Tales From The Long Road To Baku

Chelsea vs. PAOK : 29 November 2018.

As we set off for the game, with PD driving alongside Lord Parky, and yours truly in the backseat, I spoke to my travelling companions.

“You have to wonder why we’re going tonight, don’t you? We’re already through. It’s hardly an important game.”

PD soon took the bait.

“Yeah, but we love our football, Chrissy.”

Indeed we do.

Indeed we do love our football.

Guilty as charged.

PD battled the evening traffic and some appalling weather as I relaxed in the rear seats. I drifted off to sleep on a couple of occasions. I had been awake since 5.30pm. By the time we reached our usual parking spot at around 6.30pm – three hours after we had left – I was suitably refreshed.

In the busy “Simmons Bar” at the southern end of the North End Road, I met up with some friends from near and far. It was good to see Neil from Guernsey again for the first time in a while. He was with his brother Daryl, alongside Gary, Alan, Duncan, Lol and Ed and all seemed to be making good use of the two bottles of “Staropramen” for a fiver deal. On the exact anniversary of his first ever game at Stamford Bridge, Eric from Toronto soon appeared and we bought each other a bottle of “Peroni.” He is over for a few games. His enthusiasm was boiling over and he was met with handshakes and hugs from my little gaggle of mates. Prahlad, now living temporarily in Dusseldorf, but originally from Atlanta, was present too, and it was fantastic to see him once more. The Chuckle Brothers first met him for a good old pre-match in Swansea two seasons ago. He was with his wife; her first game, I am sure. Brenda, who runs the Atlanta Blues, was in the pub too, with another Atlantan, Ryan; his first game at Stamford Bridge for sure.

Everyone together.

Chelsea fans from England; South London, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire. From Guernsey. Chelsea fans from Canada. Chelsea fans from the US.

These foreign visitors are not tourists in my book. They are Chelsea supporters. Tourists – that most derided of all at Chelsea and other football clubs in this day and age – happen to find themselves in London and decide to go to a game at Chelsea as part of the London experience. Another box ticked. Buckingham Palace. The Houses of Parliament. Oxford Street. The Tower of London. The Fullers Brewery. Harry fucking Potter. An “EPL” game. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

Eric joked with me; “See I am assimilating nicely. Not wearing a Chelsea shirt this time.”

We laughed.

Prahlad was assimilating nicely too. As he said his goodbyes, I tapped him on the shoulder –

“Nice Moncler jacket, mate. You thought I didn’t notice, didn’t you?”

It was his time to laugh.

Off we trotted to the game. We had heard warnings of many away fans travelling over without tickets – something that Chelsea will be doing when we visit Budapest in a fortnight – but I didn’t see any Greeks outside Stamford Bridge. As I walked with Eric past the touts and the souvenir stalls and the general hubbub of a match day, I heard voices from almost a century ago; my grandfather walking the exact same steps –

“Shall we get a rosette, Ted?”

“I’d rather have a pint of beer, Ted.”

There was a quick bag check and we were in. Eric had a ticket in the West Lower. I’d see him at the Fulham game and the one at Wolves too.

Inside the stadium, the three thousand visitors were stood, and were hoisting banners and flags ahead of the game. There were yawning gaps in the top corners of the East Upper, and similar gaps in the West Upper too. After 39,000 gates against BATE and Vidi, this one might not reach those heights.

But these tickets were only twenty quid. Here was a good chance for our local fans to attend a match at Stamford Bridge; to be bitten by the bug, for peoples’ support to be raised a few notches.

But I was sure that there would be moans about “tourists” the following morning…

For a few moments before the teams entered the pitch, I moved over to the seats to my right, which look down on the West Lower, and which give a slightly different perspective. In my desire to photograph every square foot of Stamford Bridge, it allowed me a few new shots.

The teams took to the pitch and I returned to my usual seat in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team was basically a “B Team.”

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Barkley – Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek

Pedro – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

This was a chance to see how a couple of our youngsters might shape up. In the first-half, our Callum was right over in the opposite corner to me; in the second-half, he would be closer. After seeing him play in Australia, and then again at Wembley in the Community Shield, here was a rare start.

We began with all the ball, and on just seven minutes, our position improved further still. With Olivier Giroud chasing a loose ball, a PAOK defender lunged awkwardly at the ball. Giroud tumbled and the referee from Estonia flashed a red. Off went Yevhen Khacheridi. Sadly, Cesc Fabregas shot meekly from the resulting free-kick.

There were attempts on goal from Hudson-Odoi and Giroud. Very soon into the match, Fabregas began sending a few lovely balls from deep towards our forwards. Of course, Jorginho and Fabregas – although both playing right in the middle – are wildly different players, but it was a real pleasure to see Cesc pinging a few beauties to Giroud and Pedro. Pedro took one down immaculately and forced a fine save from their ‘keeper Paschalakis.

A chance fell for Loftus-Cheek and his effort was tipped wide.

The away fans, dressed predominantly in black, and overwhelmingly male and under the age of thirty-five, made a constant din throughout the opening period of the half. They were not the loudest away fans that I had ever heard at Chelsea – I seem to remember Olympiakos, their countrymen, making more noise – but this lot were non-stop. It was stirring stuff.

On twenty-seven minutes, another magnificent ball from Fabregas found Pedro, who controlled magnificently. He spotted Giroud outside him, and he rolled the ball to his right. The finish from Giroud, struck with instinct with his left foot, was perfectly placed into the PAOK goal.

Stavros #1 : “They’ll have to come at us now, peeps.”

Stavros #2 : “Come on my little diamonds, innit.”

Hudson-Odoi went close just after, his curler from distance dropping into the bar with the ‘keeper beaten. There had been a solid effort from Ross Barkley too. Ten minutes after his opener, Giroud doubled our lead. Another Fabregas ball dropped at Giroud’s feet, but his finish was made to look easier than it must have been. Another first-time finish, volleyed home at the far post, the ball squeezed in between the frame of the goal and the luckless ‘keeper.

Amid some fine quality, there was time for a wild shot from Davide Zappacosta which went off for a throw-in.

PAOK’s attacks were rare. A sublime block from Gary Cahill nulled the best chance of their half.

The half-time whistle blew and we were well worth the 2-0 lead. On every seat back, a sticker advertising “The Fifth Stand” had been applied. It seemed that a private game had been taking place in the row behind me; our mate Rousey – he was oblivious – had been “stickered” by many. He even had one sticker stuck on his ski hat. The back of his coat was covered.

I whispered to Alan :

“Not the first time Rousey is going to end up with a lot of sticky residue on his jacket.”

“I dare to think about it” replied Alan.

The match programme, a better read this season I think, produced a few interesting morsels. The news of our game in the summer in Japan was detailed. I won’t be going; Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was a pristine, sublime and wonderful memory. I won’t be going back. It would only pale, I think, in comparison. But I am keen to see where else we are headed in the summer. This was our one-hundredth and seventeenth home game at Stamford Bridge in all European competitions, and we have lost just eight. I always remember the sadness of our unbeaten record going against Lazio in 2000. But eight out of one hundred and sixteen is phenomenal. I have – sadly? Is that the correct word? – been at all of the defeats. Throughout all the defeats, though, nothing hurts more than the Iniesta goal in 2009 and the resulting draw. There were nice profiles of Tommy Baldwin and Peter Houseman, players from my childhood, and who played in the first two games that I saw way back in 1974.

Into the second-half, and our dominance continued. The away team, so obviously lacking the class to combat us, would have found it hard to prise open a vacuum-packed packet of feta cheese, let alone our defence. But their fans were still making tons of noise.

A fine run from Loftus-Cheek – looking loose and confident – forced another good save from the PAOK ‘keeper. Then, the ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi by Fabregas. He took a quick touch and then shimmied a little before striking, the ball being whipped in at the near post with Paschalakis beaten. I just missed “shooting” his shot, but I caught his joyful celebratory run into our corner.

This was just lovely to see. The players swarmed around him. I have to pinch myself to think that our Callum is just eighteen years of age.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Zappacosta and took his place in front of Maurizio Sarri and the towering East Stand.

Willian replaced Pedro.

The away fans still sung.

Olivier Giroud – a great performance – was replaced by Alvaro Morata.

After only three minutes, Cahill pushed the ball towards Hudson-Odoi. He soon spotted the presence of Morata in the box, and his cross was simply faultless. Morata jumped and timed his leap to perfection, even though he was sandwiched between two defenders. It was a classic header – why does his heading ability remind me of Peter Osgood? – and the net was soon rippling.

Chelsea 4 PAOK 0.

Perfect.

Against the bubbles, we hardly squeaked it.

The away supporters among the 33,000 crowd were still singing. Their performance throughout the night was very commendable. As a comparison, I have to sadly report that this was the first Chelsea game that I can ever remember in which I did not sing a single note. However, I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad sign of the times.

With a midday kick-off coming up on Sunday, I am not overly hopeful that the atmosphere will be much better, London derby or not.

But I’ll be there.

I’ll see you in the pub.

Tales From Black Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2018.

There was a moment, soon into the second-half I think, when a Chelsea move broke down in a particularly pathetic and unsurprising way. A voice behind me in the lower tier at Wembley loudly bellowed in frustration :

“Come on you cunts!”

I knew that I had to say something, I knew that I could not let the moment pass. I calmly turned around and realised that the voice belonged to a lad in his early ‘twenties. In a quiet voice I spoke.

“They’re not cunts, mate, are they? They’re our players. They’re not cunts.”

There was not much of a reaction from the lad. I think my calmness shocked him a little. Maybe he was expecting a louder or more strident tone. However, a few moments later, the lad was uttering the same phrase.

I turned around again, and repeated virtually the same words all over again.

“I won’t say it again, mate. They’re not cunts.”

At that particular moment in time, with Chelsea losing 2-0 to our arch rivals, but in a stadium which was only two-thirds full, and with the Chelsea fans not exactly rallying behind the team, it all seemed to be rather bleak and grey, if not black. It had been a strange atmosphere from the off. There were yawning gaps in the top tier at Wembley, and despite the home team racing to an early lead, and peppering our goal throughout the first-half, the atmosphere was surprisingly tepid. Where was the red-hot buzz of a London derby? It was hardly in evidence. As the game continued, with very rare moments of the intensity from Chelsea players and fans that we are familiar with, the evening became quieter and quieter. There were only sporadic outbreaks of song. It was a most listless performance from the terraces, but which mirrored that of the team.

But fans calling our players “cunts”? I didn’t get it, and I never have. And I have to say I have heard the same name calling uttered by many Chelsea fans, some too close for comfort. It always makes me squirm. I suspect that my own personal view is not shared by everyone, but I still regard Chelsea players as heroes, as our heroes, as my heroes. We need to support them in their battles against our foes.

Our performance against Tottenham was poor, it was collectively poor, and whose fault that was is hard for me, as an outsider, to fathom. But it has always been my view – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – that we can run down our players outside of the ninety minutes, in private, but at the game there needs to be encouragement.

It’s all about supporting the team, right?

Maybe it isn’t.

These days, nothing seems straightforward to me. Or am I over-analysing it all?

I don’t know.

The day had begun as early as 6.30am with an alarm call. My initial thoughts were of concern.

“Hope we don’t get mullered.”

PD, Glenn and I assembled at Frome train station at 7.50am, but soon spotted that our connecting service to Westbury was delayed. Outside, a stranger spotted us looking troubled and asked if we needed a lift to the neighbouring town.

“My husband will be here soon. I am sure we can fit you in the back seat.”

“Oh that is great, thanks” uttered Glenn.

“He’s not a Spurs fan, is he?” I wondered.

We made it in time to Westbury, then waited for Parky to join us at Melksham. He has had a testing time since we last all met up a fortnight ago. After his fall at half-time against Everton, he was diagnosed with having a fractured eye socket, and was quite bruised. Then, last weekend he lost his father at the grand age of ninety. But nothing keeps Parky down. He is as resilient as they come.

On the train to Paddington, we were sat opposite a woman in her sixties who was from Bristol, and a Spurs supporter. The look on her face when we told her that we were a) going to Wembley and b) Chelsea fans was priceless. We had a good old chat as we headed east. I had to confine my thoughts to myself when she admitted that she followed Manchester United when she was younger. Originally from Ireland – the north, I believe, her accent was very feint, only hinting at its origin – she admitted that it was almost expected of you to be a United fan if you came from Ireland. I blame George Best.

She feared for Tottenham against us.

“We haven’t been playing well and we’ve got players out.”

This made me a little more optimistic.

We had all said that we would settle for a point among ourselves.

There was talk of Roman Abramovich – she spoke with a rather bitter tone, what a surprise – and also talk of Tottenham finding it hard to compete against teams with “sugar daddies.”

We arrived in Paddington, under the impressive curves of the station roof, with an expectant air.

There is something about arriving in London by train.

Maybe my grandfather and Ted Knapton walked on that exact same platform in the ‘twenties on their way to Stamford Bridge.

I had planned another pre-match pub-crawl, centered on The Strand, and which I had been looking forward to, possibly even more than the football, for ages.

Since the last Chelsea match, England have taken centre stage, but not in my life. I have to admit that I have still not seen a single second of the games against the US and Croatia. Last Monday, I did not even know England were playing Croatia until someone in the US mentioned it on Facebook. Instead, as with the previous international break, I took in two Frome Town games. On the Saturday, I drove up to London to see the game against the Metropolitan Police – we lost 2-1 – and on the subsequent Tuesday, I watched as Frome lost 2-1 at home to the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine.

My travels around the south of England with Frome occasionally involve a Chelsea connection – Nick Crittenden and Dorchester Town as an example – but my visit to Imber Court in East Molesey last weekend reunited me with three Chelsea stalwarts, and nobody was more surprised than me. As soon as I arrived at the home of the Met Police, I took a photograph of the two imposing floodlights at the covered end of the stadium. I posted the photograph on “Facebook.” Quick as a flash – the wonders of modern communication – my friend Neil, from nearby Walton On Thames but watching England play cricket in Sri Lanka, commented that the floodlights previously belonged to Chelsea.

I quickly gazed up at them and my mind did summersaults and cartwheels back through time to picture them standing proud at Stamford Bridge. These three ladies of the night – legs splayed, how brazen – were, I guessed, from the West Stand side, the last three to exist. The fourth one at Imber Court was a poor relation, a single spindle. I joked with some Frome pals that this last insipid one was from Loftus Road.

While Frome laboured on the pitch, often my gaze wandered to my left and I spent more than a few moments lost in thought as I imagined the sights that the two “ladies” had witnessed over the years at Stamford Bridge. I could so easily have been unaware of the link with Chelsea.

Yet there was more. Behind the goal to my right were a few football pitches. And I recognised the houses in the background from Chelsea magazines and programmes in the ‘seventies. I knew that we had trained at East Molesey – after Hendon, after Mitcham, before Harlington – and here it was. I wondered if the Chelsea players used the changing facilities in the Imber Court clubhouse. Just like Everton at Bellfield and Liverpool at Melwood, I always thought it odd that normal houses overlooked the players of Chelsea Football Club as they trained at Mitcham and East Molesey in the ‘seventies. Everything is under lock and key these days, behind security gates and put of reach.

After a bite to eat at Paddington, we began our march through London with a pint on the River Thames, on the Tattershall Castle, moored on the north bank of the river near Charing Cross.

“The only other time I have been here was with my Italian mate Mario before we saw Leverkusen win against Tottenham at Wembley two years ago. What a night that was.”

I was clearly looking for good luck omens.

We then walked to “The Ship & Shovel”, even closer to Charing Cross. This was the best pub of the day and quite unique; it straddles a narrow passageway, so looks like two separate pubs. We settled in the smallest of the two bars, and awaited the appearance of our good mate Dave, who we had not seen at Chelsea for the best part of two years. Dave now lives in France, and was back on a rare weekend to see friends and family. It was a joy – to use his lovely turn of phrase – to see him once more. He is now a father, and there is a magnificent Chelsea story here. Jared was born an hour or so before our Championship-winning game at The Hawthorns in 2017.

What a great sense of timing.

We had a blast in that little bar. It was fantastic to see him again. Dave was really pleased to see me; I owed him thirty quid. From  there, we walked up to the Coal Hole – a favourite of ours.

“Last time we were here? Before the 2-1 win against Tottenham two years ago.”

“You and your omens.”

Outside, there were Christmas shoppers, and a distinct chill to the air. It was a magical few hours.

From there, “The Lyceum”, “The Wellington”, “The Coach & Horses” and “The Marquis Of Anglesey.”

All of the pubs were full, and we were having a blast.

Seven pubs and another gallon of lager.

Happy daze.

Throughout all of this, we were sadly aware that Glenn and Dave did not have match tickets, such is the clamour for away tickets, and for Tottenham away tickets especially. But the day was all about meeting up and having a giggle. And a giggle we certainly had.

While we left Dave and Glenn to find a pub to watch the game on TV, PD, Parky and I nipped into a cab which took us to Marylebone and, from there to Wembley.

It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest.

Then a little tale of bad luck, maybe another omen. On the train to Wembley, I learned that a friend had two spare tickets, but time was moving on and there was no way to sort it all out. Glenn and Dave had been left stranded in the West End. There was no way they could reach Wembley in time. I received a text from another friend – a Chelsea fan visiting from LA, match ticket in hand – who had missed out on getting a train to London because someone had plunged in front of a train.

Another – hideous – omen.

We reached the away section at Wembley on a cold and dark evening in good time for once. There were handshakes with many in the concourse.

Parky and I met up with Alan and Gary near the corner flag, only a few rows from the front. To our immediate right was the aisle where we had rigorously and feverishly celebrated Marcos Alonso’s late winner – “oh look, there’s Parky’s crutch” – last August.

The teams soon appeared and Chelsea were oddly dressed in yellow.

The size of the gaps in the upper tiers shocked me. Red seats everywhere. It seems that the “thrill” of playing at Wembley has lost its appeal for Tottenham, but of course there must be a great deal of frustration felt about the lingering problems with their new stadium.

I shudder to think how our support might haemorrhage if we have to move to Wembley for three, four, five years.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

Being only four or five rows from the front, my viewing position was poor. With the fumes of alcohol wafting around me, I knew that I was in for a tough time watching, and appreciating the finer points of what could turn out to be a fast paced game.

I need not have worried.

The football soon sobered me up.

Within just over a quarter of an hour, we were 2-0 down and we were fully expecting more goals to follow. After just eight minutes, Eriksen zipped in a free-kick which was headed in by Dele Alli. We watched silently as he celebrated in our corner. But I watched the fans in the home section, around twenty yards away; they didn’t seem ecstatic, and it shocked me. There were a few fist pumps, but it was all pretty tame.

Spurs were on fire to be honest – it hurts me to say – and were causing us all sorts of problems. A shot over, then a great save from Kepa.

“COME ON CHELSEA. GET IN THE FACKIN GAME.”

On sixteen minutes, the ball broke to Harry Kane, outside our box. With what seemed like virtually no back lift, he drilled a shot into the corner of our goal, low and purposeful. Kepa appeared unsighted and was motionless. Only at half-time – with Alan alongside me incandescent – would it become apparent that David Luiz moved to get out of the path of the ball.

The Spurs fans roared again, but there was not an almighty din befitting a 55,000 or 60,000 crowd.

We had a couple of chances, and I noted a slightly improved attitude. The Chelsea fans in the lower tier tried to get behind the team. There were small signs of recovery.

But we had to rely on Kepa to keep us in it. Another fine save – a quick reflex palm away – was roundly applauded.

Up the other end, at last a shot worthy of the name.

Hazard forced a save from Loris.

There were penalty claims, but the action was so far away…

There were long faces at the break.

Time for a few more photographs.

The second-half began and a shot from Willian was deflected over. We looked a little livelier and the away fans responded. But any thoughts of a Chelsea reaction to such a poor first-half were extinguished just ten minutes into the second period.

To my utter bewilderment / frustration / disbelief, Son was able to waltz through our defence like a hot knife through butter. His low shot was destined to go in.

Tottenham Hotspur 3 Chelsea 0

Oh bloody hell.

This was turning into a very dark day.

I thought back to our set up last season at Wembley against them. An extra shield in the middle with Kante, Bakayoko and Luiz, all superb on the day.

This season, we looked so lightweight.

The manager decided to change things a little. Ross Barkley replaced the ineffective Mateo Kovacic and Pedro replaced Morata. We were now playing without a spearhead, with the three diminutive attackers asked to swarm in and around the Spurs box. But Barkley impressed me straight away. His physical presence alone seemed to stiffen our midfield. Kante tried his best to win tackles and get things moving. But we then drifted a little and the game seemed lost.

With half an hour still to go, I looked around and saw many empty red seats in our section.

Respect to those who stayed to the end.

Funny how we take the piss out of Tottenham – especially – when they leave early and yet we do exactly the same.

Here we go again – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – but that isn’t what being a Chelsea fan is all about is it?

Is it?

The game continued.

Apart from the occasional song of defiance from myself and a few others, the noise dwindled in our end. But I have to say the home end was pretty quiet too. It was such a strange atmosphere.

Tottenham had a couple of chances to extend their lead. Thankfully no goals followed. With fifteen minutes to go, Sarri replaced Willian with Olivier Giroud.

With five minutes remaining, a cross from Dave was met with a high leap by the Frenchman and the ball was headed down and into the Tottenham goal. I didn’t even bother celebrating. Nobody did.

From memory, it was a little similar to the very first Chelsea goal I saw scored; an Ian Hutchinson header against Newcastle United in 1974; “up and downer” as it was described in the following game’s programme.

A Pedro goal – alas not, he blazed it over – would have made things a little interesting, but not for the hundreds of fans who had decided to head home before the final whistle.

Any ridiculous fantasies about the most improbable and unwarranted comeback in living memory amounted to nothing. At the final whistle – “see you Thursday” – we knew we were lucky that it had been kept to 3-1.

In the concourse, I met up with my good mate Andy from Nuneaton, who was at the game with his daughter Sophie. The frustration was there. We exchanged words. We weren’t happy. It had been a truly pitiful performance. Without heart. Without fight. It was so reminiscent of the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal in 2016.

“I’m a big Conte fan, Andy. He’s a winner. We won the league, we won the Cup. Not good enough. Sacked.”

“I’m not convinced about this bloke, Chris. What has he won?”

“I keep hearing that the players are all very happy in training. All well and good. We play nice football. But sometimes you have to have players who can mix it.”

“He’ll be gone, mate. Even if someone like Allegri came in and won the league his first season, but then finished third the next, he’d be off too.”

We smiled and shook hands.

“Take care, mate.”

The only plus point was that there was hardly a line at the train station. We were soon on the over ground train back to Marylebone, back to Paddington, back to Bath, back to Westbury, back to Frome, eventually at 12.45am.

Of course, the words that Andy and I shared in the eastern concourse at Wembley on Saturday evening were emotive and no doubt reactionary. But they summed up our immediate post-game frustrations. And I have witnessed the reactions of many supporters since the game finished. My thoughts are still being formed as I write.

There are those who say that Sarri is another Scolari.

There are those who say that our football this season is akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

There are those who say he needs time to shape a team in his own style.

Many bemoan the use of N’Golo Kante in his current role.

For the first real time this season, the tide of opinion is turning on Jorginho.

I will be honest. I still haven’t warmed to Maurizio Sarri and I can’t even really explain why that is.

I am sure he is a decent man, but I am still trying to work him out.

There just seems to be too many square pegs in too many round holes at the moment. Parts of our play this year have been excellent, but mainly against weaker teams. I am still trying to work out if our generally good run of results is due to the largely fine players that we have at our disposal or the result of this new methodology. To me, and a few others, there have been times when our play hasn’t been too dissimilar to the last campaign.

My thoughts on this season are rather confused and incomplete.

Like Sarri, I need time to work it all out.

 

 

In Memorium

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Richard Garry Parkins 1929 to 2018

 

Tales From The Front Row

Chelsea vs. Derby County : 31 October 2018.

A Frank Fest.

During the day, I mentioned to a work colleague – fellow Chelsea fan Paul, who came up with us for the Huddersfield Town game last season – that I didn’t want the return to Stamford Bridge of Frank Lampard to dominate things too greatly throughout the evening’s game with Derby County. In 2017, Frank appeared at half-time against Swansea City, and everything on that day was nigh-on perfect. Tons of affection for Frank, flags in honour of him, and feelings between player and fans reciprocated nicely. He took the microphone, and his words were of love and appreciation. So, we have already experienced a “Frank Lampard Day” at Stamford Bridge, and I wasn’t too keen on things getting awkwardly out of control during the upcoming game. Frank was returning as a former hero, but as also a rival. The League Cup is not high on my list of priorities each season, but here was another game we needed to win. I had visions of it all going a bit OTT.

I said to Paul :

“We need to get behind our team. We need to win the game.”

But I knew how these things develop these days. I was sure that there would be songs for Frank Lampard throughout the game.

The Gang Of Five.

The Chuckle Bus was at capacity on the drive to London; PD, Sir Les, Lord Parky, Glenn and I were crammed inside as PD took over driving duties once again. There was the usual heavy traffic and we were not parked until around 6.30pm. There would only be time for a couple of liveners in “Simmons Bar” down at the bottom end of the North End Road, which was unsurprisingly busy, before the game. Of the five of us, only Glenn seemed super-excited about the evening’s match. Not that I was underwhelmed. Just not bitten by the same bug as Glenn. If anything, I was more excited about being able to watch the game from a slightly different perspective. As Derby County – some four thousand strong – had been given most of The Shed, Parky was bounced over to the West Lower. In a secret pact, the two of us had agreed to swap seats. I would be in row two of the West Lower, while he would be watching from my usual seat in row four of the Matthew Harding Upper. We decided to keep it a secret from Alan, PD and Glenn. In the bar, it was lovely to meet up with King Jim, among others, at a game again. Jim comes to the occasional match these days and it is always a pleasure to see him. There were people everywhere as I walked quickly towards Stamford Bridge. This was yet another full house at Stamford Bridge. Good efforts everyone.

Flags And Banners.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the image of Frank Lampard on a banner – the same one as against Swansea City in 2017 – dominated the Matthew Harding to my left. It hung from the balcony, flanked by two other banners, although not all together at the same time.

“GOAL AFTER GOAL, GAME AFTER GAME” and “FOREVER A BLUE, FOREVER A LEGEND.”

And a legend he most certainly is. Our greatest ever player? Probably.

One Of Our Own.

Late on Tuesday night, just as I was finishing off my match report of the Burnley game, I heard through a Chelsea mate of mine that our former Chelsea player, youth team coach and manager Ken Shellito had sadly passed away. Ken had been a Facebook friend of mine for quite a few years, and although we rarely interacted, Ken seemed like a thoroughly decent man, and Chelsea through-and-through. I met him – very briefly – on two occasions. The first time was in 2008 after a CPO event in London when my friend Beth, from Texas – everyone knows Beth – and I enjoyed a few boozy hours in the company of some former players in a cosy boozer after the main event. Ken seemed overwhelmed by the attention and love that other fellow fans were showing him. He seemed humble and courteous. I only spoke to him for a few moments. I later saw him – maybe three years ago – in the Chelsea hotel before a game. Again, our meeting was fleeting. It is often said that had Ken Shellito not suffered a career-ending knee injury in the early ‘sixties, he would have been remembered as an England World Cup winner in 1966. Commentators from that era say his presence would have been assured. He was that good. In the end, he played just one game for England.

Growing up in the ‘seventies, I was aware of his presence at Chelsea as the youth team manager during our barren and financially-weakened years of 1975 to 1977. After Eddie McCreadie left our club before the start of the 1977/78 season – we were all mortified – the club turned to Ken Shellito to manage the team. Even though I was only twelve, I remember thinking that following McCreadie would be a tough act to follow. But our Ken did a reasonable job in his first season as we returned to the top flight for the first time since 1975. Pride of place were the two home victories against reigning English and European champions Liverpool. Everyone talks about the 4-2 FA Cup win in January, but just as impressive was the 3-1 league win in March, a game that I attended, and which fulfilled all my fantasies about Chelsea as unfancied underdog overcoming all of the odds. It was only my twelfth Chelsea game, but one which I wondered would ever be surpassed in terms of excitement and joy. I need not have worried, eh? In the following season, we suffered from the off and the club decided to sack Ken Shellito around the Christmas period. His Chelsea career was over. He spent many of the latter years in Malaysia with his wife Jeanie and young daughter. Until the end, he ran a training camp which I believe had links with Chelsea Football Club.

After the teams entered the pitch, and after there was a mention of Glenn Hoddle and his recent hospitalisation, and then the tragedy in Leicester involving the City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the players formed in the centre circle as an image of Ken Shellito was flashed up on the TV screens and we applauded the memory of both. It had been a horrid few days for us all.

I clapped heartily.

I knew him and yet I did not know him, but another loyal Chelsea servant and supporter has sadly passed.

Ken Shellito RIP.

The Team.

Manager Maurizio Sarri had unsurprisingly changed the Chelsea team for the visit of Derby County. In came a few squad players. Willy Caballero in goal. A back four of Davide Zappacosta, Andreas Christensen Gary Cahill and Emerson. A midfield three of Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. Up front were Willian, Alvaro Morata and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The Lowdown.

This was only my fourth game in the West Lower since its birth in 1997 and eventual completion in 2001. There had been previously been games against Coventry City in 2000, Leeds United in 2004 and Fulham in 2011. I was officially in row two, but the rows were staggered a little and I was effectively sat in the front row. I was as low down as I could possibly be. The view was far from great to be honest. It was lovely to see some players up close – in the first-half, Zappacosta, Loftus-Cheek and Kante especially – but I generally found it hard to concentrate as my perspective was so awful. Apart from a small wedge of around eight-hundred Chelsea fans in the south-east corner, where the away support is usually based, Derby had the entire end. In front of the Chelsea support, was a banner honouring Frank’s assistant.

“JODY MORRIS – CHELSEA THROUGH AND THROUGH.”

Jody’s story is pretty incredible. I remember seeing his debut in the 5-0 rout of Middlesbrough in 1996. He was quite a wild child in his youth. Who would ever have thought that he would develop into a respected coach? Certainly not me.

Soon into the game, a familiar face steadied herself, aided by a steward, and sat down in the front row a few seats away.

“Hiya Felicity.”

She looked fleetingly at me, but there was no reaction. She watched the entire game in silence, alone in her own world. Felicity used to watch the lads train at Harlington. She used to bring them cakes. I saw her, briefly, last season at a game and I was surprised to see that she still attends matches. I am sure she has some form of dementia, bless her, but it was a lift for me to see her still attending games, bedecked in her Chelsea coat.

I thought to myself : “Felicity. Chelsea through and through.”

Rammed.

The Shed was going to be the epicentre of any noise during the game. Derby had come in numbers. Four thousand? It seemed more like five thousand. They were making a din right from the start.

Derby have their own version of “the bouncy.”

“If you don’t fuckin’ bounce. If you don’t fuckin’ bounce you’re a red.”

They had one for Frank.

“Frankie Lampard is a ram. He hates Forest.”

And then one for us.

“Football in a library, tra la la la la.”

Déjà vu.

Here are some observations from our League Cup tie with Fulham in September 2011, which we narrowly won on penalties, and when I was also seated in the same section of Stamford Bridge.

“My seat was in row 6, all of the way down towards the Fulham fans in The Shed. I looked around and saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I heard a few foreign accents. I took a few photos of The Bridge from this new angle. I sat myself down – not much legroom – and prepared myself for a mind-numbingly quiet evening. It’s another cliché that the West Lower is one of more reserved parts of The Bridge. By the time of the kick-off at 7.45pm, the 3,500 away fans had all arrived and were singing their hearts out. The rest of the place took some time to fill up, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see few empty seats.”

“The Fulham fans were getting behind their team, singing a whole host of songs, some of which I had never heard before. In comparison, the West Stand was silent and the MHU barely murmured.”

“A few chances for both sides, but from my angle, I was struggling to make sense of the shape of the play.”

“If I am honest, I wasn’t enjoying the game. The Fulham fans were making too much noise and I was getting rather frustrated with the lack of support from the Chelsea fans around me. In the West lower, many couples weren’t even talking to each other, let alone getting behind the team via songs of encouragement. Despite the songs of derision cascading down on us from the away fans, I couldn’t bring myself to truly despise them, unlike the supporters of other teams. I tried to put myself in their shoes. It reminded me of life as a Chelsea fan in my youth, railing against the bigger teams, forever the underdog. Forever the underachiever.”

“The referee blew his whistle to end the 90 minutes and I inwardly groaned. I had been in purgatory for the whole game – surrounded by predominantly silent fans – and I was only able to yell out a few shouts of support on a few occasions throughout the duration.”

In 2018, seven years later, I experienced a lot of these same feelings.

The First-Half.

After only five minutes, I was able to watch at close-hand as Ruben Loftus-Cheek played the ball to Davide Zappacosta. His low cross was comically turned into his own net by Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori. As easy as that we were 1-0 up. We were all over Derby County in the first part of the game.

It was deathly quiet in the West Lower. To my right, the Derby fans mocked us.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

Within five minutes, however, Derby had equalised. The lump that is Tom Huddlestone played the ball out to Jack Marriott and it looked to me like the angle was too acute. Imagine my surprise when he calmly slotted the ball past Caballero. The away fans bounced.

Martin Waghorn, a solid rock of a striker, fluffed his lines when through on goal, seemingly tripping over the ball and wasting a golden opportunity.

On twenty minutes, as a move developed, I held my camera to my eyes and snapped a rather blurry photograph – certainly not worth sharing – of Zappacosta as he blasted across the goal. I looked up to see that the ball had ended up in the net. Another Derby OG, this time from their skipper Richard Keogh.

I took a few photos as Ruben wiggled his way towards goal, moving the ball nicely, but his shot was wide. Willian then blasted over.

Soon after, just before the halfway mark, Mason Mount played a perfect ball across the six-yard box. Caballero was not close to it. Waghorn poked it home easily.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea.”

The away fans bounced again, and then aimed another dig our way.

“Shall we score a goal for you?”

I lost count of the number of times that Zappacosta, in acres of space, pleaded with his arms wide open to receive the ball from Christensen or Cahill. Often he was ignored. He is a basic player really, but he was again involved on forty minutes as he found himself inside the Derby box. Eventually the ball spun loose, and Cesc Fabregas was on hand to smash the ball in at Scott Carson’s near post.

Bloody hell, 3-2.

The highlight of the rest of the half was the magnificent way that Willian brought a high ball down with the subtlest of touches. It reminded me of Zola doing the same thing at Anfield in around 2003, when the Scousers in the Centenary Stand applauded him.

Banners.

At half-time, I checked out a few of the banners that I would not normally get a chance to see from my usual position in The Sleepy Hollow. I love the old “547 SW6” flag which pays homage to the old – and much-missed – HQ of the original Chelsea Supporters Club at 547 Fulham Road, which I used to frequent before home games until the mid-eighties. I still see one of the chaps who used to serve inside – Peter Kemp – at many away games, although we have never spoken. He is another who the “through and through” phrase could easily be applied. Behind and above me were banners from everywhere.

Adelaide, Vancouver, Devon & Somerset, York, Perth Western Australia, East Belfast, Bermuda, Slovenia.

Just in front of The Sleepy Hollow, a banner which has recently been added.

“ONE93 KERRY DIXON.”

Not So Super.

Five minutes into the second period, came our noisiest chant of the game thus far.

“Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super Frankie Lampard.”

The noise roared down from the Matthew Harding. Frank, obviously, turned and applauded. But he then signalled “enough, support them on the pitch.”

I agreed with Frank. It annoys myself and quite a few others how a sizeable section of the Chelsea support wastes no time at all – every bloody match – in singing about Frankie Lampard scoring against West Ham, Dennis Wise scoring against Milan and Demba Ba scoring against Liverpool. And yet there are few raucous songs in support of players actually playing.

And yet I thought back to September 2014 when we watched in horror as Frank Lampard played as a substitute for Manchester City against as at The Etihad. I cannot lie. I can’t hide the truth. I can’t hide from the sense of hypocrisy I felt. I did sing his name that day. We had, though, not been able to give him a proper send-off at the end of the previous campaign. His last game in Chelsea colours was the insipid 0-0 with Norwich City when he was substituted by Jose Mourinho at half-time. It was as an inglorious end to a Chelsea career as I have ever seen, certainly not befitting one of our all-time greats. He did not appear in the final game away to Cardiff City. So, in my defence, I think there were extenuating circumstances for the songs at Manchester City in 2014. I thought, as did many, that we had not said “goodbye and thank you” in a way that was correct. And here was an opportunity to show him some love. After all, we might not have seen him as a player ever again. That is my explanation for it. If you don’t agree, sue me.

But we said thankyou to him then, in the autumn of 2014. And we said thank you to him at Stamford Bridge in the January of 2015. And again in February 2017.

Enough was enough.

Suffice to say, I didn’t join in with the singing of his name during the game in October 2018. I’m not so sure I even sung before the game if I am honest.

The Second-Half.

Would more goals follow? I expected so. I had been impressed with Derby. We had played beneath ourselves, almost disinterested almost. We worked a few forays into the Derby box in the first part of the second-half but there was no cutting edge. On the hour, a Cahill header from a corner was palmed over by Carson. If I am honest, by now I was finding the game rather painful to watch. Everything was squeezed into a narrow field of vision. And we were hardly in exhilarating form.

David Luiz replaced Andreas Christensen.

Pedro replaced Ruben.

Marriott forced a fine save from Cabellero on a quick break. Mount then shot wide. Derby were still in it. There was a moment when the away fans reacted noisily and passionately to a shot, igniting the entire away end, and I longed for the days when our home fans were similarly partisan. Those days, the days when the atmosphere was venomous, seem so far away now.

Yeah, I know. A familiar story.

A great cross from Zappacosta – him again – found Morata in acres of space but his header was not worthy of the name. Another header from Morata went well wide. The same player then jumped with great body shape, twisting in the box to meet a Willian corner and getting a great deal of power on it – another photo too blurred to share, damn it – but Carson did well to save.

Two saves from Caballero kept us ahead. A hand was dabbed on a close effort from Keogh and he then smothered another Mount shot. Things were getting nervy now. An effort from Marriott was saved. Then the old warhorse David Newgent, a late substitute, shot across Caballero and I watched, painfully, as the ball seemed to be going in. Thankfully it hit the far post, and miraculously bounced back straight into big Willy’s arms.

Phew.

Not long after, the final whistle blew and we counted our blessings.

It been a strange old game. It had not been pretty. But, on Halloween, we were thankful it didn’t turn into a horror show.

Into the last eight we went.

Shots.

As I was watching from a different viewpoint, it would have been amiss of me not to take a greater share of photographs than usual. I took over two-hundred and fifty with most in concentrated bursts, and the majority before the game and then after. Here are a few from the match itself.

Frank & Jody.

There was the inevitable post-game hugs and handshakes between the players and management of both teams. All eyes were on two of our own.

Pictures.

A gallery of some of the images of the night. Down low, the immense height of the East Stand still staggers me. It was even more impressive when it was first built in 1974. There was no stand like it in England.

Postscript : 1985.

On the drive home in PD’s Chuckle Bus, I happened to mention a video clip to Glenn that I had revisited during the week but which was first aired on a “Facebook / Chelsea In The Eighties” group at the start of the year. In the quarter finals of the League Cup in the 1984/85 season, we drew 1-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday. We then drew the replay at Hillsborough 4-4, and then beat them 2-1 in the second replay at Stamford Bridge. I didn’t attend any of those games, but I can remember watching the highlights of them all on TV. Wednesday were huge rivals with us in that period. At the end of the final game, there was a pitch invasion, such was the hysteria among our support in reaching a semi-final for the first time in thirteen seasons.

The video that I spoke about was a rare six-minute clip – never aired on TV – at the end of the game, when the cameras were left to roll and the immediate post-match euphoria was captured for eternity. It shows an edgy mass of lads – honestly, virtually no females – in The Shed, The Benches and the North Stand singing and chanting and taunting the away fans. It shows a few scuffles with the police, trying to keep order, and of a vibrant, excited and noisy Stamford Bridge. Nobody wanted to go home. The areas mentioned were full of lads. Jeans and jackets. Hardly any Chelsea colours, it was 1985. Lads standing on the fences. Attitude. A baying mass of humanity. Police horses trotting up and down in front of The Benches. And the noise was loud, as loud as hell. I quickly fumbled for my ‘phone and thankfully found the video. The commentator, who spoke briefly about wanting to see a few unruly Chelsea fans get hit by the truncheons of the Old Bill, was Peter Brackley, who recently passed away.

While Parky slept, and PD and Les were silent in the front, Glenn and I watched – intensely and intently – at the images from thirty-three years ago.

We were mesmerized.

“We’re going to Wembley. We’re going to Wembley. You’re not. You’re not.”

“You come all this way. And you lost. And you lost.”

We even caught a hearty rendition of Chelsea singing “You’ll never walk alone.”

It was a Chelsea song too in those days.

And all because we had reached a League Cup semi-final.

On the drive home, we had heard that we had drawn Bournemouth – again, same as last season – in the final eight, and I knew that if we were to be victorious in that game, the difference between 1985 and 2018 would be vast. And I understand that. In 1985, Chelsea Football Club was a different beast. In 2018, we are ridiculously successful. Reaching a League Cup semi really is no big deal.

But it would be bloody lovely to have some of that adrenaline, passion and boisterousness once again. Or just 50 percent of it.

We can dream, eh?

 

Tales From The Opposite Corner

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 7 October 2018.

An away trip down to Southampton is an easy one for us. It is only a journey of around an hour and a half. At eight o’clock on a clear, if cold, Sunday morning, Glenn collected me. PD was already on board the Chuckle Bus. We headed for half an hour north and Parky joined us. Glenn then did a one-eighty turn south, soon heading over Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, yet to be inundated with day-trippers.  Autumnal sun was lighting up the entire sky now. We journeyed on, and everything seemed well in our world. As we neared the city of Salisbury, we passed through an avenue lined with tall and proud trees, and then the road opened out and away in the distance, straight ahead, stood the classic tower of the city’s cathedral, piercing the blue sky. As we drive around the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, this particular view of the tallest spire in England always takes my breath away.

Salisbury. Who would ever have thought that this historic city would ever play a part in the history of Chelsea Football Club? Any yet, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia has been severely tested since the incident in March, and has lead – most people have surmised – to Roman Abramovich seeking out domicile in Israel rather than continuing to live in London. What a strange world we live in.

“Southampton away” now takes a familiar shape. We park at the train station, devour a hearty breakfast at a nearby café, and then get stuck in to some beers before heading off to the stadium on the other side of the city centre. We were parked up at 9.45am, and we were soon tucking into a lovely fry-up along with a strong coffee or two. We then re-positioned ourselves outside in a sun trap, and got stuck into some lagers. The sun warmed us. It was a perfect Sunday morning. We were joined by some friends from our local area; around a dozen of us in total. Unsurprisingly, chuckles of various pitches and volumes rebounded off the concrete of the nearby walls and steps.

“Brilliant. Just like a European away.”

I think Glenn was exaggerating slightly, but we all knew what he meant.

Out in the open air, catching some rays, drinking a “San Miguel”, sharing a laugh with some mates, occasionally talking football – “we should win this one, eh?” was about as far as we got – and generally enjoying each other’s’ company. Real life problems, outside our football bubble, occasionally tried to enter my head, but it was easy to push them aside.

“Cheers, lads.”

It might not have been quite such a perfect Sunday in Southampton. Glenn and PD had missed out on tickets among the three thousand away supporters. We needed to think outside the box, or even the box office. Thankfully, Glenn knows a Southampton season ticket holder – I remember he once came with us to Stamford Bridge to see the Saints some twenty years ago – and two tickets were purchased in the home section, the Kingsland Stand, so all four of us were “good to go.” As at Swansea City in 2014, Glenn and I volunteered to sit among the home support, since – without putting too fine a point on it – PD admitted that he would find it hard to keep schtum for ninety minutes.

Southampton would be added to the list of away stadia where I have watched Chelsea from the home sections.

Bristol Rovers – 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.

Bristol City – 1976.

Liverpool – 1992, 1994, 2008.

Everton – 1992.

Viktoria Zizkov – 1994.

Austria Memphis – 1994.

QPR – 1995.

Leeds United – 1995.

Arsenal – 1996.

Blackburn Rovers – 1995, 1995, 1996.

Barcelona – 2005.

Portsmouth – 2008.

Swansea City – 2014.

Southampton – 2018.

(…and not counting the friendlies at Rangers, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon Town.)

There haven’t been that many in over 1,200 games. I’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Having a mate from Yorkshire – not a Leeds fan, I hasten to add – probably helped my cause in 1995. We lost that game 1-0, and I don’t think I was too quick to spring to my feet after Tony bloody Yeboah scored a late winner. I think his accent – drip-feeding the locals over the whole game – might well have saved me. After Wisey scored a last minute equaliser in a 3-3 at Highbury a year later, the four of us sitting in the last few rows of the West Upper could not contain ourselves. We jumped up – “giving it large” – and I even turned around and stared down the Arsenal fans behind me. I was lucky to get away without a slap on that occasion, methinks.

We caught a cab to St. Mary’s. While PD and LP turned left to join in with the Chelsea support in the Northam Stand, Glenn and I continued on and entered the Kingsland Stand. Our seats, in Block 28, were three-quarters of the way back, quite close to the corner flag, and diametrically opposite the Chelsea support.

I looked around. The supporters close by looked pretty harmless. I didn’t expect there to be any problem on this occasion.

Maurizio Sarri had finely-tweaked the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

No complaints from me.

Ryan Bertrand was the captain of the Southampton team.

The stadium took a while to fill, and there were odd gaps in the home section in the Chapel Stand to my right which ever filled. We were treated to more flames as the teams entered the pitch from the Itchen Stand opposite.

Southampton have disregarded their homage to the Kevin Keegan kit of 1980 to 1982 which they wore last season in favour of more traditional stripes. For the first time, we wore the new third kit.

Glenn : “You know what. From this distance, it looks half decent.”

Chris : “It looks better from two miles away.”

Glenn : “Looks bloody rubbish up close.”

Chris : “Up close, yes. Bloody awful.”

But I had to concede, it didn’t look as bad as I expected. But that isn’t saying too much. I absolutely loathed the God-awful tangerine and graphite kit of the mid-nineties, which the kit is said to reference. It was a minging kit.

If the ridiculous non-Chelsea colour scheme was ignored, there was still too much going on; two-tone grey stripes over-stenciled with a thin cross-hatch, panels here there and everywhere, a hideous badge in an over-sized shield, tangerine epaulets, and for some reason the tangerine of the collar was a different colour tangerine to the main body of the shirt, plus a hideous stone-washed look to the grey resulted in it just looking grubby.

Have I made myself clear? It was fucking hideous.

The game began, without hardly a ripple of noise or appreciation from the residents of Block 28. Over in the far corner, the Chelsea 3K were soon singing.

“Oh, oh oh, it’s Kepa.

You know.

He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

With my zoom lens, I eventually spotted Alan, Gary, PD and Parky.

On the pitch, all was good. In fact, Glenn and I were blessed, being able to watch from close quarters as we dominated the opening portion of the game with mouth-watering possession football, and swift passing between all of our players. Whereas we struggled at West Ham a fortnight previously, we purred in the Hampshire sun. In that early period, with Hazard the main catalyst, shot after shot seemed to be blocked by Southampton limbs. An effort from Willian looped up onto the bar. Around me, I heard whispers of admiration every time that Hazard caressed the ball. In the pub, I commented to the lads that – unlike in previous seasons – we had no “hate figure” in our midst. No Diego Costa. No John Terry. No Ashley Cole. No Dennis Wise. No Vinnie Jones. I would be interested to see how the locals received us.

Two chaps – neutrals maybe – right behind us were in admiration of Hazard. I did well to bite my lip and not give the game away.

I looked around. There really was no noise from our area at all. Nothing. I looked behind me, and the sight made me smart. No more than five feet away was a gormless looking young chap – about twenty-two maybe – wearing, as brazen as you like, a navy blue Manchester United replica shirt.

I was speechless.

Altogether now; “what the fuck?”

I caught his eye, and mouthed “United?”

He nodded.

I scowled and returned to the game.

The phrase “football is dead” is often shared these days and here was damning evidence.

Inwardly, I thought to myself “there’s no way I am going to leave here without saying something to the prick.”

On the pitch, all was sweetness and light. We were playing some sublime stuff, some of the best of the season thus far. Our one-touch, maybe two-touch, stuff was creating havoc in the Saints’ final third. Surely a goal would come?

Well, with that, somehow – I don’t know how – Southampton pulled themselves up with their boot strings and carved out a few chances, mainly emanating down our right where Dave was often exposed. The best chance of the entire game fell to the home team. Nathan Redmond released Bertrand on the left and his cross from the goal-line was inch perfect, but Danny Ings somehow managed to get his bearings confused and made a great defensive clearance from six yards out.

By this time, at last, the home fans were making some noise.

“Oh when the Saints…”

Our stand was pretty quiet though, and to be honest only those home fans who shared the Northam Stand with the away supporters tried to show some support for their team. Everywhere else, people were quiet. I swear blind that the teenager sat next to me, wearing a Southampton home shirt, did not speak the entire game. In fact, it was if I was in the middle of a ridiculous sponsored silence.

“Football Is Dead Part 584.”

Our play was far the sharper. Ross Barkley won the ball off a Saints player and fed Hazard. He was level with us, and we were able to admire his quick snapshot which flew past the Saints’ ‘keeper.

Saints 0 Singers 1.

I looked over to see the away end bubbling away like a big bowl of soup.

With the Chelsea supporters in fine voice for the rest of the game, our section opposite was deathly quiet. I had not heard a single shout of support from any individual the entire game, and I wanted to make my mark and break the silence, if only to be able to get a bizarre kick out of being able to say I was the loudest supporter in Block 28 the entire game.

“COME ON SAINTS.”

Glenn giggled.

I wouldn’t have done this at Leeds United back in 1995, mind you.

There are limits.

More Chelsea shots were blocked. Giroud stumbled in the box but it did not look like a penalty.

At the break, we were 1-0 up and coasting on the South coast. It had been an enjoyable, if not particularly loud, first-half in Section 28.

Oriel Romeu, another Munich Boy, appeared for Southampton in the second-half, adding a little more solidity to their midfield. Over on the far side, Sarri was his usual sartorially-challenged self, while Gianfranco Zola was referencing his first ever Chelsea game (Blackburn 1996, see above) when he pleaded “please, not an XL shirt again” by wearing a rain-jacket which resembled a tent.

But on the pitch, we were looking as good as ever. However, the home team carved out a couple of chances, with Bertrand wasting the best of them. As the second-half continued, I was particularly pleased with the way that Toni Rudiger was defending; he hardly put a foot wrong. Elsewhere, Jorginho was finding others with regularity. Barkley was having a very fine game. Just before the hour, that man Hazard was fouled and we waited for Willian to signal his intent to his team mates. Throughout the first-half, I had spotted his signals at corners; one finger, two fingers, three fingers. Against Vidi on Thursday there had even been a thumbs down. The ball was curled over towards the far post and Olivier Giroud attempted a rather spectacular scissor-kick. The ball bounced through a forest of legs and Ross Barkley was able to score his first Chelsea goal with an easy tap in from inside the six-yard box. His joyous run and leap in front of the celebrating away fans were captured on camera.

Saints 0 Singers 2.

I have always rated Ross Barkley. We might just have found another great English midfielder. Let’s hope so. He has poise and strength. I desperately want him to succeed at Chelsea.

We continued to dominate but play opened up a little. There was more defensive strength from Rudiger. And David Luiz, too. His renaissance has been hugely enjoyable.

Alvaro Morata replaced Olivier Giroud and then Pedro took over from Willian. Then Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

In section 28, still no noise.

The sponsored silence was going well.

We continued to push the ball around with ease.

But then, two Southampton chances to eat into our lead produced fantastic saves from Kepa. Redmond let fly from distance, but our young custodian leapt and finger-tipped over from right under the bar. He hasn’t the height of Big Pete or Big Nose, but if he has spring in his heels like that, who cares? Morata went close when he showed too much of the ball to the ‘keeper. I heard the grinding of three-thousands sets of gnashers from one hundred yards away. And then came the second super-save from Arrizabalaga; a similarly agile jump thwarted Ings. Sensational stuff, and we had great seats to see it all up close.

As the game was nearing completion, and as a Chelsea move was progressing, I was aware that the Chelsea supporters were singing out an “ole” with every fresh touch. I don’t usually like this. It seems overly arrogant. Maybe OK, if we are winning 6-0 but not before. The two neutrals behind me were not impressed.

“…mmm, don’t like that, taking the piss.”

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

The ball was worked to Hazard and with that shimmying approach of his, he created a little space and passed to Morata. This time, there was no annoyance from the away fans. His finish was clean and simple. As he dispatched the ball, Glenn and I spontaneously rose to our feet and whooped a little.

“Great goal.”

The final whistle soon came.

Saints 0 Singers 3.

Glenn and I packed up and watched as the Chelsea players slowly moved over and clapped the away support. They didn’t seem to walk over too far towards the Northam Stand. Maybe the 3-0 win seemed too easy. It was certainly easier than the come-from-behind win of last season which brought more prolonged celebrations at the final whistle.

As I exited row BB, I spotted that the United fan – remember him? – was waiting alone near the exit. I couldn’t help myself.

I motioned towards him, pointing at the United shirt.

“What’s with all this?”

Almost apologetically, he threw his arms back and said “it’s football.”

My response? Take your pick.

  1. “Ah that is fine mate. I know that United are a great club and their tickets are hard to come by. “
  2. “Oh, you’re English. Presumed you were foreign. Not understanding the subtleties of fandom in England. Whatever.”
  3. “And what a game. Cheers mate.”
  4. “You’re a twat.”

He then repeated his first answer and I then repeated mine.

As I walked down the steps, a grinning Glenn was waiting for me.

“You had words, then?”

To be honest, I was surprised that a steward or a home supporter had not approached him to tell him to either put a jacket on and cover himself up, or maybe go into the toilets and turn it inside out. At Chelsea, it surely would have been dealt with differently. I am not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, but honestly. The chap was lucky not to get a slap. He showed complete disrespect for Southampton Football Club.

And it – as is obvious – infuriated me to high heaven.

“Football Is Dead” indeed.

Manufactured atmospheres. Flames and fireworks. Orchestrated flag-waving goal celebrations. Noisemakers. Painted faces. Jester hats. Noiseless fans. People as critics and not supporters. A fan base of nerds.

And now Manchester United shirts being worn at games not even involving them.

For fuck sake.

I momentarily thought back to a time in the mid-to-late ‘eighties when it was pretty difficult to obtain foreign football jerseys. Occasionally, such jerseys were worn on the terraces, although not to any great degree due to the rarity of them.

They had a certain cachet to them. They looked the business. But always foreign shirts. And maybe, at Chelsea, the occasional Rangers one.

In those days, in the era of Half Man Half Biscuit and their football-based singalongs, and The Farm, with their scally heritage, and the music-football crossover, it would be quite common to see bands sporting foreign shirts. I seem to remember that I wore a cotton Kappa Juventus shirt on the benches once or twice in around 1986. It was all part of the burgeoning, and rapidly changing, casual scene which enveloped many of us all those years ago.

But not one of us would have been seen dead in a fucking Manchester United shirt at Stamford Bridge.

Then. Or ever since.

To that div in Section 28, this match report is not dedicated.

And now, damn it – modern football – the dreaded international break and a fortnight of inactivity.

Our next game is against Manchester United.

I wonder if knobhead is going.

See you there.

 

Tales From Deep East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.

With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”

The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.

At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.

As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.

Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.

They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.

I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.

As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.

There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.

“No Chelsea colours.”

In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.

“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.

They probably didn’t get the email.

Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.

The team had been announced.

No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.

No complaints. Happy with that.

With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.

PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.

I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :

“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”

It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.

And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.

Ah yes, baseball games.

I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.

It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.

There it was, in broad daylight.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.

My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.

Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.

70,000 in Chicago.

A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.

No thanks.

As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.

I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.

Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?

West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.

If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.

And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.

How times change.

This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.

Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.

As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :

“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”

I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.

A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.

One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.

The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.

I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.

At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.

Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.

In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.

Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.

“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”

“You sold your soul…”

Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.

More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.

Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.

My thoughts :

West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?

Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.

“Fackinelleden.”

Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.

“Bollocks.”

The frustration rose.

An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.

As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.

“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”

Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.

“Fucksakechelsea.”

We then came on strong in the final period.

We begged for a goal.

“Fackinellcomeonchels.”

Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.

Then, the last two chances.

A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.

Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.

At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.

It finished 0-0.

This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.

What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”

That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.

On the M4, I summed up my feelings.

“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”

The lads agreed.

And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.

“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”

Just like in 2013/14.

“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”

Yep.

More questions than answers.

There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.

I will see you there.

 

Eyes On The Ball.

 

A Volleyed Cross.

 

Keeping It Alive. 

 

Working The Space. 

 

Early Ball. 

 

Signs.

 

Face Off.

 

Daisy Cutter.

 

Wide Man.

 

Bend It Like Barkley.

 

Well Wide.

 

My Ball.

Tales From Flags, Flames And Four Out Of Four

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 1 September 2018.

Unlike the last home game against Arsenal, I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare. It was a sunny and warm afternoon in London. The team had been announced earlier with just the one change since the match at Newcastle United the previous weekend; Willian was in for Pedro. As I had commented last time, there is little to choose between the two.

In the wraparound of the MHU, I said “hello” to a few good friends and waited for the entrance of the teams. I was pleasantly surprised that Bournemouth had almost brought a full three thousand supporters. It helped make sure of another near capacity gate at Stamford Bridge. There was a wide “no man’s land” between the home and away sections of the Shed Upper, but all other areas were full. Bournemouth were maybe just three-hundred shy of the full allocation. With a capacity at the Vitality Stadium – it will always be Dean Court to me – of just 11,000, but with a large catchment area on which to draw, it is difficult to judge the size of the former Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic Football Club’s current support. But 2,700 away fans from a home gate of 9,000 supporters is a good return in my book.

It had been my turn to drive to London. This was my first drive to Stamford Bridge for a weekend game since the West Ham match in early April, almost five months ago. And it seemed like it. On the approach in to West London, high on the M4, I drove past Griffin Park, where Brentford would soon be playing former European Champions Nottingham Forest in a second tier game. A few hundred yards further on, we spotted their new stadium taking shape with the steel of the main stand now standing firm. Fair play to Brentford for keeping within a goalkeeper’s kick of their current home. I’m just glad I managed to visit Griffin Park with Chelsea five years ago. It would be lovely to see them in the top flight at some stage in the near future.

The pre-match had been very pleasant. First up, a two-hour stay in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, with all the usual suspects. A few of the boys who went on out little pre-match pub crawl against Arsenal, when told of a similar plan against Liverpool, expressed a little concern.

“Blimey. I didn’t remember too much about that Arsenal game.”

“That’s the problem when you drink out of wet glasses.”

Glenn and I moved on to Earl’s Court and popped into a new pub for us, “The King’s Head”, which is tucked away in a quiet side-street behind Earl’s Court Road. In our quest to have a pre-match drink-up in every single pub within a three-mile radius of Stamford Bridge, we are crossing them all off at a fair rate of knots these days. We met up with our friend Russ, who we first met over in Perth in the summer. He was over for a fortnight – he is originally from Wokingham – and it was a pleasure to see him again. He runs the Melbourne Supporters Group and we spoke about the inherent problems in rewarding someone who travels 12,000 miles to see a game via the loyalty points scheme. It is always a toughie. There is no easy answer.

Russ was with a chap who lives, wait for it, in the Melbourne district of Chelsea, home to the Victoria League Division Three team which used to feature in the football pools coupons during the summers of my youth in the ‘seventies, and for whom every Chelsea fan in England used to support, even though they were consistently rubbish. I used to love pouring over those team names though; Chelsea, Dandenong, Geelong, Fitzroy. The memories came flooding back. Starved of football during those long hot summer of my childhood, I would consistently hunt out Chelsea’s latest result in Australia. When my Australian relatives visited in 1980, I was quite stunned when they saw some of the teams’ names – from the Brisbane area – and informed me that they were basically of Sunday League standard. You have to wonder why anyone would bet on such low grade football half a world away. The ‘seventies were odd times.

We also met up with Chelsea fans Jason – from Derbyshire – and Pam – from Staffordshire.

It is always a fine boast that Chelsea supporters from London and the Home Counties always welcome with open arms supporters from other parts of England and the United Kingdom. Speaking as someone from Somerset, I know this to be true. Londoners would often take the piss out of my accent but never my support.

…it is only to the supporters from further afield that some take an irksome view.

“Discuss.”

There was talk of the Europa Cup draw which kept us all occupied on Friday afternoon and evening. I am going to just one of the three away games, against Vidi – the former Videoton – whose game against us will be played at Ferencvaros’ stadium in Budapest. Of all the football cities in Europe that I have not yet visited, the three “Bs” (Berlin, Bilbao and Budapest) are probably top of my list. In December, I will at last be visiting the home of Honved, Ferencvaros, Ujpest Dozsa, MTK, Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and all those magical Magyars of old. It promises to be a fine trip. Time, eventually, I think to buy myself a retro Chelsea scarf from 1972. In the first pub, as if to pay homage to that era – and our trip to Hungary – Daryl had sported a bloody gorgeous Sergio Tachhini polo shirt sporting the three colours.

In front of the East Stand, large flags denoting the eleven starters were being waved frantically by a few of Chelsea’s ground staff. They then reassembled at both ends of the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, flames erupted into the sky from along the East Stand touchline.

The flags I could just about stomach. But flames for Bournemouth? Good grief.

I longed for the days when the Stamford Bridge crowd could be relied upon, without any fuss, to generate enough atmosphere of our own.

Returnees Asmir Begovic, in fluorescent yellow and orange, and Nathan Ake were in the Bournemouth team.

Both teams were unbeaten.

We had watched parts of the Liverpool game at Leicester on TV in the pub at West Ken. A win there for the Mickey Mousers had out them on top with four wins out of four. In the build-up to the game, I had conjectured that we could possibly win against Bournemouth, against Cardiff City, and maybe even at West Ham. We could go into the game at home to Liverpool with six wins out of six, but I worried that Liverpool would be the real test. What a game that promises to be.

The game began.

Without much chance of being accused of over-exaggeration, it was all Chelsea in the first period of the first-half.

Everything was eerily similar to the game at St. James’ Park last Sunday. We dominated possession, and our opposition defended deeply but resolutely. I was really impressed with the away team to be truthful. Eddie Howe is a fine manager, and they are lucky to have him.

Down in Australia, I wondered if my cousin Paul would be conflicted. Chelsea is his team – I am the one to thank for that, see a previous tale – but he was born in Bournemouth and so does admit to keeping a keen eye on their results. I promised myself that I would not send him a Chelsea / AFCB half-and-half scarf. But you knew that.

Morata looked livelier than normal in the opening few salvoes, and a few nice moves were generated, but from an early stage, we knew that Bournemouth were well marshalled. A loose touch by David Luiz, sadly typical, was gobbled up by the lively Callum Wilson, who pushed the ball to Ryan Fraser. Annoyingly, Luiz had another chance to redeem himself, but chose not to tackle, but thankfully N’Golo Kante was on hand to chase the attack away.

A lovely deep pass from Luiz made up for his earlier aberration. Jorginho struck a shot wide.

In the first five, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty minutes of the game, the 2,700 away fans were the only ones making any noise.

Last week, I berated the Geordies for their support as being timid, lukewarm and insipid.

Now it was our turn.

As the kids say : “Hold my beer.”

Not a peep could be heard from the 37,000 Chelsea supporters. And I looked around at the faces in the stadium. Surely not everyone was a tourist, that most lampooned – at best – and disliked – at worst – of all Chelsea supporters in 2018.

“Is this a library?” sang the Bournemouth fans.

“Is this the Emirates?”

There was no retort.

Out sung by Bournemouth.

The cherries were on top.

Fucking hell.

I guess we have been spoiled, right?

When I was a child, before I went to school, and maybe for a few years after, I sometimes used to accompany my father on one specific little journey. My Dad was a shopkeeper – menswear – in our local town of Frome and there used to be half-day closing every Thursday. I used to love Thursdays – I feel the same way to this day, “one day to go to the weekend” – as it meant I would be able to spend time with Dad during the daytime. On occasion, he would announce to me “right, I’m off on my rounds, do you want to come?”

I would always say “yes.”

His “rounds” were visits by car to one or two outlying customers who could not always visit his shop in town. I remember Mrs. Doel in Maiden Bradley was a regular. After lunch, just Dad and I would head off through Frome to visit her in her little village a few miles to the south of Frome. I seem to recall that she might often reward me with a couple of sweets or a bar of chocolate. I would stick my plastic steering wheel with its suction cup on to the dashboard and we would set off. The highlight for me, every time, was the return journey when, on a relatively long and straight section of road, I would urge my father to “do fifty.”

This meant for my usually conservative and safe father – I suppose in those days, he would only hit forty miles per hour to save on fuel – to put his foot on the accelerator and aim for the heady speed of fifty miles per hour. With me used to my father driving at thirty through towns and villages, please believe me when I say that for a five or six-year-old boy to be driven at fifty miles an hour seemed simply exhilarating and almost supersonic. I know my father got a buzz out of it too.

These days, damn it, I drive at fifty miles an hour as a norm.

It feels mundane. It feels slow. There is no thrill.

All things are relative in this world.

In 1971, 50 mph was the most exciting feeling ever.

In 2018, 50 mph seems simply mundane.

I think that, at Chelsea, we need to get back to 1971.

On twenty-three minutes – I was keeping count – the Chelsea support at last responded with a song which was audible and sustained.

Twenty-three fucking minutes.

Every year I say it, but for 90% of our home games, the atmosphere gets worse and worse with each passing campaign. In some ways, though, modern football does not help. Decades ago when the shape and pattern, its physicality, of football was so different, the crowd were more likely to be on edge, involved, and more likely to feel that a song of support would help.

In 2018, much of our football involves watching Chelsea maintain the ball for long periods, and working out how our players can break through a packed defence. Although it is technically superior to the cut and thrust of the ‘seventies, ‘eighties and even ‘nineties, it helps to produce a different type of spectator. There are few crunching midfield tackles – a bona fide noise generator in days of old – and there are few surprise breaks, with a rise in noise at each touch. We watch players pass, pass, pass, we watch players close down space and shuffle positions, all within a thirty-yard band across the pitch. We sit on our hands and discuss tactics. We clap occasionally.

Regardless of the changing demographics in which many are turned off by some of the financial absurdities of football, the dying out of football as a working man’s game, the lack of youngsters going to football and the changing codes of behaviour in society, the patterns of modern football itself are not always conducive to the noise of old.

Anyway, suffice to say, until the twenty-third minute, the atmosphere at the Chelsea vs. Bournemouth game on the first day of September 2018 was the worst I had ever known.

On the half-hour, despite our dominance, a rapid Bournemouth break – cheered on by the away fans, see what I mean? – almost resulted in a goal against the run of play when a Rico cross was touched over by Wilson.

“Should be one down” I muttered.

At the other end, Morata and Kovacic had half-chances. In the closing moments, a fine run by Kante resulted in a cross from Hazard being met by the right foot of Alonso. His shot struck the post.

For all of our possession, it had been a little frustrating, but was my frustration a result of the morgue-like atmosphere in the stadium?

We had enjoyed tons of possession for sure, more than even we are used to, but I noted at times a lack of movement from the forwards, and even though Jorginho must have touched the ball every few seconds, I could not honestly remember him playing a killer ball. If anything, the two most incisive passes came from the defenders Rudiger and Luiz. Hazard and Willian had been involved but had – wonderful football phrase coming up – “flattered to deceive.” Alvaro Morata had not shone. And I am still not sure about us letting Kante roam. I am not convinced we will get the best out of him in a box-to-box role. But Jorginho is Maurizio Sarri’s man. He will choose him constantly I suspect.

Oh, by the way, Sarri in an ill-fitting Nike T-shirt must be the exception that proves the rule that all Italian men have an inherent sense of style that the World envies.

The second-half began with clear blue skies overhead still. It was a perfect afternoon in SW6.

After some majestic fleet-footed wizardry from Hazard in front of us, Alonso belted a strong shot from just outside the box, but former blue Begovic saved. Alonso was having a fine game, more involved offensively than Azpilicueta on the other flank. I don’t think that Marcos has been paying attention to the new system. He thinks he is still a marauding wing-back.

Incredibly, a Bournemouth corner fell at the feet of Nathan Ake but he somehow managed to push it over the bar.

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

Despite his early promise, and a few quarter-chances, it had been quite painful to watch Morata flounder in the second-half. His aerial challenges were not worthy of the name. He was replaced on the hour by the more physical Olivier Giroud. He immediately looked the business, his whole body language – “aggression” for the want of a better word – impressed. When he went up for a ball, it at least looked like he wanted to win the header.

Soon after, Pedro replaced Willian.

We noted an upturn in our fortunes. More pace. More direct. And, damn it, a little more noise too.

Mateo Kovacic was fighting hard to make his presence felt. He engineered a couple of efforts.

With twenty minutes remaining, Alonso played the ball inside to Pedro, who neatly made space to play a one-two with Giroud. The big Frenchman moved the ball back superbly into the path of Pedro, who took a further touch to edge into space past Ake. His low shot hit the corner perfectly. The roar went up and Pedro raced away to the far corner before carrying out a Crystal Palace North Stand 1976 Kung Fu kick at the corner flag.

Chelsea 1 Bournemouth 0.

Phew.

“He can certainly find the corners, Pedro. He is more of a goal threat than Willian.”

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic with just over ten minutes remaining. His big season this, I wish him well.

Another shot from Pedro. Saved.

With around five minutes to go, Alonso – involved again – slipped the ball into the path of Hazard, who easily slipped past challenges to drill the ball low past Begovic.

His little jump and fist pump, then smile with arms outspread, was a joy to watch. The players joined in with the celebration down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. I love to see everyone together.

Team Chelsea.

Antonio Rudiger joined in with the celebrations, but seemed to flick Eden’s ear, and Eden – far from playfully – struck back. Dave was able to be on hand to keep them apart. It was an odd moment. I’m sure it amounted to nothing.

We walked out into the warm evening with “Blue Is The Colour” ringing in our ears.

I liked the way that the substitutions seemed to open things up after the hour. I liked the way we kept going. I loved seeing Eden on form. Pedro was introduced just at the right time. It was, in the end, an impressive win.

So, Chelsea.

Four out of four.

Bloody hell.

On we go.

Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.