Tales From The SW6 Derby

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 3 February 2023.

There was an air of anticipation bordering on excitement – but only just, I am fifty-seven after all – as we made our way up to London for the SW6 derby at Stamford Bridge. Who on Earth could have possibly forecasted such a big transfer spend-up during the winter transfer window? Certainly not me. The events of the previous few weeks had left many, including myself, in a whirl. We had already seen a few debuts in January but there would soon be more ahead. Players – the majority of whom were new names to me – were joining Chelsea Football Club at a rate of knots not seen since the transfer flurry in 2003 when we plundered the market for Glen Johnson, Adrian Mutu, Damian Duff, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Geremi, Wayne Bridge and Claude Makelele.

I had heard of all of them.

The signings of 2003, twenty-years on, were a different ball game.

Did it all make sense? Again, who knows? It may take a while, and the test of time, to evaluate if the massive financial outlay on players will have been a success.

Into the future we go.

But first, let’s take a look back at two games that are on the schedule for revisiting from forty years ago.

Saturday 22 January 1983 : Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 Chelsea 1 – 19,533

After the surprising 6-0 win against Cambridge United at Stamford Bridge, a week later we were on our travels. We were up against promotion hopefuls Wolves at Molyneux. This game drew a very healthy 19,533, although not as many as the recent 22,567 for the visit of Leeds United to the Black Country. These were decent gates for the time; excellent, in fact, for the Second Division and actually pretty decent when compared to First Division attendances that season. On the same day that we visited Wolves, just 9,946 saw Coventry City play Swansea City and 9,718 saw Notts County entertain Arsenal in the top flight.

Wolves’ famous old stadium was in a state of flux in those days. A massive ground redevelopment had stalled and it meant that, due to the eventual planned movement of the pitch, the one completed stand stood around fifty yards away from the nearest touchline. The huge South Bank still stood, as did the cranked main stand and the covered enclosure at the north side, and it looked altogether ridiculous. Molyneux was eventually completed in around 1993. In 2023, the once distant stand is the only structure remaining, and in fact the north enclosure has been replaced not once but twice.

I am sure that I wasn’t expecting the goal rush of the previous weekend to continue and Chelsea didn’t let me down, losing 1-2 with Colin Pates the lone scorer. That evening, I moped around Frome with some school friends, from an eighteenth birthday party to a variety of local hostelries. I suspect that the trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club was not high on my list of conversation topics.

On the same day, Derby County drew 3-3 at the Baseball Ground against Leeds United in front of 17,005. The main story of that game, though, involved the hooligan element of the travelling support who detached many of the seats in the away stand, the Osmaston Stand, and launched them at anyone within range. Why do I mention this? On the following Saturday, Chelsea were to play at the Baseball Ground in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

The song lyrics “anything you can do, I can do better” were surely ringing in the ears of Chelsea’s support on the way home from Molyneux that evening.

Saturday 29 January 1983 : Derby County 2 Chelsea 1 – 23,383

I had high hopes for this cup tie. I was absolutely sure that we would ease past Derby County, who were not enjoying a great season themselves, and we would then then be handed a plumb home draw in the next round. For some days, I was convinced we’d get Manchester United, the team supported by Rachel, the girl that had briefly appeared in my life before Christmas and who was still the object of my unrequited affections. From forty years on, this seems all rather pathetic and I suppose it was. But at the time communication between the two of us was minimal at best – I was an expert of furtive glances and occasional smiles, which I am pleased to report were always reciprocated when we passed each other – but a Chelsea vs. Manchester United cup tie would have definitely, I was sure, got us talking.

The lure of the FA Cup managed to entice large numbers to the Baseball Ground on this Saturday forty years ago and this was typical of the era. Derby’s league average for the whole season would eventually be 13,601 – there were only 8,075 present for our visit in the September – yet this tie drew almost 10,000 more. These were big numbers. Of the 23,383 present – I was not there – it is highly likely that Chelsea would have taken over 6,000.

The Baseball Ground, cramped twixt terraced streets, factories and industrial units, was a classic football stadium, famous for its ridiculously muddy pitches and tight stands. There were double-deck structures at each end, and the stands did not run parallel to the pitch.

Sadly, Kevin Wilson gave the home team a 1-0 lead in the first-half, but Mike Fillery equalised with twelve minutes to go. Alas, Wilson – who would sign for Chelsea in 1987 – grabbed a very late winner. And, yes dear reader, a sub-section of the Chelsea support dutifully copied their Leeds counterparts the previous week by lobbing seats everywhere, even on top of fellow Chelsea supporters on the terrace below if I am not mistaken.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There is no doubt, no doubt at all, that in 1982/83 Chelsea Football Club was more famous, or infamous, for its hooligan support than its football. This was an altogether strange thing for me to have to handle, especially being so distant from the club geographically, and so distant from the heartbeat of the club, and fellow fans. It was a lonely existence to be honest. There was, of course, in the warped logic of a school playground or sixth-form common room, some sort of badge-of-honour kudos in Chelsea’s reputation, but at the same time I longed for us to get back into the top flight again.

1982/83 was turning into a desperate campaign, a nightmare in fact.

Oh, and guess what? I was to learn on the following Monday that Derby would play Manchester United at home in the fifth round.

Fackinell.

Let’s hop forward forty-years. I was up at the stadium just before 5pm. There was a little time to kill, so I took a few photos underneath the old Shed Wall, which can be one of Stamford Bridge’s most photogenic areas. I found myself by the repositioned photo of Gianluca Vialli, and touched his left boot for luck and in memory of the great man.

I had already seen on various social media platforms that Chelsea would be celebrating the Chinese New Year for the game against Fuham and I had to wonder why. The players would be – wait for it – wearing special pre-game training tops honouring the year of the rabbit, and as I walked around outside a couple of stands, red Chinese lanterns were regularly positioned. It was all very odd and rather pathetic.

Why were we honouring the Chinese New Year? Is it now a big thing among sports clubs the world over? I must have missed that memo. Let’s just thank our stars that American Independence Day is in the summer. What about South Korea? What about Venezuela? What about Rwanda? Will they get their moments too? I know we are a global brand – ugh – now, blah, blah, blah, but it left me cold. I wondered if we will soon be honouring other important dates in the calendar. What about the onset of Lent for starters and, specifically, Pancake Day?

Yes, Pancake Day. I had an idea. Chelsea should market supporters’ shirts for our next home game against Southampton with the words “I’m with this tosser” on the front. Someone contact the marketing department pronto.

As I left the West Stand forecourt, a Chelsea steward was going into a frenzy, yelling out “bag search on the table, bag search on the table” as if his life depended on it. I looked back one last time and saw a mass of hi-viz tabard-wearing stewards standing in a regulated formation – maybe a 7/5/3 with pushed-on wing-backs – and I wondered if our team against Fulham might be sporting a similarly over-loaded formation to get everyone a game.

I walked down the Fulham Road towards the CFCUK stall. Mark Worrall had put aside a book for me – “Come Along And Sing this Song” – which is an old-style football annual type book detailing 1983/84 (which I covered during the 2008/2009 season here) and looks a fine tome. I took a photo of the “Broadway Bar and Grill” – formerly the “King’s Head” and then “The Slug and Lettuce” – which, despite being a very handy pub at Chelsea, I have only ever entered a few times. There was a buzz that you don’t often get on match days. The signings had certainly energised the Chelsea support.

Pre-match was spent in “Simmon’s” with Parky, Andy and Sophie from Nuneaton, but also some friends from California; Tim and Hooman, who I had met on a number of occasions before. A surprise guest was BJ from Dallas who I last bumped into over in Michigan in 2016. It was a joy to see him again. He was with Emily, originally from Missouri but now living in Dallas too. We had a decent natter. It was her first visit to Stamford Bridge. She received the usual “if we lose, you’re not coming back” welcome from me. There was talk of the upcoming trip to Dortmund – not long to go now – but I also mentioned the home tie. I had recoiled in horror when I recently read that West Upper tickets for that game are on sale for £240.

Yes, that’s correct, £240.

What was that about the normal working man being priced out of football? At this rate, even the well-off are being priced out.

“A family day out at the football? That’ll be a thousand pounds please, thanks, enjoy your pizza.”

We checked the team on Sophie’s ‘phone.

“Ziyech playing? What? The fucker was meant to be in Paris, sipping champagne and smoking Gitanes tonight.”

I immediately wondered why Enzo Fernandez was not playing. But I then spotted, with some relief, that his name was given as simply “Enzo.”

He was to take Jorginho’s number five shirt.

It was great to see Reece James back.

“Hopefully not too soon though, eh?”

Andy was excited about the game. And although I was too – something I thought I’d not be saying a few weeks back, maybe after Forest –  I couldn’t help but say that, knowing Chelsea, it would be a 0-0 draw, “another false dawn.”

Andy gave me a very old-fashioned look before we then dived headlong into a chat into our shared Chelsea past and memories of Bolton 2005, Munich 2012 and Porto 2021.

I was in early. I had a quick chat with Oxford Frank – “not sure about the morals of all this, but I guess it’s not our money…well, it will be our money when our season tickets undoubtedly go up next season” – and a young lad behind me from Ukraine, draped in a yellow and blue flag, bless him.

The troops arrived. The ground slowly filled.

There was a montage of Dave on the front cover of the programme having recently totted-up his five-hundredth game for our beloved club. I checked the spelling of a couple of our new acquisitions then quickly forgot them. Noni Madueke was going to be a struggle for sure.  It annoys me that attendances are nowhere to be seen in this season’s match programme. They don’t always appear in newspapers. It is a pet peeve that seems to have developed since the COVID seasons. I don’t get it. It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea used to add away team’s numbers to all games too. Is it me being cynical in thinking that by not publicising attendances, the myth of all games being sell-outs continues unabated?

A little more history about the SW6 Derby.

This would be the forty-fifth Chelsea vs. Fulham game at Stamford Bridge in all competitions – League, FA Cup, League Cup, Anglo-Scottish Cup – since our first encounter in 1911. In the previous forty-four, Chelsea had suffered just two defeats. No wonder Fulham hate us so much. Of course, we are so ambivalent to them. So much so that they hate it.

Despite our close proximity, a little under two miles between the two stadia, there simply hasn’t been any notable tit-for-tat rivalry on the pitch. Our lack of matches against Fulham in our formative decades is the main reason. Of those previous forty-four games, only twenty-two took place from 1905 to 2001. If anything, the rivalry has only ratcheted up in recent years, with the other sixteen games having taken place since 2001.

Is this, then, a new rivalry, having been dormant for over a century?

Possibly.

It wasn’t so long ago that the quiet neighbours were a main stay in the Premier League. Fulham enjoyed thirteen straight seasons in the top flight from 2001/2002 to 2013/14. There was a time, with them floundering in the basement, that I wondered if Chelsea would ever enjoy a local league derby ever again. I can remember the joy of March 2002 – it seems odd to admit this now – when I saw a derby against Fulham for the first time in eighteen years…a decent game, a narrow 3-2 win, a good atmosphere.

The team? OK, here we go.

Kepa

James – Silva – Badiashile – Cucarella

Gallagher – Enzo

Ziyech – Mount – Mudryk

Havertz

It almost felt like a new beginning.

Back in December, during that shite break, the names Benoit Badiashile, Enzo Fernandez – I did not watch any of the World Cup remember – and Mychailo Mudryk existed in another world.

Certainly not in London SW6.

Pre-game, two crowd-surfing tributes to Reece James dominated the two ends. It was a nicely-timed “welcome back” to our much-admired right back. There was also an odd, awkward, moment when the PA asked us to remember Jorginho, now passing sideways at Arsenal. I have never known that before. I don’t remember the PA asking us to remember Gordon Durie after he fucked off in 1991.

How odd.

Anyway, Jorginho. He had his moments. I never warmed to him particularly and his style was difficult to get excited about, but he put in some decent performances over the five years. We’ll miss the hop, skip and jump at penalties, eh?

“The Number 5 is dead, long live the Number 5.”

The game began. It was a mild night and I took my jacket off and placed it on a spare seat. Another full house, or near it. The pitch, parts of it, looked ropey, with it looking close to cutting up.

Immediately, I became flummoxed at the sight of us attacking the Matthew Harding and it took me a while to adapt.

I whispered to Clive “some team that, now…”

My eyes were soon settling on Mydryk and Enzo.

I now have two Argentinian friends in Buenos Aires – hello Victor, hello Vanesa – and we had been chatting about our new World Cup winner during the immediate pre-match. I like it that Enzo once played under Hernan Crespo at Defensa y Justicia, one of the city’s legion of professional clubs, and he reminded me a little, facially, of Juan Roman Riquelme. I have developed a little love affair with Argentina of late, and we have had a trickle of Argentine players since the madness of 2003. Apart from Veron, Crespo and now Enzo, Wily Caballero and Gonzalo Higuain have recently played for us. I also recollect the fleeting presence of Franco di Santo who I once saw score a goal for us in Dallas, the home of Emily and BJ.

The number five seemed to be playing quite deep, but I hoped he had a licence to roam.

Vamos Enzo!

After the first ten minutes, I had to admit that Fulham had probably started the livelier of the two teams despite a little activity down our flanks. Mydryk looked lively at the start but he certainly had no wide open spaces to exploit, like at Anfield, and he soon started to fade.

I soon spotted Emily and BJ down in Parkyville.

On nineteen minutes, our first real chance, and a super lob over the back line from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, but his prod was stopped by Bernd Leno. The offside flag was raised anyway.

To Clive : “it’s actually nice to have an away team attacking us, rather than a side defending deep all the bloody time.”

Indeed, the away team were tight, putting us under pressure and attacking with intent. On twenty-four minutes, the unmarked Andreas Pereira spun and shot low at Kepa in the Shed End goal, but our ‘keeper responded so well to parry.

On the half-hour, at last we had some chances of our own, two in quick succession. Mudryk set up Havertz with a fine pass, but another offside. And then Mount set up Havertz came close again, but his first-time blast was wasteful, drawing groans as it flew high off his boot. On thirty-five minutes, there was a crunching tackle from Enzo in the centre-circle, and this was followed by a perfectly-weighted pass out to Hakim Ziyech, but his right-footed shot was blasted high and wide. That little cameo from the Argentine warmed me.

The atmosphere had been pretty rotten until now, with few songs and chants. Fulham had sounded like West Ham what with their demands for us to stick our blue flag up our collective arses. At last the home crowd responded with a loud-ish “Chelsea, Chelsea” a la “Amazing Grace.”

There was a quick break from the visitors and with bodies in the box, they really ought to have scored; a long cross towards Willian was headed back but Kepa gathered.

In the final minute of the half, Benoit Badiashile – enjoying a good performance – brilliantly intercepted a pass and set up an attack. At last a perfectly-flighted ball from the foot of Ziyech found Havertz, but his studied touch saw the ball sadly strike the post. There was nobody close to touch in the rebound.

Clive : “Mount stood and watched. Lampard would have been racing in.”

It hadn’t been a great performance. There seemed to be a positive reaction to our showing at Anfield, but this one was drawing groans as the match developed. I don’t always do it, but I sent out half-time ratings in a WhatsApp group.

Kepa 7

James 5 – Silva 6 – Badiashile 7 – Cucarella 4

Gallagher 6 – Enzo 7

Ziyech 4 – Mount 5 – Mudryk 4

Havertz 5

At the start of the second-half, another debut ensued as Graham Potter sent on Noni Madueke to replace Mudryk on the left wing. His initial involvement was thrilling, with a great show of speed and a willingness to race away and dribble in any direction, like a footballing Forrest Gump.

To Clive : “maybe this will be it for the next few games, every second-half we get to see a new rapid winger thrilling us all.”

There was a cross from a relatively quiet James but Leno was able to claim the ball before Maduenke could pounce.

On the hour, Willian rolled back the years with a super direct run into our box down below us, but his effort was blazed over.

Clive : “man of the match so far.”

There was a horrible tackle on Peireira on Cucarella, but no red card after a VAR review.

Two more substitutions followed.

Dave for Reece.

Raheem Sterling for Ziyech.

Madueke was now able to run amok on the right wing.

To Clive : “to be honest, I think we are worse this half.”

There was a stupid foul that lead to a booking for Gallagher, then another fleet-footed run by Willian but a thankfully weak shot straight at Kepa. Those half-time ratings were dropping to fours and fives with only Enzo and Badiashile maintaining a decent level, although Sterling started decently.

On sixty-nine minutes, an optimistic lob from the half-way line from Aleksandar Mitrovic resulted in Kepa back-peddling but we were grateful that he stopped the ball high on the line.

We improved a little, with Enzo going close with a fine curling drive that flew past a post.

On seventy-five minutes, David Fofana substituted the very disappointing Mount, who was now sporting a haircut that must have been based on a certain Butt-Head from around 1994. I wondered if Dennis Bergkamp was available for a routine alongside him…

”Arsenal. You said Arsenal.”

To Clive : “how has Havertz stayed on?”

A shot from Gallagher – that I caught on film – flew past the post.

More groans.

Willian was widely applauded when he was substituted on seventy-five minutes, a fine servant over recent years for us.

On seventy-eight minutes, Fofana broke in well from the right and, after some decent footwork as he rounded Leno, was perhaps unlucky to see his shot blocked on the line.

Fackinell.

My biggest moan of the night? On at least one occasion in the first-half and two in the second-half, Chelsea players, I remember Mount and Gallagher, failed to get their corners past the first man. How is that possible? Nothing infuriates me more.

To the bloke behind me : “all that sky to hit…for fuck sake.”

Late on, we were cheered to see Ben Chilwell make a cameo appearance for the under-fire Cucarella.

It stayed 0-0. In the bar before, I was only semi-serious, but I suppose I knew deep down. I have been going to Chelsea too long now.

There was rowdiness from the Fulham fans on the walk down the Fulham Road as we walked past the CFCUK stall, on towards the “Broadway Bar and Grill”, and one mouthy lad must have barked this out five times :

“All that fuckin’ money and you still couldn’t beat us.”

Things were heated between a few individuals and several police were seen rushing to quell a few flashpoints. A few obvious tourists looked on in horror.

I must admit that I was getting annoyed with them, these Fulham fans, probably for the first time ever.

After well over a century, perhaps that rivalry is beginning to heat up a little.

A little mob of Fulham fans trotted off down the Fulham Road – I suspect the majority of their fans live more locally than us – and it seemed strange to thank that, perhaps, a few would be able to get home within a few minutes. I wondered if many lived on the Clem Atlee.

I made a quick exit and was soon heading west down the M4. I would get home at around 1.15am, my weekend over before it would begin. There would be no Frome Town game for me to relish on the Saturday; they had played on this Friday night too, a home game with Bishop Cleeve from near Cheltenham. At least Frome won 2-0.

A disappointing performance from Chelsea? Yes.

But I like the look of Enzo, who I hope can develop into the goal-scoring play-maker that we have missed for what seems like an ice-age. I think he showed enough promise in his first game for us for me to pin some hopes on him. He looked neat in possession, with no Jorginho-style dawdling, and his range of passing can hopefully set our runners free. The pre-match optimism seemed to have deserted everyone in the stadium by the end of the game, so whereas a nice win would have set us all up for a tough, but winnable, game at West Ham next Saturday, we now go gingerly into the future.

Cue clichés about “trusting the process”, the “long haul” et-bloody-cetera. Is Potter the man to lead us? Ah, that’s the $64,000 question. Or the $640,000,000 question these days.

See you in East London next Saturday.

Tales From The Wrong Seat

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chatted to many fellow Chelsea fans.

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

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

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

In.

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

…”said to me.”

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

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

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

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

The usual pre-match ritual at Anfield.

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

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

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

Our team?

I tried, again, to work it all out.

Kepa in goal.

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

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

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

Kai Havertz up top.

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

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

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

Fuck adventures in TV Land.

We were at the football.

“Into them Chelsea.”

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

“GET IN.”

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

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

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

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

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

Modern football.

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

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

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

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

Let’s sing that all season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

…”where we watched King Kenny play.”

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

Advantage Chelsea at the break? I think so.

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

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

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

No wonder Anfield was quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With ten minutes to go, more changes.

Dave for Trevoh.

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

Carney for Mase.

Mount had been quiet for much of the game.

Pierre-Emerick for Kai.

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

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

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

Fantastic stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Frank’s gone, isn’t he?”

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

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

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

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

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

I eventually reached home at 9.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Tales From Two Wins

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 15 January 2023.

Leaving West London after the away game at Fulham on Thursday, I turned to PD and sighed as I said “at least we haven’t got to schlep all of the way up north for our next game, with it being an easy-to-reach home game against Palace.”

He agreed but then spoiled the mood a little as he mentioned a trip to Liverpool the week after.

We were undoubtedly going through a very tough spell. Not only had we been defeated in three consecutive games, there had also been the sad and traumatic passing of Gianluca Vialli the day after the first defeat. This was a short and difficult period in the history of Chelsea Football Club; eight days full of losses and loss. It was a horrible time.

As we headed towards Stamford Bridge we tried to be as positive as possible about the future, but I think we all knew that the day would be difficult. There would be undoubted sadness as the club paid its respects to our much-loved former Italian player and manager. This would be, I was sure, as emotional as previous similar days at Stamford Bridge when we remembered Matthew Harding in 1996, Peter Osgood in 2006 and Ray Wilkins in 2018.

The day began with a delay. Parky’s village was almost cut off from civilisation due to flooding on two roads but I was thankfully able to head off on a lengthy diversion to reach him. The rain was incessant in that first hour but thankfully the day brightened up and dried out.

We often talk about “must win games” but this one really was. Under-pressure Graham Potter’s charges really needed to triumph against Patrick Vieira’s team.

Was I confident? Only maybe.

Despite the delay at the start of the day, I was still able to drop PD and Parky on Fulham High Street just before 10am. I headed off to take a few photographs of the floral tributes and the mementoes left at the base of the large picture of Gianluca Vialli that had been moved from its usual position on the Shed Wall. This position is at the far left, position number one, and I have always like that. Many players have played more games and scored more goals for us, but very few have ever been as loved as Luca Vialli.

As I stopped by, my camera clicked a few times, but I then needed to stop all that and just be alone with my thoughts in silence. I adsmired the wreaths, the bouquets, the flowers. There were many Chelsea scarves and a few Italian flags. A woman approached and solemnly positioned a scarf on the floor. I noted a touching reference to the white vest that Dennis Wise aired after the 1997 FA Cup Semi-Final win against Wimbledon at Highbury imploring Luca to “cheer up” and this made me smile.

My eyes were moist in the biting winter air.

I met up with the usual suspects down at “The Eight Bells” at around 11am. There were the usual “Only Home Fans” signs back on the windows for this game.

Business as usual.

Unable and unwilling to share an alcoholic drink with PD, Parky, Rich and Matt, I took a leaf out of Andy and Kim’s book and got my kicks via a full English breakfast.

We left bang on 1pm, keen to witness all of the pre-match commemorations.

There were black and white photos of Luca on the way in. The match programme featured a lovely image of the man. Inside, many words were written about Luca.

I was in with half an hour to go before the 2pm kick-off and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” was played again. I spotted all of the Chelsea players – split into the starting eleven and the substitutes – wearing black tops with “Vialli 9” printed on the back, with the font used being the same as on the 1996/97 shirts, a nice touch indeed.

My mind wandered.

During the last few years of my mother’s life, as she battled dementia with a cheery smile, I got into the very enjoyable habit of attempting to stimulate her mind by using a Chelsea-based word association game :

I would say a first name, my mother would add a surname.

“Ron”…”Harris.”

“Peter”…”Osgood.”

“Pat”…”Nevin.”

“Frank”…”Lampard.”

“Gianluca”…””Vialli.”

“Gianfranco”…”Zolo” (always Zolo, God that made me chuckle.)

I had a wistful smile to myself. Mum never got Luca’s name wrong.

We had been advised to be in for 1.40pm when some former team mates would honour Gianluca Vialli. Well, that time passed with no on-field ceremony and I wondered if it had all happened earlier.

Some chap appeared on the pitch with a microphone and he spoke briefly about Gianluca Vialli, and then asked us to – ugh – “make some noise!!!” (with exclamation marks no doubt!!!) and the Matthew Harding quickly responded.

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

But then, what a mood killer, the PA blasted this into oblivion with “Park Life” by Blur. This was then followed by “Liquidator” and I grumbled away to myself. On a day of remembrance, it would have been lovely to have some silence ahead of the appearance of the teams with the supporters themselves being left to their own way of getting an atmosphere going.

Modern football, eh?

The teams appeared. We were shown a short video of Gianluca Vialli, with a nice voiceover.

“From the day you stepped through the door you set the standard at this club and captured our hearts.”

Goals and games were recounted, two goals against Liverpool in the Cup, one at Old Trafford, four goals at Barnsley, two goals at Tromso. The trophies came.

“Dreams came true under your management and you achieved your dream of becoming a Chelsea legend.”

Those incredible European nights were remembered.

“But above all Luca, you were a wonderful man. Charming, respectful, determined. You had a heart of gold that touched so many. Now our hearts are broken, but how lucky we were to have known you. Luca, we love you and we miss you.”

My eyes were moist again.

I wondered if Luca ever spotted my “Vinci Per Noi” banner that I took to many games from the summer of 1996 as our club became besotted with Italian footballers.

The Chelsea and Crystal Palace players made their way to the centre circle, solemnly followed by some former Chelsea players, of whom only Mark Hughes and David Lee did I immediately recognise.

Two large banners appeared at both ends of the stadium. The Chelsea players were each wearing “Vialli 9” training tops. A minute of applause was heartfelt, loud and respectful.

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

It was suddenly time to think about football. I had missed the team announcements so as the game started I pieced it all together.

“Kepa in goal, looks like a three of the new boy Badiashile, Silva and Cholobah, Hall way out left, Ziyech way out right, a midfield pairing of the immobile Jorginho and the very mobile Gallagher, Mount and Carney supporting Havertz…no wait, Ziyech is too far forward, must be a back four then. No, they are too wide. Let’s see how it plays out.”

There were clear blue skies overhead.

Alas no Alan nor Clive with us today so PD and I stretched out.

The game began.

8 minutes – a subdued atmosphere. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the inherent sadness before the game, the nervousness about our recent play or the fact it was an early kick-off.

9 minutes – there was a rather half-hearted “Vialli” chant that really only got going in earnest thirty seconds into the all-important ninth minute. It dawned on me that Luca last played for us almost twenty-five years ago and I wondered if this was the reason. Are those that loved him in his prime now priced out of attending Stamford Bridge? Or was it indifference? I didn’t want to contemplate all of this.

12  minutes – some decent stuff from Lewis Hall in an advanced role on the left, with a keen readiness to power past his defender.

14 minutes – we enjoyed a decent little spell with Hakim Ziyech showing a willingness to get involved and shimmy down the right wing.

17 minutes – complete silence. The moment lasted for quite a few seconds. It shocked me. No shouts from the crowd. Nothing.

18 minutes – no goal threats at all thus far with Chelsea enjoying more of the ball, but then Palace went close at the far post.

19 minutes – a fine shot from Michael Olise was superbly saved by Kepa and then a “star jump” from Kepa foiled Tyrick Mitchell.

22 minutes – at last an audible “Carefree” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

24 minutes – a bout of head tennis in the Palace penalty area was followed by a strong swipe at goal by Thiago Silva but not only did his shot go wide, an offside flag was raised too.

27 minutes – a well-worked foray down our right brought purrs from the crowd but Mason Mount shot weakly at Vicente Guaita.

30 minutes – we had dominated the game but the visitors had easily had the best few chances.

31 minutes – so quiet.

32 minutes – a great deep cross from Ziyech, but Kai Havertz’ slow looper dropped just over the bar.

39 minutes – another good advance from Conor Gallagher, the ball ending up with a shot from Hall that flew just wide.

45 minutes – Kepa was called into action to tip a strong header from Jeffrey Schlupp over the bar, and we then broke and had a couple of late chances on the Palace goal that sadly misfired.

Thankfully there were no boos at half-time and there was even a little applause. I turned to PD and mused on the game thus far…

“We’re playing well, the mood among the fans around us seems to be reasonable, but is that because our expectations are really at not a very high level? You have to say, all our players today, they’re doing alright but are any of them more than a…”

I paused briefly, wanting to say 6, I thought briefly of saying 7, but I went with my gut reaction and said…

“6” just as PD said “6” too.

At the break, new signing Mykhailo Mudryk appeared on the pitch, draped in a Ukraine flag.

“All these runners, we just need a playmaker to hit them” I moaned for the ninety-fifth time since Christmas.

The second-half began.

53 minutes – there was a fine shimmy under pressure and cushioned lay-off from Badiashile that reminded me so much of Frank Leboeuf in his prime. The debutant was impressing me.

55 minutes – a fine punch away by that man Kepa from Wilfred Zaha. That was four great saves at least.

56 minutes – a shot down below us from Havertz but it did not worry the Palace ‘keeper.

58 minutes – the loudest “Vialli! Vialli!” chant of the entire day. Phew.

63 minutes – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Carney Chukwuemeka.

65 minutes – a corner down below me, some passes twixt Gallagher and Ziyech, a strong cross towards the penalty spot and my camera clicked as several Chelsea players jumped. The ball flew goal wards and the net rippled. There followed a run of relief to the corner flag and by the time Havertz had been swamped by team mates, the MHL was bellowing “Vialli! Vialli!” The header was a downward dab that Luca would have been proud.

66 minutes – Alan and I exchanged “THTCAUN” and “COMLD” via Whatsapp.

69 minutes – Dennis Wise, San Siro, you know the song.

70 minutes – a fine forward pass – honest, I saw it – from Jorginho set up Aubameyang but he was foiled by Guaita’s advance.

74 minutes – Hall set up Aubameyang but a shot was blocked.

75 minutes – the left-back went down with yet another injury to hit us. He was replaced by Kalidou Koulibaly.

80 minutes – a good free-kick was worked with the resulting cross being just too heavy for Havertz to connect.

81 minutes – a fucking superb block by Silva, what a man.

85 minutes – a superb diving save from Kepa thwarted Chieck Doucoure’s effort from way out.

89 minutes – Dave for Kai Havertz and Mateo Kovacic for Jorginho.

90 minutes – Palace continued to pile on the pressure with seemingly endless crosses coming in from their right. This was a nervous time, no doubt.

95 minutes – “Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

96 minutes – a fine block from Trevoh Chaobah.

At the final whistle, I pointed with fore-fingers to the sky.

Phew.

A win for us.

A win for Luca.

A win for Chelsea.

We were OK; in fact, more than that, this was a better performance than in the recent run of games, but there is such a long way to go during this campaign. The match against Palace was our nineteenth league game of the season; only the half-way stage.

But a win is a win is a win.

And talking of wins…

Forty years ago to the day – Saturday 15 January 1983 – in addition to lamenting the recent news about the break-up of Stiff Little Fingers on the previous Thursday and after withdrawing my applications to several universities on the Friday, I was elated that Chelsea had defeated Cambridge United 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. The goal scorers were Mike Fillery with two, Joey Jones, John Bumstead, Alan Mayes and an own goal. The gate however was a disappointing 7,808.

In 1983, all was doom and gloom at Chelsea and SLF were no more.

I need not have worried. Last year, Chelsea were crowned World Champions and I saw SLF play a gig in my home town of Frome.

Next, Anfield.

I’ll see you up there.