught an onward flight over to Porto a few hours later.

A downer was the £24 we had to pay for our hand baggage.

“EasyJet never charged that for Turin. Bollocks.”

My reputation as a logistical expert was in tatters.

The flight to Newcastle left a little late at 7.30pm but we touched down at Newcastle at 8.10pm, on time. We took a sherbet dab to our apartment in Benwell. Initially, PD was all for a couple of quiet pints in a local pub, but I had already completed some reconnaissance and there was nothing near. Some friends were already plotted up at a pub that we knew so, with a little gentle persuasion from Parky and little old me – I am serious – PD agreed that we would hit the town, er toon.

An hour after touching down on Tyneside, we were in a cab into the city.

What followed was one of the great Chelsea nights. We started in “Rosie’s” under the shadow of St. James’ Park, just two hundred yards away, with friends Gillian, Kev, Rich from Edinburgh and Matt from Perth in Australia, I had met his father Ian in Perth for the Chelsea game in 2018. We were then joined by Al and Daryl who had travelled up by train in the morning and also Steve from Salisbury who had taken a very early flight from Heathrow. Paul, Rob, Dave and Glenn, Jason and Cass joined us, then Andy from Trowbridge and Steve from Weston.

“That’s my fault for tagging where we were on Facebook.”

Paul told me that he had lived on Tyneside for a few years thirty years ago, and had visited family in Hexham on this trip. He admitted that it was the passion and euphoria of being in Newcastle when Keegan was manager that actually re-ignited his love for football and Chelsea in particular. I knew exactly what he meant. Keegan was regarded as a veritable Messiah when he played for them between 1982 and 1984, as detailed this season, and he absolutely re-energised the area when he became manager in 1992. I have told the story here how I accompanied my good friend Pete to three Newcastle away games in 1992/93; local games at Bristol City and Swindon plus a game at Brentford when I was in London for the weekend.

We tumbled down into the Bigg Market and enjoyed a pint or two in a surprisingly quiet “Wunder Bar.” We strode further down the gentle slope and into “Pop World” where I had promised to meet up with Donna and Rachel, newly arrived from Heathrow. Dave – “Rees the Fleece” – was there with a few more faces. More drinks, some sing-alongs, some friendly locals handed us shots and some Jaeger Bombs were inevitably downed. PD and I recreated “One Night In Turin” with some “Baileys” and a fine time was had by all. One of us managed to avoid the clutches of a mad local woman, no names, no pack drill. Not that there’s anything wrong with liaisons with local girls in The Bigg Market, cough, cough.

There was even a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant towards the end that the locals ignored without incident. I wondered if this was the modern day equivalent of taking an end in the ‘seventies.

We caught a cab back to our digs at just after 2am.

I think.

It’s a bit shady.

Remarkably, there was no hangover on the Saturday morning. We all had a lie in but we were soon moving again. At about 11am, a later start than usual, we assembled together for a breakfast at the ‘Spoons on the quayside. The usual suspects, from the night before, soon joined us. A couple of pints soon rejuvenated me. We trotted along by the river and its bridges to meet up with Alan and Daryl, plus Nick and Robbie, at Akenside Traders which is always a hubbub of activity at any time of the day. The place was awash with Chelsea – too many to mention – and the beers continued. I wasn’t paying any attention to the Manchester City vs. Brentford game on TV, but just happened to watch as Brentford scored a ridiculously easy and ridiculously late goal to give them a superb 2-1 win.

From there, we strolled up to “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” and the merry-making continued. I bumped into Adam and some of his Eastern Blues.

Next, a cab up to St. James’ Park, and the Geordie driver was good value for money. He chatted about the Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan years; first as both players in 1983/84, then as player and manager in the “second coming” of the ‘nineties. Beardsley was a quality player. I have written before how I loved his trick, the “leg dangle” mid-dribble to put players off. I have never seen any other player do this.

“Have a good time, lads. But diven’t enjoy it too much, like.”

We caught the lift up to the upper level, and we went our separate ways. I had again swapped my ticket with PD so he could watch with Al, Gal, John and Parky. As ever, there were loads of Rangers in the concourse, but I wished that they didn’t sing their songs. At a Chelsea game? Sing our songs. Ta.

I made my way in. Night, of course had fallen by now. Outside the illuminated steel of the stadium, all was dark. The trip, thus far, had been near perfect, but now – alas – it was time for football to spoil it all.

But first, some history.

My “forty years ago” feature focuses on another away game against a team in black and white stripes and black shorts. On Tuesday 9 November 1982, Chelsea travelled to Meadow Lane for a League Cup tie against Notts County, the oldest professional team in the world who were formed in 1862. Unfortunately, Notts – their supporters call the team “Notts” and recoil at the city’s other team being called “Notts Forest” – beat us 2-0 with both goals being scored in the first-half. The gate was 8,852. At the time, Notts were in the First Division after being promoted at the end of the 1980/81 season.

Their one honour was the FA Cup in 1894. Oh, another claim to fame is that a Notts County supporter provided black and white shirts for Juventus way back in 1903. I must say that I love the fact that Juve chose to christen their new stadium in September 2011 with a friendly against Notts County. Amazingly, Notts drew 1-1. Sadly, the team now play in the National League at level five in the football pyramid.  From Turin to Dorking. What a fall from grace.

The usual routine of games at St. James Park took over.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.

“Blaydon Races” and I found it difficult to join in beneath my breath, it takes me back to my parents teaching me the words ahead of that first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

“Hey Jude” was a new addition, but we again hijacked it.

The locals had their own version anyway.

“La, la, la – la, la, la, la – la, la, la, la – Geordies.”

There were flags and banners in the Gallowgate. Amid the noise, it really felt like a whole city had been energised.

But first, a solemn moment. A poppy amid a sea of white mosaics, similar to us last week, appeared in the seats in the stand to my left, and the teams stood silent as “The Last Post” played.

Complete silence. Well done to everyone again.

Our team?

Mendy

Koulibaly – Chalobah – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Kovacic – Hall

Gallagher – Mount

Broja

I had said all along that I doubted that Lewis Hall would maintain his place despite a decent show at Manchester City md-week.

Eddie Howe vs. Graham Potter.

That rarest of match-ups, two young English coaches, both coming from those hot beds of football, Bournemouth and Brighton. Please excuse my cynicism.

The match kicked-off.

The game took a while to get going and there was a verbal war in the stands to take the place of hostilities on the pitch. I was surprised with how quiet it all was in the vast home areas. A lot of my fellow Chelsea fans agreed :

“No noise from the Saudi Boys.”

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

“We’ve won it all, you’ve won fuck all, we’ve won it all.”

Sadly, we had to re-jig our square pegs after just seven minutes when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was injured, to be replaced by Thiago Silva with Dave shifting out wide.

Miguel Almiron, the in-form player, volleyed over after a cross from our right, but chances were very few and far between. As we struggled to get into the game, I had a look around. Next to me were three empty seats. A few empty ones behind me too. This was all the more galling since Gillian and Kev had been unable to secure tickets. All of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. This was a very mild night. One chap to my right was just wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. Maybe he was that rare breed; a Geordie Chelsea fan. I remember I met one once.

A cross from the enterprising Hall found Armando Broja but his turn and shot ended with a simple save for Nick Pope. I bet the Rangers lot hated that.

Newcastle had much of the ball in that first-half but a mixture of poor final balls, dodgy finishing and desperate blocks from us denied them.

This was a poor game. Chelsea chances were at an absolute premium. I would like to say that we eventually grew into the game but we didn’t. At all.

Shite.

At half-time, Christian Pulisic replaced Dave. Did my eyes deceive me? No, Gallagher went to right wing-back. If we all hang around long enough, we’ll all get to play there.

Newcastle continued on the offensive with brave blocks from our defenders, plus a fine save from Mendy from close-in on Chris Wood. A snapshot from Sean Longstaff flew over our bar.

On the hour, a noisy “Carefree” from us. The home crowd were still pretty quiet, the noise levels only increasing when a move developed, the buzz increasing with their players’ penetration of our half. I remember the days when fans used to sing regardless of the action on the pitch.

Then, quite out of nowhere…

“Stand Up If You Love The Toon” and the loudness knocked my socks off.

That was more like it, Newcastle.

On sixty-five minutes, again out of the blue, a strong run from Pulisic ended up with the ball being pushed into the path of Gallagher who took aim and forced a fine flying save from Pope. It was our best chance of the game by a country mile.

With a quarter of the game to go, Almiron ran in from the right-hand touch line and appeared to me to be lining up a shot. The ball, though, fell nicely for Joe Willock, who swept it high past the dive of Mendy and into the goal.

Bollocks.

The home areas exploded.

“E-I-E-I-E-I-O – Up The Premier League we Go.”

We stood, silent, we had no answer.

“One-nil to the Saudi boys.”

Fackinell.

A triple substitution soon followed.

Marc Cucarella for Hall, a decent showing but no more.

Kai Havertz for Mason Mount, I hardly noticed him.

Hakim Ziyech for Armando Broja, another disappointment.

It was a lost cause. In the dying embers of a shocking performance, Mendy was sent into the attacking third to support a corner to no avail. It all got heated and nasty at the end, when a Geordie substitute was booked for interfering when we tried to take a throw-in. Both sets of players had to be separated at the final whistle.

This malicious mood continued after the game when we were exiting the stands, and were met with some posturing home fans underneath the Leazes End. The moment would probably have passed but we then heard the distinctive sound of police horses getting between the two sets of fans, a sight rarely seen these days, and a sound from a darker era.

The immediate post mortem was brutal.

“Fucking shit.”

Three league defeats in a row,

We walked into town amid some baying Geordies, who were quite adamant that they would become champions. I wasn’t so sure, but their euphoria was tangible. “Wunder Bar” was unfeasibly busy now, so we kept walking and walking into the craziness of a Newcastle night. I spotted three local girls, dolled up to the nines, short skirts of course, stop by a street corner and the loudest of the three took a video-selfie.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys. For we are mental. For we are mad. We are the loyalest (sp?) football supporters. The world has eva had.”

I had to admre it.

Parky, PD and I returned to the quietness of “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” – more local ladies, lovely – and we darted into the historic “Crown Posada” and who should be in there but Alan and Daryl.

“Of all the pubs in Newcastle, you had to walk into this one.”

We supped a few more. We were all fed up with our performance but equally philosophical too.

Daryl and I spoke about our huge disinterest in the Qatar World Cup, but both spoke about the seminal book “All Played Out” by Pete Davies that detailed England and the 1990 Finals in Italy. The “all played out” of the title refers to the state of the English game going into those finals; antiquated stadia, the lingering stench of hooliganism and racism, out-dated playing and training methods, disinterest in football by the public at large, football as a niche sport loved only by nutters and – the silent majority to be fair – normal supporters, and a game without much of a future.

The tears from Paul Gascoigne changed all that and the game has not been the same since.

“Now it’s us who are all played out with World Cups, mate.”

We kept drinking.

A late-night kebab and chips and then a cab back to Benwell at about 1am. The night was finished.

On the Sunday, we licked our wounds early on. We caught a bus into the city and then a metro out to Whitley Bay, a first time visit for us all, where we enjoyed some sun, a walk along the seafront and some fish and chips in a friendly restaurant. Then, the train back to the airport and a wait until the 8.10pm flight home. No surcharge on the bags this time, phew. I eventually got in at about 11pm.

It had, of course, been a superb time on Tyneside but…

…fackinell, the football.

Some other stuff.

The game at St. James’ Park, pushed my visits to Newcastle United into the top ten of most visited away venues.

  1. Manchester United 26
  2. Liverpool 25
  3. Arsenal 24.
  4. Tottenham 23
  5. Everton 22.
  6. Manchester City 19
  7. Aston Villa 18
  8. Southampton 18
  9. West Ham 15
  10. Newcastle United and Stoke City 14

And in case anyone is wondering, the “won, drawn, loss” breakdown from those 1,372 games is as follows.

Games 1 to 686.

Won 386

Drew 169

Lost 132

Games 687 to 1,372.

Won 410

Drew 128

Lost 147

And, lastly, with 3,390 words for this one, it brings my total “wordage” to 1,734,583.

However, I’m exhausted. I never thought I’d say it, but I think I need this enforced break. And, to be honest, if the viewing figures of the last three match reports are anything to go by, so do you lot.

Have a great Christmas and see you at Stamford Bridge on 27 December for the Bournemouth game.

Tales From Dynamo In 1945 And Dinamo In 2022

Chelsea vs. Dinamo Zagreb : 2 November 2022.

We were in November now. And after the glorious sun, if not the glorious result, at Brighton, it now felt like the winter had hit with a vengeance. The temperature had dropped and heavy coats and rain jackets were the order of the day. My new Barbour jacket was getting an airing for the first time. I hoped that it would pass the test.

It was about 4.40pm and I was walking along the Fulham Road with one of my fellow passengers. Just a few steps ahead, I am sure I saw Scott Minto edge onto the pavement. I walked ahead, got up alongside and – yes – it was him.

“Scott?”

“Hi mate.”

“Walking just behind us is another chap who played left-back for this club.”

Scott looked back and hands were shaken between the two former Chelsea defenders. As we continued towards the West Stand entrance, I thanked him for the 1997 FA Cup Final.

“That was one of the best days of my life,” I said, “and great celebrations too.”

Scott replied “you have to say we were the first team to rip the arse out of Cup Final celebrations, eh?”

I agreed. No doubt.

Scott continued.

“And the club’s first trophy since Ron’s time.”

“Absolutely.”

I liked Scotty when he played for us and it was quite a surprise when he left for Benfica in the summer after us winning our first trophy in twenty-six years. He was replaced by the returning Graeme Le Saux.

Meeting me outside “Frankie’s” were two friends from the US, a familiar theme in these reports, eh? Alex, from Houston as featured in the last report, was first in my view, but just behind him was David from Nashville. I was reminded that I last bumped into David at the PSG friendly in Charlotte in 2015. I introduced both of them to each other, and also to Chopper. We disappeared upstairs to the Millennium Hotel bar where further photo opportunities took place. New to the match day team is David Lee and I had a quick chat as a current workmate is a mutual friend. Our former defender – “Rodders” – is from Bristol and lives, now, between Bristol and Bath. I think we were all surprised to see Bobby Tambling there again. He spent an engaging five minutes talking to me with great enthusiasm and humour about a recent charity match in Cork, his adopted home city, to raise funds and awareness for those suffering from dementia. Bless him. It was a joy to see him so well.

PD and Parky, the others in the car from Wiltshire to London, were in “The Goose” but Alex and I decamped to “Simmons” after a quick chat with DJ at the “CFCUK” stall. The bar was ridiculously quiet on our arrival. A pint of “Estrella” apiece, we sat at one of the high tables and waited for further friends to join us.

Alex, as I mentioned previously, is originally from Moscow. Don’t worry, he is no fan of Putin, I have checked. He told me that his childhood team in his home city was Dynamo, and this suited me well. I told the story of when I went to the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow I purposefully bought myself a Dynamo Moscow scarf – beautiful blue and white – in honour of the 1945 game at Stamford Bridge. Alex was working in Moscow at the time of the game at the Luzhniki Stadium, and although he had purchased a normal ticket, he bumped into an old friend who invited him into his private suite. After huge amounts of vodka, Alex remembers little of the game. It is probably for the best.

Ah 1945, I have mentioned it before. Of all of our previous matches, it is the one that I wish I had attended, the 1970 and 1971 finals excepted. I flashed up some images of the game on my ‘phone to show Alex; specifically, the team line-ups with Chelsea, in red, clutching the bouquets given to them by the touring Russians. Alas, celery was not a Chelsea “thing” in 1945. I also showed him the photos of spectators perched on the old East Stand roof and surrounding the pitch.

Over 100,000 were at Chelsea that day.

“Small club with money” they say.

Righty-o.

Johnny Twelve and his son John – his first visit to England – settled alongside us. Our friend Rob, who sits a few rows behind me, called in. Next to arrive was Chopper from New York, who I have known since around 2006. We had a lovely little mix at our table.

Greenwich Village, Long Beach, Hersham, Houston and Frome.

The bar was still quiet. I joked with the others when I saw a gaggle of around eight girls – teenagers, I reckon – come in and sit opposite under a sign that said “GIRLS GIRLS.”

“Shouldn’t there be a neon sign behind us that says ‘OLD CNUTS’ lads?”

We weren’t exactly sure how Graham Potter would play this game. He had to play those in the named CL squad. The manager couldn’t flood the team with an influx of young’uns. After the Brighton debacle, I half-expected a decent team to salvage some pride. We, after all, would only have four games left until the dreaded break for the competition that deserves no further comment.

Luckily, the predicted rain held off on the short walk to Stamford Bridge. We were in early, and one section was already fully occupied. I always knew that the Dinamo Zagreb fans would have travelled well. And there they all were, just a few shy of three thousand of them in the two tiers opposite us in The Sleepy Hollow. And virtually all dressed in black.

“Probably just come from Selhurst Park” quipped Alan.

The team was announced.

With Kepa still injured, Mendy came in. We kept a back-four after changing things around at Brighton. Graham Potter handed Juventus loanee Denis Zakaria a Chelsea debut. Upfront, it was all pretty fluid stuff with Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang tending to drift left.

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Chalobah – Koulibaly – Chilwell

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang

I always like it when away teams come to Stamford Bridge and play in a mirror image of our kit. Dinamo were nicely decked out in white / white / blue but I didn’t approve of the “reverse bird shit” effect all over the shirts.

The away fans were making an almighty din, no surprises there, and an early chant sounded awfully like “All Leeds Aren’t We?” Their first chance got them all singing louder and louder still. A cross from the attackers’ right hung in the air and Cesar Azpilicueta’s header did not go where it was intended. The ball came back across the six-yard box for Petkovic to easily head home past Edouard Mendy.

The away fans erupted. Flares were let off in the away end and white smoke drifted around like old-style London fog. Soon after, a fair few showed Leeds-like tendencies by taking off their predominantly black tops.

We reacted well in the Matthew Harding with a loud riposte.

“Carefree” soon boomed around Stamford Bridge.

On seventeen minutes, a fine slide-rule pass from Jorginho hit the forward run from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the striker was just able to back-heal the ball towards Raheem Sterling after a defender initially cut the ball out. He then adjusted himself, took a touch, then another, and calmly slotted the ball low past the Dinamo ‘keeper. We were level.

Shortly after we made a patient advance down the right and Kai Havertz slipped a fine ball in towards Sterling but his first-time effort was high and wasteful.

By now, Alan and I were fully involved in a chat about the upcoming away game on Tyneside; our arrival times, our accommodation, our loose plans, talk of The Toon, everything. The game continued down below us almost as an afterthought.

On the half hour mark, a move developed down the right again, this time Mason Mount racing through to pick out a striker, Havertz. A defender reached the ball before the German, but the ball was played towards the waiting Denis Zakaria in a central position. He looked a little hesitant but he slotted it home, the ball just making it over the line before Dinamo players could intervene.

We were 2-1 up.

But still the Dinamo supporters sung and sung and sung.

It was time for another quip from Alan.

Livakovic, Peric, Misic, Ljubicic, Ivanusec and Petkovic were on the pitch.

“That’s a lot of itches out there. They should be able to get cream for that though.”

We reached half-time. It hadn’t been a festival of football, but it was pretty decent stuff.

In the match day programme, there was an interesting article by club historian Rick Glanvill concerning a friendly that we played against Dinamo in Zagreb on 27 May 1937, although the club was called Gradjanski at that time. Chelsea enjoyed a 1-0 win.

Continuing a look at our history, a quick mention of the latest Chelsea game from forty years ago. On Saturday 30 October 1982, Chelsea travelled way north to Carlisle United for a league game. We lost 2-1 in front of 7,171, with Colin Lee our scorer. We had just signed the former Liverpool full-back Joey Jones from Wrexham for £34,000 and I, for one, was not too impressed. Although he was only twenty-seven at the time, I felt that he was well past his sell-by date. Joey had played under our manager John Neal in his first of his two – eventually to be three – spells at Wrexham. I was certainly not impressed when our new signing was sent off on his debut. It summed up, in my mind, the worrying state of the club at that time.

At the start of the second-half, the Dinamo fans were still singing. They didn’t let up. It was magnificent to behold.

Our chances continued to pile up. Aubameyang cut in from the inside-left position and his whipped shot skimmed the top of the bar. We were treated to some tricky interplay between Aubameyang and Ben Chiwell down below us but a cross was blocked.

Dinamo were not particularly gifted but they did try their best to attack when they could. It was difficult to think that they had inflicted an opening-game defeat in Croatia at the start of this particular Champions League crusade. However, even a point against us in this game would almost certainly not be enough to prolong their campaign in the Europa League.

Or the “George Roper” as Alan called it.

In the away end, more smoke, and many a fire-cracker. The noise did not abate all night long. They were, probably, the loudest and most impressive away fans that we had seen at Chelsea. Ever? For their number, yes.

Our efforts continued from Havertz, Chilwell and Mount.

Potter made some substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

Thiago Silva for Koulibaly.

The debutant Zakaria impressed as the game continued. He looked strong and neat, leggy, with a decent pass distribution.

He was then replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The rain came on stronger now, but it seemed to invigorate us, with Broja looking like he was enjoying the battle with his marker as he twisted and turned out wide and in the channels.

The crowd loudly serenaded Thiago Silva and he is surely our most loved player at the moment. The Chelsea chances continued and in another game it could easily have been 4-1 or 5-1.

In the last of five substitutions, Christian Pulisic replaced Sterling.

Sadly, in virtually the last few seconds of the game, Chilwell pulled up on the touch-line, and it looked like a pulled hamstring. The prognosis looked worrying.

On the walk back to the car, we all got drenched by the incessant rain.

Fackinell.

I caught some much-needed sleep in the back of PD’s car as he battled the wind and the rain.

Next up would be a London derby against Arsenal, the first of three difficult matches, and our last home game until after Christmas.

Tales From The Last Game

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 22 October 2022.

The busy month of October was continuing for Chelsea Football Club. The tea-time kick-off with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge would be match number seven with the two away games at Salzburg and Brighton to follow. On a personal level, this would be my seventy-ninth Chelsea game against Manchester United in total. I have seen Chelsea play against no other team more. It would also be the forty-third time that I would see us play Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. It seems relevant, acknowledging United’s rivalry with Liverpool, that this is the most games that I have seen against one team at home apart from Liverpool who weigh in with forty-seven games. In the grand total league table, Liverpool are right behind United in second place.

  1. Manchester United 79
  2. Liverpool 78
  3. Arsenal 69
  4. Tottenham 67
  5. Newcastle United 53

By the end of this season, there might well be a tie at the top.

This would be Chelsea match 1,367 for me.

Of these, 11.5% will have been against either Manchester United or Liverpool.

One in ten games.

No wonder they say familiarity breeds contempt.

I saw that on the morning of the game, Mark Worrall said on “Facebook” that he rates the visit of Manchester United as his favourite home game. For me, it’s Tottenham, but I can understand why Mark named United. The aura surrounding the club has existed for decades and there is always a special buzz when United are in town. Due to the sheer number of their away support, especially when travelling en masse to away games became more popular in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, there was no club that brought more away fans than Manchester United on their travels around the Football League. Stamford Bridge, surely, must have been a favourite destination for them. In those days, there was no rigid segregation at games and the Bridge was no different. But in those times, with the capacity at around the 60,000 figure, that large north terrace alone could hold fifteen thousand or more with ease. And on the occasions of United’s visit to SW6, let’s not kid ourselves, at times more than 15,000 United fans would flow through the turnstiles on the Fulham Road.

The first time that I remember seeing a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match on TV – on highlights, for those foreign readers, let’s not forget that the first live league football on TV in England only began in 1983 – was the last game of the 1972/73 season. I have written about this game before here – Bobby Charlton’s last-ever game for United, the comical knock-in from Peter Osgood at the Shed End, his shrug of the shoulders on his knees in the goalmouth – but it is worth telling again that at a three-sided Stamford Bridge, the gate was 44,000 (I didn’t have to look that up) and there must have been the best part of 20,000 United supporters inside.

The “Red Army” as they were known in the ‘seventies would flock to all of their away games in a way that no other club has done before or since. In those days of pay-on-the-gate admission and no segregation – certain ends were only suggested for fans to segregate, hence the rather loose adherence to this policy by the hooligan element of many teams – clubs could, and would, flood games depending on the circumstances.

I remember Liverpool flooding Molyneux in 1976 with 20.000 supporters. And it has come to light that in 1977, Chelsea were given the home end at Nottingham Forest by the police simply because enough had congregated there early in the afternoon. That must still hurt the Forest fans; we will find out, perhaps, on New Year’s Eve.

But no team did all this as consistently as United.

Much later, in the ‘nineties, when Wimbledon played at Selhurst Park, they attracted very low crowds, but this ground in south London became the favourite of Manchester United, and no-doubt its much-lampooned Home Counties support, as it was easy for them to access tickets in all areas of the stadium, year on year. It became the ‘nineties equivalent of Stamford Bridge in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies.

For example, in 1993/94 Wimbledon averaged 10,474, but the Manchester United game drew a massive 28,553. The following season, the figures were 13,246 and 25,380. It was a feature of London football at the time. No other London stadium had such a laissez-fare attitude to away support, nor the room anyway. By then, segregation was rife and away “takes” greatly diminished.

Stamford Bridge was still an exception though. And in the first few games of 1993/94, although the gate was 37,000 – ditto – for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game, I would suggest that around 12,000 away fans were present. I can well remember getting into The Shed early and the north terrace was soon packed. I remember many United fans – no colours – being led out of The Shed for their own safety and escorted up to the north stand by the police. I never did find out how this procedure manifested itself. Was it simply a case of handfuls of United fans presenting themselves to stewards and pleading to be let into the north stand? I don’t know.

It was rather ignominious, being a Chelsea fan, seeing our ground swamped with United. In those days, football was about “how many did we take?” just as much as “how did we get on?” or “how did we play?”

I miss those days. You might have guessed.

The north stand probably held around 10,000 in those times. And the United presence that day was huge. There is no doubt that in addition to those United fans in the sweeping north terrace, there must have been a couple of thousand in the home seats and a residual amount in The Shed. I was stood next to one; my mate’s young brother who used to accompany me to a few Chelsea versus United games at the time. However, we will never know since United never scored.

In those days, it always pained me to see hundreds of United fans react to their team scoring in both stands; more so the East Stand to be fair, the nutters at Chelsea tended to go in the West Stand and only a brave away fan would sit there with the risk of getting slapped.

All of this is a very long way from 2022/23 where the police reduced the United away following from 3,000 to 2,400, though I am not sure why. I know that United have received many complaints over recent seasons for “consistent standing” at away games, but their spot in The Shed for this game was a “safe standing” zone anyway. Was it because the London Old Bill were admitting that they were unable to control three thousand? Who knows? It’s all very odd indeed. This move was very poorly received by the United away support, and quite rightly too.

I was in the stadium very early for this game. It had been a typical pre-match; a rush-around at the stadium and then to the pub with friends from near – Parky and Paul, Steve from Salisbury – and far – Ben and Mike from Boston, Bank from Bangkok, Mark from Spain, Luca and Robbie from The Netherlands, Andy and Josh from Orange County.

I was inside as early as 4.40pm. I soon decided to take a smattering of photographs of a virtually empty Stamford Bridge. Only a couple of thousand spectators, at most, were inside. As such, there was no atmosphere building anywhere. At the same comparative time at the 1993 game – effectively 2.10pm – the place would have been packed with the buzz building nicely.

Pre-match tunes, pre-match chants, pre-match songs, the gentle swell in numbers, the jostling for position, the anticipation rising.

I miss those days.

In 2022, there was music playing but elsewhere there was complete silence.

I took some photos from different angles of the same old features. I hope that you like them.

I soon spotted on my approach earlier in the day, out on the forecourt, there were rainbow-themed Chelsea kits welcoming supporters to a game when there was to be a nod towards equality in the game via the “Rainbow Laces” campaign. Out on the pitch, a banner with the Chelsea lion multi-coloured.

I wondered if the United support, vociferous with their “Chelsea Rent Boys” chants the past decade or more, would tone it down. I doubted it.

The minutes ticked-by. I was aware that I wasn’t as “up” for this as I should have been. I was a little wary of United’s recent run of form and of our two recent away, middling at best, performances. I think these thoughts dampened my spirits.

In the pub and elsewhere not only had I predicted a “0-0” but I would have been happy with a “0-0” too.

This was hardly a well-established United team. I wasn’t in awe of it. It was a mere shadow of former sides. And I thought the same of us really; my “tribute act” comment in the last episode, a throw-away line maybe, seemed to hit the spot.

The pre-match had no gravitas. There was no real thrill of what the evening would bring. It had the feel of a “run of the mill” game involving teams on the cusp of something better.

Graham Potter chose this starting eleven.

Kepa

Calobah – Silva – Cucarella

Dave – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

The United team? Who cared. I didn’t. But it looked like the retirement home for former Real Madrid players and that’s without “you-know-who” in the picture.

There was light drizzle just before the pre-match routines kicked in. It seemed to dampen the atmosphere further.

Before the entrance of the teams, a Matthew Harding flag travelled from east to west in the lower tier of the stand named after him. I have scanned the match programme four times now and I am yet to spot a mention of the death of our former director who was killed twenty-six years ago to the very day.

The fans in our stand, and those elsewhere, demand better.

Flames in front of the East Stand started flying up into the air – we had this American-style shite before Todd Boehly arrived and I guess we will have it after too – but at least my camera appreciated the reflections of the amber flames in the now sodden “Rainbow” banner on the centre-circle.

The game began.

I don’t always make notes on my ‘phone at every game, but on this occasion, I decided to. I suspect that the paucity of excitement on the pitch in the first-half and then throughout the game allowed me time to do so.

8 minutes.

Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang –  I conjured up a short-hand of “pea” a few games back then completely forgot what it meant when I studied my notes later – was away but his effort was neither a shot nor a cross.

I wondered if his “peashooter” days were over.

9 minutes.

After Jorginho was beaten to a ball, and he tried to block, his body shape reminded me of the wonderful phrase from an ‘eighties fanzine that was used to illustrate a similarly derided midfielder, Darren Wood. His efforts to block the path of the ball likened him to a “stranded starfish.” It’s one of the great footballing phrases.

10 minutes.

Luke Shaw flashed wide.

11 minutes.

A half-decent “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

17 minutes.

United were in the ascendency now. They were finding extra players with ease. Yet their tendency to over-pass reminded me of us.

19 minutes.

“No foothold yet, Al.”

21 minutes.

I tapped out a phrase that I hate and may I forever reside in hell; “unable to beat the press.”

23 minutes.

Another fine “Amazing Grace.”

25 minutes.

A strong United spell had evolved. We looked second best here.

26 minutes.

The Stamford Bridge crowd clapped in memory of Matthew Harding and our stand sung his name.

31 minutes.

A fine Kepa block from Marcus Rashford.

33 minutes.

Frustration all around.

37 minutes.

A substitution and Mateo Kovacic for Marc Cucarella. There was a change in shape to a 4-3-3. This met with our approval.

38 minutes.

A very messy chance, after United failed to clear, but Peashooter scuffed it wide.

39 minutes.

An Eriksen shot from distance was well wide.

40 minutes.

A cross from the left and a leap from Aubameyang but contact was light and off-target.

42 minutes.

The same player was played in with a ball rolled across the box but he could not quite reach.

44 minutes.

Anthony – a player that I am proud to say I know nothing about – shot from distance and, as it struck a supporting stanchion, my mind played tricks with me and I thought it was in. It certainly was a close one.

I was just pleased to get to the break at 0-0. We had been poor. United had bossed the middle section of the first forty-five minutes. I wasn’t so sure where a goal would originate. Maybe my 0-0 guess wasn’t so far off. A pal who sits behind me commented :

“Get any good photos that half? I suspect not.”

“No. Shite.”

Only two are shared here.

Things were better in the second-half, but I soon commented “we have dragged them down to our level.”

50 minutes.

A scare when Kepa raced out to reach a ball near our left touchline and we then nervously gasped as the ball was eventually passed out of defence. We took forever. The chance of a quick break, exposing space, was lost.

56 minutes.

United, I noted, were not as loud as in the past. I wondered if the missing six-hundred were the singers.

58 minutes.

Sterling elected to pass inside when a shot was probably the best option.

60 minutes.

The noisiest moment of the game, perhaps, helped escort Varane off the pitch.

62 minutes.

“Chalobah playing well, lads.”

64 minutes.

“We have looked tired from the start, really.”

70 minutes.

A header from Clever Trevoh skimmed the top of the bar.

71 minutes.

We were hitting a little spell now, easily the best of the game, and the noise grew with our intensity.

74 minutes.

Christian Pulisic for Aubameyang, not surprisingly.

75 minutes.

The ever-frustrating Ruben Loftus-Cheek lost the ball in a dangerous position but a Bruno Fernandes shot was saved so well by Kepa.

79 minutes.

Armando Broja for Raheem Sterling, not surprisingly.

84 minutes.

I captured the very start of the pushing and shoving by substitute McTominay on our boy Broja. But I was watching the flight of the ball when the man-handling reached silly proportions. I saw the referee point. Oh boy. What drama.

86 minutes.

Just like in Milan, Jorginho walked away with the ball as tempers raged in the United team.

87 minutes.

Goal. Get in you bastard. What a clean penalty.

88 minutes.

CAREFREE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.

89 minutes.

The stadium was a riot of noise now alright. For too long, the noise had been shite.

90 minutes.

AND IT’S SUPER CHELSEA. SUPER CHELSEA FC. WE’RE BY FAR THE GREATEST TEAM THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

94 minutes.

Chelsea unable to clear. A floater from the left. Two United players leap. That gut-wrenching feeling. The ball dropped into the goal. But no, wait, it came back off the post. And Kepa miraculously claimed it.

No.

Goal.

Bloody Casemiro.

Noise now from the two thousand odd in the away end.

95 minutes.

The Bridge was absolutely silent apart from 2,400 voices.

“WHO THE FUCK ARE MAN UNITED?”

At least there was nobody jumping up and being a twat in the home areas.

It was, sadly, a very fair result.

I reached home to see the game’s highlights on “Match of the Day” and it was the last match featured.

Chelsea and United, the last game on “MOTD”? The absolute shame of it.

See you in Salzburg on Tuesday.

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

Whereas my 1985 Inter-Rail jaunt around Europe took in many countries, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north, the 1986 version – another solo-trip, another dose of me finding confidence through travel – was focussed on Spain, France, Italy and the Greek Island of Corfu. It was all about exploring the southern parts of Europe and the first fortnight or so encompassed Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona, the Italian Riviera for a week, Pisa and Rome before I then spent around ten relaxing days in three locations on Corfu. After that had all finished, and on the return trip north, I wanted to stop off in Milan. In the three weeks or so that I had been away from Blighty, I had already visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. To miss out on the San Siro – or the Giuseppe Meazza as it is sometimes known – would have been foolhardy.

I caught the long overnight train – fourteen hours, the longest of the whole month – from Brindisi to Milano Centrale, arriving at 9am on a Thursday morning in early August.

Ah, Milano Centrale.

It brought back memories of my very first taste of Italy.

In 1975, on my first European holiday, my parents and I caught a train from London Victoria to Milan, another overnighter, on the way to Diano Marina in the Italian Riviera, and so the immense interior of this incredible station – Mussolini must have liked marble – thus witnessed my first ever steps on Italian soil.

A year later, another Italian holiday – this time to Lido di Jesolo near Venice – and another train to Milano Centrale. On this occasion, our onward leg was by coach and so we walked outside the station to pick up the connection. I was therefore able to witness the three huge halls that made up the station frontage. These were equally as impressive as the three semi-circular roof spans covering all of the train tracks.

By 1976, I had already chosen Juventus as my Italian and my sole European team but was of course aware of the two Milan teams who, in those days, were known in England as AC Milan and Inter Milan.

An Italian family had settled in my home village after the war and although they didn’t seem to be particularly into football, one of the brothers had a son, Adriano, who occasionally visited and he once told me that he favoured Milan. Incidentally, the mother in this family lived to a very grand age of 109. There must be something in that Italian diet.

My parents, on a whistle-stop visit to Milan on an Italian holiday in the ‘fifties had called in to see this family’s relations and my father often told the story of being given a few shots of the infamous grappa.

On a few visits to Italy, back to Diano Marina again and again to see my pal Mario, I became acquainted with more and more aspects of the Italian game. At that time, Inter were bigger than Milan – in terms of fan base – and the two clubs’ support tended to be split along socio-political lines.

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

Oh, and I soon learned that “Inter Milan” was wrong, very wrong…either Inter or Internazionale and nothing else. At the time, Juventus were the dominant team but the two Milanese had sporadic success. Milan won a scudetto in 1978/79 but were then relegated to Serie B in 1979/80 due to a betting scandal and again in 1981/82 due to being, er, shite.

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

As I have mentioned previously, the visit of Leeds United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 9 October 1982 absolutely captivated me. It stirred so much emotion. And it engendered such a sense of anticipation.

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

Growing up, Leeds were a massive name. Just as I was getting into football, the big teams were Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Derby County were champions in 1972 but never really had the same clout as the others. Manchester United? No, a joke of a club on the decline. Manchester City? Off the radar.

With Leeds getting unceremoniously dumped into the old Second Division at the end of the 1981/82 season, throughout that summer I was kept buoyed with the thought that I would be – hopefully – able to see them play my beloved Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

The fixtures were announced. I would not have to wait too long. Unlike the Leicester City game in September when I travelled up by train, for the Leeds game I went up by National Express coach from Bath. This was a tiresome journey and I remember being relatively miserable about the whole experience. I think it was a bit cheaper than the train – my diary mentions the coach costing £5.50 – and it was all about saving money for football in those days.

I remember that some long lost Canadian cousins had recently dropped in on us – my father’s cousin from Vancouver – and I had been gifted an oversized Vancouver Whitecaps shirt as a present. I know I decided to wear it up to the Leeds United game. What do I remember of the day? I remember arriving at Victoria Coach Station and catching a tube to Fulham Broadway.

I distinctly remember this :

I was stood in the central aisle, and I noted a young lad in front of me. Maybe the same age, seventeen. He was smartly dressed. He was wearing some sportswear. Maybe some Adidas trainers. Actually, maybe some desert boots. Maybe a Slazenger pullover. Perhaps an Adidas rain jacket. Definitely some tight jeans. And I certainly remember thinking “mmm, that’s a new look, something different, bit like a mod but with a football twist.” I was certain that he was going to Chelsea. I don’t remember a pin badge though. And I remember him looking at me in my Vancouver Whitecaps shirt, and the thought went through my head that he was trying to suss out who I was, which team.

At that time, living in rural Somerset, I was blissfully unaware of the dress code that had enveloped urban cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and London but which had originated on the football terraces. There were skinheads, punks, headbangers, mods, but that was it as far as I was concerned.

Looking back, I am positive that my first ever sighting of a casual took place on the tube on the way to Chelsea and Leeds that day. I would later learn that on that very day, the warring factions – I am not sure if I had heard of the Leeds Service Crew in 1982 but it is quite possible – were chasing each other around Piccadilly Circus that lunchtime.

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

“Welcome to all Leeds United fans present today. Chelsea FC extend a warm welcome to the supporters of our distinguished visitors Leeds United. We hope you witness an exciting match and have a message for you – don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug – and help your club achieve greatness once again.”

I remember having a chuckle at this. There was no mention of a warning to Chelsea fans here. It would seem that we were an innocent party. I can just imagine Ken Bates mouthing the “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug” to the programme editor.

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

I don’t remember much of the actual game and sadly I didn’t take my camera to games in those days. I absolutely remember the malevolent atmosphere though. I watched from my usual spot in The Shed, under the roof – just – and towards the tea bar. Leeds, I suppose, had around three thousand fans and the size of the gate really warmed me. It was 25,358, much more than I had expected and the third biggest of the day in the Football League. I remember Leeds in two central pens, nobody else on the bleak north terrace. But I remember that the northern segments of The Benches and the East Lower – what I would later learn to be the infamous Gate 13 – were absolutely rammed. It was as if the stadium had been tilted north and everyone had been squashed up against the north terrace. This gave me, an excitable youngster, the impression that the Chelsea fans just wanted to have a go at the Leeds lot.

There was one chant from The Shed that made me grimace :

“Did the Ripper, did the Ripper, did the Ripper get your Mum? Did the Ripper get your Mum?”

This was the Yorkshire version, not Jack of old London town.

The teams that day?

Chelsea : Steve Francis, Gary Locke, Chris Hutchings, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew, Mike Fillery, Pop Robson, David Speedie, Clive Walker.

Leeds United : John Lukic, Trevor Cherry, Eddie Gray, Kenny Burns, Paul Hart, Gwynn Thomas, Kevin Hird, Aiden Butterworth, Frank Worthington, Frank Gray, Arthur Graham.

This would be my first sighting of David Speedie. There are some names in that Leeds team. The Gray brothers. Kenny Burns. I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Frank Worthington but I am glad that I evidently did. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Please Google his goal for Bolton against Ipswich Town in 1979.

Sadly, the game ended 0-0 and was memorable for the outbreaks of fighting in the East Stand than the quality on show on the pitch.

I sloped off and ended up waiting at Victoria for an hour or so to catch a coach home. Some Tottenham fans had been at their game at home to Coventry City and we got talking. Once they heard I was Chelsea, they told me to watch out for Leeds fans as they were “nasty buggers” and I remember one of them eying up what I was wearing.

“Don’t worry, I think that you will be safe with that on.”

Let’s move on four years to 1986 and my short stopover in Milan. I bought a map at the station and walked down past La Scala Opera House to the grand cathedral – Il Duomo – in the city centre before walking to Cairoli and catching a tube to Lotto. The weather was super-hot and the walk to San Siro was tough going. I first thought that I wouldn’t be able to get in, but thankfully I soon found an open gate so sneaked inside. In those days, the stadium was just two-tiered, a huge concrete edifice. Childhood hero Ray Wilkins was playing for Milan at the time. Another couple of tourists were inside too. One of them took a photo of me looking ridiculously tanned after my stay on Corfu. San Siro was undergoing a transformation over the summer; plastic seats were being bolted onto the once bare concrete, at least on the steps of the lower deck. I took photos inside and out. It was a joy to be inside one of the palaces of European football. My diary tells me that I scrawled “Chelsea FC” on one of the green seats at the northern end. That doesn’t surprise me. I had scrawled the same on a fence at the stadium in Rome too.

I didn’t leave Milan that day until I took a train to Paris at around 7pm. There is no doubt that I would have spent a fair few hours at Milano Centrale, an activity that I would repeat many times over the next four years as I repeatedly returned to Italy. My diary noted that Milan was “not a fantastic place really” but I enjoyed being in this famous city, this famous football city, and of course the home of Italian fashion and the birthplace of the “paninari” a few years earlier.

Earlier in 1986, I had bought the Pet Shop Boys’ mini-album “Disco” and absolutely loved the song “Paninaro” :

“Passion and love and sex and money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Food, cars, travel.
Food, cars, travel, travel.
New York, New York, New York.
New York.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

I don’t like country-and-western.
I don’t like rock music.
I don’t like, I don’t like rockabilly or rock & roll particularly.
Don’t like much really, do I?
But what I do like I love passionately.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

You, you’re my lover, you’re my hope, you’re my dreams.
My life, my passion, my love, my sex, my money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Don’t like much really, do I?
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
But what I do like I love passionately.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

What an anthem. In 1986, the paninaro look was definitely assisting the UK’s casual look to evolve. I had bought some deck shoes, a “Best Company” T-shirt and always had one eye on what was happening in Italy and on the terraces at Chelsea and elsewhere. It was a great time to be young and into football, music and clobber; the time of my life.

At San Siro in 1986, just for the record…red Kappa polo shirt, Adidas shorts and a pair of yellow espadrilles.

There is one more thing to add from my holiday in 1986. At Ipsos on Corfu, I shared a tent with a chap called Rob who owned a record shop in Sacramento in California. Every few months, he would visit London and buy up a ton of obscure music posters, T-shirts, and rare CDs and ship them out to the US to sell at hugely-inflated prices. It got me thinking. I cottoned on to the genius of selling rare items at a nice profit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think too long. My post-college future was decided during that Inter-Rail trip of 1986. I would buy English football badges – the small, super small, circular ones – and travel out to Europe flip-flopping between games in Germany and Italy to sell them at games. For all of its problems with hooliganism, or being blunt because of it, I just knew that English badges would sell well in Europe.

I was itching to go. Sadly, I had one more year at college to endure.

Tick tock, tick tock.

1986/87 passed with Chelsea finishing in a lowly fourteenth place but I had fared better; I somehow passed my Geography degree with an Upper Second. However, my immediate future didn’t involve job fairs, interviews or further studies. My future was focussed on football.

Fackinell.

That summer I returned to work in a local dairy, as in 1984, to gather some sheccles together for more foreign travel. In September, I set off with two college mates – Ian and Trev, the same course – for another spin around Europe. On a Saturday evening in Rome in early September, after another visit to Stadio Olimpico, I stumbled across a booklet listing the Serie A fixtures for the season.

A quick scan of the fixtures : Inter vs. Empoli.

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

We were headed up to Venice for an early morning visit, arriving at 6.30am. However, after a whirlwind walking tour, we were away at 9.45am and headed to Milan via a change at Vicenza. I had bought a copy of the famous daily sports paper “La Gazetta Dello Sport” to check some details about the game and tickets were on sale for L.10,000 or about five quid. The fervour being shown by a train full of Brescia fans en route to Padua – a local derby – astonished us. It was a fine pre-curser to our afternoon in Milan. We got in at 1.30pm and the game was to kick-off at 3pm. Perfect. We disappeared underground and took a metro to San Siro which was quite a way out. There was a free bus at Lotto to take us to the stadium. I had time to peruse the various grafters outside.

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

Italian ones were selling for L3,100 or about £1.50.

Our tickets positioned us above a small knot of Empoli fans in the southern end, the “Lions’ Den” section where Milan’s ultras congregated. We had reached our seats by entering near the northern end but the steady slope took us around the outside of the stadium to deposit us in the southern end. To my amazement, we sat on raw concrete. But I was not bothered. I was in football heaven.

The Alps were visible above the Inter fans in the north end. I loved all the banners.

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

Empoli? I knew little about them apart from that they were newly promoted. On the previous weekend, they had won 2-0 at home to Juventus, a huge shock at the time. On this day in sunny Milan, I watched on with great pleasure. This was my first professional football match outside of England, Scotland and Wales.

The San Siro would always have a place in my heart.

The Inter team that day included some stars; Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli plus the two “stranieri” Daniel Pasarella and Enzo Schifo. It was an utter joy to witness Italian football in the flesh.

Aldo Serena and Altobelli gave Inter a 2-0 win in front of 42,672.

My diary notes “I am sure I can make a killing there with badges.”

Later that year, in November, I sold badges at Juventus’ Stadio Communale before an evening game against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Cup. I only sold 31 but it was a start. I was less fortunate in Mannheim and Munich in Germany. I was stopped by the police in Mannheim and also in Munich where I decided to foolishly chance my luck. I had sold 34 at Munich’s Olympic Stadium – going well – but I did not have a street trader’s licence – “reisegewerbekarte” – so was arrested and fined on the spot. However, a cop let me in to watch the last twenty minutes of the Bayern vs. Uerdingen game for free.

In February 1988, I was at it again.

My first game was at San Siro, and a friendly involving Milan and Steaua Bucharest on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, the Serie A games had been cancelled due to an Italy vs. Russia game in Bari on the Saturday but thank goodness Milan had sorted out a friendly. Milan were in full flow at this time with Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten leading the team to glory. I did OK at this game. The gate was only 14,000 but I sold 26 badges and 2 scarves. One bloke swapped his “Fossa Dei Leoni” badge for one of mine. There were a few nervous moments as several police cars drove past but I was not spoken to. I had decided to pitch myself near the to where the Lotto busses stopped. It seemed perfect. I was positioned just outside the San Siro “Trotter” arena; horse racing but with the jockeys in little buggies.

It is a mystery why I did not pay the £4 to attend the game. I guess that I was on a limited budget – I certainly ate frugally and infrequently while away for a month – and the whole point of me being in Italy was, firstly, to make some money. I walked away with £40 in my pockets, and a profit of about £25.

Small acorns and all that.

A week later, I was back at San Siro for the Milan vs. Sampdoria game. Here was the real test. Thankfully this went swimmingly well. Again, I didn’t go inside, but for a valid reason; it was a sell-out. At half-time I was stood outside the stadium with a few thousand others. I went on a wander across the vast car park and returned to hear the clamour as Milan’s second goal went in. They were to win 2-1. The attendance was 72,000 and I walked away with £125 and a profit of about £80. I had sold 80 badges and 7 scarves. Not bad for around four hours’ work. I was in heaven with thoughts of returning again. And again.

Before the game, probably against my better wishes, I had bought the monthly magazine “Forza Milan.” As a Juventus fan, it was a bad move, but I just wanted to immerse myself in Italian football. It really was a heady time to be a Milanista. It felt that their time had come. At the end of the 1987/88 season, they were crowned as champions for the first time since 1979. Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, Arrigo Sacchi and his famous “pressing” was getting the best out of his players. And Gullit and Van Basten were soon to be European Champions with The Netherlands in the summer.

Mamma mia.

Later that week, I did even better at Verona, selling 79 badges from a crowd of just 33,000 before and after a UEFA Cup game with Werder Bremen.

In the summer of 1988, I recorded an episode of “Rough Guide – Milan” with Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha (remember them?) and the travel guide totally encapsulated all that was rattling around my brain at the time. There is no doubt that I was deeply infatuated with all things Italian from the mid-‘eighties onwards.

My next trip to Milan, and San Siro, would be my last for thirty-two years. It came in September 1990, right after the momentous Italia’90 World Cup – when many English folk “rediscovered football”, stop sniggering at the back – and I had returned from an equally momentous ten-month holiday in North America. With English football back with a vengeance after some dark days, the time was right for me to head over with a freshly-acquired stash of English – and Scottish, Celtic in particular always sold well in Italy – badges.

It was a heady time for Italian football. The national team had threatened in the World Cup before falling to a Maradona-inspired Argentina in a semi-final. However, I always thought that it was club over country in Italy, even more so than in England.

The Serie A title was certainly shared around in this period.

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

The second Sunday of the 1990/91 Serie A season saw me return to Milan for the Inter vs. Bologna game.

At the end of the day, I started my daily journal :

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

My sales patter didn’t go on for long, but it certainly did the job. I must have repeated that phrase five hundred times in the six hours before the 4pm kick-off.

My diary reports a “perfect day” and it is certainly one that I look back upon with a great deal of pleasure. It was, simply, one of the best “non-Chelsea” days of my life. I had arrived at Milano Centrale at just before 8am. By 10am I had arrived outside the remodelled San Siro and – oh my goodness – I can well remember the sight of those monstrous red girders floating above the photogenic towers that had been added to the San Siro since my last visit eighteen months earlier.

Within an hour, I had sold 26 badges to a stall-holder, at a slight-knock down price of L.3,500 each. I had decided to up the price to L.4,000 per badge from my L.3,000 price in 1988. I stopped selling at 3.15pm in order to buy a ticket off a tout – I couldn’t miss this game – and I nabbed one for L.25,000 instead of L.20,000.

As it happened, I could afford it.

My one memory of this day is of ascending one of the helix shaped towers behind the South Curv and scrambling to a seat almost at the rear of the very back row of the third level. I stood up and spent what seemed a long time picking L.5,000, L.10,000, L.20,000 notes and even one L.50,000 note out of all four pockets of my jeans and adding them to the pile in my wallet.

That day I sold almost 200 badges. I even sold some on the slow walk back to Lotto without even trying; a lad had remembered me from before the game and stopped me to buy ten. By the time I had pulled the last note from my jeans, I had made £330 which equated to a profit of around £200.

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

The game was half decent. Inter had the three World Cup winners Klinsmann, Matheus and Brehme in their team. I noted that Bologna countered well. In the last minute, Alessandro Bianchi scored with a great volley in front of the “Ultras”, “Boys San” and “Vikings” in the home Curva Nord to give Inter a 1-0 win. The noise was utterly incredible even though the gate was only around 50,000. The other lot, Milan, were the bigger draw by far at the time. They were the “buzz” around the city.

On the following Sunday, I paid another visit to San Siro and another fine afternoon followed. This time it was Milan vs. Fiorentina. I didn’t go inside for this one. Outside, I sold just under one hundred badges. My diary notes that I soon sold out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic – by far the best sellers in 1990 for reasons that might well be obvious – and so I did well to sell so many. I was outside the stadium when Milan scored their first goal – they went on to win 2-1 – but I left for the station well before the end as I had developed a bad headache. One thing of note; I had been chatting to an English guy from Rochdale who had stayed over from the World Cup with England. He was interested in selling badges too; he seemed a bit of a chancer, but I gave him the ‘phone number of the bloke in Blackburn who had provided me with the badges. He disappeared off to “blag” some tickets but I later saw him, crestfallen, having been picked up by plain clothes cops, his tickets nicked too.

What a plum.

Alas, my badge-selling days were over before they had really got going.

There is a sad end to all of this in fact. A few days after the greatest days in Milan, I was robbed while on a train from Zurich to Genoa – I was knocked out using CS gas I think, it was all the rage on Italian trains at the time, luckily my Inter-Rail Card and passport were untouched – and so I had to sheepishly make my way to Turin where my friend Tullio’s father lent me some money to get home.

I remember his father answered the doorbell, so surprised to see me.

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

This story continues on though. In 1995, I met up with Pete, the chap who sold me all those badges at cost price – bless him – before a Chelsea game at Ewood Park. He treated me to a pub lunch and we spoke about our grafting days. He was a Liverpool supporter – he was there in Rome in 1977 and elsewhere too – and when I spoke about Milan, I mentioned the chancer I had met in 1990.

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. From Rochdale. I always wondered how he got my number.”

“Bloody hell, Pete, I gave it to him.”

It turned out that this bloke had stayed on in Milan and was now living with the woman who was running the newsagents on the platform at Milano Centrale. He often bought badges from Pete. To say I was fed-up was another understatement.

“Bloody hell. That could have been me. Could have met an Italian girl. Could have had badges sent out to me. What a bugger.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

In February 1997, Chelsea played Milan in a friendly at San Siro and a few hardy souls went over to watch. We lost 2-0 in front of 8,756. I think both teams just needed a game. A few friends attended but there was no way I could go over.

In October 1999, Chelsea played Milan in the San Siro in the Champions League group phase. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time off work and so, sadly, missed it.

In March 2010, Chelsea played Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Again, work got in the way. I had just changed companies and I knew my new boss would have struggled without me in the office for three days and so I valiantly – stupidly? – decided that I would forego my chance to see us in Milan.

I have seen Chelsea play seven times in Italy – three against Juve, two against Roma, one against Lazio, one against Napoli, and not a single win – but a visit to San Siro with my beloved Chelsea was evading me like Tottenham’s relationship with silverware.

It was gnawing at me.

There were ongoing rumours, which gathered strength over the years, of both Milan teams moving into a new build which would rise in the car park where I had walked in 1988. This news depressed me. I saw the plans for the new place. They looked super-modern yet so bland. The drama of San Siro’s bulk was missing. Sigh.

Thankfully, our names were drawn in the same group this autumn and I could look forward, at bloody last, to a visit.

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

A flight to Turin on the Sunday evening. By the time I had got to looking at flights after returning from Chelsea on a Saturday night, all of the cheap and timely flights to Milan had disappeared. Not to worry, I much prefer Turin to Milan. Three nights in a central apartment with PD and Parky. I would hire a car on the day of the game. A brief spell of sightseeing in central Milan then off to the match. A midnight flit back to Turin and then a flight home from the city’s Caselle airport on Wednesday evening.

I picked up PD at 11am on the Sunday morning and Lord Parky not long after. It was a fine drive to Gatwick. Despite the 4.40pm flight leaving an hour late, the pilot must have known a short cut as he clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. I had a window seat and particularly enjoyed the flight over the English Channel. I pondered how many thousands of articulated lorries I had sent over this small expanse of water since I began at my job in March 2003. From the air, I was able to easily see both coasts; France to the left, England to the right. I thought back to all those solo trips to Europe in my Inter-Railing days. What good times.

We landed at Caselle at 8.10pm. We took a cab to the city. By 9.12pm, I had navigated how to obtain our apartment keys and to enter our pad on Via Fratelli Calandra. Outside, misty rain. But our spirits were lifted when we spotted a small pizza place directly opposite. We sat ourselves inside on some high stools and ordered the first beers of the trip.

“Ichnusa” – from Sardinia – was first spotted by us in Rome in 2017, and here it was again. It was a fine lager. I had a pepperoni pizza – cheap, only eight euros – and all was well with the world. We slept soundly.

Monday was a lovely, lazy day. My two fellow Chuckle Brothers had only visited Italy once before – that Rome trip in 2017 – so Turin was new to them. I took them alongside the River Po, and spoke about the city a little. But I soon found my voice often drifting away to silence when I realised that they weren’t really taking it all in.

I’ll never make a tour guide.

We sat at a few cafes and ordered some cappuccinos. We got the nod that Callum was going to be in town for an hour or so en route to Milan so we caught a cab to Porta Susa train station. This was fine since it enabled me to scope out the Hertz car hire place that I would be utilising on the Tuesday. We all met up in a bar.

We wondered if we had indeed sold all 4,300 tickets. All we knew is that they had gone “off sale” so we hoped so. I spoke to Cal about my Italian pal Tullio who I have known since meeting him in Diano Marina, that town again, in 1981.

“I remember one Saturday morning, ahead of a Napoli game on the Sunday, in 1988…he drove over to meet some school friends after they had gone in to study. They were all labelled-up. Best Company sweatshirts. Timberlands. Sisley coats. Benetton. Lacoste. Jansport duffle bags. Even their school files were adorned with designer labels.”

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

In the afternoon, we slurped a draught Ichnusa apiece in a bar directly opposite one of Turin’s must-see attractions. The National Cinema Museum is housed within the Mole Antonelliana, a building with a domed roof and spear-like tower. Rob and I went up the lift to the viewing gallery in 2009 and I was hoping to do the same this year. Alas, the lift was not working. Not to worry, I visited the film museum while PD and Parky supped on more Ichnusa.

What a joy.

And this was just right for me. During the first nervous months of lockdown in 2020, I really got into Italian films, especially those of the neo-realist school; step forward Rosselini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. I always loved “La Dolce Vita” but also really admired “Bicycle Thieves”, “Rome Open City” and the best of the lot “Two Women.” I also fell in love with Sophia Loren. Again.

The museum was stupendous. It was a visual treat. If you ever find yourself in Turin – I call it Italy’s hidden jewel – go. In fact, go now. Tell them I sent you.

That evening, we dropped into two familiar pubs on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II; “Six Nations” and “The Huntsman.” In the second one, we sat at the exact same table that we used on the night before the Juve game last season. Lo and behold, who should walk past but Andy – from the East Midlands I believe – who I last spent time with in Abu Dhabi. He too had flown into Turin.

As I always say : “Chelsea World is a very small world.”

Tullio popped in to see us for an hour or so. It was a joy to see him again. He was, alas, visibly hurting after Juventus’ continued failings under Massimilliano Allegri. I spoke about my previous visits to Turin.

I worked out this was visit number ten.

“No, wait. Eleven. I forgot your wedding.”

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

1999 : Juve vs. Fiorentina – oh, and the wedding of Tullio and Emanuela.

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

The evening was lovely. We rounded off the night with several shots of “Baileys” and God knows why. It was, as ever, a good night.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, PD woke me at around 6.45am.  We walked to the Porta Nova train station and caught a cab to Porta Susa with blue skies overhead and the city of Turin looking as gorgeous as ever.

Sorting out the car took a few minutes, but I was soon heading east through the rush-hour traffic of Turin. It was slow going during the first half-an-hour. But we were soon on the A4 to Milan. It made me chuckle really. In my childhood, my father used to drive along a section of the A4 – Beckhampton to Hungerford – on numerous trips to Chelsea. On this A4 instead of signs for Fyfield, Marlborough, Savernake, Axford and Hungerford there were signs for Chivasso, Greggio, Vercelli, Novara and Galliate. To our left, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps were stunning.

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

We stopped briefly at a service station near Novara. I stacked up on coffee and snacks.

There was heavy traffic, again, just after a toll on the western outskirts of Milan. A journey that was due to take two hours was nearing one of three hours. But I knew we were closing in on our goal. My work colleague Lorenzo had highlighted the Lampugnano transport hub as the best place to park for San Siro. I was headed there, but first wanted to park up at San Siro because…well, because…it needs no explanation.

At around 11.30am, I briefly parked my black Toyota outside a stadium car park and took a few shots with my camera. The stadium looked even greater than I had remembered it. It was simply stunning. A dormant beast. Those cylindrical towers. Those slopes of concrete. Those roof beams. Spectacular. I was boiling over with emotion.

After six previous visits I was at last going to see us play here.

It was forever a standing joke about Milan that no matter what year you visited it, the roads were always in a state of upheaval due to metro extensions taking place. I am sure my parents mentioned this from their visit in the ‘fifties. Well, ironically, the lines are all fully extended now and completely finished, but on this day of all days there was a bloody tube strike.

At Lampugnano, we were therefore forced to catch a cab into the city. The taxi driver was a Milanista and resembled Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We were driven in past the striking new skyscrapers to the immediate north-west of the centre. We soon collected our match tickets at the Westin Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica. There were familiar faces outside. It was true; we had sold all 4,300 tickets.

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

We met up with fellow Somerset supporters Charlotte and Paul, Donna and Colby. A little sight-seeing was in order. I suggested a short hop north to Milano Centrale. This edifice did not disappoint. It was as stunning today as in 1975. While PD and Parky retired to the station bar, I gave the others a quick tour. I was reminded of the time – after the Milan game in September 1990 I think – when thousands of Inter fans returned from a game just as I had reached the outer hall. They were full of noise and of course the chanting echoed around the vast chamber to superb effect. I was also reminded, after a hot day walking the streets of Milan, how cool it was inside.

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

We walked south then caught a tube, bang on three o’clock when the strike ended, at Turati to Duomo. I had always walked this section, so exiting the metro stop and seeing the myriad towers of the city cathedral for the first time was another stunning moment. I never was a great fan of the city, but its two great cathedrals – Il Duomo and San Siro – are outrageously magnificent.

More photos. A beer in a bar. And a panini. When in Rome.Then a tube down to the area called Navigli, where several canals join and a vibrant bar scene has developed. It was where Chelsea were based on the Monday, and it is where many friends were based pre-match.

The place was mobbed. We didn’t venture too far. Many bars had run dry. Beers were on hold at the first place we queued. This was all a bit of a ball ache. Thankfully, PD and Parky had spotted a quieter bar near the nearest tube station so re-camped there. I waited for some friends – Georg and Petr from Prague, Eliot and Lawson from New York, then Sean from New York – and we had a relaxing natter. One more pint of “Warsteiner.” Just two pints was enough. I had to drive back to Turin after the game after all. Georg and Petr asked of our predictions and a 2-1 Chelsea win was a common response.

We set off for San Siro at around 6.45pm. Plenty of time? Think again.

The tube was rammed. But rather than changing at Cadorna onto the red line – which I was planning to do – everyone didn’t budge. At Cadorna, none of us could leave the compartment. We were therefore forced to stay on to Garibaldi. When a train pulled in, a young woman saw who – or rather what – was waiting to join her carriage and physically ran down the compartment.

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

My route would have been eleven stops. This new route was sixteen stops. What a pain. It got worse. At Domodossola, hundreds of Chelsea fans were singing, chanting, banging the roof, creating havoc. For twenty minutes, we didn’t move. The Milan fans were getting irate.

“Because of you, we miss match.”

Corrective action was needed. It was around 7.45pm. We stepped outside and tried to get a cab. But this was hopeless. Hundreds of Chelsea got off here too. They disappeared into the night. At about eight o’clock, we realised we needed a Plan B.

“Right, back downstairs. Let’s see if the trains are running now.”

Bizarrely, the Milan fan that was so irate with all of us was still on the platform. This was odd. Eventually at around 8pm, a new train arrived. This was full of Milan fans; not a bad sign. They knew the timings. They were absolutely full of song too. And in good spirits. They loved our Cucarella chant and repeated it back to us. Most were wearing Milan colours, as had many that we had seen around the city. The dress-code of the late ‘eighties in Italy of jeans, green bomber jackets, scarves and boots – especially the Inter lot – was clearly no more.

There were many songs lauding the rossoneri and one linking interisti to “vaffanculo.”

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

Just as the train rumbled into the San Siro stop – newly built, or at least since my last visit – I turned to the nearest Milanista and said “good luck” and he smiled. We shook hands.

I had always approached San Siro from Lotto to the north so I was a little discombobulated.

We were marched west, right past where my car had been parked earlier, and we began the slow march in to the away section. Our ticket was cross-referenced with our passport. Further in, there was a predictable altercation with a couple of stewards who wanted me to take my pocket camera – I had left my SLR at home, I am no fool – back to “bus.”

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

There was no bus. My car was half-an-hour away.

I pleaded that it was just a “piccolo machina” and they thankfully let me in.

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

PD and Parky, hobbling, were allowed access to the lift. I tried to join them but was not allowed in. Instead, the slow ascent up the helix. It was fine, thank heavens. The old ticker wasn’t grumbling at all.

Inside, our area – the upper third tier, green zone – was near packed to capacity. I could go left into the centre or right to the end where I guessed there would be more empty seats. I chose right. After just five or six steps up, I spotted PD and Parky right next to the aisle.

4,300 Chelsea in one tier and we were together again.

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

This looked a full house; 75,000? Superb. Chelsea fans kept arriving, some way into the game. The stadium was as I remembered it. I looked over at the southern end and imagined myself there in 1987 and 1990.

What would the 1987 me have made of all this? Or the 1986 me for that matter?

1986 Chris : “Wonder if I will ever see Chelsea play here?”

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

1986 Chris : “2022? I’ll be an old man by then.”

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

1986 Chris : “So, that must mean in European competition? That must mean we will win something?!”

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

1986 Chris: “Tell me! No wait. Don’t. That will spoil the surprise.”

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

Graham Potter, what a journey he is on, chose this team :

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

There was a mosaic…nothing great, just “Let’s Go Milan”; like something an American high school teacher might say to a basketball team. It hardly referenced Milan’s illustrious European pedigree or used words to inspire.

The lights dimmed a little. Then the anthem, the fluttering of the logo on the centre-circle. The teams lined up. Chelsea were to play in all white. I was just pleased that I couldn’t see the insipid jade green / light blue hoops.

To me, it referenced the all-white that we wore in 1966.

On more than one occasion, a thought fluttered inside me :

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

The Milan kit looked virtually all black from row 88. It was a poor kit. I much preferred the 1988 version.

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

Just before kick-off, I couldn’t resist a short burst of venom.

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

The game began and Milan, attacking us in the North Curv – OK, it’s not a curve, but it’s what the Italians call an end – where the strongest over the first ten minutes or so. Leao danced and shuffled his feet a few times. I had a feeling that if we denied him, we would have a chance.

For all of the singing and chanting in Navigli and on the metro, I didn’t think we were in particularly fine voice.

After some exchanges, the game altered direction irrevocably on twenty minutes. Reece James threaded a fine pass into Mason Mount. Inside the box, the midfielder tried his best to get a shot away but his effort was booted clear by Tatarusanu. I was concentrating on his efforts to shoot so wasn’t looking specifically at Tomori’s rough intervention.

To our joy, the referee signalled a penalty. A huge roar from us. There were protestations from Milan, but the referee was unmoved. Jorginho, to his credit, walked away with the ball and stood yards from the melee of Milan players hounding the referee. Eventually, he approached the spot. Again, a long wait. Jorginho took forever. My camera was poised. Our midfielder took so long that I had visions of my lens retracting.

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

My dear friend Alan was unable to travel out for this game but I heard his voice from afar.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Wow. We were 1-0 up at the San Siro.

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

I smirked when I remembered another memory in Italy not so long after this Milan moment. In December 1999, I travelled out for the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Lazio. A certain left-back missed a sitter late on and this – admittedly short-lived – chant was sung :

“Babayaro. Missed a fucking great goal. With one minute to go. In the Olimpico.”

Anyone remember that?

I really don’t know how I missed it, but it soon became apparent that Milan were down to ten men. There was a little ripple of acknowledgement in our area; it seemed that I wasn’t the only one that had missed it. I suppose we were all too busy celebrating the penalty decision.

Superb.

Olivier Giroud headed wide down below us and Milan seemed upset and ill-at-ease.

A really fine move carved open the Milan defence on thirty-four minutes. Mateo Kovacic played a ball in to Mount, who flicked it beautifully wide and into space. We had the glorious sight of both Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Abameyang free and with just the ‘keeper to beat.

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

He ran down into the corner and although I had missed taking a photo of the goal, at least I captured the joyous celebrations.

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

There was a fine chance for Mount in the closing moments of the first-half. His nimble turn allowed him to poke a low shot goal wards, but the Milan ‘keeper got down low to turn it around the post.

On forty minutes, purely planned to the minute, around fifty huge flags behind the opposite goal were waved and their presence lasted for the rest of the game. It was some sight.

It was a wonderful to see the place packed to the rafters. Bizarrely, two central sections in the middle of both upper tiers were unused though. Maybe there was a problem with egress from these lofty locations. The tiers go on forever at San Siro. And the huge roof hovers over everything. There is hardly a more stunning stadium in the whole of Europe. It is certainly supremely photogenic.

I was in heaven.

I was so far up, I might as well have been.

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

Conor Gallagher replaced the really excellent Mason Mount. We guessed he was saving Mason for later games. I had liked the energy of Mateo Kovacic and the calming positional play of Jorginho in that first-half. To be fair, all our players had been magnificent.

An early, seemingly easy enough, chance came to Gallagher who rounded the ‘keeper after a fine forward run from Trevoh Chalobah but his effort went wide, striking the side netting amidst groans from the 4,300.

We were easily the more accomplished team as the half progressed. We had a few half-chances.

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

Positions were moved around. I tried my best to work it all out.

Our possession football – cheered with many an “olé” – must have tired Milan out. We looked relaxed and purposeful in everything we did.

There was a strong run from Loftus-Cheek, at his best, but his pass to Aubameyang resulted in a miss-cue. But our chances greatly out-weighed those of the home team.

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

The Milan fans raised the roof with ten minutes to go with the loudest chant of the night. If I had to choose, I would always go for Inter over Milan, but their fans really impressed me over the two games.

Our fans by now were only chanting sporadically. As far as I can recall, there was not one single moment when the entire tier was singing as one. It was almost as if this was too easy. Especially with Milan playing with only ten men. It was an odd feeling. I thought back to all those great players to have worn the red and black stripes over the past forty years and this current team, despite being the current champions, are surely a pale shadow of the great Milan teams.

Baresi. Costacurta. Baggio. Van Basten. Ronaldinho. Shevchenko. Donadoni. Maldini. Ancelotti. Rijkaard. Papin. Pirlo. Kaka. Nesta. Seedorf. Ibrahimovic. Inzaghi. Gullit.

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

On the drive up to London last week, ahead of the Milan home game, if somebody had said that we would win both games with an aggregate score of Chelsea 5 Milan 0, nobody would have believed it.

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

We were kept in for about forty-five minutes at the end of the game. We popped into the nearby snack bar which was surprisingly still open and I devoured a lemon iced-tea. I was allowed access to the lift this time.

The three of us slowly made our way back to Lampugnano; it was a thirty-five-minute walk. Halfway back, quite a way from San Siro, two trucks were still selling food.

“A burger, an iced tea and a Red Bull.”

The first two were soon demolished. The third would be consumed on the drive back to Turin.

There was a little chat with a Chelsea fan. I commented that there just didn’t seem to be that wanton euphoria that no doubt was in evidence at the 1999 “Dennis Wise” game. That it was all a bit subdued.

We agreed that the two clubs were at different stages in 1999 and 2022.

1999 : Chelsea as European novices, Milan as European royalty.

2022 : Chelsea as seasoned European competitors, Milan as a faded club.

I made relatively good time on my return to Piedmont from Lombardy. I set off at 1am, I was parked up outside the apartment at 3am.

Wednesday was another relaxing day. I was up early, though, at 7am to return the motor at 8am. It had been a magnificent adventure along the Italian A4. We checked out of the apartment after a light breakfast. There was time for a few beers in the city centre and a magnificent meal to boot. Callum joined us and we shared a cab to Caselle in order to catch the evening flight home.

There was even time to nab a couple of bargains at the Robe di Kappa shop at the airport.

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

I thankfully fell asleep for an hour on the flight back to Gatwick.

One young Chelsea fan was full of enthusiasm about the game. There had been a noticeably large contingent of youngsters out there. This is fantastic to see.

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

“No, the first ever. I just can’t get access to tickets for away games.”

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

“My first away game was Bristol Rovers. His is Milan? Mamma mia.”

I eventually got home – the M3 closed, part of the M4 closed – at 1am on Thursday morning.

Next up, Villa away on Sunday. See you there.

1987

1990

2022

Tales From The Damned United

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2022.

We had to wait around eighteen years to attend a league game at Elland Road and we were then able to visit it twice in just shy of fifteen weeks.

Our last away game of 2021/22 and our second away match of 2022/23?

OK, so be it.

Let’s go to work.

In May, it was all rather rushed; a hard slog on the motorways of England after a half-day at work, and a quick meet-up at the pub before disappearing inside to witness a pretty decent night of football in front of the Leeds hordes.

This time was a little more relaxed. I was up at 5.45am and collected PD at 7am and then LP at around 7.20am. I stopped twice en route but arrived in the car park of “The Drysalters” on the Leeds ring road at 11.15am. The 240 miles had been covered in just four hours of driving. I was happy with that. The pub was allegedly scheduled to open at midday but it was already serving pints when we arrived. I soon spotted a couple of Chelsea acquaintances. Within a short time, the place was mobbed with both home and away supporters. It felt odd to be back so soon after the recent visit. Pints – double pints for the drinkers – were purchased and the weather outside was pleasant. Deano – from West Yorkshire, now Lancashire, but steadfastly Chelsea – soon arrived and joined us. I asked a copper to take a photo of us together.

“That’s ‘Crimewatch’ sorted” laughed Parky.

An Uber cab drew up outside and there was a bit of a commotion.

“Is that your pizza just arrived” I asked the two policemen.

Soon, Goggles from the Fulham branch arrived on the pavement.

“Alright Paul? Alright Parky?”

I still found it a little odd that this once “home fans only” pub now welcomed away fans, and that Chelsea songs were being heartily sung by a few. It wasn’t quite as noisy as in May though. The times have certainly changed over the last twenty years. Looking back to that game in May, I remembered the only trouble that we had encountered took place at Woolley Edge Services on the M1 after the game. Parky and I were drying our hands after using the facilities when we felt a splash of cold water directed at us from behind. Evidently, a Leeds fan must have spotted Parky’s little Chelsea badge on his polo shirt and had decided to take retribution after his team’s loss against a dreaded enemy.

Yeah, how times have changed.

Since my last Chelsea game against Tottenham last Sunday, I had seen two Frome Town games. There was a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Willand Rovers in the league on Tuesday followed by a fine 3-0 away win at Buckland Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on the Saturday. The two footballing journeys of the weekend to Devon and West Yorkshire would total 650 miles – just over 1,000km for those reading in Ireland, the rest of Europe and Canada – and it is doubtful that I have ever driven further for two football games on consecutive days.

In May, I didn’t have time to attempt much of a look at Elland Road but, with tons of time to spare on this occasion, I set off with Deano at about 12.30pm. Deciding that the queues in the boozer were too long, PD and LP soon caught up with us. I walked past the stadium, past some stalls – there was already a healthy pre-match buzz – and up a footpath to a vantage point that looks down on the whole area.

Before a game in 1995/96, I had been drinking in the middle of Leeds with my Rotherham United mate Ian and his Leeds United pal from school days. We took a cab to Beeston and I remembered the short walk down that footpath, past the Old Peacock pub, and the grand old view that it afforded. I wanted to recreate a photo that I took before that game.

The walk up to Beeston was a good cardio-vascular workout for me. Once at the top, I positioned myself along a terraced street with the white steel roof supports of the huge East Stand in the distance. Down below, fans were winding their way down the footpath to the busy roads below. I took plenty of photographs. I was pleased with this. It set the scene nicely. Elland Road is a good three miles out of the busy city centre, and the vista afforded me from Beeston included lots and lots of greenery. Unlike stereotypical northern grounds such as Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, this stadium was never hemmed in among tight terraced streets. Beginning life as Leeds City, Leeds United then came to life in 1919 and have always played at Elland Road. It was an “out of town” ground before such stadia recently become de rigueur.

An odd fact; I always used to think that the home end – now the Don Revie Stand – from the ‘seventies and onwards was simply known as “The Kop” but only recently, the past few years, realised that it was known locally as The Gelderd End.

They love those classic white, blue and yellow bar scarves at Elland Road. They also love the iconic Admiral shirt from the mid-‘seventies. I must have seen a fair few before the game in May and I spotted many on this visit too.

Around Elland Road, street side electric boxes have been painted in various shades of white, yellow and blue depicting many of the club’s moments by local artist Andy McVeigh. Maybe that can be next season’s photo project.

I bumped into Deano outside the East Stand. This was once the largest capacity club stand in the UK, built during the 1992/93 season for the then champions, only for it to be overtaken by the other United along the other end of the M62 soon after. It holds some 17,000. I remember that at the 1995 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Tottenham (4-1), there were Everton fans on three sides of the ground with all the Tottenham lot in the one stand.

I digress.

As fate would have it, I was sat – stood – in virtually the same place as in May. Last time, I was in seat 48 of the front row of the upper level of the main stand, the John Charles Stand. This time, I was in seat 50 of the same row. There was an empty seat so PD joined us.

The front five : Davidson, Phillips, Daniels, Parkins, Axon.

The sun was out and those opposite in the Jack Charlton Stand – the East Stand, the former Lowfields Stand and terrace, the family stand in the lower tier – must have felt that they were being baked alive. Everything was cool in the shadows of the away section.

Thomas Tuchel, unable to call on N’Golo Kante, selected the following team :

Mendy

James – Silva – Koulibaly

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher – Cucarella

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

We would again be using falsies up front and it was all or bust.

Leeds? It pains me that I didn’t recognise many of the home team. Such is my fading awareness of football outside of SW6 these days that my knowledge of opponents’ teams is scant.

I bet I can name most of that 1991/92 team though.

From memory…

John Lukic in goal.

Mel Sterland at right-back, Tony Dorigo at left.

Chris Whyte in the middle. Who was the other centre-back? Dunno.

The famous midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed, God rest his soul.

Upfront, Brian Deane and Lee Chapman.

With Eric Cantona as a late addition.

Who was that bloody centre-back? No, can’t remember.

Ah, it has come to me. Chris Fairclough.

I am pretty sure that their squad was the smallest-ever to win a league title. And it was also the last team to lift the Football League version.

Dear reader : football did not start in 1992/93.

Back to 2022/23, thirty years on.

The teams lined-up.

“Marching On Together” boomed.

Chelsea were wearing navy socks. Answers on a postcard.

It was both a lively and a scrappy start to the game. We were attacking the old Kop, once the home of the most vociferous section of the Leeds support, but now playing second fiddle to the rabid hard-core to our right in the South Stand, or rather the Norman Hunter Stand. Raheem Sterling went close early on after good link-up play. Then two chances for the home team, Daniel James and Jack Harrison getting shots in on goal.

I am not convinced that we will ever see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a wing-back, but we found him coming into the box on an angle. Unfortunately, he dallied too long and the space evaporated and he was soon confronted by three Leeds defenders who halted his progress.

The noise from both sections of the crowd was impressive.

“Dambusters” was aired in the John Charles Stand.

“Father’s Gun” countered in the Norman Hunter Stand.

Is there much of a rivalry these days? The problem is that we just haven’t played them enough in the past twenty years for that classic, almost legendary, rivalry to have held firm all of the way through those years. It was bubbling along nicely in the ‘nineties when both clubs were jousting at the top table, but Leeds then got themselves relegated.

Let’s say it’s a dormant rivalry, awaiting to explode, awaiting ignition. The battles off the pitch kept the rivalry at such an intense level in past times. Those lads who stood toe to toe in the good old bad old days are probably grandfathers now and not involved. The new breed is aware of the history, but there is simply no recent history.

Leeds were full of energy and closed us down as soon as we had the merest sniff of the ball.

I was celebrating wildly on a quarter of an hour when Sterling slotted home after a pass from Cucarella but the goal was called back for off-side. I felt a proper divvy. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

On twenty minutes, a fine move ended with Mason Mount poking a shot at the Leeds goal but their ‘keeper Illan Meslier reacted well to keep it out.

We were edging possession but were not creating a great deal. I thought that Conor Gallagher was possibly trying too hard to impress and he found it difficult to knit things together. It did not help that Jorginho alongside him seemed to be slowing things down as soon as we sensed a break. There was one moment when he received the ball just inside our half with no Leeds player ahead of him for a good five yards. On receiving the ball, he reverted to type with that cradling of the ball and a slow movement to turn towards his defence and playing the ball back. Safety first was always his mantra.

“Attack you fucker.”

Koulibaly seemed to be rather discombobulated at times. He was bamboozled with the quick turn of pace from an unknown Leeds attacker and grabbed the player’s shirt in desperation. He was suitably booked.

“Embarassing.”

Then, a fucking calamity.

A Thiago Silva back-pass to Edouard Mendy. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now. There was a dither. He lost possession when an attempt to dummy the Leeds attacker Brenden Aaronson backfired and the ball was thumped into an empty net from mere inches.

Fucksake.

Mendy’s frustration was mirrored by that of ours. And then some. We have seen this before, right? And we have all commented before.

“Kick it away! Safety first! Get rid!”

As the scorer wheeled away in ecstasy, my eyes were unavoidably drawn to the scene to my right in the South Stand. It was madness. In all my times of going to football, I can never remember seeing such a reaction to any goal being played out in front of me. Bodies were falling in every direction. Limbs everywhere. Screams. Ecstasy. Complete madness.

It was – actually – despite the horrible sinking feeling of conceding a killer first goal a magnificent sight.

A horribly magnificent sight.

Fackinell.

Shockingly, just two minutes later, we conceded a second goal. A whipped-in free-kick from the Leeds left found the perfect leap from Rodrigo. His bullet header found the back of the net with ease.

Fuck.

There was another predictable riot in the South Stand.

Limbs again. I drew my camera and reluctantly took a photograph or two; sometimes, a moment simply has to be captured. Ugh.

Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. Some Chelsea supporters in the lower tier, I noticed, left and did not return.

“Thanks then…”

I turned to Parky.

“Mountain to climb.”

We didn’t create much in the rest of the half, a Cucarella effort barely troubling the Leeds custodian.

Only Sterling was a half-success. Havertz and Mount were so quiet.

As the second-half began, there was a change to the system but this only became apparent after a while. We played with a four at the back. A nice piece of skill from Loftus-Cheek in front of us allowed a Cucarella effort on goal and we hoped for an upturn in our play. Yes, we dominated possession but didn’t really create too much. On the two occasions that we were in on goal, one on one, we not only misfired but both chances were offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, changes.

Christian Pulisic for Gallagher.

Hakim Ziyerch for Jorginho.

We now had Pulisic, Ziyech and Sterling to run and twist their way into dangerous positions. In theory. This never looked like a decent game plan to this casual observer. We needed a focal point, a Broja.

Pah. What do I know?

A low shot from James was turned around his post by Meslier.

We continued to dominate but Leeds gave us no time to develop anything worthwhile. Our jousting thrusts needed to be augmented by an occasional hammer at the heart of the defence. But our artillery was without suitable weaponry. A towering leap by Koulibaly – occasionally excellent blocks making up for his malfunctioning sat nav – from a corner was easily claimed by Meslier.

Our play stagnated. Leeds never stopped running.

It was to get worse. A rapid break down their left and a cross from James, and Harrison picked up the pieces.

The ground exploded again.

May : Leeds United 0 Chelsea 3.

August : Leeds United 3 Chelsea 0.

Yet more Chelsea fans drifted away.

Earlier, we had goaded the home fans with “you’ve only got one song” but this was an empty sentiment.

We were being out sung, and how.

“We are Leeds. And we’re proud of you.”

“All Leeds aren’t we?”

“Marching on together.”

“And shoot the Chelsea scum.”

At times, the noise was electric.

It was bloody horrible. Here I was, stood exposed in the front row of the top section of the away end in full view of the tormenting home support. Loads of Chelsea had drifted away as the game progressed. Gaps appeared in the seats.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I stood silent. We had no answer. Our pants were being pulled down here.

I looked over at the three thousand in the South Stand – where I once stood when it was the away section in 2001 – and I could not help but notice that virtually all were in their twenties, virtually all were lads – by design? who knows? –  and all were up for it. We do not have a section like that at Chelsea and haven’t had one for decades.

And we were fair game. We had no real response to the piss-taking. We were being schooled both on and off the pitch. This was truly horrific.

I’ve attended games where we have been gubbed before – the 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in Lampard’s first game was particularly painful, Daniel James involved then too – but this one felt like one of the worst.

A Cucarella block averted a fourth after an effort on goal from Rodrigo. If anything, the noise increased further with the Kop now being heard too.

Ben Chilwell replaced Mount.

Then, a second yellow for Koulibaly.

Off he went.

Bollocks.

Azpilicueta for Sterling.

I had lost interest by then. I just wanted to get back to my car. I wanted to scoff that waiting Ginster’s Cornish Pasty. I wanted out.

At the final whistle, relief.

I chatted to a few friends close by, and we all agreed about the amazing antics and booming noise from the home fans.

Grudging respect.

This, though, was a deafeningly poor show from us.

So much for us playing with falsies up front. We just looked like tits.

Tales From The Burger Van

Everton vs. Chelsea : 1 May 2022.

Well, that was a bloody long way to go for a curry.

I had always thought that our match at Goodison Park would be a very tough fixture. In fact, leading up to it, I was telling everyone that was interested to know my opinion, and maybe some who weren’t, that I thought that we would lose at Everton. It was set up for it. A notoriously difficult place for us to get results of late, the Frank Lampard thing, an absolutely red-hot atmosphere, the fact that it would be “typical Chelsea”, the entire works. Coming out of Old Trafford on the Thursday, I said to the boys :

“Yeah, we’ve done really well tonight, but it will be much harder at Everton on Sunday.”

Everton harder than Manchester United? An away game against a team in the bottom three would be harder than one chasing a European place?

Oh yeah. Oh definitely.

There was a very early start to my Sunday. The alarm rang at 5am and I picked up PD at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. I planned in a little more slack than usual because, damn it, I was flashed on the way home from Old Trafford on Thursday evening. After years and years of no speeding offences, I was now looking at six points in around four months.

Three after Villa on Boxing Day.

Three – I presumed – after United.

Six points. Ugh. I would need to slow things down for a long time now.

At just after 9am, I navigated my way through the streets of Stafford to make an additional stop. Through my network of mates at Chelsea, an extra ticket in the Chelsea section had become available. It belonged to Alex, a Londoner who I often see in “The Eight Bells” but who has been residing in Stafford for around thirty years. When I heard about the spare, I quickly put two and two together. My pal Burger – aka Glenn – has himself been living in Stafford for almost twelve years since his arrival, with his wife Julie, from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I got to know the two of them on the US tours in 2007 and 2009 and we have become good friends over the years. A couple of texts were exchanged and, yes, Burger was in. I left it to Alex and Burger to sort out the ticket in due course.

I collected passenger number three and immediately called “The Chuckle Bus” an alternative name.

For one day only it was “The Burger Van.”

Lo and behold, there was quite a tale involved in the extra ticket. Burger and Alex had chatted and had arranged to meet up in a local pub. For years I have told Burger about Alex and Alex about Burger.

“You must know him. There can’t be too many Chelsea in Stafford.”

Well, it became apparent that the two of them used to drink – and probably still do – in another Stafford pub. After European aways, Burger would always bring home a friendship scarf from his travels at the behest of the barman. And Alex would always spot that a new scarf had appeared behind the bar and would ask the barman where it came from.

“Oh, from that bloke I told you about. You sure you don’t know him?”

They must have missed each other drinking in that pub on many occasions. They were like shadows haunting the pubs of Stafford. They even lived in the same area for a while. And all along, I had pestered both of them with tales of each other’s existence. Well, at last they had met, and I took a little pride that it had eventually been through me. They were only going to meet up to pass over the ticket over a single drink but they stayed for four.

Proper Chelsea.

On the drive north, we chatted how you never see club colours on show in cars on match days – or any other days for that matter – in England anymore. Tensions have generally cooled since the mad old days and yet you don’t even see a mini-kit on display. Those were all the rage thirty years ago. On this trip, covering almost five hours, I didn’t see one Chelsea nor Everton favour.

PD : “My old car used to be a shrine. By the rear window. Scarves. Cushions. Rosettes.”

It’s an odd one alright.

I was parked up in Stanley Park at around 10.30am with memories of the last league game of 2010/11 at Goodison when I had travelled up with Parky, Burger and Julie. That ended terribly, with Carlo Ancelotti getting the “Spanish fiddler” in the tunnel after the game. I wonder whatever happened to him?

While the three of them headed off to “The Thomas Frost” I began a little wander of my own. My friend Chris – the brother of Chelsea fan Tommie – is an Evertonian from North Wales who now lives near Newcastle. We had been talking about meeting up for a pint before the game in a pub called “St. Hilda’s” which is just a couple of hundred yards from “Thomas Frost”. Chris – and Tommie – gave me invaluable advice for my Buenos Aires trip in early 2020, and we owed each other a meet up. During the week, it dawned on me that this could be my last ever visit to Goodison Park, what with the threat of relegation and a new stadium by the river, and so I was determined to wring every ounce of football out of it. I asked Chris if the church that abuts the ground, St. Luke the Evangelist, was open on match days. I was told that the church hall next to it has an upstairs room devoted to Everton memorabilia. That would be perfect. I even had a working title for the blog worked out.

“Tales From St. Luke’s, St, Hilda’s And The School Of Science.”

The trouble was that Chris was currently waylaid on his cross-Pennine trek, courtesy of inefficiencies of the British rail network. Not to worry, I walked along Goodison Road, underneath the towering blue of the main stand, a path that my dear father may well have chosen on his visit to Goodison for a war-time friendly in around 1942 or so. It would be his only football game before Chelsea in 1974. I reached St’ Luke’s at around 11am and approached a couple of ladies that were seemingly guarding the entrance to the church hall, but were actually pedalling match programmes from a small table. It soon transpired that I had caught the both of them at a bad moment.

“You’ve got a bad mental attitude.”

“No, you have.”

“Let’s go outside.”

I could hardly believe my ears. These frail women were having a proper go at each other. It made me chuckle.

With hindsight, it set the tone of aggression that would mark the entire afternoon in and around Goodison Park.

After the dust settled, I was told that the room upstairs would only be open at 11.30am. I had twenty minutes to kill and so set off for Kirkdale train station? Why? My good friend Alan – another aficionado of Archibald Leitch, the architect of so many iconic football stands and stadia – had noticed a little homage to Leitch’s cross-hatch balcony walls at that station when he caught a train to Southport a few years ago after a game in Liverpool. I owed it to myself to go and take a visit myself.

The only problem was that there was a little drizzle in the air. I zipped up my Paul & Shark rain jacket, flipped the hood and set off. My mind wandered too.

In November 1986, on my second visit to Goodison – my second visit of 1986 in fact – at around that exact same spot where I crossed Goodison Road, a gang of around four scallies – early teens, no more – had begun talking to me well before the game began. They had soon sussed I was Chelsea and started to ask me a few questions. I was, it is true to say, a little wary. However, I must have a non-aggressive demeanour because the lads – after my initial reluctance to engage in a conversation – just seemed football-daft and chatted to me for a while. Thankfully they posed no threat. These weren’t spotters leading me to danger and a confrontation with older lads. We chatted about the game and all other associated topics.

“Where you from mate?”

“Is Nevin playing today?”

“What’s Chelsea’s firm called?”

“You going in the seats at the Park End?”

I remembered that they were from Kirkdale, just a twenty-minute walk from Goodison. I also remembered that these lads were on the prowl for free tickets which, a surprise to me, were sometimes handed out to local lads by Everton officials. A nice gesture.

Yes, I thought of those young lads. They’d be in their late ‘forties by now.

Bizarrely, we played at Anfield in December 1986 and, walking along the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop before the game, the same lads spotted me again and we had a little catch up. I never did find out if they were red or blue, or maybe a mixture of both.

I crossed County Road. This wide road inspired the name of one of Everton’s earliest gangs – “The County Road Cutters” – and the rain got worse as I crossed it. Would I regret this little pilgrimage to Kirkdale in the rain this Sunday morning? I wondered if my father had taken the train to Kirkdale all those years ago and if I was treading on hallowed ground.

I reached the station and headed down to the platform where “The Blue Garden” – sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover – was placed. The rain still fell. I took a few photographs.

I retraced my steps. I passed “The Melrose Abbey” pub, itself sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover. I was tempted to dive in – I saw a huge pile of sandwich rolls stacked on the bar ahead of the football rush – but decided against it. I was lucky in 1986 with some lads from Kirkdale and although time has moved on, I didn’t want to push my luck thirty-six years later.

On the walk back to Goodson the hulk of the main stand at Anfield could easily be seen despite the misty rain over Stanley Park. I approached Goodison again, a fantastic spectacle, wedged in among the tightly terraced streets of Walton. Ahead, things were getting noisy and getting busy. In the forty-five minutes that I had been away, the area beneath the main stand had become packed full of noisy Evertonians. Some were letting off blue flares. We had heard how some fireworks had been let off outside the Chelsea hotel. And now this. The natives were gearing up for a loud and confrontational day. I guessed that they were lying in wait for the Chelsea coach. I sent an image of the blue flares outside The Holy Trinity statue to Chris, still battling away in Rochdale. His reply suggested he wasn’t impressed.

“Kopite behaviour.”

Pungent sulphurous fumes filled my nostrils. Ex-player Alan Stubbs walked through to the main entrance. The atmosphere was electric blue. I hadn’t experienced anything like this at a game in the UK before apart from a European night or two at the top of Stanley Park. I was hearing Everton songs that I had never ever heard before. The home support was going for broke.

I must admit that it felt so surreal to hear Scousers singing “Super Frank.”

I entered the football exhibition at St’ Luke’s and was met by a black and white photo of Tommy Lawton. He would sign for us after the Second World War. It still baffles me that we bought two of the greatest strikers of the immediate pre and post-war era in Hughie Gallacher and Tommy Lawton yet didn’t challenge in the First Division at all.

Typical Chelsea.

Of course, the greatest of all was William Dean, or simply Dixie. He must have been some player. I snapped a few items featuring him. His statue welcomes visitors to Goodison on match days. I always used to love that he scored sixty goals in the 1927/28 season, just after the other sporting hero of that era Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees in 1927. That Dixie Dean should die at Goodison Park during a Merseyside derby just seems, in some ways – as odd as it sounds – just right.

Proper Everton.

I could – and should – have stayed longer in that attic at St. Luke’s but I needed to move on. I sadly realised that I wouldn’t be meeting Chris, not even for a pre-match handshake, so I headed away from the ground again. I battled the crowds outside. There was a line of police – Bizzies – guarding the main stand and it took me forever to squeeze through. I may or may not have said “scuse me mate” with a slight Scouse twang a few times. The songs boomed in my ears.

“The boys from the royal blue Mersey.”

Eventually I was free and raced over to “The Thomas Frost”, one of my least favourite football pubs. There was, according to the steward, no room at the main entrance. I simply walked over to a corner door, chatted to Darren from Crewe, and went in there. I eventually met up with PD, Parky, Burger but also Deano and Dave. The Old Firm match was on. There were plenty of Scottish accents in the crowd and I supposed they were ‘Gers fans down for the game.

Shouts above the noise of a frantically busy pub, pints being consumed, everything so boisterous.

This football life.

Chelsea songs too. To be fair, both sets of fans – Everton and Chelsea – were drinking cheek by jowl with no nastiness. Chelsea tend to side with Rangers. Everton tend to side with Celtic. I had noticed a box of Celtic programmes at St. Luke’s – but no Rangers ones – as if no further proof were needed. A potential tinderbox – Everton, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic – was passing with no trouble at all.

We left for the ground. I remembered seeing Burger with his father outside Goodison for the away game in early 2015/16, another loss. I had travelled up with just Deano for that one. All these lives intertwined.

I was inside in good time. Yet again our viewing position was awful, shunted way behind the goal line. Since our last visit in December 2019 – guess what, we lost – a mesh had been erected between the two sets of fans between the Bullens Road and the Park End. Everton certainly missed a trick in around 1994 when the simple single tier of the Park End replaced the older two-tiered stand. There is a lot of space behind that stand. It could have been much grander. But I bloody love Goodison and I will be so sad when it is no more.

It’s the antithesis of the old Stamford Bridge, the first ground I fell in love with. Our home was wild and rambling, spread-out, away from the road, a land of its own, a land of undulating terraces, inside and out, of shrubs and trees, of turnstiles, of forecourts, of differing stands, of corrugated iron, of floodlight pylons, of vast stretches of green, of views of Brompton Cemetery, of Earls Court, of London.

Goodison was – and is – cramped, rectangular, uniform, encased and with only St. Luke’s church of the outside world visible from inside.

I loved and love both.

We were at the very front of the top tier.

We waited.

The noise increased.

“And if you know your history.”

It seemed that the whole day was about Everton. Yes, we were chasing a third place but it was all about them. And that was what scared me. I envisioned them fighting for everything, the dogs of war of the Joe Royle team of around 995 revisited.

“Z-Cars.”

Spine-chilling stuff. I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

As the teams entered the pitch from different entrances, flags and banners took over, and the heavy smell of the flares hit my senses once again. I spotted a flag in the Gwladys.

“We Are The Goodison Gang.”

What on earth was that? It sounded like a ‘seventies children’s TV programme.

Thomas Tuchel had chosen an eleven against Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Mount

Werner – Havertz

Alan : “Not the most mobile of midfield twos.”

There was a mixture of new and old names for Everton. I had heard good stuff about Anthony Gordon.

As for Seamus Coleman, wasn’t it time he retired and fucked off to run a pub in Cork?

Borussia Chelsea in yellow and black. Everton in old-style white socks, la.

I would later learn that Chris got in with five minutes to spare. He works in logistics too.

It was fifty-fifty for much of the first-half and although the Everton fans seemed noisy as hell in the first segment of the game, the noise fell away as the game progressed. I noticed that for virtually the entire first period, the denizens of the Park End to our left were seated.

“Just not good enough. Must do better.”

A save from Edouard Mendy from Demarai Gray was followed by a dipping shot from Mason Mount and this indicated a bright start. But thrills were rare. On eighteen minutes we witnessed an amazing piece of skill from Mount, juggling on the run, flipping the ball up, and bringing it out of defence. Sublime stuff. Just after, sublime play of a different kind when Antonio Rudiger recovered well to make a magnificent run to cover the right-wing thrusts from Everton with a great tackle.

I could not understand the chants from our end for Frank Lampard. We love the bloke, of course, but I thought all that was silly and miss-guided. We were struggling on the pitch. I was not sure how a song about Dennis Wise in Milan was helping the cause either.

Parky was annoyed too : “Is he playing?”

Another shot from Gordon, just wide.

This was dreary stuff.

Only a lovely run from deep from Ruben Loftus-Cheek enlivened the team and the fans. With each stride, he seemed to grow in confidence. It was a graceful piece of play, but one that begged the question “why doesn’t he do it more fucking often?”

There was a fine block from Thiago Silva late on in the half, but – honestly – was that it?

It was.

For the second-half, Tuchel replaced Jorginho with Mateo Kovacic and we hoped for better things.

Alas, we imploded after just two bloody minutes.

Oh Dave.

Our captain dithered and Richarlison pounced.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

A little voice inside my head : “yep.”

Howls from the Chelsea sections of the Bullens Road. Yet again a moment of huge indecision in our defence had cost us dearly. When Tuchel came in last season, our defensive errors seemed to magically disappear. The current trend is so worrying.

Just after, Everton really should have been two goals to the good but Vitalii Mykolenko shot high and wide at the Gwladys Street.

We tried to get back into the game but the movement upfront was negligible. But, to be honest, there was more room on the Goodison Road at 12.30pm than there was in the Everton final third. We were met with block after block, tackle after tackle. They harried and chased like their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

There seemed to be more than normal amounts of time-wasting. Richarlison went down for cramp twice, as did others. The away fans howled some more.

On the hour, we howled again as a Marcos Alonso cross picked out Havertz who did well to head on to Mount. His shot not only hit both posts but the follow up from Dave was saved – magnificently, I cannot lie – by Pickford.

From the resulting corner, a header was knocked on and Rudiger raced in to smash the ball goal wards but the ball hit Pickford’s face.

Fucksake.

The Evertonians seemed to relish a new-found love of England.

“England’s Number One, England’s, England’s Number One.”

We kept going, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d break them down. Two headers in quick succession from Kai and Timo amounted to nothing.

Tuchel made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Dave.

Hakim Ziyech for Werner.

There was a little injection of skill from Pulisic, wriggling away and getting past a few challenges but there was no end product. We enjoyed another barnstorming run from Ruben, even better than the one in the first, but we lacked invention. Everton appeared to take time-wasting to a new level. A scally in the paddock on the far side simply shoved a ball up his jumper rather than give it back.

A hopeful but hapless blooter from Rudiger.

A rising shot from Ruben after a neat run again.

A shot from Gray was smashed just over the bar up the other end. I envisioned seeing the net bulge on that one.

The noise was loud now alright.

Seven minutes of extra time were played but we could have played all night long without getting a goal.

A scuffler from Kovacic proved to be our last effort but Pickford collapsed easily at the near post to smother.

The home crowd erupted at the final whistle and we shuffled out along the wooden floorboards.

Everton are still not safe.

I wonder if I will ever return to Goodison Park?

We met up outside and I summed up the game and the season.

“No cutting edge.”

I overheard an Evertonian from South Wales talking, rather exuberantly, to a friend as we walked back to the car.

“Best game I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a few.”

He was about the same age as me too, maybe a tad younger.

Bloody hell, mate.

I made good time getting out of Stanley Park, Queens Drive, then onto the motorways. I dropped Burger home and then headed, once more, to “The Vine” at West Bromwich. We were joined by Michelle, Dane, Frances and Steve, Chelsea supporters all.

I had honey and chilli chicken, chilli chips and a peswari naan.

It was indeed a bloody long way to go for a curry.

Next up, Wolves at home.

See you there.

This Is Goodison.

The Blue Garden.

Flags And Flares.

History, La.

Pre-Match.

The Game.

Tales From All The World In One Place

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 2 April 2022.

This was a game that, if I am honest, I wasn’t particularly excited about. Work had been busy since our previous game up at Middlesbrough – a cracking day out, a classic away trip – and with everything else in the world dragging us down, this match at home to Brentford just wasn’t doing it for me. Nonetheless, as always, the pre-match was excellent. I spent it with friends from California, Oregon, Virginia and Vietnam – the returning Steve, last seen in Perth, Australia – and also from Edinburgh, Kent and, nearer home, Salisbury and Bristol.

At “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, it seemed all of the world was in one place.

Even though I was in the ground early enough, I didn’t make a note of the team line-ups when they were announced by the PA and shown on the screen. So when the game began my mind went into “scurrying around mode” trying to put a plan of attack – and defence – together with the players that I saw lining up on the pitch below me.

I tried to piece it all together.

“Mendy in goal. Now then, was that a back four with Alonso and Dave the full backs with Silva and Rudiger in the middle? Surely Ziyech out wide isn’t a wing-back in a 3-4-3? Nah, that’s a four. Right, the midfield. That’s easy; Kante, Loftus-Cheek and Mason. But Ruben seems to be starting quite deep, almost as an anchor. His tour of the ten outfield starting positions continues, eh? Upfront, a recalled Werner on the left with Havertz in the central role and that man Ziyech out wide on the right. Is that it? Is that ten outfield players? Check.

My first assignment of the game was concluded with only a minute or so gone. It was a good job that I hadn’t been drinking.

No room for Rom. Again. We have all made up our own conclusions about our miss-firing and miss-fitting (is that a word?) Belgian and these have tended to converge. Indeed, all of the evidence honestly suggests that Thomas Tuchel agrees with us.

Bugger. It wasn’t meant to be like this was it?

Brentford were in all yellow. Why? Who knows.

The game got going and after an early Chelsea attack down our left, Brentford quickly got into their groove. In the first two minutes, Christian Eriksen fancied his chances with a free-kick from distance but Mendy was untroubled. The Danish international’s return to the game is both magnificent and yet shocking at the same time. I remember watching in stunned silence as his fate appeared to be in the balance during the Denmark vs. Finland game last summer, one of the few games that I bothered with in the whole of the 2020 European Championships. Yet here he was playing professional football once again.

I turned to Alan.

“Fuck that. If I had almost died on a football pitch, it would be pipe and slippers for me.”

When the former Tottenham midfielder appeared below us to take a corner, I joined in with the hundreds of Chelsea fans around me who showered some warm applause upon him. But we only did it the once. We knew our limits.

There were mainly blue skies overhead. It was a decent day in SW6. It wasn’t warm, but the sunshine gave the afternoon a Spring-like feel.

On the pitch, the visitors were warming up quicker than us.

We love Edouard Mendy but oh! His distribution at times is catastrophic. Ivan Toney – when he first appeared on the scene, and without seeing him play, I wondered if he was a relative of Luca Toni – intercepted an errant pass from Mendy but his lob was high. The same Brentford player then made space for himself inside our box but Mendy fell to his right to push the ball nervously past his near post. Toney’s third effort in quick succession was a header but thankfully it did not trouble us.

So, in the first ten minutes it was Brentford who were setting the pace. On another day, we could easily have been 1-0 down or worse. We, meanwhile, were struggling to get out of first gear.

In the first quarter of an hour, our sole attack of note resulted in Werner collecting the ball thirty yards out and dribbling the ball forward, but forgetting to stop dribbling past the goal line.

Fackinell.

A much more refined feint and dribble from Ziyech on the right was easier on the eye, but that was again full of false promise.

Chelsea’s attacks were rogue at this point; not wholly convincing, not well planned.

In fact, it took a whole twenty minutes – count’em – for our first real strike on goal. Mount took the ball, advanced and struck a curler that flew narrowly past David Raya’s right-hand post.

All was quiet.

It took until the twenty-eighth minute – again, count’em – for me to hear a credible chant from the home support; the Matthew Harding Lower rumbled a half-hearted “Come on Chelsea” and I, and a few others in the Upper, joined in. But the game was being played out in front of a thoroughly tepid atmosphere. Not even the away fans could be bothered.

Another fackinell.

Suffice to say, there were no “Roman Abramovich” chants, but there were hardly any other chants either.

I heard a pigeon coo in Brompton Cemetery.

On the half-hour mark, there was a nice dribble, centrally, from Ruben but his shot was hit straight at their keeper’s midriff. Next up was a beautiful lofted pass from Kante into Mount but his volley was aimed at the ‘keeper again. We were slowly getting the upper hand but it was hardly stirring stuff.

“Wednesday on their minds?” offered Alan.

Our best effort of the first-half came from the boot of Ziyech but his fearsome shot was tipped over by the Brentford ‘keeper.

Down in front of us, I purred at the way Thiago Silva calmly brought a ball down and delicately tapped a ball over the limbs of an onrushing Brentford player to Dave in a few yards of space. The man makes everything look so easy. Utter class.

The first-half apologetically ended.

Brentford had enjoyed the best of the first quarter of the game while we slowly engineered some sort of reaction in the second quarter.

But, really, this was lukewarm stuff.

As the second-half began, nobody within Stamford Bridge could possibly have predicted the events of the ensuing forty-five minutes.

Chelsea were now attacking us in the Matthew Harding and after three minutes of play, the ball was pushed square towards Antonio Rudiger. He must have been thirty-five yards out. With one touch to set himself up, he swiped at the ball and we watched as the missile flew goal wards. It looked on target. So often his efforts are wild. But on this occasion the ball hit the left-hand post before glancing in.

Delirium.

And not just from the fans, but from the goal scorer too. After my initial scream of joy, I quickly harnessed the camera that was hanging around my neck at the time – I don’t always have it “up and ready” – and snapped away at the scorer’s uninhibited and ecstatic run of celebration. From my vantage point – behind him – it looked like he was losing it, and possibly gesticulating and gurning in a way that he might later regret. He ran, maniacally, towards the Chelsea bench and flung himself into the arms of the manager.

“Get a room, lads.”

It was some strike. Because of where it was on the pitch, it immediately reminded me of a Frank Leboeuf screamer against Leicester City in 1997. That late goal gave us a1-0 win. This goal, almost twenty-five years later, sadly signalled the start of a crazy period in the game.

After our goal, I left my seat and sauntered off to turn my bike around. Just as I was about to disappear into the North Stand concourse, I heard a roar and looked around to see a Brentford player reeling away in front of The Shed with the Brentford fans celebrating wildly behind him.

Bollocks.

I got back to my seat and Alan filled me in with the details; a sweet strike from Vitaly Janelt. This had come after barely a minute of play since our goal.

We immediately attacked but a Werner effort was blocked easily. Sadly, Brentford broke with pace as they attacked The Shed again, and three Chelsea defenders sprinted towards the ball-carrier Bryan Mbeumo. This left two yellow perils unmarked inside the box – spotted by myself with an impending sense of doom – and it was no surprise when one of them, Eriksen, slotted the ball in.

Oh crap. What terrible defending.

Our fine recent form was now facing a rude awakening.

Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso and the defence was shuffled.

But only a few minutes later, a quick and concise move down the inside-left channel by Brentford caused us more pain. They cut through us so easily – “after you Claude” – and Janelt nabbed his second of the game with a strike high past Mendy. Brentford had scored three times in just over ten minutes.

Ugh.

The away fans could finally be heard.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

Two more substitutions followed.

Romelu Lukaku for Werner.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Werner had been so poor. I am pretty fair with most players and heaven knows I have wanted the German to finally hit some form but – oh my – the bloke seems to be getting worse. I’m getting pretty fed up with people saying, and quoting Porto as an example, that his moves off the ball allow space for others. If I was a footballer, an attacking player, I would be pretty ashamed to have to write that in bold at the top of my curriculum vitae.

All of a sudden, Kai Havertz became the centre of attention. Firstly, he tucked the ball in from a cross, but the goal was disallowed for handball, although it also looked offside to us. Then, he closed down on a clearance from Raya and the ball spun just wide. Then, and again in quick succession, an effort from the same player drifted just wide of the far post after good work from Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic.

A goal or two then might have turned it our way a little.

After scoring one goal, Rudiger tried his best to get his shooting boots into action again with a succession of increasingly extravagant efforts on goal. None came close unfortunately.

As the game continued, many of the home support set off for home, or maybe some nearby bars. I have rarely seen Stamford Bridge so empty in the last ten minutes. In the dying embers of the game, there was more Keystone Cops defending in The Shed penalty area as we failed to clear the ball and Youane Wissa smacked home a loose ball.

Chelsea 1 Brentford 4.

Good God, bloody hell.

At least there were no boos at the final whistle.

Those more likely to boo had already fucked-off home by then.

As I walked down to the Peter Osgood statue to pick up some tickets for next Saturday’s game at Southampton, I was just bewildered and not mad. I had mentioned to Walts at half-time that we hadn’t really pushed on since last season, and this game was evidence enough. But we’re decent enough to finish third this season and, cup glories aside, that has to be our goal. We’re a team slowly growing, nothing more. Give us time.

I soon bumped into four of my overseas guests, and Kathryn – from Vienna, Virginia – was almost in tears as she told how there just wasn’t any noise at all in her part of The Shed Lower.

“We tried to get everyone singing but nobody knew the words.”

Sigh.

Welcome to Chelsea 2022.

Walking towards the car, I passed the wine bar on Vanston Place, and at last, as I peered in, I spotted Dutch Mick on his first trip to Chelsea in over two years. I had seen him to talk to Abu Dhabi but I told him then that I missed seeing him and his mates in that bar every time I walked by. I pointed to him and he came out for a hug. It was a nice end to a far from nice afternoon at the home of the World Champions.

Next up, Real Madrid at home and they surely don’t come any bigger.

I’ll be up for that alright.

See you there.

Tales From Under A Blue And Yellow Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 February 2022.

My alarm sounded at 5.45am on the day of the League Cup Final. With all of the recent news from Ukraine that had sadly dominated everyone’s thoughts, I think it is safe to say that I was not wholly ready for the game at Wembley against Liverpool. I wasn’t particularly focussed. Far from it. The horrific scenes from Ukraine – and the national capital of Kiev specifically, a city that I had visited only three years ago with Chelsea – had dominated my thoughts for the previous few days. Football seemed a frivolous pursuit. In fact, my thoughts about the game were quite similar to those that I had felt for the 2015 League Cup Final against Tottenham. Just three days previously, I had lost my dear mother.

On both occasions, my mind was elsewhere, way elsewhere.

On that Sunday seven years ago, we travelled up to London by train. In 2022, we travelled up by car. I collected PD at 7am and Parky not long after. It would be our third drive to London in nine days, but only the second to involve a game.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had arrived in London at our usual parking space on Normand Road at around 5.45pm for the Champions League game against Lille, but PD – who had been feeling ropey during the last thirty-minutes of his drive to London – suddenly felt very ill indeed. He felt sick, experienced hot sweats but was also shaking with the cold too. Without too much thought, I knew we had to get him home. I jumped into the driving seat of his car and drove us back west. Our stay in London had lasted five minutes. Thankfully, PD improved a little on the drive home. By the time I eventually reached my house, the game at Stamford Bridge was approaching half-time. Our eventual two-nil win was met with a little indifference from me. I was more concerned about PD.

Bizarrely, this followed on from my “ghost” trip to London for the Plymouth Argyle game in which I didn’t go in. Two trips to SW6 but no football. My next game at Chelsea is against Newcastle United in a couple of weeks. I hope I make it to my seat.

We had decided to stay over in London. The Premier Inn near Putney Bridge would be our home for the Sunday night. From 10am until about 3pm, we knocked back some ciders and lagers in three local boozers; “The Eight Bells”, “The King’s Arms” and “The Golden Lion”. In the last pub, we bumped into the former Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, himself a participant in a League Cup final for Chelsea against Stoke City, almost fifty years ago to the day.

We were adamant that we would arrive on time for this match at Wembley. However, the tube line between Putney Bridge and Earl’s Court wasn’t operating. Instead, we bit the bullet and cabbed it – past Stamford Bridge – to Marylebone Station. It was no surprise to see a few stragglers, a few familiar faces, outside the sports bar as we exited the taxi. We soon squeezed onto the 3.45pm train to Wembley Park. What should have been a twelve-minute journey, took nearer thirty. Our carriage was full of Chelsea, including a couple of lads from home. All eyes were on the clock. Suffice to say, we again struggled to get into Wembley on time.

The game was due to start at 4.30pm.

We made our way around to the eastern end. At least there was no queue and a minimal security check. On the way in, a Scouser in his twenties squeezed-in behind Parky as he scanned his ticket. Old habits die hard, I guess. I uttered two choice words to him as we all ascended the escalator.

Time was against me.

Race, race, race.

I managed to reach my seat while the players of both teams were taking the knee.

Despite my alarm waking me at 5.45am, I was in with just five seconds to spare.

Bloody hell.

We had heard that Romelu Lukaku wasn’t chosen in the starting eleven while we were on the train. No surprise really. It would have been my choice too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

I had consistently said to Chelsea mates, old school friends, work colleagues and the like that I expected us to lose this. Although our two league meetings were even games and hotly contested, it felt like we have gone off the boil of late. In fact, in Abu Dhabi I had prioritised the FIFA World Club Cup over this one. The Chelsea fans that I shared this with agreed with me.

The match began. Chelsea attacked the Scousers who were located in our usual end, an end that tends to be a “lucky” one for us.

The game was a cracker, eh?

On so many occasions, our recent Cup Final appearances at Wembley have tended to be dull affairs. But here was a contest that was at last an open and entertaining match for one and all.

It was a wild start to the game. Christian Pulisic was fed in by Dave. His snap shot was too close to the Liverpool ‘keeper with the unpronounceable first name. The chance went begging.

Liverpool then attacked at will. On one occasion, Mo Salah was closely marked by four Chelsea defenders. All eyes were on him, but elsewhere Liverpool were a threat.

It can be a sobering experience to watch Chelsea at Wembley. At home games, I have managed to get acclimatised to periods of quiet in The Sleepy Hollow. It’s not an ideal scenario but I’m used to it by now. Not many of the fifty or so spectators who sit near me get too involved. They have their moments, but these seem more fleeting as the years go by. At away games, it’s a different story. A far more uplifting experience. There’s nothing like cheering the team on in a packed and exuberant away section. At Wembley – and this has happened on far too many occasions for my liking – I soon get exasperated by those nearby who don’t support the team. Two lads in their early thirties alongside Parky were a case in point. No singing, no encouragement, no clapping. It was the same story with a couple in front. Nothing.

I couldn’t resist a loud “song sheets are available.”

Thankfully, a good group of singers to my left restored my faith in humanity.

Down below me, Mane headed well-wide from Alexander-Arnold. It felt like Liverpool were dominating much of the first twenty minutes, thirty minutes, but we managed the occasional counter-thrust. At no stage did I feel we would buckle to their attacks.

On the half-hour, we witnessed an amazing double-save from Edouard Mendy. First, a low shot from Keita was parried by a dive, and our ‘keeper then managed to reconfigure the neutrons, protons and electrons in his body to readjust his limbs and deflect Mane’s close-range effort over the bar. There were immediate memories of Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final.

It was a breath-taking piece of football.

The atmosphere, despite some good quality fare being played out on the Wembley pitch, was a little underwhelming. The Liverpool anthems “You’ll never walk alone” and “The fields of Anfield Road” occasionally boomed from the western end. “Carefree” was our main reply. In the big spaces of Wembley, it’s difficult to generate anything more intricate. The Mendy song, as an example, didn’t stand a chance.

Kai Havertz played in Pulisic, but his finish was again too close to Kelleher. A rising shot from Dave didn’t threaten the Irish ‘keeper either.

Chelsea were breaking nicely, with good mobility and a sense of freedom, and Havertz played in Mount just as the first-half was closing. His prod at goal was rather poor and the ball was sent wide. From a central position near the penalty spot, he really should have done better.

No goals at the break.

“Happy with that. Playing much better than I had predicted.”

The second-half began with Chelsea playing towards us in the eastern end of Wembley. A fantastic ball from Pulisic found the equally excellent run from Mount. The whole world seemed to stop. From inside the box, one on one with the ‘keeper, Mount struck.

The ball rebounded off the near post.

Fackinell.

Dave was injured, but on came Reece James to huge applause.

Another injury occurred when Keita and Trevoh Chalobah clashed in the middle of the pitch. From my vantage point high in the top tier, I had no real view of the incident. But Chalobah stayed down the longest.

The atmosphere was better now. Our end was showing some kind of unity.

“And it’s super Chelsea.”

A terrible clearance from Mendy allowed Liverpool to break in acres of space. The ball was worked to Salah who clipped the ball past the onrushing ‘keeper, trying to atone for his mistake. Thankfully, the reassuring figure of Thiago Silva appeared and hacked the ball away.

Not long after, a quickly-taken free-kick was pumped towards the area past our far post. A Liverpool header back across goal was headed in.

Ugh.

The Liverpool end roared.

There were red flares. They had scored the all-important first goal.

Our end was silent.

But then, after what seemed like an age, we saw that VAR was being called upon.

No goal.

Why? Was the first header from an offside position? Who knows.

A double substitution on seventy-three minutes.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Romelu Lukaku for Mount.

At around this time, the announcer at Wembley did something that I have never witnessed at a game in the UK before; he effectively did an in-game commercial for Carabao. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

Fackinell.

A cracking save by Mendy from Diaz drew more applause from our end. This was a really open game. Kante and Kovacic covered so much ground in our midfield. Alonso was always looking to stretch Liverpool’s right flank. Our defensive three rarely looked troubled. A ball was lobbed into the inside-left channel for Werner to attack. His fine cross was headed in by Havertz but – after a nano-second – we realised that an offside flag was raised.

Another magnificent save from Mendy kept us in it; a towering leap from Van Dijk was followed by a downward header but a stretching save kept it out.

Inside my head : “Mendy man of the match so far.”

Right at the death, Alonso did so well to shake off attention and rifle in a cross towards the near post but a shake of the leg from Lukaku and a flick was parried by Kelleher.

We had been standing for an hour and three quarters. We would be standing for thirty minutes more.

Extra time.

A magnificent ball in the channel from the excellent Chalobah found Lukaku, who advanced, stopped, settled himself and tucked the ball home.

We screamed. But then, the grim realisation that a flag had been waved.

Bollocks.

For Lukaku to score right in front of the Scousers would have been utterly perfect.

The night had fallen now, and the underside of the Wembley roof was picked out in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The arch was yellow and blue too.

The game entered its final fifteen minutes.

My legs were aching and my throat was parched.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

A precise move involving Lukaku and Alonso in a tight area on our left allowed our much-maligned Spaniard to drill a pass to Havertz. His neat finish was soon flagged for offside too.

“God. Three times.”

Late on, Kepa replaced Mendy, a repeat of Belfast in August.

The game continued to its conclusion.

0-0.

The dreaded penalties. I didn’t like it that they were to be taken at their end.

“Munich was the other end though. And Belfast.”

“I fancy our chances here, Paul.”

There then ensued the best part of fifteen minutes of more drama. Pure drama? Maybe. They were all fantastic penalties to be honest. The agony continued after no misses in ten attempts. We went to sudden death. Kick after kick.

It went to 10-10.

Time for the two ‘keepers.

Alas, it was not to be.

Kelleher : hit.

Kepa : miss.

We fell silent once again.

The arch turned red.