Tales From Our Rejuvenation.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

img_9976

Tales From Under The European Lights.

Chelsea vs. Dynamo Kiev : 4 November 2015

IMG_3964

The scene was set.

Stamford Bridge looked resplendent as the floodlights lit up the undersides of the towering East and West Stand roofs. How dramatic everything looks under lights at a midweek football game. There was an ethereal, electric glow in the air. The contrasts between night and light, outside and in, is always so marked at night games. The sense of drama seems to increase tenfold. And no more so for a European game such as this one.

Chelsea vs. Dynamo Kiev.

Blue, blue, white versus white, white, blue.

A night of contrasts indeed.

Over in the far corner were around one thousand four hundred away supporters. There were a couple of yellow and blue Ukraine flags. I didn’t see any protesting banners aimed at our Russian owner. As the teams had entered the pitch, many of the Ukrainians had held their phones aloft, with the lights switched on. I noticed a few similar lights being shone in the East Upper too. It was obvious that the fans of Kiev were not limited to the south-east corner.

The players had walked across the pitch to take position in front of the West Stand and then there was the ritual of the Champions League anthem – noticeably booed for the first time at Stamford Bridge – and the waving of the iconic black and white flag in the centre circle.

What drama would unfold beneath me on this tense night in deepest London?

I had spoken to a few respected friends in “The Goose” before the walk to the stadium. I could not remember a – so to speak – “run of the mill” Champions League group phase game that had made me feel quite so tense, yet energised, eager, yet anxious. This was a game that was simply, pardon the horrible cliché, a “must win” game.

In the pub, we spoke earnestly about the state of the nation. We spoke about the current health of Chelsea Football Club. We had a good old chat. I admitted to Daryl and Andy – the three of us met for the first time in Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1994 after our first European game since 1971 – that I have looked at our current situation from so many different angles, from so many different viewpoints, that I had almost confused myself.

I summed things up.

“Stick with Mourinho, though, no question. Let’s win tonight, go on a little run, get rid of all this negative noise. Let’s still be here in February, in March, Mourinho in charge, climbing the table, enjoying ourselves. In it for the long haul.”

We were, undoubtedly, the number one news story in British sport going in to this first week of November. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that our particular ailments had possessed the BBC to air an article about our club on their main evening news, from 6pm to 6.30pm, on Tuesday. And it was not during the sport section at the end. It was the fifth or sixth story in, even one ahead of the much more newsworthy topic of Michelin making seven hundred workers redundant in Belfast.

“Bloody hell Andy, we were on the “6 O’Clock News” because we have lost six league games. Bloody hell, if this was the ‘eighties, we would be on there every night.”

As is so often the case, the team news had broken while we were in the pub. I suppose the biggest story was that Eden Hazard was on the bench.

Begovic – Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma, Rahman – Ramires, Matic – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.

As someone in the pub had exclaimed :

“Bloody hell, a right back at right back and a left back at left back.”

As the game began, I was instantly enthused; our play seemed to be a lot more aggressive. With Oscar hugging the far touch line and Willian offering width, as impressive as ever, out on the right side, we threatened to get behind them on several occasions. Nemanja Matic, often a disappointment this season, seemed to be back to his best, snuffing out attacks with well-timed tackles and blocks, then moving the ball on. Yes, there were occasions when we tried to be too dainty, looking for intricate balls through to Diego – or as I said to Alan “too much up our own arse” – but generally speaking the play was far better than in previous games.

It was so noticeable that the crowd were warmed by this positive start.

“Jose Mourinho” was chanted and our manager quickly waved an appreciative hand.

On two occasions we had shots on goal which were sadly aimed straight at the Kiev goalkeeper. We were keeping the away team penned inside their half. They hardly threatened. This was all one-way traffic.

Alan and I mulled over the sight and sound of the away fans. They had charged us just £3.50 for a ticket in the away end in the Ukrainian capital. Tonight’s game was £35. I sincerely hope that the Dynamo club had subsidised their tickets. I wouldn’t fancy paying the equivalent of £350 for a match ticket. Alan had been out in Kiev. He spoke about how dull and dismal it was.

“Their songbook is pretty limited.”

And so it proved, with just two chants aired all night.

“Dy-na-mo.”

“Ki-ev.”

Tremendous.

With that, Alan excused himself for a Gypsy’s Kiss and commented “we’ll score now, you see.”

Soon after, Willian ran deep inside the Dynamo box and whipped the ball in, towards a waiting Diego Costa. Dragovic attempted to block but could only divert the ball past Shovkovshovskiykovshovkovskiy.

Phew. Get in. I punched the air and awaited Alan’s joyous return.

The noise, which had been steady and appreciative, rather than constantly loud, increased.

In the closing moments of the first forty-five, Diego Costa was sent through but seemed to delay a little too long. He went down, and the cry went up for a penalty, but the referee was having none of it. The home crowd were baying, but at half-time I overheard someone say that it had been a Diego Dive. Pathetic. An early shot would have been so much better, Diego, mate.

At the break, Bobby Tambling was on the pitch reminiscing about a certain night in Munich.

Meanwhile, in that very same city, Arsenal were getting pummeled.

In the match programme I spotted a complete list of our opponents in our UEFA history. Covering 26 countries and 76 clubs it was quite a list. Unsurprisingly, Italy, Spain and Germany lead the way with seven clubs apiece. The oddest entry of all involves our neighbours to the north. Our sole tie against Scottish opposition?

Greenock Morton.

Soon in to the second-half, it was plainly obvious that we had lost the momentum gathered in the first period. Our visitors – the first to bear the name Dynamo since the visits of Moscow Dynamo for friendlies in 1945 and again in 1978 – had begun well. A quick break by Kravets in the inside-left channel caused us all to tense up. Thankfully, a magnificent sliding tackle from behind by King Kurt – impeccable really, one of the highlights of the season – saved us. It was quite magnificent.

We were getting increasingly sloppy and our visitors were making headway. It was quite a turnaround to be honest. I had been impressed with their number ten, Yarmalenko, in the first game and my eyes were on him throughout the game. A couple of chances were exchanged.

From a deep, in-swinging free-kick from Willian, Kurt Zouma stretched, but his effort whistled past the far post.

Kiev kept coming at us though.

We – the team and crowd alike – were getting nervy. I have to say that Cesc Fabregas was again rather poor and his play in the second period deteriorated further.

“I can see them scoring, Al.”

A draw in such circumstances would be unbearable. This really was a “must win” game.

With just twelve minutes remaining, a defensive jumble allowed Dragovic to drill home at the far post.

Stamford Bridge let out a collective groan.

The Kiev fans celebrated wildly. It was the loudest that they had been all night by some considerable margin. They had been, for their reputation as avid and raucous fans, surprisingly mild all night. I suspect that their numbers in SW6 consisted of ex-pat Ukrainians now living in London with work rather than the rather more working class, and noisier, ultras, left at home to watch in bars in their home city.

Jose Mourinho immediately brought on Hazard and Pedro.

Five minutes later, with the home crowd buoyed by an upturn in our form, we were rewarded with a free-kick about twenty-five yards out. There was only one man who would be taking this one.

This was Willian Territory.

But first, a Chelsea superstition. On many European nights, Alan brings a pack of “Maynards” wine gums. On this night, we had shared a few. I have mentioned the wine gums before. They rarely let us down, Moscow being a rare example.

“Time for a wine gum, Al.”

The ball was placed behind a semi-circular flash of shaving foam.

The referee spent a while pacing out ten yards.

Another flash of foam.

The wall retreated.

We waited.

Willian waited.

I had my camera poised. I kept focusing and re-focusing.

“Concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

I clicked as Willian struck. I looked up to follow the beautiful flight of the ball as it was whipped up and over the redundant wall and watched – these wonderful moments – as it flew into the waiting goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

The Bridge burst.

The noise was immense.

As Willian reeled away down below me, I kept my cool.

As he slid, I clicked.

He was soon joined by all nine of his outfield team mates in a lovely scrum right down below me. The photographs continued. It was all over in ten seconds, but I had captured a little bit of Chelsea, and Mourinho, history.

Photographs taken, I bounced over to celebrate with Alan.

Wine Gums 2 Dynamo Kiev 1.

“Come on my little fackin’ diamonds.”

What a feeling, to be so close to dropped points, but to battle back with another late European goal. Although Willian was the man of the moment, quite deservedly, the Stamford Bridge crowd turned our attention to the slight figure on the far touchline.

“Stand Up For The Special One, Stand Up For The Special One, Stand Up For The Special One, Stand Up For The Special One.”

A wave of the hand.

Then, quite by surprise, quite spontaneous, a sustained round of applause which seemed to go on for longer than I – or anyone – could have expected.

One club, together.

He might be a bit of a pain at times, but Mourinho is one of us.

This simple yet profound show of support for our beleaguered manager would surely touch Roman Abramovich, wherever he was watching the game unfold, as our owner – possibly – toyed with thoughts of the future.

Eden Hazard, seemingly keen to keep himself in the picture, danced away down below me in the final few minutes and attempted to increase the score.

This was Willian’s night – and Mourinho’s too – though.

This was a hard-fought win. I didn’t like the way that our form dipped in the second-half, but this was a game we just had to win.

And win it we bloody well did.

Whisper it, but a corner might well have been turned.

IMG_4007

Tales From Benny’s First Game.

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 3 October 2015.

This was our homecoming after three games on the road at Walsall, Newcastle and Porto. It would also be our last game for a fortnight, with another international break looming. After the disappointment of our game in Portugal – the stinging defeat on the pitch allied with the spate of robberies off it – I was hopeful that the game against Southampton would put us back on track.

No, let’s be honest and exact here, this was a game we had to win. I knew that the Saints, continuing their fine play from last season under Ronald Koeman would be no pushover, but I was adamant that we could – and should – prevail.

However, my main focus as I drove up to London with Parky and Bournemouth Steve was centred upon seeing my close friend Ian and his young son Ben, who would be watching from the East Lower. It would be Benny’s first ever Chelsea game; a present for his eighth birthday during the late summer.

Ian and I go back to 1984, when we found ourselves on the same human geography course at North Staffs Poly in Stoke. Our friendship slowly grew over the three years, aided by our love of football and music, and was solidified on a trip around Europe on a three week Inter Rail holiday in the September of 1987. Ian was with me, memorably, on my first ever European football match, an Internazionale vs. Empoli game in the San Siro. During that trip we also visited the Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Munich’s Olympic Stadium. Our first afternoon in London after that Inter Rail trip was spent at Stamford Bridge – a good 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, Paul Gascoigne and all – and this was Ian’s first game at Chelsea.

269766_10150300548267658_7725144_n

267631_10150300548362658_3973158_n

Ian has watched a few more games with me at The Bridge since. In our thirty plus years of friendship, football has never been too far away.

Ian is from South Yorkshire and a lifelong Rotherham United fan. Ian was at one of the most infamous games in Chelsea’s history; our 6-0 loss at Millmoor in the autumn of 1981. A few of my close Chelsea mates were there too, though I wasn’t. I can remember playing a school football match on that particular day, strangely on a Saturday afternoon, and coming in at half-time in our match to find the boys three-nil down at Rotherham. I can distinctly remember – always an optimist – thinking to myself that we would come back to win 4-3 with Alan Mayes scoring the winner. Sadly it was not to be. For those newish Chelsea fans who think that our current run of poor form entitles them to proudly boast that they can claim that they were there when we are “shit”, watch this and think again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nZfwdx9zLA

In 2015, we are League Champions, League Cup Winners, in the Champions League and one of the top twenty clubs on the planet.

In 1981, we were a struggling Second Division team, with no trophy of any description for ten years.

Later in the season, the same Rotherham United beat us 4-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Compared to 1981, 2015 doesn’t even come close.

Since leaving college, Ian and I met up again in 1989 for our never-to-be-forgotten adventure in North America; cycling down the East coast, visiting city after city, living some sort of American dream. We drove down through France for a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game in 1992. Ian now lives in Fareham, close to Portsmouth, with his wife Maria – I was the best man at his wedding in 2006 – and their two boys Tom and Benny. Both boys have teams; Tom is Arsenal, Ben is Chelsea. Once I managed to secure match tickets for the Saints match, I am sure that Ben has been so excited. But so was I. I couldn’t wait to meet up with him for the game.

We had arranged to meet up at the Peter Osgood statue at 1.30pm. It was magical to see them both, smiling and full of anticipation of the day ahead. Benny was wearing a blue and white bar scarf, and it made my day. During all of our years of friendship, who on earth would have predicted that Ian’s son would be a Chelsea fan.

Lovely.

We spent an hour in the hotel foyer. I am not honestly sure if Ben will remember too much of his first ever Chelsea game, nor the people that he met, but I made sure that I took enough photographs to help. Although it seemed that a camera was always on hand to take key photographs of my formative years, it is one of my big regrets that neither of my parents took any photographs of my first Chelsea game in 1974.

We chatted with Bobby Tambling, as always a lovely man, and it was good to look back on the summer tour in the US. I explained to Ben that Bobby scored 202 goals for Chelsea and Ben’s face was a picture. Coming from Hayling Island, Bob explained how everyone naturally presumed that he would play for Portsmouth after his impressive English schoolboy career. Instead, they made no offer, and despite an approach from Wolves, Bobby ended up at Stamford Bridge.

There were photographs with John Hollins, and Ben predicted a 10-0 win for Chelsea, and our former captain and manager loved the optimism.

There was a prolonged chat with former captain Colin Pates concerning his current job at the Whitgift School in Croydon, where he spotted the potential in a young Victor Moses, and also a few words from Colin which answered Ian’s enquiry about how difficult it was to make the transition from player to another trade.

“Put it like this. It’s like being at the best party you have ever been to. Then someone comes along and says it’s over.”

Ian and I knew exactly what he meant.

I commented back, looking at Ian –

“Colin found it so difficult, that he ended up playing for Arsenal.”

Colin and Ian laughed.

However, I chose not to talk to Colin about the Rotherham game in 1981, since he had played in that game. Neil Barnet called by and reminded us that it was Petar Borota’s last ever game for the club. What a wayward player he was, but loved by all. Bless him.

Paul Canoville joined us and I explained that this was Ben’s first-ever game. Paul spent a good few minutes with the three of us, welcoming Ben to the Chelsea family, and entertaining Ian with anecdotes from his various travels over the past summer.

I really appreciated the time that these three former players took in spending time with young Ben. And I am sure that Ian got a kick out of it too. Outside the main reception, there was time for a team photo with Ron Harris.

IMG_3505 (2)

Back in The Goose, it was lovely to see Alan and Gary again after their tribulations in Porto. I also bumped into a cheery Stan, too, and he seemed unperturbed, and showing no signs of distress after temporarily losing his passport. It was a sublimely beautiful Saturday evening and it was hard to believe that it was October now. The team news came through via various ‘phone updates.

John Terry was back.

Parky bought a round of amaretto shots and we then set off for the Bridge.

Southampton opted for the smaller away allocation for this fixture; around 1,500.

After the initial sparring, we were awarded a free-kick to the left of the Southampton goal. Willian swung in a looping free-kick which bamboozled Stekelenburg in the Saints goal. The ball struck the far post and rippled the net. For what seemed the umpteenth time already this season, we had scored with a free-kick from the left, and this was yet another one from Willian. He ran off to the East Stand and I can only imagine how excited young Ben must have been. Ian Hutchinson scored after ten minutes in my first game in 1974 and Willian did exactly the same for Ben in 2015.

Alan and myself attempted the Hampshire burr of cricket commentator John Arlott as we went through our “come on my little diamonds / they’ll have to come at us now” routine.

Chances were rare. Oscar and Eden Hazard struggled to find the target. Southampton burst through our ranks on several occasions. Sadio Mane was booked for diving. On more than one occasion, the alert Asmir Begovic saved our blushes.

However, a certain amount of sleepiness in our defence allowed Pelle to chest down for Davis to strike a low drive past Begovic.

At the break, Nemanja Matic replaced Ramires.

Southampton bossed the early moments of the second period. They are a fine team these days and they continually exposed the increasing self-doubt within our team. Then came a major talking point. Fabregas played in Falcao, who stretched to go past the Southampton ‘keeper, but fell. A penalty was not given, but the referee added insult to injury and booked Falcao for simulation. Our Colombian beat the Stamford Bridge turf in frustration.

The visitors were on the front foot now and several periods of Keystone Cops defending from our back line began to turn an already edgy Stamford Bridge crowd over the edge. With too much ease, Mane broke through after we lost possession, twisting past the recalled Terry to score.

Pedro replaced Willian.

There were boos.

Hazard, so obviously lacking any sort of confidence, gave the ball away and Southampton broke with pace. There was a feeling that this break would result in another goal. The ball was played outside to Pelle, who struck a low shot past Begovic from an angle. It was no more than Southampton deserved.

1-3.

Bollocks.

To my dismay, many spectators decided to leave.

Fuck them.

The substitute Matic was replaced by Loic Remy.

More boos.

I was just surprised that consistently underperforming Fabregas managed to avoid the manager’s axe yet again. Of all the disappointments this season, Cesc must rank as one of the biggest. Despite us losing 3-1, and despite hundreds of Chelsea supporters having vacated their seats, I was really pleased with the way that most Chelsea fans responded.

First of all, though, I noted a few hundred Chelsea fans in the Matthew Harding Lower singing – to my annoyance – “we’re fucking shit” and I really am lost for words to explain that.  However, a far greater number throughout both levels of the MH really got behind the team with rousing renditions of several Chelsea favourites. The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge and I so hoped that the watching millions around the globe could hear us.

Although we came at Southampton towards the end, a goal never really looked like coming.

So, no surprises, at the final whistle, there were loud boos.

We’re in a bad moment, no doubt.

We’re in a bad moment together and we’ll hopefully get out of it together too.

If we lose a few of our number along the way, so be it.

I have no logical reasons for our current malaise and I am not sure that many fellow Chelsea fans do either. We are a team so obviously low on confidence, and without that elusive “spark.” However, as I said to one or two others on the walk back to the car, it doesn’t really matter.

“I’ll be here next game, and the one after.”

However, it saddened me to receive a text from Ian later in the evening to say that Ben cried his eyes out at the end of the game.

At the age of eight, my first game, I would have done the same.

IMG_3537

Tales From The Heart Of London.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 29 August 2015.

As is so often the case after the draw for the autumnal group phase of the Champions League, conversations in the beer garden of The Goose before our match with Crystal Palace were centred upon travel plans rather than the upcoming game. In fact, our chats would have been better suited to a conference on budget air travel.

On the Thursday evening, once I had learned of the dates of our games, I quickly booked a flight from Bristol to Porto for our game at the end of September. I made a call to Parky and he soon joined me, happy to be repeating our fantastic excursion to the same country last September.

I then, to my horror, realised that I had booked a 6pm flight from Bristol on an evening when I would still be in Newcastle (after our away game there on 26 September) until 9pm that night.

“Balls.”

I quickly booked myself onto an earlier flight home from Newcastle. Sometimes the clamour to book up European trips can cloud judgements. I escaped, on this occasion, by the skin of my teeth. I get back from Newcastle at 2.15pm and then set off from the same airport four hours later. Those five days following the great unpredictables will be as fun as it gets.

Later on Thursday evening, I persuaded myself that a trip to Tel Aviv would not be as hazardous as I initially thought, and in light of the fact that a good number of friends had already booked flights, I decided to go ahead too.

So, Porto and Tel Aviv adventures to follow.

I can’t wait.

In comparison, a London derby with Crystal Palace seemed rather mundane.

I had travelled up to HQ with a full car load; Parky, PD and Deano were the fellow Chuckle Brothers.

The laughs that we enjoyed in the car continued in the beer garden. Early morning sun gradually faded, and it became comfortably cooler.

After a particularly stressful week at work, it was time to chill.

British summer time, lagers and lime.

The news eventually broke through that the team chosen by Jose Mourinho was the same starting eleven as at West Brom, save for the enforced change in central defence which meant that we were playing with Gary Cahill and King Kurt in the middle.

The continued presence of current “boo boy” Branislav Ivanovic would, I was sure, cause ructions amid some of our support. Of course our Serbian has not enjoyed the best of starts this season – I noted a sub-par performance as early as the game in New Jersey – yet it came as no surprise that Jose decided to play him. He is one of Mourinho’s men. It would be easier to tear out a fir tree from a Serbian hillside with human hands than oust Ivanovic at the moment. All eyes would be on his performance throughout the afternoon. Against the pace of our visitor’s wide men, I was a little concerned that Brana would cope.

The rest of the team picked itself, but that is possibly a critique. With Oscar injured, there are little other creative options at our disposal.

On the walk in to the stadium, after stopping to buy the match programme, I paid a little more notice to the wording chosen for this season on the “Chelsea Wall” which overlooks the West Stand concourse. This marks the western boundary of the grounds of Chelsea Football Club, and separates it from the red brick buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. Just inside the entrance, there is a sign which says :

Welcome To Stamford Bridge.

Home Of Chelsea Football Club.

Heart Of London.

And I suddenly wondered if someone at Chelsea had seen the tag line at the top of this website, but yet wondered why “The Heart Of London” wasn’t used.

And it got me wondering, just fleeting moments of thought, as I bustled past the crowds to take my place at the back of the queue for the MHU turnstiles.

The heart of London.

Were we actually the closest to the very centre of the nation’s capital?

I always remember my father telling me as an intrigued young boy that the centre of London, from where the mileages to other towns and cities are calculated, is not Buckingham Palace nor the Houses of Parliament, but Charing Cross.

And yes, the evidence does suggest that Chelsea Football Club is at the heart of London. It is the closest to Charing Cross, but only by the slightest of margins, with Arsenal and Millwall being just a few hundred yards further out. By contrast, Crystal Palace, out in suburbia, are miles away.

I was handed the match programme and shown a photograph of eighty-seven year old Joe, who has been sitting alongside us since the three of us bought season tickets in 1997. He was featured in one of the “fan pages”, and detailed his history of supporting the boys, as a season ticket holder for over fifty years, but as a spectator since 1933. Sadly Joe has not been well enough to attend the two home games so far this season, but I certainly hope that he can rejoin us soon. Every Christmas, he makes a point of writing a card to “Chris and the Chelsea Boys.” He is a lovely man.

The three-thousand Palace fans were in good voice as the teams lined up. The players were wearing a slight variation of the first Crystal Palace kit that I can ever remember, back in the days of Don Rogers and Alan Whittle in around 1972, when they sported an all-white kit with two West Ham style claret and blue vertical stripes on the shirt. The 2015/2016 version is similar, but with the tones slightly different.

Alan Pardew has developed a promising team down in the Surrey hinterlands since he joined them from his tough time on Tyneside. I looked down and saw Yohan Cabaye playing for them. Here was living proof that this league of ours is getting tougher – top to bottom – than ever before.

Crystal Palace began well and won two quick corners. We took quite a while to find our feet. An incisive break inside by Pedro followed by a sharp curler which narrowly swept past the far post was our first real effort on goal. And that was on twenty minutes.

Diego Costa was often spotted on both wings hunting for the ball, but I would have preferred to see him more central. We struggled to find him, regardless. A shot from Willian went wide. There was a suspicion of offside as Palace broke free past our static defence, but Thibaut Courtois did well to block. Soon after, Palace broke through again in the best move of the match but our tall goalkeeper again did well, falling quickly to push away. Both moves were down our right flank.

Just as I commented to PD that I could see no indication that we would be able to pierce the Crystal Palace defence, we stepped up our game. A cross from Azpilicueta zipped across the box, just beyond the lunge of Diego Costa. Just after, at last a penetrating run from Diego Costa in the inside-right channel, and his shot tested McCarthy. The ball pin-balled around in the resultant melee but Pedro was just unable to prod home. At last, there was a murmur from the Matthew Harding.

Then, a fine dribble from Nemanja Matic and a rare shot.

But.

And a big but.

And no time within that opening period were the team nor fans exhibiting any of the intensity shown during the first-half at The Hawthorns the previous weekend. At West Brom, there was a very real sense of togetherness, and a great sense of “we must win this game.”

Against Crystal Palace, no pushover at all, I never got that same feeling.

In a nutshell, the atmosphere was horrendous.

At the break, a friend agreed.

“It’s flat.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Yes mate.”

The atmosphere was as flat as a steam-rollered flatbread lying on the flat lands of Van Flattenberg in The Netherlands.

At least there were no boos at half-time. I half-expected some.

On the pitch, Bobby Tambling, waving and smiling. In the programme, a lovely piece on Pat Nevin standing firmly behind Paul Canoville after a game at Selhurst Park in 1984, when some Chelsea supporters still chose to give our first black player a hard ride.

Soon into the second half, Diego Costa went down in the box, but PD, I and maybe a few other Chelsea fans were not convinced of his vociferous penalty shout. The referee agreed. Chances were exchanged and the noise level increased slightly. There was another fine save from Courtois.  Just before the hour I heard The Shed for the first time.

A couple of Chelsea chances, but there was no luck in front of goal.

Amid all of this, Cesc Fabregas played little part. I am not one for lambasting Chelsea players, our heroes, our dream-makers, but our number four is having a torrid time. At times, his passing was atrocious.

With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I said to Alan :

“This time last year, his football was on another planet. Now, we just wish he was on another planet.”

Then, a break down the Crystal Palace left, attacking you-know-who, and the ball was played in. Dave did ever so well to block, but the ball bobbled free and Sako was able to smash home.

Immediately after, the ground managed to rouse itself from its torpor with the loudest “Carefree” of the afternoon.

Falcao for Willian.

Kenedy for Azpilicueta.

With new signing Baba Rahman – a left-back – on the bench, it surprised me that Jose chose Kenedy to fit in at Dave’s position. However, straight away, the kid from Fluminense looked energised and involved. His willingness to burst forward with pace is something that we are not used to these days. After only a few moments, a thunderous low drive from around forty yards made us sit up and take notice. Sadly the effort was right down McCarthy’s throat.

I wondered if it might be slightly unnerving if thousands of Chelsea fans shout “shoot” to Kenedy during future games.

Loftus-Cheek for Matic.

An error from Ruben allowed Sako to fire in a cross. With Courtois scrambling back from his near post, we gulped. Bolasie arrived with the goal at his mercy, and Ivanovic panting behind him, but his shot was off target.

Phew.

Kenedy continued to impress, and Loftus-Cheek, too.

With fifteen minutes remaining, at last a good Chelsea move. Fabregas picked out Pedro out on the right. He crossed relatively early and his fine ball was met with an Andy Gray-style dive from Radamel Falcao. The Bridge erupted and we were back in it. It was a fantastic goal.

Just two minutes later, a deep cross from the left was knocked back across goal by that man Sako, unmarked at the far post, and some two bit nonentity called Joel Ward headed in from close range.

We collapsed into our seats.

In the last ten minutes, the attempts on the Palace goal mounted up but a mixture of poor finishing, blocks and bad luck worked against us. However, our goal had lived a charmed life throughout the match and we could have conceded more than two.

This was Jose Mourinho’s one hundredth league game at Stamford Bridge, with one solitary lose before. Now there were two.

This was certainly a shock to us all. There were hardly any positives to take away from the game. Many players are underperforming, across all positions. Without Thibaut, to be fair, we could have conceded three or four. As if to heighten the depressing mood, rain met us as we sloped away and back along the Fulham Road. The jubilant away fans contrasted greatly. This was their best performance at Chelsea since that FA Cup game in 1976.

We had been poor.

Players and fans.

Of course those who know me will know that I hate the notion of lambasting players and our manager after just – count them – four league games. Yet there is clearly plenty of work to do. As we reassembled back at the car, I lamented the fact that we had a whole fortnight to stew in our juices, under scrutiny from the rat-like British press, with no chance to rectify our reputation on Tuesday, nor Wednesday, nor Saturday, nor Sunday, nor the following Tuesday and Wednesday. It is going to be a long two weeks.

But I’m not going anywhere. My friends too. We are too long in the tooth to give up this easily. Dean and I soon began making plans for a classic Chelsea away game, under pressure at an old school stadium – a proper away day – at Everton.

In the evening, I noted with disbelief that some fans were already writing off our league challenge.

With thirty-four games to be played and one hundred and two points still up for grabs.

It is not even September.

Give me fucking strength.

Later in the evening, I watched the Football League Show on TV and noted many mid-sized teams, with fine support and storied histories, now struggling in the lower reaches of our league pyramid.

Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Notts County, Coventry City, Luton Town.

It stirred me to see these teams hanging on to their identity and their support despite a change in fortunes and I honestly wondered how many of our suffering and emotional fans, and not necessarily “new” fans at that, traumatised by our poor start, would stay the course under such circumstances.

I hope the majority, I suspect not.

So, two weeks away from it.

See you on the other side.

IMG_2418

Tales From The Twilight Zone.

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 21 September 2013.

There was a fleeting moment, at around 1.30pm – a good four hours ahead of the kick-off between us and near neighbours Fulham – when my mate Glenn and I found ourselves walking past the main entrance to the Fulham Broadway tube station. We were directly opposite Mark Worrall’s “CFCUK” stall and Bob the Tee-Shirt son’s “Half & Half Scarves” stall. I’m not really what made me think of it, but I recollected both of us, aged 18 and 16, walking those same steps almost thirty years ago; our first game of travelling up from deepest Somerset, by train in those days, was against Newcastle United in November 1983. How nice it would be to travel back in time and to be able to show ourselves – young and innocent versions of ourselves – a little clip of us together at Chelsea in 2013. I wonder what we would have made of it.

Firstly, I am quite sure that we would have been utterly amazed that our friendship was still going strong after all of those years. At school, our paths crossed occasionally, but only through stunted conversations about Chelsea. At school, I was so shy while Glenn was always more gregarious. We were quite different; calcium carbonate and cheddar. There was a bond through Chelsea, but we were never close enough to be called “mates” per se in those days. Since then – that storied 1983-1984 season has so much to answer for…we met Alan during that campaign too – our friendship has stayed strong and buoyant. We have shared a treasure trove of laughs and memories;  Newcastle United away 1984, Anfield 1985, Tottenham 1987, Wembley 1994, Wembley 1997, Seville 1998, Stockholm 1998, Rome 1999, Barcelona 2005, Bolton 2005, Munich 2012. And all games and places in between. Of course, apart from receding hairlines and the horrible aging process, what would we have noticed about 2013? The new tube station, replacing that little row of charismatic shops which included the famous Stamford Bridge café and the Chelsea souvenir shop, would have been noted for sure. The new modern church, which has replaced the red brick edition, with its little café down below – which we sometimes visited circa 1996 – would have been noted. The old Chelsea Supporters Club – at 547 Fulham Road – has long since been demolished, to be replaced by apartments. I’m sure the 1983 Chris and Glenn would have been intrigued to hear how our footballing fortunes had fared in the ensuing thirty years.

The answer, of course, is the stuff of dreams; two promotions, one relegation, six F.A. cups, three League titles, three League Cups, a European Cup, a UEFA cup and a ECWC cup. If we had known that all of these trophies would eventually come our way in 1983, we might well have dived into The Britannia pub – now a tiki cocktail bar, whatever that is – and chanced our luck in nervously ordering two pints of lager, knowing that our Chelsea life would be just fine.

“Cheers Chris.”

“Cheers Glenn…here’s to the next thirty years.”

After I collected my away ticket for the Steaua Bucharest game at the box office – just £19, I think I’ll like Romania – the two of us spent an hour in the foyer of the hotel. In a repeat of the last game of the previous season, we were privileged to spend a precious few moments chatting to Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Tambling.

What the Glenn and Chris of 1983 would have made of this, I can’t imagine.

Bobby Tambling, now full of colour and fully recovered from his awful illness of the past eighteen months, was able to chat to us for a few moments about his miraculous recovery; he now walks at least two miles per day, has lost a lot of weight and looks magnificent. Glenn and I – plus Parky – first met Bobby at an event in Wiltshire in April 2011 and I can’t praise him enough. He is a lovely, humble man and one of the nicest Chelsea players that I have been lucky enough to meet. I also briefly chatted to former Chelsea player and manager Ken Shellito, who was visiting from his home in Malaysia; there was a reunion of the 1962-1963 Second Division promotion-winning team at the Harris Suite on Thursday. Ken is another lovely man.

Glenn and I backtracked to meet the rest of the boys in The Goose. The place didn’t seem too packed. I spent an hour or so in the bosom of my Chelsea family, chatting away about all sorts; it was lovely to see Daryl’s Mum for the first time for a while and we caught up with a few things.

Lacoste Watch :

Daryl – yellow.

Alan – orange.

Parky – lavender.

There was chat about Simon’s film, Rob’s son’s foray into writing about the sport of boxing, tickets for Swindon, tickets for Norwich, plans for Bucharest, but little talk pertaining to neither our team, nor the perceived crisis at Chelsea since Wednesday’s defeat. Glenn and I had got all that out of our system on the short drive to collect Parky a few hours earlier.

In a nutshell, we trusted Mourinho to sort it out. It might take a while, but so be it. I’m the first one to realise his faults, but I’d rather have him in charge at Stamford Bridge than anyone else.

I decided to leave for the stadium earlier than usual and I spent a while slowly walking up to the main entrance. The analytical part of me wanted to gauge the mood of the Chelsea support base. In truth, all was relatively quiet. The one exception made me roll my eyes to the sky. I do a lot of that at Chelsea these days. To my annoyance, on passing the West Stand entrance, I saw a group of knob heads playing up for a TV camera, and mysteriously singing “Blue Army! Blue Army!” while struggling to stand up straight.

Since when has this been a Chelsea song?

At least they didn’t start singing “I’m Chelsea Till I Die” – another non-Chelsea song which I am yet to recollect hearing at either home or away matches yet seems to be spotted on various Chelsea social media sites with increasing regularity. If I have heard it, I must have consciously deleted it from my memory. It is a bland generic chant, mainly sung by followers of lower league teams, and as far as I am concerned is neither Chelsea, humorous, tuneful or relevant.

This, of course, would be a game played at 5.30pm; a strange time for football, in the twilight zone between afternoon and evening. It was mild. Rain threatened, but there was only mist and a grey stillness.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that the rumours were true; Fulham had failed to sell all of their 3,000 away tickets. There were gaps in the upper tier…a seat here, a seat there…but a large swathe of empty seats in the lower tier. Above, a limp Fulham flag sagged in the damp early evening air. I’d hazard a guess that they only sold 2,500.

Only 2,500 for an away game at their biggest – and closest rivals…or so they would have us think.

Quite pathetic.

Even more pathetic was their oh-so original chant, soon into the match –

“Where were you when you were shit?”

Bloody hell.  The irony.

“You’re not even here when you’re good.”

Despite my pre-game comments about Mourinho, the first-half was bloody awful. There was no room for Juan Mata, even on the bench, and I just knew that the pro-Mata/anti-Mourinho brigade would use this as continued evidence that our manager sees Mata superfluous to our needs. Mourinho, to be fair, has continually stated that he rates Mata and wants to integrate him into our team. I think this one might run for a few weeks yet. The sad thing is that Juan Mata is surely one of the most genuine, ego-free, and pleasant and charming players we have seen at Chelsea for a while. He’s in the mould of Gianfranco Zola and that is praise enough. Inside, he must be hurting. I was personally surprised that Eto’o was starting, but I guess he needs games. In the Fulham side, former Chelsea players Steve Sidwell, Damian Duff and Scotty Parker lined up to face our midfield of Ramires, Mikel, Schurrle, Hazard and man of the moment Oscar.

Highlights of the first-half?

A wicked cross from the industrious Ivanovic was met by Eto’o at the near post – a great run – but his touch was heavy and the ball flew away from the goal rather than towards it. A lovely defence-splitting ball set up Darren Bent, who broke away with only Cech to beat; his shot was low and Cech cleared with a mixture of hand and foot. A sustained period of Chelsea pressure ended when the ball broke to Ivanovic but his shot was easily blocked. There was another shot on goal from Eto’o but chances were at an all-time low. The mood inside Stamford Bridge was of depressing concern at our lack of pace, creativity and penetration. All was quiet. There was an audible barrage of boos at the end of the half; supporters began gesturing and pointing among themselves, annoyed at the booing, annoyed at the lack of support. Please, not another civil war like last season, please.

I chatted to a couple of mates at the break. I hate to try to pretend to be the tactical analyst simply because I am not that great at understanding the nuances of modern day football. However, I got dragged into an analysis of the current state of our team.

My point was this –

We all know that Jose Mourinho leaves no stone unturned in his pre-match analysis of where his teams can take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses. I imagine Don Revie-style dossiers on opposing players, flipcharts, DVDs, Powerpoint presentations and training sessions to replicate possible game day situations. Practice, practice, practice. Detail, detail, detail. The 4-2-3-1 formation is merely the skeleton on which Mourinho adds body.

I just wonder if he over-manages. Is he too much the puppeteer? Other managers may have left that vital 10% – the off-the-cuff, the irrational, the personal, the spontaneous, the ludicrous, the tantalising – to the players themselves. I imagine Ruud Gullit saying to the Chelsea team –

“You boys are great footballers. Go play for each other.”

I just wonder if the current players, at this juncture in the team’s growth, are not allowed that personal freedom. There definitely seems to be a lack of bohemian creativity in the team just now, save for an occasional Hazard back-heel. And then I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge and the rather prosaic and pragmatic approach to our games in the first few months of 2004-2005; defence first, clean sheets, win at all costs, kill the game, then build. That season ended in just one defeat, just fifteen goals conceded and our first league title in fifty years. I hoped for an enigmatic Mourinho pep talk at half-time. In order to make that omelette, it was time to turn up the heat.

During the interval, Neil Barnett spoke –

“As Chelsea fans, we certainly believe in miracles.”

Bobby Tambling, in a mid-sixties retro shirt, walked unaided around the Stamford Bridge pitch and was serenaded by all. I had warned him that he might well be a blubbering wreck during this, but he appeared to be holding it together well. His shirt bore the words “thank you” and his convalescence was due in no half-measure to the love he has received from us all.

Thankfully, we only had to wait five minutes into the second period for a much-needed goal. Persistence from the fitful Andrea Schurrle down below us in the Matthew Harding Upper resulted in a cross come shot which Stockdale only parried. A prod from Eto’o was blocked, but the ball spun out to Oscar who struck home.

The place roared. A jig from Oscar in front of the Chelsea fans in the corner. Phew.

There was a Tommy Trinder-eseque “THTCAUN/COMLD” from Alan and myself and all was well with the Chelsea World.

1-0 to Chelsea.

It was autumn 2004 all over again.

In truth, we completely dominated the second period. Apart from a Steve Sidwell miscued header at the far post, Fulham were on the back foot, rarely troubling us.

Mourinho rang the changes. Eto’o, who was starting to show good movement, was replaced by Torres. The volume of support for the boy from Fuenlabrada surprised even me; the Chelsea fans clearly haven’t given up on him. I am dreadfully worried where goals will come from this season, but all we can do as supporters is to support and encourage them all.

This was much better fare from Chelsea now, with Fulham tiring and our passing improving with every move. Ramires’ movement and drive spurred others on, Mikel was breaking up play, Hazard and Oscar were linking well with Torres. Fulham simply were not in it.

A corner was met by a lovely jump from Torres. His downward, goal bound header, was parried by the Fulham keeper. Frank Lampard, on for Schurrle, swiped the ball in. A header from Terry kept the ball alive and Mikel twisted his body to connect and slam the ball in from eight yards. I snapped a photograph, but the image is too blurred – maybe I was in a state of shock – for sharing.

Again, the Stamford Bridge stadium roared. Thankfully, Mikel ran straight towards Frank right down below me. I was able to take a succession of photographs of his beaming face, tongue cheekily poking out to one side, before he was engulfed by smiling team mates. I noted that JT stuck his head right into Mikel’s chest and I can only imagine what words of encouragement our captain gave our massively underrated midfielder. At last, he had scored his first league goal.

A song was soon forthcoming from the Matthew Harding Lower –

“Jon Obi Mikel – He Scores When He Wants.”

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett was soon keen to point out that Chelsea, the crisis club as always, were top of the league.

It had been the strangest of days.

IMG_2189

Tales From The Top Three.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 19 May 2013.

Room 907.
Brookshire Suites.
East Lombard Street.
Baltimore, MD.

Tuesday 21 May 2012.

Dear all,

I realise that this is the only match report of some 250 plus that I have written for the Chelsea In America website while actually in the US. Hope you like it. If not, don’t blame me. Blame Rafa.

I travelled up to the last league game of the season with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. We’ve known each other since 1977. We’ve been travelling up to games together since 1983 (when we beat Newcastle United 4-0, since anyone is wondering) and it was a pleasure to have his company again. His last game was the 8-0 mauling of Villa in December. Although we never expected anything like the amount of goals against Everton, deep down I thought we’d get the requisite win to ensure a third place finish. It’s some time since we lost a last league game of the season at Stamford Bridge; a 3-1 defeat against Villa in 2002 if memory serves. These games are usually played out in lovely sunshine, we usually get a win and we usually have Cup Finals to anticipate. I can remember well the closing game last season against Blackburn Rovers and JT’s rallying call of “see you in Germany.”

No Cup Final to anticipate this year…that box was already ticked on Wednesday in The Dam.

So, all should have been sweetness and light as I drove up the A303 with Glenn alongside me.

However, there was of course the niggling spectre of the play-off against Arsenal at Villa Park on Sunday 26 May. Should we draw 0-0 and Arsenal win 2-1 at Newcastle, my season would end in complete tatters. I would be in the US, there for the game with Manchester City in NYC, but that would be cancelled. I’d be three thousand miles away for a Chelsea game that would be cancelled and unable to get back in time for the last game of the season.

It didn’t bare thinking about. So I tried not to.

I just hoped for the dream scenario…

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur

Not only top dogs in London, but able to relegate Spurs again to a fifth place finish.

At Fleet Services, the place was crawling with the green and white of “little old” Yeovil Town; their supporters knee deep in flags, scarves, banners, curly wigs and air-horns. They were off to Wembley for their play-off game with Brentford. Newly-promoted to the league in only 2003, they were looking to play Championship football. I wished a few of their fans well. Superb stuff. A mini-bus full of Spurs fans from Weymouth were not given such treatment; I had my trademark withering stare of disdain for them.

For those who know these reports well, they may want to fast forward at this point.

This will be my “meet up with an ex-player at the hotel, chat to several US Stamford Bridge ‘virgins’ and head down to The Goose” section.

Glenn accompanied me to the hotel, and we arrived at the doors just as Beth and a gaggle of eager CIAers were leaving to go down to a pub called “The Rose” off the Kings Road. We just missed Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, unfortunately, but it was lovely to be able to meet Bobby Tambling once again. Glenn, Parky and I had spent a lovely evening in the company of Bobby, Peter and Ron around two years ago in a Wiltshire pub. The photo I have of the six of us in a row is, I think, one of my absolute favourites. Bobby, despite the recent problems, remains as cheery as ever and it was lovely to be able to put my hand on his shoulder and wish him words of encouragement.

Gill and Graeme then arrived full of smiles and full of talk about the game at Yankee Stadium. Their visit will be even more “whirlwind” than in the summer…they arrive at lunchtime on the Saturday and leave Sunday. For me, the games in NYC will provide the most ridiculous bookends of a season ever. My first game of this long and tumultuous season was in Yankee Stadium…my last game will be. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur.

I managed to get a photograph of myself with Wednesday match winner Branoslav Ivanovic as he drifted through to a meeting room with JT. That was perfect. His smile was beaming as I thanked him for Wednesday. Top man.

Glenn headed back to The Goose, while I rushed down to The Rose. This was a first-time visit for me. I have only visited the Kings Road pubs on match days on a few occasions. It was a lovely pub, if not a bit pricey, with a gorgeous beer garden. It felt strange though – very strange, in fact – not to recognise anyone. The CIA section was spread over three tables. I sat next to the Beltway Blues section and enjoyed a pint of Peroni – £4.85! – and a chat about all things Chelsea. I was particularly keen to meet Kathryn and Tim, who I chanced to meet on one of the yellow school buses which took us from Philly to Chester way back in the summer. This was their first visit to London, but Kathryn had previously travelled extensively around Europe in her youth.

“Saving the best to last, then.”

Kathryn had first become a Chelsea fan way back in 1988, so I tipped my hat to her. We had a good old chat about her trip so far; she was still buzzing from the CPO fundraiser on the Friday, where a cool and relaxed Frank Lampard was the guest. It seems that Jason Cundy, the host, managed to elicit some particularly “frank” answers from our much-beloved midfielder.

I collected Jason from the table of North Texas Blues and we headed up to The Goose, with me babbling away – sometimes coherently – about various sights and sounds that we encountered on the way, making sure that every second of Jason’s first-ever match at HQ was full or memories for him. We called into the stall and a copy of “CFCUK” was purchased. I first met Jason back in the summer too. I could tell he was bristling with excitement. We reached The Goose and it was predictably overflowing with match-day buzz. Unlike The Rose, here I knew many. There were handshakes and laughs from the moment I entered. In the far corner there was a flag honouring the life of Blind Gerry, who so sadly died a few hours after the 2-2 draw with Spurs. Without wishing to be overly-sentimental or mawkish, I hope he was able to look down on the Amsterdam Arena on Wednesday and witness our latest European triumph in full Technicolor glory. Bless him. Fiona and Rob arranged a collection and a raffle for his widow. It was a pleasure to fleetingly meet Hugh Hastings out in the packed beer garden; he was the club’s official photographer in the ‘eighties.

Glenn was enjoying back in the bosom of the club again. We have missed him.

We heard that Yeovil were winning 2-1. Good stuff.

Jason was pleased to have made it to The Goose. Another box ticked for his first Chelsea game at The Bridge. We walked down the North End Road and it was a strange feeling. This particular part of London has been such a part of my life these past nine months, yet this would be my last walk along these familiar streets for three months. Jason had a ticket in the West Lower, so we bade our farewell outside.

All of us were inside early in order to see the pre-match presentation involving Bobby Tambling and Frank Lampard. That Frank should break Bobby’s record at this particular time is perfect; Bobby, I am sure has loved the attention and the love which has been shown towards him. I think it has acted as a perfect tonic for him. It was a lovely moment.

Yeovil had won at Wembley. Fantastic. I might be tempted by a game or two down there next season.

For once, Everton brought down the full three thousand away fans. Even before the game began, a couple of blue flares were thrown onto the pitch. Much to my chagrin, the club had marked this last game of the season – and effectively the final game in which fans could bask in the glory of Munich – by giving us all “noisemakers.” Now, I’m all for encouraging fan participation, but I wasn’t happy that we have now fallen in line with teams like Fulham, who themselves have these bloody irritating noisemakers. They have thundersticks too. I scowled at the sight of our fans “clapping” the cardboard together and had a few jokey words with a few supporters.

“Noisemakers. For Chelsea fans who just can’t be arsed to clap.”

Of course, Alan and I were taking great delight in the fact that Glenn, the perennial six year old, loved them.

Glenn : “They’re cool.”

Alan : “Thing is Chris, you know what it’s like with kids. If a parent doesn’t like something, they’ll just do it more.”

Chris : “Oh boy.”

On the card, was written the totemic words –

“WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE.”

It’s ironic that a phrase first used by Chelsea fans to subtly mock Anton Ferdinand out on a cold night in Genk in 2011 was now being embraced by the club in 2013. There were a few supporters wearing the new shirt, but not many. To be honest, I was surprised that we chose not to wear it for the game. I like the new kit, mainly because the blue is of a more traditional hue than the current one.

For once, Benitez started with Ba and Torres. Thankfully, the noisemakers were only used on rare occasions. Typically, the usually quiet sections of the West Upper were the ones who chose to use them most. And that, I think, just about sums it all up.

The first-half was an even affair. Everton wore an exact negative of our colours; white, white, blue. I caught the Ba shot on film and I caught the follow-up from Juan Mata too. One-nil up and we heaved a sigh of relief.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur.

Everton then worked a fine goal after a David Luiz mistake. Naismith finished off a nice move and the away fans roared, lighting up several more flares in the process. And then, the worry started. With us drawing 1-1, if Arsenal won 3-2, the game at Villa Park was “on.”

“Don’t do this to me, Chelsea.”

The highlight of the first-half was a perfectly-timed Gary Cahill tackle. Who says there is not beauty in destruction? At the break, things took a turn for the worse when around twenty Delta Airlines cheerleaders appeared on the pitch and did a routine. Big John, noisemaker in hand, looked up at me and smiled –

“It’s all gone wrong, Chris.”

To be honest, the gyrations a high-kicking of the cheerleaders were ceremoniously ignored by most of the spectators. I really don’t know why clubs bother.

We played better in the second-half, with Oscar playing a little better than of late. Nathan Ake played very well alongside Frank. It was very heartening. The kid with the number 57 on his back looked full of beans. The substitute Yelavic missed an absolute sitter for Everton. Arsenal were winning, Spurs were drawing. The nerves were fading. We scored with a fine move. Victor Moses cushioned a ball down in to the path of Torres, who smashed the ball in with a dismissive slash of his right foot.

“YES!”

Yep, I captured this one on film too…that’s five in a row now…Lampard at Villa, Torres and Ivanovic in Amsterdam and Mata and Torres versus Everton. It was, of course, Torres’ 22nd goal for us this season. I hope he is with us next season and scores 25. Paolo Ferreira came on as a late substitution and he received a lovely reception. It is an over-used expression, but he really has been a model professional.

At the final whistle, relief.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur

It was, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion, party-time. Firstly, Paolo appeared with the UEFA Cup – sorry, the Europa League Trophy, old habits die hard. That was a lovely touch by the club. Then, Frank appeared with the trophy, with his two daughters flitting around him. Then JT and the twins. With everyone on the pitch – the players, their children – Frank, John and Paolo said some nice words for us supporters.

Many of the young children raced down to score goals at the Matthew Harding end. The sons of Ross Turnbull and Fernando Torres were especially good. What fun.

“Sign them up, Roman.”

There was a loud chorus of “Jose Mourinho” during the past-game party, but no Benitez boos. That Benitez did not participate in the post-game celebrations was probably a wise move. I don’t hate anyone, but I am just grateful that Benitez will soon be no more than a mere foot-note in our 108 year history.

2012-2013 has been another emotional ride. It has been tough going at times, but some of our play under Di Matteo and – yes – Benitez has been simply wonderful. I have one game left.

Thankfully, it will be at Yankee Stadium.

I’ll see some of you there.

Cheers,

Chris.

IMG_0353

Tales From A Day Of History.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2013.

Chelsea’s game at historic Villa Park was our last domestic away match of the season. Our encounter was the only Premier League game taking place on Saturday 11 May. The F.A. Cup Final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic was set to kick-off at 5.15pm but, for some ridiculous reason, our game was not shifted with the rest of the programme to a Sunday. I can’t even begin to understand the reasoning for this; in fact, I have long given up on the FA’s ability to organise football in this country. I am sure that they would cite the Champions League Final being played on Saturday 25 May as reason enough to slot the Cup Final into a normal league programme, but why we had to share the billing with the Wembley final I do not know.

Despite a 12.45pm kick off in deepest Birmingham, I didn’t have to leave home too early. Unfortunately, Parky was still unable to accompany me to an away game. This has been a lonely old season for me on my travels around England for Chelsea’s away games. I have missed his company I must say. His last game outside of SW6 was the Community Shield game in August, ironically at Villa Park, when we lost to City. Since then, I have attended fourteen of the allotted nineteen away league games. I missed the games at Newcastle United, Sunderland, Norwich City, Everton and Liverpool. This would be my 54th. game of the season. It has been another arduous trek; I can’t say I have enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. I am sure none of us have. The away games at Arsenal and Tottenham in that gorgeous autumnal afterglow of Munich, with us four points clear, seem like they took place in another season altogether.

The road since the sacking of Roberto di Matteo in November has been rocky and there have seemed to have been hundreds of diverting and destabilising sub plots along the way. Having Rafa Benitez at the helm has been difficult. I have coped, in the main, by ignoring him.

Of course, at times our play has been breath-taking. Just think of some of the scores…eight against Villa, six against Wolves and Nordsjaelland, five against Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton. Our tricky trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have given us sustenance in times of draught. Their play has been magnificent. Eden Hazard, after a slow start, has certainly come to life in the past three months. There have been many positives.

And so – here we were. After the disappointment of three dropped points against Tottenham on Wednesday – in which, ironically, we strengthened our league position by going two points clear of Arsenal and three clear of Spurs – we faced two remaining league matches in order to grind out the requisite three points to secure that modern Holy Grail, Champions League qualification.

As I set off at 9.30am, there was no over-riding feeling of Armageddon or Doomsday about our lunchtime encounter with Villa. I ate up the miles as I headed north to Birmingham. I turned off the M5 and drove past The Hawthorns, where a placard told the story of the next game to take place at West Bromwich Albion’s neat stadium.

Manchester United – Sunday 19 May.

I found it ironic that the graveyard for Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stewardship will also witness the denouement of another manager’s club career.

It was midday and the traffic then stalled as I drove through the dowdy residential areas of Handsworth and Perry Bar. I received a text from Andy out in California, informing me that it was 4am and he was “on the road” to the Olde Ship in Santa Anna where his crew would watch the game. It re-emphasised how lucky I was to be able to attend in person.

“Don’t ever take all of this for granted, Chrissy-Boy.”

Thankfully, I was parked up on Willmore Road at 12.15pm and I then walked the fifteen minutes to Villa Park, with memories of drizzle last August when the area was over-run with the sky-blue followers of Manchester City.

I hadn’t dwelt too much on the make-up of the team which Benitez might chose, but one question dominated my thoughts –

“Will Frank Lampard start?”

I walked alongside a few Villa fans and I always find it interesting to “ear-wig” comments from other fans about Chelsea. I could tell that they were nervous. One son soon reeled off the Chelsea team that he thought might start to his father and I was suitably impressed. It proved that our players in our team are well known among the football world. Could I, in comparison, name many of the Villa players?

No. Quite clearly, no.

I had plans to take time out and photograph the red brick façade of the Holte End – which took its inspiration from the famous old stairs on the old Trinity Road Stand – but time was running out. I rushed pass the souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers…”CFCUK” and “Heroes & Villains”…and there was a busy line at the away turnstiles. Thankfully, I was soon inside. Villa Park is one of the grand dames of English football stadia. Due to its central location it has often hosted F.A. Cup semi-finals. Chelsea played two consecutive semis at Villa Park in the ‘sixties, losing to Sheffield Wednesday in front of 61,000 in 1966 but beating Leeds United in front of 62,000 the following year.

This would be my fourteenth visit to Villa Park. We have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years. Despite the size and scale of the stadium, it is not a particularly favourite away ground. I find the Villa fans to be ever so slightly too full of themselves.

I made my way up into the upper deck of the Doug Ellis Stand, formerly the single tiered Witton Lane stand, where I first ventured during two visits in 1986-1987.

There was drizzle at the start of the game; just like in August against City if memory served me correctly. I hoped for a different outcome. Alan was already in the seats; Gary arrived just before kick-off. We were right next to the wooden panels which divided the home and away spectators. The stadium seemed to be near capacity with only the executive seats in the mammoth main stand unfilled.

We took to the field in those awful black and yellow kits once more.

“OK boys, here we go.”

Of course, the sad truth is that we were pretty woeful in the first-half.

From the moment that Baker crudely tackled Juan Mata early on, it was clear that Villa were desperate for the three points. The Chelsea fans derided the home support.

“It’s so quiet, Villa Park.”

Chelsea were content to play the passing game, while Villa were looking to exploit the pace of their forwards and the apparent stiffness of our defenders. Agbonlahor – one of the few home players that I recognised – set off on a run at John Terry way down below us and the Chelsea captain just did enough to quell the danger. I didn’t fancy too many repeats of that, though.

On a quarter of an hour, Delph played the ball through to the physically impressive Benteke. I uttered the words “he’s the one to watch” just as he brushed past Cahill and deftly beat Petr Cech at the near post.

The Villa Park faithful roared.

It was their turn to mock us. The fellow residents of the Doug Ellis, mere yards away, turned towards us and chided us –

“It’s so quiet, over there.”

A claret flare was set off in the North Stand enclosure and the sulphurous fumes soon reached us. The Villa fans were in their element. After the Chelsea supporters begged of them to “speak fackin’ English” they responded.

“You all talk fanny over there.”

At least they can never ever taunt us with –

“Have you won the European Cup?”

On nineteen minutes, we stood and clapped along with the Villa fans in support of Stiliyan Petrov.

Down on the pitch, we were really struggling. Ramires was booked, Delph came close and Villa were in control. We looked tired, so tired. The isolated Demba Ba was only given scraps. However, a lofted ball from Mata found Ba inside the penalty box – alone, having evaded the offside trap, with only Guzan to beat – but his touch was heavy and the chance passed.

There was frustration and, at times, derision, in my midst. Although the Chelsea support was in good form at the start, at times during the first-half it was the quietest for some time. The rain gave way to bright sunshine, but our play was tepid and dull. Moses, especially, seemed to be lacking focus.

Then, a half-chance as Frank Lampard unleashed a free-kick at goal after Hazard was fouled. The shot was knocked onto a post by Guzan but was gathered before a Chelsea player could follow-up. These were testing times. It was also a physical battle. Referee Lee Mason brandished a yellow to Benteke for an assault on Azpilicueta. Then, a yellow card for Terry. Our thoroughly rotten first-half continued as Ramires – stupidly – tackled Agbonlahor with a high boot. His second yellow meant that we were down to ten men.

At the half-time break, all was doom and gloom in Birmingham. I personally saw no way out of this. It looked like it would be “5hit or bust” against Everton next Sunday.

“There’s no way we’ll win this, Gal.”

“The only way back into this is if they get a player sent-off too, Chris.”

We couldn’t even enjoy Amsterdam in the expected manner with the threat of a fifth-place finish on our minds. I thought of David Moyes’ awful away record against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United; how typical for him to get a first win in over forty games against these four teams in his very last Everton match.

Pah.

Thankfully, Benitez replaced the woeful Moses with David Luiz at half-time.

Villa – attacking the Holte End – began with several half-chances. With their pace, I really wondered if our rear-guard would hold firm. Our support was still quiet. I heard a bird sing in Aston Park.

Then, salvation. A raised foot by Benteke on Terry and – YES! – Mason showed the Villa frontman his second yellow.

“Not only are they down to ten men, Al; he’s their main threat.”

Game most definitely on.

Soon after, the ball was worked to Frank Lampard who was loitering just outside the box. He pushed the ball square – making life difficult for him, I thought – but crashed a left-footed screamer past Guzan in the Villa goal.

There is nothing better than seeing the net ripple.

It was goal 202.

It was the equaliser, in more ways than one.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

In the melee that followed, I was able to capture his run, his point skywards, his smiles, his moment. The Chelsea fans roared all around me; we were now unleashed. We were ecstatic to get the equaliser, but beside ourselves with elation for Frank to see his destiny fulfilled.

Bobby Tambling 202.

Frank Lampard 202.

With half an hour still to play, we roared the team on. With the fresher legs of David Luiz seeming to energise the players around him, we looked fresher and more confident. Villa, though, still had the occasional chance. After a Gary Cahill shot was blocked, Demba Ba followed up but the ball was again cleared from the goal line. To my eyes, some fifty yards away, I wasn’t convinced that the whole ball had crossed the line. Incoming texts – biased, of course – indicated that the ball was over, but it really was too close to call.

I fancied the day to end in our favour. I turned to Gary and said –

“Frank Lampard. Penalty. Five minutes to go.”

In truth, I was a little dismayed that I hadn’t captured Frank’s goal on film. A penalty would allow me to capture number 203 for sure.

John Terry collapsed on the floor and was clearly in pain. As he was stretchered off, I was truly saddened by the applause and cheers cascading down from the home sections of Villa Park. In all of my time watching live football, I don’t think I have ever seen a badly injured player being booed and jeered as he lay on a stretcher. We turned to the hundreds of nearby Villa fans and vented our dismay at their cruel and callous actions.

I turned to the bloke behind me, incredulous: “We never do that at Chelsea do we?”

That was it. I hoped we would score and send them down.

The chances came and went. Frank headed a chance well over and he looked very frustrated. Free-kicks from Mata and Luiz were poor. The minutes ticked by. Maybe we would have to hope for Stoke to beat Spurs on Sunday for Champions league qualification to be realised. Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba. The last roll of the dice?

Then, the moment.

Luckily, I pulled my camera up to my eyes as Ashley Cole played the ball to Eden Hazard who skipped deep into the Villa box. I clicked as he pulled the ball back towards the onrushing Frank Lampard. With a rush of adrenalin which happens every so often at football, I watched through my lens as Frank swept the ball home.

I clicked again.

The net rippled.

The away section of Villa Park shook.

The 3,000 Chelsea fans uttered a guttural roar and I continued clicking as Frank was joined by Torres and Mata down below me. The rest of his team joined him and then many Chelsea fans jumped over the advertisement hoardings and engulfed our heroic scorer.

Frank had done it.

203.

It was an amazing turnaround to a game – and possibly a season – that was drifting away from us. How typical for Frank to single-handedly rescue our game in such breathtakingly dramatic style. That the record-breaking two goals should mean so much to our club was – perhaps, whisper it – written in the stars. They were two archetypal Lampard goals too; the blast from outside the box which swerved past the hapless ‘keeper and the classic run, perfectly timed, to meet the ball and sweep home.

The rest of the game was – as they say – a blur. Seven minutes of extra time added to the drama. Unfortunately, Eden Hazard was injured and was taken off. We were down to nine men. We withstood a late Villa rally.

It was time for one last rallying-call –

“We Know What We Are, We Know What We Are – Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

The referee eventually blew.

Everyone around me hugged and shook hands. Our joy was stratospheric.

Quickly, the players walked over to us…first Ash, then Nando, then Frank. The sun was bathing everyone in glorious light.

I snapped away as Frank smiled and laughed, spotting familiar fans in the lower tier, hugging his team mates. He was clearly relieved and overjoyed. I was so pleased for him.

Petr Cech hoisted Frank high on his shoulders and, as I continued snapping away, I fought back a tear.

How wonderful that Frank eventually beat Bobby Tambling’s Chelsea goal haul at the very ground where Bobby scored five for Chelsea against Villa way back in 1966.

Frank – a few words.

You have given me so many wonderful moments as a Chelsea supporter over the years, from the goals at Bolton for that first title in fifty years in 2005, to the emotional penalty against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final in 2008, to the F.A. Cup Final winner in 2009, to the free-kick against Spurs at Wembley last season, to a penalty in Munich, to goals 202 and 203 at Villa Park in 2013. Your professionalism, your dedication, your spirit and your strength are much admired by us all.

We love you to bits.

On the drive home, I was blissfully happy. We had qualified for the Champions League – sure. But the over-riding feeling was of pride in Frank Lampard’s dramatic achievement on yet another momentous day in the club’s history.

…202…203…how about 204 in Amsterdam?

See you out there, Frank.

IMG_9778