Tales From The Eight Bells, Seven Goals And One Matthew Harding.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 23 October 2021.

This was pretty much a perfect day of football.

Where to start?

How about 5.30am? Early enough?

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?”

“Yes.”

“Bad luck.”

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.

Perfect.

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.

Again, perfect.

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.

Perfect.

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.

“Matthew.

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.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Havertz

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.”

Sigh.

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.

Get in.

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.

“Brilliant.”

Two-nil and coasting.

More please.

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.

Fackinell.

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.

Four.

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.

Five.

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.

“Carefree.”

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.

Penalty.

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.

Six.

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.

Seven.

Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.

Bloody hell.

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.

“Fackinell.”

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.

Good times, everyone, good times.

Oh by the way, Lukak-who?

Tales From Porto : Part One – The Blue Room And Beyond

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

I had set the alarm on my ‘phone for 12.30am in the very small hours, small minutes even, of Saturday. I had only fallen asleep at around 8.30pm on the Friday. This was going to be a trip that would likely end up with battles against tiredness as the day would draw on. But I wasn’t concerned about that. I had overcome larger battles over the previous eight months. And some smaller ones, of a different nature, over the previous week or so.

I closed my last match report with an open question :

“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.”

After what seemed like an agonisingly long wait, Chelsea stepped up to the mark. With the 2021 Champions League Final bumped from Istanbul on the Bosporus to Porto on the Douro, there was a tense wait. With rumours of Porto being used as an alternative to the Turkish city, and the more logical stadia of Wembley and Villa Park, I had originally been tempted to gamble on flights before the Wembley FA Cup Final. But I held firm, and hoped for the club to answer some prayers. With an uncanny knack of timing, most unlike the club these days, on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 May it was announced that there would be club-subsidised day trips to Porto for £199.

Within half-an-hour of the announcement at 3pm, I was in.

The game was a mere ten days away and things were moving fast now. If you blinked, there was the chance of missing key information. As I was on the club’s trip, my application for a match ticket was taken care of by the travel company and Chelsea. I surely had enough points to be sure of one of the 5,800 tickets offered to the club. Independent travellers would be able to apply on the very next day, the Thursday (D-Day minus nine), but it was soon apparent that many were unsuccessful. Of course, for various reasons, others decided not to apply for tickets. There was a mixture of protest against UEFA, of not being able to afford the trip with all of the extra add-ons, of the rigorous tests for the COVID19 virus, and of course the real fear of the virus itself. There was no control on where it might flare up once more.

When I returned home from work on the Thursday, I was elated to see that Sportsbreaks had debited my credit card to the tune of £199 for the flight and £60 for the cheapest match day ticket available.

I was immediately grateful, unapologetically ecstatic and calm at last.

And well done Chelsea. Although Sheik Mansour had paid for a sizeable percentage of City’s supporters to travel to Portugal for nowt, the club dipped into its reserves to subsidize official travel. Thankfully, the rumours of a far-from edifying “bubble” was not going to be in place once we were to land in Portugal, but – there is always a but these days – all supporters had to follow strict guidelines to enable us to attend. It all took a fair bit of deciphering, and I didn’t want to fry my brain with worry immediately, so I gave it a day or two. But it eventually all made sense. We had to have a PCR test to cover our outbound and inbound travel. After a couple of deliberations on the timings, I eventually booked a test for 0900 on Thursday 27 May in the nearby city of Bath. We also needed to book a similar test on our return from Portugal, and to have evidence on our ‘phone – or hard copy – of both. The cost for those two beauties? A cool £315. Wallop. There was also the requirement to complete locator forms for both Portugal and the UK. I kept reading and re-reading all of these instructions. Over and over and over. It was a worry; I am not ashamed to admit.

Against the backdrop of all this activity during the week leading up to our third Champions League Final, the actual football match was at the bottom of my list of priorities of thought. Like everyone, I had to work, and to fit in all of these activities around work patterns. I worked from home for the most part, but then did an early stint on the Friday in the office to ostensibly give me an extra few hours to settle myself before heading away for the game.

But then there was an extra worry. When I visited the Dragao Stadium in 2015 for our game with Porto, my SLR camera was confiscated and I had to rely on my mobile ‘phone for match photos. With much annoyance, the ‘phone battery died and I only took a handful of mediocre snaps that night. For a good ten days, I was mulling over all sorts of plans of smuggling my SLR in, a “Great Escape” in reverse, and I even thought about tunnelling in, with tunnels called John, Frank and Didier.

It was frying my brain. In the official UEFA blurb for the final, it strictly mentioned no cameras with long lenses. Damn, there it was in black and white. And it also stated that only a very small A4-sized bag would be allowed. I needed a Plan B. I didn’t call Maurizio Sarri. I decided to buy a bum bag – how 1989 – for the camera that I had bought especially for my trip to Argentina last season. Then, with disbelief, I could not track down a charger for the camera. This was killing me. I remembered Moscow in 2008 and how my SLR ran out of charge two hours before the game and I again had to rely on sub-standard ‘phone photos. Not a good precedent.

My Plan B involved calling into “Curry’s” in Trowbridge after work on the Friday and purchasing a new camera. In my haste, I overlooked being able to simply take my existing camera in and getting a charger. My brain was clearly frazzled.

Friday arrived. My PCR test was negative. Phew. At the shop in Trowbridge, I spotted a Sony camera that met all the requirements.

“Sorry, it’s not in stock.”

It is mate, there it is there, I can see it.”

“That’s just a display model.”

“Fucksake.”

But there were two in stock in Salisbury. Off I drove to the “Curry’s” in the spired city of Salisbury, an hour away. I quickly purchased it. The assistant was Chelsea, a nice twist. I eventually reached home at about 6pm.

I chilled out a little, prepped my clothes and travel goodies and then prayed for a solid four hours of sleep.

Match day began in deepest Somerset and would end in deepest Portugal. It seemed so odd to be travelling so light. And alone. None of my local usual travelling companions would be going with me. I only knew of one local lad, Sir Les, who would be in Porto. The previous night, I had laid out all of my clothes in the front room, on a sofa, away from the piles of books and magazines on my coffee table in my main living room and away from all the other detritus of day to day living. I wanted a little clarity.

And it suddenly dawned on me how apt this was. Over the past year, my house and garden has undergone a major tidy-up, and a main part of this has resulted in my front room becoming part home office and part Chelsea museum. I have named it The Blue Room. It is my pride and joy. There are framed, signed photographs of various players, framed programmes, photo montages, framed posters, framed shirts.

Immediately above the sofa – blue – where my clothes were placed were three items.

At the top, a canvas print of my photo of Didier’s penalty in Munich. A sacred memento of the greatest day of my entire life.

In the middle, a much-loved present from relatives in around 1980, a pub-style mirror featuring our total trophy haul up to that point; the 1955 League Championship, the 1965 League Cup, the 1970 FA Cup and the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup. For years upon years I used to gaze up at it and wonder if my club would ever win a damned thing in my lifetime. I became a supporter in 1970, remember nothing of that final nor the 1971 one, so in my mind I had never seen us win a bloody trophy. I was thirty-one years of age in 1997. New fans will never understand how magical that day was. Many new fans now want a fourth place finish over FA Cup glory. It seemed that Thomas Tuchel was of the same opinion a fortnight ago.

At the bottom is a photograph of myself with my favourite-ever footballer, Pat Nevin. The photo was taken pre-match in Moscow in 2008 and is signed by the good man. I have recently started reading his very entertaining autobiography. Not only was he a winger for Chelsea, he loves the Cocteau Twins and went out with Clare Grogan. The holy trinity in my book. However, when I read – open-mouthed – that at the age of eight he was able to do ten thousand keepy-uppies, I just hated him. My record is 246. How could he do that bloody many at eight? Git.

So beneath these three images, I dressed and made sure everything was packed. As a superstition, I decided to take a light top that I wore on that magical night in Barcelona in 2012. I needed something to protect my fair arms from the sun. My light beige Hugo Boss top served me well high up in Camp Nou. I hoped for a similar outcome in Porto. I also took a New York Yankees cap for a similar reason; my thatched roof is getting thinner and thinner these days. I wore a New York Yankees cap in Moscow in 2008, but fear not. This was a new one, not the unlucky one of thirteen years previous. The old one was lost in Bucharest on CL duty in 2013.

Superstitions, there were two more.

The first was easy.

Before the European finals in 2012, 2013 and 2019 I had bought breakfasts the day before travel for the office team at work. I continued the tradition this year.

The other one is a little more bizarre.

In 2012, on the Thursday, my car was absolutely spattered with bird shit. Remembering that if this horrible substance lands on you personally, it is regarded as a good luck charm, I decided not to wash it off. It’s worth a gamble, right? I memorably was hit by a pigeon in The Shed during the first game of the 1983/84 season – the famous 5-0 clobbering of Derby County – and I took this as my CFC reference point. 1983/84 is still my favourite-ever season. In 2013, guess what? Splattered again. Before my jaunt to Baku two years ago, my car also took a direct hit. This is no surprise; seagulls nest in and around our premises. Once a month a chap with a hawk appears and tries to scare the buggers away. On Friday, I popped out to my car mid-morning to make a call. Imagine my elation and amusement when my bonnet and lower windscreen had appeared to have been drenched by a pot of Dulux. Ha.

So, yeah – breakfasts and bird shit. Covered.

I set off – “Jack Kerouac” – at 1.45am. I turned the radio on as I backed out of my driveway.

“I wonder what song it will be? Wonder if it will sum up my thoughts, or be a sign for the day.”

“Even Better Than The Real Thing” by U2 assaulted my shell-likes, and I quickly turned it off. But the words “the real thing” struck home. After a year of ersatz training-game football, this was indeed the real thing, no doubt. As I mentioned in the FA Cup Final report, I have really struggled with watching us on TV this season. At last, here was a game I could witness in person with all of the accompanied involvement and sense of belonging. The FA Cup Final was OK but I struggled acclimatising myself with live football after fourteen months away. I hoped for a better feeling in Porto. Maybe it really would be better than the real thing.

I made really good time en route to Gatwick. Passing over Salisbury Plain for the first time in ages, I passed an owl perched on a roadside post. I imagined it thinking –

“Ah, Mister Axon. I have been expecting you.”

The roads were clear. Hardly anything as I drove past Stonehenge and then onto the deserted A303 and M3. Even the M25 was devoid of much traffic. I pulled in to the car park at Gatwick North just a few minutes before four o’clock.

Four AM. Fackinell.

There were already masses of Chelsea folk in the departure area. I joined the queue. “Hellos” to a few faces – Luke, Aroha, Doreen – then John and Maureen, all on the same 0700 flight. But familiar faces were in short supply. I hardly recognised anyone. To my chagrin, a few were sporting the 2021/22 Zig Zag monstrosity. I was eternally grateful the club chose not to repeat wearing it for this final. Another good decision, Chelsea. This will have to stop; you’ll be ruining your reputation. Many lads chose the bum bag option. Many were in shorts. The usual assortment of Stone Island patches, Lacoste, Gant, Ralph, CP, Adidas trainers a-go-go. But there was a proper mix; more replica shirts than usual for a European trip.

I handed over my passport and the various forms to the official and there were no exclamations nor questions. It was satisfactorily smooth, there had been no balls-ups from my underpaid PA and I was checked in. Inwardly, I did a somersault of joy.

Panic over.

Others had a customary pre-match bevvy. I met up with some good friends; Charlotte and Donna completed the Somerset Section. Rachel from Devon. Rob from Chester. An “A Squad” of European travellers no doubt. I spent a good few minutes chatting to Charlotte who is the same age as me. Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer a while back, has since undergone chemotherapy and is on the road to recovery. We traded health updates. Everyone was pleased to see that I was doing well after my heart attack in October. I wandered a little, spotted a few faces, a chat here and there.

On reaching Gate 49, I spotted Andy and Sophie, father and daughter, good friends from Nuneaton. I famously first met Andy to talk to on Wenceslas Square in Prague after the Zizkov game in 1994 although he was always a face I would spot everywhere including in Glasgow for a Rangers versus Motherwell game in 1987. Andy and Sophie were in Baku, that final being exactly two years ago to the day. I was in Baku for six days two years ago. I would be in Porto for sixteen hours in 2021.

Another anniversary for 29 May.

Heysel Stadium 1985.

Never forgotten.

More of that later.

I wasn’t too happy that TUI’s corporate colour was City sky blue but was just happy to be en route to Porto now. There would be a light breakfast, but also the chance for a small sleep. Every minute counts on breaks like these. While waiting for clearance on the runway, I was just drifting off but I heard my name being called out.

“Chris Axon.”

“Oh God, what have I done now?”

The CFC steward was handing out match tickets, alphabetically, and I was one of the first to be mentioned. Stadium seating plans were studied. I was down in a corner behind the goal in row three, just like at Wembley against Leicester City. A bad omen? Possibly.

I chatted to the two lads to my right. We were seated in the very last row. None of us were too confident. I reckoned our chances to succeed to be around 33%, maybe the same mark as against Bayern in 2012. Against United in 2008 it was bang on 50% from memory. I posted a photo of the ticket on Facebook, turned the phone off and waited.

Flight TOM8400 took off at 7.30am.

After a while, the seatbelt signs were turned off and there ensued a rampage to join the queue for toilets situated right behind us. But the male air steward wanted to start serving breakfast.

“Please go back to your seats, there is no room for so many in the queue. I can’t get past.”

There was no reaction. Eye contact was avoided. Quiet murmurings of discontent. English people queue for fun, and especially for comfort – or discomfort – breaks, nobody was moving.

“Please can you all go back?”

With that, the steward began pushing his trolley down the aisle. The passengers backed off.

I turned to the lads next to me :

“Fucking hell, Chelsea ran by a trolley dolly.”

The flight soon passed. We landed at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport at 9.30am. There was a fair wait at passport control. Social distancing simply did not take place. But we all were negative, so I guess it was irrelevant. I handed over my passport and forms. I was in. Another great moment. Andy and Sophie were waiting for me. We had agreed to spend some time together before the day got going. I made a quick visit to the busy gents. While I was turning my bike around, there was an almighty explosion taking place in one of the cubicles behind me. One wag joked :

“Bloody hell, somebody has smuggled someone else in.”

I replied :

“Yeah, a Tottenham fan.”

We were given yellow wristbands on boarding a coach to take us into the city. This would act as evidence of our negative test result and meant we did not have to show security at the fan zone or stadium our forms. A good move, although one friend would later comment that it signalled to the outside world that we had tickets and might be the target for pickpockets. In 2015 on our visit, a few friends were pick-pocketed including my dear friend Alan and Wycombe Stan.

There was cloud overhead but the rising sun soon burned through. We were dropped off at the fan zone on Avenue dos Aliados. It wasn’t far from our hotel in 2015. We decided to enter and kill some time. It was pleasant enough. Andy and Sophie had a beer. But I promised to be tee-total all day long. I had not dropped a touch of alcohol since the first day of September. And the thought of me drinking even a few pints under a burning sun scared me. I wanted to be completely in charge of my senses on this day, especially should there be any sort of plea-bargaining regarding my camera at the stadium.

There was music, a few sideshows, and I met my friends Kenny and then Leigh, lovely Chelsea folk. My good friend Orlin from Sofia appeared outside but did not have his identity wristband so was denied access. We chatted, farcically, through the barricades…we would keep in touch and see each other later no doubt.

Andy spotted Billy Gilmour’s parents, with his two lookalike younger brothers. Billy’s parents looked relaxed and were drinking beer too. As we decided to move on, we walked past them just as Leigh presented Billy’s mother with a “Scottish Iniesta” sticker. I had stopped and decided to say a word or two to Mrs. Gilmour.

“I am sure you are as proud of your son as we are. I hope he goes right to the very top” and gave her a fist-bump. She was lovely.

“Awe, thanks very much.”

Outside, the three of us stood outside a small bar. Beers and Cokes. Andy spotted Michael Gove walk past. Regardless of any political persuasion, he surely has to have the most slappable face in Westminster. A friend back home reminded me that we once saw him walk past “The Three Kings” in West Ken on a match day a few years back. Apparently his son supports us. I reminded Andy how he – much to the bemusement of Sophie – berated former MP Tony Banks, and Chelsea fan, outside the Monaco stadium at the Super Cup game in 1998.

“Leave it out mate, I am here for the football.”

We giggled.

Andy and I have seen some things. We remembered how he said in Monaco “there’s a Real fan in Madrid right now saying…”

I continued “Chelsea always beat us.”

We wondered what he thought about the semi-finals this year.     

Andy and I travelled together to Stockholm and Monaco in 1998. We were both in Moscow in 2008, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013. I saw him in Baku in 2019. We had heard that City were all mobbed up down by the waterfront. This top part of the town centre was all Chelsea. Everything was pretty quiet to be honest. A few sporadic shouts. We saw Pat Nevin on the stage inside the fan zone.

…mmm, I saw him in Moscow, but not in Munich. Was that a bad sign? Time would tell.

Sophie had heard from two friends who were further south so we trotted down the street to meet up with them. I was waiting to hear from Orlin, who had promised to bring along a power pack for me to charge up my quickly dwindling moby. The City shirts now outnumbered Chelsea ones. Porto tumbles down to the Douro, it is a lovely city, and the streets looked quite familiar. Orlin, who I bumped in to in Porto in 2015, texted me to say he was at a restaurant. We walked on, with City jeers of “Rent Boys” aimed at Chelsea fans every fifty yards or so. We walked into a small square and Andy and Sophie’s friends shouted out from a table outside a restaurant. Lo and behold, who should be sat four yards away but Orlin. What luck. The three of us joined them for lunch at 1.30pm. I was sat with several of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. Their flag was near me at Wembley. Two of Orlin’s friends are on the UEFA Away ST Scheme so were sure of tickets. Orlin had to search the black market for his.

It was magical to spend time with him again. We updated each other; travels, health, mutual friends, a little talk about football. He was a lot more confident than me. I always call him “Mister 51%” because he says he is more of a Chelsea fan now, in preference to Levski, his boyhood team.

I remained as Mister 33%.

I had the briefest of words with two City fans in the restaurant itself, the only ones I would talk to all day.

“Good luck tonight. I have no problem with City. We have both had a similar history really. Second Division and all that.”

“Third Division for us. Cheers mate.”

Another fist bump.

I soon realised that we were sat outside on exactly the same table where Parky, Kev and I had an equally enjoyable meal on match day in 2015. Shit, we lost that time. I enjoyed a meal of grilled vegetables and flat breads. Not only no alcohol but a vegetarian meal.

“You’ve changed.”

We said our goodbyes and I needed a little time to myself. It was three o’clock and as I descended to Praca da Ribeira – City Central – some fears enveloped me. There seemed to be way more City in the city than us. This area was mobbed with every City shirt imaginable; like us they have had some shockers. All of this was eerily similar to United dominating Moscow in 2008.

This was my worst case scenario pre-departure from England :

“I won’t meet any close friends, I’ll get sunburned, the bars will be too packed, I won’t enjoy it, my camera will get confiscated again, we’ll concede an early goal ten minutes in, we’ll have to chase the game, City will rip us apart, I think we will get pummeled, delays at the airport, misery in masks.”

Mister 33% for sure.

I left City behind me and slowly ascended a few tight streets. It was close and humid down by the river but nice and airy further north. I popped into a deserted café for a gorgeous fishcake and another Coke. Blue skies overhead. As I slowly walked towards Chelsea Central, I saw a Chelsea Belgium flag draped over a balcony. I inevitably took a few photographs of this highly photogenic city. I loved its trademark blue and white tiled houses. Like Wedgewood or Delft pottery.

Snap, snap, snap.

I met up with the “A Squad” again and bought myself an iced-tea from a nearby shop. The shops around the fan zone were stocked with Super Bock and were doing a fine trade. A large group of around three hundred Chelsea were in good voice…I joined in. We were starting to get our vocal chords prepared. Donna was interviewed for a live piece on “Sky News.” Luke was nicely buoyed by Super Bock. His lovely wife is seven months pregnant. How lovely if we could win tonight so their first-born could claim being present at a European triumph.

My oldest friend Mario sent through a photo of his youngest son Nelson in a Chelsea training top and my heart leapt. Mario lives in Germany and his local team is Bayer Leverkusen. Two of his three boys are Leverkusen fans. Mario and Nelson are ST holders. Nelson met Kai Havertz at a training session a year or so ago. Mario also supports Juventus – he is Italian – and on this date in 1985 he was meant to be in Section Z at Heysel, but had too much school work that week so it was decided he would not attend. And thank God.

On 29 May 1985, I was in England and supporting Juventus in a European Cup Final.

On 29 May 2021, Mario and Nelson were in Germany and supporting Chelsea in a European Cup Final.

Football. Fackinell.

Time was moving on now. Charlotte and I had decided that we would leave earlier than the rest. Chemo has tired Charlotte a little. We needed to allow ourselves plenty of time to travel by subway and then the final mile or so by foot to reach the stadium. I was more than happy to leave. I had thoroughly enjoyed my day thus far. The negative vibes were starting to subside though I had not dwelt on the game at all. We left the others behind at 5.15pm. A subway stop was just a few yards away. We had been given a subway card on the coach with our match ticket; a nice touch.

We walked down the steps into Aliados station just as a huddle of Chelsea fans had the same idea.

We were on our way.

Tales From A Home Banker

Chelsea vs. Everton : 8 March 2020.

It seems that for every single Chelsea vs. Everton match report, I trot out the same key statistic of them not beating us in a league game at Stamford Bridge since that Paul Rideout goal gave them a 1-0 win during 1994/95. That match turned out to be as equally an inauspicious start to the unveiling of the first new stand – the North – since the previous time in 1974/75 when Carlisle United defeated us 2-0 as the East Stand made it’s bow.

But this year. This year felt a little different. Although the entire club was buoyed by the excellent FA Cup win against Liverpool, Everton were undergoing a relatively bright spell under the control of our former manager Carlo Ancelotti. And it felt, to me at least, that a tough game was on the cards. But could the accumulative effect of twenty-four seasons of hurt for Everton in SW6 – I have seen them all, won thirteen, drew eleven – impinge itself once again on Everton’s collective psyche?

I bloody hoped so.

“Funny team Everton.”

And so while they have really suffered at Chelsea over the years, they have had the upper hand over us at Goodison Park for quite a while now.

Which Everton would show up?

I suppose, deep down, I knew all along.

My preparations for the Sunday afternoon match began the previous evening in a local vllage called Kilmersdon, where a fellow Chelsea season ticket holder – Sue – was celebrating a “surprise” birthday party. Her daughter Chelsea and husband Stuart sit in the same section of The Shed Lower as Parky, and although I do not know the family that well at all, I thought it would be the height of bad manners for me not to make an appearance. Our two villages are, after all, just four miles apart.

I strolled into the village pub, spotted the three of them, but also my old Chelsea mate Terry, from Radstock, a few miles further away. I have known Terry since the 1984/85 season when I used to very occasionally catch the Yeovil Supporters Coach to games. In truth, I think this only happened twice (vs. QPR in 1984/85 and vs. Arsenal in 1985/86) but I also remember the Yeovil coach calling in at Stoke so I could piggy-back a ride up to Old Trafford in 1985/86 too. I can remember taking him up to a few games c. 2003/4 when I worked in Chippenham. He used to have a ST in the Matthew Harding Lower. I had not seen Terry at Chelsea for years, but saw him at a “Buzzcocks” gig in Bath a couple of years ago in addition to one or two at “The Cheese And Grain” in Frome. We share the same tastes in a lot of music.

Very soon into our conversation, Terry enquired “did you hear about Swan?” and I immediately felt that I was in for some sad news. Swan was also from Radstock, and used to sit with us on the famous Benches from 1985 to maybe 1987. He was a bit of a lad, a Jack the lad even, and with his curly perm, moustache and heavy frame he used to resemble Ian Botham. He was a good lad, and was certainly on those three coach trips that I have mentioned. In 1986/87, his attendance tailed off, and none of us had seen him for ages. He used to work in an office in Bath, near the bus station, and I have a feeling that the last time I saw him was while he was on a lunch break in the city centre in around 1987.  We had heard he had gone to live up north; Leeds or Sheffield or somewhere.

Sadly, Terry was to tell me that Swan had recently passed away. This came as a real shock. He was surely no older than fifty-two or fifty-three. I texted Alan and Glenn, and a couple of other of the lads who sat with Swan in those halcyon days.

These photos show the unfurling of a Union Jack before our game with Tottenham in April 1985. Swan is at the back, sporting a grey, red and black Pringle if memory serves. Glenn is all smiles with the bubble perm, Alan is central with a ski-hat, as is Walnuts and Dave, while Rich is wearing an England one. In 1984/85 and 1985/86, ski hats were all the rage. And when I say benches, I mean concrete slabs. The Tottenham game was the first game that we had to endure those. But more of that another day.

In “The Jolliffe Arms” on Saturday, Terry and I raised a glass in memory of Swan.

Rest In Peace.

With the game against Everton kicking-off at 2pm, we had to be on our toes early on so that we could squeeze as much out of the day as possible. Glenn picked me up at 7.30am, and we were inside “The Eight Bells” in deepest Fulham at about 10.15am.

For the best part of three hours we had a blast. Tom was visiting from New York – sorry, New Jersey – and arrived in good time. He settled in seamlessly alongside PD amid tales of his planned trip to Cologne and Berlin after this little visit to London Town. On Saturday, he had seen Brentford dismantle Sheffield Wednesday 5-0. It would be bloody lovely if Brentford’s first season in their new digs could be in the Premier League.

Glenn joined us after parking his van.

Then the Jacksonville Four – Jennifer, Brian, Jimmy and Eugene – joined us. It is always a pleasure to see their smiling faces, even if Eugene was wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, and they were excited about being back in “The Eight Bells” once more.

From Jacksonville to Axonville.

Jimmy and Eugene had chosen Leyton Orient’s game against Cambridge United. I love it that Chelsea fans take a look at lower level football while in London. Top marks.Two lads from the days of Swan on The Benches arrived – Richard and Simon – and I noticed that our former player from the glory days of the early ‘seventies Alan Hudson was in the pub too. He very kindly stopped by for a photo call.

These photos show how much fun we had.

[inside my head : “fackinell, these Americans love their Chelsea scarves, eh?”]

Inside Stamford Bridge, Everton had their usual three thousand. We had learned that, perhaps unsurprisingly due to our large injury list, Frank Lampard had chosen the same starting eleven as against Liverpool, apart from young Mason Mount taking over from Mateo Kovacic.

Flags, flames.

The Evertonians took off their dull tracksuit tops to reveal their bright pink shirts.

Blimey.

I was surprised to see King Carlo on the touchline; I had presumed that he would have been banished to the stands after his recent indiscretion. Ten years on from the double season, Carlo stood ten yards from Frank. They had embraced on seeing each other and I remembered hearing Frank Lampard speak so sweetly about his former manager when he talked to a packed bar in Manhattan in 2015.

“Jose Mourinho is the greatest manager that I have played for, but Carlo Ancelotti is the nicest man that I have ever met in football.”

We began the game well, with Willian teeing up Mason Mount to volley from just outside the six-yard box. There was a fine reaction save from Jason Pickford.

Unlike most away fans who visit SW6, Everton were hardly a riot of noise.

In the first ten minutes, a first. The ball was hoofed clear and it made its way up to the very front row of The Sleepy Hollow. There were a few cheers, a few jeers, and I found myself getting far too excited about it.

“That’s the first ever time, right?”

There had been shots that had ended up in the more central portion of the Matthew Harding Upper, but no ball had reached the corner section.

Fuck, I need to get out more.

Not long after, a move developed down our left. Alan had just been out to turn his bike around, and I looked up and moved to let him sidle past. With that, in the corner of my eye, I saw that Mason Mount had smashed a goal home, the lower corner.

Boom.

Oh well, I don’t miss too many.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

The goal was replayed on the TV screen. It was, undoubtedly, a fantastic strike.

There had been a rare, weak, shot from Richarlison, but Barkley played Willian into space down the right but his shot, from an angle, was palmed away down low by Pickford.

On twenty minutes, a neat interchange of passes between Gilmour, Giroud and Barkley – with a slide-rule pass which pleased us all – sent Pedro racing free. He had both sides of the goal to aim for, and it always looked like he would score. He chose the right side and score he did.

GET IN.

Thankfully there was no VAR annulment.

After a shaky moment from King Kurt, Richarlison broke and Dominic Calvert-Lewin wasted a good chance as his effort bounced wide, past Kepa in his all-black Lev Yashin kit.

We were purring in that first-half.

Great stuff.

Five minutes into the second period, I watched as a long passing move developed. It seemed to me that there was not one wasteful pass, every movement of the ball was purposeful. Eventually, Barkley played it to Willian, still some twenty-five yards out. He, like Pedro for the second-goal, had time to choose which side of the goal to aim for. Both sides were unprotected. His low strike flew in to the right of Pickford.

“Great goal.”

Willian slid into the corner.

Knees down Mother Brown.

Just three minutes later, Willian took a short corner, then slung the ball into the box. Olivier Giroud, showing a cunning willingness to get tough and get dirty, threw a leg at the ball as it curled down and past the Everton defenders.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Beautiful.

Everton might have been playing in pink, but they certainly weren’t pretty. Off the pitch, there was disappointment too. There hadn’t been a peep out of the travelling Evertonians all game, and now some began to leave the away quadrant.

But did we make tons of noise? Not really.

The game safe, Frank fluttered a few cards from the pack.

Reece James for Mason Mount.

Tino Anjorin for Willian.

Armando Broja – a first-team debut – for Olivier Giroud.

Once or twice, the Matthew Harding sang “Carlo! Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!” but it was a rather underwhelming show of support for our former manager to be honest.

There were a few late flurries from us, and Kepa got down well to smother a cross from Theo Walcott, but no more goals were added to the tally. However, there was much to admire from our team on this Sunday afternoon. Billy Gilmour was just so pleasing on the eye. I love the look of him. He has a great mix of balance, vision, fluidity and tenaciousness.

He also has a wonderful footballer’s name.

Great work, Chelsea. Great work.

The Everton horror show at Stamford Bridge continued for one more season at least.

Chelsea were, as ever, dominant.

Played : 25

Won : 14

Drew 11

Lost : 0

For : 48

Against : 17

Bloody hell. I guess this was always going to be a home banker after all. A great performance, a reassuring one, and a much needed fillip after a few doubts among our supporters of late. More of the same please.

Right then. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.

Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

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.

Fifty-thousand men.

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 her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From Boys Against Men

Chelsea vs. Grimsby Town : 25 September 2019.

Our League Cup game at home to Grimsby Town would be our second home game in a run of three within seven days. I completed an early-shift at work at 3pm ahead of yet another midweek flit to the capital. PD drove up, and Sir Les came with us too.

I was brutally frank as I settled alongside PD in the passenger seat.

“Chelsea vs. Grimsby Town. What the fuck am I doing?”

It wasn’t so much that I was totally underwhelmed by the prospect of the game, more the knowledge that I would be cream-crackered at work the next day.

PD responded early.

“It’s what we do, innit?”

Indeed it is.

Talk in the car and in the pubs before the game centered on which youngsters might play, what the attendance might be, and if Grimsby Town, as rumoured, had brought a full six thousand down. If the latter was to be true, we were all happy to lavish praise on the away support.  Admittedly, the ticket prices had been slashed to just a tenner, but – even so – this level of away support was to be commended. Many of the away fans would not be home until 3am.

In “The Goose” and in “Simmons” we met with the usual suspects, plus a few new additions.

I met up with Alex – originally from Dallas –  again, who I vaguely remembered from a game in 2013 when I met up with some fellow Texans down at “The Rose” off the King’s Road. He now lives in Kingston-on-Thames and was looking forward to a rare chance to see us play.

Gary also popped in. He is originally from Swindon but moved out to Perth in Australia in 1987 and was at our friendly against Perth Glory in 2018 and in Baku in May for the Arsenal game. I don’t remember meeting him at either game, even though he spent a lot of the time in the Chelsea pub in Baku. We must’ve just missed each other, despite having mutual friends.

Gary was at the most famous Grimsby game of all – as was PD and Les – in May 1984 when around 10,000 Chelsea invaded Blundell Park to see a Kerry Dixon goal win us the Second Division Championship. I didn’t go to that game, but I have heard so much about it from others that it almost feels as if I was there.

Another lad – Rob – who is a friend of a friend, an old college mate, also popped in to say “hi.” All three have made positive noises about this blog and I thank them for their patronage.

The team news came through on ‘phones. I ran through the team and realised that I would be seeing a couple of new faces. This gave me a nice little buzz ahead of the kick-off.

This would only be the second sighting of Grimsby Town for me. I never saw us play against them in the old Second Division. We last played against each other in an FA Cup replay in February 1996 – we won 4-1 – and my memories of that game are scant. We had a pre-match drink in “The Beer Engine” on the King’s Road, it was a wet old night, we won easily. A quick glance at a YouTube clip of the match reveals an away following of around 1,000 in a gate of 28,000, a near full house in those days. Kenny Swain – I saw his Chelsea debut during my first game in 1974 – was the Grimsby Town assistant manager, a fact that I had long since forgotten. Commentator John Motson could hardly contain himself at times.

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

I remember my parents taking me up to Grimsby – Cleethorpes to be precise, where Grimsby Town play, a bit like Chelsea playing in Fulham – in the autumn of 1973 to visit friends. As was the way in that era, it was fashionable to festoon parkas or school bags with sew-on badges of towns and cities visited. To my annoyance, our hosts made the grave mistake of getting me a Grimsby Town Football Club badge rather than a city badge. I never forgave them, the fools.

We made our way inside Stamford Bridge. I had predicted that not all those that had purchased tickets would be in attendance and I had expected a “real” gate of around 32,000. At about 7.30pm, there were a lot of empty seats.

I soon spotted that Grimsby did indeed take up the entire Shed. It was a far better showing than in 1996. Around twenty or thirty of them, in their distinctive black and white stripes, had been drinking in “The Goose.” By kick-off, the crowd has swelled. In our little section virtually every seat was being used. It was by far a greater attendance than I had expected, probably topping out at around 36,000 despite a “sell-out” no doubt being declared.

So, our team.

Caballero

James – Zouma – Guehi – Alonso

Pedro – Gilmour – Barkley

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pulisic

This would be my first sightings of Reece James and Mark Guehi.

It almost seemed that we had too many attacking players, not that this is a crime. I like the idea of playing with three wingers. Why not play with four? Let’s re-write the rule books. The line-up seemed to be fluid during the evening. The wide men sometimes swapped positions.

Before I had time to settle, we were 2-0 up. On just four minutes, Ross Barkley received the ball some twenty-five yards out, began a solo run and powered through the penalty box before smashing a strong and low strike in at the near post.

1-0.

It was too quick for my camera. I was still fannying around in an attempt to upload a photo for “Facebook” on my ‘phone.

Three minutes later, a run from Reece James was followed by a cross to the feet of Michy Batshuayi, who swiveled and struck.

2-0.

Coasting.

Neither of the game’s two goals on film though.

I was clearly slacking.

There was a trademark Marcos Alonso effort from a free-kick but the ball soared over. Then, a rare attack saw Grimsby Town attack their fans in The Shed. A long ball took us all by surprise. It dropped into space and Matt Green – more a paint colour than a footballer – smashed the ball home off the underside of the crossbar.

2-1.

The six thousand Mariners went doolally.

PD chirped : “Told we won’t keep a clean sheet this season.”

It was virtually the away team’s only shot on goal. While their main tactic seemed to be for ‘keeper McKeown to continually time waste, our tactic was to try to split defenders with crisp passing and good movement off the ball. There was a Batshuayi header, and a couple of crosses into danger areas from Pulisic.

I had spoken to Alan how it is almost taken as a given that diminutive Scottish players will hug touchlines and go on mazy dribbles. But Billy Gilmour was playing centrally, and at times quite deep, and was at the epicentre of many of our best moves. One pass inside a floundering full-back, perfectly timed for Callum Hudson-Odoi, was so sweet.

“What a pass, Al.”

We continued to attack. Just before the break, and as a corner was played in, I caught Kurt Zouma being held back, but yards away from the flight of the ball. It was a cheap penalty.

Pedro, the captain, grabbed the ball. There was none of the nonsense of last week.

He rolled it home with ease. And I photographed it with ease too.

3-1.

It hadn’t been a particularly noisy first-half. The main songs were in support of Frank Lampard. But it was lovely to see and hear a few kids, dotted around, joining in with a few chants. The appearance of a few youngsters in the MHU brought the average age of our section down to fifty-nine years and eleven months.

On fifty-six minutes, a free-kick was played out to Reece James. He clipped a cross in using the outside of his right foot, the ball spinning into the space in front of the ‘keeper, and the long legs of Kurt Zouma poked the ball in. I managed to get the touch on film. I was improving fast.

4-1.

We kept attacking. Grimsby hardly breached the half-way line. On the one occasion that they did, the six thousand away fans screamed as if they were at a Beatles concert in 1964.

Bless’em.

On sixty-six minutes, two more debutants.

Ian Maatsen for Marcos Alonso, Faustino Anjorin for Pedro.

On eighty-two minutes, the ball was knocked out of a packed penalty box to the feet of Reece James. He wasted no time in deciding to shoot. His effort was perfectly placed. Into the net it flew, nestling in at the base of the far post.

5-1.

What a debut.

The Matthew Harding turned their attention from Frank to his assistant.

“One Jody Morris.”

It was all us. We totally dominated.

The Grimsby ‘keeper, in the second-half especially, became their one star, blocking many Chelsea efforts on goal. However, on eighty-two minutes, we worked the ball well inside the box, and Batshuayi slotted the ball past the advancing ‘keeper from a position where Pulisic had been less successful on a couple of occasions. I caught that on film too.

6-1.

In the last minute of normal time, a ball found Hudson-Odoi in the inside-left position. He advanced, shimmied and put his marker off balance, before rifling home at the near post.

7-1.

It had become a slightly frustrating evening for Our Callum so his leap of joy was certainly understood. I caught that one on film too.

I was 5/7 for the night after a miserable start.

I turned to Alan.

“Must be depressing for Grimsby, a team full of seasoned professionals, of men, being turned over by a team of kids.”

This had turned out to be a lovely game of football. The spectre of being sleep-deficient at work the next day diminished with each goal. It was a fine time. I loved seeing Billy Gilmour. He was constantly involved. His future – possibly, it is ridiculously early to be sure – looks bright. Maybe because of his size, he reminded me of a young Jody Morris, a deep-lying schemer, a “prodder” of balls into the feet of others.

I like him most, though, because we are the same height.

The mood was certainly buoyant as we marched down the Fulham Road. There was even time for the first “cheeseburger with onions please love” at “Chubby’s Grill.

Perfect.

On the way back west, we heard that we drew Manchester United at home in the next round.

Tasty.

Next up, Brighton on Saturday.

See you in “The Eight Bells.”

 

Tales From A Good Excuse

St. Patrick’s Athletic vs. Chelsea : 13 July 2019.

Back in the summer of 2003, just after Roman Abramovich took over the reins at Chelsea Football Club, I really wanted it to be like this.

All those summers ago, it felt rather odd to me – if nobody else – that our club suddenly had huge spending power. To put it bluntly, it didn’t feel quite right. There were noticeable feelings of guilt at the way we splashed cash, at times indiscriminately and without purpose, in those first crazy months. It didn’t seem – to use a much-used phrase in football these days – “proper.” Whereas some supporters loved every minute of every million-pound purchase, I can sincerely remember that I hoped that some of the obscure Russian’s monies would go towards a top level academy where we could grow our own in the footballing equivalent of The Good Life. I distinctly remember an interview with my biggest Chelsea hero of all, Pat Nevin, in which he hoped too that funds would be diverted to some long term vision of the club nurturing its own. It seemed a lone voice at the time. Others saw no harm in flashing cash on anything that moved. But it is what we did in those first few years, and with fearsome results. But now, in the summer of 2019 – some sixteen years later – we are presented with the sudden chance, through an imposed transfer ban, to turn away from purchases and instead look inwards, promoting from our cast of thousands. And here we are with Frank Lampard as manager.

Here we are.

I am sure our path to this point in our history was not planned. But it would be foolish not to embrace the situation that we find ourselves in. Maurizio Sarri’s short, sweet and sour period as Chelsea manager is over. In the circumstances, a transfer ban would probably prove detrimental in luring a top-level coach to our club. Yes, of course Frank Lampard’s arrival as Chelsea manager is probably a few seasons too soon, but in some ways it is the perfect fit.

Frank knows the club. He respects the club. He is adored by all. He will be given time.

It does, to be frank, seem to be all about him at the moment.

As the world knows, there are many aspects of modern football that are gently eroding my love of the game. There are the unstoppable ways that commercialism have taken hold over the past couple of decades, but that is accepted with a long deep sigh these days, as irreversible as ever. Other particular grievances seem to irritate me more and more. Shall I name a few? Kick-off times changing to the detriment of match going fans. Games on Monday nights up North. Matches at 6pm on Sundays. The omnipresent threat of the thirty-ninth game. The perceived notion by many fellow fans that our club have a negligent attitude to match-going fans. The farce of Baku, and the lack of any desire at all by the club to engage with its fans in attempting to help with the costs of match tickets or travel options. The first half in Baku, which was the most surreal atmosphere that I have ever witnessed. The farce of VAR – loathed by many of my friends – and the solemn realisation that we are in for a very tough season ahead as it eats away at our enjoyment of every single goal celebration. More than anything else, VAR could tip me over the edge.

There was a key moment during the summer. I genuinely felt more excited that my local team Frome Town had re-signed two former favourites Matt Smith – a complete midfielder – and Jon Davies – a very skilful forward – than I was when I heard that Petr Cech had resigned with Chelsea. Of course, the Cech return was no surprise. The return of Matty and Jonno were big surprises. I guess everything is relative. But it is worth noting for sure.

So, against all these horrible negatives, I regard the arrival of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager as my one beacon hope.

Only you can save me, Frank.

No pressure.

There will be talk of Frank Lampard aplenty in these match reports over the next few months. But I will say one thing now. I was bowled over by his first press-conference as manager. He simply looked the part. He looked in control, he spoke intelligently and with purpose, emphasising all of the things that I hoped he would. He down-played the emotion of the return, and that was a masterstroke. He just impressed me so much. It reminded me of the times when Jose Mourinho spoke in that first season with us, before he disappeared into a bizarre vortex of torment.

I hung on every word.

It was just magical – a real thrill – to see him as our manager.

I shouldn’t get warm and fuzzy about such things. I have just turned fifty-four for fuck sake. But I felt a very real connection with the club once more.

Bravo, Frank, bravo.

The announcement of our two games in Dublin a few weeks ago proved difficult for me to resist. There was no way that I could afford to take three days away from work to see both, so I plumped for the Saturday game against St. Patrick’s Athletic instead of the Bohemians game on the Wednesday. I soon bought plane tickets – reasonable – and a night in a hotel – not so reasonable. For only the third time in my life – apart from layovers en route to the US in 2015 and 2016 – I was heading off to the Republic of Ireland.

And it would be my first ever Chelsea game on the Emerald Isle to boot.

I couldn’t wait.

I was up early – 4.30am – on the day of the game. I soon made my way over to Bristol Airport and the 8am Ryanair flight to Dublin left on time. In order to recoup some of the extra money that I was forced to pay the airline for my carry-on bag, I warned the air hostess and nearby passengers that I would be charging for small talk.

With time the essence – I would only be in Dublin for thirty hours all told – I caught a cab into the city. I chatted away to the cab driver and told him that the 2pm kick-off time was odd, and might throw out my pre-match pub-crawl timings. We can’t even seem to hit a three o’clock kick-off time for a friendly these days, damn it. But the cabbie suggested that the Dublin vs. Cork Gaelic football game at Croke Park at 7pm might have forced the early start for our game.

…mmm, now I was tempted. This game was only thirty-five minutes each way. I could easily zip over to Dublin’s north side for the evening game at Croke Park, but in doing so, would miss some long-anticipated Dublin nightlife. I had some decisions to make. I expected that the lure of a Dublin evening session would outweigh the second sporting fixture of the day.

I spoke to the cabbie of my two previous visits to Dublin in 1991 and in 1995, both for stag weekends for college friends Pete and Jim. Both visits had a slight sporting nature. In 1991, four of us decided to combat our hangovers on the Sunday afternoon with a visit to Dublin’s famous old footballing stadium Dalymount Park where St. Pat’s were to meet visiting Swedish team Malmo in a friendly. We stood on a sizeable side terrace and watched as the two teams huffed and puffed to a 1-1 draw. It was a horrific game of football. I wondered about my sanity at the end of it. My non-Chelsea photographs on this website are very rare, but here are four from that day to illustrate this piece. It appeared from the match footage from the Bohemians game on the previous Wednesday that much of Dalymount Park has stagnated since 1991. It is hard to fathom how it once held almost fifty-thousand.

In 1995, staying in a guest house in Drumcondra, two of us walked the ten minutes to Croke Park and took in an official tour. At that time, the first of the three huge stands had just been built. It was a snapshot in time; the lovely old wooden main stand, the towering new three-tiered stand opposite, the historic Hill 16 to the left, the Canal End to the right. Having heard the tour guide talk of Croke Park’s history, I never ever thought that it would one day host the English sport of association football.

My journey into Dublin continued. The steel of Croke Park was spotted just a few hundred yards to my left. We crossed the River Liffey. The cabbie spoke how it is often the case these days how people use the appearance of their favourite bands in far off and exotic places as an excuse – his word, not mine, but I soon agreed – to visit cities that they would never usually reach. That very weekend, the star of the 1991 weekend Pete was visiting the Italian city of Lucca to see New Order, with his wife Maxine. Last summer, they visited Turin to see New Order. On the Thursday after the Chelsea game in Dublin, I would be seeing New Order in Bristol with Pete and Max.

And indeed, this Chelsea game in Inchicore against St. Pat’s was a bloody good excuse to visit Dublin once more.

My last visit was twenty-four years ago, but as we drove south it felt like only five minutes had passed. Those feelings that I had for Dublin then – uniquely so similar but so vastly different to the UK – were being rekindled. We looked on at the riverside developments, where many trailers office furniture that I help plan have ended up over the years. Dublin, after a lull in 2008, is again a thriving city.

I dropped my bag off at the hotel.

At 10.10am – just an hour and fifteen minutes after touching down at Dublin International Airport – I was ordering a full Irish Breakfast at a bar on nearby Baggot Street Upper.

I thought about the past four seasons.

In 2015, it was at Bello’s Pub and Grill in Newark, New Jersey, with a smattering of Chelsea friends from the US.

In 2016, it was in a smoky Viennese bar, just myself and some locals.

In 2017, it was in the bar of the Capital Hotel in Beijing with Glenn and Cathy.

In 2018, it was at a pop-up bar overlooking Sydney Harbour with Glenn, newly arrived that day.

And now in 2019, my first pint – typically a Peroni – of Chelsea’s season was at “Searson’s” in Dublin.

I toasted us all.

“Cheers.”

The breakfast hit the spot and set me up nicely. It is worth noting, I think, that in the subsequent Facebook album of 116 photographs from this trip to Dublin, no photograph received more likes than the one of my Full Irish. You lot are easily bloody pleased, aren’t you?

Outside, there were clouds, but the sun was bursting to shine through. I knew that my whistle-stop visit to Dublin would simply be too short to see much sightseeing, and so I chose the line of least resistance. From 10am to 2pm, I would meander through Dublin’s city centre and stop off at a few choice pubs. For those who know this Chelsea blog, in fact at times it is a travelogue, this will come as no surprise.

I do love a good pub crawl.

I had visited the General Post Office on O’Connell Street and I had seen Trinity College in 1991. I had seen the Molly Malone statue and I had spent time close to the River Liffey in 1991. I had visited Dalymount Park in 1991. I had visited Croke Park in 1995. I had walked through the city centre around Grafton Street in 1995. In 2019, it would all be about the pubs of Dublin, with a little football thrown in for good measure.

“Any excuse.”

From “Searson’s” – a large and welcoming sports bar in the mould of so many in the US – I turned north. Without realising it, I walked right past a Bank of Ireland building on Baggot Plaza where some of our office furniture is still waiting to make its arrival – “delays at site” a typical operational problem – and then over the Grand Canal. Passing the grandness of the wide Georgian splendour of Fitzwilliam Street Upper to my left, I by-passed a few bars (although, if I am truthful, I wanted to find repose in every single one of them), I enjoyed a second pint of lager in the historic “O’Donoghue’s” on Baggot Street Lower. This was a small, dark bar, heavy on atmosphere, and an obvious hotspot for US tourists if all the dollar bills pinned everywhere were anything to go by. This is where The Dubliners were formed. I am not sure if I was being paranoid, but as soon as I ordered my pint, “The Fields of Athenry” was played on the juke box, a song heavily-linked to the national team, to Celtic, Irish nationalism and now to Liverpool too. I had a wry smirk to myself.

Time was moving on. I passed St. Stephen’s Green, and folk meeting for a morning coffee. In 1995, I remembered that Dublin was overflowing with coffee houses. There seemed to be a “Bewley’s” on every street. The rotunda at St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre reminded me so much of the entrance to Ebbets Field, the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I turned into Grafton Street, located the Phil Lynott statue on Harry Street – and immediately started humming “there’s whisky in the jar-o” to myself – before disappearing into “McDaids”. This pub was our base camp in 1991 and I raised a pint of Guinness to Max and Pete. This was another splendid pub. Memories flew through my mind. In truth, in 1991 I was in a far from happy place. I was on the dole, eking by, not going to many Chelsea games, at a low ebb. Soon though, I would pass my driving test, get a car, a job, and some semblance of order would return to my life. I raised the pint to myself this time.

A lad that I first met out in Baku – “M” – texted me to see where I was. I replied that I was on my way to “Grogan’s” and I would soon see him there. This was good fortune, because this pub was on his list too. At around midday, I spotted him outside and we trotted over the road into the fourth pub of the morning. A good mate Kev, who lived in Dublin, not far from St. Pat’s Richmond Park stadium in Inchicore in 1999, had heavily recommended this central pub. It was another beauty. Scandinavian style wooden panels, artwork on the walls, a fridge full of ham and cheese toasties. And another sublime pint of Guinness. “M” is originally from Thailand, and now lives in England. He goes to games with a couple of mutual friends. It was good to chat with a fellow Chelsea fan, and we rambled away about Baku, about the pre-season, about the immediate future.

We caught a cab over to Inchicore at about 12.45pm.

In “McDowell’s Pub” right outside the ground, there were a few familiar Chelsea faces. There was time for one last pint of Guinness before the game and a photo with Cathy, Dog, Nick, James, M and Dave and the famous “Rising Sun” flag. In the beer garden, if you peeked over the wall, the stadium could be seen below. It was all very cramped, the feel of a lower league ground in England. It looked lovely.

It was time to walk around the corner and go to the game. I had purchased a general admission ticket since the blurb on the CFC website mentioned that there was no allocation. Imagine my surprise when I heard of a Chelsea area (rather than an allocation, I guess) behind the far goal. The game kicked-off just before I was able to take position along the side terrace opposite the main stand. The TV cameras were just a few yards above my head. It felt excellent to be able to stand on a genuine terrace at a Chelsea game for the first time in years.

Just as it should be.

There was a mix of supporters all around the stadium. I’d edge the number of supporters in Chelsea’s favour. And I did notice one thing; there were no other team shirts present. Just of the two teams. That felt right. There were Irish Chelsea fans crowded in around me on that thin terrace. There wasn’t much banter, nor noisy support from any section throughout the game, and the Chelsea section to my left never really pulled off many noisy songs.

But it was a very pleasant experience.

I checked our team.

Caballero

Zappacosta – Tomori – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kovacic

Barkley

Abraham – Batshuayi

It took me a while to get used to seeing two up front.

Chelsea absolutely dominated the first-period and if it was not for some heroic saves from the St. Pat’s ‘keeper Barry Murphy, we would have been well clear at the break. Obviously it was lovely to see Mason Mount – not an inch of fat on his body – for the first time in Chelsea colours, albeit in the horrendous new kit. I was so close to Davide Zappocosta at times that it felt like I could reach out and tell him how much he still reminds me of Grouch Marx. He is certainly not the most gifted nor admired of players, but Zappa was up and down that right wing as if his life depended on it.

Michy was the first to impress in front of goal, soon forcing a low save from Murphy. Soon after, a thunderous shot from our Belgian striker from outside the box smashed against the home crossbar. On a quarter of an hour, a lovely incisive pass from Mateo Kovacic found the run of Mount and the young midfielder did his best Lampardesque impersonation to flick it past Murphy. We continued to attack and the home team offered little resistance. Shots increased on the goal to my right. Ross Barkley smacked a fine shot against a post with Murphy beaten. On the half-hour mark, Emerson found a little space outside the box and, optimistically, left fly with a low shot. It surprised me that it nestled inside the far corner, and I suspect that the ‘keeper may have been unsighted.

The Chelsea section serenaded “Super Frank” and he waved back. He was the study of concentration all game long.

With us winning 2-0, I was sorely tempted to enquire of the home supporters “are you Arsenal in disguise?” but felt better of it. Their exact copy of the Arsenal kit gave the game an even more surreal feel. There were “oohs and ahs” around me when David Luiz tackled, lifted the ball up over his head, juggled it once then laid it off to a team mate.

It was again the turn of Murphy to take over centre-stage when he made a series of fine saves, including a high leap to deny Michy once more, and another from a Barkley free-kick.

The sun was beating down now and my forehead was starting to tingle.

At the break, Frank and the management team came onto the pitch and watched as some players – those who were down to take part in the second period – went through some drills. As with the game on Wednesday, there were wholesale changes before the game restarted. We lined up as follows.

Cumming.

Alonso – Zouma – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Bakayoko – Gilmour

Kenedy – Palmer – Pedro

Giroud

The second-half was more subdued. With the sun still beating down on me, I was beginning to rue not bringing a baseball cap along. It was great to see Billy Gilmour. What with Happy Gilmour and Happy Zouma on the pitch, it was perhaps time for the Chuckle Brothers to move aside. I was surprised how deep Gilmour often played, but he kept possession well and had a couple of neat runs. The pace of the game dipped, but at times our fitness levels put the home team to shame. There were occasional breaks, and a few shots on goal although that man Murphy was again the star. Pedro looked neat and precise. I thought we might never see Kenedy again at Chelsea, but what with the appearance of Lucas Piazon on Wednesday (Piazon has almost been on as many pre-season tours as me) I guess anything is possible. It was Kenedy’s precise cross out on the left that found a blatantly unmarked Olivier Giroud, who calmly volleyed home to make it 3-0.

Excellent.

It was still a scorcher.

I turned to the bloke behind me and said “who thought I’d come to Dublin for a sun tan?”

The home team made plenty of substitutes as the game wore on. Eric Molloy, who had scored a fine equaliser against us for Bohs on Wednesday, showed up in this game too, a second-half substitute. There was a “wag” standing alongside some fellow St. Pat’s supporters in the front row just down from me. A large man, and full of banter, he played up to his audience. When a rough tackle was carried out by Kurt Zouma, he pleaded “leave him alone, he’s only fourteen” which brought a few smiles, alluding to young Evan Ferguson who played so well against us on Wednesday.

In the closing moments, Giroud chased down a pass, and set off towards goal from a central position. He was forced wide, but aimed at goal from the corner of the box. It was a laser, and crept into the net past the despairing dive of Murphy and into the bottom corner.

St. Patrick’s Athletic 0 Chelsea 4.

Franktastic.

At the end of the game, the crowd cheered our new manager as he walked towards the centre of the pitch and applauded all four sides. It did feel that the whole game, the whole day, was about him. It is understandable, but I am sure that he would agree that it is now all about the players.

Outside, I was so glad to bump into brothers Tim and Declan, who I often see on my travels at Chelsea games. This was their home city. I would have felt bad not seeing them. I met up by chance with M and we agreed to share another cab back to the city. Cabs were a rare commodity, though, and the sun was still beating down. We spotted a pub – Pub Number Six – and popped inside the cool interior for another Guinness apiece. It took a while, but M spotted the “Rising Sun” flag out in the patio area.

Out we went, joining Nick and James, plus two German lads. Both were Chelsea, but one was Chemie Halle and one was TSV1860. The chat continued on. It was pleasing to meet the 1860 supporter since he soon confirmed that he was one of the 1860 fans who followed us around Europe in our 1994/95 ECWC campaign.

Respect.

So, there was no Croke Park visit on that Saturday night. However, I did watch twenty minutes of second-half action in the hotel bar at around 8pm. There was a sparse crowd present. I think that I had made the correct choice. Later, at various locations in the city centre, I would frequent Pub Seven, Pub Eight and Pub Nine. Dublin had done me proud. It really was a friendly city for this friendly game.

I have a feeling that Reading, the venue for my next match, will not be so perfect.

I’ll see you there.