We stepped into “The Counting House” at 11.30am. This pub, formerly part of an old cattle market, is equidistant between Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road stadium and the Leicester City Foxes’ King Power Stadium. It must do a great trade during these two sporting seasons. We only heard about this pub being the designated “away” pub before our game, just before COVID struck, in 2020. It’s a great boozer, modernised well with a long bar, and plenty of room for an overspill outside where beers are poured at a “pop-up” facility. We – the four of us, PD, Parky, Salisbury Steve and little old me – soon settled at one of the last remaining high tables. We had timed it just right.
This was another relatively long day following The Great Unpredictables.
I had set my alarm for 6.30am and I picked up PD and Steve at 8am, his Lordship just after. The drive up the Fosse Way was as picturesque and as pleasurable as ever. We breakfasted at Moreton-In-Marsh, then zipped around Coventry and headed towards Leicester. We used the last disabled parking space right outside the pub. As trips go, it had been nigh-perfect.
I have known Steve for a couple of years. He watches games near Parky in the Shed Lower and now drinks with us down “The Eight Bells”. It was good to have him on board. He added a little sanity to the day.
When we reached the pub only fifty or so other Chelsea supporters were present. I didn’t recognise any of them, not one. There is a rumour flying around at the moment that there is a way to “beat the system” of the VWR by using an app that opens up hundreds of browsers at one time. It is no wonder that many established old-school regulars at Chelsea, not au fait with such nefarious processes, never seem to get hold of away tickets these days.
The place soon filled up and at just after 12.15pm the first “Carefree” echoed around the bar. Two games were being shown on the bar’s large TV screens; Bournemouth vs. Liverpool and Bristol City vs. Blackpool. I didn’t really bother too much with either of them, though we loved to see Bournemouth take the lead against Liverpool and Mo Salah strike a penalty well-wide of the goal towards the end of the game.
How we laughed.
I wasn’t sure if I’d be laughing later. It would be “typical Chelsea” to follow up that fine win against Borussia Dortmund with a draw or, gasp, even a defeat against Leicester City. My prediction was a draw. To win three games in eight days might, I thought, be pushing it just a bit.
This would be my eighth visit to the King Power Stadium; I have missed three due to a holiday, being snowed in and “not being arsed” for a midweek League Cup game.
We walked the short distance to the ground just after 2pm.
I had swapped my ticket with PD’s so I could get a different perspective. Previous visits have always plotted me down the front; I fancied a change. I was well-rewarded with a seat right in the middle of the upper reaches of our away corner. Steve was ten yards away to my left, a row in front. PD was way down in row three alongside Al, Gal, John and Parky.
King Power Stadium slowly filled up and eventually came to life.
Fofana – Koulibaly – Cucarella
Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell
Mudryk – Havertz – Felix
We have certainly raided Leicester City in recent years; Kante, Drinkwater, Chilwell, Fofana. I suppose their revenge was the 2021 FA Cup win, a fair trade-off, though I am sure they will never admit it.
The teams appeared.
The home team were dressed completely in royal blue while the away team were kitted out in garments based on foundation cream.
At the other end of the stadium, a rather pathetic “tifo” display took place involving a few white flags – presumably not of surrender – and a banner depicting the club’s trophies. The stadium is as bland as bland can be, quite different from Filbert Street with its four lop-sided stands.
Modern football, eh?
Around the ground, tucked under the roof at the rear of the home seated areas, Leicester City parade hundreds of small flags – not sure what they depict – but this looks messy, as if they have hung out all of their laundry to air.
The game kicked-off.
The badinage between both sets of supporters began early.
“Wesley Fofana. He left ‘cus your shit.”
“Potter and Boehly are fucking shit.”
“Ben Chilwell’s won the European Cup.”
A shot from James Maddison was easily saved by Kepa.
Ben Chilwell took a corner over in the far corner and as the ball dropped into the six-yard box, I experienced an immediate flashback to last season when I photographed a similar delivery onto the head of Antonio Rudiger and a goal followed. He loved playing at Leicester did Rudi. This year, Wesley Fofana headed the ball on and Kalidou Koulibaly kept the ball alive despite it ending well past the framework of the goal on our left. His cross went way deep. Chilwell, out on the right still, was the recipient and he was shaping up to make a direct hit, which I thought was being optimistic in the extreme. The angle was so tight. To my joy, he kept the ball low and it scudded into the net.
How he enjoyed that, running over to the crowd in the main stand, cupping his ears, and loving it all. My former work colleague Sally, watching with her young daughter Lily, was only a few yards away in her season ticket seat in the corner. Ouch.
Despite my pre-game reservations, we were 1-0 up.
The Chelsea crowd, buoyant before the goal, turned the volume up further.
“We’ve got Enzo in the middle. He knows exactly what we need.”
The front three were fluid, with Mykhailo Mudryk often in the middle with Kai Havetz on the right. Mudryk’s first touch was excellent in that first part of the game. I wanted him desperately to succeed. In the bar and at the game, his song was sung loudly.
“Mudryk said to me…”
Maddison zipped a free-kick over from the left but Daniel Amartey headed wide from very close in. This was developing into a fine game of football.
The songs continued.
“Oh Roman, do you know what that’s worth, Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.”
I had said to Steve in the pub that I liked this one, since it was born out of the 2021 Champions League Final in Porto, yet also mentions, and honours, Roman.
It was mid-way through the half, and the songs still rattled along nicely.
“Vialli” Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”
“Kovacic our Croatian man…”
A fine cross from Havertz from the right found Felix who was one on one with the Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward. He advanced and dinked the ball over him. Surely this was going in. We waited for the net to ripple. To our amazement and dismay, the ball struck the right-hand post.
“He’s gotta score those.”
On twenty-five minutes, the whole away end combined for a thunderous “Ten Men.”
Just after, Keirnan Dewsbury-Hall (not just a footballer but the site of temperance movement meetings in West Yorkshire), let fly from outside the box and his shot took a deflection off the considerable bulk of Koulibaly. To our relief, the ball crashed against the bar.
The barrage of songs continued.
“From Stamford Bridge to Wembley…”
“Hello, hello we are the Chelsea boys.”
“His hair is fucking massive.”
Marc Cucarella was, again, having a decent game. When he man-marks closely, he is decent. When he gets pulled all over the place, his sat nav throws a wobbly and he gets shown up. But on this occasion, fine.
“Oh when the blues go steaming in…”
“Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”
Another fine move followed. Mudryk cut in from the left with pace and set up an advanced Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the right, who then played a delightful low ball towards that man Felix. His tap in made us roar again, and the players raced over to Sally’s Corner.
VAR reared its ugly head.
Not long after, Felix lost possession, trying to be too fancy in our defensive third, and Leicester won the ball. It was touched on to Patson Daka, whoever he is, and his shot fizzed past Kepa at the near post. It was a decent strike to be fair.
The quiet home fans to my left were now chirpy.
“You’re not singing anymore.”
Next, two fine saves from Kepa in very quick succession from Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho. The game kept providing thrills and spills.
Some folk around me were losing their patience with Mudryk whose ball retention was lessening with each pass.
With half-time approaching, Enzo found himself with a little space and spotted the central run from Havertz. He scooped the ball up with deft precision – Zola to Poyet in 1999, anyone? – and over the defence right into the path of Havertz who beautifully lobbed the ball over Ward. Magnificent. One of the great goals.
But nobody celebrated.
Not Havertz. My gaze centered on him. Was he sure he was offside?
Not any of the players. Were they sure too?
The stadium seemed still, frozen in time.
Leicester fans – football fans always fear the worst – were stony silent as they presumed a goal had been conceded.
We were quiet too. And mightily confused. There were, maybe, a few yelps of pleasure. But the majority of us were predominantly numbed into silence. I twice looked around to check the reaction of the bloke behind me, and neither of us knew what was going on. With the players idly walking back to our half and with the referee on the centre-circle, we all came to the slow realisation that the goal stood.
But the fear of VAR had ruined that goal celebration – once bitten twice shy – and, although we were laughing and joking at the time, we all knew that VAR had insidiously buggered-up that moment, our moment.
Incidentally, I have to mention it; this goal was eerily similar to one that I witnessed in deepest Devon in August when Owen Humphries scooped a ball over the Buckland Athletic defence for Jon Davies to score for Frome Town in an FA Cup tie. No fucking VAR at that level, though.
We were happy at half-time. I popped down to see the lads in the third row. All of them were bemused by the second goal too.
A change at the break.
Conor Gallagher for Felix.
We enjoyed a couple of early corners with Fofana forcing a fine save from Ward at his near post.
“Oooh Wesley Fofana.”
A new one this, I think.
Then Leicester enjoyed a little spell. The challenges were crashing in and Kepa went down injured after a save. This was an open game now. Leicester dominated for ten minutes or so. We held firm.
“Super, super Frank…”
“That’s why we love Salomon Kalou…”
I’d prefer songs about current players to be honest. Can we not serenade former players when we are winning 4-0 and 5-0?
On the hour, spaces opening up as we countered and there was an effort from Havertz, off balance, that flew wide. Gallagher had to awkwardly block off the line on sixty-five minutes as Leicester attacked at a corner.
“Oh Dennis Wise…”
There was a header from Havertz on the penalty spot but it was right at the ‘keeper
“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea…”
The boke behind me was in a quandary.
“I like Gallagher, I really do, but I struggle with what he does apart from basically run around a lot.”
I knew what he meant.
A fine move, but our man Conor shot right at the ‘keeper.
Kepa tipped a shot over. There were surely no complaints about entertainment value here. After Tuesday, here we all were enjoying another thoroughly enjoyable game of football. Throughout it, we were the team that showed a little more quality in all areas.
Up the other end, the ball came loose and Dewsbury-Hall missed a sitter. Phew.
On seventy-three minutes, Graham Potter made some substitutions.
Christian Pulisic for Chilwell.
Trevoh Chalobah for Loftus-Cheek.
With fifteen minutes to go, the ball was played to Mudryk who raced on and calmly slotted but we were all able to sadly spot the lineswoman’s flag raised for offside. His joyous slide was in vain.
A Leicester substitute became the latest victim of the away choir.
“Jamie Vardy, your wife is a grass.”
Songs still roared on in memory of Gianluca.
“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”
On seventy-eight minutes, I watched the movement of Havertz just as Enzo brilliantly played a ball into space.
Havertz outpaced his marker and kept possession well. He then crossed, deeply, towards Mudryk who was back-peddling somewhat but still managed to keep the ball alive by heading it back into the six-yard box.
Enter Kovacic who blissfully volleyed home from close quarters.
We celebrated wildly now.
The scorer, surrounded by team mates, sprinted down to our corner while fists and arms pumped into the air. These were superb scenes.
I silently groaned.
FOR FUCK SAKE.
But I had seen Havertz break. He had to race past his marker. I was confident.
I turned to bloke beside me :
“Six goals in eight days!”
The away end was now the loudest it would be for the entire day.
“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank. Said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”
It seemed, at last, that things were looking up.
Some very late tweaks, and God knows who was playing where but I did not care one jot.
Carney Chukwuemeka for Mudryk and Benoit Badiashile for Fofana.
“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea…”
Empty seats appeared. I was so proud to see Sally and Lily still staying until the very end.
“Is there a fire drill?”
“You’ve had your day out…”
“We’re gonna bounce in a minute.”
“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”
There were seven minutes of extra time and, in it, Wout Faes – whoever he is – got sent off for a second yellow.
I loved seeing the players – and the manager, great stuff – celebrate a fine win with smiles in front of our section at the end of the game. Let’s hope the corner has been turned.
This was a bloody excellent day of football, the away support was back to its best after the no-show at Tottenham, the colour was back in our beautifully toned cheeks, and I even got to see Kev Thomas smile.
We met up back at the car and all was good with our world. I slowly navigated myself away, the route taking my car right past the old away entrance to their old Filbert Street ground at the end of those tightly-packed houses on Burnmoor Street.
We were in November now. And after the glorious sun, if not the glorious result, at Brighton, it now felt like the winter had hit with a vengeance. The temperature had dropped and heavy coats and rain jackets were the order of the day. My new Barbour jacket was getting an airing for the first time. I hoped that it would pass the test.
It was about 4.40pm and I was walking along the Fulham Road with one of my fellow passengers. Just a few steps ahead, I am sure I saw Scott Minto edge onto the pavement. I walked ahead, got up alongside and – yes – it was him.
“Walking just behind us is another chap who played left-back for this club.”
Scott looked back and hands were shaken between the two former Chelsea defenders. As we continued towards the West Stand entrance, I thanked him for the 1997 FA Cup Final.
“That was one of the best days of my life,” I said, “and great celebrations too.”
Scott replied “you have to say we were the first team to rip the arse out of Cup Final celebrations, eh?”
I agreed. No doubt.
“And the club’s first trophy since Ron’s time.”
I liked Scotty when he played for us and it was quite a surprise when he left for Benfica in the summer after us winning our first trophy in twenty-six years. He was replaced by the returning Graeme Le Saux.
Meeting me outside “Frankie’s” were two friends from the US, a familiar theme in these reports, eh? Alex, from Houston as featured in the last report, was first in my view, but just behind him was David from Nashville. I was reminded that I last bumped into David at the PSG friendly in Charlotte in 2015. I introduced both of them to each other, and also to Chopper. We disappeared upstairs to the Millennium Hotel bar where further photo opportunities took place. New to the match day team is David Lee and I had a quick chat as a current workmate is a mutual friend. Our former defender – “Rodders” – is from Bristol and lives, now, between Bristol and Bath. I think we were all surprised to see Bobby Tambling there again. He spent an engaging five minutes talking to me with great enthusiasm and humour about a recent charity match in Cork, his adopted home city, to raise funds and awareness for those suffering from dementia. Bless him. It was a joy to see him so well.
PD and Parky, the others in the car from Wiltshire to London, were in “The Goose” but Alex and I decamped to “Simmons” after a quick chat with DJ at the “CFCUK” stall. The bar was ridiculously quiet on our arrival. A pint of “Estrella” apiece, we sat at one of the high tables and waited for further friends to join us.
Alex, as I mentioned previously, is originally from Moscow. Don’t worry, he is no fan of Putin, I have checked. He told me that his childhood team in his home city was Dynamo, and this suited me well. I told the story of when I went to the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow I purposefully bought myself a Dynamo Moscow scarf – beautiful blue and white – in honour of the 1945 game at Stamford Bridge. Alex was working in Moscow at the time of the game at the Luzhniki Stadium, and although he had purchased a normal ticket, he bumped into an old friend who invited him into his private suite. After huge amounts of vodka, Alex remembers little of the game. It is probably for the best.
Ah 1945, I have mentioned it before. Of all of our previous matches, it is the one that I wish I had attended, the 1970 and 1971 finals excepted. I flashed up some images of the game on my ‘phone to show Alex; specifically, the team line-ups with Chelsea, in red, clutching the bouquets given to them by the touring Russians. Alas, celery was not a Chelsea “thing” in 1945. I also showed him the photos of spectators perched on the old East Stand roof and surrounding the pitch.
Over 100,000 were at Chelsea that day.
“Small club with money” they say.
Johnny Twelve and his son John – his first visit to England – settled alongside us. Our friend Rob, who sits a few rows behind me, called in. Next to arrive was Chopper from New York, who I have known since around 2006. We had a lovely little mix at our table.
Greenwich Village, Long Beach, Hersham, Houston and Frome.
The bar was still quiet. I joked with the others when I saw a gaggle of around eight girls – teenagers, I reckon – come in and sit opposite under a sign that said “GIRLS GIRLS.”
“Shouldn’t there be a neon sign behind us that says ‘OLD CNUTS’ lads?”
We weren’t exactly sure how Graham Potter would play this game. He had to play those in the named CL squad. The manager couldn’t flood the team with an influx of young’uns. After the Brighton debacle, I half-expected a decent team to salvage some pride. We, after all, would only have four games left until the dreaded break for the competition that deserves no further comment.
Luckily, the predicted rain held off on the short walk to Stamford Bridge. We were in early, and one section was already fully occupied. I always knew that the Dinamo Zagreb fans would have travelled well. And there they all were, just a few shy of three thousand of them in the two tiers opposite us in The Sleepy Hollow. And virtually all dressed in black.
“Probably just come from Selhurst Park” quipped Alan.
The team was announced.
With Kepa still injured, Mendy came in. We kept a back-four after changing things around at Brighton. Graham Potter handed Juventus loanee Denis Zakaria a Chelsea debut. Upfront, it was all pretty fluid stuff with Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang tending to drift left.
Azpilicueta – Chalobah – Koulibaly – Chilwell
Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount
Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang
I always like it when away teams come to Stamford Bridge and play in a mirror image of our kit. Dinamo were nicely decked out in white / white / blue but I didn’t approve of the “reverse bird shit” effect all over the shirts.
The away fans were making an almighty din, no surprises there, and an early chant sounded awfully like “All Leeds Aren’t We?” Their first chance got them all singing louder and louder still. A cross from the attackers’ right hung in the air and Cesar Azpilicueta’s header did not go where it was intended. The ball came back across the six-yard box for Petkovic to easily head home past Edouard Mendy.
The away fans erupted. Flares were let off in the away end and white smoke drifted around like old-style London fog. Soon after, a fair few showed Leeds-like tendencies by taking off their predominantly black tops.
We reacted well in the Matthew Harding with a loud riposte.
“Carefree” soon boomed around Stamford Bridge.
On seventeen minutes, a fine slide-rule pass from Jorginho hit the forward run from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the striker was just able to back-heal the ball towards Raheem Sterling after a defender initially cut the ball out. He then adjusted himself, took a touch, then another, and calmly slotted the ball low past the Dinamo ‘keeper. We were level.
Shortly after we made a patient advance down the right and Kai Havertz slipped a fine ball in towards Sterling but his first-time effort was high and wasteful.
By now, Alan and I were fully involved in a chat about the upcoming away game on Tyneside; our arrival times, our accommodation, our loose plans, talk of The Toon, everything. The game continued down below us almost as an afterthought.
On the half hour mark, a move developed down the right again, this time Mason Mount racing through to pick out a striker, Havertz. A defender reached the ball before the German, but the ball was played towards the waiting Denis Zakaria in a central position. He looked a little hesitant but he slotted it home, the ball just making it over the line before Dinamo players could intervene.
We were 2-1 up.
But still the Dinamo supporters sung and sung and sung.
It was time for another quip from Alan.
Livakovic, Peric, Misic, Ljubicic, Ivanusec and Petkovic were on the pitch.
“That’s a lot of itches out there. They should be able to get cream for that though.”
We reached half-time. It hadn’t been a festival of football, but it was pretty decent stuff.
In the match day programme, there was an interesting article by club historian Rick Glanvill concerning a friendly that we played against Dinamo in Zagreb on 27 May 1937, although the club was called Gradjanski at that time. Chelsea enjoyed a 1-0 win.
Continuing a look at our history, a quick mention of the latest Chelsea game from forty years ago. On Saturday 30 October 1982, Chelsea travelled way north to Carlisle United for a league game. We lost 2-1 in front of 7,171, with Colin Lee our scorer. We had just signed the former Liverpool full-back Joey Jones from Wrexham for £34,000 and I, for one, was not too impressed. Although he was only twenty-seven at the time, I felt that he was well past his sell-by date. Joey had played under our manager John Neal in his first of his two – eventually to be three – spells at Wrexham. I was certainly not impressed when our new signing was sent off on his debut. It summed up, in my mind, the worrying state of the club at that time.
At the start of the second-half, the Dinamo fans were still singing. They didn’t let up. It was magnificent to behold.
Our chances continued to pile up. Aubameyang cut in from the inside-left position and his whipped shot skimmed the top of the bar. We were treated to some tricky interplay between Aubameyang and Ben Chiwell down below us but a cross was blocked.
Dinamo were not particularly gifted but they did try their best to attack when they could. It was difficult to think that they had inflicted an opening-game defeat in Croatia at the start of this particular Champions League crusade. However, even a point against us in this game would almost certainly not be enough to prolong their campaign in the Europa League.
Or the “George Roper” as Alan called it.
In the away end, more smoke, and many a fire-cracker. The noise did not abate all night long. They were, probably, the loudest and most impressive away fans that we had seen at Chelsea. Ever? For their number, yes.
Our efforts continued from Havertz, Chilwell and Mount.
Potter made some substitutions.
Conor Gallagher for Havertz.
Armando Broja for Aubameyang.
Thiago Silva for Koulibaly.
The debutant Zakaria impressed as the game continued. He looked strong and neat, leggy, with a decent pass distribution.
He was then replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The rain came on stronger now, but it seemed to invigorate us, with Broja looking like he was enjoying the battle with his marker as he twisted and turned out wide and in the channels.
The crowd loudly serenaded Thiago Silva and he is surely our most loved player at the moment. The Chelsea chances continued and in another game it could easily have been 4-1 or 5-1.
In the last of five substitutions, Christian Pulisic replaced Sterling.
Sadly, in virtually the last few seconds of the game, Chilwell pulled up on the touch-line, and it looked like a pulled hamstring. The prognosis looked worrying.
On the walk back to the car, we all got drenched by the incessant rain.
I caught some much-needed sleep in the back of PD’s car as he battled the wind and the rain.
Next up would be a London derby against Arsenal, the first of three difficult matches, and our last home game until after Christmas.
Due to the timings of games and thus match reports this season, my personal recollection of 1982/83 in this edition encompasses two consecutive home games at Stamford Bridge.
On the evening of Tuesday 31 August 1982, Chelsea played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge. After winning the Football League Cup in 1980 against the then European Champions Nottingham Forest, Wolves suffered relegation just two years later. They dropped down into the Second Division alongside Leeds United and Middlesbrough. I suppose that they must have been one of the favourites for promotion that season. Our team was the same one that had played at Cambridge United on the Saturday. The game finished 0-0. The gate of 14,192 was a pretty decent one considering our predicament at the time. In the previous season we had averaged 13,133.
Next up was a match with Leicester City on Saturday 4 September. I was seventeen and just back at school. I was now in the Upper Sixth, with a worrying year ahead with A Levels in Geography, Mathematics and Technical Drawing on some hideous distant horizon. It was a horrible time. At Frome College, everywhere I looked I saw Julie’s face but she was now living in a little village to the east of Reading. At the time, Reading seemed like being a thousand miles away. A few years ago, I had a little sigh to myself when I heard that a mate’s schoolgirl daughter was seeing a boy in Reading. Distances seem to be squashed these days. It didn’t really help matters that the Westbury to London Paddington line took me to within half a mile of Julie’s house on that trip up to see Chelsea play Leicester. As the train whizzed past Charvil, I peered out of the window with a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart.
In those days, my school mates rarely went to football, proper football. My pal Steve often used to go to see his Bristol City play on their nosedive through the divisions. He also watched many Frome Town games. Steve would have been with me at the Wellington game the previous Saturday, just as he is alongside me at Frome games forty years later. He is currently the club’s official historian. Another mate, Francis, saw his Liverpool team at Ashton Gate in 1980. Another mate, Kev, went to see his Tottenham team around 1980 too, but that was it. I was one of a very few who used to go to league football. The Leicester City game would be my twenty-fourth Chelsea match. I didn’t have a part-time job in those distant days. I just saved my pennies to watch my team. Chelsea was my life.
Living over a hundred miles away, I could only afford a few games each season. From 1981/82, I started going up alone by train. The independence that I gained on those trips to London put me in good stead for further travelling adventures in the future. But in 1981/82 and 1982/83, I became closer to the club by subscribing to the club programme. I loved the small programmes of that era, nicely designed, they had a stylish look about them I thought. I used to love the arrival of the postman in those days. I have no idea why I stopped in 1983/84 when the programme became larger but lost a little of its style in my opinion.
My father would have dropped me at Westbury train station to catch an 8am train to The Smoke. It would arrive in Paddington at about 9.45am from memory. In those days, with no spare money and plenty of time to kill I usually walked over to Hyde Park and sat beside The Serpentine on a park bench – it became a superstition in 1981/82 – and I probably did the same on this occasion. Then a walk to Lancaster Gate tube and the journey down to Stamford Bridge. In those days, I knew nobody at Stamford Bridge, not a soul. Before the game, I bought the newly published “The Chelsea Story” by John Moynihan with money that my mother had given me. The book cost £5.95, a costly sum in those days. I watched the game in The Shed, my usual place towards the tea bar, but under the roof.
I am not honestly sure if I bought a programme on the day of the game. It cost 50p. I have a feeling I would have waited until I received one through the post.
Times were hard.
On viewing that same programme forty years later, I am reminded of the perilous financial predicament that we were in. Although Ken Bates had bought the club for “only a pound” in the Spring of 1982, we were still struggling to balance the books. On the rear cover of the programme, in a space reserved for sponsors, there is a stark message against a black, and blank, page :
“We’re known by the company we keep, we’d welcome your company on this full colour back page. For full details please contact the Club’s Marketing Department.”
It’s hard to believe I support the same club in 2022 where every square inch of the club’s body and soul is sold for profit.
The team was almost unchanged again, but with debutante Tony McAndrew replacing Clive Walker, although not by position. The game ended 1-1 with Micky Droy scoring for us in the fiftieth minute and then Gary Lineker equalising in the last five minutes. The gate was another respectable one of 14,127.
The old joke about the crowd changes being announced to the players at Stamford Bridge did appear in this case to be spot on.
I have one distinct memory from the game. I looked over to the Whitewall and the Middle and thought this :
“We may be in the Second Division with a slim chance of getting promotion, and this ground might look a third full but still around 15,000 supporters have gone out of their way to come and support the team today. There is something rather noble about that. It feels right that I am there.”
On the way back, I devoured the new book. I loved the introduction by athlete Seb Coe.
“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing spilt mercury across a laboratory table.”
I was a quiet and world-shy teenager, but I remember a smile from within and me nodding in agreement, as if I was a footballing sage.
My diary for the day reports “probably one of the most boring games I have seen – a shame really after spending all that money.” There was talk of a party when I returned to Somerset although I am not sure where this was. My diary continues “enjoyed it, only slightly drunk, but soon sobered up.” It is probable that my father would have picked me up at the end of the night.
So there we have it. My twenty-fourth Chelsea game. My twenty-fourth Chelsea day. My Dad at the start of it. My Dad at the end of it. How I miss those times.
Forty Years Later.
The build-up to this game was way different. There was a drive to London with friends, a quick visit to Stamford Bridge to take some early scene-setting photographs, a spot of breakfast in the café and then my usual seat in the pub.
Outside Fulham Broadway, DJ had thrust a copy of “CFCUK” into my hands and I read a little of it in the café. While I waited for my food, I couldn’t help but notice the characters already sitting at tables. There was one loud voice, an American with the voice of a woman, sharing his thoughts a few tables away. Two English chaps close to me were deep in conversation and one appeared to be re-writing a script or manuscript of some description in between bites of a bacon sandwich. A group of younger folk were behind me, gregarious and chatty. The café owner, foreign by birth, my guess was Italian, bellowed orders and chivied his staff as if he was the conductor in an orchestra.
I devoured a piece in “CFCUK” by Walter Otton who wrote about his experiences of the Tottenham game which he watched in a pub after a tortuous day spent walking for miles and miles in the hinterlands of suburbia with friends. He detailed the people he observed while waiting for a train at Worcester Park, a station that I know well after parking at a mate’s near there for football between 1991 and 1993. I loved these words :
“To my right, I study a haunted young man with high cheekbones as he stares directly at his feet. He’s got the regretful face of man who last night had a vacancy sign up, but then he went and let the wrong person in.”
I messaged Walts to say how much I loved this. I had seen him briefly after the debacle at St. Mary’s on Tuesday.
I spent two-and-a-half hours in the cosy “Eight Bells” and I was surprised how quiet it all was at 11.30am. It took an hour to fully reach respectable figures. The Norwegians called in again, this time with an extra fan from Bergen, the wonderfully nicknamed Einstein. The Kent lads were close by, as were three young lads from Ilminster in Somerset who we had not seen before, but were dead chatty about the current malaise in the team. Steve from Salisbury appeared alongside Simon from Andover, another new face.
Andy and Sophie arrived and I spent some quality time at their table.
Andy and I raised a glass to “Ginger Terry.”
With a great deal of sadness, I learned on Thursday that Terry O’Callaghan had passed away that day. He was a lovely man, softly spoken, a true gent and was well-loved by those at Chelsea who knew him. I would bump into him at all sorts of odd, and far-flung, locations. He always stopped to say hello. Ironically, I first met Terry on a coach from Gothenberg in Sweden to Oslo in Norway alongside Andy for our match against Valerenga in 1999.
During the summer, I was shocked to hear of the passing of another of life’s good guys. I first met Henry Hughes Davies out in New York on a trip to see the New York Mets play a baseball game alongside around ten other Chelsea supporters. Unfortunately the game was rained-off but I remember how pleasant he was on that occasion and during the two or three other times I met him in “The Goose” with other US-based Chelsea fans. From London, Henry was killed in a road accident out in South-East Asia and it hit me hard.
I also, sadly, need to mention the passing of Depeche Mode member and life-long Chelsea supporter Andy Fletcher. During the summer, I attended a lecture by Chelsea Communications Director Steve Atkins at his former school in Warminster – he came across well – but the night was soured when, immediately after, I heard that “Fletch” had suffered a heart-attack and had passed away at the age of just sixty.
The music of Depeche Mode first thrilled me in 1982 – that year again – and has been a constant companion to me over the years. I have seen the band in 1993, 2001, 2006 and 2017.
Andy, Sophie and I had a very enlightening “state of the nation” chat about Chelsea Football Club and other clubs.
How sometimes it can be a bit hard to get “up” for some games for example.
“I woke with the alarm at 5.45am this morning. I know exactly what you mean.”
How we have 22 million followers on Twitter yet we were outnumbered by Arsenal in Baku in 2019.
“They, Arsenal, are still the biggest club in London.”
How we only sold six-hundred for Dinamo Zagreb.
“Too early for me, for sure.”
How we might struggle to pack in 60,000 at a refurbished Stamford Bridge in light of Tottenham playing to capacity crowds at their new stadium.
“Saw some Tottenham at Fleet Services and also some at Putney Bridge tube, no doubt on their way to the Fulham game. Admittedly, there is the “wow” factor of a superb new stadium but their crowds have been constantly full-houses. They have a huge support in the home counties.”
How the pricing structure at West Ham is paying dividends.
“After a dodgy first season, they seem to have got it right. Full houses now, eh?”
How some Chelsea fans want Thomas Tuchel gone.
“But come on. We have only played five bloody games.”
How Sophie was looking for a spare for Crystal Palace in a few weeks.
“Might have one. Will let you know.”
We marched off to the tube station together and I spotted ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart chatting at Fulham Broadway.
I was inside with around fifteen minutes to go.
It was time to focus on the team.
Alas, a fleeting look at Billy Gilmour pre-match at Southampton on Tuesday would be the last that I would see of him in Chelsea colours. His permanent move to Brighton disappointed me. But at least this sad news was tempered by the fact that Armando Broja had signed a new multi-year deal. But, to our annoyance, Thomas Tuchel still went with the “after you Claude” false nine with Broja on the bench. A debut for Wesley Fofana in defence. We had all tried to remember if he had played against us in the 2021 FA Cup Final. I hoped for a more successful career for Wesley Fofana than Tony McAndrew. Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were both dropped and I was OK with that. It was generally accepted that in Southampton they were sinners, no saints.
No Jorginho, either.
A brave Tuchel?
Here we were :
Fofana – Silva – Koulibaly
James – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Gallagher – Cucarella
Sterling – Pulisic
I had to laugh when Clive appeared in a claret-colured Stone Roses T-Shirt. Both PD and I were wearing light blue T-Shirts; Paul, Lambretta, me, Paul & Shark.
“Bloody West Ham.”
I thought back to a photo that I had taken in the hotel bar looking out onto the forecourt earlier in the day. The plastic flowers on show there were shades of purple in light blue vases.
Good job, I’m not superstitious, cough, cough.
West Ham kicked off and a high ball was pumped forward. After four seconds, the new boy Fofana had his first touch as a Chelsea player, a strong header putting the ball back whence it came.
Alan : “I hope Fofana is more Kante than Drinkwater.”
Clive : “Drinkwater had one good season for Leicester.”
Chris : “I had one good season. Summer 1982.”
It wasn’t much of a first-half. And the atmosphere was very poor for a London derby.
How about the lowlight first?
Marc Cucarella failed to beat the first man on two early corners down in Parkyville.
“Bloody shite, should be fined for that. No excuses.”
Despite our almost total domination of possession – it was absolutely all us in the first fifteen minutes – West Ham packed their defence solid and we soon seemed to look flat.
There was a shimmying run from Raheem Sterling into the box but the resulting corner was a Cucarella special.
Reece James out on the right fizzed a low ball into the danger area, pinball ensued, but Christian Pulisic’ effort was blocked for another corner.
Finally, we were treated to a flowing move with passes hitting runners into space.
Then, a low shot from Mateo Kovacic but he drove the ball just wide.
It wasn’t as bad as Southampton, but it was all pretty dire stuff.
I suspect that the first-half against Leicester City in 1982 was no better.
At the half-time break, the three of us posed in our claret and blue shirts, the shame.
For the record, during the first-half Kurt Zouma was neither clapped nor booed. It was if he had never played for us.
The second-half begun with a still woeful atmosphere in the stadium. I was surprised how quiet the three thousand West Ham fans were. I wasn’t surprised how quiet we were.
There was a clash between James and Michail Antonio; both booked. This stirred some emotions within the stadium.
At last, the atmosphere improved and it felt like a proper game of football rather than some computer-generated monstrosity.
There was a very loud and piercing “Amazing Grace” :
“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea.”
Exactly on the hour, Tuchel changed it around.
Armando Broja for Gallagher.
Mason Mount for Pulisic.
At the Shed End, a corner to West Ham.
Chris : “You know what’s coming.”
It was hoofed away by Reece James.
A second corner was fisted high and away by Mendy. The ball was then volleyed back at goal by Jarrod Bowen. This effort from distance was nervously palmed away by Mendy again. This was the first real scare for us, but also the only meaningful shot on target for either side. However, from the corner that followed, there was an almighty scramble with Mendy not exactly covering himself in glory. His jump and save from under the bar only kept the ball alive. The ball landed at the feet of a West Ham player who prodded the ball back into the six-yard box. That man Antonio slammed it in from close range.
Thomas Tuchel’s doubters were sharpening their pencils.
The new man Broja was soon sniffing inside the box, and I was purring with his intent. We now had a natural striker up front, a physical presence, a predator. Whereas Sterling was like an eel, slithering into space, Broja was shark-like, ready to snap at anything.
On seventy-two minutes, another double-switch.
Kai Havertz for Kovacic.
Chilwell for Cucarella.
The noise levels were ever-increasing now. We prayed for an equaliser.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
Havertz almost had an immediate impact, trying to reach a through-ball but Lucasz Fabianski foiled him with a brave challenge on the edge of the six-yard box.
Just after, a lofted chip from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva from deep found the on-rushing Chilwell down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. His head beat the rather stunted leap of two defenders and the ball dropped nicely for him to run onto. In the blink of an eye, he had touched the ball through the legs of a star-jumping Fabianski and I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball continued over the line.
GET IN YOU BASTARD.
Chilwell’s leap was perfect for me.
Snap, snap, snap.
He celebrated with Broja but I was impressed that nobody else joined in. There was business to be done. Top marks.
This was a real game now and the Chelsea hordes had now found their voices.
With four minutes to go, a huge scare and a massive “get out of jail card.”
Alan and I were actually mired in the middle of a pun fest.
Alan : “Surprised Cornet ain’t wearing number 99.”
Chris : “That’s a flaky comment.”
Alan : “Saucy.”
Chris : “You got hundreds and thousands of these, mate?”
With that, a cross from the West Ham left found the leap of that man Cornet but his free header hit the post.
The game continued.
Broja was up against Vladimir Coufal down below us. He teased and cajoled the West Ham defender before finding some space with some fine control. His pass to Chilwell on the overlap was perfect. The ball was drilled into a packed box. Havertz was waiting to pounce.
Chelsea 2 West Ham 1.
I caught the celebrations on film too. Havertz brought his finger up to his mouth, no doubt a reaction to some doubters among the Chelsea support. I found it a little odd, a little disrespectful.
Was he right to do so?
Answers on a postcard.
But, directly after, West Ham broke and I watched aghast. This all happened so quickly. Mendy rushed out, went down, the ball ran to Cornet. He lashed it home.
West Ham screamed :
“You’re not singing anymore.”
Back to 2-2, bloody hell.
But then, a delay, and it slowly became apparent that VAR was being summonsed. Yet again, the spectators in the stadium – no commentary for us of course, as if it needs to be stated – seemed to be the last to know what on Earth was happening.
The referee Andrew Madley eventually walked over to the pitch-side monitor. I didn’t like the way that he was being hounded by players of both teams.
After an age – but with each passing second, I felt more positive – he signalled “no goal.”
I was relieved but honestly did not feel like celebrating.
Bollocks to VAR.
Elsewhere, the Chelsea support was howling :
“YOU’RE NOT SINGING ANYMORE.”
We hung on.
This wasn’t a great game of football, but we kept going which is all you can ask for. The stupor of the first-half gave way to a far more entertaining spectacle in the second-half as we loosened the shackles and played, what I am going to term, a more emotional type of football.
There were relieved smiles at the end, but only at the end.
I am not going to Zagreb, but Alan is going. He is one of the six-hundred. As he wriggled past me, I said.
“Have a great time in Croatia. You’d best split.”
Immediately after the game, we received texts from others…
After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.
Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.
Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.
I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.
The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.
Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.
Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.
Outside, there was drizzle in the air.
At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.
Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.
I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.
Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.
I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.
As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.
What a waste of a day.
For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.
1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.
I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.
I’m not one to disappoint.
It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.
“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”
We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.
“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.
We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.
I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.
“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”
Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.
Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah
Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James
Hudson-Odoi – Havertz – Mount
The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.
“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”
Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.
Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?
Eh? Tell me.
As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.
Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.
So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.
The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.
Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :
“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”
We began ever so brightly.
And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.
The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.
“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”
It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.
Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.
Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”
I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.
“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”
My camera was poised.
A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.
We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.
“That’s going in your blog.”
Ha, what joy.
Alan : “They’ll have to come at us naaaa.”
Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”
I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.
I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.
“Did it mean nothing to you?”
The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.
We were rampant.
Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.
A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.
I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.
Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.
I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.
Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.
I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion. But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.
I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”
We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.
So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.
Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.
On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.
A double substitution from our manager.
Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.
Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.
…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”
The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?
On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.
3-0, game over.
Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.
“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”
Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?
Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.
There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.
I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.
It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.
Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.
We have a busy week ahead.
Juventus and Manchester United.
Do they get any bigger?
I will see some of you there.
Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.
My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.
This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.
Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.
“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”
I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.
Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.
“Ron Harris drove us home!””
I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.
I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.
Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.
Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.
There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.
“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”
We both laughed.
After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.
Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.
So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.
All aboard the Chopper Bus.
We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.
There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.
Yeah, it was surreal.
Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.
“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”
After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.
“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”
Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.
As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.
Stupid bloody sport.
Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.
At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.
I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.
Did I say that I work in logistics?
For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.
Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.
The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.
At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.
The crowd sang.
“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”
Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.
I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.
On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.
With Love And Appreciation.
We Will Never Forget You.”
Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.
High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.
Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.
With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.
The team news came through.
Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah
James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell
Mount – Hudson-Odoi
With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”
The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.
It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.
These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.
How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.
The song again.
“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”
The game began.
Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.
We began brightly.
The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.
We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.
Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”
Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.
Two-nil and coasting.
Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.
A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.
The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.
We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.
But 3-0 it was.
And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.
There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.
At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :
Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”
At the break, in the away dressing room :
“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”
The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.
We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.
Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.
Keep’m coming Chels.
Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.
Callum looked embarrassed.
Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.
The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.
On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.
“Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”
A minute later, louder still.
The game safe, on came three substitutes.
Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.
There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
I was just waiting for the Whitewall…
On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.
But there was time for yet more drama.
A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.
Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.
After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.
During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.
Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.
On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.
They were lucky to get naught.
I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.
“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”
There was a message from Steve in Philly.
“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”
The answer was easy.
I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.
I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.
The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.
Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.
I needed that recent international break. After seven Chelsea games in just twenty-one days, involving almost twenty-one thousand words here, for once I was most relieved that there would be a fallow period of a fortnight with no match.
(Things I never thought I’d write #127.)
Last weekend was still spent watching football though. I drove into Oxfordshire to see Frome Town recover from conceding an early goal to wallop Didcot Town 5-1 in the FA Trophy. This almost made up for the 5-0 defeat suffered at the hands of Bath City in the FA Cup, a game that took place at the same time that we played Southampton. By the way, an infinitesimally small amount of time was spent weighing up the chances of me attending a local derby at Bath as opposed to the Saints in a run-of-the-mill league game at Stamford Bridge. It was a no contest to be honest.
Frome Town has been good to me of late, but Chelsea is still number one in my affections.
The away league match at Brentford had been a long time coming. Seventy-four years in fact. Yes, dear reader, the last time that the two West London clubs met in a league encounter was in March 1947. Our meetings with the red and white striped Bees from along the A4 have been ridiculously rare. Aside from friendlies, the two clubs had only met on fourteen previous occasions. There was a flurry of games before the outbreak of the Second World War and in the first of these seasons – 1935/36 – Brentford ended up as the top team in London.
Since those halcyon days, Brentford have toiled away in the lower reaches of the Football League. If I am honest, apart from Ray and Graham Wilkins’ father George and our own Ron Harris, I would be hard pressed to name any of their players apart from those in the current team.
Do Bradley Walsh and Rod Stewart count?
In the grand scheme of things, our relatively recent meetings with Brentford in the FA Cup campaigns of 2012/13 and 2016/17 represent a real flurry of activity.
On the same day that we became European Champions in Porto, Brentford swept past Swansea City in the play-off final to gain promotion to the top tier, and I for one – when I heard the news in the stadium before our game – was very happy. I love the football pyramid, I love the rise of smaller teams (Wigan, Blackpool, Bournemouth in recent years) and I love visiting new stadia. Driving in to London on the elevated section of the M4 over the past five years, we have watched how the new Brentford Community Stadium has risen, not so far from Griffin Park, and the arrival of Brentford in the Premiership was just perfect.
With the game moving to a 5.30pm kick-off, we salivated at the prospect of a Hammersmith to Chiswick River Thames pub-crawl before the game. Yet for weeks and weeks, only Parky and I were guaranteed match tickets. Then, what luck, two tickets became available from a couple of friends who could not attend, thus allowing PD and Glenn to join us. Glenn quickly volunteered to drive. Plans were drawn up, pubs were checked out, a parking slot opposite the new stadium was sorted.
This was going to be a cracker.
But then (I have warned that these days there is often a “but then”) one of my mates caught COVID19 – nothing too horrible, it soon passed – but it meant that I needed to take a PCR test in Bath the day before the game. My very real fear was that I would be informed of a positive test result en route to London and would then be forced to self-isolate in Glenn’s van while the others made merry. It didn’t bear thinking about. My contingency plans for the day now included freeing up my ticket, if needed, to enable my good friend Daryl to attend in my absence should the need arise.
Heading into London at around 10.30am, up on the M3 before it drops down into Twickenham, Glenn was playing a few songs from The Jam in his van.
One song struck a chord.
“That’s Entertainment” is much loved. It charted in 1983 after the band split, and I have always loved its lyrics, an homage to melancholy days in humdrum England, a nod to working class life and culture. The mundane is celebrated, almost embraced. Paul Weller’s words drifted over the semi-detached houses of the outer reaches of south-west London.
“A police car and a screaming siren.”
The skies had darkened a little since we had left our homes and for the past twenty minutes there had been rain. We hoped the wet weather would not last.
“The screech of brakes and the lamplight blinking.”
Glenn drove on and I wondered if the day’s events would turn out to be mundane – surely not – or magnificent and memorable. Again I thought of the millions of Chelsea fans who would be wishing that they were the lucky ones with a match ticket on this day in West London.
There had been no PCR test result thus far in. I pondered my day ahead. I would be controlled by outside forces.
“Lights going out and a kick in the balls.”
No, let’s be positive here. I had experienced no symptoms. No symptoms at all. My mood cheered with each of Weller’s squeezed together lines.
“Opening the windows and breathing in petrol.”
The Jam coexisted alongside Chelsea Football Club for me in those exciting and yet horrible adolescent years and here they were again.
“Football, music and clobber” was it Mr. Weller?
Glenn drove on into Richmond, up to Chiswick and we were parked up, more or less on time, at around 11am.
There had been a few messages to and from Daryl. We had decided that he would be best placed to look for other entertainment; he was off to see Guernsey’s match down in South London against Chipstead, his non-league team’s first away game since January 2020.
From around 11.30am to around 4.30pm, we visited five pubs on the northern bank of the River Thames, replicating a pub-crawl that Parky and I first enjoyed before an Arsenal away game in 2015. With each pub, we bumped into more and more friends and acquaintances. At “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by the two Robs, then Luke, Aroha and Doreen – the last time that I have seen all three since Porto, smiley face – and we then sauntered next door to “The Rutland Arms”. We joined forces with Rob Three, Feisal, Brian, Pete and a few more at “The Dove”, and I chatted to Nick and James – Dublin, 2019 – out on the small terrace overlooking the river. By the time we had reached “The Old Ship”, the party was almost twenty strong. It seemed that we were not the only ones who had come up with the idea of this most wonderful of pub crawls. Around the corner at “The Black Lion” were five or six familiar faces from our local area who had honed in on this idyllic spot in West London.
We had sat alongside a few QPR fans at the “Blue Anchor”, no doubt heading off to see their team, and eventually lose, at Craven Cottage. We all thought how odd it was for the Met Police to sanction all of West London’s four teams to play – against each other – on the same day.
On several occasions, I spoke in hushed tones about how fearful I was of the game at Brentford. It had all the hallmarks of a Chelsea banana skin. I likened it to our game in the autumn of 2011 – one week away from being ten years ago exactly – when we went to newly-promoted neighbours QPR and lost 1-0. I am sure I was not the only one in our ever-growing party, or worldwide, who had this fear of defeat. Brentford had certainly settled with ease this season. They would be no pushover. Their fans would be, er, buzzing.
The lager was hitting the spot. But time was moving on. Just as we were thinking about mustering the troops together to head west to our pre-paid parking spot on the A4, I received a text message. I nervously looked.
“You shall go to the ball.”
We said our goodbyes as others worked out their best ways to travel the two miles or so to the game. We shoehorned nine of us into Glenn’s Chuckle Bus and off we went. I wasn’t sure about getting a cab nor travelling on buses, and there were no slashed seat affairs.
This was a West London affair and we were on our way.
We were soon parked up. Luckily, the stadium was just a ten-minute walk away. I was just so relieved that we had the sense, after surely a gallon of lager, to leave the Thames side pubs in good time, and that we could now relax and enjoy our walk all of the way around the grey cladding of the stadium and reach the away turnstiles in good time. It was around 5pm.
Good job I work in logistics.
Once inside the away concourse, virtually the first person that I bumped into was Daryl.
“Wow. You got a ticket then mate!”
“Yeah, it would appear that rocking horses do occasionally go to the toilet.”
We had evidently not been the only little group of Chelsea fans enticed into West London hostelries for a few bevvies. The singing in the concourse was loud, and it continued into the stadium itself.
I knew what to expect of the Brentford Community Stadium. A few years back, as a certified stadium buff, I subscribed to updates from Brentford Football Club as their new stadium took shape. This mirrored my fascination with its steady growth with each trip in to see a game at Chelsea. Imagine my shock when, presumably because of my free subscription to these stadium updates, I started to receive offers to become a Brentford season ticket holder at the new place.
It’s a decent stadium. Every inch of available space has been used, and the stands abut roads and railway lines. Sound familiar? The stadium holds 17,250. The main stand dominates everything, but its upper reaches are an ugly mix of dull grey roof trusses and unsightly executive areas. I like the way that the tower of the Kew Pumping Station can be glimpsed between the main stand and the western home terrace, a much slighter structure. The roof drops down drastically at two of the corners. The seats are multi-coloured – no doubt to give the impression of them being filled even when they aren’t – but as kick-off time approached it was clear that this would be another full house.
Our away take was around 1,600.
Thankfully many faces that I recognised were in. Behind me was Rob Three, who was joined at various times by H, and then Des, who seemed intent on popping up in every section in the entire away end at various intervals of the entire match. A special mention for Clinton and his son Bailey who were stood a few rows behind me. Hailing from Stirling in central Scotland, Bailey played football during the morning before they flew down to Gatwick in the afternoon and then took a cab to Brentford. There was Luke in the front row of the top section, joining in with the chanting, arms spread. I spotted Daryl in the front row behind the goal. Faces everywhere in fact.
We knew there would be changes due to injuries and as the kick-off approached, the team was flashed on the TV screen which was perched rather precariously atop the main stand roof.
I was alongside Alan, Gal and Parky in a jam-packed quartet in row five.
“They shall not pass.”
My first thoughts as the game began were two-fold.
Firstly, after games where we had been rather reticent at the start, I was just so pleased that we were able to take the game to Brentford in the first five, ten, fifteen minutes.
Secondly, bloody hell, we were making a racket. From a good few minutes before kick-off, and into those first twenty minutes, the noise from the 1,600 Chelsea fans in the north-eastern corner was non-stop.
“That’s more like it.”
And I couldn’t believe how quiet the home fans were. It shocked me.
As the two managers, Thomas Frank and Thomas Tuchel, cajoled their troops from the side-lines, the Chelsea choir let it rip.
“Super Chelsea FC.”
“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”
But the loudest and – ahem – proudest (?) chant was directed at the referee, Anthony Taylor.
Look away now if you are easily offended.
“You’re a James Hunt, you’re a James Blunt, and you’ll always be a Stephen Hunt, you’ll always be a Berkshire Hunt, Taylor, Taylor.”
It seemed to go on forever.
It might sound stupid, even childish, but this chant reinforced the notion that despite modern football’s desire to cleanse and sanitise the current football experience, the faces in the away section, cheering loudly and at times with profanity, have been the heartbeat of the club for decades. In short, unlike at some home games, it felt that the right fans were at this game.
The every-gamers, the loyalists, the ones with one thousand, two thousand Chelsea games to their names, the faces you know, the names you might not know, the drinkers, the thinkers, the old school, the Shed, the North Stand, Gate Thirteen, The Benches, the Matthew Harding, The Shed Lower.
Chelsea on tour.
We dominated the play and Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked like he wanted to take the game by the scruff of the neck. One strong run through the middle was enjoyed by us all. The new boy Sarr looked decent, and didn’t look out of place. The hustle and bustle of Kovacic and Kante, the Kryptonite Kids, ensured that loose balls were charged down and Brentford could not develop many passing routines.
However, after a series of Brentford corners and free-kicks, the home team obtained a foothold. A high ball in from their right was kept alive by their attackers, and the ball fell to Mbeumo whose volley ricocheted back off the near post. From here, the ball was shielded by Ruben before Kovacic took it away from the defensive third with the Brentford team having left many up field. The ball was played wide to Werner. His low cross was turned in by Lukaku, but he had strayed – diabolically – offside.
We regained control and a Kovacic free-kick threatened Raya in the home goal. A shot from Timo just swept past the post. It was all Chelsea, but there was frustration in the away end as our domination often petered out. Right on the stroke of half-time, a breakthrough came. A sustained spell of pressure, pegging the home defence back, resulted in a cross from Dave. Lukaku got something on it, and the ball dropped invitingly for Ben Chilwell. His volley was well controlled – not unlike the goal against Southampton in that respect – and the ball flew into the net.
Brentford 0 Chelsea 1.
“They’ll have to come at us now.”
“Come on my little diamonds.”
The night had fallen by the time the players returned onto the pitch for the start of the second-half. Whereas the first-half belonged to us, if only in terms of possession despite the goal, the second-half absolutely belonged to Brentford, and I wondered how or why they were allowed to dominate us for such long periods. This was the Brentford that I had been expecting to see all along, and at last the home fans were involved too.
Tuchel replaced Kovacic with Mason Mount half-way through the half. Lukaku wasted a golden opportunity after a Werner shot was blocked. Lukaku’s blast over the bar was met with groans and wails.
Brentford, by then, were warming to the task of getting back into the game. The previously quiet Toney looked lively, and Mbeumo saw his weak shot hit the left-hand post. Mendy was being called into action to safeguard our slender win, and he rose to the challenge magnificently.
Our ‘keeper was able to smother a shot as Ghoddos attacked from an angle and, oh Ghodd, we watched in pain as the ball was kept alive by a few desperate Brentford tackles. Thankfully, Chalobah was suitably switched-on to be able to hack a resultant shot off the line.
Brentford were making a racket now.
Next up a point blank save from Jansonn; the man Mendy was having an immense game.
By now, our nerves were being strained and pulled and stretched in all different directions. Kai Havertz had replaced Lukaku and I felt that our attacking options had effectively been turned off.
Hang in there, boys.
Reece James for Dave.
At the death, an overhead kick from Norgaard drew an incredible reflex save from our goalkeeper. Mendy reacted so quickly, his fingers touching the ball over the bar.
This drew immediate and loud applause from us.
Just who is the five o’clock hero? Dunno, but Edouard Mendy was the seven o’clock one.
At last the final whistle.
This was hardly a classic, we knew that. Our play promised great things in the first quarter of the game, no doubt. But we just couldn’t switch through the gears when we needed to. Credit goes to Brentford for a great second-half performance, and – let’s be honest – they deserved a point.
I checked the scores again. A Manchester United loss at Leicester City. Liverpool had won at Watford. A Manchester City home win against Burnley.
But, it was true, we were top of the league. Gulp. At present we are surely a team whose total value is less than the sum of its constituent parts.
I posted, almost hard to believe in the circumstances, on Facebook :
“Catch Us If You Can.”
The way this season is going, it might take me until May to work out if this current Chelsea team are any good. And by then, who knows, we might even be League Champions.
It had not been a great five days. A 0-1 home defeat against Manchester City on the Saturday was followed by a 0-1 away loss at Juventus on the Wednesday. There was much introspection and self-assessment. The second-half at Tottenham suddenly felt a long time ago. Were we not as good as we had thought after we bounced along the High Road? We weren’t wholly sure. And although the two defeats were not thumpings – far from it – they were worrying enough. We suddenly looked an average team – “bang average” as the football chatters would have it – and we needed some sort of salvation against the Saints of Southampton.
There was one phrase that was surely being used throughout the various Chelsea nations.
Chris, England : “This is a must-win game.”
Boomer, Scotland : “Fucking must-win, game, no?”
Kev, Wales : “Must-win game, this.”
Russ, Australia : “Must-win game. Fackinell, mate.”
John, USA : “This is a freaking must-win game.”
Leigh-Anne, Canada : “Must-win, game, eh?”
I had returned from a sensational four days in Turin at around 9pm on the Friday night. At 5.30am, I was up and ready for the next chapter of the season. I called for PD at 7am and Parky at just before 7.30am. It felt odd to be driving east on the A303 and then the M3 just twelve hours after I had been heading in the opposite direction. To be honest, my head was full of Turin, and this just seemed like “The Italian Job, Part Two.” With no fuel drama on this occasion, I was parked up at around 10am. While my co-supporters made a bee-line for “The Eight Bells” I spent a little time at Stamford Bridge, chatting to a few acquaintances and sorting out something at the box office.
At around midday, I met up with PD and Parky in the tiny interior of the best pub in Fulham. We had a typical pre-match. We were joined by friends from near – Ray, Watford – and far – Courtney, Chicago. I first bumped into Ray, who was meeting a former work colleague, at the Rapid friendly in Vienna in 2016. I had never met Courtney before, but he had been reading this blog, the fool, for a while and fancied meeting up for a chin-wag. It was good to see them both.
Courtney was “fresh meat” for PD and Parky who were full of tales of Chelsea’s far-from pristine past, and there was even a tale of a more modern, ahem, bout of boisterousness at Arsenal from a few years ago. There was a bit of rough and tumble at Arsenal before our 1-0 win there in early 2016 and Parky was nowhere to be seen throughout the first-half. During the half-time break, he showed up in the away seats, alongside Al, Gal and myself, but with an ear heavily bandaged.
“Fackinell. He looked Vincent Van Gogh.”
“Anyway, do you fancy a beer, Parky.”
“No. I’ve got one ‘ere.”
We were inside Stamford Bridge in good time once again. The three thousand away fans were already settled into the away section, and this already had the feel of a good old-fashioned football Saturday. The pleasant weather of late was now replaced with grey clouds and rain. It had the air of a traditional autumnal football game. Some would say “run of the mill” but I was pleasantly excited as the minutes clicked towards the old-fashioned kick-off time of three o’clock.
Blur’s “Park Life” got the juices flowing further as it was aired with ten minutes to go.
“All the people. So many people.”
It just seemed to add to the air of anticipation.
The teams entered. There was a minute of applause in memory of one of England’s 1966 winners, the recently deceased Roger Hunt.
The rain was falling as I checked the Chelsea team.
Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger
Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell
Werner – Lukaku – Hudson-Odoi
In Thursday’s “La Gazzetta”, Mateo Kovacic was judged to have been our best player on the night against Juventus, scoring a 6.5 mark out of 10. Federico Chiesa was quite rightly judged to be Juve’s star performer with a justifiably fine 8.5. Most of Chelsea’s troops scored 5 and 5.5. It was a fair summary to be honest. Against Southampton, we needed a few players to score 7 and 8 or more. But our opposition would be no mugs. They still boasted the Munich man Oriol Romeu but also the new acquisition Tino Livramento.
Martin Atkinson blew his whistle and the game began.
The malaise in our midst seemed to have been exorcised after only a few minutes of play. We started very well, brightly probing away in all areas of the pitch.
After just nine minutes, a corner from deep in Parkyville – near where Courtney was watching – was taken by Ben Chilwell. It swing in and reached the leap of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the edge of the six-yard box. His flick on bounced down and Trevoh Chalobah stooped at the far post to head it home. There was a roar from the Chelsea faithful – “back on track” – as the scorer ran over to the other corner flag, sliding on his knees, triumphant.
“Nice one, Clever Trevoh” and I suddenly realised that Clive, sitting alongside me, deserved an assist for this goal. He had just been mentioning a concert coming up involving Ian Dury’s son Baxter.
“Knock me down with a feather.
One-nil to Chelsea and everything was alright in the world again.
We attacked with pace, and found space, but it certainly helped that the away team were happy to attack us when they could. This opened up the game and we fully exploited the spaces to be found in their defensive third. It was already proving to be an entertaining game. In their most fruitful attack, the trusted boot of James Ward-Prowse sent a shot narrowly wide.
A peach of a volley from our Ruben went narrowly wide too.
Next up, Ben Chilwell advanced but a shot was blocked.
“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”
But Saints were not playing dead, and Theo Walcott should have finished with a goal but his header was wide. The away fans were not particularly loud but their “Oh When The Saints” was a constant backdrop in the first half of the first half.
Antonio Rudiger embarked on a typically spirited dribble up through the inside left channel, and players backed off. He shaped to shoot, but instead played in Lukaku with a deft pass. The striker turned it in. I celebrated for a nano-second but soon saw the raised yellow flag in front of the West Lower.
I loved the way that Ruben was playing. Strong, determined and running in straight lines, how old-fashioned. Long may he flourish.
With four minutes of the first-half remaining, the ball was switched from one side of the box to the other. Near the goal-line, Callum Hudson-Odoi took his time to review his options. A fine scooped cross easily found the leap of the often lambasted Timo Werner. His leap was clean, as was his header from close-in.
At last a goal for the under-fire German. How he celebrated. How we celebrated. Two-up, happy days. But…there is often a but these days. There seemed to be a delay. To our obvious dismay the TV screen signalled “VAR Review : Possible Foul Play.”
Who? What? Where? When? Why?
Not only was there no recollection of a foul in the build-up to the goal, the decision took a while to come through.
Boos. Lots of them. An incandescent Tuchel was booked.
It transpired that Dave had committed a foul on a boy wearing an Athletic Bilbao striped shirt when he was a mere twelve years old, thus rendering Timo’s goal illegal.
This last action spoiled the first-half, but there was much to admire. Chalobah looked in fine form, strong in possession, and positive when under pressure. Loftus-Cheek was a lovely revelation. We hoped for further dominance in the second period.
We began well enough with the honest endeavour of Timo the highlight. But then we seemed to fall apart a little. I found myself thinking “this isn’t joined up” just as Clive spoke about things being “disjointed.”
On the hour, a terrible lunge by Chilwell on Livramento inside the box gave Atkinson the easiest of decisions.
“Nailed on penalty. What was he thinking?”
Ward-Prowse tucked the ball in.
Tuchel exchanged Mason Mount for the disappointing Hudson-Odoi. There was a slight improvement, but only just. We stumbled along and Southampton looked a little stronger.
“We could lose this.”
Another half-chance for Werner.
Jorginho for Kovacic.
With the substitute trying to scoop the ball out to Rudiger after a Mendy faux-pas, he was brought to the ground by the scorer Ward-Prowse. The Italian seemed to make the most of it to my eye. Atkinson waved a yellow at the Southampton midfielder, but then VAR wriggled its way into the game again. Another delay. A few people chanted “VAR.”
“I ain’t cheering if this is a red. Looked like Jorginho went down too easily to me. Bloody VAR.”
We waited and waited.
I didn’t cheer.
The rain was falling heavily. The stadium had a typical autumnal vibe.
“Don’t fancy the walk back to the car, PD.”
Chelsea, maybe seizing the advantage now, suddenly looked stronger.
Barkley for Loftus-Cheek, who had tired in the second-half.
Chelsea dominated again now, and a sublime lofted pass that split the defence from the last substitute Barkley out to the raiding Azpilicueta was simply sublime. A first time cross from Dave picked out the run from Werner, who guided the ball past McCarthy in the Saints goal.
The Bridge erupted. A slide from Timo this time. He was then mobbed justifiably, by his team mates.
There was time for a crazy denouement. Sustained Chelsea pressure in the Southampton box resulted in the goal frame being clipped not once but twice in quick succession, by Lukaku and Azpilicueta, and the crowd were quickly into convulsed with frustration. The loose ball broke to Chilwell, the left-back. He swiped at the ball as it sat up nicely for him. The goal bound shot looked perfect. McCarthy clawed at it, but from my viewpoint, it looked like it had crossed the line.
Goal Line Technology spoke : goal.
To Clive : “Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”
The players celebrated wildly down below us.
Chelsea 3 Southampton 1.
The Saints had been beaten in the October rain.
This indeed was a lovely, action-packed game of football. VAR had been involved, never a good thing in my mind, and had annoyed most of the fans present. But we came away with three points, and three points that put us top of the pile once more. However, our joy was about to be clipped.
Downstairs, my good friend Rob approached me. I had seen him ever so briefly before the game. But he spoke to me in greater depth now.
His face was red.
“Just to let you know. My Mum passed away today. I saw her this morning in the home. The last words I said to her were “I am off to see Chelsea now” but I took a ‘phone call from the home on the way here.”
I gave Rob a big hug. What words are of use at a time like this? It was a terrible end to an otherwise fine day.
“It’s weird because my first ever game at Chelsea was a 3-1 win over Southampton.”
I wished Rob well and I sent him a little text message later in the evening.
We got drenched on the walk back to the waiting car – soaked, absolutely soaked – but that seemed irrelevant.
My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.
“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”
Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.
Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.
The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.
I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :
It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.
Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.
But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.
It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.
I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.
The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.
But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.
Football still didn’t seem too important to me.
The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.
A small victory for me, and I needed it.
Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.
In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.
It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.
Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.
But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.
Was the world changing?
On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.
I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.
With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.
Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.
In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.
It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.
I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?
My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.
A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.
Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.
On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.
I know what I found most enjoyable.
Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”
I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).
Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.
(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)
I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.
So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.
But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.
Let’s talk about the FA Cup.
For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.
After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.
On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.
Fifty thousand people.
And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.
My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.
It struck home.
My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.
My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.
He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.
“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”
I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.
Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.
The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.
“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”
“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”
“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”
“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”
The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.
“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”
“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”
The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.
“Like a bloody river, Ted.”
After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal. There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.
The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.
“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”
There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.
With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.
As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.
“That goal, Ted.”
“What of it?”
“It looked offside to me.”
“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”
“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”
On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.
This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.
“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”
I laughed with them.
The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.
It has been my life.
I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.
“I have missed it badly.”
They both smiled.
And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.
But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?
I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.
I have aired all this before. As well you know.
No pressure, Chelsea.
On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.
Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.
But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.
I vote for Vic Woodley.
I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.
We must pay a visit when normality returns.
Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.
1994 And 2021.
I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.
This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.
We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.
RIP Wycombe Stan.
I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.
The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”
It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.
At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.
At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.
We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.
Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.
For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :
“I’ve had a good six months.”
There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.
It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.
A Chelsea Gallery.
The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.
A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.
“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”
I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.
James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.
So, yes, the team.
James. Silva. Rudiger.
Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.
Mount. Werner. Ziyech.
I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.
And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.
Does anybody like it?
To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.
Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.
With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.
The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.
Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.
After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.
We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.
Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.
Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”
It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.
For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.
Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.
A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.
Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”
I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”
Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.
For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.
The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.
“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.
He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.
We play from the back.
And counter attack.
Champions of England. You made us sing that.”
Thankfully no mention of a high press.
The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.
At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.
No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.
The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.
Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.
Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.
The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.
“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”
It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.
Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.
I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.
“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”
With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.
The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.
A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.
I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.
In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.
I heard a voice inside my head.
“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”
And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.
A red rectangle…
VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.
My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?
Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.
A roar from the other end, no goal.
King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”
I had no answer.
There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.